A Honeyed Punk
Director Mike Mills hunts for his past.
The filmmaker, artist, and graphic designer Mike Mills was nosing his Volvo down Sunset, past a Del Taco and a Supercuts and other monuments to how L.A. destroys its real monuments. This was D.W. Griffith’s stretch, Mills said, and it was in this neighborhood that directors like Griffith honed the language of film. Now it was parking lots and chain stores. He emitted something like a rueful chuckle, though his bemused blue eyes are too kind to pull off genuine rue. He watches Casablanca monthly. His sweatshirt was inside out. His copy of Sisterhood Is Powerful sits beneath The Big Sleep on his large plywood desk. On this day, he’d climbed into the Volvo to find a kind of ghost.
This Christmas will see the release of Mills’s third feature film, 20th Century Women. Set in 1979 Santa Barbara against a backdrop of Carter-inflected ennui and inchoate teen boredom, the movie is both a portrait of America nearing the end of a weird century and a loose biography of Mills’s own mother, played with sphinxlike contradiction by Annette Bening. A child of the Depression, she’s an emotionally distant chain smoker but also a proto-feminist who longs to fly planes and dances to the Talking Heads. The ensemble cast features Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, and Lucas Jade Zumann as an alternately searching and phlegmatic teenage Jamie, aka Mills himself.
It’s a fool’s errand to look for conventional plot in a Mike Mills film, but roughly speaking, Jamie and his mother have run aground, and over the course of a summer, she recruits two other women — a boarder and one of Jamie’s friends — to help nudge him safely into the zone of manhood. The movie is both intensely domestic — it’s mostly set within the ramshackle boarding house Bening’s character runs — and strikingly broad, touching variously on skateboarding, therapy, second-wave feminism, parenting, Judy Blume, menstruation, and punk rock.
Punk rock was why Mills was driving west on Sunset. The afternoon’s mission was a pilgrimage to a foundational punk site, a long-defunct club whose spirit infects the movie and infected Mills’s adolescence. The place “only lasted a couple years, like everything great,” Mills said. As a teen, he never made it to the club: His visit today was to a formative landmark that didn’t directly form him and where, incidentally, the land wasn’t actually marked in any way.
Understanding the cultural allure of the place requires an understanding of what 1970s Santa Barbara represented for young Mills. Picture a sunset. Beachy crimsons and oranges, the mellow haze of easygoingness, Fleetwood Mac and sandalwood and zinfandel jumbled together. Mills had wished to burn it to the ground. “It was a honeyed vibe, and that honey could be drowning. And if you’re not relating to the honey, and everyone else is, it’s really depressing and isolating,” he said. Attila, the male model from the ’80s with long blond hair and a romance-novel face, went to Mills’s high school. So did Tom Curren, the pro surfer. “The gene pool and the tan pool — it was this very good-looking, tasty scene I could never really enter. Plus, teenagers can smell if another guy fights or not. They could smell that I didn’t. It makes you all the better to punch.”
Mills is quick to admit what’s readily apparent in his presence: He’s hardly the sad-luck sort. He’s handsome and funny and thoughtful, and the life he’s created post-Attila reads like a cultural best-of list. He’s designed album covers for Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys, made music videos for Air and Yoko Ono. He has a kid he adores with his wife, the writer, artist, and filmmaker Miranda July. (I sort of want to punch him now.) His first feature film, Thumbsucker, came out in 2005, a quirky adaptation of Walter Kirn’s novel of the same name. He followed that six years later with Beginners, which semifictionalized the experience of his 75-year-old father coming out of the closet after his mother’s death. “One of the pleasures of Beginners is the warmth and sincerity of the major characters,” Roger Ebert wrote. “There is no villain. They begin by wanting to be happier and end by succeeding.” Somewhere in that window Mills also directed a feature-length documentary on antidepressants in Japan, designed the cover of July’s book, No One Belongs Here More Than You, and made commercials for Volkswagen, Nike, and Facebook. Mills has created that singular kind of career that nets him a passionate fan base and also intermittent insomnia over whether the powers that be will continue to allow such high jinks. (Mills’s insomnia move: reading the play synopses in the front of The New Yorker.)
