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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Director Mike Mills Has Seen the Future in His Latest Piece, Project Los Altos

Posted By on Tue, Jan 28, 2014 at 1:46 PM

  • Kyle Johnson

Perhaps this self-evident fact - that the work of brilliant artists is often colored by their own life -- veers toward cliché. What's less evident is if that fact contributes, or detracts, from their art.

Mike Mills' films codify transparency. In 2010's The Beginners, Mills detailed how his recently widowed father simultaneously dealt with being single, gay, and terminally ill, at 75-years-old. The son, played by Ewan Macgregor, tries to make sense of this while finding himself debilitated by his own romantic and artistic missteps.

Mills approximates ontological discomforts without attempting an oracular stance. His beginnings as a graphic designer, crafting covers for the likes of Sonic Youth and Air, lends his films a dreamlike melancholy that's rendered in beautiful, lush terms. In spite of their visual acuity, however, each frame has a very specific intention.

In his latest project, Project Los Altos, Mills was recently asked by SFMOMA to investigate a place well-known for its many flights of fancy: Silicon Valley. In Los Altos, once home to Steve Jobs, the director was curious to see if he could locate some of the past in a culture obsessed with progress, and get a sense of where it thought it was going. Interviewing children - the human "components" of technology -- Mills discovered a future brimming with light and dark.

How did you get involved?

Jennifer (design curator at the SFMOMA) and I took a walk around Los Altos. I was interested in finding a way to talk about Silicon Valley. Los Altos in particular reminds me of Santa Barbara in the '70s, where I grew up.

What made you decide to interview the kids?

In studying Silicon Valley culture, I found an emphasis on futurism. Los Altos is also a bedroom community and it's such a kid-oriented place. I was walking around, thinking about both of those things, and I thought it would be interesting to interview kids about the future, and really, about technology.

After watching the interviews, I was struck by how cynical some of the kids were. That was a compelling contradiction. They're growing up at a time when there's a lot of rhetoric about progress, and yet seem keenly attuned to the bullshit. What did you think about that?

I wouldn't call them cynical. They were quite informed. I've heard people describe them as depressed, but I thought they were positive and smart. But some of them seemed very weary on these ideas about technology. I found it pretty haunting and surprising that they're fairly certain that technology is not being used in a good way.

At the same time they love it - they can't wait to get a new iPad or whatever - but there was a high level of self-awareness regarding the contradiction. I liked them all so much, but found some of their revelations surprising and a little sad.

As a dad, do you think about how technology might affect your son?

Well, my son's not quite two. But we try not to have too much access to a phone or computer. I am noticing how he's so attracted by the iPhone, with its flashy lights and calls to action.

One other thing about the interviews was that it was fascinating to have a ten-year-old tell me that in my lifetime, nature was not going to exist.

Did you agree with them?

Yeah. There's a lot of truth in what they said. I mean, in our lifetime, we'll probably see the world change in a sad way - especially nature.

Have their parents heard the interviews?

Yeah, they were all there during the interviews, wearing headsets. And they came to the opening.

I wonder if they were surprised by what their children had to say.

Oh, yeah. Especially the kids that had more developed ideas. I think they'd talked about this with their parents before, which reflected how hip and aware they all were. There were a couple parents who said, "wow, we don't really ask our kids those kinds of questions."

I was trying very hard not to treat them as kids or look down on them at all. I wanted to show that they were fully capable of such depth of thought. And they went beyond that. They were so unlike how I was growing up.

I was a little worried, too. But most of the parents sounded excited, and didn't feel like the answers were totally surprising. Clearly they'd been having these conversations.

Do you think that as a result of being raised in a place like the Bay Area, with technology occupying an essential economic as well as personal role, it influences their perspectives, or makes them stand apart from kids who live elsewhere?

It would be interesting to find out. Their environment is very tech-centric, obviously. You'd assume that informs them somehow. Yet it's funny how tech-centric and critical they were at the same time. They know about it, they love it, and they also think it's going to make people dumber, sadder, and that it's probably going to kill nature. It's a weird, complex bunch of perspectives that an eleven-year-old is juggling.

So I'd recant my previous characterization of them as cynical - more pragmatic.

Exactly -- pragmatic about the world. Certainly a lot more pragmatic than I was.

But I think artists are inherently idealistic, if not protective. And these kids - not exactly professional artists - seem wise beyond their years, and maybe lack that idealism.

Some of them had very positive ideas. There's a whole variety. What I found was a huge environmental focus. They didn't like what was happening, and were upset about the direction we are going. They're upset that there's not more of an outcry. I don't blame them at all. We should all have that feeling about the world we're creating.

I have a friend who's very much a tech cheerleader. Whenever I express some skepticism about some new "life-changing" app, he counters with, "oh, but you're a writer." He's implying that writers, or all artists, have no interest in technology. In fact, they have no choice but to engage with it. Is this the first time that you have?

I'd done a documentary on anti-depressants, and that was kind of about the proliferation of technology. I feel like a lot of these things go hand-in-hand, that they're part of the cultural revolution not unlike the current industrial revolution, for which I have a tremendous weariness.

I think we all instinctively spend our downtime taking out our phones to see what's going on. It represents a huge change in our consciousness and emotional lives and how we relate to one another. But it's packaged in such nice, positive, deceptive terms.

We're grasping at so many different forms of media at the same time - how do you think that'll change the way art is made?

It's going to change the way we create things, definitely. There's a ton of responses to these things. Some of them are subversive, and those will be the ones to drown out the noise. I think people can do amazing things, but some of them will be surprisingly, sneakily, soul-deadening acts.

You've mentioned an interest in capturing historical moments as they coexist in the present. Where did you find that in the Bay Area?

Los Altos had a lot of it. It's strangely sleepy. There's this place called The Costume Bank, this amazing place that remains as it was in 1969. It's so subdued, probably in the same state as it was when Steve Jobs was growing up. Except now, the area is much wealthier.

Now our culture - consumer culture, specifically - seeks to erase the past, erase the story of how we got here. In my work, for example, I point out the beginnings of Apple and how it came to be. I'd reprinted an old local paper announcing Apple's incorporation to show these connection that nobody thinks about now.

The way we have of thinking about these things, well, I think there's a long connection to the past that can't be ignored, and that's been happening for ages.

Without suggesting you want people to think a certain way, is there anything you'd like people to leave the film with - whether that's a feeling, a curiosity, or an idea?

I want the film to be open-ended. I don't pretend these interviews are objective, and I don't want to want to control or predict how people are going to feel. But I was really touched by how earnest these kids were, and I want that to be communicated. They gave honest answers, and they felt so deeply, and they cared so much. And that's what I want to bring to the discussion.

You can see his work tomorrow-Fri. noon-5 p.m.; Sat. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sun. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. at The Costume Bank, 169 State Street, Los Altos.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Shona Sanzgiri


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