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‘Making Real What We Cannot See’

Boyhood

a film directed by Richard Linklater
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Matt Lankes/IFC Films
Ellar Coltrane as Mason, age six, in Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood

1.

The new movie by Richard Linklater, Boyhood, was filmed over the course of twelve years, a few days every year, beginning in 2002. The actor who plays Mason Jr. (the “boy” in question), Ellar Coltrane, was six when this marathon began; at the close of the film he is eighteen, his baby face turned gaunt and angular. The twelve years make their way, too, across the real faces and bodies of Lorelei Linklater, the director’s own daughter, who plays his older sister, and of Ethan Hawke, his estranged father, and of Patricia Arquette, his hard-pressed mother, as they do across various objects, outfits, pop songs, and habits of speech. Harry Potter and Twilight come and go, as do John Kerry and John McCain; beeping, primitive “computer games” give way to Game Boys before becoming Xboxes and iPhones. Only a sliver of every frame of this film is “fiction,” and sometimes it seems the least important part.

It is a commonplace to say that time moves more rapidly now than it did, say, twenty years ago: information is allegedly super-compressed, as in texts and tweets, the “news cycle” has shortened from a day to an hour to a minute, fashions flare and peter out in the blink of an eye. But twelve years are always going to be twelve years when measured on the human face. Boyhood is, among many other things, an assertion of time’s stateliness against the fidgets and spasms of contemporary experience. The one constant in this film is film itself, now an ancient medium compared to its upstart competition. It is now almost 120 years since the Lumière brothers showed their movie of the train pulling into Ciotat station. Film, once a great naïf, now knows more than its subjects; it has seen them come and go, and it regards them with a kind of pity born from having outlived every protagonist.

Any movie that does something even quite minor or bizarre for the first time, this late in time, brings to bear on its putative subjects the whole history of the movies. Boyhood’s length (it runs nearly three hours) and its intimate scale suggest extended personal works like Michael Apted’s Up series of documentaries or Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, but the folly of working with the same actors on the same film for twelve years recalls the great, mad cinematic extravaganzas, from Erich von Stroheim’s Greed to Abel Gance’s Napoleon to Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo or Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. These films all document the inadvertent consequences of their ambition: the back-stories both of Fitzcarraldo and of Apocalypse Now were made into documentaries more gripping than the original films.

In Boyhood, we’re watching two things simultaneously: the movie and an implied documentary about the making of the movie, about the effect the movie has had on its actors, especially Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, the actors to whom the twelve years of elapsed time matter most. To have cast his own daughter in the film was Linklater’s way of getting some skin in the game: it brings home the well-known risks associated with making stars out of children. This isn’t a movie about childhood. It is the childhood of real boys and girls for whom a central feature of their life, growing up, was this movie. If Boyhood were a documentary, it would involve much more acting, with the subjects self-consciously shaping their on-screen personae (this happens, to an extent, in the Up series). Here, there is nothing to be done: time itself is the real actor; the people in this film, on and off camera, acting or not, are merely the media through which it performs, and dazzlingly.

2.

Twelve years from now, most people reading these sentences who have small children will be able to piece together, from the tens of thousands of pictures and films they’ve taken of their children (at the beach, at a recital, sleeping, waking, spacing out, hamming it up), a document a little like Boyhood. The Internet is replete with time-lapse sequences of children growing up over the course of the last four or five years. My own children’s childhoods more or less begin around 2006, when my wife and I got iPhones; the kids existed before that, but only the way children have always existed: some photos of them as infants, mewling and puking; milestones, birthdays. (I think there are no more than five or so pictures of me as a kid; many children who grew up in the Seventies would say the same.) But once the iPhone came in, so many pictures and videos came with it that we all face a predicament a little like Krapp in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, the recorded versions of ourselves overcoming our actual lives, which are devoted mainly to recording ourselves, then curating and reviewing the results.

If your life’s main feature is recording yourself, finally you have nothing to record. Into this vicious infinite regress, this funhouse tunnel of representation, comes Boyhood, its title suggesting belletristic memoir—A London Boyhood, A Boston Boyhood, The Boyhood of Pelle the Conqueror—more than it does our current climate of selfies and Snapchat. The slight fogeyism of the title suggests that this film is really for old fogeys like me—or like A.O. Scott, The New York Times’s film critic, who reported (via a tweet, ironically) that his own eighteen-year-old son was comparatively nonplussed by the film. (In my experience, children do not like being asked about how their childhood is going.)

Repeatedly in Boyhood, characters recoil from the way they’ve been represented: Mason’s girlfriend hates the photos he’s taken of her; Mason and his sister seem revolted by the attempts of their father, a fledgling musician, to capture their lives in a song. Mason himself maintains a remarkable dignity throughout, but you can see him struggling against the “screens” that, late in the film, he decides to live without. (Soon after he makes a pledge to live offscreen—deleting his Facebook account and railing against the mediated way we currently live—the movie ends.)

