One of my most vivid memories takes place in Los Angeles, sitting in bumper to bumper traffic. Either I had a moment of dissociation, or my cinematic thoughts had gotten away from me, but I always think of this moment in the third person: a bird’s eye view shot aimed into my car as I stare blankly ahead and grip the steering wheel so tight my knuckles turn white. I was living in LA while completing a brief internship at a film studio. I kept telling myself it would get better. It didn’t. That day in my car, I attempted to pray to a god I didn’t believe in, and begged the universe to help me feel less alone.
Life in LA was modular. I went from one box to another—my apartment to my car to my desk to my car to my apartment to my dreaded bed. I wasn’t sure I would survive the wave of depression. The city itself, with its cars and highways and long blocks and swaths of concrete, seemed to be an alien landscape designed to create distance between me and everyone else.
In my mind LA is no longer a place, but a feeling of melancholy I can’t quite describe. It’s no La La Land or Singin’ in the Rain. It’s In a Lonely Place, the chilling Nicholas Ray noir, and Beginners, the sweetly mournful film by Mike Mills—films that, rather than showing the city’s charms or landscapes, inhabit its loneliness. While the films are radically different, they both portray their characters’ attempts to close the distance between themselves and others, drifting through chiasmatic stories from fear to delusion to fear again.
In the first few minutes of In a Lonely Place, Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) tries out a line on a waiter: “There’s no sacrifice too great for a chance at immortality.” The waiter rolls his eyes and Dix resumes the prickly distance that separates him—a washed-up, tempestuous screenwriter—from everyone else. When he’s not rattling off charming one liners, his temper can be set off with the slightest provocation. Within minutes of walking into the club, he punches a man, offends his agent and director, and blows off a past flame. “Do you look down on all women, or just the ones you know?” she asks. “There goes Dix again!” observing ladies chide when he gets violent. Eventually he’s alone, trying out lines on the waiter. The titular Lonely Place is one of his own making.
Dix is hired to adapt a book, but he’s unwilling to actually read it. On his way out of the club, he invites the enthusiastic hat-check girl, Mildred, back to his home to tell him the plot. It’s suspicious; the film has already shown Dix as violent and unpredictable and misogynistic. But our suspicion shifts to sympathy as he and Mildred interact. When Mildred describes the inane plot, her charm turns from warm to intrusive. The camera locks onto her in a shot from Dix’s point of view. She stares directly into the camera, moving ever closer as Dix seeks to escape her intense friendliness.
This not-quite breaking of the fourth wall feels uncomfortable, Mildred encroaching on the audience’s space as much as Dix’s. When he takes refuge in his room, it’s a relief. He’s an introvert, the film whispers, he’s shy and likes his space, he’s afraid in a vulnerable sort of way. It’s then that Dix looks out the window to see his neighbor, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). They are separated by doors and windows and shutters and walls, but their brief connection marks a point of no return, far more important to their world than Mildred getting murdered later that night.
When they first speak—while getting questioned about the murder—they don’t even face each other. Laurel sits close to the desk while Dix lounges on a couch behind her, but the noir’s iconic deep focus collapses the space between them. Later they flirt wildly, and though Laurel says she won’t be rushed, they simply can’t be kept apart. That night, Dix storms into her apartment. His fear is palpable. He closes the door behind him, but backs up against it with his hand on the doorknob, ready to flee, trying to fight the magnetic pull that draws them together. Their icy exteriors are being painfully torn down—is the escape from their loneliness worth vulnerability?
Dix’s hand rests uncomfortably low on Laurel’s neck, but they kiss nevertheless.
Beginners opens with Oliver (Ewan McGregor) cleaning his late father’s home. Hal (Christopher Plummer) has passed away after a long struggle with cancer, and Oliver is left alone. He’s framed in a wide shot as he takes bags of garbage to the dumpster, small against the backdrop of Los Angeles hills.
The tension in Beginners is less between Oliver and his father on a personal level, and more between Oliver’s loneliness and Hal’s happiness. In the sections of the film where Hal is still alive, he’s depicted as open, smiling, and surrounded by people. Staged shots show him with various gay interest groups or closely embraced by his boyfriend, Andy. Hal’s coming out at age 75 has ushered in a belonging and purpose that Oliver cannot find himself. Compared to Hal, Oliver is lonely and distant. He’s filmed in tight shots that follow him closely, isolating him even when surrounded by people, framed by doorways that box him in or by empty settings that swallow him up.
As parents often do, Hal questions Oliver’s lack of a relationship. “For someone with so much relationship advice, you seem awfully alone,” Hal snaps. Hal’s death magnifies Oliver’s solitude. When he brings Hal’s dog Arthur home he says, “Look, it’s lonely out here, so you better learn how to talk.” “While I understand up to 150 words—I don’t talk,” Arthur replies via subtitle. Oliver’s life continues to be one of empty rooms and doorways.
Then he meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent). Oliver reacts shyly—he doesn’t even want to be at the party—but circumstances ease the discomfort. When they meet, they’re both shrouded in absurd costumes, and Anna cannot speak out loud due to laryngitis. The setup feels fantastical, a textbook meet-cute, but the costumes and silence add a cushion of distance that allow them to inch toward intimacy without getting too vulnerable. That night Anna asks if they can “just sleep,” and so they do. It’s only upon waking that they tell each other their names.
