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About Mike Mills

Mike Mills was born in Berkeley, California in 1966. He graduated from Cooper Union in 1989. Mike Mills works as a filmmaker, graphic designer, and artist. Mills is best known for his independent films Beginners (2011) and Thumbsucker (2005) as well as his exhibitions at the Alleged Gallery, which were documented in the book, exhibition and film “Beautiful Losers”.

Mills wrote and directed Thumbsucker (2005), which won awards at both the Sundance Film Festival and Berlin International Film Festival, in addition to winning the Guardian New Directors award at the Edinburgh Film Festival. His second feature, which he wrote and directed, Beginners (2011), won Best Film and Best Ensemble Cast at the Gotham Awards and was nominated for best director, best screenplay, and best supporting actor by the Independent Spirit Awards. Christopher Plummer won the Oscar for best supporting actor (2012).

His short films include The Architecture of Reassurance (1999), Paperboys (2001), Deformer (2000), and Eating, Sleeping, Waiting, and Playing (2003) which have been shown at the Sundance Film Festival, Edinburgh Film Festival, Oberhausen Short Film Festival, The New York Museum of Modern Art’s New Directors New Films, and Rotterdam International Film Fest. Mike is known for his music video work for artists such as Air, Moby, Blonde Redhead, Yoko Ono, and Pulp. His commercial work for Cisco, Nike, Volkswagen, Old Spice, and others have won multiple awards.

In 2007, Mike made the feature length documentary, “Does Your Soul Have A Cold?” exploring the issues around the introduction of anti-depressants to Japanese culture. The film premiered at SXSW Festival and was part of IFC’s documentary film series.

As a graphic artist, Mike has designed album covers for Sonic Youth’s “Washing Machine,” Beastie Boy’s “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two,” Wild Flag, and Air’s “Moon Safari.” He designed the book cover for Miranda July’s “No One Belongs here More Than You.” For many years Mike was responsible for all graphic design for Kim Gordon and Daisy Von Furth’s clothing companies and X-Girl. Mike has also designed scarves and fabrics for Marc Jacobs and skateboards for Subliminal, Supreme, and Stereo. In 2003, Mills was included in the National Design Triennial at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt museum. In that same year, Mills started his own graphics line, “Humans,” producing posters, fabrics, ribbons, and shirts. Humans is a project “in between the art world and popular culture, in between graphic design and art practice.” In 2013 he created a new line of posters sold via Commune Design in Los Angeles.

Working in an art context, Mills has had solo exhibitions at Alleged Gallery in New York (1995-2001), Gallery Colette in Paris (1999), MU Museum in the Netherlands (2004), and Pool Gallery in Berlin (2009). He has participated in group shows at Galleria Marella in Milan (2008), and Partners & Spade in NYC (2009), and was included in the traveling exhibit Beautiful Losers (2004-2009) which toured places including the Yerba Buena Center for Arts in San Francisco and the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati. In 2012, Mills took part in Transmissions LA: AV Club – Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and he is participating in San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Project Los Altos in 2013.

 

Mike Mills Grapples With His Mother’s ‘Tricky Ghost’ In ’20th Century Women’
Interview with Terry Gross / NPR Fresh Air

Review: 1 Teenage Boy and 3 Mothers in ‘20th Century Women’
Manohla Darghis / The New York Times

’20th Century Women’ Review: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning Star In Mike Mills’ Best Film
David Ehrlich / IndieWire

 

THE FIRST GENERATION
by Stéphanie Moisden  (from Mike Mills Graphics Films), 2008

“Adolescence is not only an important time in life, but the only period during which one is able to speak of life in the fullest sense of the word. The impulsive attractors are unchained around the age of thirteen, then diminish little by little, or rather, resolve into modes of behavior, which are, after all, set in stone. The violence of the initial outburst is such that the conflict can remain uncertain during several years; it is what we call, in electrodynamics, a transient response. But little by little these oscillations slow down, to the point of moving in long waves, melancholy and soft; from this moment all has been said, and life is but a preparation for death. Or, to be blunt and more imprecise, man is a diminished adolescent.” (Michel Houellbecq, Broadening of the Struggle, Maurice Nadeau, 1994).

