Creatives at the Cinema: Walter Mitty, Llewyn Davis and Mr. Banks (Review/Essay)

During the farewell fortnight of 2013, I watched three films released during or immediately before the holiday season: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (dir: Ben Stiller), Inside Llewyn Davis (dirs: Joel and Ethan Coen) and Saving Mr Banks (dir: John Lee Hancock). In that order (which, incidentally, is also the ascending order of how highly I rate them). They’re distinct movies that take place in varied settings, but what unites them is that each tells a story about creative people and (perhaps more obviously with the latter two than Walter Mitty) sheds light on some aspect of creativity and living the life of one who creates. I’ll review each film in turn and talk a little about what each has to say about creativity. Mild to moderate spoilers present.

Walter Mitty: Journey out of the center of your mind

There’s an excellent special edition of Scientific American Mind currently on newsstands about the science of creativity. Daydreaming and letting your mind wander have been experimentally shown to foster more creative thinking. But as the magazine goes on to explain, for some people daydreams can become a mental refuge from, and at the expense of, real life. Case in point is the Walter Mitty of James Thurber’s droll 1939 short story, an aloof husband who livens up the errands he’s doing for his disparaging wife by retreating into fantasies where he’s the pivotal figure in high-stakes imaginary crises—from piloting a warplane to performing intricate surgery and standing trial for murder. While he’s mentally checked out, he’s speeding, driving in the wrong lane, and has forgotten what his wife entrusted him to buy, further inspiring her ire.

The Walter Mitty of Ben Stiller’s new film (played by Stiller) also has imaginative, vivid daydreams, and also attracts the ridicule of his colleagues while he’s mentally out of the office, so to speak. That and the name are effectively where the similarities end, the film telling a far more earnest story of a reclusive man who dreams of being something more and accepts the call to go on a real life adventure. A photonegative handler for Life magazine, Mitty’s worked there for well over a decade, carefully processing the work of Life’s intrepid globetrotting photojournalists. As corporate hawks descend upon the magazine to downsize its staff and transition it from print to online, Mitty is alarmed to discover he can’t find the negative of a photo specially chosen for Life’s final cover by star photojourno Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). In an effort to save his job—and to narrow the gulf between his empty online dating profile and the ‘looking for’ list of his workplace crush (Kristen Wiig)—Mitty follows cryptic clues in O’Connell’s other negatives to Greenland, Iceland and even Afghanistan in search of the elusive photographer.

Mitty’s daydreams—from braving a building fire to save a dog, to a gargantuan Man of Steel-style face off against his boss in Manhattan, and growing old with his crush in a sort of bastardised Benjamin Button story—are fun enough. Once his journey gets underway, however, the daydreams abruptly disappear, giving way to a straightforward if quirky adventure with a saccharine undertone of underdog self-discovery. It’s enjoyable enough, the often-ridiculous set pieces (a shark snaps at him at least three times and misses?!) being offset by breathtaking vistas and good humor, including a great running joke about online dating and an inspired TSA body scanner sight gag. Parks and Recreation’s Adam Scott is engagingly obnoxious as Mitty’s boss, and while Kristen Wiig is wasted as a fairly conventional love interest she’s beguiling as always. Mitty is the weak link, played unusually blandly by Stiller. What’s more, stripped of the humour of Thurber’s story, Mitty’s tendency to daydream renders him not a sympathetic underdog but rather as someone almost begging for people’s disdain by rudely zoning out when he’s being talked to. Given that this is a real problem for many people, a film that sought to explore the difficulties of a chronic daydreamer could have been interesting. But, as I said, daydreams pretty much end with Act One of this film. Mitty almost instantly becomes a confident adventurer, the sudden change in character explained only by allusions to his youth as a master skateboarder. Still, when he finally catches up to Sean Penn the film offers up some of its most inspired touches. Penn is perfect as the sage, enigmatic traveller who has taken time to acknowledge the humble technician who shepherded his work.

