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In Features, Issues

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Kelli Garner in Architecture of Reassurance. Photo by Susanna Howe.

With commercial directors now scoring their first features off of Budweiser Super Bowl spots, the critically maligned "MTV generation" continues to supply Hollywood with fresh young filmmaking talent. Meanwhile, of course, high-minded critics decry the "televisation of cinema," railing against the pollution of film by commercial and music-video riffraff. The typical knock on these directors: that while their work may lend a keen visual sensibility to the medium, it is also entirely devoid of emotion and subtlety.

Mike Mills, whose film Architecture of Reassurance screened in the Shorts Program at Sundance this year, is a music video/commercial director who appears poised to become one of the few to prove the critics wrong. Architecture… tells the story of a young girl who one afternoon goes exploring in a suburban neighborhood, where she is utterly convinced that the people she spies on have happier lives than she does. Weaving documentary interviews with the residents of Valencia, Calif., into the young girl’s journey through their backyards and into their living rooms, the film portrays suburbia as a new frontier ripe with wonder. In one bravado segment, a father tells a story about moving to a smaller house in the suburbs – one that he could fill with love – while his children jump up and down on a giant inflatable moon in his backyard. The moment is at once banal and surreal and perfectly captures the fascination the young girl has with a neighborhood in which every house looks the same.

What is most unexpected about the film, however, is that it feels like a natural stylistic progression for Mills, who began his career designing album covers for bands like Sonic Youth, The Beastie Boys and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Viewing his commercial and music video reel, one can see the genesis of Architecture... coming out of work as seemingly disparate as videos for Air and Everything But the Girl and a commercial for accessory designer Kate Spade. At their core the works are linked by a visual and emotional concern for the subtleties of people and place. And the result is the creation of a California landscape in which not only the inhabitants, but also the architecture and the light, reveal stories of gentle alienation and loneliness interspersed with brief glimpses of hope for something more. "I’ve always been really interested in documentary," Mills explains of his softly empathetic style. "I think that’s kind of a different approach than most types of directing because it’s just about being receptive to people and places and enabling them to speak for themselves. That [style of shooting] somehow fits my personality."

That Mills has now set his sights on a feature might come as no surprise. But what is paradoxically reassuring is that Mills plans to remain true to the aesthetic impulses of his best commercial and music video work. Prior to shooting Architecture…, Mills explains, "When Hollywood called I would say that I wanted to [make a film] that integrates a documentary string into a narrative form. And you tell that to people and it really falls flat. So, I thought, the only way I am going to be able to get this idea to float is to make it." There’s no telling what the future holds when it comes to Hollywood, but it might be worth suggesting to critics still doubting the potential of music-video and commercial directors that for every five Michael Bays, there is a Spike Jonze.

And perhaps soon, there will also be a Mike Mills. – Tristan Patterson

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