It’s Called a Repair

C’mon C’mon (2021)

Photo by Tobin Yelland/A24

For about the past year—so since around the time he turned three—there’s been a consistent element in my son’s bedtime routine: after reading two books and singing one song, we lie in bed and talk about his day. Recently, tucked beside him on his blue plaid quilt, bathed in the glow of his closet light, I found myself apologizing for some moment of conflict between the two of us earlier in the day.

“You say sorry a lot when we talk about my day,” my son observed.

“It’s called a repair,” Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) tells her brother Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) in Mike Mills’s C’mon C’mon. Johnny is beating himself up for losing his temper with his nine-year-old nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman), but as Viv assures him in dialogue found in the film’s shooting script, “Everyone fucks up. You just admit it to him and explain your needs and feelings and what happened.” By the time of the completed film, Viv’s line had been replaced: “Nobody knows what they’re doing,” she sighs into her phone, sitting in her parked car late one night. “Nobody knows what they’re doing with these kids. You just have to keep doing it.”

I feel like I fuck up a lot as a dad. “You feel like a worse parent on the inside than you are on the outside,” my wife cautioned me as I mused on the idea of writing this essay. But to write truthfully about parenthood, at least in my experience, tends to require embracing some acknowledgement that it can be pretty fucking hard, at least if you care about doing it right.

Mike Mills makes movies about one of the hardest things there is to do: make life comprehensible for those we care for. Each of his last three features has concerned this struggle to some degree. In Beginners, the world is explained to a pet—“This is what the sun looks like,” Oliver (Ewan McGregor) tells the dog he’s newly inherited from his late father, “and the stars. This is what it looks like when we eat. When we tell each other the stories in our heads”—and it’s a short leap from there to the efforts of 20th Century Women’s Dorothea (Annette Benning) to explain the world to her newborn son: “I put my hand through the [incubator’s] little window,” she tells us, “and I’d tell him life was very big and unknown…He’d fall in love, have his own children, have passions, have meaning.” Mills’s last three films are generational narratives, and they’re all infused with a sublime wistfulness over bringing a life into the world and watching it blossom even as it almost immediately begins drifting away on the wind.

C’mon C’mon is the story of an adult attempting to make the world comprehensible for himself through his association with children. This would be Johnny, an audio documentarian who busies himself throughout the film with a seemingly abstract project that involves traveling the country and interviewing kids about their visions of the future and perceptions of the world around them. And once he becomes temporary caretaker for Jesse (his sister’s son, and not a boy with whom he has a particularly close relationship), Johnny’s infusion of intergenerational perspective is taken to extremes he likely didn’t expect he’d signed on for—as though any of us can truly expect what it means to sign on for the full-time caretaking of, as Viv puts it with exhausted awe, “a whole little person.”

Moments later, we see what she means, as Jesse sits at the dinner table raving about his current personal fascination: “big, big, big, big, big, um, little, like, fungus tubes (or tubes that are fungus), and they’re connecting all the trees.” Johnny and Viv listen intently, indulging Jesse while regarding his mind with visible wonder. “And then you kinda, like, go through the tubes into another tree,” he says, and then begins sputtering: “And then, um, well, they…they would, like, get—” Johnny’s face explodes in a grin. What a whole little person.

Johnny uses his work as a clarifying lens on the world, assembling these children’s perspectives into a web of insight that might lend some form to his own diffuse existence. In this, he’s aligned with both Beginners’s Oliver, a graphic designer who passes his time creating childlike illustrated histories of such base concepts as sadness, and 20th Century Women’s Abbie (Greta Gerwig), an aspiring photographer who mounts several attempts at photo series atomizing her own existence via portraits of her possessions and/or mundane daily experiences. This, it would seem, is a crucial Millsian archetype: the artist who collages together a worldview based on the scraps of historical and cultural detritus they surround themselves with, making some attempt to locate themselves in the swirl of history through work that details the intersection of the immediate and the cosmic.

