Monday, January 26, 2015

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)


When I first heard the concept of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood described to me—chart a boy character’s coming of age through scenes shot across a twelve-year period using the same child actor—I was certainly curious about the process and intrigued at the audacity to take on such an impractical project. On the other hand, being apathetic toward coming-of-age boy stories, I was not so interested as to go out of my way to see Boyhood. At the Golden Globes this year, however, the film took home several awards, and that was when it really got my attention.

When Patricia Arquette got up to accept the first of Boyhood’s three Golden Globes (for “Best Supporting Actress”), I recognized her as “the lady from that Medium show.” I never watched Medium (2005-2011), but I understood it to be a typically uninspired Middle America-courting junk procedural. And so I was surprised to see Arquette even nominated for a major film award. I thought, she must have really turned things around, if she was now being honored as a legitimate film actress (notwithstanding that her work on Medium had earned her several Golden Globe nominations over the years in the TV category). Then I recalled the story behind Boyhood, and I quickly turned to the Internet to research the answer to a question that had struck me right then.

Sure enough, Patricia Arquette had already begun filming Boyhood a few years before she was cast in Medium, and she was still working on Boyhood a few years after Medium ended its run. That realization kind of blew my mind. The film’s production actually spanned three stages of Arquette’s career, from pulp B-lister to small-screen A-lister to post-prime Law & Order: SVU guest star (as a working girl, not a defense attorney, for what that’s worth). Now she has a Golden Globe and is the safe money to win the Oscar as well. The accolades earned through Boyhood may well elevate her career to a new stage, and yet an Oscar for Boyhood would not signify her late arrival, so much as it would affirm that she had been an award-caliber actress over the entire chunk of her career that her performance in the movie encompassed.

Boyhood is remarkable to watch for this way that it manages to put twelve years in perspective. The long, hard struggle that Arquette’s character goes through is given weight, not just by her acting, but by the real aging that the actress visibly undergoes over the course of the film—a dimension that no conventionally made movie could ever match. But even that dimension does not add so much to the experience as does the knowledge, external to the film, of how much of Patricia Arquette’s life is in this movie. I was awestruck as I watched Boyhood with the realization that the actress, like her character, was definitely not in the same place by the end of filming as she was at the outset. In nearly a literal sense, I was witnessing the performance of a lifetime. It certainly gave me pause and encouraged me to reflect and consider the passage of time in a different way than I normally process it.

When I was first told about Boyhood, it didn’t actually strike me that twelve years was such a long time. I operate with a warped sense of time, I now realize, which I mostly measure in terms of “distance to the next Avengers movie.” In 2008, when Iron Man first teased Avengers with a Nick Fury cameo, the latter movie was still four years off. But 2012 arrived in what felt like no time at all. I’m sure Avengers: Infinity War, Part 1, scheduled for 2018 (i.e. four years from now), will arrive just as quickly. So, twelve years, I figured, is just three of those—not such a big deal. It is only when I see twelve years presented as through Boyhood—flashing by from one defining moment to the next—that it really hits me.

A nice touch is the use of real cultural touchstones to frame scenes. Characters line up to catch the release of the latest Harry Potter book, for example, and they also speculate on where future Star Wars films can go post-Revenge of the Sith. Amusingly, both the characters and director Linklater evidently never anticipated the shock announcement, with two years to go before Boyhood’s release, that there would be a Star Wars sequel trilogy. (And I’d like to point out that that was incredibly naive on their part, considering that a new Star Wars movie, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, actually came out in the very year (2008) of that Boyhood scene, and, moreover, the scene was reportedly inspired by the boy actor’s experience playing the aggressively-marketed-as-“canon” Star Wars: The Force Unleashed video game (also from 2008), which indicated how increasingly open George Lucas was to high-profile direct sequels/prequels to his works by other creators, of which there were a never-ending number lining up with dreams of taking the reins. But I digress.) For those of us alive during the years covered, these elements add yet another layer to the experience of the passage of time, prompting us to revisit and reflect upon those years in our own lives. (Me, I remember, in 2008, I was having those exact conversations about Star Wars. Of course, I also had those conversations last week… and today. Ugh. Guess I know where the years went.)

For me, the most amazing moment in the entire movie was the baseball game that the boy and his father attended in 2006. Linklater and crew shot live game footage for this moment (although they actually collected footage from two separate Houston Astros games and spliced it together). A serendipitous home run makes for the perfect cinematic shot and the perfect father-son bonding moment, and the scene is several times more striking when you realize that the hit was real and not scripted. But the most real part is the father’s praise of Houston Astros pitcher Roger Clemens as an unhittable wizard. Clemens was absolutely a legend in his own time, but that time came to an abrupt and disgraceful halt once he was exposed as a cheat. Since around 2007, just a year after that scene in Boyhood, Clemens has been one of the most hated men in baseball. It’s hard to remember a time now when anybody had anything but venom for Clemens, but the naive sincerity of this scene in Boyhood innocently reminds us that we did indeed once feel quite differently. It struck me because I did not find myself laughing at these characters for being such fools, but rather I felt a little ashamed to remember that I was just as foolish. Mostly, it goes to show how swiftly and dramatically life can turn.

