Sunday, August 12, 2012

Beginners -- relational reality and the Velveteen Rabbit!

Director:Mike Mills, 2010. (R)  

Almost everyone has heard of, if not actually read, the children's classic story "The Velveteen Rabbit". In some ways, Mills' semi-autobiographical drama exemplifies that book, at least in one key scene late in the film.

The story follows two plot LA lines, interweaving them while cutting back and forth in time. One line follows Hal (Christopher Plummer, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), a 75 year old widower. After his wife of 45 years dies, he comes out of the closet as homosexual and determines to go from being theoretically gay to actually gay. In doing so, he hooks up with a young man, Andy (Goran Visnjic) and a large troop of older gay men. Over the next 5 years he embraces a joie de vivre that he never experienced during his dour married life. Yet, he battles terminal cancer, ultimately losing his life.

The second arc follows Oliver (Ewan McGregor, The Ghost Writer), Hal's only son. A graphic artist, he is aloof, not embracing life. At work he passes the time by developing a cartoon history of sadness. In flashback we see him watching his father's life transformation and death, and realize that as Hal is finding life, Hal is merely observing life. After Hal's death, Oliver enters into a relationship with a lonely French actress Anna (Melanie Laurent).

All this sounds dull and gloomy, but it is surprisingly engaging, mostly due to the quality of the acting. Plummer won an Oscar for his portrayal of the older Fields, becoming, at 82, the oldest person eer to win an Academy Award for acting. But it is McGregor who quietly carries the film, bringing a depth of acting he has not shown before. But stealing every scene is Cosmo as Arthur, the charming telepathic Jack Russell terrier who seems to be the only one who understands Oliver and provides him with romantic advice.

Probably another reason the movie is so pleasing is the reality of emotion Mills brings to it. When we understand the genesis of the film, this is not unexpected. Mills explained in an interview,
Beginners started when my father came out of the closet. He was 75 years old, and had been married to my mother for 45 years. His hunger to completely change his life was confusing, painful, very funny and deeply inspiring. Change, honesty, and openness can happen when it seems least likely. Even as he passed away 5 years later to cancer, he was energized, reaching out; he wasn't in any way finished.
Beginners clearly has themes of homosexuality and grief. Some may find the openness of the homosexual behavior, the loving relationship between Hal and Andy, offensive. I won't discuss or debate this. Instead, I want to focus on the beginnings of the title, particularly as it focuses on two specific relationships. It is in these that we see the key themes of the film.

The first relationship is that between Hal and Andy. When Hal comes out and finds Andy as a lover, he is as giddy as a teenager experiencing love for the first time. He literally dances around his living room. And it is in this scene of him dancing that he refers to the "Velveteen Rabbit". He points out that in that book, the rabbit only became real after he was old and falling apart. By then, he had been all loved out and was no longer a shiny new stuffed animal, he was a real person.

Are we real? However old we are, do we put on a false persona, as Hal did for years, to hide behind something we are not? To turn the "Velveteen Rabbit" analogy around, only when we are real with others can we be truly loved. Hypocrisy deceives others and puts a barrier in the way of authentic relationships. The apostle Peter commanded, "Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy" (1 Pet. 2:1). To begin a real relationship we must be honest with the other person, we must be real.

The second relationship is between Oliver and Anna. Although they hit it off at first, they are so alike that the relationship is fraught with peril. Anna tells Oliver, commenting on her vagabond lifestyle (always moving between New York, LA and anywhere else the movie industry calls her), "But now I'm always in a new apartment or in another hotel somewhere." He questions: "How do you keep hold of friends? Or boyfriends?" She answers, "Makes it very easy to end up alone. To leave people." And in a moment of vulnerability, Oliver responds, "You can stay in the same place and still find ways to leave people."

Oliver's childhood perception of the emptiness and isolation of his parents' marriage and relationship has deeply scarred him. Like Anna, he is afraid of relationships, expecting them to be as unreal as his parents' one. So afraid is he, that he prefers to sabotage any budding relationship he has so he can walk away. Yet that leaves him alone and lonely, missing out on life

Any relationship has a point of no return, a point at which a fork in the road presents itself. We must choose. Will we go on and take the risk of being hurt? Or will we walk away, protecting ourselves while in reality isolating ourselves from the possibility of true intimacy? Jesus tells us to "Love one another" (Jn. 13:34). Such love requires risk. The reward of reciprocated love will not come in any other way.

We are all beginners in one relationship or another. Even those that are decades long might need a retooling of sorts, as Hal's really did. We can learn from Hal to be real with ourselves, with others and with our God. And we can learn from Oliver to push through any relational fears to take the risk of rejection and emptiness. We will not know if we don't try. Beginners is more than just a 101 on relationships!

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs

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