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The Act We Act: Art and Performance in ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ and ‘Exhibition’

'Walter Mitty's Not-So-Secret Act

Cinema has never shied away from exploring ideas of art and performance. Ever since Buster Keaton fell asleep in the movie theater in Sherlock, Jr., movies have interrogated the way they and other arts shape people’s dreams. Two films in this year’s New York Film Festival, Ben Stiller-directed Centerpiece The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Joanna Hogg’s Emerging Directors film Exhibition, engage with the intersection of dreams and performance in starkly divergent ways. In their different approaches, the two films not only paint varied images of the way people dream, but come to opposite conclusions about the value and function of performance.

As its title implies, Exhibition is actively engaged with the idea of performance. The film is a minimalist piece about a middle-aged couple — she (known as D) an artist, he (H) an architect — in the process of selling their London home. Little happens in terms of plot. Rather, the film is made up of a series of quotidian episodes: dinner table conversations, near-wordless scenes of the couple working on their own projects (in separate rooms), and poignant shots of D lying against windows, wrapped around corners of walls, and crouching under tables, as though she hopes to physically merge with the house. A sense of realism is established throughout most of the film, which includes long takes of static shots, quiet performances, and a rich, detailed soundscape composed entirely of diegetic sound. 

However, seemingly out of nowhere, the film suddenly and seamless transitions into a lengthy fantasy sequence. This sequence includes scenes depicting the idealized opposite of everything the viewer has observed about D’s life so far, such as music in place of the harsh sounds of the street outside their house and a charmingly playful sex scene in contrast with a comically frustratingly masturbation sequence earlier in the film. The most striking moment is a public Q&A during which D and H discuss the problems in their marriage. D appears to be a sort of Cindy Sherman-style visual artist, who uses her body as a tool in her art. D normally presents herself as an average, middle-aged, middle class woman, without makeup and wearing yoga pants and hoodies. However, in two of her projects the audience is able to observe, she uses her art to assume alternate identities: at one point, she styles herself as a sort of Madonna figure (hence the masturbation), then later wraps herself in colored bands, transforming herself into an strange, exposed, erotic figure. D’s art allows her to express desires and aspects of her identity that are normally repressed. In her fantasy, she is unsurprisingly only able to engage is an open, honest dialogue with her husband while sitting in front of an audience. 

While fantasy is explored in a specific moment in Exhibition, it is a consistent device in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The film tells the story of a bored and boring office worker — a “negative assets manager” who develops photographs for Life Magazine — and his globetrotting quest to find the lost photograph intended for the final cover before the magazine goes totally digital. Walter has a tendency to “zone out”, as his mother and sister put it, fantasizing about acts of heroism and romance rather than experiencing them. Throughout the film, these daydreams spur him forward on his quest until his adventures become even more outlandish than his fantasies, rendering the dreams superfluous. 

Ben Stiller’s movies are known for their sharp awareness of Hollywood absurdities and clichés, and Walter Mitty is no different. However, while Stiller’s previous work had some sort of connection to films in terms of subject matter, Walter has no direct connection to the movies. However, his fantasies are intensely indebted to all sorts of performance: his first daydream finds him saving a cat from a burning building in a parody of movie heroism, he dreams that the woman he loves encourages him with a performance of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, he imagines himself being interviewed by Conan O’Brien, and there’s even a hilarious but totally unmotivated Benjamin Button parody. Like Exhibition‘s D, Walter requires a mode of performance in his fantasies in order to acknowledge his desires. However, while this aspect of D’s dreams is a direct reflection of her concerns and the way she lives, Walter’s relationship with performance is a symptom of living in a media-saturated world (much as the film’s cringe-inducing product placement signals an inescapably corporatized society). 

In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, dreams are dictated by media, such as movies and pop music. The film celebrates Walter’s ability to move past his daydreams and engage fully with life, but it can only seem to conceive of this engagement as an either/or decision. Once he truly lives, fantasies are unnecessary, meaning that movies themselves are also unnecessary to someone who is truly engaged. As a movie about creators, Exhibition takes a subtler view of the matter. Yes, living outside of one’s imagination is important, but a person is not forced to choose between living and performing. Instead, performance is a way to reflect on life, and even change it for the better. While this difference of opinion would be fascinating in any context, it takes on a special significance in the context of a film festival. After over two weeks of non-stop film consumption, will viewers emerge better for it? 

This essay is one in a series produced by participants of this year’s New York Film Festival Critics Academy. Click here for more on the writers.

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