BEGINNERS is a must see film. I know, I know, it is in limited release. It shouldn’t be – it should be in your local theater in my opinion. BEGINNERS is a delicately woven tale of how we are ALWAYS “starting over” in the game of life. But we start over bringing the past with us – a past that rarely lets us either live in the moment or leap into the next chapter of our lives with the willingness to embrace a blank slate.
The performances are brilliant. Is there any day of the week with a “y” in it that you DON’T want to see Christopher Plummer’s extraordinary artistry? But the work of the film maker – writer and director Mike Mills – is truly masterful and not to be missed.
But what is in it for lawyers to go to BEGINNERS? Two elements of storytelling – emotional truth and passage of time – are skillfully demonstrated and readily useful in cases.
Let’s start with point of view. The entire film is told from one point of view – that of the character Oliver, played by the wonderful Ewan McGregor. What is unique about the telling of Oliver’s story is that the clear emotional truth of each scene is raw and present. As McGregor plays the scenes of his past and present, he is as emotionally alive as he was when they were happening to him. For those of you who are lawyers who have studied or read about psychodrama, you would put that label on it. For those of you, who like Alan and me, studied acting, you learned it as “emotional recall” or “sense memory.” When I work with witnesses, I often take them back in time to get them to express the emotional truth of a piece of testimony they must give. Sometimes it is the time when a child was misdiagnosed by a doctor. Sometimes it is the time when a contract was forced on someone. Sometimes it is the moment when a partner realized the other partner had betrayed him. As you watch the film, be aware of how fully and completely the character is immersed in the moment he is recalling. Haven’t you needed that from your witnesses – at least from time to time?
The second element is passage of time. This film is not told in chronological order. So in order to orient us to the time period he wants us to find Oliver in, Mike Mills does two interesting things. He says, for example, “This is 1955.” We then are given a still photo of them time. Then “This is what cars looked like.” We are then given a still photo of a car of the time. We then are oriented with a few more repeatable elements. Finally, he says “This is what it looked like when people were in love.” We then are given a series of still photos from the time of people in love. This sequence: date, a few elements that are repeatable and which have changed, and then the eternal element that doesn’t (love) is HIGHLY EFFECTIVE. It takes very little time and it is SO HELPFUL. Imagine you have a case that takes place over several years. You need to orient the jurors visually to how things are different now from what they used to be. As I said in the blog post here for Fair Game (3/30/11) – this is your job. I love the idea of the simple repetition of the same elements visually again and again as we watch them change. Mike Mills uses time and repetition again in a few places by simply changing one element in the visual in photo after photo after photo for a few seconds. For example, in one time marker there is a plate cookies in the waiting room of the outpatient clinic where father Hal (Plummer) and son Oliver (McGregor) go for several weeks and months for Hal’s chemo appointments. The plate, table, plant remain the same. But the cookies change from shot to shot…and with that change we know that they have gone into that room again and again and again over days and days and days. It is absolutely brilliant and you can adapt it to the visuals of your case.
1. Are your witnesses emotionally truthful and present?
2. Tell your jurors about the passage of time through your visuals.