Tag Archives: Review

Fran Hughes on 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2016)


Mike Mills stated has stated “feelings are my genre.” 20th Century Women is his semi-autobiographical 21st reflection on masculinity.

The film is led by matriarch, Dorothea (Annette Bening) who is coming to terms with the changing world around her, both socially in 1979 and personally as her son is a teenager becoming his own man.

She wants her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) to know he does not have to conform to traditional, damaging notions of masculinity. Dorothea tells him “Men always feel that they have to fix things for women, but they’re not doing anything. Some things just can’t be fixed. Just be there, somehow that’s hard for all of you”.

Handyman William (Billy Crudup) is a positive male role model that Dorothea feels Jamie (can look up to, while having his friend Julie (Elle Fanning) and lodger Abbie (Greta Gerwig) can teach him how to be a feminist man who understands the issues the women face.

The film could as easily be retitled 20th Century Family, as the characters become each other’s surrogate, chosen family and share many formative experiences together.  This dynamic highlights how by 1979 many people are living outside the traditional nuclear family typical of previous generations. They share joyful moments but are all there for each other during their most difficult times. As Dorothea states in the film “the people that help you might not be who you thought or wanted, they might just be the people who show up.” These characters show up for each other when it matters most, that’s what being family means to them.


All the characters have been shaped by different eras and attitudes of the 20th century. Each central character has their own section somewhere within the non-linear narrative introducing spectators to key moments from their lives. Montage means put together or assemble in French. Here Mills decides to use several montages to highlight events and life experiences that have shaped each central character, in other words experiences that have assembled their current persona. This is cleverly illustrated through scrapbook-style montages that depict political and personal events that have become pieces of who they are. Mills uses a mixture of character photos and archival footage to create an insightful snapshot of their memories.

For Dorothea he uses archival footage from the Great Depression to reflect on how growing up in that time created her resilient personality.  Benning’s performance is electric and unforgettable, one of the strongest of her career.


Throughout the film the characters narrate parts of their past prior to 1979 and refer to events in their future further illustrating the importance of this period of their life, being still significant to them, a foundational time in their lives. It feels as if they are in conversation with their younger 1979 selves updating them on where they are now. This feels poignant as it causes the spectator to reflect on their youth, how their life turned out and the people who helped shape who they are today. As Gerwig’s Abbie states “Whatever you think your life is going to be like, just know, it’s not gonna be anything like that”.

Fran Hughes

A Note on The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable


Seeing The Drowned Man at the Temple Studio of the National last night made me think how much movies have invaded our cultural imaginary, and not just any type of movie but musicals, and westerns and noirs, in a flimsy b-setting, but with vivid imagery and powerful emotional impact. In this production, the greatest theatrical experience of my life, theatre brings back some of that immediacy, larger-than life, deep-in-your-mind dream imagery that watching films in the dark, on a huge screen, surrounded by others but living it through alone used to do.

Here, you’re asked to don a mask and not speak, as you’re guided through a path you’re told you need not follow in the old Republic Studios at Paddington. You’re asked to travel at will, and you look through old sets, houses, shops, a saloon, forests littered with bark, empty desert. The more you look, the more you see, highly detailed letters characters have written to each other but also lists of hairdo’s to be done by hairdressing. As you walk into these spaces, performers begin to dramatise fights, dances, shoot-outs, struggles, sex, sexual display; all these ‘movie moments’  take place before your eyes, sometimes sung, sometimes danced; and it makes you think how much cinema owes to movement, choreography, song, rhythm.

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable

The dancing featured in this show, sometimes embodied as fights, full of sharp, athletic choreography, is breath-taking, particularly when seen up-close. The mask provides a safety, a distance, like movies did; you watch, the performers know that they are being watched performing but they do not see you, just another audience member with a Donald Duck mask. The scenes shown are pulpy, erotic, old movie-clichés with a dash of Buñuel and as filtered through Lynch, particularly his Blue Velvet.

The movies have invaded our culture to such an extent, that it is now the raw material for theatre, perhaps its been so for a long time. In my own lifetime, I’ve seen the power of movies diminish. First, when the cineplexes came in by the shrinking of the screen; then with safety regulations by the diminishing of the power of the darkness which in turn removed the power of the light.

If anything, movies  are now more interesting than ever. But the experience of film-going, of going out to the cinema, and feeding your dreams on the light and the darkness, of being able to see without being seen, of being anonymous but part of a crowd; these are many things that the cinema has now watered down or eliminated entirely. The Drowned Man reminded me of how powerful they still can be, though now in the Theatah, sadly, and no longer at the movies.

The Drowned Man is an astonishing achievement: a whole building, a former studio, is the mise-en-scène for this play. The actors and dancers are in character doing extraordinary things with the audience very close-up and sometimes following them. The wandering audience, presented with a simulacra of movie moments yet turning that upside down by making those movie moments flesh rather than spectral shadows.  Refreshments are  offered in a dive with a canary singing the blues. The experience creating some of the perverse dream logic that once seemed entirely owned by movies.

I want to read Buchner’s Woyceck which ostensibly inspired the piece and I then want to see The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable again.

José Arroyo