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This weekend we’re watching: We will always be beginners – on love, life and death

By Tevya Turok Shapiro 7 August 2020

Mike Mills' 'Beginners' (Image supplied)

Mike Mills’ Beginners is a film about taking control of our lives and allowing ourselves to be happy despite the emotional muck of our pasts, rather than accepting sadness out of habit.

Your mind is an iceberg. Your consciousness gleams above the waterline, clear and stark against the ocean, but much more lies obscured beneath the waves – the bulk of your psyche – all your most formative memories. Why is it that when your father dies or when you meet the love of your life, you might be thinking (for no obvious reason) about the time your mother started dancing in an art gallery when you were small?

Founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud used the analogy with chunks of iceberg, floating to the surface from your murky preconscious mind to explain these types of memories.

Fast-forward to 1955, and Harold Leland “Hal” Call, an American businessperson, LGBT rights activist, and US Army veteran lies back on his shrink’s bed and affirms his homosexuality. The therapist tells him he has a mental illness, but that he could be cured…

These are the premises for Beginners, directed by Mike Mills and released in 2010.

The film is based on the true coming-out story of Mill’s father at the age of 75, 5 years before his death. The film begins in the middle, with an incredulous Oliver (played by Ewan McGregor) packing his father’s life into boxes. He wanders around the empty apartment, sorting through papers and throwing away medication, staring into the middle distance. As he wanders, so too does his mind.

The film jumps erratically in time between Oliver’s childhood and adult life, and the constant back and forth gives it an ethereal quality. One cannot root oneself in time and space. The audience exists only as thoughts floating in Oliver’s mind, chunks of the iceberg, which bob in and out of the water unpredictably.

Oliver is goofing about with his friends, setting off fireworks; Oliver is a quiet child in the car with his rebellious mother; Oliver is dressed as Sigmund Freud at a dress-up party, an inebriated man lying on the couch and spilling his guts, apparently unaware that Oliver is not actually Sigmund Freud. And then, the love story takes a seat on the couch, a mute girl with sparkling eyes.

Anna has laryngitis and has to communicate through pen and paper. The mystique and inconvenience of her silence is the ideal sort of quirky setup for the romantic sentimental moments around which the film orbits.

Mike Mills makes independent films. That is not just to say that his films are produced outside of the major film studio system or for a low budget – Indie films have become a genre in their own right, with distinct stylistic trends and tropes, and even underlying philosophies.

In some ways, Indie films are characterised by realism.

There is an authenticity in their awkward interactions: Oliver trying to explain the concept of a dining room to his father’s dog as if it could understand him, because he has no idea how to interact with it. Minor innocuous details which are inessential to the plot are included anyway for fun and character development, like Oliver’s inability to clearly remember what his father was wearing when he told him he was gay.

But Indie films are characterised equally by romanticism. The choice to include these innocuous endearing moments at all makes a point about their beauty. Old music played on a ukulele in the background whispers nostalgically that these little moments are precious.

The intermingling of realism and romanticism, styles which naturally contradict one another, often tends Indie films towards optimism. They strive to depict reality with an authenticity which is lost in mainstream cinema, but often depict it in an idyllic way. They romanticise the mundane, and give meaning to misfortune.

The story of Oliver’s father, Hal, is neither overtly happy nor tragic. He lives a repressed life, and by the time his sexual awakening arrives, his life is already coming to an end. Is it beautiful that he managed to find love before he died, or sad that he lived without it for so long? Christopher Plummer’s performance as Hal sensitively portrays the bittersweet nature of his tale, and won him an Academy Award for best supporting actor.

Without meaning to, Oliver mirrors his father’s struggles and emotional dysfunctions. He ruminates constantly on his father’s life and death, talking to himself through his dog, who occasionally replies with waggish remarks in subtitles. “Your personality was created by this guy John Russell who was a hunting enthusiast in the 1800s. He bred your ancestors for their stamina and their courage for the hunt. You think you’re you when you wanna chase the foxes but other people planted that in you years ago.”

Ultimately, the film is about taking control of our lives and allowing ourselves to be happy despite the emotional muck of our pasts, rather than accepting sadness out of habit. We are all beginners in life. Hal’s life began with love at the age of 75. We always will be beginners, because all we really have time for is the beginning, and while taking our first steps can be terrifying, it’s also exciting and beautiful. DM/ ML

Found a little-known gem of a film which you absolutely love? Send a recommendation to [email protected]

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