Thursday, January 15, 2015

Linklater's Bullseye: Boyhood

Slacker, Linkater's first feature film
Slacker was the first Richard Linklater film I saw.  It was one of my earliest art films, and I saw it in an old theatre in Portland.  It was a strange film, and strangely opened my eyes to a new kind of art.  A number of people lecturing about freedom and alternative lifestyles, each from their own perspective.   Really, Waking Life wasn’t that different, with spooky animation and the theme being what life is all about.  But despite the different ideas floating around, they both seemed to be largely disconnected from reality.  So different from Linklater’s films School of Rock or Bernie or even Tape—those may not have been conceptual films, but they were grounded, in a narrative.  The Before movies were in between these two extremes, leaning toward the talking.  They were idea movies in a specific context.  Dazed and Confused was an event film, but leaning more toward conversation than, say, Bernie.

In Boyhood, Linklater I believe, captures the perfect balance between idea and narrative.  He draws in the nostalgia, the narrative, the real life drama, the conversation, the romance, the conceptual conversation, all in one perfect film.  Dang, I used the “p” word, didn’t I?  Let me back off from that for a moment.  What I really mean is that I feel that Linklater has been aiming at some goal all these years, experimenting and crafting amazing films which reach a balance between concept and narrative and I feel that he finally hit the bullseye.

Finally, he has truly connected with me emotionally.  Not because I recognized the scenes and cultural background of Mason’s life.  His is the generation of my children, not of me.  And I have never had to deal with all that relationship drama or dating.  The film hits the emotional target because it honestly draws me in by making these people real, and their lives real, not by hyperdramatized moments, but through visiting this family again and again over a period of years.  I just feel that I know these people.  Not just who they are in a moment, but who they became over time.  So the final scenes of Mason with each of his parents were real emotion, with real power.

The question Linklater wants to answer in Boyhood—possibly the only question he has ever asked in his films—is “what is life about?”  In the conversation, we learn that life is not about the education we receive, the jobs we get, the relationships we have, or the ideals we live by (or claim to live by).  Even though we label ourselves through these things:  we are the spouse of so and so, we “do” this job, we have this degree—that’s not what really matters.  It doesn’t even matter what we intend to do or how we spend our days.  Rather, life is about the moments, the people, the events, the dreams that capture us and drag us along with them.  

Life is the parent who is always there, always supportive, always cheering us on.  Life is not about the person we become infatuated with, but the person who “gets us” and waits for us while we learn to mature.  Life isn’t about our biggest vision, but the one that we pursue for year after year, even if we never make our money from it.  Life is not about the education we pursued for years, but about the knowledge that changes us, makes us the people we are, the people perhaps we were always meant to be.  Life isn’t about the stuff we gather, but what really is important to us, those with whom we live day in and day out, and the things we interact with that shape our being.   Sometimes the most important thing in our life is the small, offhand comment that seemed so insignificant, but it changed us in ways we never would have thought possible.  It is not just the day-to-day, it is the everyday.  It isn’t the drama, it is the small love that lasts over years that’s most important. 

I don’t feel that Linklater has been so focused on one concept Instead of trying to show big ideas compressed into a brief moment in time—a single night, a point in the history of a human life—Linklater succeeds by showing us the whole span of a family.  We cannot understand the scope of human existence until we experience that scope.  In less than three hours, Linklater gives us that span and communicates what is to be focused on. 

The film itself is full of bright cinematic spots.  For the first two thirds of the film, every time Ethan Hawke showed up, the screen lit with his energy and enthusiasm.  Even at the end, he sparkles, understanding better than anyone in the cast exactly what Linklater wants.  Both Ellar Coltrane and Patricia Arquette faltered at first, but they grew into their roles, owning them and helping us experience the growth of their characters.  Some of the scenes, like Olivia taking her children away from an abusive situation, and the self-important teacher giving an ineffectual “darkroom chat”, will remain with me forever.   But most importantly to me is the living philosophy that we had opportunity to experience, not just hear a discussion about.

I think Linklater has always tried to give us a thoughtful philosophy, to try to measure all of us and human existence in one of his films.  Finally, I believe that he succeeded.

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