Of Lions and Giraffes: a few Thoughts on Mike Mills’ “Beginners”

by jdavidcharles

If you haven’t gotten around to seeing Beginners yet, I would suggest you do before it leaves theaters. Begginers stars Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, and Melanie Laurent and is written and directed by Mike Mills. The movie is centered around these three actors and how they approach and deal with love, particularly in regards to de/constructing ideals.

The film deals a lot with personal history. The main character, Oliver, is obsessed with pictoral representation, he’s an artist, and obsesses over historical quips, graffiting property with such sayings as “1985 BUSH FINDS JESUS.” When asked by his friend, Elliot, why, Oliver responds that he’s promoting “historical consciousness.” And indeed throughout the film Oliver is obsessed with being historically conscious. Much of the film consists of a voice-over narration of Oliver reading off historical facts told through pictures (“this is the president in 2003” etc). When Oliver begins ruminating over past relationships we see him draw his past loves rather than see scenes between him and them (compare this to the montages of Oliver and his mother, Georgia). Oliver does not remember these people like he does his mother, as a radical part of who he is, but as mere historical content–things to be conscious or aware of. He is in love with signification, think of the various “point & drive” scenes, Oliver wants historical consciousness to be enough.

Oliver’s father, Hal, at one point tells a melancholic parable of a boy who really wants a lion. He waits years for the lion to show. Finally a giraffe comes along and loves the boy and wants to live with him. Now, you can be alone without a lion and keep waiting, or you can have the giraffe. Aside from the obvious parallel this has with Hal’s life who “settles” for both Georgia and Andy (his non-monogamously minded boyfriend), this also is telling of Oliver’s plight. Oliver is waiting for a lion that will never come, that can never come. If we think of Lacan’s petite objet a (the object of desire), that certain something that makes me desire someone, as the lion, we can see that Oliver in a Hegelian fashion has etched out a sort of ideal lion given the content of his own history, waiting for that perfect lion to come fit. The perfect representation–the image which perfectly represents this lion quality he’s looking for.

But the representation is never the thing–this is Hal’s point with the parable. It’s not just the giraffe is never a lion, but the lion is never a lion. Think of the scene where Hal gives Oliver a pride rainbow–Oliver thinks he knows what it represents–sure, it represents gay pride–but Hal asks him if he really knows. Oliver doesn’t get the distinction and Hal seems concerned for Oliver. In other words, the sign cannot be reduced to what it signifies, gay pride, nor to simple historical content. It is part of who Hal is. This scene is almost repeated with Hal and his pride buddies when watching the documentary on Harvey Milk. Once again, Oliver “knows” who Milk is, yet doesn’t really know who he is.

This is the same with his relationship with Anna. He “knows” her, but when she moves in and he has to face her in his space he feels like he doesn’t. For instance, Anna instantly begins crying when she enters Oliver’s bedroom and Oliver as well as the audience do not know why–this is an event with no historical content, no signification–it’s a trauma that can’t be reduced to content. Even when Oliver and Anna “talk” about this scene the dialogue is shut off–does it matter what they’re saying? Here is a place–grief, trauma shame–where there is no “historical consciousness,” no awareness, just raw pain and people being people (the Lacanian “Real”–beyond signification). Here is the lion who is not a lion. The lion who doesn’t signify a lion.

This is also obvious in Oliver’s relationship with his father’s dog, Arthur, who Oliver speaks for. He signifies for him. This relationship is paralleled when Oliver first meets Anna (at a costume party–Oliver humorously dressed as Freud–a place of carnivalesque “historical consciousness”) and Anna herself (dressed as Charlie Chaplin?) cannot talk due to laryngitis. Here is Oliver’s ideal relationship–like the one with his dog–one in which the person is raw significance, pure indication, dressed up,  silent. Of course Oliver loves her all the more when he finds out she’s an actress with no real home. Here is pure perfomance. Pure signification. Pure consciousness. But there are always moments that go beyond awareness or that we’d rather be unaware of (like the aforementioned “silent” discussion). Anna, in distinction to Oliver, loves this about relationships (what she calls “magic,” that which is unexplainable about people from our individual perspective). It reminds her she is free, and reminds her she can never “have” the other person (indeed Laurent’s performance is somewhat reminiscent of Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim).

The conclusion of the film seems to be that everyone is a giraffe. Giraffes are simultaneously too much like lions and yet not enough like lions at the same time. We are too much ourselves and yet never enough. Georgia’s attempts to try to “fix” Hal’s homosexuality is this sort of too much and too little–its a kind of love that is offensive in how far it goes and signifies yet not enough to satisfy him sexually. Georgia wants to make the giraffe a lion. While Hal loves the giraffe (Andy) in spite of it never being a lion (monogamous). Oliver and Anna on the other hand see things as more complicated (there is a line about how they never experienced the terrible historical events their parents did, but this means they have a whole different set of internal pains). Although, like Hal, they both want a lion and realize that no one ever really is, both love the excess, the too-much lion, how people can be more lion than you ever expected, magical. But they each likewise enter severe moments of depression given that people can never quite fit their ideal lion.

The whole film is, in a way, this move from Freud to Lacan–the move from a time when “abnormalities” were analyzed as symptoms and repressions (like Hal’s homosexuality, Georgia’s Jewish descent) that deserved “treatment” to a time when every relationship, even/especially the normative ones, became shot through with symptoms (like the very normal straight, white relationship of Oliver and Anna). Lacan says somewhere that the death of God does not signify that everything is permitted (like the common misquote of The Brothers Karamazov would have it), but rather nothing is permitted–suddenly everything is a symptom, a cause for guilt, a transgression. The film, in its own way, charts the realization of this transition through the juxtaposition of its characters’ relationships and their personal histories.

It ends with promise but without ultimately having made any real commitments. We are left wondering if Oliver has finally realized its him who needs to abandon his preconceptions and prejudices as regards the “ideal-mate” or whether he thinks he finally caught a lion. Or if, like his mother, he thinks he can make his giraffe into a lion. We get the feeling during a scene where he revisits Andy that he has moved beyond reducing people to historical content though, when Andy accuses him of homophobia (a crime of signification, reducing Andy to a movement and orientation he identifies with) Oliver admits that he was really jealous of the love his father gave Andy (a very particular, real, human crime). Here Oliver has moved into the realm of the Real. He feels jealousy, pain, trauma. He moves beyond his symptomatic sadness which pervades the film, a sort of lethargy brought about by historical consciousness (think of the drawings from the “history of sadness” scene), and feels true, traumatic pain. A pain that is his. Finally something that is part of who he is–not just historical content. We are left hoping he will do the same with Anna.