Monday, August 18, 2014


Is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood "one of the most extraordinary movies of the 21st century?" Possibly. A.O. Scott of the New York Times certainly thinks so. Is it one of the best movies ever made, as a friend of mine gushed only moments after having just seen it on its opening weekend? Who knows? We usually let 40 or 50 years pass before we start talking of such things. Do such declarations even matter at this point, the film having been alive in the American marketplace only just over a month? Probably not, unless you’re in the business of predicting the Oscars. But both remarks seem to be indicative of the sort of rush to hyperbole Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan spoke of when addressing his own shrug of a response to the movie. I am not for a minute suggesting either response is in any way insincere or disingenuous, just perhaps a little too well-suited for a culture that wants even a sprawling, uniquely expressed film like Boyhood to be packaged in neat, digestible bites.

Unfortunately, in his Los Angeles Times article Turan remained maddeningly coy about the details of his dissenting opinion on Boyhood, and far more articulate about the less interesting topic of standing alone in the critical community against the stiff wind of near-unanimous praise. His most cogent commentary about the film was the suggestion that much of the praise being heaped on Boyhood might be partially explained by a critic’s desire to validate his/her own practice. "We yearn to anoint films and call them masterpieces," Turan wrote, "perhaps to make our own critical lives feel more significant because it allows us to lay claim to having experienced something grand and meaningful." This may be true on occasion, for critics and for viewers, though it is surprising to hear Turan calling into question the veracity of other people’s responses, however much more comfy-chair is his tone than the one Armond White took in skewering the film’s "think-alike idolators," especially after Turan essentially refuses to elaborate meaningfully on the foundations for his own dissatisfaction.

So, what makes a masterpiece? As Sam Adams points out in a very thoughtful piece on the effect of the film’s welcoming within the critical community, masterpieces are not the result of a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. They are instead the result of careful scrutiny which, in the spirit of Linklater’s film, is only possible with the passage of time. "Criticisms, and the extent to which they illuminate the fascinating imperfections beneath those masterpieces’ surface," Adams writes, "only make them stronger." To that end, part of the journey into the culture undertaken by Boyhood, a movie which expresses the elusiveness of time and experience in a way quite unlike just about any other movie which has addressed the subject, is yet to come—that’d be the part which happens in our heads and our hearts as the movie takes hold of our imaginations and becomes a milestone in our experience as viewers or, of course, fails to do so.

I saw Boyhood the day before yesterday, and I’ve never been happier to not have to turn around and crank out 750 words on a deadline about a movie. Frankly, two days later, I’m still a whole lot more overwhelmed by it than I thought I would be. Any words of mine regarding the movie’s marvelous qualities of sociological, ethnographic, psychological and, of course, temporal consciousness would likely be superficial and add nothing to the general chorus of hosannas that have already been expressed far more eloquently. Nothing I could say about the movie’s central structuring conceit would likely be any more illuminating than what you’ve likely already read— the movie is an almost-documentary observation of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a strictly fictional character, filmed over 12 years, his years from age six to 18 compressed into a way of seeing and experiencing life that would be difficult for anyone to believe could work as fully well in the viewing as it does. (Linklater’s pitch meetings to the money men must have had Orson Welles and Robert Altman saluting from beyond the grave.)

Even so, it is a remarkable thing to witness the evolution of this dreamy boy child (we first see him staring at clouds, then sitting between his house and a fence, whiling away his days doing nothing) into a slightly underachieving young man, his sleepy eyelids in constant battle with the alertness, the size of the eyes themselves. It’s fascinating to watch him learn to react (and recede from reaction) as his friends and family try to fashion him into something he barely seems interested in; to experience how he holds our interest even if we may occasionally feel the urge to shake him into something like a less complacent state of being; and to see his own personal way of processing the world, of taking it in and appreciating it for what it is, take shape, find expression.

Even the movie’s flirtation with heavy-handed melodrama, particularly in regard to Mason’s mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and her continuing misfortunes with men, don’t feel so egregious or miscalculated in light of the screenplay’s lithe sidestepping past the various opportunities to indulge in obvious emotional manipulation—possible affairs, possible pregnancy, possible unexpected tragedy—the story might seem to afford. Arquette is given the remarkable opportunity to live and breathe the sort of woman who might, in many other films, be merely a receptacle for the fears and the frustrations of the protagonist, or those of the director. But as Wesley Morris points out in his review of the film, one of the remarkable things about Linklater’s Boyhood is how much welcome room it makes for Arquettte’s singularly poignant portrait of single motherhood.

