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The Great American Movie?

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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.

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