Saturday, September 27, 2014
Lives of Observation: "Boyhood" and the Cinema of Richard Linklater
What difference does a title make? Richard Linklater's Boyhood, which has become the most celebrated American film of the year, was originally going to be called "12 Years". But just as Linklater wrapped production, 12 Years a Slave hit it big, so Boyhood it became. The word "boyhood" implies something archetypal. It has a tinge of the definitive, and the film has been criticized these lines, both accused of holding up a flattering mirror to its audience and questioned for not living up to a universality that it never really claims. More on that in a moment, but for now, I wonder if, had the film had kept its original title, it would be clearer that it's first and foremost about the passing of time in one small corner of the world. Title aside, the boy in Boyhood is one of the least active players. It's at least as much about his parents. It's even more about what, in almost any other film, would be the backdrop or the incidental details, from video game technology to political campaigns. To watch the movie is to watch an endlessly shifting time-capsule.
A friend once told me that the worth of any movie is how well it stands when you remove its central novelty. Thus the true measure of, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind isn't the wild visual tricks or the mobius-strip structure, but whether or not the romance at the core holds any weight. It's a metric that hung in my mind as I watched Boyhood. The production of the film is itself an awe-inspiring model of dedication: a narrative film shot and written in pieces over 12 years using the same actors. The filmmakers let a decade-long plot play out and then condensed it into a feature. It's difficult to be critical in the face of such a noble, ambitious passion project, which is surely a factor in the film's nearly dissent-free 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
So what would Boyhood be if you removed its novelty? What if it were shot in the conventional way, over weeks or months, with different actors playing the boy at different ages, using makeup to age Patricia Arquette instead of letting time do it for you? Stripped to its dramatic essentials, the film is uneven. It may be ungrateful, or at least redundant, to accuse a 12 year production of patchiness, but the feeling is often inescapable. You can put it simply: some scenes work, some don't. Some are beautiful, heartbreaking, and funny, and several made me cringe. Some actors inhabit their roles seamlessly, others are forced. And, in a film that's nearly three hours long, hardly anything interesting is ever done with the camera.
And yet this description doesn't do justice to the appeal of Boyhood at all. There is something mesmerizing about watching the characters age, and you the viewer feel more like Linklater's collaborator than his audience. You're part of the experience, particularly if you see it with a crowd, and when a scene doesn't work, you simply brush it off and wait for the next one. Perhaps novelties and gimmicks aren't merely accessories to a movie at all. Perhaps they are, or can be, the core.
The acclaim has already invited backlash. Rebecca Mead wrote a piece for the New Yorker called "The Scourge of 'Relatability'", with Boyhood used as a prime example of culture that panders to its audience. Is the film good simply because we relate to it? Watch it in a packed house on a Saturday night, and you can feel the audience murmur with recognition.
I must admit that I'm not sure how the film will play in years to come. When it's viewed by a generation too young to have played Nintendo Wii or watched the shittiness of the Bush years turn into the shittiness of the Obama years, I suspect it'll seem like an artifact instead of a masterpiece. But these are criticisms more of the movie's praise than of the movie itself. For such an ambitious production, the film that resulted is actually very unassuming, or as unassuming as a movie about Life with a capital L could possibly be. It covers an emotional spectrum with no pretense towards any insight that anyone over the age of 20 hasn't already figured out on their own. And it's getting burdened right out the gate with a masterpiece status that its humble, shaggy, grinning shoulders can hardly withstand.
As for Richard Linklater, he remains the most unassuming of current American cinema's major directors. In fact, it feels strange to even use the term "director" when his latest films seem so pointedly undirected; unlike any of his contemporaries (the Coens, Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson, post-digital Soderbergh), there's nothing in Boyhood or Bernie or Before Midnight to peg a shot as a "Linklater shot" instead of a shot by anyone else. Linklater's trademarks are more literary: the way people talk, and what they talk about. So you might say he's a storyteller, except that what he tells aren't stories. Lit-class terms like "conflict" and "resolution" apply to Boyhood precisely as much as they don't apply at all; what the film chooses to show and not show in its characters' lives can feel almost random. A Linklater film is more like a series of anecdotes, some funny and some sad, placed side by side until their accumulation achieves a kind of sweep. It's not a Tolstoy novel; it's staying up all night in a dorm room sharing your life stories.
Slacker, Linklater's first official release, remains one of his best films even if Dazed and Confused will always be more famous. Slacker is pure observation. It's also a film without any main character; the camera simply follows one young, aimless twenty-something for about five minutes, then gets passed like a baton to the next character to pass by. It's the precise midpoint between narrative and avant-garde film, and it works beautifully. The film has its precedents. Max Ophüls' La Ronde (1950) and Luis Buñuel's The Phantom of Liberty (1974) both experimented with this structure. But that's the key: those predecessors come from abroad. A film like Slacker draws from this international arthouse tradition and applies it to a movie as American as John Wayne. Boyhood is something like a time-lapsed version of Francois Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series, and it's hitting home for audiences even if they aren't the least bit familiar with the French New Wave.
For this, and other reasons, the next Linklater film is always something to look forward to. Boyhood is the movie of the moment, and as Linklater's hero would be the first to admit, life is just one moment following another. Which means another one can't be far behind.
Boyhood is now playing to packed arthouses. You should show up early to get a good seat.