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…
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