Monday, June 11, 2012

Places (Or Why Sad is Not Unhappy)

Ewen is not paying attention to his Happiness lessons
I'm not sure if I'm right about this, but I think the title of the film Beginners (2011) is taken from the British theatre idiom by which the stage manager notifies the actors that the play is about the start.  In the States, the SM calls "Places," whereas in the UK and much of the Commonwealth, the call is "Beginners."  (This is, of course, further proof that the Brits do not understand and cannot use the language that they initiated but which, since the death of Shakespeare, they have managed to complete bungle and misuse.  The proper word should be, clearly, "Beginnings" not "Beginners," unless the theater management has decided to replace the cast at the last minute with rank amateurs.)

My point is that "Beginners" signals the time when one is supposed to start.  And although it's a start, it's a place you've been before, such as the last time you performed or rehearsed the play.  Nonetheless, you start over, fresh, as if you've never done it before, surprised, dismayed and enlightened all over again.  An actor in the theater must "lose it" over and over again, every night.  It is a state of ever-renewing innocence.

And this wise innocence informs the film, from its dark yellow palette, its Wes-Anderson-like narration, the heroine who threatens to go Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but is too smart for that pigeon-hole, even a very perceptive Jack Russell terrier, who acts as mute Greek chorus.  There is a beautiful, simple clarity which drives the stark production design, the jump cuts which are surely written into the script, the rapid shifts of place and time.  Although the texture is dense, each small piece of the mosaic is eminently clear and well-defined.

Arthur does his best to see Oliver through.
Most of all, writer (and director) Mike Mills writes with a simplicity that would warm the heart of E.B. White.  That may well because Mills and his melancholy but not neurotic protagonist, Oliver, played with a lack of self-pity by Ewan MacGregor, both experience mourning as a normal natural part of life, not to be pushed away, but not to be wallowed in, either.  (Mills previously wrote and directed Thumbsucker, an agreeably quirky indie, which offered little beneath the surface of its odd premise.)
If you've heard of the film and not seen it, you probably heard of because Christopher Plummer won an Academy Award for playing a man who comes out at age 75.  And he does it wonderfully and fully deserves prizes.  But do not skip this because you think it is an old gay man movie and you've seen that one.  This is not a movie about an old gay man, it is about a young sad man.  But sad is not depressed.  Sad is simply a color in the rainbow of emotions, one we must have in order for the other colors to make sense and maintain their relationship with each other.  Sad is OK.  The trick is to come through and come out the other end.

SPOILER ALERT:  He does it.  He gets through.  It doesn't end with a music montage and everyone splashing in the ocean, but happiness is possible.

This post has more outright expression of opinion than I like, but simply put, I found Beginners one of the most elegant, poetic and overlooked movies of 2011.  There is a lot more to see here than Plummer's rightly-celebrated turn, including Melanie Laurent's mountains of charm and Goran Visnjic's enchanting child-man as Plummer's lover, the compact of secret playfulness between young Oliver and his bemused mother, well-limned by Mary Page Keller -- these are all recognizable human beings, rare creatures in contemporary film.  But most of all, there is the emergence of Mike Mills as an authorial voice in film whose future work I, for one, intend to follow.

No comments:

Post a Comment