The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty debuted in the United States on December 25, 2013. This review focuses on the how the film is an essay on the transition from analog to digital – made for and by the children of the 70’s (otherwise known as Generation X), the “analog vs. digital” and “disrespect for the past” themes, “the purpose of life”, and symbolism in the film. Most of this is from memory and is my own opinions. I have not read any other reviews on this movie, but have seen the movie and trailers.

* Spoiler Alert * This article contains information about the movie. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, please consider watching it first. * Photos credit 20th Century Fox *

Walter Mitty and Cheryl Melhoff

Generation X

In #Mitty, the movie, the actors and the director are all Generation X. Stiller was born in 1965 and is currently 48 years old. To give you perspective on the person writing this article, I was born in 1980 which makes me part of Generation X, Y, and the Millennial Generation, however I’m most likely Generation Jones. While I was able to pick up on a lot of the references and music used in the film, there are still things that I didn’t ‘get’ like the name on the t-shirt Mitty’s mom kept for him.

The movie is full of references to Generation X. Mitty’s sister is auditioning to be Rizzo in Grease, a movie that came out in 1978. She gets him a Stretch Armstrong (debuted in 1976) doll for his birthday. Mitty has a Jansport hiking bag (popular in the 80’s). At the end of the movie Mitty is wearing a hoodie sweatshirt, a leather strap necklace with a copper hex nut, and friendship bracelets. There are also several scenes referencing “Major Tom“, which is a fictional character created by David Bowie in the late 60’s.

You can always tell about how old you are based on what music appears in commercials and it’s becoming apparent that the markets have begun marketing less to the Baby Boomers and more to their children, Generation X. No where is that more apparent than in this movie, which is filled with product placements tucked in and tied to the story line from eHarmony to Papa Johns to LIFE.com, but with nods to Conan O’Brien, TBS, Cinnabon, Dell, CareerBuilder.com, KFC, Instagram, the iPhone, and American Airlines.

Generation X was the last generation to graduate high school and enter the workforce before cell phones and Internet access became ubiquitous. Ben Stiller’s directorial debut, Reality Bites, which came out in 1994, was the same year Netscape started. The World Wide Web had just begun and yet it was already clear that things were changing. It appears that Ben Stiller, despite the success he’s had since then, still longs for a time when things were more simple, more analog – and is betting his audience does too.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Movie Review

Analog vs. Digital

When Walter Mitty goes to give Rich the longboard at Cheryl’s home, there are at least three 70s-era cars on the street, which is very unusual for a movie set in 2013. In that same scene, on a wall, drawn in chalk is the words, “Here Comes the Sun,” which is an allusion to a Beatles Song of the same name from the album Abbey Road, which came out in 1969. On the cab ride back to his mom’s house, Walter Mitty wants to turn the cab’s digital video off to which the cab driver says ominously, “It stays on.”

Walter Mitty has an analog clock in his apartment (not pictured, but you can hear it ticking in the background) and he wears an analog wristwatch with a leather strap. Although the watch is never specifically referenced in the film, it plays a small part in the short story by James Thurber. For a sense of how Thurber thought about watches, in The Gentleman in 916, he writes, “Even the sound of a wrist-watch prevents me from sleeping, because it sounds like two men trying to take a wheel off a locomotive.”

While Walter Mitty does have a computer, it’s an older model, Dell laptop, which echoes his cell phone, an older flip-style phone. In contrast, Cheryl’s character uses a modern smartphone with Internet access. She still uses terms like “buffering” when searching the Internet (something she probably doesn’t have to do and isn’t a term used much any more). On the flip side, the photographer, Sean O’Connell does not have a phone at all – nor does any place Sean is currently located (ie. a shipping boat).

While on the shipping boat, a deck hand takes a picture with his smartphone for Instagram, and asks to be Facebook friends. This foreshadows Mitty’s meeting with Sean O’Connel in Afghanistan who doesn’t take a picture at all, instead choosing to remember the moment as “me”/himself without the camera. This lost desire to be ‘in the moment’ shares a sentiment with those who identified with Charlene deGuzman and Miles Crawford’s I Forgot My Phone video which  went viral in August of 2013.

Ben Stiller's Secret Life of Walter Mitty Movie

Disrespect for the Past

Walter Mitty works with analog film, something Kodak stopped making in June of 2013. Mitty’s co-worker, Hernando (which means “bold voyager”) has a man-crush on the photographer, O’Connell for still using film, which acknowledges he is well aware that although he is surrounded by film negatives, digital pictures have largely replaced analog film. Mitty states that he has never lost a negative despite “over a million” negatives passing through his care over the last 16 years he worked at TIME magazine.

“Negative Asset Manager” is Mitty’s job title, but it’s also a metaphor for the deprecation of ‘everything that’s come before’. In the final scene of the movie, Mitty tells his former boss that the magazine has been built by many people over a long time, which the new boss is now treating as a negative asset on the balance sheet that needs debited or written off. The message is that businesses are created and ran by people, not balance sheets, and should be treated with more respect, even when things change.

When Mitty’s boss, Ted Hendricks asks Mitty where the picture was, Mitty says it’s in a “silver bath” to which Ted does not even try to understand. He later asks someone else to look it up only to conclude that it “doesn’t exist.” Of course it exists, but simply Googling “silver bath” will only give you shiny pictures of bathroom accessories. You have to know that it was a part of photo processing, which is something older generations, even Generation X, understood – even if only in context.

