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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Advanced Beginners

It is not that I have a problem with multiplex theaters or the giant summer blockbusters that inhabit them.  There is nothing wrong with film taking you to a far away, make believe land.  The fact my daughter was swept away with friends earlier today in the land of Hogwarts and boy (men) Wizards captures the true spirit of summer film.  I am reminded of my experiences seeing Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark.  These are good days.

Turns out they can work in her parents benefit too.  Although it has been odd not seeing her all day, it provided the opportunity to visit our local art film house.  Strip away the oversized transforming robots, hungover buddies, and talking animals for a moment.  Today's topic:  high drama.

Beginners, Mike Mills' (the director not REM band member) second full length film is a brilliant examination of life, love and the struggle to balance everything out.  Ewan McGregor (maybe the most underrated actor working today) plays Oliver.  Sorrow and missed opportunity have surrounded his life of late.  His mother passed away.  Soon after his father (Christopher Plummer) informs him he is gay.

"And I don't want to just come out.  I want to be a gay man.  I want to live the life I should" he asserts to his uneasy son.

The fact that he is in his mid-70's will not deter him from choosing to live truthfully.  Mills takes us back to the early 50's when Plummer's Hal comes out of the war very much aware he is a gay man.  What was a man supposed to do then?

Like many others then (and now for that matter) he suppressed every urge he had to live as intended.  It is as if the "50s handbook to masculinity" destroyed every paradigm it was supposed to cherish.  If your goal is to repress and stifle one's self in an effort to keep up appearances what then of the consequences?

Men from that era never confronted their emotions and have consequently sent these repressed traits down to our fathers.  We, in turn, do the same.

This is the problem for Oliver.  Flashbacks to his odd, and terribly unhealthy relationship with his mother indicate a boy very much aware of his parents unhappiness.  They were living a lie.  They were incapable of finding joy.  They were lost.

As Oliver tries to reconcile this disturbing past and his own trouble with women, his finally liberated father is diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.


Mills paints with a broad stroke and keeps this story difficult to look away from.  With each defeat a victory surely awaits.  Oliver finds a woman (a beautiful Melaine Laurent), herself troubled.  She is both alluring and dangerous.  She is mystery and stability.   The unknown.

What is it that keeps them together?  What is it that tells them to leave?  Once things are so good does that mean it must end?

The fight to reconcile expectations from reality is a real one.  It was happening in the 50s.  It was happening well before then.  And it is very much happening today.

Do you know a man you suspect is gay that is raising a family with a woman clearly not in love with him?

Do you know a woman who cannot find the right guy no matter how hard she tries?

Will these things ever change?

Not bloody likely.

Beginners is a tale of hope.  But it is a cautionary tale.  McGregor and Plummer are superb.  Laurent and Goran Visnjic provide great work in supporting roles.

But this is a Mike Mills vehicle.  He wrote and directed an exceptionally story.  The flow is amazing and he captures mood very well.  This is some heavy material and expect to react to it.  Should you not have an emotional response it may be you have been programmed like our protagonist.  Thus, as Mills wonders, the cycle might continue.  Unless it doesn't.

Further reading/viewing:  Beginners on IMDB  Where I first heard of Mike Mills (1998!!!) video for Air's "All I Need"   Air "Kelly Watch the Stars"

On my radar:  Mike Mills first film Thumbsucker   If for nothing else Tilda Swinton is in it and she is pretty cool.

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