By Alan Scherstuhl
By Charles Taylor
By Melissa Anderson
By Inkoo Kang
By Amy Nicholson
By Sam Weisberg
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Chuck Wilson
OK, so my parents were married in 1955 and my mom knew my dad was gay and my dad knew he was gay and so I was, like, Why in the heck did you get married? Like, what was going on? What was that time? Its like this crazy paradox that my whole life is based on, or my familys based on. So I spent a lot of time trying to understand 55.
In a suite at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, a hyperenthusiastic Mike Millsthe designer of Sonic Youth album covers turned director of Gap commercials turned filmmaker with the 2005 Sundance-feted feature Thumbsuckeris speaking at breakneck speed about his second fiction film, Beginners. It stars Ewan McGregor as Oliver, a 38-year-old graphic designer who falls in love with visiting French actress Anna (Inglourious Basterds Mélanie Laurent) while still dealing with the death of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), who spent the last few years of his life living as an out gay man after many decades of hetero marriage. Mills folds the story of Hals last years into a dreamy accounting of the first weeks of Oliver and Annas affair, using the heightened states of emotion created by both death and new love as bounce boards for ruminations on time, memory, personal growth, and political evolution.
My film is pretty autobiographical, Mills admits. Thats something of an understatement. Oliver and Hals relationship is adapted directly from Millss experiences with his own father, who came out of the closet at age 75, starting a new life that lasted until he died from cancer five years later. Mills hews strictly to the dates and historical markers of his family history, making the film a period piece of sorts, set primarily in 2003. (This gives the relationship between Anna and Oliver a kind of nostalgic magicas if its the last romance before iPhones and Facebook changed basic human interaction.)
Like Plummers character, Millss father was a museum curator who responded to the assassination of openly gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk by mounting a show incorporating a quote from The Velveteen Rabbit about the trials of becoming real. As Beginners flows stream-of-consciousness-style between past and present, and between Hals late-in-life liberation and Olivers late-thirtysomething romantic awakening, the film is haunted by that notionthat it can take an entire lifetime to figure out how to be fully alive.
A work of art spawned by grief, in no small part about art as an outlet for grief, Beginners reflects Millss cross-disciplinary instincts, which split the difference between highbrow and lowbut arent exactly middlebrow. Oliver is a commercial illustrator (his drawings are done by Mills) who gets too personal with his assignments, and who moonlights as a bumbling, cultural commentaryminded tagger.
Mills, a Cooper Uniontrained disciple of systems artist Hans Haackes school of institutional critique, sees narrative, design, filmmaking, advertising, and graffiti as part of the same continuum of communication. Studying with Haacke, Mills says, was how I got into doing graphics, and even film, in a way. I wanted to work out in the public sphere, and be not a part of the fancy art world.
Still, Mills acknowledges that his own dabbling in street art has been fairly high-minded: My graffiti really comes more from a May 68, sort of Situationist vibe than the hip-hop world, he says sheepishly. I think a real graffiti artist would find me a poser.
Millss reference to Situationism, the French agit-art movement based on the appropriation and manipulation of commercial imagery to make an anticonsumerist argument, is oddly apt, as some of Beginners most moving moments come from intense still-image montages that juxtapose mass-produced pop iconography (publicity stills, photojournalism, clippings from LOOK magazine) with photos from Millss family albums. These montages play like a peek into Olivers brain, as he attempts to use his professional training to comprehend a world that made his parents less-than-romantic marriage not only a possibility but a necessity. Its a process Mills went through, too.
Thats kind of a by-product of me being a graphic designer as much as I am a filmmaker, he says. If youre coming from that kind of visual language, youre saying to yourself, Well, what is 55? If I show you, like, pets in 55, does that help? Or the president? Or a movie? How do we understand that time in which those decisions were possible? In which that kind of sex life and love life and emotional life was possible? That was my best way to take a stab at trying to understand.
Unlike Olivers and Mills parents, who at a young age found in one another a safe haven that would satisfy social expectations, Oliver and Anna are serial heartbreakers who have managed to remain single into their late 30s. Just one generation later, a society that once enforced coupling as a path to becoming real adults is now so indifferent to marriage that its easier to remain alone. Incubated in a luxury hotel room, the romance threatens to die when subjected to the cold air of everyday life; by the films end, its future is not entirely ensured. Its like I lost the instructions, Oliver laments. Or never had them.
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