by Ciarán O’Rourke
Mills’s movies are shaped by his peculiar obsessions, and this, in large measure, is their saving grace. In Beginners and 20th Century Women, he returns compulsively, not just to specific scenes from (his) youth, but to the process of remembering the past – which for him, as perhaps for all of us, is both familiar (part of his life) and strange (permanently apart). It may be for this – preservational – reason that his characters seem always to be evolving new ways to communicate with one another. “It’s lonely out here, so you’d better learn how to talk with me,” Oliver (played by a commendably understated Ewan McGregor) advises his late father’s dog, Arthur, whose earnest, eloquent silences are subtitled throughout: “While I understand up to 150 words,” Arthur not quite replies, “I don’t talk.”
Beginners charts some of the courageous confusions and new clarities that follow Oliver’s father coming out as gay in old age, a late life journey portrayed with grace by Christopher Plummer, whose performance encompasses sadness and infectious gaiety, his deep eyes growing younger and wiser as the film unfolds. And yet, it is Oliver’s mother who remains the most elusive character: a vanished, vividly remembered presence for her son, who grew up observing her habits without necessarily recognising their emotional basis. In one of the film’s many delightful and subtle repetitions, adult Oliver’s newfound habit of creative vandalism – spraying graffiti messages on stray walls of San Francisco’s nightscape – rhymes with his mother’s previous, slapstick insistence on her right to respond to exhibitions in a high-end art gallery by way of interpretative dance. Oliver never notices the resemblance.
What saves Mills’s approach from self-indulgence is his effort to restore, with total compassion, lives that were never his in the first place. 20th Century Women is less concise than Beginners (more digressive and sprawling), but also, in all likelihood, the more interesting picture. Ostensibly exploring single-mother Dorothea’s concerns about raising an adolescent son (deprived of a “father figure”), the film’s genius is in opening up – scene by scene – Mills’s own quiet loss, as he discovers the impossibility of reconstructing his mother’s life as she lived it, and that his own emotional responses to her death are correspondingly complex. “It’s a portrait of the women who raised me,” Mills has said, “[who] are still a mystery to me.”
It is part of the integrity of Annette Bening’s performance that Dorothea remains so wholesome, even within the necessarily glanced and episodic structure of the film. “You don’t know what I’m feeling,” she replies to Jamie, during one of their spats, with a combination of defensiveness and vulnerability that seems – and all the more so in the retro-light of her son’s remembrance – somehow definitive of the film’s generative concerns. Mills makes mosaics – gathering all the contradictory detritus of memory into a single, knowingly imperfect form – and this may account for both the lushness and the looseness of the stories he tells. He is a memoirist of the gaps that populate the narrative we create for ourselves, as well as an archivist of the delicate lives that shape it.
Mills’s emotional mise-en-scènes have an almost glued-together quality, charming (and disarming) in their apparent simplicity. Far from recapitulating an Americanised version of Michel Gondry’s aesthetic (of bottomless quirk), the sprightly, impressionistic atmosphere – counteracting the films’ inherent melancholy – is notable more for its fluency than its sardonic disjunctures. Beginners (which itself began, Mills has remarked, with the director “alone, writing, in grief” after the death of his father) is punctuated by presentational interludes, during which disparate snapshots of separate time periods unspool in sequence, opening up the surrounding story-line to new grammars of access and insight, while Oliver offers a corresponding voiceover, winning in its plainness:
This is 2003. This is what the sun looks like, and the stars, nature. And this is the president. And this is the sun in 1955. And the stars, nature….
As here, Mills’s tender efforts to reach through absence to a retrievable reality – that of his parents – is predicated on a love for, and a continual rediscovery of, the distinctive joy of cinema, with its requisite method of dissolving time into imaginarium and series: bringing static thoughts and dead images into fresh combinations of life and light, as the silver (or in Mills’s movies, invariably bright-coloured) screen begins to glow.
The perhaps ironically titled I Am Easy to Find, Mills’s 2019 collaboration with The National, revisits these quandaries: implicitly asking how (or whether, indeed, it’s even possible) to revive, with love, the lost mysteries of a mother’s private world, the strange weathers and sensations that formed her individual person, which the director-child still hopes (because he must) can be made legible, and seem true. Strikingly, each segment of the mother figure’s many-storied experience in the film – from childhood to old age – features the same actor, Alicia Vikander, a fact that serves the mostly humane (and occasionally stark) purpose of reminding us that the portrait offered is as much of the now-grown child, and his longing. In this respect, The National were arguably ideal partners for Mills’s sidling, exploratory project. “I will always be / light years, light years away from you,” they sing, as this most sky-haunted and yet interior of films flits by.
The work of both parties is unusually poetic, in the sense that they approach their chosen medium as a means of verifying the impossible promises life holds out to us, and then distilling down (into film, into music) the post factum yearning that keeps those promises real. “If you ever come around this way again,” sways the voice of singer-songwriter Matt Berninger, “You’ll see me standing in the sunlight / In the middle of the street.” In The National’s music, everything gone might be lived again – held and known. Or so our desire, passing like “sunlight” over our lives, would have us believe.
