The Great American Movie?

What do you think has become of the young and old men? / And what do you think has become of the woman and / Children?

They are alive and well somewhere…

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

faces-of-masonThere is much chatter on the idea of the Great American Novel, a book that represents everything America hopes to be. Or, simply, a book that is America (my vote: Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion). Or, perchance, the Great American Poem – see above. Here’s an idea: the Great American Movie. I suppose the notion of either a Great American book or movie (or poem) is absurd, but it’s a fun concept to play with, and fine fuel for ambition. The striving to create something great. Enter film auteur Richard Linklater.

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I was first introduced to Richard Linklater through his trilogy Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013) with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as Jesse and Celine. In nine year intervals, Linklater traced Jesse and Celine from their early romantic twenties to married with children. Thus, Linklater bypasses the typical bells and whistles of Hollywood, instead pursuing the quotidian and the simple, mysterious passage of time. It follows then, after portraying two lovers over a period of 18 years, that he would try to tackle the whole of youth in one film. And so thus: Boyhood. A cinematic bildungsroman whose likes we’ve never seen before.

If you’ve paid the slightest attention, you know that Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is kind of a big deal. Filmed over a period of twelve years, it traces Mason Jr.’s growth from age six to eighteen. What makes it so compelling and groundbreaking is the fact that, instead of using multiple actors to portray Mason’s youth, Linklater used the same actor, Ellar Coltrane, whose youth we literally see unfold before our eyes. It’s fascinating to watch.

(Coincidentally, Linklater initially planned to titled the film 12 Years, but then there was McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. So, taking inspiration from Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth, Linklater settled on Boyhood.)

Mason Jr. is the son of Olivia (Patrica Arquette) and Mason Sr. (Linklater veteran: Ethan Hawke), a divorced couple. Mason also has an older sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei), and the two are more or less raised by their mother, with occasional and frequent visits from their father, the fun-loving, feckless parent who drives a sports car and plays the guitar. At a baseball game, they ask, “Dad, do you have a job?” Meanwhile, Mason and Samantha move with their mother from stepfather to stepfather: first, Bill the psychology professor who we soon learn is a physically abusive alcoholic, next the Iraq/Afghanistan veteran Jim who also has an affinity for alcohol. Eventually Mason Sr. sheds parts of his ‘cool dad’ persona by trading his sports car for a minivan and marrying again, but he still plays a large, vital role in Mason Jr.’s life. But the strongest character, as well as the best performance, comes from Patricia Arquette as Olivia; to me she holistically embodies Steinbeck’s strong woman: “I believe a strong woman may be stronger than a man, particularly if she happens to have love in her heart. I guess a loving woman is indestructible.” Arquette’s character Olivia possesses this indestructible love.

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Covering such a substantial swath of time, it is only natural that Boyhood is just short of three hours. It doesn’t feel that way. Linklater presents a seamless impression of Mason’s youth, moving in an episodic manner from scene to scene. The movie is practically an archetype of American boyhood: Mason flipping through a lingerie catalog with his friends, camping with his father, encountering bullies in the high school bathroom, working as a busboy, getting a girlfriend and breaking up, and, finally, his entrance into college. Best of all: his discovered skill and passion for photography. I can only agree with Matt Zoller Seitz in his superb review of Boyhood – tempus fugit, time flies:

It’s all a blur. The blur is indescribably moving. We’ve seen people age in movies and on TV programs—the kids in the “Harry Potter” and “Up” series, for instance, and little Ronny Howard on “The Andy Griffith Show,” and Kiernan Shipka on “Mad Men”—but we’ve never seen it happen in such a compact span of screen time. That’s what makes “Boyhood” singular. There is no other work to which one can directly compare it without distorting pop culture history. This movie is truly its own thing

Boyhood is at turns comic and melancholy. It is also sui generis, a unique masterpiece. For me, at the ripe age of 25, the whole three hours was pure nostalgia. Near the end, one of Mason’s teachers chats with him about his plans for college and says, “Don’t forget to floss!” Fine advice for any high school graduate (and also an echo of Baz Luhrman’s “Don Forget to Wear Sunscreen”). Watching all the adults counsel to Mason – his photography teacher, his boss at work, his father – you soon come to learn that, yes, indeed, advice is a form of nostalgia.

More moving is the scene when Mason is packing his things in his truck, about to leave for college, and his mother urges him to take his first photograph. He is apathetic – and his mother Olivia breaks down in tears, saying, “I just thought it would be so different.” Time, expectations, life itself: is anything what we expect it to be? Not really, not in the least. The same goes for Boyhood: it’s not quite what you expect. You think: A director who filmed the same cast over a period of twelve years – what fun! And yet, to actually see the physical changes, most starkly in Mason himself as his voice changes and body grows, along with his sister Samantha, but also in their parents Olivia and Mason Sr. who develop slight wrinkles on their face, is nothing short of astonishing. No make-up, no wigs, only the passage of time.

