the better truth

the better truth

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Boyhood (2014)

Boyhood (2014)
Moments of Revolution

"What is the nature of the search? you ask. Really it is very simple; at least for a fellow like me. So simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.” - Binx Bolling, in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer

“Like all great discoveries, it is breathtakingly simple” - Binx’s Aunt

‘Boyhood’ is Richard Linklater’s much acclaimed, nearly three hour, feature film which documents the coming of age of a young American boy in a contemporary single parent family. The word ‘documents’ is rarely used in association with this type of fiction movie. This film is different. It is organized and produced in an unconventional manner having been shot over twelve years.The cast literally grows up before your eyes. This trope has been used in Michael Apted’s “Up” films. For over half a century the director has been returning to the same group of people to examine their progress (or lack thereof). Unlike this popular documentary, the draw of Linklater’s feature is more than witnessing people morph into adults. It is captivating to watch the cast of ‘Boyhood’ come of age but the real hook is the magic of omission. Ironically purposeful absence pushes the narrative into the sublime. Perhaps ‘narrative’ isn’t the right word choice as this ‘story’ is enmeshed in passing moments rather than plot points. The zeitgeist of this work fails to be captured in conventional terms. This speaks to its revolutionary nature.

Is this a dramatic film? Is it scripted? Was it conceived as a story focusing on the boy? Did the crucial form come from editing ad-libbed sequences? All these unusual questions and yet: ‘Boyhood’ is conventionally structured, traditionally photographed and chronologically told. This stands in stark contrast to game-changing directors of the past who freed stories from rigid scripts and pre-built sets. To name just two: John Cassavetes unbound the staid movie world with unscripted sequences shot in actual locations. Jean-Luc Godard was even more phrenetic and purposely jarred audiences by obscuring time and place.  Both these auteurs created beautiful, stylized, versions of reality but there was no mistaking their ground-breaking visions. Linklater is a quiet revolutionary. His oeuvre borrows Cassavetes hip vibrancy while ignoring Godard’s overt manipulation of reality. Make no mistake Linklater is equally subversive. He gently melds the playwright Thornton Wilder’s sense of vastness. The specter of Father Time rises from the mundane suburban landscapes. One might initially mistake ‘Boyhood’ for a conventional feature.  By the same logic one might assume “Our Town” is set small New England village. The journey, however, quietly slips from the provincial to the eternal. ‘Boyhood’  takes place on the familiar footing of track houses, highways, McMansions and institutional buildings. But don’t let the solid ground fool you. To paraphrase Dorothy: We are not in Texas anymore.

Most features rest on familiar conceits involving moving a story forward. This film opens with a ordinary lower middle class family consisting of: an overburdened mother, two squabbling children and a likable absent father. They experience the typical trials of striving Americans… dislocation, lack of money, never ending intra-family strife, substance abuse.… The usual tricks of wedding audiences to story lines and characters seamlessly drifts away as the film progresses. Here is the heart of the revolution: the small actions within the moment replace the predictable linear thread. We uncouple from the narrative and become personally involved with the overall lives of the protagonists. We are not seeing a movie. We are living with a family. As in real life we can only glimpse at the truth and never know what really happened. Things arrive and vanish without explanation. The echo of these experiences shapes what is it to come. To use a visual metaphor from ‘Boyhood’ : there are many moments when the children look out car windows to see their friends or step-siblings disappear in the distance. The conventional narrative thread would deliver meticulous explanations of the fate of their beloved companions. This approach would also relegate those who don’t deserve a full history to being merely background fill. In film terms: minor characters or extras don’t count. ‘Boyhood’ reverses that conceit. They are all that matter because, in the grand scheme, we are all extras. It is counter-intuitive to build meaning out of loose ends and walk-on characters. This is the radical nature of Linklater’s vision.

