When conceptual and graphic artist Mike Mills’s father was 75, he came out of the closet. After 45 years of a seemingly happy marriage, a successful career as a curator, and jobs as director of the Oakland Museum and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Paul Mills told his son he wanted to explore the homosexuality he had repressed for decades.
But that gesture of self-awareness and the greater intimacy it fostered between Mills and his father had a bittersweet ending when his father was diagnosed with cancer. Paul Mills died five years later. Beginners is Mills’s emotionally loaded reckoning with that heady cocktail of revelation and exploration—the thrill of living—contrasted with the brutal inevitability of death.
Starring Ewan McGregor as Oliver Fields and Christopher Plummer as Hal Fields, Beginners is a film inspired by Mills’s experience watching his father “blossom” in middle-age following the transformative death of his wife Jan in 1999, who he had known since junior high school.
“When someone dies like that it really makes you kind of crazy and brave and makes you aware of how fragile everything is. I think his mortality was incredibly alive to him when my mom died. So in a weird way she sort of empowered him,” says Mills, passing through Atlanta to build advance buzz for his film.
In addition to its poignant rendering of the suddenly intense but fleeting love affair between a father and son, Beginners moves back and forth in time, from Oliver’s childhood to his last days with his father and then to Oliver’s burgeoning romance, following his father’s death, with a French actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent), passing through L.A. on a film project. Anna has daddy issues of her own, a suicidal, needy father who lunges out via telephone to haunt her across time zones. Together she and Oliver become emblematic of a generation struggling to come to terms with the complicated brew of love and loss contained in one’s parents.
In many ways Beginners is close-to-home science fiction, about the strange, uncharted land of one’s parents—in Mills’ case, parents who grew up weaned on repressing their identities and emotions to fit the status quo. “That generation, they don’t talk about their problems or their emotional lives. I only found out my mom was married to someone before my dad from my sister. My mom never talked about it,” says Mills.
Beginners is Mills’s second feature film, following his 2005 adaptation of Walter Kirn’s novel Thumbsucker. Mild-mannered, with a slim build and light blue eyes, Mills, 45, is part of a loose configuration of artists and filmmakers including Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola, Roman Coppola, and the street artists who have emerged out of New York City’s Alleged Gallery. Mills and many of his fellow artists—Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Clare Rojas, Harmony Korine, and Shepard Fairey—were featured in Alleged owner Aaron Rose’s traveling exhibition (co-curated with Christian Strike), and 2008 documentary of the same name, Beautiful Losers, chronicling artists incorporating street culture, DIY aesthetics, and borrowing from the punk and skate movements in their work.
Mills currently lives in Silver Lake with his wife the filmmaker and performance artist Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know). Mills is a multidisciplinary artist who had done design work for fashion designer Marc Jacobs, skateboard design for Subliminal, designed album covers and directed music videos for the Beastie Boys, Beck, Sonic Youth, and Air, and exhibited his short films and artwork at galleries around the world.
Mills says Beginners’s intimacy and self-revelation was inspired by a host of other practitioners of autobiography-inflected honesty he admires, including Federico Fellini, Ira Glass’s This American Life, Woody Allen, Cat Power, Elliott Smith, and Allen Ginsberg. “‘Howl’ when I read it, I get chills by its honesty. I don’t have those experiences, but because it’s so personal and real I can relate to it more.” The most fascinating part of Beginners for the visual art crowd may be its navigation of the worlds of contemporary art, street art, and design, from Oliver’s vocation as an illustrator to his avocation as a street artist spray painting cryptic musings on media culture under cover of the L.A. night. Oliver’s delicate, angst-filled illustrations—drawn by Mills—suggest a combination of Edward Gorey’s quaint melancholia and the charming innocence of Maira Kalman’s drawings (whose husband Tibor Kalman, Mills studied under as an art school undergrad at Cooper Union and ended up working for). Throughout the film there are nods to Andy Warhol and the Situationists as well as the influence of Mills’s Cooper Union mentor Hans Haacke, who stoked the filmmaker’s interest in worlds beyond the gallery space, including the street and the commercial realm. In tribute to his mother who Mills says “hated pretension” and Haacke’s anti-elitist model, Mills says “I’m happy to work in the entertainment industry.” Beginners takes a democratic approach to creativity, finding it in the silly, anarchical behavior of Oliver’s mother and in the open-hearted, adventurous plunge into the gay subculture taken by Hal Fields. But Mills’ most provocative conceptual technique is undoubtedly the photo montage sequences in which Oliver imagines what life would have looked like in his father’s age.
“It was and is kind of the most exciting part of the film to me,” says Mills, “as a graphic designer/artist/filmmaker it is sort of everything integrated.” The film investigates what the year of Oliver’s parents marriage, 1955 (also the year Allen Ginsberg wrote Howl, Mills has noted) must have felt like, and how difficult an act of rebellion would have been at that time.
“To me it’s endlessly fascinating to think, ‘what was it like in 1955?’” And by that token, how do you gain insight into another age, posits Mills: “Is it by looking at a phone? Is it by trying to see what pets are like? Is it the president? Is it a movie?”
“I am very interested in representation,” says Mills.
In Beginners, voice-over narration accompanies proclamations like, “This was smoking,” and “This is what it looked like when people kissed” which cue elaborate, rapid-fire juxtapositions of magazine and newspaper images of the time illustrating those very points, attempting to define the past through access to its popular culture. And yet it is clear that those images are just surface, like the false front of Hal’s marriage, and that real life was lived at a different pitch. Those wild collisions of imagery, most of it courtesy of Look magazine, were collected from the Library of Congress. “You can use anything in there for a really nominal fee,” says Mills. The inclusion of those fragments from a lost time transform the film from an at-times too precious love story into a profound meditation on the nature of subjectivity and how our ideas of life, of sex, of love, of virtually everything are shaped by the times we live in and the miasma of cultural, political, and social messages outside of ourselves. The film is deeply informed by how our notion of reality is shaped by subjectivity: At several points in the film Oliver contrasts the relative ease of his heterosexual relationship to the difficulty of being gay, and the time he lives in versus the time in which his parents lived, defined by repression. “Our good fortune allowed us to feel a sadness they didn’t have time for” remarks Oliver. Those montage sequences were inspired, said Mills, by the work of French artist Christian Boltanski and his similar explorations of consciousness, as well as the German artist Hans-Peter Feldmann—a winner of the 2010 Hugo Boss prize, exhibiting through November at the Guggenheim Museum—who has similarly used multiple images of the Eiffel Tower or women’s torsos to question one absolute and unshakable version of reality.
Beginners is a poetic rendering of the ribbon of time that connects one’s childhood self to one’s adult self, and the equal confusion that can define both ages when it comes to love, parents, death, self, and the complexity of human relationships. A deeply philosophical film greatly informed by contemporary art, Beginners is as much about the visual world and how it orders and colonizes our imaginations as it is the story of a father and son’s radical mid-life re-acquaintance.
Felicia Feaster is an Atlanta editor and writer who worked, most recently, as the senior editor at The Atlantan. Her writing has appeared in Creative Loafing, Elle, Playboy.com, Atlanta magazine, Art in America, ART PAPERS, Sculpture, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.