If you are sick of living on-screen, the best revenge is to get behind a camera. Boyhood traces the emergence of Mason’s own shaping imagination; the pivotal event in the film (downplayed, like every potential plot point) is Mason’s discovery of photography. When the film opens, we see a view of the clouds, looking up, and then cut to an image of Mason lying on his back. The film will be seen through his eyes, but what the eyes register passively is incomplete until the boy discovers the improvements of a camera lens over ordinary sight.

Even as he is photographed (at graduation parties and family events) with digital cameras and iPhones, his devotion is to the darkroom and to “art” photography, even when he is assigned to shooting the school football game. This suggests the emergence of a filmmaker: like Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, this is a movie about the formation of the sensibility that made it, which is why “Boyhood,” a title chosen retrospectively, by an adult, works so well.

The movie has been praised for its naturalism, its way of moving freely and without the deadening influence of plot, its resistance to every cliché of the coming-of-age film. But naturalism is, in film, the ultimate special effect. Nothing in Boyhood could not have been done fifty or even seventy-five years ago, but it has more to say about the movies than a hundred CGI-driven X-Men or Planet of the Apes movies.

Two important details early on remind us that “reality” is a cinematic accomplishment. In one of the first scenes, Arquette is shown driving her beat-up Volvo 240 wagon with the kids going bananas in the back. Her arm is in the foreground; for a moment, it looks as though a fly has landed on the screen, the way they do at home, on our TV screens. Then you realize that you’ve been tricked: if that fly were real, it would be the size of a small cat. This effect will be lost when the film comes to DVD. Slightly later, the family is shown packing up for a move to Houston. Little Mason is asked by his mom to paint over the doorway where the children’s heights have been marked at intervals during their development. The movie needs no external measures of development; it has now taken over, and it will show us the kinds of human changes (including physical changes) that no mere yardstick could gauge.

3.

If Boyhood is partly about the improvements movies make upon reality, it is also about the impossibility of knowing the difference between reality and dream. Since Slacker, his brilliant 1991 debut, Linklater has asserted on film that what is not filmed, what happens offscreen, is nonetheless equally real and valid (of course he’s correct: it’s the movie that’s made up). In an early scene in Slacker, Linklater, riding in the back of a taxi, tells his affectless driver about the dream he has just had where “nothing happened”—he wandered around, he read a book, he clicked through the stations on the TV. There is a long association between movies and dreams, where “dream” means the fantastical, the surreal, the disturbing. Linklater’s films are dreams of ordinary experience, dreams that, upon waking, we are surprised to learn were dreams at all.

It seems almost a waste of the imagination to imagine things more or less the way they are. Linklater, who apparently plans to make a movie about the New England Transcendentalists, learned from Emerson the necessity of imagining ordinary life as well as the consequent feeling of imaginative torpor and diminishment. And so, throughout Boyhood, characters look to the supernatural for meaning and guidance. Early on, Mason asks his father if there is “any magic” in the world: real magic, “like elves.” Mason is given a toy owl, the symbol of wisdom, of Athena; later, an owl butterfly lands on his shoulder, and his father gives a little classroom lecture on the ancient gods and goddesses. In one extraordinary sequence, Mason visits the family of his father’s new wife, deeply religious people who are shown as compassionate, kind, funny, and even a little bawdy, and who give him a Bible. A minister preaches from Jesus’s words in the Gospels to doubting Thomas, who had to experience Jesus’s wounds firsthand: “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

Since Boyhood was filmed over the course of twelve years, one must assume that much of the footage for this nearly three-hour movie was cut. How much, I don’t know; but it is likely that enough footage for another film, or several more, about these same characters exists somewhere. There could be other Boyhoods; new versions of the film might show the events from other points of view, or change the emphasis. As it is, there are very few scenes from the earliest chapters of Mason’s story: he’s six for a few minutes, then eight, but perhaps half of the film is devoted to his teenage years, with the most recent experiences—he goes to college and meets new friends—given by far the greatest proportion of time. Maybe there is an entire movie set only in the first grade.

This is a great film, the greatest American movie I have ever seen in a theater. It is great for what we see, but it is even greater for its way of making real what we cannot see, or for suggesting that what we cannot yet see we might one day see. Mason comes close to crying only once in the movie: Hawke has sold the cool muscle car, an old Pontiac GTO, that Mason says he promised him for his sixteenth birthday. Hawke claims to have made no such promise. He appeals to empirical reality: if I’d promised that, I would remember; other people would remember. Mason’s sister would remember. What he means is, we—the audience—would remember: Isn’t everything everyone experienced in this movie? We know that Mason’s right: the GTO was supposed to be his. Maybe he can find the promise among the outtakes Linklater left on the cutting room floor.