Living in History: On 20th Century Women

By  · Published on January 13th, 2017

History and specificity in Mike Mills’s latest.

For many millennials, the twenty-first century has provided more than its share of uncanny reminders that, for lack of better words, we are living in History. From 9/11, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the election of Barack Obama, to the election of that other guy – the political sphere alone seems to cry out for context, analysis, narrative. Cultural and technological developments have been even more tumultuous: gay marriage is now legal, our social lives have moved online, and artificial intelligence seems poised to alter our very sense of what it is to be human. Needless to say, these factors affect us profoundly.

But, for most of us, most of the time, we feel like ourselves (or fumbling versions thereof). We feel like occupants of history, not products of it. And as we collect the objects and ideas and artworks that make up our identity, we feel there’s an intangible emotional center toward which these things gravitate – a self that they not only constitute but reflect. The task of the artist is to discover where these forces meet – to arrive at some sense of the intangible by means of the tangible. With 20th Century Women, writer/director Mike Mills has nearly mastered this task. His film is at once a precise snapshot of a time and place (Santa Barbara, 1979), an impeccable character study, and a delicate portrait of humanity.

Like 2011’s Beginners, 20th Century Women finds Mills in a deeply personal mode. The film, which Mills has called “a love letter to my mother,” revolves around Dorothea (Annette Bening), a 55-year-old chain-smoking product of the Depression, and her teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Also in the orbit are Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and William (Billy Crudup), quasi-punk and quasi-hippie respectively, who board in Dorothea’s house, as well as Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s platonic best friend and unrequited crush, who often sneaks into his room to sleep over. Jamie’s father is out of the picture, prompting Dorothea to enlist Abbie and Julie to help become a well-rounded man.

From this scant plot, Mills weaves an affecting tapestry of history, memory, and individuality. Like experience itself, the film feels unmediated, blending together flashback, archival footage, photographs, titles, voiceover, and Andersonian inserts of objects – all with equal weight. The present is often interrupted to provide miniature biographies of each character, sprinkled with bits of multimedia that have defined their lives. Of Dorothea, for example, we learn that she wears Birkenstocks, smokes Salem cigarettes, and loves Humphrey Bogart. What these details have to do with one another is hard to say, but they all have something to do with Dorothea. For Mills, this is enough.

“I believe there’s some magic in having something that accurate,” he explained to Slant. “I believe in all that unexplained, unpackaged concreteness. There’s something really deep in that kind of stuff.” The depth that Mills is after exists on two levels: one general, one specific. At the general level, he’s aiming for a clearer understanding of how human beings relate to the times around them: how they shape and are shaped by media, politics, consumer goods, and all the rest. The specific level concerns the characters in Mills’s own life – in particular, his mother, whom he described to Wired as “a very complicated woman who’s totally mysterious to me.”

In the face of this mystery, Mills turns to tangible pieces of history for clues: the films of Howard Hawks, the music of Louie Armstrong, the style of Amelia Earhart. Each of these things was important to Mills’s mother, and in the film they become his keys to representing her. “I’m not always going from life,” he explains, “but when I’m going from life, the more concrete you can make it, the more grip-y it is.” Mills extends this approach to the other characters as well. Abbie, who’s based on Mills’s two older sisters, has dyed red hair inspired by David Bowie, reads feminist books like Our Bodies, Ourselves, and listens to The Raincoats. Julie pores over The Road Less Travelled. William meditates and makes pottery.

These historical details also take tragic turns. Abbie learns her cervical cancer was caused by her mother taking DES, a drug once given to women to help them get pregnant. William loses his girlfriend to a spiritual commune. And Dorothea, when Jamie reads Zoe Moss’s essay, “It Hurts to Be Alive and Obsolete,” to her, struggles to be as emotionally open as the times around her. “I don’t need a book to tell me how I feel,” she tells him. By mining the cultural artifacts that affect them, Mills endows his characters with inner lives. He includes these references not in winking postmodern jest but in a searching effort to get at the intangible elements of who these characters really are.

The film is not just about people in a time and place, but these people in a time and place. Spacious pacing and liberal digressions allow characters to emerge, gradually, as themselves – not as drivers of a narrative but as human beings. “I’m really interested in stories that use displacement and digression to create surprise,” Mills says, “and a deepening of your understanding of the character through an unusual course.” Unconstrained by narrative convention, Mills’s characters behave in unexpected ways, and this vitality sustains our interest even in the absence of a traditional plot.

In The White Album (published in 1979, the same year the film takes place), Joan Didion famously wrote that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live…to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria that is our actual experience.” Mills seems to intuitively grasp this point about the simultaneous necessity and inadequacy of storytelling. He eschews arcs and revelations for truthful moments and details, accepting certain loose ends as a price for maintaining honesty. When Dorothea finally opens up to Jamie about her inner life at the film’s end, Mills is careful to include a voiceover telling us, “I thought that was the beginning of a new relationship with her, but actually, that was the most it ever was.” As Mills admits to Vulture, “That’s me pulling the plug out of my own movie – and I love that! That’s like life. Life is not full of epiphanies. Films are always making things condensed and singular, and that just makes me go to sleep.” The epiphanies instead occur in the mind of the audience, and indeed of the artist, as these moments are framed within the tides of the era. The result is a kind of broader narrative meaning, in which the particularities of any given life are contextualized within the scope of their larger history.

The characters of 20th Century Women do not realize that they are 20th Century women (and men) or that their personal dramas are defined in large part by historical contingencies. Rather, they view themselves as autonomous agents, with struggles that are uniquely their own. This leaves each of them grasping for connection – in music, in art, and, more fumblingly, in one another. Each time Mills drops back into the historical perspective, it’s as though he wishes he could remind them that they’re not alone. He explained to Collider:

“I feel like I could have another career where I am just an artist that only takes historical moments and reframes them and represents them, you know, as just a grid of shared experience…I really feel like historical consciousness is the key to liberating yourself from all the traps that are out there in contemporary life.

Does any of this help us to make sense of the era in which we find ourselves? Certainly these times feel more complex than 1979, and changes happen faster now. But however rapidly history may progress, and however particular our own problems might feel, films like 20th Century Women remind us that we’re experiencing this era together. Perhaps there’s some solace to be gained by imagining what sort of story Mike Mills would tell about our lives.

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Writer, filmmaker.