I had fallen in love with cities before. When I arrived in Los Angeles I expected the same rush I felt when I first stepped off the train in London, or when I crested a hill to see Salt Lake City’s snowy mountains. I didn’t have overly romantic ideas of what LA would be like, yet I hoped it would somehow be the answer to my darkening thoughts, similar to how Dix and Laurel think they will find refuge in each other. I clung to that delusion even as I struggled with the key to my alarmingly cheap apartment and spent my first days there scraping hair out of the carpet. I ignored how, as I finally got out to explore the city, the sun seemed to bleach out any of its charms. I made a list of places I wanted to see in LA, and then went into debt trying to pay for parking at the various sites, desperate to keep moving.
When Anna first meets Oliver, she asks “Why are you at a party if you’re sad?” She can see it in his eyes. That summer in LA, when friends or family called, I didn’t mention my worsening paralytic despair. Instead, going through the motions meant I could rattle off a list of places I had been and so keep up appearances. I was both relieved and terrified that they couldn’t see my eyes.
Laurel and Dixon appear to be madly in love. They settle into gender roles as they play house, existing in a sort of domestic bliss. Laurel sweeps around Dix’s apartment tidying up, making breakfast, and chiding him to go to sleep. Dix furiously works on his new screenplay, gratefully doting on Laurel after quitting for the day. The play-acting of their love makes it easy for them to fall hard and fast without engaging in an exploration of their true selves.
Similarly, Oliver and Anna pretend ignorance of the outside world. They spend their days in Anna’s nondescript hotel room. When their discussions inch toward things that are vulnerable or true, they revert to playing games. “You point, I drive,” says Oliver, mimicking his mother’s habit of avoiding discomfort by driving in circles. When Anna’s father calls, they don’t pick up, instead role-playing through the conversation that might have been.
For both couples, the loneliness of Los Angeles becomes part of their rose-colored delusion. It’s as if they’ve seen each other from across the room and everything else disappeared, but then it stayed that way. Dix and Laurel stay in their apartments, living their domestic fantasy. Even when they go out, the world melts away as they listen to a singer in a club who seems to be singing only to them, “I was a lonely one ‘til you…” Oliver and Anna explore the city but appear to be the only ones in it. They walk across empty parks and freeway bridges. When they visit a used bookstore they’re framed by stacks of books in yet another modular setting. Whether in Dix’s apartment or Anna’s hotel room, the loneliness of Los Angeles becomes a shield from reality.
I forced myself to go on long walks, gazing so long at the streets they became abstractions. One day I walked several miles, ending up in the heart of Century City. I stared up at the tall buildings and wondered if I was invisible, if people noticed me, if I was really there. There was a barrier between me and the people around me—like the doorways and windows that separated Dix and Laurel when they first met eyes. Eventually I felt so alien it didn’t feel worth it to participate in life. On my days off I would spend hours in bed, feverishly drifting between panic attacks and sleep.
When I watch Beginners, I see myself in the grieving Oliver. His friends drag him out to parties and talk circles around him as he sits silently staring ahead. At work, he struggles to look outside of his grief to satisfy his clients. He makes a book called “The History of Sadness.” His grief and loneliness preoccupy to the point of consuming, yet he’s paralyzed by a stillness that traps all of it inside. At one point, he looks to Arthur for advice on Anna. Via subtitle, the dog says, “Tell her the darkness is about to drown us unless something drastic happens right now.” That line feels like it exposes something deep inside of me. In response, Oliver remains blank. He tells Anna goodbye. He just keeps walking.
Sitting at the bar, listening to the song that appears to be just for them, Dix and Laurel talk affectionately, though we don’t hear what they say. For the moment, they’re a pretty picture; a staged snapshot. The camera lingers on them before suddenly dollying back, creating a large gap between subject and audience that hints at the couples’ growing divide. Closeness was once part of their domestic fairytale, but now represents a direct threat. Laurel’s trust in Dix is disintegrating. As Dix reveals more reasons for Laurel to suspect him of Mildred’s murder, he draws her closer in, trapping her in his abusive clutches. After a terrifying car accident and confrontation where Dix nearly murders a man, he puts his arm around Laurel and asks for a cigarette. It would be a benign moment—except that Dix has described this as the very way Mildred was strangled by her boyfriend.
Ignoring the fact that Laurel is avoiding him, Dix continues as if nothing’s wrong. One morning, he happily makes breakfast. “A good love scene should be about something else beside love. For instance, this one. Me fixing grapefruit, you sitting over there dopey, half asleep. Anyone looking at us could tell that we’re in love.” And it’s true—this scene, to the uninformed, might appear to be about a couple in love. But like Laurel, we know what Dix is capable of. She leans back against the wall as she watches him cut through the grapefruit, calling back to the moment when Dix leaned against the door before they first kissed. Only this time, the threat is real.
