September 2014

Cinema as Richard Linklater [Boyhood]

//Philip Conklin

Making a film for me is a real natural part of life.
— Richard Linklater

The name Richard Linklater is not a particularly well known one. Although some of his films have earned popularity and acclaim (mostly the latter), and he’s often cited as one of the major figures of the '90s independent film movement — characterized by the Sundance film festival — he’s not as prominent as contemporaries like Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and Paul Thomas Anderson. Though most people have seen a Linklater film, most of them would be hard pressed to tell you who the man is.

 2014 ©   Megan LaCroix  ,  ""Untitled"

2014 © Megan LaCroix, ""Untitled"

But chief among the reasons for his relative anonymity is the thematic and stylistic disparity of his films. Linklater has made, to name a few, a hallmark of independent art cinema (Slacker), arguably the teen movie (Dazed and Confused), an unconventional romance trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight), two wildly different Jack Black comedies (School of Rock and Bernie), an animated Philip K. Dick adaptation (A Scanner Darkly), and a gangster/western period piece (The Newton Boys). Such a diverse and diffuse filmography defies authorial attribution; to imagine one man behind all of these films borders on preposterous. Outside of serious movie buffs, one isn’t likely to refer to the newest “Linklater movie” because his films have such range. Although his films often have many things in common, unlike Anderson or Tarantino he has no lofty, sustaining “vision,” no overt stylistic hallmarks that could characterize or betray the auteur. There is no ego behind these films, no self-conscious, God-like creator; there is only the movies themselves.

Boyhood is probably Linklater’s most anticipated film to date. Filmed over 12 years, the movie follows a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age seven to 18. It chronicles nothing more or less than Mason’s life, his maturation from child to adult, the sum of his experiences. Through family moves, parents’ divorces and marriages, school years, summers, friendships lost and gained, mistakes, arguments, letdowns, accomplishments, the film forges Mason’s life from the moments that comprise it. Boyhood isn’t really a “coming of age” film because it is not about conclusions or milestones, or even transformations. Rather, the movie is an affirmation of, an insistence on, humanity; it is not that Mason “becomes” a man, but that each moment in his life becomes a part of his person. Where traditional coming-of-age films are forced to focus on how a single moment or series of moments changes a person, Boyhood, due to its scope, allows itself to amass a multitude of moments into the person who experiences them.

Mason is the son of divorced parents, and he lives with his mother (Patricia Arquette) and older sister (Lorelai Linklater, the director’s daughter) in East Texas. Mason’s father, a perpetually unemployed type with musical aspirations, drops in only occasionally. During his childhood Mason’s mother works her way through graduate school and a few more husbands — who, on the whole, treat Mason badly — while his father, who's supportive and amiable, if not aimless, slowly cleans up his act. We follow Mason from elementary school all the way through high school graduation, while he grows from a quiet little boy into a lankly, loping 18-year-old. Boyhood’s subject is not an idea of “boyhood” or what it means, but rather this one individual boyhood, in all its complexity and specificity.

The moments that make up Boyhood are not what one traditionally thinks of as the essential, monumental landmarks of life. Though he makes it through his mother’s divorces and weddings, a couple of alcoholic step-dads, high school graduation, a first kiss, the loss of his virginity, it’s not any of those events that the film shows us. Rather, Boyhood invites us in to the interstitial moments. We don’t see Mason in a great hall, throwing his cap into the air and celebrating his high school graduation; but we’re in the backseat on the way home from graduation, his friend driving his parents’ minivan while the pair, still in their purple graduation robes, pass a flask back and forth. It’s not through drunken beatings or murderous rages that we discover his step-dad’s alcoholism; it’s on an otherwise uneventful car ride home, when he stops at a liquor store and declares, “This is just in case we have guests this weekend,” and Mason’s step-brother, once his father is out of the car, tells Mason, “He always says that. We never have guests.” And we don’t see his mom’s weddings or divorces, but we see when Mason notices his mother flirting with a new man for the first time, or when he watches an argument down a hallway or out of a window.

