Thurber, Stiller, and the Power of the Image

I’m surprisingly not a huge Ben Stiller fan. Some of his stuff I like, some not so much. He can be a bit bitter for me sometimes.

I’m a big Thurber fan, especially having grown up in Columbus, Ohio (his hometown). Although people accuse him of being misogynistic in his writings, I’ve always loved his sometimes biting humor and don’t particularly like it when people try to modernize it.

I was, thus, not looking forward to the Stiller version of the Thurber classic, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
That is, until I learned that the entire reboot-version story is based on photography.

Mitty is a photo editor/archivist for Life magazine, which has been acquired and is being shut down (at least the print version). He is devoted to images and has lived vicariously through the work of others–honoring and protecting that work and admiring the makers of it. I’m not going to get into how much I identify with Mitty, but to say I didn’t get a bit of “oh, that is spooky” would be a lie. Anyway, his rich fantasy life is based on these images by others, as is, of course, his professional life.  For the final print Life, a negative goes missing. That sends him into the world he has only seen and imagined.
That negative gives him life.

I have not seen the film yet, but from the trailers and the “behind-the-scenes” short they are running on HBO, I will as soon as I can. Part of what the behind-the-scenes film explains is that Stiller (who also directed the film) did as much of the work in-camera, that is without CGI, as he could. He and others working on the film talked about how much more real everything is because of that and talked about how it changed the entire approach of making the film. There are many scenes that could have easily been done digitally, but instead they invented rigs and took the time to do it for real. They had to slow down and make choices. They had to be present in the reality of making.

So, here is this film about a negative (analog photography without photoshop) being made using as much non-digital work as possible. And the film is all about life, love, and how all of that is driven by the power of the image–whether that is the image we hold of ourselves, or a photo. It looks like this film is a love letter to photography and its makers. 

What’s not to love?



One Response to “Thurber, Stiller, and the Power of the Image”

  1. Dennis Ingwersen Says:

    I read a number of reviews that were not very complimentary of this film and I almost did not go, but glad I did. I found the film well written, well directed, and especially well shot. There was one thing none of reviewers addressed, and that was the emotion produced by the film, especially by the main character, played by Ben Stiller. Perhaps it is not a “pure” interpretation of the Thurber book, but I enjoyed it for what it was. I hope you go see it.