Other elements, notably the political talk (Boyhood spans both George W. Bush U.S. presidential terms and both Barack Obama terms), feel like a long time ago AND just yesterday. Hearing the father in the movie get all passionate with anti-Bush and later pro-Obama rhetoric, I again felt a bit of embarrassment at the foolishness on display—foolishness because, now that we can look back on those twelve years in hindsight, there is nothing so much to be gotten but the sense of one single era that never truly ended, or one that never truly began. The passion and the optimism, however—those surely do feel long gone.

So the political argument is actually still ongoing, as is the featured Star Wars discussion, while the Roger Clemens moment only somewhat accidentally ended up dating that scene. Ironically, the more deliberate “time capsule” moments in Boyhood are among the least effective. Linklater has the characters playing on different video game consoles and remarking on how ultimate the immediate technology is. It doesn’t take a lot of prescience on Linklater’s part to predict that those words will be proven very foolish by the next technological leap. He’s basically trying to manufacture the effect that the film accidentally achieved with the speculative “there can’t be any more Star Wars” moment. But the way he handles it here feels forced, inauthentic, and overly cute.

There’s also the matter of the soundtrack to Boyhood. The songs featured in the film are not always taken from the year of the scene in which they appear. But it is interesting when, for example, 2011’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” kicks in. This is one of the most recent songs featured in the film, yet already, just a few years later, it is not on anybody’s rotation anymore, and most people no longer even know or care who Gotye is. Even so, the song is instantly recognizable, on account of how ubiquitous it was for that good year or so on the radio. To hear it now inspires an ambivalent mix of derisive "haha, remember when we used to know who sang this song?" along with a compulsion to sing along with that voice in your head. I suppose, as a commentary on the transient trendiness of pop music, it works, in a similar way as the Roger Clemens moment captures our embarrassing history, although I don’t know if this was Linklater’s intention.

The Beatles also feature prominently in Boyhood, and this is an element that now, in a post-1960’s context, practically exists outside of time. Indeed, as the film progresses, the later years have fewer date-specific real-world elements and take on more of a timeless quality. There is a legitimate reason for this—like a lot of youths, the boy grows a distaste for his own generation's culture as he enters his teen years—but I personally find it disappointing, because the movie consequently feels more generic as it goes on.

If you return to the foreground high concept of Boyhood, the grand technical achievement is the dramatized documentation of a real boy really growing up before audiences’ eyes. Six-year-old Mason, twelve-year-old Mason, and eighteen-year-old Mason are all played by the same actor, Ellar Coltrane, as are all the other ages. There can be no denying that this was quite a feat that the cast and crew were able to pull off. So much could have gone wrong—with everything in the movie, true, but especially with Coltrane. For example, what if he had grown up to become fat a la Haley Joel Osment? Surely, the teen years of Boyhood would consequently have had to go in a different direction. I must say, I think this high-wire act of a movie would actually have been made more interesting, if such an unanticipated turn had taken place to test Linklater's resourcefulness. Alas, when the boy instead develops into an artsy heartthrob, it feels sadly predictable, like it was all according to script—a script with nothing especially interesting to say. If you didn’t know or didn’t care how the movie was made, then I suppose this wouldn’t even matter to you. But then what you have left, when you remove considerations of how the movie was made, is a fairly unremarkable story—exactly the coming-of-age boy story that I initially thought Boyhood was going to be, and which I had little interest in going to the theater for.

Not strictly a movie of 2014, Boyhood was nevertheless a remarkable movie specifically for 2014. Its exploration of the passage of time has at least four layers, all of them quite novel: 1) the narrative structure presenting a story continuously from one year to the next, 2) the filmic process authentically capturing the actors as they visibly aged one year at a time, 3) the life experiences that the cast and crew brought with them as they grew alongside the production, and 4) the documentation of specific dates that resonate with audience members who lived through those years. The 4th point will become less effective as time goes on. It will still serve as a time capsule of the early 21st century, but I don’t know that it will as poignantly resonate with viewers as a twelve-year journey. Decades from now, the distinction between, say, 50 years ago versus 45 years ago won’t so much matter, and everything in the movie will just together be “a long-ass time ago”—not so different from any movie made and set in the 1960s today (all the more so for anyone born after the film's release). The 2nd and 3rd points are less impactful if you don’t know or don’t care how the movie was made (and why should audiences be expected to?). The 1st point remains but is not enough on its own to hold up Boyhood as purely a great story, as opposed to an achievement in filmmaking. Therefore, it is hard to rate Boyhood against films that may be more conventionally made but which tell more original stories. Still, it works for me in the here and now, and if the sum of it eventually ages as poorly as so many of the pieces it observes, then perhaps that is only fitting (and also reason to see it sooner rather than later).

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