The insistence on passing moments has to do with the fact that Boyhood unfolds not based on an idea of traditional narrative, but according to the nature of memory. The film is linear, following the chronological progression of Mason’s life, but the scenes themselves feel as though they belong to memory rather than to a story unfolding in the present. While Mason certainly remembers his mother’s weddings, they may not be as prominent in his memory as the time he realized his mother is not only his mother, but a woman attracted to a man, that in her interaction with her college professor there may be something else going on, something adult, another layer of meaning that doesn’t involve himself. Because the big moments, the benchmark events by which life is measured, are not necessarily the ones that change you; it’s the small moments, when you experience a shift of attitude, a subtle realization, a new perspective. It’s these movements around which Boyhood turns. Not the drunken rages (though there are some of those), but the awareness of the problem; not the graduation procession, but the intimate moment with a high school friend, maybe the last you’ll have.

Accordingly, Boyhood has no resemblance to standard film narrative’s linear design or three-act structure, nor any real structure for that matter, other than the natural progression of Mason’s life. There is no room for narrative arcs or neat conclusions, no overarching themes or symbols. There is only a swirling mass of intersecting notions and memorable interactions, which have combined to create Mason. Consider an offhand comment made by a friend of Mason’s mother at his graduation party. Upon finding out that he has broken up with his girlfriend, the older woman cheekily asks, “Need a ride to college?” This doesn’t function as part of some larger narrative arc, or an explanation for a part of Mason’s psyche; it is simply something that he would remember later, not as a pivotal moment in his development, only as something unusual and memorable. It has earned a place in the movie because it earned a place in his memory.

Or consider a conversation Mason has with his photography teacher. It’s a fairly run of the mill talk about “discipline” and “hard work,” but we can tell that it has meant something to Mason. Though the movie doesn’t tell us this outright, it was probably the first time a teacher spoke to him frankly, as an adult. In fact, Mason himself may not even recognize this, but the fact that he’s remembered it over all other things reveals its importance. The movie is full of these little asides, tangents, lines and ideas that are introduced but never taken to their conclusion, that don’t fit into some larger conceptual framework; because in life there are no tidy conclusions, no omnipotent conceptual framework. The movie’s only misstep is when it attempts to impose that idea of narrative: Mason’s mother tells a Hispanic man working on her plumbing that he’s smart and should go to night school, only to run into him years later and find that he took her advice, and is now an articulate businessman. This moment is out of place because it feels more true to narrative than to memory.

In the filming of Boyhood, there must always have been a sense of memory, the recognition that what they were making would always be in past. Although the scenes they filmed were concretely and fully of the present (Linklater and the actors often wrote the dialogue the night before a shoot), the intention was always that they would not be shown until years in the future, even to the actors and actresses; in this way, they were always filming in the past tense, recording what would eventually be the memories of Mason, a character who would not fully exist until the film was finished. The scenes, then, served as an affirmation of what had happened to Mason in the past. So it’s not just that Linklater was representing a facsimile of Mason’s memories, because they never existed as anything other than a remembrance, but that he was almost directly filming memories.

In Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Roland Barthes writes, “By attesting that the object has been real, the photograph surreptitiously induces belief that it is alive … ; but by shifting this reality to the past ('this-has-been'), the photograph suggests that it is already dead.” He goes on to argue that every photograph, “whether or not the subject is already dead,” suggests death, since by capturing a specific moment, that moment and the person who experienced it immediately become a part of the past, something that will never exist again. Once someone is photographed, that photograph, and everything it captures, ceases to exist as it is, and becomes instead a verification that it has existed. “The photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been.”

By embracing the inherent memory creation involved in the process of photography, Boyhood creates a purely cinematic experience. A moment on film is not simply captured, but embalmed, transformed into a recollection of that moment. By treating the moments as memories, a layer of representation (the one that attempts to portray a film as happening in the present, rather than as an element of the past), is removed, and the film becomes more immersive.

