The serendipity was divine. In a long stretch of overwork, with almost no time for any of my leisure habits, I was in front of a television with a couple of hours to spare at the very moment Beginners was about to air. I’d looked forward to this movie’s release, but it had become another item on this year’s long list of missed.
I’d looked forward to it for many reasons: had connected with author Mike Mills’ previous work and interviews, will always love Captain Von Trapp, had enjoyed all of Ewen McGregor’s performances I’d seen, interested to see the story of a 75 year old coming out to his son after his wife’s death, and fabulously, A TALKING DOG.
I was not immediately disappointed. In fact, I had such high hopes that I held off disappointment until the credits, when I had to face the reality that no further redeeming content was coming. To be fair, it is these same high hopes that cause me to scribble about “disappointment” referring to a well-made picture I enjoyed. I just thought it might be a favorite, a multiple screener, a special features watcher.
The funny thing is that my beleaguered brain had forgotten that it is a Mike Mills joint, and as the end came and my impression – of superficial self-absorption spoiling things a bit – became clearer, his title card appeared and with it my eureka. My eureka looked like this:
That’s Miranda July and Spike Jonze, two artists whose work, like Mills’, I enjoy and respect but, like Mills’, leaves me a little cold. I think what happens is this:
I relate to the perspective. Those are my people, or it is the point of view of my people at least. I feel like so little of the mass culture we’ve lived with has been written for us or by us that it’s kind of thrilling when I encounter culture that has been. I proceed through the encounter, eager to be told stories from that perspective, to contemplate themes and ideas informed by that point of view.
But I find, again and again, that the perspective is the story. The point of view, itself, is the idea.
This is an exaggeration of course. These books and movies and performances convey ideas about the human condition, alienation, communication, growing up. But in terms of content by volume, there is a lot of space given to pure demonstrations of the point of view and not much else. Call it quirky-cool, call it hipster – it may be pointless to try to categorize, actually – but the extended and detailed display of the tastes, idiosyncracies and hobbies of the heroes suggests, necessarily, that these tastes, idiosyncracies and hobbies are significant and to be noted. So you mark it down, okay, and then….they aren’t actually germane. All of the things which happen to the hero or are learned by him would also have happened or been learned if he was into jogging rather than roller skating, or if he worked in an administrative office of the municipal government rather than in the arts. The importance of telling your own stories, of working from a personal pov? Sure, but how come the bureaucrat joggers don’t position the jogging as a central part of the story? Answer: how absurd! Joggers are everywhere and have been for decades. The majority of the population either does it or has done it. It would be like making a movie featuring the toasting of bread. (Which, ironically, would be quirky.) So. What we are really talking about is difference. Mainstream versus marginal. And the tendency for several decades now, to elevate difference, in and of itself, to something significant. It is the foundation of the culture of “cool”. Why do we care so much about tastes, preferences, idiosyncracies? Because relative wealth has enabled the extensive contemplation of the self. And of course commercial interests have enthusiastically cultivated and exploited that trend.
This, I guess, is the exception I take to the portraiture of quirk and cool that I see artists like Mills and July (married, as you may or may not know) draw out. It fortifies the narcissistic chains we keep ourselves in. I want my mind blown, I want my life changed, I want to lose sleep over books and films and performances, and I want to believe that this work can come from artists whose perspectives I relate to, like July and Mills. There’s no reason not to believe this – both surely have loads of work ahead of them. Beginners wasn’t it, that’s all.