beginners: like a slide show going off the rails

There’s a key scene in Mike Mills’ 2010 film, Beginners, that I think is worth looking at in some depth. But to get why it’s meaningful, it will help to have some context.

Beginners alternates between two timelines, both following artist and Angeleno Oliver (Ewan McGregor). One story has him taking care of his dying father, Hal, played by Christopher Plummer, who came out not long ago after the death of his longtime wife, Oliver’s mother. The other story, told in parallel, is Oliver’s new romance with Anna, one that begins some months after Hal has died.

Each of these plots is smartly written and performed, but there’s much more to love here. For one, there’s its tone: Lonesome and quiet, the movie’s approach to death and love is reserved. Also, maybe most importantly, it manages to make the whole context and history of 20th century America seem as though they are waiting just off screen. It does this through occasional sequences composed of stills and footage — the President, a shot of the night sky, the colors of the rainbow flag — forming a haphazard assortment of facts about our lives and culture of the past several decades. These odd little sets of curated images are like a slide show, with voiceovers from Oliver that sound like the field notes of a very sad anthropologist.

These sequences bring us closer to some nebulous, detached historical perspective that both takes us out of the immediate story but also brings us closer to Oliver’s emotion. They also kind of rescue the movie from being painfully self-indulgent by providing a (relatively small) dose of historical consciousness in a movie that is otherwise dedicated to introspective creative-class white people in L.A. (always a huge risk factor for being choked in your own self-absorption). The slide shows, and occasional flashbacks to Hal’s strained marriage, convey some of the frustration and sadness of being LGBTQ in America circa our lifetimes, and the movie manages to tie Hal’s complicated and tense relationship with his wife to Oliver’s own heterosexual romantic life.

None of these abstract issues would matter so much, of course, if the performances were crap, but of course Christopher Plummer is beautiful in the role. Somehow, he gives dignity to a man who can’t quite admit to himself that he’s dying, and who’s trying to live it up in the meantime.

All of which brings me to that key scene.

It begins with Plummer at the hospital. He’s sick but, apparently, not yet terminal. The doctor delivers the news: “The bronchoscopy revealed a mass about the size of a quarter.” It’s cancer, it’s spreading, and it’s inoperable.

Plummer’s reaction is perfect. He doesn’t quite ignore the doctor, but he doesn’t quite make it clear he’s actually digesting the facts of the matter. It’s more like he has an unopened letter, a letter he knows will bring him terrible news and which he can’t bring himself to read, even though everyone in the room knows what the letter says. He doesn’t deny that he’s dying — it’s just that nobody says it out loud. The hint of evasiveness mixed with resignation is devastating.

This would seem to be the most important part of the scene, but there’s a bit more. The news delivered, we see Oliver’s reaction – muted, as always — at which point the screen flashes to show a quarter on a black background. A cut back to Oliver. A cut now to dimes and nickels on screen adding up to a 25 cents. A cut back to Oliver, a cut next to 25 pennies appearing one-by-one on screen.

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Elsewhere in the movie, Oliver is the conscientious author of the stills that are shown to the audience; the pictures of Superman and Jimmy Carter and gay pride parades seem to be ones he’s chosen to communicate with us. But now Oliver has lost control of the slide show. The cuts in this scene seem, rather, to be an uncut glimpse through his mind’s eye. Without even really realizing it, he is free-associating with the doctor’s line about “the size of a quarter” and we can see the images spinning through his brain unbidden. As he is taking in the finality of his father’s life and the news that Hal’s death is assured relatively soon, Oliver is silently reeling, and his slide show has given way to these pictures that actually are Oliver’s own primitive subconscious throwing up visual flotsam to his conscious mind.

It occurs to me that this is far closer than we ever normally get to unfettered access to a character. Eyeline matches and dream sequences are not this direct of a plug directly into the consciousness of a character’s mind. And maybe that’s why the scene is so wrenching. On the one hand, there’s Plummer’s immense acting, and on the other, there are the shots of the coins, which make us feel about as close to being Oliver as it might be possible to get.

I loved Beginners, and this is part of why.

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