What makes the movie more than a documentary is Linklater’s gift for long takes of dialogue between characters. As much ground, and time, as he covers, the film never feels rushed. You wonder, along with Mason, What is normal? Mason asks his father, What’s is all about? He replies, “We’re all just winging it.” Yet all along one senses that Linklater himself is doing the opposite: he is taking his time. He has patience. He trusts characters and dialogue to carry his films, and it works. Perhaps his greatest strength is patience. The most essential minimal ingredient for any artistic endeavor.

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So, is Linklater’s Boyhood all it’s cracked up to be, a true magnum opus, a shot at the Great American Movie? I think so. I felt so. Near the end, Mason is hiking with his new college buddies in Big Bend, a tad buzzed from a hash brownie. He sits down and chats with a girl on the nature of the present moment: how it is always now (another title Linklater considered). She replies that the carpe diem/seize the moment cliche is wrong; or, rather, that the reverse is also sometimes true: sometimes the moment seizes you. Sometimes a film seizes you, gently, slowly, unexpectedly. Such a film is Boyhood.

A True American Trickster

14_03_kirn_eventWalter Kirn echoes Capote’s In Cold Blood in his riveting memoir Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade, meditating on his friendship with the child kidnapper and murderer Clark Rockefeller (real name: Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter). In a contemplative first person narration, Kirn’s traces the path of their friendship. How did Clark deceived him, Walter, an alumnus of Princeton and Oxford?

Because Clark is a man of many masks: Chris Chichester, Charles Smith, Chip Smith – these are just a few of his pseudonyms. Kirn first met Clark in 1998; he drove a handicapped dog from Montana to New York City for Clark. Clark first claims to be a “freelance central banker,” and later other faux professions arise (art collector, physicist, Quaker). The real Clark, Gerhartsreiter, was born in Germany and at age 18 traveled to the US as an exchange student. Walter eventually learns that Clark is a man of multiple convictions: in 2009 for parental kidnapping, assault, and battery; in 2013 for first-degree murder.

As the facts accumulate, Kirn sees who “Clark” really is: a liar and a murderer. He realizes his own capacity for egotism while mazing through their encounters; he wanted to believe Clark was Clark because he liked to associate with the aristocracy. When he asks Clark his secret to manipulation in a jailhouse interview, he replies: “Vanity, vanity, vanity.” The epigraph from Patricia Highsmith captures the enigmatic character of Clark best: “He was versatile, and the world was wide!”

The kidnapping, which made international news and later inspired a TV movie, exposed Clark Rockefeller as a fraud, the most prodigious serial impostor in recent history. It also connected him to a lineage older, and in a certain fashion richer, than that of the founding family of Standard Oil: the shape-shifting trickster of American myth and literature. . . . He’s the villain with a thousand faces, a kind of charming, dark-side cowboy, perennially skipping off into the sunset and reappearing at dawn in a new outfit. (75-76)

A Great American Story

matthew20thomas20photo20and20book2007212014If literature’s primary goal is to cultivate empathy, then Matthew Thomas’s latest (and first) novel We Are Not Ourselves (2014) succeeds. It is not a great American novel – it is a great American story. A character-driven novel, WANO tells the story of Eileen Tumulty, a first generation Irish American in New York City. She aspires to rise above her working-class parents. After marrying the promising academic Edmund Leary, her father says, “If you’re not in a house by the time I’m dead, I’ll haunt you from my grave.”

Thus, the American Dream becomes Eileen’s Dream: buy a house, raise a family. Though over 600 pages, WANO reads quickly with the average chapter length of three pages. Thomas’s highly polished prose makes for a smooth read, but this is not a light read. Ed’s descent into dementia at age fifty is an honest, unsparing portrayal of losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s. He becomes a chastened Lear, his mind a lump of sand slowly sinking through the sieve.

We watch Eileen struggle to care for him and raise their son Connell. The relationship between Ed and Connell is one of the more moving father-son dynamics I have seen portrayed in literature recently. Eileen herself proves to be an unbreakable female protagonist whose life we see unfold over a period of sixty years. Thomas has written a moving, unsentimental family saga that creates a rare empathy for his chararacters, imperfections and all.

Life, she thought, was like that sometimes; for years, things were a certain way, and then in an instant, almost without conscious thought, they weren’t that way any longer, as if all the hidden pressure on their having been the way they’d been had found release through a necessary valve.