Mills has described his films as “the art-school version of cinema,” referring to his tendency to imbue his work with cited sources, whether that be the excerpts from Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi that overtake the screen in 20th Century Women (complete with onscreen text identifying them as such) or the tendency in C’mon C’mon for Johnny to peruse books late at night, their own titles appearing onscreen and their words provided in dulcet voiceover by Phoenix. For his own edification, Johnny considers (as the onscreen text states in blunt, unstylized sans serif) “An Incomplete List of What the Cameraperson Enables by Kirsten Johnson” (“The work” he reads, “offers the interviewer access, and a reason to stay in a world not [their] own, complete distraction from [their] own life”), and later reads to Jesse what’s identified as “Star Child by Claire A. Nivola” (“Over the years, you will try to make sense of that happy, sad, full, empty, always-shifting life you’re in,” he reads, and then mutters through tears, “Damn this book”). And, after his first night putting Jesse to bed by himself, Johnny pores over “The Bipolar Bear Family by Angela Holloway” (“Papa Bear had a hard time controlling his feelings,” he reads, “and sometimes he did things that upset, and even scared, Mama and Baby Bear”).

Because, of course, C’mon C’mon isn’t necessarily about making the world as a whole comprehensible to Jesse. It’s about grappling with how comprehensible to make one key fact: his mom isn’t with him in LA because his dad is having a manic episode in Oakland. It’s not his first, but this one is pretty bad.

I can’t easily say how many manic episodes I’ve had since my hospitalization and bipolar diagnosis 11 years ago. I could tally them up with a moment’s thought, but they’ve varied enough in severity to feel incomparable, and anyway, there’s also the fuzzier-edged hypomania, mania’s less intense cousin that my psychiatrist, my wife, and I all ascribe with casual frankness surrounding the occasional period when my motor is running a little hotter than usual. There was one manic episode three years ago that I recall as pretty noteworthy, whereas my wife doesn’t remember it at all. Without behavior aberrant enough to require hospitalization or excessive medication tampering, some periods of mood elevation can be just that: something to notice, make accommodations for, and ride out.

Last fall, though, things got pretty bad. They never made it all the way to hospitalization bad, but they definitely got as far as weigh the options bad. Around this time, my kids were turning five, three, and one, and so it was the first episode that two of them were particularly cognizant for (the first of my eldest daughter’s life having been the one so apparently mild that it was deemed unworthy of recall by her mother). They noticed when Daddy started crashing on an air mattress in the basement because the baby wasn’t sleeping well, either, and fighting against sleeplessness and lack of appetite is the first step in getting a mania under control. They noticed that on days Mumma worked, Gran started coming over while Daddy disappeared—to minimize collateral damage, I spent much of last fall in my little rented office, watching awards screeners in between sessions of furiously productive, self-directed art therapy, keeping an eye on the edict I’d scrawled onto a piece of paper and tacked to the wall above my desk: Do not speak unless spoken to, I’d urged myself, and when spoken to, keep it brief, because this mania was manifesting as a tendency to joyously badger friends and colleagues while my mind soared and gyred in ways both thrilling and horrifically exhausting. More often than not, though, I justified exceptions to the rule, unleashing torrents of digital prose into all corners of my various chat apps and social media accounts, unable to keep from sharing all the extraordinary epiphanies and inspirations currently being visited upon my hyperactive psyche.

Around this time, I began writing an essay on 20th Century Women intended for the November 2021 issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room, which was on the theme of “Generations.” I was aware that Mills had a new film coming, and that it would likely prove relevant to my essay, but I dispassionately absorbed the winsome, vague trailer for C’mon C’mon and then put it out of my mind again.

I continued working on my 20th Century Women essay as reviews of C’mon C’mon’s festival screenings began rolling in. Gradually, I came to understand one fact: the marketing had buried the centrality of bipolar disorder to the film—and, specifically and frighteningly, the severe manic episode of a loving father prone to flights of creative ecstasy that he can’t keep from pouring into the world, until his mind and the increasingly gaunt form that house it are burnt to a howling ember. 