In 1991, Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture kickstarted the branding of a generation. He depicted a group of nomadic individuals born between 1965 and 1977, detached Baby Busts, eternal adolescents, who opposed themselves to the Boomers. The “X” is a reference to the anonymity of a new cultural category, conscious of its outburst, of the end of the myths and tales of heroism, “who want to escape the status-money-social climbing wheel that characterizes modern existence.” “Smells like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana is the dread and the soul of the “X”’s.  In Generations (1991) William Strauss and Neil Howe invented the term “13th generation”—the thirteenth to have seen the American flag. They thus define more than an age, a place, a point of view, from which were created the conditions of a new relationship to the world, marked with the evolution of technoscience, the beginning of the Internet, the end of militantism, and the passing from the age of reproduction to the age of access. The 13th generation is, in addition to all that, the first to invoke, through art, the lost images of cinema through television, the objects disqualified from communication, the signs and noises of the subculture, a vision made up of screens, just screens. A generation that leans on the limits of representation, or of its end. A generation who knows that what is important has not been settled—the synthesis, the totality, the lost or found item, the accomplishment—and that it will be necessary to look on the side of vision, of cut-outs, of difference, of exteriority, of the banishment of public space, and therefore, of the banlieue.

Mike Mills is a part of this generation born between the folds of revolutions and of the philosophers of difference. An artist, graphic designer, producer of documentaries, of fictions, of his own fabrics and posters (Humans) of advertisements, of album covers (Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth) and of numerous music videos (Air, Yoko Ono, Divine Comedy…), he simultaneously, un-hierarchically integrates all of the activities that make up part of the global culture of a new generation of contemporary passengers, who, with the tools and obsessions of their time, seek out other forms of experience, outside of the categories of art.

Like Mark Borthwick, Spike Jonze or even Europe Philippe Parreno, Pierre Juyghe and Dominique Gonzales Foerster, Mike Mills plays a part in a narrative haunted by the present, which freely manipulates all the elements of its immediate environment (post-pop and post-punk music, urban culture, ad-space, the tools and supports of mass consumption). Artists who transgress frontiers, genres, media and oscillate incessantly from the sealed-off spaces of the artistic institution to the open horizons of contemporary landscapes, from the beach to the desert, from the mountain to the wave.

Together, in the early 90s (they are twenty at the time) they invented new forms of collaboration, the collective spaces ruptured from the revolutionary ideologies and the communitarian utopias of the 70s and 80s.

The generational issues that sociology does not fully grasp are what come off most clearly from the works of Mike Mills. Across his entire production, the foundation of the Director’s Bureau agency (with Roman Coppola), his involvement in the collective projects of Aaron Rose under the name of The Alleged Gallery, and his presence among skateboarders, artists, musicians, and designers, we can observe the sketching of a new political history of images, which built for itself an all-out offensive, out of heterogenous connections and filiations. This is also the moment of departure from adolescence, where a new way of making art is formed—to be “contemporaries” (literally, to live and think together) while other forms were being developed in relation to technology, video being the dominant form at the time.

It was at the beginning of that decade that certain artists stood up resolutely against a narrow conception of cultural production. They laid their stakes on a form of amateurism and immaturity, but also a certain “pollution” between objects and images. Mike Mills’ idea of form, whether it belonged to the sphere of art or of commerce, almost naturally disposed of its supposed autonomy to demand recognition in the world.

Through a transverse reading of Mills’ different productions, we are able to come back to the quality of this decade, made of bits and bobs, of dislodged elements, of which neither imposes any sort of sovereignty. A transitory moment, a passing of the century of sorts, before this thought, or rather, this “mobile practice of thought” (as Deleuze phrased it, when speaking of surfing) built on sliding and instability, would become naturalized or absorbed by the big machinery of industrial culture. We see today how a certain counter-culture, derived from skateboarding or surfing, integrated all levels of a mainstream production, and how the marginalized figures, of the loser, of the unproductive adolescent transgress and dominate all current representations.

