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Thinking pop culture

Walter Mitty and The Secret Life of MTV

Aside from flicking over it while staying in generously-cabled hotel rooms, I don’t think I’ve ever actually watched MTV. I say this not with pride and not with shame, but as a simple point of fact: it’s not a channel I’ve consciously given time to.

And yet, while the station can’t count me in its audience stats, I have, of course, been consuming its products my whole life.

I was born in 1980; MTV was launched the year after. Initially the network was focused on round-the-clock music videos; soon after content became tailored to a more general celebration of “youth”. (For good, for bad, the network, is credited with popularising the reality TV genre via its commissioning of The Real World in 1992).

All kinds of “social ills” have been blamed on the network – elongating the period we consider “youth” for example, as well as homogenising it – but a charge much less contestable is simply its influence on the way film and TV looks.

MTV at the outset was all about music videos. In turn, the production of these videos - the creation of eye-catching and memorable mini-movies - became an artform.

A-ha “Take On Me” (1985) - considered an early classic music video.

The quick edits, special effects and rapidly unfolding storylines that were - and still are - the trademarks of music videos markedly influenced audience appetites. Heavy consumption of slick, style-over-substance music videos for example, rendered much film and TV as dull and dated in comparison. The MTV magic wand was thus waved and both mediums got bedazzled accordingly.

Many contemporary filmmakers honed their craft making music videos (Spike Jonze, David Fincher, Michel Gondry, Mark Romanek, Anton Corbijn, Marc Webb, Jonathan Glazer) and today popular film and TV borrow much from the medium; aesthetically and also aurally: nowadays it’s hard to imagine a blockbuster that doesn’t have an accompanying soundtrack for sale.

Which leads me to a discussion of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Mitty is beautiful. It is both a beautiful film and a beautiful example of what MTV has done to cinema. The film looked good, it sounded good. I’ve largely forgotten it and I only saw it this morning, but it was beautiful.

Beautiful of course, was exactly how I described the trailer when I first saw it in September.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty - trailer.

Everything that is good about Mitty - liberal use of special effects, rapid-fire edits and lashings of heart-strings-tugging, hipster-flattering music - was showcased in the six-minute mini-movie of the trailer.

So what else was the film doing? What more was being offered to justify the ticket price?

The Secret life of Walter Mitty - the soundtrack.

As the daughter of a graphic designer, I truly have no qualms in lauding commercial art: I certainly don’t think something is any less artistic because it was produced to make money.

But to justify a $19 ticket price, I need a film to be more than just a really long music video. I’m very okay - nay, delighted - for film to be influenced by MTV-aesthetics. I am however, much less enamoured with those that do nothing other than pilfer style.

I’ve seen lots of films that I’ve hated this year: Gangster Squad, The Croods, Blue Jasmine, The Family and American Hustle top that list. I didn’t hate Mitty.

In fact, Ben Stiller (star of two of my favourite films: The Royal Tenebaums (2001) and Greenberg (2010)) along with Of Monsters and Men, Arcade Fire and José González on the soundtrack meant that the film was quite palatable.

114 minutes however, is far too long for just a music video. Even a really, really, really ridiculously good-looking one.

Ben Stiller in “Zoolander” (2001)

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