The film marks the passage of time in the faces of its actors, of course, but also through the way it indicates, without a jarring jump-cut sensibility, how Olivia (Patricia Arquette) extricates herself from the influence of her abusive, alcoholic husbands (the second one entirely off-screen); how the landscape of her countenance, changing in its way right along with her son’s, illustrates her deepening concern and love; by the telling presence of technology, of how Game Boy screens and televisions morph into computers and smartphones and, of course, the unseen grid of social media; of the political landscape of Texas after the turn of the century; and by the deft massaging of all these elements into scenes that don’t seem edited as much as molded together.

And perhaps most of all, I appreciate how the movie affords us the glimpse into the evolution of Mason Jr.’s dad, Mason (Ethan Hawke), who in his first scenes registers as a callow slacker who naturally tries too hard to ingratiate himself into his role as a weekend dad, who tries too hard to hold on to the signifiers of his youth as badges of personal honor. As time dissolves on, Mason trades his bitchin’ GTO—the car his son perhaps none too secretly covets—for a minivan and a new family to ride in it and, as a result of the accumulation of experience and, no doubt, marrying into a family of Texas Christians, becomes a more conservative version of himself than he would have ever allowed to be possible. (At one point his daughter Samantha—played with equal parts grace and lack of experience in front of a camera by Linklater's own daughter, Lorelei—worries that her dad might be becoming one of those "God people," and all he can do is glance back at his wife and newborn baby with a shrug and a chuckle.) A great indicator of the movie’s own state of grace is that it never tries to score points off the path Mason Sr. has ended up taking, but instead accepts him and the unstated conflict between his past and current versions in much the same way it does Mason Sr.’s in-laws, who aren’t demonized for presenting the younger Mason with a personalized Bible and a 20-gauge shotgun as birthday presents.

But as Mason Sr. ages into the sort of gravitas that allows him a true connection with his son, as one experienced adult, with the lines on his face to prove it, to an emerging one, so too does Hawke, whose own aging on screen is every bit as rewarding in its emergent hardiness and solidity as Coltrane’s. I don’t know that Hawke has ever been as effective, as affecting, in any role—and that includes the three Before pictures he co-wrote and starred in for Linklater and with Julie Delpy—as he is in his final scene with Mason Jr., assessing his own life and his shortcomings, and even the meaning of an improvised life, in the presence of this young man who’s about to step out on his own and start making his own mistakes. The weight Hawke brings to the part, combined with the way Linklater has allowed us to see them grow together, gives the moment a clarity and heartbreaking believability that just isn’t accessible to more conventional portraits of parents and their children, and throws into relief how much Boyhood becomes as much about what it means to bring up a child as it is about being one.

Another point made by some of Boyhood’s detractors, as pointed out in Sam Adams’ essay, is that much of the praise heaped upon the movie is the result of progressive, white, male film critics seeing themselves in or projecting themselves onto the character of Mason, a strange thought considering the gender and race of some of the movie’s strongest and most articulate supporters. Much to my relief, Linklater’s Boyhood is not my boyhood. I didn’t spend time, nor did I feel encouraged to spend time ticking off all the ways in which Mason’s story stood in for that of all (white) boys—it’s not a portrayal that is designed to invite easy, superficial comparisons that will reassure or otherwise validate a certain demographic and its experiences. (Okay, I did occasionally thumb through the Sears-Roebuck catalog for its erotic qualities.) And the near universal positive response to the movie might be a clue that Linklater’s intent, to fashion an unusual way for audiences to experience a life, a bit of time caught in a bottle, is pushing its way past more routine expectations, that Boyhood might be built on the much more simple desire to look back fondly and say, "Yeah, that’s me."

I love how Linklater lets the movie sprawl and find its own shape outside of prescribed methods of editing, how he allows it to trickle through the timeline and make room for the sorts of detail that would get sifted out of a more strictly and traditionally dramatic approach. Nothing much beyond the course of everyday experience happens in Boyhood—the movie has also been criticized in some quarters for not being dramatic enough, for being a too generalized portraiture of growing up. Yet the movie captures with alarming sensitivity the way youth, and the way people move through it toward maturity, makes each decision seem momentous, important, far-reaching, when precisely the opposite may be true. I just had one of those conversations with my own daughter, who is beginning high school this year, and I was fascinated to watch the little flickers of conflict and understanding and confusion dance across her face as we considered together this new phase in her life. The sort of moment we had during that talk was the sort I found reflected back at me in Mason’s tentative, increasingly curious conversations with his parents, the sort of personal connection, the coalescing of a movie’s worth of these sorts of observations— which might end up on the cutting room floor in a more conventionally mounted production—that brought Boyhood into a deeper realm for me.