This would be Paul (Scoot McNairy), husband to Viv, father to Jesse, and brother-in-law to Johnny, the latter of whom can’t help letting his defensiveness of his sister outweigh his compassion for her husband. Paul works in the world of symphonic music, and is apparently a desirable enough candidate that he’s wooed nearly 400 miles from home and into a new life away from his family, a transition that has—as Viv succinctly puts it—fucked him up.

“[It’s an] incredible position,” Viv insists to Johnny, “which he totally deserves.” But by the time Viv makes it to Oakland, Paul is in the stratosphere, shuffling around with wide, sunken eyes as he raves about the resemblance between the pattern on his kitchen floor and some geometric puzzle that he attempts to explain in hurtling bursts of verbiage. These scenes depicting Paul’s volatility are played with suppressed sound, Viv narrating them to Johnny while holding the traumatic new memories at arm’s length. “His brain’s eating him up,” she says in a line excised from Mills’s script, six words that encapsulate everything so ferociously recognizable about Paul’s mania.

“[Baby Bear] worried about his papa,” Johnny reads from The Bipolar Bear Family, and alongside this we see Paul cross-legged on the floor, opera music blaring from the stereo as he works furiously to convey some interpretation of the art for Jesse, who sprawls with his back against the couch. Paul passes a feather between his hands, his forearms fluttering with a conductor’s fluidity—“He thought that she was poisoning her—him,” we can barely hear Paul spit breathlessly. His words tumble on top of each other too densely to process, save for a fleeting “the whole orchestra!” We see Paul as a man who can’t help drawing emotional and cerebral power from art, luxuriating in his work and eager to convey it to anyone he can corner, a tendency that gathers in intensity until he becomes a liability to himself and everyone around him. From the film’s marketing, it was clear that Johnny and Jesse would embark on a journey from LA, to New York, to New Orleans in pursuit of truth and beauty; obscured was the fact that Johnny must bring Jesse along with him because Viv remains stuck in Oakland attempting to coax an increasingly frenzied and paranoid Paul to be admitted to a psychiatric ward.

I’d planned to attend the Boston critics’ screening of C’mon C’mon. By now, I was running at such an extreme psychological velocity that I planned to take in the film and immediately roll it into my 20th Century Women essay, which was morphing and expanding too fast for me to keep up with. I waited gleefully for my chance to see the movie, drove the hour into town, and was met by an incredulous usher at the theater. There was no screening that night; in my perpetual haste to make my way to the next neural spasm, I’d gotten the date wrong. “I’m fucked, man,” I told a homeless person on the street outside the Boston Common AMC, absently handing him a $20 bill and wandering dazedly back towards the Public Garden, home to the squat Mrs. Mallard and her brood, those statues commemorating the classic Robert McCloskey picture book Make Way for Ducklings.

I feel very lucky that I missed the critics’ screening of C’mon C’mon, and so didn’t first encounter this film in a room filled with colleagues. I told myself I was prepared, but seeing it a few weeks later—courtesy of a screener disc, tucked into the corner of the couch in the darkened TV room of a sleeping house—I felt my already tenuous outer layer crack and peel like the shell of a hard-boiled egg, leaving my heart and mind quiveringly vulnerable. I gasped with tears as Jesse pleaded with Johnny to tell him why his dad needs help. “What’s wrong with him?” the boy sobs. 

“He knows,” Viv sighs when Johnny calls her the next day, and indeed, when the phone is passed his way, Jesse asks his mom, “Is it like before?,” a question that draws a new wave of tears in her, and an even more powerful one in me. It wasn’t a question any of my kids were old enough to ask yet. But that one little word orbited somewhere in the morass that clouded my mind: yet.