Why Good People Write Bad Prose

the-sense-of-styleSo you think you can write? Steve Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century defines and exemplifies good writing. For him, true prose is defined by classic style, which is not as high and mighty as it sounds. Simply, it shows the reader something in the world and strives for clear, concrete prose. It is a window, showing the world through a glass clearly.

Pinker provides a diverse set of examples such a passage from Dawkins, an obituary, and a Dear Abby column, along with comic strips. His strongest chapter, “The Curse of Knowledge,” gets to the heart of the matter: “The better you know something, the less you remember about how hard it was to learn.” Knowledge can be a blessing or a curse depending on how you use it. So can writing.

If Stunk and White’s advice can be reduced to the timeless dictum “Omit needless words,” then Pinker’s advice is “Write well.” No matter how well-read you are or how big your vocabulary is, one must be mindful of the audience: “The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose.” To write well, one must constantly be mindful of the audience. Why use the word “differentiate” when “differ” will do?

Pinker’s book, along with Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, is the kind of guide any aspiring writer should follow because good writing isn’t just a way to transfer knowledge but can also, Pinker concludes, “add beauty to the world.”

The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known, and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world.

* For a good and bad review of Pinker’s latest book, see Nathan Heller’s “Steven Pinker’s Bad Grammar” and Charles McGrath’s “Steven Pinker’s ‘The Sense of Style,’ “ by Charles McGrath.

To Act You Have to Be Relentless

article-lvcranston8f-505There’s something very satisfying about seeing someone who is really good at what they do – something transcendent about talent. We see the glory of a fine performance like Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad, and we think, this is it, whatever it is. For Cranston, the ‘it’ factor was a calling, a love of acting, which he realized while biking through Virginia: “I will pursue something that I love – and hopefully become good at, instead of pursuing something that I’m good at – but don’t love.” In his recent memoir A Life in Parts (271 pages), Cranston movingly traces his many roles as a working-class actor, from farmhand and paperboy to thespian and Hollywood actor.

What matters, Cranston writes, is a love of the process itself, losing yourself in a character, memorizing line after line. This is precisely what Bryan Cranston’s career shows, from commercials for Preparation H into a A-list actor snagging three consecutive Emmy’s, a Tony, and an Oscar nomination.

Cranston’s father, Joseph, who disappeared for ten years during his childhood, provides a cautionary tale as a failed actor who never made it big like his son: “my dad was only interested in the home run. Early in my career, I’d learned how to hit singles.” If you are only chasing celebrity and fame, you will never arrive, but if you possess a relentless love of acting, as Bryan does, performing is an end in itself. The rest is just icing on the cake.

The great acting guru Constantine Stanislavski said, “Love art in yourself, not yourself in art.” I think of that often. I try to live by that. Work, hone your craft, enjoy your success in whatever doses they may come. But do not fall in love with the poster, the image of you in a movie, winning an Oscar, the perks, the limo, being rich and famous. If that is what you’re falling in love with, you’re doomed to fail. . . . Fall in love with creative expression and the surprising discoveries and empowerment it can bring. Be wary of the rest. (158)

Shyamalan’s Split Revives Old Magic

split-movie-girlsSplit has practically resurrected M. Night Shyamalan’s career, commercially speaking. It has scored number one at the box office two weekends in a row – a feat not accomplished since The Sixth Sense. It seems Shyamalan has found his mojo again, hopefully for keeps.

Split breaks into action when Kevin (James McAvoy) kidnaps Clair (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Shula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), three teenage girls, and locks them in a room in an anonymous underground compound. As the film progresses, it’s tension is primarily buttressed by showcase performances from McAvoy and Taylor-Joy. They convincingly portray two traumatized characters: Kevin has 23 different personalities, and Casey’s traumatic past is unveiled in a series of flashbacks.

McAvoy revels in each personality: one minute he is dressed in black and bespectacled as Dennis, the next he is in blue athletic apparel and talking like a child as Hedwig, the nine-year-old. One particular character pays homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho when McAvoy wears a maroon dress, transforming into the female Patricia. When he meets with his therapist Dr. Fletcher (played convincingly by Betty Buckley), he is Barry, a gay fashionista.

McAvoy’s blue eyes tease as he playfully, darkly displays his range as an actor, both fascinating and terrifying in his portrayal of evil. Although we never see his other personalities, the vacillation between these four is enough to keep us on our toes.

Against Kevin’s legion self is Casey. Like Clarice (Jodie Foster) from Silence of the Lambs, Casey has a traumatic past. Anya Taylor-Joy, who broke out in 2016’s The Witch, owns her role as the wounded Casey. In one flashback, Casey’s Dad teaches her how to shoot a rifle when she is a young child. This, of course, comes handy near the end.