Mitty and O’Connell’s dynamic, and Walter’s job as a whole, capture something meaningful about artistry. In her hugely influential (and brilliant) book on creative recovery The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron points out that people who gave up on their own creative dreams are often found doing jobs that nurture or manage other artists. It’s fitting to find closet adventurer Mitty as custodian of the fruits of others’ voyages. As his daydreams show, there’s an explorer and visionary inside him too that wants out. O’Connell acknowledging Mitty as an artist sets the stage for Mitty’s creative recovery.

The other poignant note that Mitty offers is about whether art is cheapened by our current era of democratized media and online interconnectedness. Mitty finds O’Connell atop a snowy Afghan mountain, his lens trained on a distant snow leopard. As it enters his sights, he declines to take a shot. Some moments, he explains, he wants to see with his own eyes and not the camera. Instagram and the like have spawned a culture of photographing and documenting our lives down to the tiniest of details (most notoriously, the food someone’s eating). Are we over-transcribing our lives and forgetting to actually experience them? And, as the dismissiveness with which the hawks close Life exemplifies, don’t we lose something when curated windows to the world start giving way to crowdsourced smartphone snaps?

Entertaining enough if you surrender to the ride, Mitty serves up some themes that are more interesting than the film itself.

Inside Llewyn Davis: Can’t live with art, can’t live without it

A thriving industry exists around selling the mantra of following your dreams. Books and movies abound—most notably Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret—spouting the view that if you find your passion and resolve to pursue it, the universe will conspire to make it happen. Inside Llewyn Davis, in which we spend a few days with a struggling New York folk singer, is in some ways an affirmation of this credo, though not necessarily in an encouraging way.

By day, journeyman Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) roams New York with his guitar, playing occasional gigs in Greenwich Village and recording backup vocals for other artists while waiting for his solo record to garner attention, not helped by his uninterested manager. By night, he rotates between the couches of different friends, including a fellow musician (Justin Timberlake) whose girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) Davis may have impregnated.

Avowedly “plotless” apart from a fun subplot involving a missing cat, and a trip to Chicago to seek out a major manager, the film is really about drawing us into Davis’s world—from the addictive allure of his music to the unashamed way he negotiates his precarious life. It succeeds with an immersive atmosphere and some occasional zaniness along the way. Isaac carries the picture as a relatable, sometimes hapless striver. Mulligan is piercing and electric, and TV stalwarts Ethan Phillips (Star Trek Voyager’s much-maligned Neelix) and Robin Bartlett (Mad About You) also serve up memorable turns. John Goodman is getting a lot of praise for his role as Davis’s cantankerous carpool buddy en route to Chicago; however, apart from his great first scene, he is more of a glorified slapstick prop in this film. I don’t think this is the Coens’ best film, nor do I think it’s 2013’s best film, but it is an immensely watchable piece of cinema.

The film is quite obviously about an artist, one whose primary struggle is with the fact that he’s ahead of his time. America’s not quite ready for folk (though the film closes with Bob Dylan playing to a small crowd, signalling the changing current that Davis may or may not catch). It’s one of the countless contingent things beyond our control that often matter far more than talent. It doesn’t stop Davis. And this is where the narrative of the self-help books comes in—Davis has committed to his musical passion and so life doesn’t let him turn back and opt for a normal life. Mulligan’s character wants to abort the baby that may be Llewyn’s, and we learn that the last woman Davis impregnated left town without telling him she’d kept the baby. Any chance that starting a family might compel him back to normality is off the table. Similarly, when he tries to take up his old job as a merchant seaman, what stops him is his missing license—which only days earlier his sister threw out in a box full of his own stuff, at his request. The follow-your-dreams narrative says that old doors will close on you, leaving the path of your passion as your only option. But as old doors close, new ones are meant to open. As we fade to black on Llewyn nursing his punched face on a street corner, it’s not clear the universe is so obliging for him.

