Before manhood, “Boyhood”

November 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

For those as interested in artistry and artisanship as they are the resultant art – in particular, those whose ultimate appreciation of a film is in some way dependent on or at least significantly influenced by their knowledge of the process by which said film found its way onto a screen – “Boyhood” is, quite frankly, a cause celebre. Flourish or fail as it might as a film, these folk, whether in it for the geekery or the gossip, would have a wealth of material over which to froth and obsess. So if bulldozing its way onto the cultural main stage and setting tongues a-wagging and thumbs a-typing was a major goal, however knowing or unknowing on the part of Richard Linklater and his collaborators, the film is quite a success, gathering interest, amassing plaudits and netting somewhat unprecedented box-office receipts. But it may very well be that in order to appreciate and appraise this film with any measure of critical heft and incisiveness, one must first acknowledge the degree to which they are awed or unmoved by the film’s backstory.

Immediately prior to the film’s initial festival showings, when its – and this is said without any disrespect –  general ‘gimmick’ was the most interesting thing about it, it would not have been necessarily cynical to expect that, at the very least, a subset of the critical response would be positive if not hyperbolically so. By the same token, a more pessimistic hunch that this very gimmick would be the film’s undoing, that “Boyhood” would be at best an admirable attempt  at doing something not-quite/quite possibly new and at worst an artistically fraudulent exercise, would have been perhaps equally valid. But now that the film has been seen as widely as one would expect for a nearly three-hour picture without any clearly discernible plot, the unanimity of the acclaim that “Boyhood” has thus far received is almost disorienting. Sight unseen, what this film could possibly do to inspire such an outpouring of adoration was hard to imagine. Having finally seen it, how exactly “Boyhood” manages to inspire such a rightful outpouring of adoration by a means so understated is hard to break down.

While clearly an undertaking of immense patience and faith on the part of the producers involved, “Boyhood” is an out-and-out achievement from a directorial standpoint, for several reasons. One of a director’s core roles in the making of a film – particularly the ‘point A to point B, whatever the route’ narrative type, which “Boyhood” largely is – is tonal integrity. For logistical reasons pertaining to everything from actors’ schedules to location availability, the vast majority of narrative features are shot out of sequence during principal photography. So if scenes that take place in a particular location are shot one after the after regardless of where they exist temporally in the script, it is imperative that the mood, the rhythm, the tone of performance, the subtext of these scenes fit as seamlessly as possible into the overall structure of the piece once it is assembled in the editing suite. Of course, good actors know their characters’ trajectories to a tee, and there is often a script supervisor whose job it is to ensure that the screenplay (however pedantic or scanty) is adhered to as closely as is necessary for purposes of consistency, but there are countless other elements that contribute to a film’s tonal integrity and it is the director’s responsibility to develop a unifying vision with which they approach each sequence, each scene, each shot. On this front, “Boyhood” could have been photographed in five straight months. It is that seamless. For a man who thought it feasible to shoot a film in the way that he did, Richard Linklater, in conjunction with cinematographers Lee Daniel and Shane F. Kelly, was wise to limit his experimentation to using the same actors across the twelve year period because one could swear that – despite the avalanche of new formats the aughts brought – “Boyhood” was shot with the same roll of film judging by the unified quality of all the images. Looking at the picture, the camera is unobtrusive and quietly omniscient, the shot choices present things without necessarily highlighting any particular aspects of said things, and the colour scheme is as unadorned as can be, albeit well saturated and with the kind of clear-eyed shimmer that might be expected of an infant’s vision. Where many indie filmmakers overdo the ‘intimacy’ of their camerawork such that the naturalistic tone for which they seem to be aiming ends up being unbalanced and forced, the images in “Boyhood” are intimate but stately; close, but respectfully so. A more stylised approach could most certainly have been taken, but this would have likely undercut the verite nature of the project, the slice-of-life texturing that the cast and crew were presumably striving to achieve and arguably did achieve, with honours. Perhaps even more remarkably, the tonal balance Linklater manages to strike would be difficult for most filmmakers, even those with a heavily iconoclastic or idiosyncratic signature style that they rarely deviate from, let alone for a filmmaker whose output is so variegated, ranging from independent no-budget landmarks like “Slacker” to more mainstream fare like “School of Rock”. And it’s not as though he began in low-budget territory and eventually settled into a studio throne like Christopher Nolan; he continually dips in and out of either scene as well as the territory that exist between those two scenes, and amidst all this dipping and diving he was making “Boyhood.” And yet, while viewing the film one cannot easily tilt one’s head or squint one’s eye and say, ‘oh, yeah, this was probably shot around the same time that he was making “Bernie”’ or ‘this sequence has “A Scanner Darkly” written all over it.’ So if “Boyhood” proves one thing and one thing only, it is that thing for which many admirers of Linklater admire him; his chameleonic versatility.