Even the bedrock notion that the players in this film are fictional ‘characters’ seems undone by the world outside the movie theater. Today, in real life as I wrote, National Public Radio ran a segment describing the release of Ethan Hawke’s “Black Album”.  This is a collection of songs performed by members of the Beatles after their breakup. Hawke made this compilation for his daughter. Linklater appropriated this moment and mixed it in the narrative. How does one categorize Hawke’s heartfelt speech to his son where he carefully unpacks the liturgy of four former apostles of music? He gave the same sermon to his daughter in real life. Are these ‘characters’ or actual people recreating their own lives? The illusionary answers are secondary to the raising of the question. What is truth? The ambiguous reality is further intertwined with a strange open-ended disappearing storyline. Here are some examples: The black clad mentally ill neighborhood boy who curses on command: seen once but forever etched in everyones’ mind. The high-school bullies who challenge the newbie in the bathroom evoking the endless torments of male adolescent rage: they threaten, curse and vanish. The chatty girl who coaxes our angst ridden anti-hero to a special party to meet her friend who has a crush on him: don’t know if he did… but he was asked. All these vignettes are interspersed with stunningly accurate dialogue and trends of the specific period. A Harry Potter book sale is featured complete with the kids in costume. There is a hilarious sequence documenting lawn sign posting during the Obama/ McCain election. The conversations amongst the characters has a startling real world intimacy. There is a sequence of our hero and his high school girlfriend discussing the merits of Facebook. He thinks it takes everyone away from ‘real life’. He also believes himself to be profound, original and different. He thinks she treasures his lone man uniqueness.  She is skeptical of his pronouncements but fails to press him too hard. She stays tethered to her phone. She also enjoys conventionality in dress and manner. The inevitable break up scene captures the absurdity of young people caught on the cusp of adulthood. This is all delivered with straightforward cinematography and no special effects or wardrobe enhancements. The genuineness of the dialogue and performance actually hides the meticulous artistry. If is as you were on a bus or in a restaurant and you witnessed these people living their lives. Detailed descriptions of most of the scenes approximate a recitation of events caught on surveillance cameras. The audience experience, however, generates the ecstasy of bearing witness to a masterful work of art.

This conveyor belt of seemingly random moments has the effect of being a Rorschach test for audience members’ own life experiences. Tolstoy’s famous remark rings true as witnessing Linklater’s creation evokes personal reflections on the unhappiness of one’s own family. Most feature films demand coalescing around a good/bad divide regarding character or plot. ‘Boyhood’ provokes very different discussions in each individual audience member. I personally was moved by the mother’s endless capacity to ‘soldier on’ and safeguard her children despite numerous mistaken life-choices. My film companion was nauseated by the never-ending finger-wagging towards American adolescents by adults who have little insight into their own lives. Once again neither view is wrong. There were so many universal touchstones it would be difficult to predict what series of magical moments would impact a typical viewer. Patrica Arquette’s physical reactions to her ex-husband’s half baked attempts to be emotionally supportive are exquisite.  She has harnessed all the pain of American single moms who do battle with absentee fathers’ boundless capacity for fecklessness. The expression on our young hero’s face while his step-father capriciously cuts off all his hair brings forth all the childhood tyranny experienced at the hands of cruel adults. These examples reveal the melancholy but Linkletter is far too good an artist to be morose. Life is tinged with sadness but great art manages to be honest and not fall into a morass of self-pity. This film is a comedy in the Chekovian sense. At times it is even ‘laugh out loud’ funny. No one will witness the children’s sudden visit to the religious, gun-toting step-grandparents and not crack a smile at parents’ emotional entanglements. This sequence is a movie version of the famous website, “Awkward Family Photos”.

