An Archivist’s Adventure: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
[Originally Published on The Maniacal Geek 1/2/14]
I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to write a review of Ben Stiller’s latest film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – based on the short story by James Thurber. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it (I did immensely), it’s more along the lines of wanting to hold on to something and relish the moment, value the message without immediately having to critique it or assign it some kind of arbitrary value. So I decided not to write a review, but instead write about how Walter Mitty’s journey has a lot in common with my chosen profession as an archivist and what that means to me.
Right from the get-go, I can tell you that Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is an archivist. His title in the film is Negatives Asset Manager for Life Magazine, but he is, for all intents and purposes, an archivist. If you want to get really specific, he’s a photograph archivist. One that embodies some of the stereotypes of the profession as depicted in film and television. He works in the basement of his building with only one assistant, Hernando (Adrian Matrinez), and the space is wall to wall boxes of photographs and negatives with Walter a small, and fairly meek, man dwarfed by shelves and reels of places he’s never been but only seen through the eyes of others. For the purposes of the film, the focus is on enigmatic photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), who has a “working” relationship with Mitty in that Walter has always made sure O’Connell’s photographs were treated right, making sure the covers matched the majesty of what O’Connell captured on film. The two have never met in the 16 years Walter has worked for Life, at least not until the climax of the film, but they still manage to understand each other. When Walter goes in search of O’Connell to find the missing negative meant to serve as the Life‘s final print cover, he embarks on a journey many archivists have and are now taking in order to stay relevant and visible.
The movie itself is thematically trying to convey an overall message about connection. We’re fully immersed in the Digital Age, but in overly relying on digitization and the anonymity of the internet, we lose the basic element of interaction, of forming a true connection with another human being. For all of the connectivity we have over the internet, loneliness still prevails. We stay glued to our computers instead of interacting with the world and the people around us. Interestingly enough, the film starts with Walter trying to make a connection, via a wink on eHarmony, with Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), a woman who he sees on a regular basis at work. Instead of talking to her, he’d rather stay within the relatively safe realm of “interacting” from afar. Walter’s fantasies are indicative of his sense of self; he feels unremarkable, unimportant, irrelevant, so he imagines himself as the exact opposite. It’s only when he goes outside of his comfort zone and ventures beyond the familiar that he makes himself as remarkable as he always imagined. He enjoys the moment, he lives, he experiences, and he connects.
Archivists run into the same problems in their repositories and how they interact not just with their institutions but also their user base. There are a lot of assumptions made about archivists, stereotypes that continue to inform the public that we’re basement dwellers covered in dust. We’re part of a company or an institution, but we’re never entirely understood. Part of the job is just getting used to explaining what it is you do on a near constant basis. Because of this perception, archives aren’t always considered a top priority, if they’re considered at all. We’re always five to ten years behind the technology because there isn’t enough time, money, or manpower to help users and take care of backlogged material while converting already processed or to-be processed material into digital records that will be outdated in a few years.
Like Walter Mitty, it’s easy for archivists of any institution to feel small, unwanted, unremarkable, and irrelevant. Like Walter, we only become important when we can provide a specific service at a specific time, regardless of how long we’ve been around or the continued services provided outside of anniversaries or big events. Like Walter, it’s easy for archivists to feel disconnected.
Luckily, archivists aren’t entirely alone. We’ve built a community, one that brings us all together on an annual basis and allows us to meet each other. We connect through our shared profession, love of the job, and our passion for our function within society. What’s been so remarkable now, thanks to the Digital Age, is the speed in which those connections are made and how friendships can be forged out of them. In Walter Mitty, Walter forms an unlikely friendship with an eHarmony IT technician, Todd (Patton Oswalt), who acts as a sort of anchor to chart Walter’s progress. What begins as disembodied voices over the phone turns into a real friendship by the end of the film, something that many archivists can relate to. We find each other via Listservs, email threads, and roundtable groups, but by the time we meet each other in person, whether at a conference or on our own time, we solidify the friendships that may have started only as a short note or a question asked in a forum.
There’s also the ongoing professional debate over how much we should interact with the subjects that we document. Some would have us remain the silent observers, forever disconnected from the people who produce the materials we archive in order to maintain purity of the record. This camp wants us to be the Walter Mitty of the film’s beginning, maintaining our distance, stuck in the basement surrounded by our boxes. Others, however, believe that archivists should be more proactive in seeking out materials to document, connecting with the people who produce the materials and inserting ourselves into the narrative.
These are the people who are Walter Mitty by the film’s end, the archivists who end up on the cover of Life because they made themselves relevant by making others relevant. The value Walter puts into his work, and the value he places on himself, is only rewarded when he sees the world, when he makes those human connections with a drunken pilot in Greenland, a Chilean sailor, Sherpas in the Himalayas, Afghani kids playing soccer, and even an IT guy from Los Angeles. It all adds up to something extraordinary that others see value in as well. Archivists can do the same. We can go outside of our comfort zones and connect with different communities, insert ourselves into what’s happening, and show our own value to others through the work we do.
But those are just my thoughts. I really enjoyed the film and found it to be one that made me think about how my life, my profession, and my experiences have influenced the connections I’ve made even within the last year. Not too shabby of an accomplishment for a film, if you ask me.