"Okay, 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? It's like this crazy paradox that my whole life is based on, or my family's 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 Mills — the designer of Sonic Youth album covers turned director of Gap commercials turned filmmaker with the 2005 Sundance-feted feature Thumbsucker — is 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 Hal's last years into a dreamy accounting of the first weeks of Oliver and Anna's 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. That's something of an understatement. Oliver and Hal's relationship is adapted directly from Mills' 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 magic — as though it's the last romance before iPhones and Facebook changed basic human interaction.)
Like Plummer's character, Mills' 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 Hal's late-in-life liberation and Oliver's late-30-something romantic awakening, the film is haunted by that notion — that 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 Mills' cross-disciplinary instincts, which split the difference between highbrow and low — but aren't 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 commentary-minded tagger.
Mills, a Cooper Union-trained disciple of systems artist Hans Haacke's 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."
Mills' reference to Situationism, the French agit-art movement based on the appropriation and manipulation of commercial imagery to make an anti-consumerist 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 Mills' family albums. These montages play like a peek into Oliver's 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. It's a process Mills went through, too.
"That's kind of a by-product of me being a graphic designer as much as I am a filmmaker," he says. "If you're coming from that kind of visual language, you're 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 Oliver's 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 it's 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 film's end, its future is not entirely ensured. "It's like I lost the instructions," Oliver laments. "Or never had them."
It's tempting to draw parallels between Beginners' vision of 30-something romance and the relationship fumblings that form the core of The Future, the upcoming second feature written, directed by, and starring Mills' wife, Miranda July. But Mills dismisses the comparison. "Obviously, that couple and my couple are the same-ish age and live in the same world, sort of," Mills says. "But Miranda's world is much more metaphysical in a weird way, and a little less real to me."
And if there's one aspect of Beginners that isn't directly autobiographical, it's the romance. "The love part is much more normal fiction," Mills says. "It's not me and my wife, Miranda. The emotional underpinnings of both those characters are me, or things that I know about, but also so many friends I've known. I really felt I was doing kind of a group portrait with that."
As reflective of his own life as Beginners might be, Mills hesitates to call the film a catharsis. "People have been saying that word 'cathartic' a lot. [But] cathartic always implies this burning through, or this resolution, like somehow it's over. And I don't believe in that at all, especially going through these experiences. It was a way to keep this conversation going with my dad."