Linklater shares the cojones and unshakable vision of cinema verite filmmakers who usually work in two man crews (sound and picture). The documentarians journey relies on a roll of the dice in capturing the unknown. Every project begins with the full knowledge that there might be nothing show for all the effort.  After spending thousands of days and dollars their subjects might  be uninteresting or unobtainable. Linklater’s bravery dwarfs these efforts in that he was organizing an army of production staff while tapping millions in financing: all predicated on the whims of children. In fact he even drafted his own daughter as one of the co-stars when she was literally a little girl. What if she, at the tender age of 10, decided she was no longer interested in Daddy’s dream? What if the co-stars had opted out of the project after a few years? How does one ensure a decade’s worth of commitment on an ephemeral premise? One can only imagine the facial expression of a seasoned Hollywood agent’: “you want my client for 12 years and you’re not sending me a script?” Probably could only to be matched by the grimaces of the producers when they tried to calculate their return on investment.

Some may carp that the work is too long. Others might criticize certain sequences for not measuring up to the high standards of acting and dialogue that comprise the bulk of the film. These are valid criticisms but reveal a myopicness married to conventional paradigms. These so called ‘blemishes’ oddly link the film to the major premise of ‘Boyhood’: this is life, plain and simple. It appears that way but in reality it is a skillfully imagined rendering born of a mastery of craft and a distinct vision. One of his radical decisions is to include seemingly superfluous material that would be verboten in most projects. But most films aren’t aiming as high. ‘Boyhood’ is asking fundamental questions that spur introspection.  Linklater treats his audience without condescension. He eschews dispensing sagacity on cue.

What kind of person dares to create a film such as ‘Boyhood’? The all encompassing scope combined with the logistics make career ending failure an almost certainty. Obviously the motivation cannot be grounded in penury fears or need for acceptance. Linklater, being a true artist, risked his professional life knowing he might be wrong. Most who embark on this journey share the fate of the supporting cast of ‘Boyhood’: they drift out of the picture and never reach the summit of Olympus. Some, such as Linklater, prevail. Based on the fierceness of his vision I would guess he would ally himself with those minions who were left vanquished on the mountainside.  Thematically ‘Boyhood’ shows that we are all in this together. Hard fought battles mesh together and obscure the specifics of a particular failure or triumph. A lauded academy trophy will eventually become a little noticed relic stuffed away in an office or museum... before it is forgotten and disappears.  Things always gravitate towards smallness. This is why truth lies in the grand spectrum of little moments. Banded together these droplets of memory form our eternal legacy and guard us from the nothingness of oblivion. It is futile to mark every rain storm and explain everything.  Many great artists fall into this trap. Audience-victims of Terrence Mallick’s late films (“Tree of Life”, “To the Wonder") know the pitfalls of attempting to compose “A Key to all Mythologies”.  These endeavors  always end in laborious indecipherable journeys. The real ‘key’ is to adopt a Shaker sense of simplicity while focusing on what is front and center. No need for explanation. It is arrogant to think you have answers. Just asks questions and let the audience experience personal affirmation; then get back to the business at hand.

In Linklater’s case this film will be a life’s work. It’s not over… merely the first installment. It redefines the much derided notion of soap-opera while retaining the gravitas of Marcel Proust’s “A Remembrance of Lost Time”. It is more approachable than most meditations on the human condition because it avoids the heaviness of epic drama while retaining its profundity. The closing scene says it all. There are no spoilers as this is life. We are not looking for pat endings or clever summations. Our anti-hero sits on a rock in a desert. It is the South West but it bears a resemblance to the East African Rift Valley, the area where homo sapiens first evolved.  Our anti-hero obviously has an interest in his new-found friend. They are both high on peyote. He is awkwardly trying to retain his teenage ‘cool’ while not wanting to be aloof. He wants her to like him. She is beautiful and clever and the vastness of the eternal surroundings highlights her wit and charm. He summons all his courage and says “it’s like its always right now”. Nothing could be dumber.. or more wise. It’s genius. Thank you Mr. Linklater for being brave and telling it like it is. We will get up every morning and look for your next installment. Maybe it will never come but we know that you’re working on it. We all are.

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