Personal revelations crack open Anna and Oliver’s relationship as well. After Arthur, the dog, mistakes a stranger for Hal, Oliver cannot contain his grief anymore. Thoughts and memories spill out as he tells Anna about his father’s final months spent creating and shopping and filling his life with purpose and joy. He tells her about his father’s relationship with his boyfriend, Andy. “For the first time I saw him really in love,” he says. Once Oliver’s asleep, Anna slips away into the empty hotel ballroom to get some space, worried that she cannot fill the gaps his parents’ deaths have left in Oliver’s life. Oliver wakes up alone. When he goes to find her, they are filmed in an extreme wide shot. The darkness and threatening size of the room devour them. They agree to keep seeing each other, but their connection is tenuous. When they later attempt to move in together, the distance between them collapses so quickly, their relationship collapses with it.
On the worst days, I would go driving in the middle of the night. I’d start on Sunset and wind higher and higher into the hills, where my surroundings would darken and defamiliarize. I’d think about what might happen if I disappeared in the hills. I could be spirited away. I could drift off into nothingness. I could fade into the shadows. And I kept driving, almost hoping that it would happen, that maybe I would get lucky and my hand would slip.
Years later, I watch as Dix drives Laurel through those same hills, right before the accident that changes her perspective forever. He’s seething with anger, darkly staring ahead as he drives. Laurel sits beside him, also looking ahead but with pure fear. She can’t get out of the car. She’s trapped. They’re a yin and yang, bound together, ultimately driving toward their destruction. In them, I see my own late night drives. Half of me destructive, despondent, out of control; the other half terrified. Driving those nights I felt like both Dix and Laurel at the same time, my life just as unstable as their relationship, and my own desperation for connection reflected in their eyes.
Fear eats Dix and Laurel’s romance alive. Dix’s fear of losing Laurel brings out all of his monstrosity. At one point, he discovers she’s not wearing her engagement ring and commands her to get it. A formalistic spot of light dances across his eyes like a mask—the same light used earlier as Dix all-too-graphically described how he believes Mildred was murdered. Moments later, he completely breaks, nearly choking Laurel to death before a phone call interrupts him—a phone call absolving him of Mildred’s murder. But it’s too late. “Yesterday this would have meant so much to us,” Laurel says, “now…it doesn’t matter at all.”
Gratefully, Dix seems to accept their relationship is over, and leaves without another word. But Laurel, now safe, can’t deny the part of herself that mourns the loss despite the abuse. She stands in the doorway, watching Dix go. The moment mirrors their first connection—distant, divided by doorways and shutters, and so enabling the fantasy of what a non-lonely life could be. Laurel gazes after him, repeating the words he wrote. “I lived a few weeks while you loved me.”
For Oliver and Anna, stepping out of their fantasy does not mean that their fear subsides, but it does mean that it becomes less threatening. After a brief split, they end up back in Oliver’s apartment. Oliver hands Anna a memento of his father—Hal’s submission for a personal ad. The brief paragraph is beautifully vulnerable, revealing a man open about who he is and what he wants. As they read it, a montage of Hal’s final years passes across the screen. Hal is unguarded and silly and laughing and dancing, and markedly surrounded by people he loves. After reading it, Anna and Oliver sit together on the bed, clear-eyed, inspired to bravely attempt to close the distance between them once more.
There’s a moment in Beginners that’s always nagged at me. It’s when Oliver finally sees Hal’s boyfriend Andy months after Hal’s death. Andy asks Oliver why he never called or came to see him: “Is it because I’m gay?” Oliver hesitates before answering truthfully. “No, it’s because my father loved you so much.” The moment feels honest, though awkward. It sticks to me like a thorny plant. Why would love keep Oliver away?
“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks when she loved me.” As Laurel watches Dix go, I think of all of the lives we live, being born and dying and living in between. Eventually those lives turn into memories, but that doesn’t make the death and birth more comfortable. Perhaps that’s what keeps Oliver away. In Andy’s face he sees the vulnerability caused by the life and death of love—the vulnerability he doesn’t want to confront—and the second life his father lived in his last few years. His parents weren’t soulmates, and neither were Andy and Hal, but his father kept trying and eventually found happiness. When Oliver and Anna reunite over Hal’s personal ad, Anna says, “He never gave up.”
I feel myself heading toward the precipice of the life I’m living right now, and wondering what I will do with the next one. I’ve been thinking about going back to LA. I’m still afraid of the city, its concrete and its loneliness, and the possibility that I might relive the tsunami of depression I experienced there. “You know you can be fairly confident it won’t get that bad again,” my therapist tells me. “You have a support system now.” This doesn’t completely assuage my fear, but I’ve lived several lives since then, and freed myself of the delusion that it will ever be easy. I’ve learned that some sadness is sweet, not all fear is poisonous, and distance and connection are not incompatible. In being honest with others about my loneliness, and sharing my struggles with mental illness, I’ve found the distance between me and everyone I meet growing ever slighter. Los Angeles is the flip of a coin: heads, the heartbreak of In a Lonely Place and the loneliness of Dix and Laurel’s fear; tails, the hesitant hope of Beginners and the chance for Hal’s unfettered, vulnerable joy. I think the toss is worth the chance.