What Mike Mills has in common with his contemporaries is this conviction that history is no longer the place for epic tales, but a space for the development of micro-fictions, that the relationships to art and to culture are a sphere of collective writing, of temporary action, of foreign fictions, of exo-tourism, where art is not a site but a space for the redistribution of rules, of conventions and of roles; the “disorganized” site of a crime, of an attack on the order of language. It is the surfer, the trickster, not the critic of spectacle and performance. It knows the limits and knows that no act, however radical, is irretrievable. It knows that the question is not to surpass the system but to transform it into a surface for negotiation, of projection, of relation.

On that account, “Beautiful Losers,” the stunning retrospective project initiated by Aaron Rose (in the form of an itinerant exposition and a documentary) in which Mike Mills is one of the active personalities, is emblematic of the philosophy that  “the greatest cultural accomplishments in history have never been the result of the brainstorms of marketing men, corporate focus groups, or any homogenized methods; they have always happened organically. More often than not, these manifestations have been the result of a few like-minded people coming together to create something new and original for no other purpose than a common love of doing it. In the 1990s, a loose-knit group of American artists and creators, many just out of their teens, began their careers in just such a way. Influenced by the popular underground youth subcultures of the day, such as skateboarding, graffiti, street fashion and independent music, artists like Mark Gonzales, Margaret Kilgallen, Mike Mills, Barry McGee, Chris Johanson, Harmony Korine, and Ed Templeton began to create art that reflected the lifestyles they led. Many had no formal training and almost no conception of the inner workings of the art world. They learned their crafts through practice, trial and error, and good old-fashioned innovation. Not since the Beat Generation have we seen a group of creative individuals with such a unified aesthetic sense and varied cultural facets. The world of art has been greatly affected by their accomplishments as have the worlds of fashion, music, literature, film, and, ironically, athletics. Over the years, the group has matured, and many have become more establishment-oriented; but no matter, their independent spirit has remained steadfast. The story of the Beautiful Losers will be a retrospective celebration of this spirit.
WHAT TO DO WITH THESE BODIES?

In almost all his films, through a multiplicity of formats, Mike Mills seems always to ask a question about the fate of adolescent bodies (and in contrast, those of “adults.”) In American society of the 21st century, how do these bodies face fear, solitude, love, sexuality and death? And do they even face them at all? In every case, even if the perspective is very different, it is always a disconnect that is shown to us. A disconnect which shows that the class warfare of the 20th
century has, little by little, opposed itself with the generational war.

In two of his most hypnotic films—Deformer (2000) and Paperboys (2001)—the bodies of youth travel on immobile planes, as though indifferent. They slide on the surface and surf on the backdrop of a reality that they do not acknowledge. Unlike Gus Van Sant’s, Larry Clark’s or Harmony Korine’s films, the relationship of this detached reality is neither dramatised nor tragic. The solitude of these adolescent bodies is accompanied with no violence, neither in death nor in sex. In Mike Mills’ films, adults can be dysfunctional (and they are in the plot of Thumbsucker, 2005) but they are not reduced to inconsistent figurines, or degraded. There are even, in a rare moment for contemporary representations, some appealing father-son dynamics. For Mike Mills, the regressive, neurotic family is not emphasized with the clichés of exclusion, or overt political, psychological or sociological critiques. Of course, these discourses are valid, but Mike Mills presents them as illusions that do not hold, with which one is not taken. Thus relieved of the weight of symbolism, Mills’ cinema (as with his music videos and graphic work) aims for expurgation, simplification, and achieves by subtracting effects, a stunning lightness, a stunning humanity. This does not mean that he treats violence with lightness; it is hidden, for example, in the stories of the depressive individuals of Does Your Soul Have A Cold? (2007). But violence is not symbolic; it is a movement of the soul.

With Mills, there is neither “despair” nor “provocation”, nor even “murderous rage”. Out with the drive to live and the will to die; the adolescents in Deformer are lovers (Ed Templeton and his wife, magnificently eroticized) who slip into a world that is not tainted with heaviness nor with grace. But some element of beauty remains in the manner of seeing and hearing: the camera, the soundtrack, the composition—in short, the form.