As above, Berninger’s lyrics often give off a gleam of their own, both lucid and languorous – like the last residues of a forgotten letter, come upon by chance. Similarly, Berninger’s rich, misting baritone has its own weathers; even when whimsical and warm (as in the strangely hypnotic and propulsive “Apartment Story”), his singing seems flickered through by heartbreak, and other ghosts. But the band’s unified sound is what sustains, finally, the “slow show” of expressive radiance for which they are famed. The shadows lurking in Berninger’s voice and words are offset by the supple, tide-like lyricism of the Dessner twins, on piano and guitar, extending and then leading us back to the songs’ intricate musical motifs, while the Devendorf brothers (on bass and drums) ground and reorient the emerging vision with their dexterous, deep-diving rhythmic flow. (Bryan Devendorf may be one of the most blithely skilful, and critically undervalued, American drummers today.)
For The National – incurably (and often gloriously) boyish in their themes and perspectives – the clearest means of articulating the weird, raucous mélange of post-youthful living is to eschew the norms of what we might call narrative progression, or literal sense. The precise (if also somewhat obscure) code to which their music bears witness thrives in an epiphanic zone of revelry and dishevelment: “We’re half awake / In a fake empire,” they cry, where on a given night, spent with friends, we might “set off the geese of Beverley Road” or “Play Nuns-versus-Priests until somebody wins,” because, resoundingly, “We’re the heirs to the glimmering world.”
All of these are, in some respects, nonsense verses: but when experienced in motion, as a single musical reel (as it were), they evoke the textures of the specific relationships to which they refer more accurately than a linear or didactic style of song-writing might allow. Most of us, in the company of lovers or friends, find ourselves involved in a new shorthand of reference and meaning, one that feels private and relevant to the particular web of relations it emerged from – and this may be the abiding truth of The National’s song-writing style. National fans may not fully comprehend the band’s often mesmerising lexicon of mate-speak and (never-total) recall, but we recognise the veracity of the intimacies contained therein.
In their best live concerts, this atmosphere of instinctive recognition reigns, rising and swelling through the crowd as voices whisper in unison what are, objectively, the strangest of refrains. The vatic and glorious chant, “Vanderlyle, cry baby, cry”, becomes a collective anthem; likewise, the heart-spilt epiphany, that “It takes an ocean / Not to break”; and the quintessential voyager’s reminiscence, “I was carried / To Ohio in a swarm of bees,” can grow to a hum that momentarily warms the world, burnishing its colours to a new brightness that draws us in.
Other musicians reside (and live on) in The National’s soundscapes, acknowledged in parenthetical riffs and un-signposted asides that seem, cumulatively, essential to the band’s originality and endurance (they first formed in 1999). “The flowers cover over everything,” Matt sings, echoing R.E.M.’s “The Flowers of Guatemala”. “If you want / To see me cry,” another self-situating lyric has it, “Play ‘Let it be’” (by the Beatles) “or Nevermind” (by Nirvana).
If their work is interwoven with that of their contemporaries, and their times, The National is surely unique among current indie bands for its evocation of a modern (and frequently, rather male) anomie – which becomes, in their rendering, rich, pervasive, and infused with an ironic tang. “Nothing I change changes anything,” Berninger sings, in a shell-shocked moan as capable of high-soaring sublimation as gravelled self-pity: “I have no positions, / No point of view or visions.” Surveying the present wreckage of a past romance, another song wanders through a slow rain of emotion, “How can anybody know / How they got to be this way?”:
You must have known I’d do this some day […] I’m here to take you now Out among the missing sons And daughters of the Soho Riots.
“Somewhere in the heaven / of lost futures, / the lives we might have lived / have found their own fulfilment,” wrote Derek Mahon, in a poetic fragment similar in meaning (and effect) to The National’s murmuring ballad of lostness and remorse, as a host of former lovers who pace the singer’s memory (and one in particular, addressed as “you” throughout) now take their places, are lost to the crowd, among the “Daughters of the Soho Riots”. For all their celebration of precarious friendships that last the years, there’s an old-time loneliness to The National’s travels in loverdom, and an eloquence to match it, at once elliptical and spare. “You’re eyes are broken bottles,” one song crackles, “Get over here, I wanna / Kiss your skinny throat. / You’re a wasp nest.”
Once, in a snapshot called “Between Walls”, William Carlos Williams pictured a place “where / nothing // will grow”, a trash-filled, forgettable spot, scattered with “cinders // in which” the poet nevertheless discerned the “broken // pieces of a green / bottle”, shining in the poem the way a flower might lift from richer earth, and be celebrated. The songs of The National and the films of Mike Mills both enact a similar refocusing of attention and sympathy, shedding light on (or perhaps, more to the point, uncovering the luminous core within) the humdrum, all-too-perishable lifescapes their makers inhabit, formed by longing and lit by memory. “There’s a lot I’ve not forgotten,” Berninger soughs, in what might also be the credo of Mills’s movies: “I let go of other things. / If I tried they’d probably be / Hard to find.” It’s a discovery most of us stumble on, one way or another. The distinctive poetry exemplified by Mills and The National, however, is to express that thought and still keep reaching anyway, renewing the great, bright “glimmering world” of what was possible once.
Ciarán O’Rourke is a poet, based in Galway, Ireland. His first collection, The Buried Breath, was issued by Irish Pages Press in 2018 and highly commended by the Forward Foundation the following year. His miscellany of essays, One Big Union, was published in 2021, and his second poetry collection is forthcoming. More information about his work can be found here.