Saving Mr Banks: Taking it personally

In this family-oriented historical drama about the writing for screen of Mary Poppins, the creative conflict is one of an author seeking to prevent her personally meaningful story being transformed by a media empire into a giddy, cartoony musical. Pamela “P.L.” Travers (Emma Thompson), author of the 1930s Mary Poppins novels for two decades spurned annual offers from Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to buy the movie rights to her books. We meet her in 1961. Her book royalties having dried up, desperation coaxes her onto a plane to Los Angeles where Disney’s writers walk her through their Poppins script in the hopes she’ll sign over the rights.

Far from rubber-stamping their work, she takes issue with dozens of creative decisions, vetoing designs, songs and even the color red. Beneath these surface impasses lies a deeper disconnect between her vision and Disney’s—“you think Mary Poppins has come to save the children?”, she pointedly asks him. As the movie title suggests, in Travers’ mind Poppins was there to save the children’s father, George Banks. Intercut with Travers’ LA dealings are scenes from her childhood in 1900s Australia, showing us the real-life inspiration for Banks—her father. A poet at heart working for a bank, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) doted on his daughter “Ginty” and took her on the most fanciful journeys of the imagination. However the source of his inspiration was all too frequently a bottle of whiskey, humiliating him and ultimately confining him to bed. Too much for his wife (Ruth Wilson) to handle, a governess (Rachel Griffiths) took charge of the home while Goff died. There lay the seeds of Mary Poppins.

The gulf between that childhood and the Poppins film we know and love is an astronomical one. Where Travers’ books fall within this spectrum is an interesting question. The Poppins in Travers’ pages is a shapeshifter described as ‘frightening’, among other things. While the books are said to be darker than the film, Poppins was still loved dearly by her young wards—and her young readers. One of the interesting points this film makes about creativity is that an artist may have a very different understanding of her work than do her audience. And one must learn to surrender the job of ascertaining meaning to that audience. Travers can’t do that because the story is so personal to her. This cuts both ways—while she abhors the levity that the songwriting Sherman brothers bring to the film with their songs, she also takes issue with their making Mr Banks appear ‘cruel’ when he tears up a nanny advert the children made (and yet Banks’s actions mirror Travers’ own drunken father’s disparaging comments at the poem his daughter writes for him). When they have Banks fix his children’s kite, it touches Travers, and the ensuing song even gets her singing and dancing. But more profoundly it gives Travers the gift of a redemptive moment for her own father. And in the end Disney’s big sell to her is an offer to unburden her of the painful reality she clings to and give her a new story of her childhood.

Saving Mr Banks is a captivating crowdpleaser, marrying the twinkle of a backstage-at-Disney story with an emotive personal journey. Thompson delivers an award-worthy turn as Travers, and Hanks brings Disney to life with warmth and nuance. The supporting players—Bradley Whitford, BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman as the writers and Paul Giamatti as Travers’ (fictitious) LA chauffeur and confidante—are top notch, as is Farrell in the flashback sequences (playing an alcoholic creative as he did in Seven Psychopaths, albeit a very different one).

The film as a model of storytelling seems to be indicative of a trend. The script, by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, was discovered on the Black List, and the recently announced 2013 list is teeming with biopics (many of which center on creatives and/or a particular moment in someone’s life). There’s clearly something alluring to writers about this type of film. What’s more, Saving Mr Banks is mirrored by another fall 2013 release. Not a film, but rather a book: The Disaster Artist, actor Greg Sestero’s recounting of the making of so-bad-it’s-good cult hit The Room (2003, dir: Tommy Wiseau). As in Banks, the book intercuts the making of the film with the backstory of writer/director Wiseau (as intractable as Travers) and his friendship with Sestero. Also as in Banks, Tommy Wiseau saw his drama The Room very differently to how cinemagoers ultimately did (as an unintentional comedy). And lastly, both books end with their central artists experiencing catharsis while watching the premiere of their respective films—though Travers by all accounts hated the film. So, to neatly end this essay about creativity I’ll just point out that this was an equally neat bit of creative licence.

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