As a film, “Boyhood” can take a very comfortable seat beside Linklater’s other major work, the so-called “Before” trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight). Both projects quite openly exploit the temporal nature of the cinematic medium in order to examine the (countless?) roles that human perceptions of time play in influencing the understanding of oneself, others and the relationship between oneself and others. The true indispensability of “Before Midnight” to the “Before” series rests heavily on its being about a relationship that has finally progressed from being potential to actual, one that is falling – or has perhaps already fallen – victim to the ‘damage’ that time and proximity can inflict on two people who have made the decision to love each other no matter what, but perhaps who have failed to take into account the absolutely golden fact that a relationship between two people is really a threesome, with time being the third and perhaps most vital member. In some ways, this new picture “Boyhood” is a progression on the use of elliptical storytelling so prominent in that series, elliptical as in: the drama in each one of those pictures is predicated on ellipses, which is to say that which the viewer has not seen and never will see; that which has not occurred between characters Jesse and Celine due to their living on different continents in the first two films, or that which has in fact occurred between a married Jesse and Celine but which they as individuals and as a couple have not quite dealt with. The power of those films is dependent on the length (nine actual years between the films) of the ellipses and the low-grade but potent assault on the senses that occurs when the two lovers are forced to come to terms with their expectations of each other, of themselves and of their relationship, none of which time has in any way forgotten and has in any way failed to chew away at. Well, what Linklater and company do with “Boyhood” is to shorten the ellipses by eight years, making them less robust visually and narratively (i.e. more subtle), and then to lay them down next to each other with the thinnest seams possible, the overall effect being that the influence of unseen moments on the development of a character become more insidious. Whereas in the “Before” films, in which the nine-year block that the viewer never actually sees must obviously be jam-packed with significant moments such that there is a strong element of ‘unseen drama,’ the distinction between ‘drama’ and ‘anti-drama’ is less obvious in “Boyhood” and thus more akin to life as it is lived by those of us who could be considered ‘real’ or ‘actual.’ In many ways Richard Linklater and Terrence Malick have very similar cinematic philosophies in that they seem to pay no heed to dramatic hierarchy. Malick will cut away from the ‘main action’ of a movie to focus on a prairie bird pecking at the grass, challenging the idea that Time as an omniscient entity is any more interested in the killing spree of Hollie and Kit in “Badlands” than it is in the bird’s ambling existence. Likewise, by providing a narrative which so obviously contains ellipsis after ellipsis – absences of chunks of times which may or may not contain moments of epiphany or which may or may not be of life-changing consequence – “Boyhood” undoes the dramatic hierarchy which normally elevates the spectacular above the soporific and, in doing so, reinforces the significance of ‘the moment’, a theme that ripples continually beneath the film’s surface and which is explicitly voiced in the dialogue scene that brings the picture to a close.

But if the production details of “Boyhood” are as interesting to a viewer as is knowing what Tolstoy usually had for breakfast while writing Anna Karenina is to a reader, what does “Boyhood” offer other than the novelty of beholding what is effectively a practical special effect; what star Ethan Hawke finds somewhat analogous to time-lapse photography? Are there any neon-lit revelations, observations, proclamations – spoken or otherwise – that would merit a t-shirt slogan or car sticker, or, like most of Linklater’s less mainstream pictures, is “Boyhood” more of a culture medium, an Agar plate for self-reflection, meditation and introspection? The latter is probably more accurate a description than the former. Viewed without much analysis, the picture is a very – almost boldly so – straightforward summary of a period in the life of a family as seen through the growing, ever observant eyes of young Mason Jr. By no means a highlights reel of the highest highs and the lowest lows but rather a gently undulating string of moments of varying significance that may or may not earn the central character his final moment of low-key epiphany, the film succeeds dramatically by simply trusting in the quiet spectacle of the everyday, totally in keeping with the Malickian dramatic democracy previously mentioned. Eschewing the temptation many family dramas succumb to: stealing from Southern Gothic melodrama and placing emotional blowouts and tragedy at every corner, in scripting this movie Linklater and his co-writers (that is to say his actors) understand that drama is an intrinsic aspect of every form and facet of human existence. Most people’s experiences might not necessarily inspire soaring monologues or culminate in calamitous family gatherings that leave onlookers breathless and buzzing, but for those who appreciate that simple moments can and often do contain enough food not just for thought but for a philosophical banquet, films like “Boyhood” through to more clearly avant-garde pieces like “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” are more than fulfilling; provided that the viewer sets aside a moment or two to truly ruminate on what they’ve seen and consider how it interacts with their own understanding of life.