My essay on 20th Century Women continued mutating long past the point of compatibility with life, its unfinished form eventually weighing in at well over 13,000 words (almost three times the length of the essay you’re reading now). I have a tendency to indulge in digressive thought while I write about movies, chasing flights of fancy and diving down research rabbit holes that, more often than not, branch into their own increasingly labyrinthine depths until an essay on Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of Pet Sematary can find me reading up on the myth of the basilisk, perusing an 1875 issue of the outdoorsman’s journal Animal World, and trying to wrap my head around Descartes’s theories on the mind/body problem. I can’t always navigate my way onto that river where the good thoughts spawn (if it’s not too presumptuous to suggest I’ve ever made my way there at all), but every so often I feel myself riding the rapids, and there’s no better feeling. I chased it with the 20th Century Women essay, my mind eating itself as I crammed paragraphs past the point of bursting with thoughts on Koyaanisqatsi and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, the Greek prog composer Vangelis and Alvin Toffler’s bestselling work of ‘70s speculative social science Future Shock. Some of this I could justify, like the cited-onscreen Koyaanisqatsi, but even that led me only further down a digressive spiral on climate terror, which I attempted to curlicue into a metaphor on my own stormy mental seas.

In the year since, I’ve returned compulsively to that beached ship of a document, hoping I could preserve any of the voluminous material that was so intensely meaningful to me as I was writing it, and perhaps spin the salient fragments into something comprehensible. The attempts never make it far; the piece simply isn’t seaworthy. But every time I come back to that essay, it’s because I want to find a way to talk about one thing that I can’t seem to let go of. So with a fresh start—as clean a break as I can make from last fall—I’m going to relate it to you now:

As I rolled C’mon C’mon into an essay that was at times tentatively titled “In All This Mess,” I started chasing the thread of picture books, those tools that Johnny uses to make the world comprehensible to Jesse and to himself. I passed through ideas like a bull hurtling through paper walls, churning out a burst of words on a favorite book here, jotting down what felt like a miraculously resonant passage there. I was a truck cruising downhill with cut brakes, and it wasn’t long before I found myself watching a warped and skipping recording of a 1964 television documentary titled The Lively Art of Picture Books.

“What is it about these books that makes children love them as much as they do?” asks the program’s host, author and educator John Langstaff, who sits on a sofa with an array of books on the coffee table before him. Within moments, he’s spiraled off into his own heady abstraction: “What is this life?” Langstaffe muses. “Who’s to say how imagination works?”

In The Lively Art of Picture Books, we visit a handful of mid-century children’s artists, including Maurice Sendak and Barbara Cooney, each of whom—according to Langstaffe—offers “ways of seeing the world, its beauty, its humor, its fearfulness, and its joy.” And among those artists visited is Robert McCloskey, he of my hometown’s beloved local duckling statues. McCloskey shows the camera some of his work for Make Way for Ducklings, and some for his classic seafaring yarn, Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man. But these aren’t the books that made McCloskey one of the most impactful artists to ever wrap himself around my heart.

Instead, it’s the loose trilogy of books McCloskey wrote about his own children that long ago entwined themselves with my being. The first, 1948’s Blueberries for Sal, is a fairytale-logic bedtime story concerning his eldest daughter’s misadventurous trip to Blueberry Hill; the second, 1952’s One Morning in Maine, tells the story of Sal’s first lost tooth, a milestone for which she’s joined by her little sister Jane; and in his singular masterpiece, 1957’s Time of Wonder, McCloskey narrates his daughters’ exploits not to us but to them. In this second-person prose poem, we see teenage Sal and preteen Jane from a dreamy distance as they roam their island. “At the water’s edge on a foggy morning,” McCloskey tells his girls, “you feel as though you were standing alone on the edge of nowhere.” Sal and Jane are shown as impressionistic blots of color here rather than the precise, lifelike line drawings they once were, already receding from their father’s immediate perception. “It is a time of quiet wonder,” he writes, referring simultaneously to the eerie aftermath of the hurricane that lashes their island across the book’s second half, and to the full, wondrous scope of his children’s budding existences.

McCloskey’s history with the Caldecott Medal—perhaps the highest honor that an author of picture books can hope for—was marked by some controversy. Having awarded Make Way for Ducklings in 1942, the committee made the unpopular choice to merely nominate Blueberries for Sal, as they had never before lauded the same author twice. But this simple story of a berry-picking trip gone awry, according to literacy advocate Anne Carroll Moore’s entreaty to the committee, “emphasizes our debt to an artist who has met this difficult era with complete integrity.” As the power of McCloskey’s Sal and Jane stories only accumulated with each passing book, Time of Wonder (which was adapted for video by production company Weston Woods in 1961) emerged as so undeniable an achievement that McCloskey became the first repeat Caldecott winner. “This superb book may well serve a deeper purpose,” wrote McCloskey’s longtime editor May Massee in Library Journal. “[Readers] will be very subtly taught to love and wonder at the world they live in and to appreciate the privilege of living in it. This, surely, is the best that we can give to children.”