In Split Shyamalan splinters the archetype of Jekyll and Hyde with dissociative identity disorder: for most of the film, McAvoy moves between the four personalities, but he keeps hinting at his multiple personalities coalescing into the Beast. Kevin eventually transforms into his own menacing Hyde.

Despite Split’s predictable plot, the dynamic between Kevin and Casey provides plenty of suspense and unease. Split wears its theme on its sleeve, and the enigma of affliction is filtered through Nietzsche’s what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Casey and Kevin embody different facets of this maxim.

As the tension and atmosphere build, the climax delivers an intense and riveting finale involving – yes! – a rifle, with a throwback twist at the end. What truly gives this movie it’s pizzazz are the knockout performances by McAvoy and Taylor-Joy.

After a decade of diminishing returns, it seems Shyamalan the auteur is back to play, his talents in full flare.

What is Life For?

2000-almost-famousWhat is the purpose of college – and life itself – after all?

In William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (2014) and Mark Edmundson’s Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education (2013), both reflect on higher education in the 21st century and the search for meaning and purpose that it can and should inspire.

Edmundson laments how the standard undergraduate education is now all about obtaining a degree and acquiring marketable skills to find a job after graduation; in short, to prepare students for a career. He has a different, more idealized goal for students and professors:

The function of a liberal arts education, as I see it, is to rejuvenate, reaffirm, replenish, revise, overwhelm, replace, reorder, or maybe just slightly retouch the web of words that Rorty calls the final vocabulary. A language, Wittgenstein thought, is a way of life. A new language, whether we learn it from a historian, a poet, a painter, or a composer of music, is potentially also a new way to live.

Rejuvenate, reaffirm, replenish. The essence, for Edmundson, the telos of education, is to inspire. He wants students to cultivate the skills of close reading, critical analysis, and reflection that great works of literature (history, philosophy, science) spur. Literature, at its best, can teach us how to live. When great writers are read contemplatively, they becomes catalysts, a kind of portal to the sublime:

The best reason to read them is to see if they know you better than you know yourself. . . . Reading the great writers, you may have the experience Longinus associated with the sublime: You feel that you have actually created the text yourself. For somehow your predecessors are more yourself than you are.

Deresiewicz aptly summarizes his own grievances in one word: technocratic. Universities today are fragmented, over-specialized, and myopically insistent on math and science. Deresiewicz champions the humanities, wary of how Ivy League students are motivated by careers, and, worst of all, risk averse. These HYPSters – Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford students – are too prim, too afraid. His advice is simple: “People say find your passion, but they don’t say be prepared to suffer.”

He exhorts students to break from their manic dash for credits and to take time off and travel. He persists, and insists – there is more to life than credentials:

Life is more than a job; jobs are more than a paycheck; and a country is more than its wealth. Education is more than the acquisition of marketable skills, and you are more than your ability to contribute to your employer’s bottom line or the nation’s GDP, no matter what the rhetoric of politicians or executives would have you think. To ask what college is for is to ask what life is for, what society is for—what people are for. Do students ever hear this?

Edmundson expresses a similar anxiety about today’s typical college student, whom he describes as “considerate, easy to please, and a touch depressed.” His most salient piece of advice, to me, came from his 2005 convocation address “Glorious Failure,” whose message is: Do not fear failure. He mentions a ghost resume: “all the things that went awry, the essays that didn’t work, the book projects that fell apart, the writing that seemed like it was coming from the pen of Samuel Johnson on Tuesday and turned out on Friday not to make much sense at all.”

No one, no matter how intelligent or talented, ever reaches the point where he or she reaches complete development as a human being. We are always in a state of flux. And this is a good thing. Edmundson, with a touch of humility, expresses as much:

When I was a young man I had a myth of my own. It’s the myth of arrival, and what that myth said was that at a certain point you get to a place in your career and everything goes well. Everything you do works, because you’re a success and that’s that. I’m here to tell you that that point does not exist.

Each day one must rise and slay the dragon. There is a stigma in American society attached to failure. But all the great minds failed. Failure requires courage. As uncool and unsexy as failure may feel, it demands our full attention. Edmundson quotes Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) from Almost Famous: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”

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Apart from Edmundson’s concern that universities across the nation are developing into “corporate cities” and his worries about the coming generations, he still has hope. True education, Edmundson concludes, is a Keatsian soul-makinga life-long endeavor that just begins in college.

Echoing Edmundson, Deresiewicz summons Odysseus, that classic mythic hero who embodies “the life-changing, soul-making journey.” He gracefully concludes:

The only grade is this: how well you’ve lived your life.

Expect suffering, anticipate failure – because they are our best teachers.