The lives of others

I finally had the chance to watch Boyhood. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a movie that was so apparent.

Every ounce of praise Boyhood has received is well placed, in my opinion anyway. With such constant emphasis these days on cinematic innovations, aimed mostly at trying to convince people to see movies in the theater again (I’m talking about 3D lameness and Imax awsomeness) it’s nice to see an innovation that actually awes you. I watched The Prestige the other night for the first time in years and I love Christopher Nolan’s bludgeoning inference that cinema is basically just a bunch of magic tricks. Boyhood is probably the most interesting magic trick to come along in quite some time (watch a man age 12 years right before your eyes!!).

What’s so great about said magic trick is its slight of hand. It distracts from the flaws and missteps. Like I said, I think Boyhood deserves all the praise it got, but I find it fascinating that reviews, for the most part, avoid the elephant in the room. The film is 2 hrs and 45 mins long, and the entire thing takes place from the perspective of a boy you never really get to know. When the credits rolled, and “Deep Blue” played, I felt like I had just spent close to three intimate hours with Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette (who play the parents) but the boy, the central character, remained largely a stranger to me.

I think that was mostly due to the acting restraints that Linklater had to deal with. He cast a six year old boy hoping he would be a great actor by the age of 18. Acting is hard, so you can’t really fault him, (and her, Linklater’s daughter plays the protagonist’s sister. She is strikingly flat as well, for understandable reasons). In a lot of ways the minimal acting works. Both children simply come across as shy and awkward, which is one of the joys of the film — seeing such normal, unexceptional teenagers acting as protagonists in an epic of sorts. But I certainly would have loved to see some of that complicated angst I remember so vividly from that same 12 year span of my life.

Also, I’ve heard Linklater talk many times about how important music is to him, which is why I’m so surprised that Mason (the “boy” in Boyhood) never really discovers music. That was a huge thing for me and most other kids that experienced at least some degree of frustrating instability. Music was (and is) an essential refuge. Mason likes Bright Eyes. I think that’s about all we hear about his experience with music.

Speaking of music, I am thoroughly convinced  that this film needs to be recut as an almost three hour music video for Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. I have a few conspiracy theories that that’s what Linklater intended in the first place (The times almost match up to listen to Suburbs 2 1/2 times while watching the films, ending on “Deep Blue” which is what rolls in the credits. I feel like it’s at least worth a Dark Side of the Rainbow treatment of some sort. Also, two of the actors in Boyhood also star in Spike Jonze’s short film based on the AF album. Also, the album is set in the suburbs of, Texas, just like the film. TOO MANY COINCIDENCES).

One thing I would love to see someday is the scene where Mason and his friends are “camping” in the almost finished house, dubbed over with “Rococo.” I just feel like that’s what that scene was for.

The music in the movie was exclusively diegetic, as far as I can remember. Which I get, but  I think it was a missed opportunity. The only music we hear is what the characters are listening to, so it pretty much just serves as a way to emphasize the high-concept. Little girls sing Brittany Spears songs unironically, and Sheryl Crow plays on the radio in the car. You have to remind yourself that at the time they filmed these scenes, this was the music that was actually popular. It’s kind of a fun part of the ride.

Setting aside my minor qualms about the film’s use of music and the young actors not being terribly engaging, I must say that it is easy to see this as Linklater’s magnum opus. It’s everything he’s ever done in one exquisitely executed movie. I’ve heard Linklater say that the film mirrors his own life pretty closely, and I love that. It makes it even better for me to see this as, quite possibly, the purest self-portrait in cinema history. I recognize that my disappointments stem from the fact that the characters and stories in the film were so recognizable to me but ultimately fell short of how I actually experience the world. I don’t think that’s the best way to watch the movie. One of the most prominent (and understandable) complaints about the film is that it only reflects the experience of a young white male.  A lot of reviewers had hailed the film as the most relatable movie of all time, and naturally those who can’t relate pushed back against such an assessment. That’s why I think that, even though it’s tempting, placing yourself in Mason’s spot, allowing him to act as your surrogate, isn’t really what Linklater was after. I think he just wanted to show life how he experienced it. We don’t judge self portraits in other mediums based on how closely they resemble ourselves, at least I don’t think we do.

Maybe another reason I’m saying this, whatever it is I’m saying, is because I don’t actually relate that closely to Mason’s story. My parents never divorced, which is the driving force of his personal narrative. But I recognize him. I recognize Patricia Arquette’s portrayal of  mother stretched way too thin. I have friends and family whose experiences mirror Mason’s much closer, which I think forced me to see him as a friend, not as myself (which I think is why I’m sad I didn’t get to know him better).

Patricia Arquette was a revelation, by the way. She was the best part of the movie. She deserves any and all awards they throw her way.

To undermine the last few paragraphs, I will say that there were many scenes that were eerily familiar. So many conversations that I’ve had, or almost had. So much of it mundane, which is why watching it all on the screen like that was so fascinating. Linklater reminds you that even without embellishments, life is fascinating. And it is. I agree with him.

I also love that as Mason grows older, he begins to reflect more closely the chatty characters from Linklater’s other films. Asking questions that don’t really make much sense, but you understand them anyway. If the film had ended with Mason falling asleep on that rock, I would just assume that he would  dream in rotoscope.  I can just see a lucid dreaming Mason wandering the streets in a haze, asking Speed about the realities of an unreal life only to have Speed explain that the time has come for him to go salsa dancing with his own confusion.

The conclusion of the film was wonderfully inspired. Linklater says he knew the end from the beginning. The idea that much of the time, life seems to happen at you — without your consent, no less — was captured wonderfully. My only other regret is that the film didn’t end the way it began, with an aged Mason lying on the grass staring up the clouds. But I guess he didn’t want that. Linklater’s point seemed to be that life moves you along. Things and people change at constant, frustrating rates. To end in the same place you began is something for the movies, I guess. Not real life.

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JJ Feinauer

JJ writes stuff occasionally.

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