Sound And Vision: Mike Mills
In the article series Sound and Vision we take a look at music videos from notable directors.
This week we look at The National's I Am Easy to Find, by Mike Mills.
Mike Mills might be foremost known as a feature film director to the readers of ScreenAnarchy. His film 20th Century Women is considered a favorite among many lovers of modern American independent cinema, and his films Thumbsucker, Beginners and C'mon, C'mon all have their defenders too. Thing is: Mike Mills is a man of many occupations, in all of which he has had some singular stand-outs.
For instance: before he became well known as a film director, he was a famous graphic designer, especially of album sleeves. His covers for Air's Moon Safari and The Virgin Suicides, Sonic Youth's Washing Machine and The Beastie Boys' Hour Sauce Commitee Part Two are all sleek, vibrant and colorful, and became iconic in their own way.
Mills expanded his career as a graphic designer into music video direction, making a lot of classic videos for artists like Air (All I need, Kelly Watch the Stars , Sexy Boy), Moby (Run On) and Blonde Redhead (The Dress, My Impure Hair, Silently, Top Ranking). The videos for Blonde Redhead, especially, are conceptual pieces that signposted things to come. Top Ranking is a performance piece starring Mill's wife Miranda July, while Silently is an experiment with written-out text as the content of the music video. The music videos of The Dress and My Impure Hair focus on grand emotions, and the beauty of the small things in life. Combine these four pillars - performance, text on screen, everyday poetry and grand emotions- and you get the project I want to talk about today: I Am Easy to Find by The National.
I Am Easy to Find originally started when Mills, by now an Oscar nominated screenwriter and famous film director, had a wish to return to his graphic designer and music video director roots, and contacted one of his favorite bands, The National to do something for them. They gave him several new pieces for him to work with. This is the most involved that Mills has been with any of the bands he has worked with. He directed a grand scope album film, the pick of this week's Sound And Vision, which is all about the small things in life having a big impact, but also is a performance piece starring Alicia Vikander, who was trained as a classical dancer. Vikander plays a woman, from birth till death, meaning that she has to move as a toddler in the earlier stretches of the film, and as an elderly woman at the end, while not changing her look throughout the entire thing. The story itself is told with the help of subtitles, 140 sentences on screen that fill out both the mundane thoughts and details of the woman's life, but also big impactful moments, like a marriage or a death.
Here's where things get tricky to explain: a lot of the subtitles are taken from lyrics from the album of the same name by The National. But, Mike Mills didn't borrow them, necessarily. Sometimes it was the other way around. While Mills was working on the album film, based on snippets and outtakes provided to him by The National, the band themselves made new songs based on dialogue and scenes from Mills' movie. Mills even used different outtakes for the final piece of the film, to set film and album apart from each other.
That's not all: Mills is credited as a producer on the album, and according to this interview with Pitchfork he was very hands-on: the lack of guitars on the album was his doing. As was the choice for the biggest sonic diversion of The National's normal style: the bringing in of a lot of female guest vocalists, including Gail Ann Dorsey, Lisa Hannigan and Sharon van Etten. He also went as far as coming up with the album title, and also directed two other music videos for the project, for Hey Rosey and Hairpin Turns, starring dancer Sharon Eyal. Mike Mills does describe these as such: "We were talking about the film being the portrait of a life, but the record captures an afterlife. So Sharon Eyal is the embodiment of the record's continued soul." So this is the story of a graphic designer, turned music video director, turned film director, who in his wish to return to his roots also became an album producer. I can't wait to see what's next for Mills.