And form, for Mike Mills, is in the shot, which is distinct from action. The shot is head-on, not unlike the traditional portrait in photography. A restricted space encloses a face and a phrase, with the body often off-limits but not absent, like in the apparatus of Hair, Shoes, Love, Honesty (2004) or Not How or When or Why but Yes (2004) The shot is the honest, non-truncated space of the relationship. Mills knows well, as do many of his generation who inherited all the new “waves”, that the choice of a camera movement or a frame is above all a political, and therefore an ethical choice. By choosing the shot, its fixedness, by working with monochromatic colors in the background of the shot, he ceased to deliver any sort of “message” regarding others, these men and women, young and old, in order to film them better. He gives them a space and time to exercise speech, whether light or anecdotal or serious, and is always powerful because it is irrecuctible.

And even when the camera is in action, it concerns itself with the shot, a point of view that does not seek to manipulate or dominate the characters. Thus, we enter their rooms, their universes, and watch them from the fringe of the image. Traversing Mike Mills’ films, we want to write down the movements, the displacement, the shifting—to understand how these bodies carry themselves, even when they are (almost) immobile.

The camera follows them extensively; it does not comment. In a reversal of the classical conception, to cross an empty space without action nor denouement is no longer an interlude or a rapid transition between two scenes; it is, in fact, the only dynamic. In this way, Mike Mills shows us what are essentially trajectories. Trajectories, but never with any narrative construction: this would imply that there was a project, some consistence, a minimal amount of symbolism. The temporal structure of these films reproduces this absence of linearity in the plot: it does not form a line, but a network of heterogenous presences, of waking dreamers. What replaces symbolism is the art of filming: the camera knows nothing of the characters, it watches them live and speak in complete freedom. The characters live in a space, a city, a house, the street, without the camera creating a discord from their surroundings, nor ceasing to watch over them. Like a guardian angel, the camera pursues its loops around one person or a group; to slide, is to treat its body and the bodies of others like in a dream of a primitive video-game.

In Paperboys, Mike Mills shows the life of American adolescents through short stories: in this case, the stories of six young inhabitants of a rural suburb of Minnesota. Without any moralizing filter or idealism, the spectator is struck by a tremendous realism. Technically, this realism is neither raw nor “pornographic”; it indicates only a rupture with an adult world without genuine consistency. The camera goes into the family home and introduces to us the relationships between generations through the angle of an ordinary failure, of a small story which has nothing to do with the spectacular nature of grandiose tales, of crises and of historic ruptures. Each of these stories is distinctive but all of them convey a generational gap. We then wonder what will become of these young people who experience no identifiable support, no word of advice from adults taken from the palette of the modern everyday. And this is when Mike Mills tells us something new, breaking free from all romanticism: no despair, no revolt; these kids know that “that’s the way it is.”

Finally: what does Mike Mills teach us about our epoch? Certainly not that depressive violence leads the world and that moral or ideal normality is here to impose silence on it; everybody knows this already, and even if they don’t want to hear about it, experienced in their own adolescence stories of a similar nature. In this sense, the message is decidedly ordinary. But Mills takes it one step further and invites the spectator to see how these contemporary “passengers” live through all this—how they deal with they bodies and with the fear of dying and of loving, without resorting to psychodrama. Mike Mills shows everyday reality without the intention of creating a definitive account. In his films, there are very often echoes between the recorded images, on the television, in the streets, advertisements, scenes in windows. Each time the image brings it all back to the character, like a mirror, the substitute for an Other that is radically absent. It is not an account, but quite the opposite—the lack of an account, to show how youth is always a subject outside the realm of representation.

Mike Mills does not try to adopt the position of the Other, whose absence he frames; on the contrary, he seeks to abolish all separation, all distance between himself and the spectator or the character-actor (we often hear his voice or his laugh.) The deliberate abolition of his own difference is intended to reach the mystery of the Other, and this is what we call “to show.” Mills becomes the character who is filmed, never following him from behind or overly concerned about what he shows. His love or friendship becomes apparent when depicting these people. It is a love of humans expressed without being “for” them, in the sense of demagoguery (demagoguery is hypocrisy that keeps its distance jealously) nor “with” them, but quite simply, letting them be themselves.

 

Translated from the original French by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian

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