Thursday, February 19, 2015

Best of 2014, #1: Boyhood

Of course this movie is #1. I’ve always said that the problem with Cassavetes is that his movies have to either be the worst stuff out there or the very best, because if he can make his “super-long-take unblinking-gaze” device work, then every other movie suddenly looks phony and shallow in comparison. The same is true of Boyhood: it’s so startlingly brilliant and hyper-real that it can’t help but make every other movie look a bogus sham, so it’s hard to do an honest comparison.

It’s also hard to say anything much about the movie. If you’ve seen it, it’s already had its impact on you, and if you haven’t seen it then you should know as little as possible about it beforehand, so as to maximize it power.

The only thing I can say is that this movie powerfully proves a rule that was hiding in a “What’s the Matter with Hollywood” post: Innovation Doesn’t Require New Technology. This movie could have been made anytime in the last 100 years by anyone who had the dedication. It was made on the cheap and on the fly, and yet it shatters all of our assumptions about what a film can and should be.

Writer/Director Richard Linklater suddenly remembered, “Oh yeah, all this stuff we do, all these tried-and-true tricks we’ve built up over the years to cleverly simulate life on the screen, we don’t have to do it that way. If we want, we can jettison all that stuff and try something totally different. We can find a new way to powerfully capture the nature of life on screen.”And so he did.

But then he did something that was terrifyingly bold: he waited twelve years to let the rest of the world in on his flash of inspiration. He worked periodically on this movie while also making School of Rock, Before Sunset, Bad News Bears, Fast Food Nation, A Scanner Darkly, Me and Orson Welles, Bernie, and Before Midnight, never letting on that he also had this other movie brewing totally out of sight.

Note also that none of the movies between Before Sunset and Before Midnight was much of a critical or commercial success, and there was a three year gap in there with no movies at all. Surely he must have felt at times that he was being written off and forgotten, and his last best hope was to simply declare Boyhood to be done and unleash its brilliance upon the world. But no, he would sell no wine before it was time, and he let it continue its slow fermentation, no matter what ups and downs his career might experience in the meantime. That is fierce dedication to art.

The result is a masterpiece, and a reminder that we have barely scratched the surface of what this medium can do, if we stop focusing on post-production innovation and devote more time to pre-production innovation.


j.s. said...

I'm going to have to hold forth with what Supreme Court watchers would call a "furious concurrence." (If I'm hard on the film, it's only because I hold both it and Linklater in such high regard.)

This is a very good film, one of Linklater's best (even if I prefer the BEFORE trilogy and SLACKER), one of my favorite films of the year, easily the most deserving awards season nominee I've yet seen.

And yet? It's also a bit overrated and not nearly as perfectly executed or successful in every respect as many of its swooning admirers would care to admit.

For my taste there are at least one (if not two) too many alcoholic stepdads... At least one too many forced mentor/mentee callbacks... At least one too many moments in which Ethan Hawke gets to aw-shucks himself out of a moment ... A few too many attempts to sign-post big dramatic occurrences -- like divorce, graduation, etc. -- even if they're represented somewhat glancingly... And last but not least: Too much prose and not enough poetry (visual and otherwise).

Though he was open to input from all his actors and the changing world around him, Linklater has spoken at length about his primary inspiration for the film -- his own memories of growing up, and the fact that he felt that the sort of fleeting throwaway happenings, the little moments of life that stick with you internally, subjectively, when you're young, aren't really that well represented in cinema.

Then he proceeds to deliver a film that -- wildly ambitious and experimental as it is in many facets of its concept and execution -- is also, too often, fairly prosaic, both dramatically and cinematically.

I'm thinking of the mise-en-scene, the camerawork, the dialogue and the entire conception of much of the first half to two-thirds of the film. BOYHOOD didn't really seem to integrate its disparate elements and become fully alive for me until the scene, rather late in the film, where his sister forgets to pick Mason up and he walks to his mother's college class with that girl from school. That's the kind of seemingly forgettable non-event event, rendered perfectly with a poetic sense of the rhythm of time -- especially that Steadicam shot down the alley -- that I had imagined would comprise the whole film. And the film's final moments do all of this even better.

Still, the kind of existential memories that Linklater says he is after aren't usually unfolding in strictly realistic spaces or even within the stripped down confines of the more conventionally narrative scenes that take up the bulk of BOYHOOD. Some other memory films that came before like THE MIRROR, THE TREE OF LIFE and Terence Davies' first two features feel like they're more successful in evoking these sorts of memories than BOYHOOD.

When my brother came home from the film and texted me: "I loved it, but I also wish Gus Van Sant had made it instead," I knew what he meant. He longed for the Van Sant of ELEPHANT and PARANOID PARK, two of the best films I've ever seen about teenagers, two films perched between the fragmentary lyricism of poetry and the immediacy of documentary reality.

Finally, I'll take issue with the brilliant experiment to let the cast -- especially the lead -- age in real time. It's admirable, but, in the end, I'm not sure it mattered that much to the viewer's experience of the film as Linklater imagined it would. And I'm not sure I'd feel much differently about it if the lead were played by 2-3 different actors. I feel the same way about this real-time aging as I do about the very few art films I've ever seen that included unsimulated sex acts (like SHORTBUS). What made those films authentic and sexy wasn't the the visibility of the actors' actual genitals, it was the attitude and insights of the writer-director and the integrity of the story being told. In a way, the bold testing of BOYHOOD's central gimmick also proved it to be the least necessary aspect of the whole.