Of course, Boyhood is mainly attesting to the existence of Mason. But who is he? To call him simply a character played by the actor Ellar Coltrane would miss the point. The film has as much to do with Mason’s development as Coltrane’s development had to do with the film.

Obviously, Boyhood was shaped by Coltrane himself. His physical changes, of course, are also Mason’s physical changes; but also, and increasingly as the film went on, the process of creating the character was a collaborative process between Coltrane and Linklater, so that the character became who he was because of who the actor was, at least partially (for example, Mason wore purple nail polish in the film because Coltrane did in real life). In the same way, the actor’s life was shaped by his involvement with the movie. For a few weeks every year, Coltrane filmed Boyhood. It was a part of his life, and so he would be a different person than he is if not for the filming of this movie. In other words, Mason’s character was affected by Coltrane’s real life, which was affected by his playing Mason in this movie (for example, Coltrane took up photography after hanging around with the film’s photographer; this interest in photography then became Mason’s, who wants to become a photographer in the movie).

In this way, film and life constantly interact and overlap in a way that makes it impossible to attribute origin or cause and effect, merging character and actor into the same force. It is not Mason’s boyhood that we see, nor Coltrane’s, but the continual reflection of Mason’s boyhood onto Ellar’s boyhood, and vice versa. Similarly, Linklater’s life served to inform Mason’s life in several ways. Some scenes were lifted straight from Linklater’s childhood — he too received a gun for his birthday from his grandfather when he was a teenager. But also, as Linklater raised his own daughter (who plays Mason’s sister in the movie), surely his own ideas about childhood and parenthood were changing. And since he wrote the film as he went along — with the collaboration of the actors — this means that Linklater’s development through time is also reflected in the movie, which is reflected in his person, and on and on. Since all the actors had a role in their characters’ development, and since that development was allowed to evolve over time as their characters did, the entire film can be conceived as a sort of conversation between the actors, the filmmakers, and the characters, with each affecting the other in equal measure. Only a film with such a broad temporal scope could have achieved this.

Boyhood doesn’t attempt to explain its subject’s life or justify his actions, nor to characterize what boyhood is. We simply live with this character, and experience what he experiences. There is no judgment, no symbolism, no representation, only reality, the reality of this character. Again, Barthes: “In photography, the presence of the thing (at a certain past moment) is never metaphoric.” Simply, Boyhood ratifies this boy’s existence, an existence that has passed through time and formed according to the moments that he lived.

Linklater’s greatest gift as an artist is his generosity. Despite the formal and ideological connections of some of his movies (notably the Before films, Slacker, and Boyhood) we have very little sense of him as an omnipotent creator of movies; he is only a person attempting to tell a story in the way it deserves to be told. His films succeed because they are nothing other than exactly what they are. They almost seem to exist apart from him, who is only a conduit for them. You see this in the way he speaks about them; when asked if there might be another movie about Mason, he says things like “Who knows” and “I wouldn’t be surprised,” as if they are out of his control. In fact, it seems if there’s any person without a clear sense of who Linklater is, it’s Linklater. But as long as he keeps trying to figure it out through filmed storytelling, we should feel lucky to be along for the ride.


In the final scene of Boyhood, Mason, having eaten part of a pot brownie, on a walk with new college friends in the wilderness, muses, “It’s always right now, you know?” The triteness of this comment betrays its weight. Or, better, its triteness and its weight are not mutually exclusive. It’s not that no one has ever thought or said this (indeed, this is probably said more often than not after eating a pot brownie), but that this character has said it at this time, and that it means what it means because of what we’ve just experienced with him. It could mean nothing other than exactly what it means at exactly that time in exactly that place.

I don’t know if there’s anything specific to be gained from Boyhood. It’s not a delivery system for entertainment or ideology. It only proclaims, loudly and beautifully, at every moment, that it has been. Like life, it just is.

//Philip Conklin is a co-founder of The Periphery.


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