Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Time passages”

Posted on December 5, 2014


Now that awards season has begun in the US, some thoughts on the wonderful ‘Boyhood’, an Oscar frontrunner.

In the Before movies, Richard Linklater’s signature trope (if you want to call it that) was the walk-and-talk. The couple kept walking, the couple kept talking. And at some point, I was reminded of how Woody Allen likes to do the same thing. Almost every film of his has a walk-and-talk – and when I made this weird connection, I also began to think about how similar Allen and Linklater are in some ways. Both make human-sized movies, targeted at adults. Both have figured out a way to do their own thing and – more importantly – keep doing their own thing. Both have fashioned enviably long-lasting careers, with what appears to be unlimited creative freedom, in an industry that’s grown increasingly infantile. Both adore actors and write great parts for them. And both have their share of hits and misses, and because the hits are so good, it’s easy to overlook the misses.

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Linklater’s latest film, Boyhood is most definitely a hit, right from the opening scene. It’s Aspiration Day at school. The sky is a clear blue. The grass is a bright green. There’s a boy lying on that grass, staring at the sky. The boy is Mason, and it’s the journey of his life – moments from his boyhood to adulthood, filmed over 12 years – that we’re setting out on. His mother Olivia (who’s separated from Mason Sr.) comes to pick him up. In the car, we learn that she’s had a chat with his teacher, who’s complained to her about Mason ruining a pencil sharpener by putting rocks into it. Olivia asks Mason why he did this, and the boy says he wanted to sharpen rocks. Olivia asks him what he will do with sharpened rocks. She has the kind of smile that suggests she’s amused. She probably regards this as a silly antic. We are primed, too, for a bit of lightheartedness. We think Mason will say something “cute” and make us laugh at the darnedest things that kids say. And then the boy says he wanted to make arrowheads.

Suddenly, the mother is looking at him differently. And we are looking at him differently. So it was not something foolish, after all. At least, there’s some kiddie-sized logic in this act – after all, if a blunt pencil can go into a sharpener and come out with a sharp tip, why not blunt rocks? Boyhood is filled with moments like this, moments that make you look at life just a little differently. I expected the film to be like the Before movies or like Michael Apted’s Up series or like Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel episodes (which, like Boyhood, used the same actor to chart the story of a fictional character over decades) – but despite a similar preoccupation with the passage of time in a life (or lives), Boyhood is a different beast.  It’s filled with “nothing really happens” moments – Mason plays video games; his sister does homework; they go to buy the new Harry Potter book; the family plays Charades; Mason Sr. takes them bowling; Mason has sex; Mason Sr. sings; Mason’s boss screams at him; Olivia sells her house. But these moments aren’t “dramatic,” in the sense that they aren’t a result of the previous scenes and they don’t lead into the next scene. They’re just moments. They’re just there. They just happen. Time just happens.

Most films – most dramas, at any rate – are in the business of manipulating time. This episode, which isn’t important, is condensed. That one, which has the potential to affect the audience, is expanded. Time, in Boyhood, isn’t measured out. It just… flows. And the evidence is in the utterly ordinary milestones – a voice that’s just a shade deeper; a haircut that’s just a little different; a frame that’s just a little taller; thoughts that are just a tad more philosophical. (You can easily see Mason, who’s a “creative”-type, growing up to be the character Hawke played in the Before films.) And these moments are filmed in a style that’s equally ordinary, a fly-on-the-wall style, without a background score.

All this might suggest a documentary, but Boyhood isn’t that either. There’s, at times, a sense of scripted drama, especially in the melodramatic passages (melodramatic only in content, not in tone) that describe the domestic life of Olivia and her second husband, an abusive, alcoholic teacher. (He’s one of those Gothic monsters whose behaviour could have shaped any of Tennessee Williams’s sensitive young men.) So in one sense, this is a “plotted” film, woven around various “episodes” in the story of a boy growing up. And yet, the film doesn’t give us the closure we expect from scripted drama. The “arcs” aren’t tidily resolved. Mason and his sister become close with their stepdad’s kids and when Olivia yanks them away and leaves her husband, Mason complains that they won’t see those kids again – and they don’t. There’s no happy reunion, a few months or years later, waiting around the corner. Or you think that, when Mason’s Sr.’s second wife turns out to be religious, there will be some kind of friction when the kids ask him, “You’re not becoming one of those ‘God people’, are you Dad?” The storm isn’t even allowed to gather. The wife, seated at a distance, simply says, “I can hear you.” She laughs. So do we. Or you think that Mason Sr. is simply teasing his son when he says he’s sold the car he promised to give Mason one day. You think that, when the big birthday scene arrives, one of the gifts will be a set of car keys. But that car is gone. People make promises they can’t (or won’t, or don’t remember to) keep, and that doesn’t make them bad people – just people.

And real people. Boyhood comes closer than most films to showing us that the way forward with adult-oriented drama may be just to remove the… drama. Early on, we get a scene where Mason Sr. and Olivia have an argument – but we don’t hear the argument. We barely even see it. Instead of heated lines and impassioned performances, we just see – from the viewpoint of the kids inside the house – Mason Sr. and Olivia gesticulating and talking outside. But over time, there’s a sense of softening. Mason Sr. and Olivia seem to have learnt to coexist – and then we discover that seem is the operative word. At Mason’s graduation party, Mason Sr. pulls out his wallet to offer some money to Olivia. She doesn’t say anything, but her face is a sight to behold, a tight lid over a thousand questions, beginning with “Where were you when the kids were younger and I didn’t have a steady job and we really needed money?” At times like these, the title feels almost constrained. This is as much Mason’s film as it is Olivia’s or Mason Sr.’s. It could easily have been called Peoplehood.

Or Adulthood. Most of my epiphanic moments from the film came from watching Ethan Hawke as Mason Sr., who comes off, at first, like a deadbeat dad but slowly becomes the film’s most affecting character. Hawke, to those of my generation, has always been one of us – in the sense that he seemed to be in school (in Dead Poets Society) round about the time we were in school. At that time, I too thought, like the Hawke character did, that everything inside me was worthless and embarrassing. I don’t want to get too much into this now, but to see Hawke age here, and reach a point where his temples are grey – I was in tears. Suddenly, this wasn’t Mason’s story or Mason Sr.’s story but my story – at least, it could have been my story. That cliché about the universality of some art… sometimes it’s not such a cliché after all. Mason Sr., unfortunately, gets saddled with the film’s sole false note, a kind of “summing up” scene when his son asks him what the point of all this is. Suddenly, you sense an attempt to tether a free-floating film. But luckily, the moment doesn’t linger. The narrative loosens up again, aware that there really is no point. We just keep going till we can.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.