1985 Monday Movies Finds Jesus
In Beginners, Ewan MacGregor (pleasantly relieved of movie-star duty by the debacle of the Star Wars films and the arrival of James McAvoy) plays Oliver, a melancholy cartoonist who has recently lost his mother to cancer. In the two neighboring timeframes of the film, he contends with his father (Christopher Plummer) coming out of the closet and, after his father’s passing, with a whirlwind, nearly wordless, romance.
Throughout, he grapples with grave sadness. In a droll subplot, a band called The Sads hires him to do a graphic portrait. Instead of executing the assignment, he creates an unwieldy accordion-paneled epic cartoon called “The History of Sadness.” The panels fill the screen, including such landmark moments as “the first homosexual told he had a mental illness.” His father approaches death in blithe denial — “Do you know what stage four cancer means? There’s no stage five!” — and refuses to say a word of it to his boyfriend Andy (Goran Visnjic, transformed from hunk to oaf with a bad haircut and a great character). After his father dies, he begins an affair with Anna (Melanie Laurent), a French actress who picks him up despite absolute laryngitic muteness by seeing the sadness in his eyes. Their quick connection allows for short joyous, infatuated binges, but mostly they pass the time in swamps of silence, capable of showing each other their wounds but not, until perhaps the end, capable of giving each other healing.
Director Mike Mills, whose own parents’s story is the model for much of the film, ties the story into post-WWII American history with a light touch, using quick montages and narration that bring in the history of the rainbow flag, the Mattachine society, the poem Howl, the lie of postwar consumer utopia. Oliver tags walls with historical trivia like “1985 Bush Finds Jesus”. The small gestures towards history add up to make the movie feel grounded.
Is Beginners twee? It’s achingly sincere, clever in its prettiness, and right-minded. It shows a character dancing in a turkey costume to no music. I didn’t know that Mills was married to Miranda July, but it didn’t take long for me to wonder if she was thanked in the credits (indeed, first). Referring to the McSweeney’s clique, n+1 invoked a regressive avant-garde whose art wraps itself in the sentimentality of childhood, which for me gets to the nut of the twee charge. That’s an important critique that describes a unifying trend, but many of the individual works of art mine childhood not for sentimentality but for devastating texture. (A later n+1 article about You and Me and Everyone We Know granted July’s savvy in describing actual children, even as it decried the childish “treacle” around her adult characters.) Flashbacks to Oliver’s youth show him grappling with his parents’ genial sham marriage through the eyes of his slowly despairing mother. There’s a brilliant shot, shown twice, in which Oliver’s mother waves her hand as if casting a spell, and Oliver softly feigns keeling over. It’s wonderfully specific; it’s playful; but it is also a poker-faced rehearsal of death. The enchantments of childhood are those from which it takes the longest to wake.
Sentiment is often moving in the dark and turns to treacle in the light, but the more I think about Beginners with the harsh lens of the Monday-movies quarterback, the more I feel how wide it ripped me open.
I heard about The Baxter on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast interview with The State’s Michael Showalter (son of Elaine, study-nerds), who wrote and directed it. It’s got a great conceit — a “Baxter” is the stooge, often played by Ralph Bellamy, who thinks he’s got the girl locked down while Cary Grant comes along and ruins everything. So this is a romantic comedy from The Baxter’s point of view. Michelle Williams is absolutely wonderful as the girl the Baxter should be with but can’t see. Showalter plays the title role as a stiff dork, finding the character’s emotional core too late and too infrequently. Justin Theroux is great in the same blowhard conscious adventurer role he played on Parks and Recreation, Elizabeth Banks’s brittle runaway bride is very funny, and God bless Peter Dinklage as a wedding planner who should never leave Manhattan. Overall the movie felt suspended between being a viable romantic comedy on its own and being the savage meta-comedy that the concept promised. There is a moment in the middle of the end credits that shows how the whole thing might have paid off at a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead level.
Howl is a jazzy ensemble movie, a worthwhile and inventively non-narrative means of putting a poem in film form. Three elements interact: here, a courtroom drama made of publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s obscenity trial, there, a long interview with James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, all around, an animation that accompanies Franco’s reading of the poem. The animation was my least favorite element — stylistically, it comes across as a combination of the movie Nine with a hint of Shag, and overall it elevates Ginsberg’s cosmic enthusiasms, e.g. “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” at the expense of his fleshy reportage, e.g. “who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York.” The trial scenes feel oddly enervated — prosecutor David Strathairn doesn’t seem to have his case prepared, as if the Powers That Were knew the old order was running out of gas and fobbed off the task on a white-bread clockpuncher. (It was good that it didn’t overmine the courtroom drama — this didn’t need anyone’s truth-handling ability questioned.) I liked seeing James Franco as Ginsberg; overexposed as he is, Franco remains as shamelessly beautiful as he was in Freaks and Geeks, and I like letting Ginsberg be a golden god at this moment in time. There’s plenty of time for David Cross to take over.
Bonus historical tie-in: Allen Ginsberg poses for a picture with the author and his sister, Abbie Hoffman’s Memorial Picnic, 6/10/1989
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