Of the countless movies I’ve seen in the last five years, new or old, there hasn’t been one that has quite affected me like Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women. Mills made two films before it, and one is the terrific, stylistically-similar Beginners (the other is the lame indie dramedy Thumbsucker, which Mills in interviews seems somewhat embarrassed about), but even that didn’t stick to my bones like Women, to the point that I find myself thinking about it almost every minute of the day. And the movie isn’t even some weighty exploration of humanity that gives you a lot to chew on, but an airy, charming, entirely plotless little movie. Who the fuck is this Mills character, making a movie that isn’t even seem to break a sweat as it becomes the basis for every waking thought I have?
The last time I did one of these pieces, it was about Emmanuel Lubezki’s advertising work. As you can also probably tell on your own, I adore Lubezki and am very familiar with his style(s) and how his commercials fit into or deviate from his normal modes. This is going to be a little different. What I hope to do here is find out, through his commercials and some of his music videos, how Mills has mutated through the years into the director who made Women, and if the seeds for that film were present in Mills’ work long before it was even a thought. Maybe I’ll get an answer, maybe I won’t, but I hope you enjoy this piece either way.
Mills got his start as a album designer for indie bands in the 90s, including They Might Be Giants, Sonic Youth, and Air. From there, he got into directing music videos, and that was presumably the step into him making commercials. The earliest commercial I can find of his is from 1998, only a year after he started making music videos, and at this point he was already making widely-seen commercials for major corporations (in this case, Adidas).
In this commercial, the camera constantly pans past images of sports on all kinds of levels, giving equal weight and time to kids playing in their yards and professional athletes playing championships. It presents kind of an embryonic version of Women‘s style, with its similarly always-mobile camera and a generous hand-off structure which gives every main character their time in the sun (this ad also informs the pan-heavy style of Thumbsucker, but let’s not talk of that film anymore). But this is something of a dead end, as it’s actually not really representative of Mills’ general style when making commercials.
These two Volkswagen ads (two of many that he’s done for the company) set what would be the “Mills aesthetic” for his work in commercials. Both ads utilize a great deal of negative space around the characters, compared to the end-to-end action of the Adidas ad, which makes a point about the alienation in the modern world the protagonist of “Bubble Boy” feels and allows for the punchline of “Tree” to hit. And while the Adidas ad is very high-contrast, both these ads are much more muted and natural-looking (Mills is a big proponent of natural light to this day). But maybe the biggest difference from the Adidas ad is how sparingly Mills moves the camera in these ads (not at all in “Tree”), the tableaux capturing the staleness of “Bubble Boy”‘s existence and hiding the goofiness of “Tree”‘s central joke under an arty exterior. This is the style under which Mills became recognizable, in both ads and videos like his one for Moby’s “Run On”.
In that video, the style perfectly fits the mannered tone Mills creates to accompany the song. But Mills would largely use this style for outright comedic ads from that point until the release of Thumbsucker (him becoming a feature film director allowed him to be choosier with ads, doing one or two a year to make a little money and shake any directorial rust off). He uses all that space, murk, and static framing to serve as an unlikely backdrop to funny-dumb jokes, as in “Tree”. But unlike “Tree”, the style doesn’t enhance the jokes or distract the viewer from the coming punchline, but instead serves as a kind of generic template to put the jokes on (it doesn’t help that, at 30 seconds compared to “Tree”‘s full minute, these ads wouldn’t have the time to pull off that ad’s long misdirect). These ads wouldn’t be much different at all if the camera moved a little more or if the subjects were closer to it.
Mills didn’t exclusively use this style for comedic purposes, and the ads from this period where he shifts tone are the ones where the style is put to far better use, in terms of serving more of a point and looking even better. My favorite from this period is his minutelong ad for TIAA-CREF, where Mills glorifies the jobs covered by the company with a montage of beautiful, vast images of schools, libraries, museums, and hospitals, soundtracked by a cover of West Side Story‘s “Somewhere”.
Speaking of West Side Story, that sets up an entirely separate mode Mills worked in during this time period; imitator of the old. Around the same time as his first Volkswagen ads, Mills had a hit campaign for Gap, with a trio of ads recreating three sequences from West Side Story. The same year, he would parody The Electric Company for Nike, and two years later he would Zelig Big Bird into various historical clips and PBS programming (I’d say he Forrest Gumps Big Bird, but given Mills’ acknowledged love for Woody Allen and Gordon Willis’s movies together, I think it’s safe to say Zelig was more on his mind). These ads show Mills happy to switch things up stylistically (just look at the bold camera moves and bright pastels of the Gap ads), but also reveal a deep, abiding love for old pop culture that will eventually come to the forefront in Beginners and 20th Century Women, where The Man Who Fell to Earth and Bogart films are as important to characters’ backstories as anything else and Koyaanisqatsi and Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech go hand-in-hand. He even directly revisits the pop culture of Women‘s time period for his video for Pulp’s “Party Hard”, which perfectly captures the soft, videoy look of late-70s variety shows (Mills wanted to shoot it on Digibeta for maximum shitty quality but the record company said no).
And that’s just from before he started making features! The connections to his work start clearing up even more once he’s gotten his foot in the door and realized his strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker. He’s done far fewer ads since Thumbsucker, and not nearly as many of them are the goofs that characterized his early ad career. In fact, the comedy ads since then see him either picking ads that fit his style (like one for CareerBuilder where a man is alienated from society because everyone has a more rewarding job than him), adapting his early style to fit the given ads (like the addition of a tracking shots at the beginning of another ad for CareerBuilder, which ends at the exact most surprising, funny point), or ditching his early style and adapting to whatever he’s shooting (because Old Spice isn’t the best brand to showcase with quiet minimalism).
Even his dramatic ads show more connections to his features. Like his TIAA-CREF ad, an ad he did for Barnes & Noble is a string of gorgeous, natural images (here shot by The Neon Demon‘s Natasha Braier), but here he adds voice-over to the mix, using it so that it’s a perfect match in one shot and an intriguing mismatch in the next. This is a technique he would use to even greater effect in his next two films. And watching his ad for the American Cancer Society with those films in mind makes it even more poignant, knowing that it was a personal effort from a man who lost both his parents to cancer. Seeing Mills break from his aesthetic as he peacefully glides his camera past birthday signifiers in a world without cancer is all the more powerful knowing that he has a reason for doing so.
It’s after Beginners, however, that Mills’ ads really begin to reflect his current style. Beginners and Women take the form of multimedia collages almost as much as films, and Mills’ ad for Cisco continues that form. It cuts between people, objects, places, stills, and diagrams without differentiation, recreating the ad’s thesis of a future where everything is in close communication through skillful editing. But maybe the closest Mills has gotten to making an ad as a teaser for 20th Century Women in his trio of ads for Facebook. In Women, Mills is constantly pushing in on scenes, and that trick is used here, as if Mills is so heartened by the strength of the friendships depicted in the ads that he has to get a closer look. And both these ads and Women have a strong focus on music and dancing as a communal act, joining others together better than words ever could. But most of all, these ads capture the sheer warmth and joy that emanates from so much of Women; we are watching people who are just effortlessly wonderful to be around and who enjoy each other’s company, and that counts for a lot (although admittedly much less in the ads because the time we spend with the people are seconds instead of hours, and maybe also because the ads have rules dictated by faceless corporations, but whatever).
I leave you with the only direct bit of advertising autobiography Mills has ever done, as the narrator of a Google Play-sponsored short about his life. Also, please see 20th Century Women if you haven’t already.