At the Movies
The opposite of time-lapse photography would seem to be slow motion, but there is an alternative: elision. You can lose time or hide it, put it away for two years or nine years, and then invite it back for a visit. Movies (and novels) do this regularly as a matter of narrative efficiency: you cut out the ‘and then and then’ and go straight to the next chosen moment, from the take-off to the landing say, without the details of the long flight. But they don’t always invite you to ponder the missing minutes or years, as Richard Linklater’s films do.
There is a brilliant elision of this kind in the new film Boyhood – well, there are maybe eight of them, but one is especially eloquent about the gap it leaps over. Patricia Arquette, as the affectionate hard-up single mother of two young children, has decided to go to college and improve her job prospects. ‘Life is expensive,’ she tells the children. One day she takes her son Mason with her to class and introduces him to her professor (Marco Perella), an obnoxious fellow in love with his own fading charm. Just another day in the life, it seems. But then when the professor asks Arquette if she might be able to find a baby-sitter for the evening we realise this can’t be the first time they have been out together. That story got lost between frames, and since the scene ends very quickly we move almost directly into another elision and pick up the story two years later. The boy and his elder sister, Samantha, are waiting with their grandmother for the honeymooners to come home. Courtship, proposal, wedding plans, wedding, honeymoon in Europe: all vanished into time that can only be imagined.
Linklater has become something of a specialist in this effect with his three films starring the same actors playing the same characters at different stages of their lives – of the characters’ lives because of the storyline, of the actors’ lives because time passes. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy met on a train in Before Sunrise in 1995, in a bookshop in Before Sunset in 2004, and (their characters married now) in Greece in Before Midnight in 2013. It’s a great device, but probably does more for our imaginations than for the movies themselves. How could anything that happens visibly to two people once in a while be as interesting as what happens all the time when we are not watching them? The question keeps coming up because of Linklater’s devotion to a particular way of showing the ordinary on film, which involves people talking at great and rather desultory length (about their work, their worries, their relationships) and not doing all that much else except a little shopping and cooking. That said, it is true that these movies have their devoted fans, and even I was gripped by the ending of Before Midnight, when it seems that the marriage is broken for good, that Hawke’s penitent charm and playfulness are making things worse, that nothing can now alter Delpy’s stubborn, inward-turned misery. They stare hopelessly into the Greek gloom rather than looking at each other, and the staring goes on for a long time. Long enough for us to think this is the film’s final shot, it’s last non-word. Then Delpy, smiling with difficulty, picks up the thread of the fantasy Hawke was offering her as a way out of their quarrel. She says, ‘How does that time-travel thing work?’ They begin to talk, and the film ends.
The good news about Boyhood is that the device doesn’t distract us from the movie and that Linklater has created a quite different idea of ordinariness, or perhaps has shown us that ordinariness doesn’t exist except as all the things it is not. The elision principle is as it is in the trilogy, and so is the continuing presence of the same individual actors through the years. But the setting, the story and the length of the gaps in time are all different. In Boyhood we are not catching up with our protagonists at long intervals, we are tracking their lives and folding a few interruptions into the process. ‘Here they are again’ becomes ‘Here they are still are.’ We begin when Mason is six and Samantha is eight, and end when he is 18 and she is 20, both of them now in college. The film was shot over 12 years, at two-year intervals, with 39 shooting days at a time.
Everyone grows older, but of course the children, played by Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, turn into a sequence of different persons. It’s part of the background to the film rather than the film itself that they (and indeed the adult actors) could have quit at any moment, or decided not to play one year, and apparently Linklater’s daughter briefly sought that option. ‘Can’t my character die?’ she said. But the background in this case informs the film, since so much of it is about what doesn’t happen. It’s important too that Boyhood doesn’t come after the trilogy except in its release. Linklater started making it when only Before Sunrise had appeared, so it is a parallel experiment rather than a rethinking of the model. In fact, Linklater suggests in an interview, his work on Boyhood may have helped Before Sunset and Before Midnight to come into being.
In Boyhood the photographic interest, so to speak, is in the children’s changing from round infants into lanky teens, and in the record of the period, those ageing rock songs, that first Obama election, so far away now. But the dramatic interest – and Linklater insists that he thinks of the film as fiction rather than any sort of documentary – is almost the reverse. We are amazed at how true the children remain to themselves as they grow. They develop rather than alter. And if the times change, the places stay much the same: various locations in rural Texas, busy schools, low-slung houses, lonely lakes, with the occasional glimpse of the big city, Houston. When Mason is 16, his father’s new in-laws give the boy presents that in almost any other film would invite mockery, or some sort of non-Texan sense of superiority. They are (from the mother-in-law) a Bible with all the words actually spoken by Jesus printed in red, and (from the father-in-law) a rifle, and some earnest instruction in how to use it. The ghost of a smirk hovers even in this film, since Mason is too cool to take the presents in quite the spirit in which they are given. But he appreciates the affection and sincerity in the offering, and he is not laughing. We get something of the same feeling from the music the children’s wandering father writes, and the rather elderly band he hangs out with. They are too bad to be taken seriously, but too committed to what they think of as their scene to be patronised.
Arquette and her husband are separated at the beginning of the film – he is, it seems, a thoroughly likeable fellow who was impossible to live with, and he has been away in Alaska for a while. He is Ethan Hawke, genial, scruffy, the parent who has all the fun with the children on weekends and holidays, while the mother personifies weariness, care, nagging and stress. Hawke’s character is a little sheepish about this privilege, and he is more consistently attentive to the children when he remarries – happily but a little squarely for his own unevolved taste. Arquette meanwhile has hooked up with what Hawke calls ‘a parade of drunken assholes’, including the professor we have met. This man turns into a dangerous alcoholic, beating up Arquette and sequestering her children. If Hawke proposes an easy-going recklessness as a model, Arquette offers kindness and resilience, an ability to get over whatever mistakes she makes. When Mason, about to take off for college, asks her why so many things went wrong, she answers, with a bleakly stoic wit, ‘I enjoy making poor life decisions, OK?’ And late in the movie, juggling disappointment in her own life with pride in her children, she wistfully says, ‘I just thought there would be more.’ This is a wonderful line, not least because it inverts the premise of so much of the dialogue in the trilogy. Ordinary life may be rambling, but ordinary language has been known to provide just the right touch of understatement.
There is also a sense in Boyhood that ordinariness is not what happens anyway but what happens if you’re lucky. The film invites us to conjugate the messed-up and far from happy lives of so many adults (and of the historical world around them) with the modest, mildly stubborn sanity of the children. They are lucky but luck isn’t all they have. Broken marriages, drunken husbands, desperate mothers, violent school bullies, drugs, temptations to drop out, break-ups with boyfriends and girlfriends: the children survive all these because they know when to stop, because they can’t be lured into the follies of their elders and so many of their peers.
At moments you think they are not going to make it. The alcoholic husband is thoroughly out of control, as are the school bullies practising throwing circular saws at their victims. Something bad has to happen here, you think. Because it often does in life, and because it always does in the movies, once the possibility has been announced. In movies where it isn’t going to happen the violent alcoholics and the flying sawblades don’t even show up. Still, what is guiding Linklater’s story here is not easy optimism but something like a best-case scenario when the odds are bad – a refusal of the odds as destiny. We may have thought there would be more, as Arquette does, but when it comes to damage it is a sort of triumph to get away with less.