Sunday, August 10, 2014

Richard Linklater's Boyhood

There is a scene in Boyhood I was warned about ahead of time as being a misstep. This scene wasn't described to me, just mentioned as being "a red flag for right-thinking politically-minded people." This scene is the one where a Latino tells a white lady that she changed his life. He used to be a plumber, but went to night classes at community college after she told him he was smart, and now he's a restaurant manager. I didn't think this scene was a misstep, for the record. Even though the initial scene of the mom (Patricia Arquette, established as a college professor) telling the plumber he is smart made me laugh out loud, it did so because that is the sort of thing my mom (a teacher of ESL students) would do, and maybe I imagine that most strangers treat the words of my mom the way I do, as largely incidental to what's happening inside my own thoughts. The later scene, where it is revealed these words spoken so casually actually did have an impact, seems important because there is also a scene where Patricia Arquette reveals that she's been viewing her life as this series of milestones, and now that her children are leaving the house for college she feels like the only thing that's next for her is death. That the incidental small moment had a callback is a way of saying that life for an individual isn't just about their impact on their family who they spend the most time with, but that every incidental moment can be huge, even as it passes.

This speaks to and contrasts with how the film includes certain motifs for a little while and then just drops them as the character loses interest. Early on the main character is doing graffiti. Later on there's a mural on his wall and he says he went to an "urban art" camp. The characters are constantly playing video games until they get into girls and photography instead. All the while the characters are building themselves regardless, the film is doing its thing simultaneously.

What's interesting about Boyhood is that this approach to time means that there are no real mistakes in it, no scenes that are "wrong." Looking at most movies we see scenes that don't go anywhere in terms of the rest of the narrative and think of how they could be cut. They stick out and don't fit in with the whole. Here, things that might scan as egregious or in bad taste work because, in the same way Waking Life is about dreams and how they correspond (or don't) to cinema, Boyhood is about direct experience and how it corresponds (or doesn't) to memory. Big mistakes are a memorable part of life. If I think that starting the movie off with the use of Coldplay's "Yellow" is stupid because it sets a precedent for a cloying tone, that then means I remember a scene of a young kid looking up at the clouds, which I probably wouldn't otherwise. I remember most scenes in this movie.

(Although I can't really remember the names of the characters, besides that the kid's name is Mason, and maybe I remember that because of the scene in the movie Clifford where Charles Grodin says that the name of his nephew he's "very fond of" is "I want to say Mason? Clifford, It's Clifford!")

Watching it I was thinking about a couple of phrases- One was Julie Klausner, on her How Was Your Week podcast, telling women that if they see it on their period they will cry. Maybe she specifically was saying this to childless women who can sense their biological clock ticking, I don't remember. Corresponding to this thought was Gary Panter, in the "Men's Group" portion of the last Ben Jones book, writing in his essay about manhood, that once you are old enough and have had kids seeing the John Frankenheimer movie Seconds will make you cry.

I didn't cry while watching Boyhood although I think I got close a couple of times. It still felt personal in a weird way of corresponding to my life- reminding both of my youth that culminated in going to college, which is where the movie ends. I remember being a freshman in college and being really psyched when I'd enter the dorm rooms of potential friends and seeing copies of DVDs of Waking Life. Here the kid is offered mushrooms by his new roommate's girlfriend and goes for a walk in the desert. I started college in the fall of 2003. 2003 is a year represented in this film, in the background. Ethan Hawke tells his kids that if they could vote, they should vote for "Anybody but Bush." So watching this movie unfold I am thinking about two different timelines in my personal timeline: Probably a parent watching this will be thinking about themselves as a child and themselves as a parent.

Later on in college I would take a film class where on the first day we were asked, each of us, to say the name of a director we thought was interesting as we introduced ourselves. I said Richard Linklater, but with my last name being in the middle of the alphabet I think I only got that chance after a lot of other directors had been said and I don't know if he would've been my favorite choice, but at another later date, after I'd forgotten this happened, a classmate said to me that he thought was Linklater was really interesting also.

There's this thing in Linklater movies where I am unsure if I am to think of the things the characters are saying as deep and profound or are just meant as examples of the sort of the things people say. I remember positive reviews, like Roger Ebert's, of Before Sunrise talking about how nice it was to spend time with these thoughtful people, but those characters aren't like the ones in My Dinner With Andre, they are youth. The feeling of people talking to each other and establishing a bond with each other through words is more important than that the ideas those words convey connecting to the audience. Although there are scenes in Slacker and Waking Life that actually do the latter, which I think is what sets the precedent for me to look for that stuff in his other movies that are more about people. When I talk about Boyhood right now I am basically babbling, probably, trying to explain how this movie and its approach to its characters and time is really moving just by telling you where they've been at any given moment.

I remember where I was when I saw Waking Life, actually. I saw my dad on weekends and one Friday night we went to Blockbuster and I picked Waking Life to watch and he picked Mulholland Dr., asking me as I did so if I liked David Lynch. I hadn't seen any of his movies, that ended up being the first, but I was pretty much already aware of the idea of Lynch as something I would probably like.  (Later on when I was watching reruns of Twin Peaks running in a marathon on cable I'd tell my mom I was doing so and she said "I thought you had taste," sarcastically, in a way dismissive of the show, which speaks to a contrast between one parent's genuinely unknowing asking of questions I was embarrassed by and the other, more present, parent's projection of assumptions of their own self.) Anyway, my dad went out to a bar and I watched Waking Life by myself because he didn't care about it and then when it was done and he still wasn't home I ended up watching Mulholland Dr. by myself as well. Two great movies, a pretty big night for me, a Friday night spent alone as a high schooler.

The parents in Boyhood are both really good parents, and the film's story begins with them already divorced. The stepdad figures Mason later has to deal with are destructive presences, but their initial appeal to Arquette's character is clear. What's interesting to me is how the biological parents are both "hip" parents on some level, and how maybe that's what drew them to each other initially, and resulted in children that it is hinted at were unplanned, but once that didn't work out, each sort of sought out partners that were more conservative in one way or another. This seems basically true to my experience of what people are like as they age, especially if they have children they want to take care of. Ethan Hawke, the weekend father, who in actual lived time would be a considerably smaller part of his child's life, is still a major part of the movie, and by extension the narrative of who Mason turns out to be. Part of the film is his arc of continually striving to become a better father, doing the work to be emotionally present and connected whenever he is physically around. The film has a very real (and I would say profound) sense of what it means to be present in a moment, and how being present in moments whenever they present themselves leads to being present in relationships. But even with these characters being fully-fledged and well-developed the story it tells is truly one of the internal journey that happens basically incidentally in ways no one can truly witness.