Matt Bird said...

But, but...

[For my taste there are at least one (if not two) too many alcoholic stepdads...]

I agree that it's a bit boring to see the third bad dad come and go, but I think that's the point: if you live long enough, life goes into re-runs. This isn't an "arc" about a mom who learns and grows and solves her problems in two hours without any repeated beats. It's almost as if Linklater is saying to us screenwriters: "Sorry guys, real life DOES have repeated beats."

[At least one too many forced mentor/mentee callbacks... At least one too many moments in which Ethan Hawke gets to aw-shucks himself out of a moment]

I agree the movie could have been shorter. I wouldn't have missed the last 15 minutes (though it sounds like you would have).

[he felt that the sort of fleeting throwaway happenings, the little moments of life that stick with you internally, subjectively, when you're young, aren't really that well represented in cinema.]

And I think he succeeded brilliantly. I love the conversation about elves, for instance, and the scene where they're hanging out throwing the sawblade.

[aren't usually unfolding in strictly realistic spaces]

I felt the opposite. I was wary of the movie because I was afraid it would be a sort of tone poem like TREE OF LIFE and ELEPHANT, but I was so relieved and happy to say about a half-hour in "Oh, good, there's actually going to be some story here!" I think that Linklater has always been good at this: he plays with form but still delivers entertaining stories within those forms. (And as you might suspect, I actually preferred the first half of the movie, because there was more stuff going on.)

One thing I loved was Linklater's little shout-outs to his previous films. There was the SLACKER scene, the DAZED AND CONFUSED scene, the BEFORE SUNRISE scene, the WAKING LIFE scene, etc. He's not just showing us his boyhood, he's showing us how his boyhood gave him the material for his adult work.

[I'm not sure it mattered that much to the viewer's experience of the film as Linklater imagined it would.]

Massively, massively disagree on this point. Every time the kids got older my eyes widened in awe all over again, not just at the audacity of the concept, but at the inherent profundity of watching a person age incrementally. As a parent of a rapidly growing 3 year old and 8 mo old, I get to experience that profundity every day, to a certain extent, but to see that process compressed down to one movie distilled 12 years of awe into one magic potion, and moved me more than I could have imagined.

Usually, when I watch a movie that covers many years, I can never stop rolling my eyes: the older actors don't look enough like the younger ones, the recreations of past years get details wrong, etc. Even when I was watching this, I found myself wanting to make the same criticisms ("Was the Wii already out that year?") and each time I had to shut that voice down and remind myself that I really WAS looking at that year, and I could just enjoy it. This wasn't "2006" this was actually 2006.

Linklater seems to say, "Let's stop simulating life and just put life on screen, as much as possible," and I was blown away over and over.

By the way, there will shortly be a new "Narrative Breakdown" podcast up where I talk more about BOYHOOD.

j.s. said...

I don't think the film needed arcs per se; I see what I wrote as actually objecting to some of the more obvious attempts at drama. The parts that I was taking issue with were the sequences that seemed sort of writerly, only in a bad, boring way. Life might be repetitious and melodramatic but if art can't find an honest and compelling way to represent those repetitious or over-the-top moments we sometimes live out then it ought not to show them.

I don't think Linklater is a master of images the way that some great filmmakers are, but I do think that there's a strong intuitive poetic side to his work (especially in SLACKER and the BEFORE series) that I longed to see more of throughout much of BOYHOOD. Linklater has a special relationship to both time and place (I'm thinking not just of his feeling for Austin in all of SLACKER but of scenes like the characterless coda of BEFORE SUNRISE). There's also his very strong interest in the poetry of anti-narrative, of digression, of what happens when what's supposed to happen doesn't or when nothing's happening at all. He need not have turned BOYHOOD into an obscure tone poem to give it a little more of the poetry that flows through his other great work. (Who knows, though, maybe this was, at least in part, one of the major drawbacks of the start-stop rhythm of the production schedule?)

You mentioned Cassavetes. I would have loved to have seen Cassavettes' version of something like BOYHOOD. There's a poetry of human psychology in his films that remains unmatched by anyone anywhere still.

Another film lurking in the background of BOYHOOD for me was FANNY & ALEXANDER, a film that, with its strong mother-child bond and story of flight from an evil stepdad, felt like it was on Linklater's mind too. One of the things I didn't even realize I admire about Bergman's film until now is how well he managed to make his film a sprawling saga about a whole family and an era that -- in many respects and at many moments -- often feels quite objective and at the same time a kind of ultra-subjective recollection of his own childhood from the POV of the young boy playing a version of himself. It's this question of the film's ultimate philosophical and aesthetic point of view that I sometimes felt was lacking or a bit fuzzy in BOYHOOD.

Still, I do really like and admire the film, enough so that it's probably number one on my list for 2014 too.

j.s. said...

You write: "Linklater seems to say, 'Let's stop simulating life and just put life on screen, as much as possible.'" This makes me think you'd really get a lot out of David Shields' REALITY HUNGER if you haven't read it already.

Matt Bird said...

No I haven't, but it looks interesting. It sounds sort of like sections of Dos Passos's "USA" which is one of my favorite books.