26 June 2011

Beginners is About Love, Death and Beginning (Of Course)

There were a lot of hallways in the new film Beginners. Hallways are lonely places if you stop in them. They offer nothing in and of themselves. Except of course if you move through them in which case they are paths to rooms or apartments. Some place new, different. Or someplace familiar, home. At the end of hallways there are usually doors. Doors are impediments. They can stop you from entering. But open, they allow you into that room or apartment. Doors are funny that way.

Director Mike Mills may not have been consciously showing a lot of hallways or doors. Hell, maybe I'm alone among all the people who've seen the movie in noticing them. But I did.

Beginners is an easy film to relate to if you are a certain age. Like the age when you're parents are leaving you forever. That's what's happening to Oliver (Ewan McGregor) as we learn right at the beginning of the of the movie. His dad Hal (Christopher Plummer) has gone to the hereafter. We do get to know Hal through the course of the movie through flashbacks. We learn that when his wife of 44 years (Oliver's Mom) died, he came out and plunged headfirst into the gay community. This plunging included getting himself a boyfriend. Why not?

Oliver is quite likable. Hal is likable. Hals' dog Arthur is adorable. He becomes Oliver's dog. He's a Jack Russell. We get to know some of his thoughts through subtitles. Cute. Then there's Anna (Melanie Laurent) who is likable, adorable, and altogether quite fetching. She becomes Oliver's girlfriend. Life is good.

Beginners is one of those movies that defy easy description. That's a good sign. Movies that can be summed up in a sentence are often not about a whole lot. Beginners is about a whole lot. Like how parents eventually die. I went through that with my dear old dad a few years ago. There is an intense feeling at the time that this is part of the natural order of things. There is also the intense feeling of death's permanence. I kept telling my father what a great dad he had been. It was easy to say because he was fabulous. I was reminded of that as we watch Oliver coping with his father's cancer which is in stage four (when his dad claims to be getting better, he tells dad there is no stage five). There's also the heartbreaking stuff of going through a parent's belongings. My big brother shared that chore with me. Still....

Let's be clear though, Beginners is not a sad film. Not at all. For one thing there is the wonderful relationship between father and son. There is the joy of a life well lived. And there's also a love story mixed in.

Love stories are a staple of films. They are quite often poorly done. Not here. There is cuteness, piquancy and giggles, but there are the genuine struggles that thinking people can go through when they prepare to commit fully to another human being. How love ever works out is a miracle given all the obstacles. But it does happen. Thankfully.

Arthur (remember he's the dog) has a significant role in the film too. He's not there just to be cute. If you see the movie (you should, really) contrast his behavior, his love, to that of the humans.

Of course this is a move about beginnings. Hence the title. Hal begins life anew at 75 as a gay man. Oliver and Anna try to begin a love affair. They've failed in previous attempts with others. Beginning is harder than continuing and a lot harder than stopping or never starting. Try beginning something some time and you'll see what I mean.

Often you begin by going down a hallway and then opening a door. Sometimes this is literal. Other times this is figurative. I don't know that there were really all that many shots of hallways and doors in Beginners. But its what I noticed. I took that away from the film. Matter of fact, I took a lot away from seeing it. I should think most people would.

(Director/writer based the film on his own experiences. The truth of his experience probably informed it in a very, very positive way. See this recent article from Berkeleyside.)

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