Imaginary Conversations

I was in a seafood restaurant on North Padre when “Rocket Man” started playing, and right away a whole train of associations started in my mind. “Rocket Man” made me think of “Space Oddity”—David Bowie’s “ground control to Major Tom” song. And Major Tom made me think of Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

I’ve watched this movie at least ten times. I truly love it, and its hauntingly beautiful soundtrack. I could (and might) write a whole piece on it, but for now I’ll focus on just a couple of scenes.

Initially the Bowie song’s significance in the story is a negative one. Ted Hendricks, the jerk character tasked with overseeing the downsizing involved with LIFE Magazine’s transition from print to digital (Adam Scott in an unsympathetic role, with aggressively overgroomed hair and beard), taunts zoned-out employee Walter: “Ground control to Major Tom! Can you hear me, Major Tom?” before flicking a paper clip at him. It’s a pretty low point for Walter, witnessed by his love interest, Cheryl (Kristin Wiig in a not-particularly-comedic role).

Up to this point in the story, all we know about Cheryl is that Walter is attracted to her and that she seems nice enough. We like Walter, and therefore we want him to succeed with Cheryl. Not much has gone his way so far. But then something happens that turns Cheryl into a character we like for herself, not just someone seen only in relation to Walter.

“I wanted to tell you,” she says to him, “that song ‘Major Tom’ and that beard guy… he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. That song is about courage and going into the unknown. It’s a cool song.”

She didn’t have to tell him that, but she did, adding a drop of sweet to the bitter, and showing herself to be generous, insightful, and kind.

Later, through a strange concatenation of events, Walter finds himself in Greenland, trying to save his job by locating a missing photograph. He doesn’t have much to go on. It’s a desperate venture, and one that the unassertive, daydreaming Walter doesn’t seem up for. The big question in this scene is whether Walter will get into a helicopter with an inebriated and emotionally unstable pilot, in stormy weather, in order to reach the fishing vessel that’s currently his only link to the photo. It’s a terrible idea and undoubtedly dangerous, and initially, Walter says no.

And then his imagination concocts a new fantasy: Cheryl with a guitar, singing and playing the song, and dedicating it to Walter.

All of Walter’s fantasies that we’ve seen so far have been pure escapism—wildly unrealistic wish fulfillment, a kind of defense mechanism against the tedium and frustration of his life. They don’t help him in any practical way; in fact, they usually hurt him.

This fantasy is a turning point. Instead of insulating him from reality, it motivates him to do something.

The moment when Walter jumps into the (by now slightly airborne) helicopter is packed with emotional content. The music swells. The helicopter pilot smiles a little over his shoulder. And Walter himself sits there frozen with a stunned look on his face. He did it! His fantasy pushed through to reality. He got in the helicopter.

All of which meant that within seconds of hearing “Rocket Man” in the restaurant, I was tearing up over my grilled shrimp and mahi.

And I wasn’t done. The helicopter scene in Walter Mitty made me think of a scene in Master and Commander—the book, not the movie. (If you’ve never seen Master and Commander, starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, do yourself a favor and go watch it right now. If you have, do yourself another favor and read the twenty-book series by Patrick O’Brian.) In this scene, Jack Aubrey is troubled by his uneasy relationship with his lieutenant, James Dillon, a capable officer with a chip on his shoulder, who clearly has something against Jack. Jack is a strong, authoritative leader, but he’s also a warm-hearted man unaccustomed to being disliked. He’s baffled as to where he went wrong with Dillon. So he talks the whole thing over with his friend, ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin—only Stephen is miles away at the time. The conversation is wholly in Jack’s mind.

We’ve probably all had conversations of this sort, where we try to channel the wisdom of some absent friend. It can lead to surprising insight. This one doesn’t, because Jack lacks a piece of crucial information about the lieutenant—information that Stephen actually does have, but couldn’t share with Jack even if Jack asked him, because he’s honor-bound and sworn to secrecy. The relationship between Jack and his officer is doomed, and Jack will never know why.

Imagination and story are powerful forces, concocting fictitious conversations (or serenades) with people who aren’t there, taking us from Elton John to David Bowie, and from a twentieth-century displaced victim of corporate downsizing to a Napoleonic-era British naval officer, and triggering emotional responses to characters who are absolutely not real and whose stories aren’t even in front of us at the moment. I marvel at this every day, as I make my own stories or enjoy the stories of others.

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