McCloskey draws himself as tall and lean in his own illustrations for One Morning in Maine and Time of Wonder, but by the time of The Lively Art of Picture Books, he cuts a stocky figure with thick-framed glasses and dark, buzzed hair. He tours the camera through his workspace and discusses his process, and then he sits before a bare wall to offer some testimony on his outlook and perspective. He dismisses the notion that he might be called good with his hands, as this is the purely automatic part of drawing. “Drawing is, most of all, a way of seeing and of thinking,” he explains. “Drawing a tree, you must think of the relationship and proportions of twigs to branches to trunk, even of the roots that you cannot see. And you must feel the balance and the thrust of this growing thing and its relationship to other trees, a rock, the ocean. Your hand is trained, of course…but your mind is ticking away like mad, racing and comparing and thinking a thousand things that no one will ever see in the picture, but the picture will be different for your having thought of it.”

I watched this video one lonely late-fall weekend in my little rented office, toiling away on some watercolor project to keep my troublesome hands occupied. I was awestruck by finally seeing the living, breathing McCloskey, a man who’d so fundamentally shaped my own taste in art and perceptions of both visual and written artistry. I felt some spark of recognition as he spoke of his thought processes, but that spark began to smolder a moment later.

“I can’t turn it off at the end of an eight-hour day,” McCloskey says in the documentary. “It goes right on ticking whether or not I have a brush in my hand. Most of my neighbors just don’t seem to see as I do.” His voice begins quavering slightly as he goes on: “Sometimes they’re amused. Sometimes they yawn. And sometimes they’re annoyed.” The shaking grows more profound now, his face rippling ambiguously: “It gets pretty lonely up here on cloud nine,” he admits. “They’re all down there looking up at me like I’m some kind of a nut. But I’m not a nut really, as anyone can see. I have one foot resting on reality and the other foot planted firmly on a banana peel.”

Last fall, I was rarely mentally still, but at that moment, I stopped in my tracks. Never has such a powerfully confounding mass of churning feeling been made so comprehensible through the parameters of language. I had seen words put to my own confused pain, and it felt as though a hand had reached across the gulf of half a century to grasp my own, providing the grounding I didn’t know I was casting about for so wildly.

I would like to be very clear: I am not suggesting that Robert McCloskey—who passed away in 2003—had a mood disorder. All I can say is that every so often, he seems to have felt a pain very much like the kind of pain I feel every so often. I wouldn’t venture to suggest that Mike Mills has some form of intimate experience with bipolar disorder, either, but I can say for certain that he made the most viscerally recognizable portrait of the condition I’ve ever seen. As he hasn’t discussed the topic in any interview I’ve read, though, it seems like a case of none of my business.

All I want to say is this: it can be pretty remarkable, the way our hearts and minds manage to navigate us onto a shared wavelength with our favorite artists, that ephemeral aesthetic urge that tells us something is for us in ways we can’t quite identify at first. And when all the forces of right-places and right-times coalesce to finally unlock that deeper meaning—well, I’d say that’s what so many of us look for in art, but I don’t want to presume to speak for anyone on the other side of this screen. It’s what I look for, at least, and one cold, lonely day last year, I found it in an old forgotten TV special. I’ve felt grateful ever since.

Not long after I first watched The Lively Art of Picture Books, I accepted the inevitable and told my psychiatrist that I was ready to adjust my medication. After almost a decade, I reacquainted myself with antipsychotics, and while my first round with the stuff all those years ago had been so debilitating as to leave me terrified of what parts of me I might now sacrifice in the pursuit of stability—or, at the very least, more than four consecutive hours of sleep—we tried a different drug this time, and the side effects were milder. I was lucky. So far, I’ve tended to be one of the lucky ones, and I don’t take that for granted. We cut the dosage back by half recently, and we’re hoping I’ll be antipsychotic-free once more within another few months. It’ll be nice to be off them again; I won’t be so scared of going back on now.

