Mike Mills’s lovely bittersweet film Beginners finally opens here this weekend, in the city where the real life-and-death events that inspired it occurred. As a semi-fictional film, it’s a brilliantly structured, time-hopping story of a father (Christopher Plummer) and a son (Ewan McGregor) coming together in the final months of the father’s life. The son, also shown mourning after his dad’s death, has become stingy in love, frozen before commitment, while his father explodes into a new world of seemingly fearless emotional exploration after his beloved wife’s death, admitting to his son and the whole world he is and always was gay. As a kind of memorial document, the film is mostly true; it is the story of filmmaker Mike and his father, Paul Mills (P.M.), who was the director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art from 1970 to 1982, during its most accelerated growth years. Their own better-late-than-never bonding came during the period when Mike’s father came out in the late 1990s. It was then—following the death of his wife, Jan—that Paul experienced an intense and sudden sexual liberation. Then Paul was tragically cut down by cancer in 2004. As Mike Mills readily admits, there’s much more to his father’s life than could be grasped in any film’s story, even one this emotionally rich. The museum’s collections, the flags on State Street and in the harbor, Herbert Bayer’s Chromatic Gate, even Summer Solstice celebrations owe a debt to P.M., as his friends knew him.
Mostly, Mike remembers lots of parties at home, though. “Always, there were parties at my parents’ house,” he said. “I remember there were holiday parties with a hundred people singing Christmas carols. And they were so popular he had to have two of them back-to-back. One night was for the museum staff and the next night was just close friends.” Indeed, Mike’s early life seemed fairly idyllic—the house filled with creative folk. Paul and Jan moved their children, including daughters Kate and Meagan, to Santa Barbara from Oakland in 1970, when Mike was four.
Mike grew up in Montecito, attending Montecito Union and Santa Barbara Junior and Senior High, though he claims never to have been much turned on by art classes. “Drawing—I was always drawing,” said Mike, who was also always riding his bike down San Ysidro Lane, until skating became his thing. “Before I became an artist, I came this close to being a professional skateboarder,” he said. One thing he won’t admit, however, was the name of the punk band he played in. Still, rock, skating, and the arts came together for Mike after college, when he joined a cadre of street artists doing filmmaking, performance, video, and tagging in New York City. He also did rock videos and, as ultimate hipster credential, had an indie song named after him (Air’s “Mike Mills”). But modest Mike, who is married to the artist, writer, and filmmaker Miranda July, insists that it was a kind of fortuitous mistake.
In the meantime, P.M. was busy creating what former arts commissioner Patrick Davis called The Golden Age [of public art] in Santa Barbara. “He didn’t start it, but he got things rolling,” said Davis, who remembers Mills as a sort of Irish politician, mixing it up with everybody and supporting the burgeoning democratic spirit of the times at places like Casa de la Raza. He opened up the museum to a young volunteer curator named Michael Felcher, who held a Summer Solstice party in the gallery among the museum’s collection of ethnic instruments, which soon became enmeshed with Michael Gonzales’s May Day/birthday party parade, and later became the Solstice Festival. Then there was P.M.’s bad case of vexillology. “The flags,” said Nancy Lynn, who was P.M.’s assistant before becoming the executive director of the Lobero Theatre and director of development at CAMA. “It was his obsession, and there was something noble about it,” she says, though his involvement in New Glory, a contest to redesign the American flag, may have brought about his downfall at the museum after 14 years. (Another theory holds that it was Mills’s alliance with the King Carlos statue that alienated the SBMA board from him.) Lynn admired his belief in heraldry, an ancient grammar of representation designed for universal communication. “And, today, those flags still wave on the breakwater and on State Street,” she said happily.
But he certainly didn’t shirk his daily duties at the museum. An important collector of American art, Mills saved the Colin Campbell Cooper mural at the county hospital. He brought in some of the museum’s best-recognized works and courted important donors such as Wright S. Ludington assiduously. Lynn agrees he was great at politics. “He was my mentor. I learned so much watching how he worked with the board and advocated for his staff.”
Close as she was, she never suspected P.M. was gay, exactly. Lynn laughed: “I always thought that he and his wife were a little unusual. P.M. was the softer, gentler one, and Jan was the more assertive partner. But I also thought, whatever works.” She also remembers him in his element, the parties. “I remember him standing at the door in his Santa hat, greeting everybody with those twinkling eyes. He had a great sense of humor. You have to, to be a museum director.”
Mike’s Beginners tells the rest, though the story’s been transposed to Los Angeles (and was shot mostly near Mike’s Silver Lake home). “I couldn’t afford to shoot in Santa Barbara,” he told Roger Durling’s Cinema Society crowd. You have to wonder if he didn’t need some distance, ultimately. Beginners was started in the “emotional rush” right after Paul died, a bump that sustained Mike for the five years it took to bring it to the big screen. Some details were changed—the flags became fireworks—but it remains essentially true and deeply moving.
“I was nervous to show it in Santa Barbara,” Mike explained a few weeks back. “A lot of you know my mother and father, and you have your own versions of Paul Mills’s story. But this is my version.”
Beginners will screen at the Paseo Nuevo Metropolitan Theatre on Saturday, July 2, at 10 a.m. Proceeds from the screening will benefit the 2011 OUTrageous Film Festival. For info, call (877) 789-6684.