Way back in January 2017, not even two weeks after I saw 20th Century Women for the first time, I wrote a piece about Mike Mills’ work in the advertising world. Little did I know that would only briefly satiate my appetite for writing about Mike Mills, and so here I am, almost four years and four lengthy Mills pieces later, covering yet more of his commercials.
I may write appreciatively about these ads, but make no mistake; Mike Mills is at best a reluctant participant in the advertising world. He lays out his mixed feelings about the medium in this Fast Company article. He likes that ads can be testing grounds for fun visual ideas (some he returns to in his features), that they guarantee more eyeballs on his work than any of his films could possibly receive, and, of course, that they pay handsomely. He doesn’t like the lack of control over the final product, but he really doesn’t like the more existential concern that he’s “making capitalism look seamless and nonviolent and really fun and clever and exciting.” And nowhere was that a more pressing concern than when he made an ad for DuPont, a company that, as anyone who saw last year’s excellent Dark Waters can attest, represents capitalism’s ethos of money over human life better than anything else. Mills’ experiences making the ad sound like a true dark night of the soul (probably not helped by it being close in date to his mother’s death); he regretted taking the job almost immediately and only grew more distressed when he realized how much money was being wasted on flying him around the world and putting him up in fancy hotel rooms. Then, after all the trouble, DuPont saw his work and recut it to their liking. The experience proved so traumatic that it led to him swearing off major-studio projects, presumably to this day; as he puts it, to “get boned” by an evil corporation is even worse when it’s for something that takes much longer than a one-minute ad.
All that said? This ad is pretty good. It’s actually closer to Mills’ later work than many of his other late 90s/early 2000s ads are, with its worldwide mosaic of characters united by social issues and his roving camera. The camerawork in particular sees Mills preparing for the in-and-out camera moves of 20th Century Women, rather than the slow pans of much of his early work; it even anticipates the visual structure of 20CW, starting from the sky, working its way down to Earth, and eventually working back up.
As I mentioned in the last piece, Mills developed a stock style in his commercials in the late 90s and early 2000s; drab, naturally-lit tableaux of modern living interrupted by whatever the gimmick of the ad should be. This one functions a little different, since it’s all handheld and tracking a runner, but the spacious, grey compositions are instantly recognizable as his, a blank canvas on which the silliness of “running shoe-store employee provides encouragement long after the customer has bought the running shoes” gets painted. What sets this ad apart is the background Mills chooses for this little sketch, a cookie-cutter California neighborhood like the ones that keep popping up in Mills’ early work. His early shorts Deformer and The Architecture of Reassurance are all about the numbing effect these rows of anonymous houses have on their residents, standing in opposition to all creativity. Now, that’s not what this ad is about, but this being his backdrop suggests the way California’s sunshiney blandness kept enticing Mills even as he felt slightly repulsed by it.
Mills’ dry style in these early ads is often the set dressing for a joke rather than part of the joke itself, but here, Mills’ compositions get to be funny in addition to the punchline they’re recording. NASCAR is a brand that would seem to lend itself to a more frenetic kind of commercial, fast cutting and camera moves to emphasize the rush of a race. But Mills instead delivers patient, observational shots of the mundanities of everyday life; the sterile whites of a public restroom, the faded greens and browns of a suburb in fall. At first it’s amusing when the subjects of these ads break the everyday reality by doing something very stupid, and then it’s funny once again when the cut to the NASCAR card reveals that these unassuming shorts were for the most breakneck sport.
Volkswagen was responsible for two of Mills’ best-loved ads, one a visual essay on the mind-numbing routines of corporate life and the other a drier-than-dry set-up to the punchline of “car in a tree”. His other VW ads show that this assignment consistently brought out the best in him.
These trio of ads are the most conceptual of Mills’ advertising work, and perhaps the truest to his art-school self as a result. Here are ads that not only don’t have money shots but are built around the denial of money shots, luring in the audience with the promise of pay-offs (a balloon popping, a dog running outside, a soda bottle exploding) that are never to come. Even Mills’ static compositions play into the light teasing of the audience, remaining frustratingly calm even when it seems like action is about to begin. But the ellipses instead of a climax also ends up putting the power of the situation into the audience’s hands; to get behind the wheel of a Volkswagen is to provide the jolt that Mills left you hanging with. It’s a clever conceit, though whether it actually, you know, sold cars is a mystery.
From “a Volkswagen will provide you the cheap satisfaction that we’ve blue-ballsed you from having” to the simpler “a Volkswagen will make you happy.” I dunno about that thesis, but the ad around it is certainly an impressive piece of work for how much precision it must’ve taken to get it right. No static shots this time, just wild handheld that still has to be just calm enough to clearly capture the reactions of every person the camera (briefly) follows, all in one take with mobs of extras who may or may not turn out to be the focuses of the ad. It’s stylistically uncharacteristic, but one can draw a straight line from this to 20th Century Women for how they both show the ways we end up shaping each other’s lives without even being cognizant of it.