I don’t know that I feel I’ve recovered from last fall’s mania, but that doesn’t really scare me, either. More than anything, this year has been about accepting the fact that I’ll probably ride choppy seas from here on out rather than sailing towards some distant shore called after. There’s that resigned quality to how Viv talks about Paul’s cyclical moods: Like always, she says, for better or worse (in sickness and health).

Like my memory of discovering The Lively Art of Picture Books, there’s another moment in time that I’ve never quite been able to shake. It had been a year since my hospitalization; after 12 months entombed in my own heavily medicated husk, I’d finally clawed my way close enough to daylight that I could do something as simple as visit with a friend. Now, I sat in my car outside that friend’s house, preparing to drive home, when a song on the radio caught my ear. It was, I would learn, called “Recovery,” and it was sung by a man named Frank Turner.

I know you are a cynic, Turner sings, but I think I can convince you (yeah)
‘Cause broken people can get better if they really want to
Or at least that’s what I have to tell myself if I am hoping to—
Turner takes a breath there, and the next word comes out as a howl:

“Do you feel like adults understand what kids are going through?” Johnny asks one pre-adolescent interview subject in New Orleans.

“Um,” the kid replies. “I definitely think lots of moms do because…I think they do.”

Johnny is the protagonist of C’mon C’mon, but the film’s hero is Viv. She’s the one who knows the parenting terminology like doing a repair, and where online to find the scripts for those repairs. She knows enough to admit how much she doesn’t know, and she allows herself the space to be herself, exist freely in her environment alongside Jesse because what could be better for him than that? Where at one point we see Paul holding court for Jesse on the rug, later we see Viv before Jesse herself, lost in her own artistic ecstasy as she performs an impromptu rendition of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Shoop” (“She’s always singing old songs from when she was a kid,” Jesse notes). And perhaps it’s these twinned scenes of casual parental evangelism that embody why the greatest betrayal in Johnny’s and Viv’s past is the day he suggested she and Jesse could cut and run. 

The choice to have Viv narrate Paul’s muffled mania is one of Mills’s most effective—it’s Viv who most profoundly shoulders this family’s burdens, and so it’s Viv for whom Mills carves out the space to speak when her husband won’t allow it. “Mothers cannot help but be in touch with the most difficult aspects of any fully-lived life,” Johnny reads as the onscreen text appears: “Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty by Jacqueline Rose.” “Why on earth should it fall to them to paint things bright, and innocent, and safe?”

If I am the protagonist of this essay, my wife is the unspoken hero, the one who kept our familial ship on a steady course while I whipped up the winds around us all. I can’t speak to her experience of those times, so I don’t try; her voice should be her own, and maybe one day she’ll tell some of the stories I’ve touched on here. Maybe she won’t. She’s a midwife, not a writer. It’s a good thing we’re different.

I wouldn’t have finally gotten this essay written if it weren’t for her. I debated whether I could tackle all this mess, and how, and why. It could be important to write it all out, she believed. It could help. “They might find it someday,” she reminded me, because that makes it a big responsibility. “But,” she said, too, “think how meaningful it could be to find it someday.”

And so if the three of you might find this someday, I suppose I may as well speak directly to you.

You probably won’t remember last fall, and I’m glad. Maybe by now, there have been bad times you do remember. I hope there haven’t been too many. I hope they weren’t too bad. All I can speak to right now is last fall, and so all I can say is this: the only times I felt at peace were the times when I was alone with you, because you pulled me out of the jaws of a brain that was trying to eat me up. I still say sorry a lot when we talk about the day, but I’m working on doing a repair, and I think I’m getting better. I think we’re going to stay lucky. I hope you’ll tell me I was right. I can’t help seeing the roots of the tree, and its relationship to all the other trees, and I wouldn’t trade that. But I’m trying to find the times of quiet wonder, too.