Gene English is a lonely man. In his mid-sixties, he lives alone in a rented apartment, frustrated by the mysterious neighbor who routinely steals his newspaper and the upstairs musician who practices loudly at all hours of the night. He works as a middle manager in a large insurance company, having been routinely passed over for an executive position. He and his wife divorced long ago, and he is estranged from his son, a drug addict and petty criminal.
I like to think of Gene as the real Walter Mitty, the low-level functionary everyman who ends up boldly living his dreams in Ben Stiller’s beautifully filmed fantasy The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. As I shared in my last entry, I felt that one of that film’s weaknesses was that we never really have a sense of what Walter Mitty’s lonely life is really like, despite the promise of early shots like this one:
Most of Stiller’s film consists of scenes of Walter Mitty living boldly and loudly in ways that defy logic even as they move the spirit. Throughout that film I kept wishing for a chance to watch the real Walter Mitty, perhaps in a prequel of sorts. Then it occurred to me that Jill Sprecher had already given me this with her remarkable 2001 film Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, with Alan Arkin in the lead role as Gene English, a role to which he brings his trademark quiet dignity and moral authority. It’s a sad film, a film of quiet desperation, much like the actual life lived by people like Gene. Yet it is not a film without hope. I won’t spoil the story here, but suffice it to say that Gene’s character arc sees resentment and bitterness transform into redemption and grace. At the film’s end he is unemployed, the victim of corporate downsizing, still divorced, and still estranged from his son. Unlike in the whimsical world of Walter Mitty, not all of our problems can be fixed.
Yet the film’s final scene, which I will not detail here, in which Gene offers a brief gesture of solace to a fellow passenger on the subway, is a remarkable grace note. It is not a triumphant Walter Mitty longboarding down an Icelandic highway, but unlike Mitty’s moment, this moment is real. And in that, it is enough.
I am always looking for good films to use in both my English classes and my film studies class. I have used Thirteen Conversations About One Thing since it was first released on DVD–it is one of the best films I have ever seen. Perhaps next year I’ll have students watch both Thirteen Conversations and The Secret Life of Water Mitty and explore the contrasts. Walter Mitty is a hero for the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, the one one hundredth of one percent who actually live out their wildest dreams. Gene English is a hero for the rest of us.