Chewing on “Boyhood”, it is noticeable how deeply confusing and easily demoralising human temporal perceptions can be. By the time one hour of film time has been and gone it becomes obvious that Ellar Coltrane, the actor portraying Mason Jr, has aged and that several months or years of filmic time have passed (as is the case for his sister Samantha, played by the director’s daughter Lorelai Linklater), but because the march of time is not marked with title cards, a certain degree of nearly imperceptible anxiety flits around like a gnat, at least in this viewer’s gut. Consider that moment when one [in the secular West] realises that the [secular Western] year which had seemed so long on January 1st is suddenly once again preparing for the Christmas-NYE closing out bonanza. How terrifying it is to think that time can appear so slow yet progress so rapidly, and that these two states of awareness – that life is on one hand a grind and on the other a breathless hurtle towards death and immateriality – seem to rarely coexist in harmony with each other, or rather, that most people find it difficult/impossible to appreciate both of these relative truths simultaneously. It’s probably a simple matter of relativity, the kind taught in basic high school physics. Perhaps the person who can get a handle on the fact that living is like sitting in a jetliner at cruise speed – still, slow and potentially tedious in the moment but shooting through space-time from another vantage point – will find themselves in a better place emotionally than does Mason Jr’s mother Olivia at the end of “Boyhood.” Unlike Patricia Arquette’s character who – as admirable a job as she does as nurturer and breadwinner – seems to spend the duration of the film’s twelve years trying to ensure that she will one day look back and be satisfied that she ticked all the boxes, whatever these boxes might be, Mason Jr appears more content with letting life happen to him, to the point of passivity at times. Luckily, he does develop some passion, some drive to counteract his innate tendency to just chill, but is nonetheless content to enjoy the plane ride, second by passing second, rather than constantly review the flight map to see how much time is left till the next destination, the next stage in life. In this sense, Mason Jr is very much like his father, Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke), who on one hand appears to be the clear underachiever of the two parents but who, by the film’s closure, may very well enjoy an overall more dynamic and quite possibly more fulfilling psychic arc. Initially seeming to exist in a fishbowl of ‘moments’ whereas his ex-partner Olivia is much more aware of the general flight plan of a ‘successful’ adult life, Mason Sr, while he may not end up levitating in a state of luminescent enlightenment or swimming in materialistic success, may be the happier and more contented of Mason Jr’s parents, or at least the one who can state with some certainty that the ellipses in his personal story, while unseen by the viewer, did not go unseen, unappreciated or unlived by him. Somehow it seems that Olivia’s final outburst may have something to do with her feeling the acute loss of her own little moments, moments she may have sacrificed in order to raise a family and forge a successful career but which nonetheless add up to a nagging, ethereal sense of disappointment and anticlimax. As for the boy of the titular hood, Ellar Coltrane’s spot-on, low-key performance of the decidedly low-key character of Mason Jr (is Ellar low-key because Mason Jr needs to be low-key or is Mason Jr low-key because Ellar is low-key or does Ellar become low-key after years of intermittently playing low-key Mason Jr?) throws into sharp relief the degree to which his boyhood is a peculiar composite of two parenthoods, one sisterhood, a couple of step siblinghoods, two shitty stepfatherhoods and the childhoods of his friends and peers. For this reason, “Boyhood” is a lucid expression of experiential symbiosis as a key factor in the development of men, women and children alike. In other words: what separates Mason Jr’s boyhood from Olivia’s motherhood? Well, this movie doesn’t seem to take too much notice of any such distinction.

If “Boyhood” has one limitation though, it’s that its success as a film has an overdependence on viewer investment; and if it has one weakness, it is not the use of pop songs as a marker of date and the passage of time (though the soundtrack is far more nuanced than it initially appears to be), but that the film could be catnip for those whose appreciation of art is somehow related to how fitting said artwork is as an expression of their lives, their experiences, their milieu, their sentiments; their childhood. But even as a simple means to take one’s reminiscences and sun-drenched memories for a long walk, which unfortunately seems to be the case for too many of this picture’s champions, the film still hinges on the gentle alchemy of personal experience which, in comparison to an unseemly majority of cinematic product, cannot be that bad an outcome. Whereas many movies function by dousing audiences in sound and image, oftentimes even emotion or intimations of it, “Boyhood” seeks to draw upon whatever reserves of empathy and tendencies for reflection exist within its individual viewers. For this single feat, it earns its plaudits twofold.

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