Somewhere during the second hour of Boyhood I began to register the sense of being alive to the movie in a way that hasn’t happened very often in my experience with movies, and for much of the back half of the film I felt near tears, though I wouldn’t have been able to say why—it was certainly not due to any sort of manipulative tactics Linklater or his actors were employing. I remained in this sort of heightened state of awareness as Mason moved through anticipating college, experiencing the joys and disappointments of his first serious romance, graduating high school and taking the first steps out into a larger, scarier world full of possible achievement and just as possible failure, onto the precipice of his first fully realized philosophy of where his life has brought him, into young adulthood. As the movie ended, I sighed with a sense of relief, satisfied that I'd been able to see Linklater’s vision through, that I had been properly moved by the movie’s emotional and psychological achievement, that my own resistance to the film, perhaps brought on in part as a reaction to the boatload of celebration that greeted its release, had been overtaken by genuine appreciation for it. I sat back and laid my head on my wife’s shoulder and, perhaps sensing something was up, she asked me if I was okay. At that point I burst into uncontrollable sobs, from which it took a while to make a recovery. I’ve felt somewhat overwhelmed by the movie since, and only after a couple of days did I feel like I even wanted to try to think about what was happening underneath my reaction.
Tears are, in my experience, a very unreliable way in which to gauge the merit of a movie, or of any work of art-- any hack can push the right buttons and make someone in the audience cry, and you can often find yourself blubbering at something even as you’re kicking yourself for falling for an emotional ruse. But what I began to sense in the second half of the movie, the reason I was beginning to feel so raw, came to a head during the scene between Mason and his dad in the club. As they talked, I remember thinking to myself, "This is what’s it is like." The thought came not as a way of validating Linklater’s approach to realism. I was thinking to myself, this is what it’s like to have a son. At which point I realized the nature of the gift the movie was in the process of giving me, in its sensitivity to character, of course, but also through the structure which allows us the privilege of seeing a time-compressed portrait of a life being lived, a person being changed, a journey toward the unknown, toward pain, fulfillment, toward death. In Boyhood I was being given a chance to feel what it might have been like to live life with my own son, Charlie, who was stillborn on August 11, 1997 and buried on this day 17 years ago. Watching this movie, I felt I had access to insight into the companionship and connection a father has with his son, the way they relate, the way they bristle against each other, the way they test each other, the way they can ease into each other’s company. It was splendid, unexpected, and way more than I was prepared to handle in the moment. And if I ever have the chance to congratulate Richard Linklater on his movie, it will be in the context of being grateful for him having created an opportunity for me to experience, in a particular fashion, something I never thought I would.

Is Boyhood the greatest movie ever made, an enduring masterpiece? Who cares? Its sublime everyday poetry, its generosity, its empathy, its curiosity, its window onto the true fleetingness and intangibility of time, these are the qualities that actually mean something. Boyhood is extraordinary right now. When we’re older and grayer and ostensibly wiser, there will still be plenty of time to discuss matters of greatness.


1 comment:

Ryan Kelly said...

I think this approach is generally valuable - "masterpieces" get picked over time, and the canon such as it is constantly changes. Sometimes it feels more like self promotion than criticism, though that's another topic for another time. And frankly it's not nearly as interesting, especially in a case where the film (however flawed it may or may not be) lends itself to rich analysis.

I loved this piece, though generally am not as high on the movie as you, partly because of the cheesy Lifetime movie stepfather stuff (which, as you point out, isn't as overbearing as it could have been), but mostly because I thought the film was weirdly schematic, which is something I wasn't quite prepared for. Linklater, at his best, has a certain free form quality that brings to mind other great improvisational directors. It just felt so mapped out to me, and I think that's partly because the movie never loses its adult perspective. By the time we got to college, with drugs and eye opening look at landscapes, I felt like I'd had my hand held in a way that I wish I hadn't.