Read Everything That Dunks Must Converge

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by Bryan Harvey

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To their own devices: Pablo Larrain's 'The Club'

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by Bryan Harvey

A reflection on Linklater's 'Boyhood'

January 29, 2015




If anything Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is relatable for its commitment to story rather than plot. In fact, this commitment to Walter Benjamin’s idea of the story and the everyday is what drives every aspect of Linklater’s project. However, I do wish I’d seen the film before it was wrapped in paper expectations and ribbons of hype. In fact, I wish I could have seen it before knowing that the character Mason and the actor Ellar Coltrane, who played him, were aging simultaneously. It wouldn’t have taken long to discover such moments. The film’s soundtrack, which is more of a playlist, acts as a cue for these moments in aging. And that’s what this film is, moments, followed by moments waiting for something to happen, or not. This process does not render the film boring, but rather a realist impression of life. And, while this impression is in many ways uplifting, it is also somewhat troubling.

At times, viewing Boyhood is as much about the witnessing of an experiment as it is about the experiencing of art. This trait, however, is not necessarily a negative, but experiments tend to be noteworthy for how they manage to penetrate into the unknown. After all, their task is to unmake the world in a way that offers a more complex understanding of it. At times, however, Boyhood simply replicates what is and therefore always exists in the realm of the familiar. Moreover, this rather conservative process allows the film to be accessible through its lack of transformative power, which is a strange thing to say of a film where the characters age in real time before the audience’s eyes. And, in this way, they age in a manner that is akin to watching ourselves without any real questioning of who and what we are. Everything is an affirmation because the plot is organic rather than structured. There are no decisive turning points where everything could have been rendered differently; there is only what is. Flipping through a family photo album does not change the past, and neither does it say much about the future.



The film is not a catalyst for much, and films do not have to be, I guess. But Mason’s life is neither the product of real drive nor stark desire. The film’s lone vehicle is the aging of its characters. And, while Ellar Mason doesn't necessarily lack agency, he’s not exactly making decisions either. The film was birthed by aesthetic commitments of gargantuan proportion, but its results tremble with the subtlety of a compass. The only comparison I can think of in terms of viewing experience is Terrence Mallick’s Tree of Life, which is more complex, more daunting, more confusing, and more confused. 

And yet, I appreciate Tree of Life’s contextualizing of what it means to be human and on this earth, when it juxtaposes human events with the vastness of the cosmos—we are but atoms in an immeasurable universe. We are miracles, and we are nothing. I’m not sure Boyhood suggests anything quite so fearful or moving, even as it manages to contain scenes that are both fearful and moving. Then again, I don’t know if Boyhood’s ambition is to attempt such an aesthetic feat. After all, the film’s ability to articulate itself is always through the familiar of what’s comfortable. 

With the exception of its soundtrack, the film’s voice is only as clear and strong and conscious as its protagonist’s age permits, which helps the film to resist stating its themes explicitly. Still, Boyhood takes shape in a manner while youthful is incredibly ordinary. At issue then is whether such aesthetic traits mark the film as noteworthy or even necessary. Did we need this film to tell us what growing up is like? Or, could we have simply scrolled through Facebook accounts of friends and strangers alike? These questions leave Eller’s Mason's developing ideologies lie somewhere between the realm of epiphanies he can’t quite articulate and the wisdom to be found on refrigerator magnets. 


Linklater’s willingness to let the film breathe rather freely for much of its three hours without telegraphed motifs and metaphors—other than Ellar’s Mason's photography— renders it, on the surface, a living thing growing into whatever it will be. And yet, Boyhood’s adolescent pathos—its un-meditated narcissism—is the same pathos attempted by Zach Braff’s Garden State, only less stylized than Braff’s effort at making a film that speaks to a generation. 

Boyhood avoids a historical context that truly shapes it or allows it to speak for anything or anyone, only it does speak for others because members in the audience have lived these same unconscious moments without regard to history or politics or others’ lives. The film is smart, but not particularly smart about anything. It thinks about its characters, and they think about themselves, but no one’s ever really thinking about what this means because this means what it means and develops slowly like a photograph inside of a dark room. Then, like the characters in Garden State, youth yells into the abyss or hollers through the canyon, but these noises are themselves inarticulate. They say something by saying nothing. Maybe.

Moreover, this inability to make words work is literally central to the search for meaning in both films. In Boyhood, this moment happens not only in the wilds of nature but when Ellar Mason attempts to explain social media to his then girlfriend on some back country road cutting through the widespread lands of Texas, only what he’s mumbling is something that anyone could mumble. The beauty of the scene, however, is that Mason Ellar doesn’t fully realize this. He may not voice that he is special, but his nervous energy suggests he is excited by the potential in himself for ideas and thoughts and words even as he stumbles to give them shape. 

The only difference between Boyhood's Ellar Mason Coltrane and Garden State’s Andrew Largeman, then, is that the latter consciously searches for significance as he purges himself of pharmaceuticals and a past event—the death of his mother due to a defective dishwasher door—that does manage to act as a conversion point. On the other hand, Boyhood’s Mason resists such quests and merely lives through the moments and relationships that act less like constructed plot elements and more like organisms through which his life must inevitably pass. However, when his high school girlfriend breaks up with him, Ellar’s Mason's often sedated gestures begin to mimic the trepidation and earnestness found in Braff’s Garden State. And answers to adolescent questions are to be found, not only in female companionship, but in reconciliation or received wisdom from patriarchs. 

This transition in Boyhood’s internal organs, from just passing through to possibly searching for answers, is most noticeable in the bar scene where Ellar asks and receives advice from his father (Ethant Hawke) about women. Furthermore, in the film’s closing sequence, Ellar’s Mason's new college roommate provides him with three gifts from the Book of Braff: a girl, drugs, and a quest for experience.   


In the end, Boyhood is a time lapse of youth maturing from one moment into the next, while Garden State and its own predecessor The Graduate are the stuff of choreographed frustration. In this way, Boyhood avoids or rather masks how it is just as contrived at these other films. And yet, this act of hiding what it is—which is a film like any other film—and its Texas setting also makes it similar to an even older Hollywood classic, George Stevens’ epic film Giant, about another, much wealthier Texas family. 

But Giant is not a time lapse video of an individual or even an entire family, maybe not even an entire state. Rather Giant is all epic narrative and the weight of history as told through the rise and fall of great men and their bloodlines. Meanwhile, Boyhood exists in the cracks and the fissures of that same Texas soil. Where the tension between Bick Benedict and Jett Rink treats the entire plain and every hill as a battlefield for oil and cattle and empire, Mason's life is a nebulous dust cloud, to be found in the last gasps of epic narratives, at the start of one century and the end of another. 

Do these similarities or contrasts with past films of similar exigence and geography make the film more or less worthy of its accolades? Whatever answers a person gives to such questions will be subjective. Someone younger will surely say, yes, while someone older perhaps not so much. What I do know is that the vehicle of the film’s production is at once a gimmick of artistic ambition and an achievement towards youthful narcissism. In other words, it is. And that dualistic existence renders the film’s material production and its sparse thematic elements inseparable. No other film this year has had a production process of such interest to both critics and audiences alike. And yet, that same process robs the film of its own exceptionalism. In the twenty-first century, almost every life unfolds in the manner of Ellar Coltrane's Mason's. And perhaps that’s worth noticing, but it doesn't take a three hour film to do so. In an age of social media and ever-evolving technology, we may all become whatever this film already is: Time lapses of something that was once real and then isn't.  


Bryan Harvey can be followed on Twitter @LawnChairBoys.

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