The most visual disrespect for the past occurs as Mitty is entering LIFE magazine for the last time and movers are literally dropping art onto the floor as they violently remove it from the walls. All of the desks are empty and covered in drop cloths like dead bodies, a symbol for the lost jobs and the lost magazine.  After working at the magazine for over 16 years, during his 17th year, the job ended – a ‘death” which could be a metaphor for the death of his father, which happened when Mitty was 17.

Walter Mitty Purpose of Life

The Purpose of Life

In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty movie, LIFE Magazine’s motto is, “To see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to, to draw closer, to see and be amazed.” This motto is written on the wall of the lobby and is repeated in the wallet O’Connell gives Mitty and in the background of the movie as Mitty leaves for Greenland. However, on the wallet, O’Connell added one more sentence, “That is the purpose of life.”

Off the coast of Greenland when Mitty jumps into the ocean, the captain of boat yells, “Don’t fear the porpoise,” which sounds like, “Don’t fear the purpose.” In this movie, Walter Mitty is 42 years old. In real life, Ben Still was 47 at the time of shooting the film. While younger than Brad Pitt, he still may have fears about the purpose of his life, just like Walter Mitty. Just like us. Just like me. He doesn’t want to be the old man bringing the news on a telegram.

Film Symbolism

The most blatant symbolism used in the movie was with allusions to 35 mm film reels and negatives. From the lights in Mitty’s apartment hallway to the windows on the outside of his apartment building, to the dots on the glass in LIFE magazine lobby, to the fuselage of the Greenland airplane at night, the film perforations, also known as perfs or sprocket holes and rectangular acetone film frames themselves were apparent throughout the beginning of the film.

The word “Life” was used throughout the movie, not just as the name of the magazine, but also in conversations Mitty had with Cheryl and his mother. It’s also referenced on the bottom of the longboard Mitty traded for in Iceland. In large print it says, “LIFIO”, which is Icelandic for “can survive”. Similarly, Cheryl comments to Mitty “last in, first out”, which is commonly shortened as “LIFO” in business process management. Find any more? Leave a note in the comments.

Comment (12)

  • Jason| December 29, 2013

    Fantastic summary of the movie and the connections you found. I especially liked your comment about the Negative Asset being the company itself.

  • Dan| January 5, 2014

    I honestly couldn’t help but notice an overabundance of the colors red and yellow in the movie — they were beyond striking.

  • Raquel Moritz| January 9, 2014

    You’ve blowed my mind with this piece: “After working at the magazine for over 16 years, during his 17th year, the job ended – a ‘death” which could be a metaphor for the death of his father, which happened when Mitty was 17.” < Never thought of that!

    This movie is great, I'm really amazed, you know. And I saw some musical references in this movie. The mixtape he took in the beggining, the George Harrison board (maybe it was him), and the board in his mother's house with some musicians on it. Really really cool. I'm in love with it.

    Thank you for this amazing post.

    • Erich Stauffer| January 15, 2014

      Raquel, thanks! Your comment about music made me realize that one of the biggest elements in the film was the piano, the one Walter’s father gave his mother as a wedding present. It’s never played in the film and it’s only after Walter gets back from his journeys that it gets sold. It makes me wonder if Walter wasn’t keeping the piano for his mother, but to hold on to the memory of his father, who died when he was 17. By selling it he was finally able to let his father go – and in the process he finds what he was looking for – the missing slide 25.

  • Ck13952| January 11, 2014

    I love your comments. Thanks

  • elliot| November 5, 2014

    i couldn’t help but notice the amount of Beatles references. i noticed when walter goes to drop off the skateboard he passes a girl playing with chalk, which could be a reference to ‘the old days’, but on the wall it said ‘here comes the sun’ a famous Beatles song. there are a few more but that was the most striking one for me. Also there is many references to Walters imagination, this could be linked to john Lennon work of ‘imagine’.

    sorry if this doesn’t make much sense just watched it and had to share my thoughts!

    • admin| November 14, 2014

      Thanks for sharing, Elliot. Always interesting to get other people’s perspectives. 🙂

    • Alsvinder| April 6, 2015

      I might be mistaken but in the scene just before the little girl with chalk and the “here comes the sun.” The moving men were hauling off a huge cover photo of one of the Beatles.

      • Erich Stauffer| April 11, 2015

        Nice catch! I’ll have to go back and watch it again.

  • Mike| September 30, 2015

    Someone said the colors yellow and red were prominent, but I find the color blue to be everywhere. All he actors eyes, the rooms, the water and the over all hue, I still can’t figure out that meaning. Also I find the use of Sean Penn as Sean O’Connor a wise choice. Fellow Gen X’ers can relate that Sean Penn is one of our generation icons – think Spicoli from Fastimes, which is our generations HS anthem.

  • Jeremiah Napier| February 9, 2016

    This movie actually set me and my wife on a new path in life. We both quit our jobs and went on a two month long road trip to find what we want to do. We moved from Michigan to North Carolina and now to Oregon. We have experienced life and this movie helped us get there. We even spent 3 weeks in Europe just appreciating life. Thanks for bringing out the different deep meaning of this movie. It is our favorite!

  • hmm| February 15, 2017

    It is LÍFIÐ, ð is called eth (eð) and is capitalized as Ð, pronounced -th- as in this.