“Deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.”
– Oscar Wilde
Pick up a pencil. Sketch a doodle on a surface, just lines and scribbles. A face maybe, or the outline of a figure. Allow your hand to wander. You have created something, given life to empty lines.
Take this act of fabrication to its natural conclusion. Create films, sixteen of them, including a remarkable trilogy that dances in the bootprints of Truffaut. And, finally, cast a five-year-old boy and film him for twelve years, watching him grow physically, emotionally, spiritually, forging a narrative out of the changing contours of his face. This is still a doodle on a page, a clumsy doodle, yet one deeply concerned with the mere act of creation. Linklater has imagined something grandiloquent, an act of determination that forces us to seriously consider the question: can our enjoyment of a film rest entirely on our knowledge of its conception?
Because, despite a revolution of construction, this is a film that constantly forces us to consider what we need from it. The simple naivety depicted, the grand spiritual innocence of middle-America, are a reversion to some form of pedestrian philosophy presumed long-dead. Here, in 165 minutes, is the growth of a young white boy, from mediocrity to some degree of revelation (think Tony Soprano in the desert), by way of drunken stepfathers, fumbled first-romance and Kurt Vonnegut. But instead of creating a parable, something permanent, lasting, Linklater has opted for quotidian detail. And rather than something miraculous, the marvels and the sensations begin to fall away, long before the film reaches its end.
Yes, there are many wonderful things. This is, necessarily, an accumulation of moments, fleeting details, rather than a pure narrative; as such, it offers the captivating illusion of a life. The Möbius strip-like drifts of Linklater’s elastic poetry have an undeniable allure. His temporal leaps, crossing the barriers of years, are masterful, yet we never feel adrift in the imposing sweep of detail. Throughout, the parents are a focal point. Ethan Hawke’s wayward father, feeling his way in the dark, and Patricia Arquette’s beautiful suffering mother resonate outwards. Without these, the film would fall, and through them we see the inevitable result of many of the son’s bungling ideals. The present means nothing without a future.
And Linklater is best when he may not realize what he is attempting. Somewhere beneath that sincere portrayal of an unconvincing idealist, we witness the truths of our existence in the 21st century: the epidemic failure in our culture of communication, between people and families, between social groups and cultures. Mason’s is a white world, even in Texas. If this is racism by omission, it must still strike us as upsetting. And technology, that great equaliser, slowly penetrates and permeates every interaction between these people. The family unit suffers. Our expectations of life, the soul, experience, become blackened, swollen. In a moment of great truthfulness, Patricia Arquette’s mother comprehends the unceremonious happening of life. Moments go by, and we continue. Until, of course, we don’t.
Perhaps I have seen too many films. Perhaps my distrust of romantic spontaneity is to blame. I am not an American. Yet I am a teacher. I spend my days with five-year-olds. I witness the endless fluctuations of childhood at first hand. And Linklater’s lofty experiment strikes me as something insidious, even as I marvel at it from afar. The journey to adulthood has been attempted by far greater filmmakers: Tarkovsky, Bergman, Truffaut, to name only three. Comparison is a poor man’s game, but I’d point to Spirit of the Beehive as the finest representation of childhood on the screen.
Watch Boyhood, sure, and then seek out something crueller, something filled more readily with the facts of existence. You will need it after this cloying attempt at persuasion.