This ad understands that the early Mills style’s lack of inherent humor can be part of a joke in itself. Mills shoots this auction with the same unwarranted seriousness as the auctioneer and his audience, never tipping his hat that he finds calling gravity “paperweight of the cosmos” any funnier than anyone in the room does. Hell, one could make the case for this being Mills’ homage to late-period Bunuel, with the rituals of the upper-class revealed to be laughable nonsense even as the camera keeps a straight face. Or one could read it as Mills’ critique of the art world, showing the absurdity of putting a price tag on something as elemental as another man’s creativity (one reason he became a graphic designer was because that was an art scene less devoted to old money). Either way, one has to read it as the first collaboration between Mills and Billy Crudup. I wonder if Crudup only got the 20th Century Women job because they kept in touch.
Back to the thing about Mills mostly doing ads for visual practice nowadays. Maybe I’m getting him wrong and he’s actually very passionate about people exercising, but this ad really seems to exist so that Mills can create some fun visual gags more than because he has a personal stake in this (look at any picture of that man and tell me he really cares about kids getting “participation trophies”). On that level, I can call this ad a success. The idea of a treadmill one can set to “mosey” is very amusing, as is the one guy’s increasingly garbled realizations that he forgot to work out. And Mills’ camerawork is its own joke, those 20th Century Women camera moves (here looking to be accomplished with zooms rather than dolly track) keeping mobile while the subjects do everything in their ability to stay put.
I only found out Mills directed these ads very late in the process of writing this, and unlike any of his other ads, I distinctly remember seeing these on TV. In hindsight, they’re both identifiable as Mills’ work. The first one presents isolated moments in a life as the keys to understanding the person’s present standing, each moment shot in spacious tableaux (this ad also presents a rare opportunity for Mills to pay tribute to that other brash California kid-turned-serious filmmaker, with an homage to “What Do Kids Know?” from Magnolia). The second one uses the same zoom approximations of 20th Century Women‘s mobile camera as the GNC ad, this time for still subjects shot against mostly one-color backgrounds, like a motion version of Abbie Porter’s portraits of her objects.
As only someone who was a graphic designer before a director could do, Mills often relies on the power of the still image even in a medium that’s 24 still images in quick succession. He began this fixation with his video for Pond’s “Spokes”, did the most with it in Beginners and 20th Century Women, and, the year after Beginners‘ release, brought it out for these two Corona Light ads. Much like “Spokes”, these ads are photo essays on the lives of the young and bored, what little movement there is mostly reserved for parties and amusing dream sequences. What they lack in comparison to Mills’ other attempts is specificity, the absence of Mills’ usual keen eye for evocative items in a house particularly galling. Sure, 30 seconds isn’t a long time to fit it more than what will best sell the product at hand, but knowing what Mills is capable of makes the broad strokes of these two efforts more obvious. I wish he brought out the talking lamb for more projects, though.
If the Corona Light ads were a generic-brand version of the Mike Mills life-in-images essay, this is the real deal. 20th Century Women and Beginners are so much about people tracking the meaning of their lives through seemingly meaningless details and items, and this ad views a woman’s life solely through the prism of the numbers that get attached to her over the years. Birthdays, grades on tests, places in line at the deli, they all come together to form a portrait of a life that still manages to reveal nothing at all about the person living that life. Mills even scrambles up the sequencing so it’s impossible to track any kind of linear progress or decline, they’re just numbers that mean less the more you try to analyze them in relation to each other. That stuff’s great, and it looks ahead to how much Mills and his surrogate character in 20CW will try to crack the secret of his mom and fail miserably. But there’s also the matter of the ad’s climax, where the main character’s run of being a number is ended because the person at the Saturn dealership is nice to her. Compared to the precise, symmetrical compositions of the rest of the ad, the capper is shot so indifferently that it’s clear 99.9% of Mills’ attention went to the preceding 50 seconds and he did this part solely because it’s an ad and he had to.
When elements of Mills’ other work show up in his ads, it’s usually not his aching melancholy. But Tempur-Pedic decided that sad-sack Beginners Mills was just the guy they needed to market their beds. These are easily the most depressing ads to ever feature a hilarious fake bear, households ruined by lack of sleep shot in the greys of a cloudy afternoon, scored to droning loops, and containing no camera moves at all, like Mills is also too tired to put any energy into these ads. Of course, his artistry is still there. Just look at the end of the second ad, where a pink chair tucked way in the corner of the frame rhymes with the pink pants of the shot’s subject; it’s an unobtrusive way of showing that vibrancy and life have returned to this house, and it’s also a subtle confirmation of the ad’s thesis, where one’s state of mind is tied to the household items around them. Again, we think back to Abbie Porter constructing an autobiography solely of her things. Everything around us is an extension of us, no matter how banal those things may seem.