But if in retrospect Mills’s trajectory seems charmed, it required a hard break with the one he was initially assigned. That break took the form of a skateboard, back when riding one marked you as strange. “It wasn’t cool yet. Skating really made no sense to people — it was like being really into miniature golf,” he said. Any edginess to it mostly centered on falling a lot. Mills remembers walking around during those years pulling his jeans away from his hips, so they wouldn’t chafe his latest scabs.
From skating it wasn’t a huge leap to punk. Someone’s older brother would be playing something raw and caustic, or the skate park itself would — Mills was competing regularly, would eventually aim to go pro — and the weeks-long, pre-Shazam quest to track down the band would begin. “It wasn’t just music. It was a way of relating to the world. There was definitely a lot of self-destructive, nontherapized behavior in that scene, and that should always be foregrounded. But it was also this feral freedom ride,” Mills said. “In sunny, beautiful, privileged Santa Barbara, I remember standing in my room in the dark, blasting punk. It was medicinal.”
That medicine courses through 20th Century Women. Zumann’s Jamie has a mounting urge to break free from his unsatisfying relationship with his mother. Beyond the Santa Barbara honey, Jamie senses the formation of a bold new universe — bits of which would emerge regularly at L.A.’s crusty shows.
It was because of those nights, three-and-a-half decades ago, that Mills turned onto North Cherokee now and parked across from a solid metal gate. If his intel was correct, one of punk’s biggest ghosts lay just down the alley on the other side. For an addled, glam minute, the Masque rivaled the Canterbury Apartments as Southern California’s counterculture epicenter. X, the Germs, the Bags: These and other bands played in this dingy, graffiti-covered basement. In its short time, it became one of those hunks of square footage where music and gender and culture perceptibly shifted an inch or two.
We couldn’t see through the gate. We pushed our faces up to the narrow crack between the edge and the adjoining building. As far as we could tell, the alley looked like an alley. Then a man who worked in the neighboring building walked up and was quickly pressed into service as a tour guide.
“Do you know if there was … a club here? A music club called the Masque?” Mills asked.
“Yes,” he said. He had a high voice and spoke quickly; his shirt indicated he worked for the production company currently occupying the building. Getting behind the gate wasn’t an option for us or the others keen for a peek, he said — one to two a day. Mills was stunned.
“Really?” he asked. “Two people a day come looking for it?”
“Old people like me?”
We stood awhile, staring at where the Masque seemed to have been, where something subversive had happened. Then there was nothing to do but go get Mexican food.
On the way, conversation turned to Mills’s mother. “My mom was punker than all these punks. She had this anti-authoritarian aplomb, a swagger about her,” he said. “My parents met in junior high school. My mom taught my dad how to smoke and skip school. That was in the 1930s. She’d go to punk shows with me, and it was like — imagine Humphrey Bogart at a punk club. Not at all fazed. You couldn’t fuck with her.”
It’s a strange thing to make a movie. It’s a stranger thing to make a movie about your mom and to spend five years doing so and to eat a burrito on a Monday afternoon just before the world watches it. “It’s a radical public bath to take,” Mills said between bites. We were in the patio area of a mostly empty restaurant. A fellow diner had perhaps recognized him, though Mills thought she was just admiring his hat. “Inevitably, some of your shortcomings will be pointed out in public. And then someone else will ask you about it for years.”
Though 20th Century Women often seems like a movie about a mother, other times it seems about a son. Sometimes it’s about a house, other times a town, other times a moment in time. A delicate and indistinct current runs through it; 30 minutes into my first viewing, my cheeks were unexpectedly wet. During my second viewing, I was too distracted by the frequent laughs coming from the standing-room-only audience. The film is funny. But that’s just one of the dimensions, and the nuance of Mills’s vision can inspire a certain overprotectiveness. “Did they get it?” I asked him the night after the second screening. “Are they missing the more poignant layers?”
Mills smiled. He was not troubled by the possibility of misplaced laughs. The insomnia days were past him, too. The film no longer belonged to him; it was on its own feral freedom ride now. “The customer’s always right,” he said.
“I got that from McDonald’s,” he added after a moment.