Saturday, September 27, 2014


An American Take 
on European Methods and Asian Philosophy

     Richard Linklater’s Boyhood follows a boy in Texas from first grade until he enters college.  Filmed over a twelve-year period, usually for a week each year, Boyhood not only shows the development of Mason Evans, Jr., but also of his family, extended family, and friends.  What seems at first to be a
simple idea accumulates power because of the passage of time, recognizing where and how people change and remain the same, and demonstrating decisions that reverberate years later in re-routing the course of a life.

Michael Apted
     Michael Apted’s Up series (1964 – 2012) has taken a group of English children, from all social classes and different regions of the country, from seven years of age through their fifties so far.  Apted’s series is a documentary and it has had to quickly review the participants’ lives before catching up with the current seven-year period.  Linklater pinpoints one family over a dozen years and takes the time for viewers to really see them.  I once heard George Furth say at the Playhouse, “ I spent a third of my life acting, a third of my life writing, and now I just want to be.”   This plays into what Linklater does in this movie.

Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke
     Mason Jr. spends time being and it’s from there that things happen and he has to act or react.  Instead of being defined through action as in most commercial movies, Linklater’s characters define themselves through their being in Boyhood.  In his Before trilogy (1995 – 2013), Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s characters’ being has partly been how they’ve argued out their definitions of themselves and each other.  Boyhood feels much gentler, even though there are discreet scenes of domestic physical violence and some dread-filled ones of emotional violence.  That sense of always being right now in the moment as Mason Jr. articulates in the final scene reflects an almost Taoist philosophy, but it has been visualized throughout in what feels like long takes and small interior spaces contrasted with vast exterior ones – one over-riding justification for the Texas setting.  If Yasujiro Ozu had made a movie now in Texas, this might be it.

     Major dramatic events such as marriages and divorces happen off-screen, but we’re prepared for these (either before or through references afterwards) by the onscreen scenes.  This places Linklater in the Chekhovian tradition.  His working method feels akin to Ingmar Bergman’s because he uses the same actors as collaborators in a number of movies.  The loose, relaxed dialogue and narrative structure are distinctly American and places him (as well as Paul Thomas Anderson) as an heir to Robert Altman.  Unlike Chekhov or Bergman, he’s primarily a visual artist – this script, especially, doesn’t feel wordy.  Waking Life (2001) and Fast Food Nation (2006) have the hyperlink structure that Altman pioneered, but Boyhood focuses its attention on a smaller, more intimately connected group of characters.

Ellar Coltrane
     Linklater was extremely fortunate to cast Ellar Coltrane as Mason Jr.  He’s not only a natural performer, but he’s an arresting camera object.  He has an open face, but a demeanor that suggests hidden secrets.  It’s a tantalizing combination for a screen actor.  I’m not sure how he will be in other movies – if he even chooses to pursue such a future – but he possesses the first necessity for a star, which is a viewer looks to him in the composition before other actors. 
Lorelei Linklater
with her father, Richard
Lorelei Linklater is delightful as his older sister, though she’s less spirited at the end of the movie.  I don’t think it’s because of growing maturity, either.  Instead, it’s almost as if she loses her naturalism over time.  

Patricia Arquette
     Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke play their split-up parents.  Arquette turns in the best performance I’ve ever seen her give.  We experience the mother’s sensitivity and intelligence at the beginning when she’s reading one of the Harry Potter books to them and is trying on an accent.  Later, she finds the strength to deal with a couple of husbands in difficult circumstances.  But, as she says in the first sequence, her “kids come first.”   She’s trustworthy.  Hawke’s character seems like a Peter Pan type who won’t come through, but he also surprises over time.  One parent leans towards liberalism, while the other leans towards conservatism and that refers to the duality of the influences for the movie, but it also shows the diversity of Texas (and pretty much every other state in the U.S.)

     There are some wonderful running gags.  The various older male characters speak to Mason Jr. about responsibility, while the older female characters never mention it, but always act responsibly.  We’re uncertain about whether Mason Sr. has any artistic talent, though his friend Jimmy, played by Charlie Sexton in a relaxed and genuine attitude, piques interest.  Since it’s Sexton, I kept hoping he’d finally play out and when he does, it underlines Mason Sr.’s belief in others.  

     Bergman and Ozu produced prolifically in part because of government underwriting.  Linklater has been able to do so because he’s chosen to remain in Austin, work with a team over time (the Hollywood studios did this in the ‘30s – ‘50s with units, which was the reason behind the consistency and craft of their product), keep budgets low, and pursue subjects that excite him, rather than make a ton of money for conglomerates. School of Rock (2003) was an exception in budget and return, but Boyhood, which is already a critical sensation, could become Linklater’s next big hit.

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