It is difficult to put into words the effect of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014). But, I suspect that the power of this spell-binding film lies in its ability to mirror for us both the cinematic experience and a certain truth about life in the first decade and half of the new century, i.e., the unraveling of white, middle-class family life in the midst of a declining economy and ongoing war. Boyhood is a gentle film which catches you unawares as it palpably quivers with the tension that cinema, like no other art form, throws into our face: Perhaps our grip on reality, life, is eroding faster than our ability to understand it. And we, in turn, are spectators of our lives that appear to unfold before us with the speed and autonomy of a movie. Marx claimed that what distinguishes us as a species is that we are capable of objectifying our experience of life, i.e., representing it outside of ourselves and thus grasping and changing the conditions of life itself, including the experience of alienation.1 Understood this way, the history of art is the history of this human quest to materialize the experience of life. And, cinema with its ability to imitate life as well as produce its most lifelike simulation may thus be seen as the latest attempt in this quest.
Boyhood is a fictional film, whose narrative is woven around a series of episodes in the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), with his sister Sam (Lorelei Linklater), mother (Patricia Arquette), and father (Ethan Hawke), as he grows from the age of six until he leaves for college at eighteen. Shot over a period of twelve years, but thirty-nine days in all, the film’s most striking aspect is its fidelity to the indexicality of the cinema image, i.e., the image as a record of what was placed in front of the camera (as opposed to a digitally created imagery). Rather than producing the effect of aging through make-up, costuming, or work on the actor’s body, the film shows the effects of aging on its actors. During the course of the film we see Mason and Sam grow into puberty and then adulthood; and Arquette and Hawke into middle age. I have seen the film three times and the pleasure of recognizing the effect of age on the human body and face has continued to pull me back to the movie. For instance, you see the changing expression in the eyes of Mason from the unbridled curiosity of the child looking at clouds to the glimmer of surprise as he recognizes the flirtation in his mother’s friend’s offer to drive him. Yet, the compression of twelve years in the two and a half hours of the movie’s running time speeds up time, producing an effect similar to watching home movies that cause us to wonder where time went as we see babies who are now grown and parents who are no longer with us.
The film further builds on this sense of fleeting time by referencing key historical events, including pop culture, of the period (unlike the classical Hollywood story, which is rarely set in a historical period and, even when it is, quickly ends up being only about individual protagonists). For instance, when the children first meet their father, who has been absent so far, the television set behind them broadcasts news of the US entry into Fallujah. Because history in our time has been so thoroughly constituted by mass-mediated cultural events and especially so for children, the film’s references to pop culture ring true as time markers. The children grow up with Harry Potter: first cuddled in bed with their mother who has forgone a date to read to them, we see them later in the film excitedly attending a midnight screening with other children their age. The sound track is composed of carefully selected numbers that would resonate with the characters and the times. In one of the film’s opening scenes, a feisty Sam teases her six-year-old brother with a performance of Britney Spears’ “Oops! . . . I Did It Again.” Her prepubescent body and playful inversion of the song into a fake apology turns her sexualized performance into a parody of Spears, much in the ways in which children simultaneously mimic, mock, and reinvent cultural icons.
It is because Linklater grounds his fictional family firmly in the uncertain times that make up our immediate past that the usual landmarks of growing up — elementary school, bicycle rides, birthdays, initiations into first love, sex and the culture of teen masculinity and femininity, high school graduation, and leaving for college — appear fragile and not to be taken for granted. The source of this danger is not clear, but it certainly clouds the lives of the characters in the film.
Some of the uncertainty stems from the “failure” of the adults to take the “right” decisions, such as the mother’s choice of husbands or the father’s initial reluctance to conform. But this is only part of the story, because even when the parents make the right economic decision, such as the mother moving to be close to her mother to get a degree or the father earning a degree, the outcomes still remain uncertain. And for almost every instance of parental failure the filmmaker also shows many quiet moments of intimate connection between the children and parents. And, it is in some of these moments that the film finds the poetic in reality. For instance, when the children move out of their first house, a six-year-old Mason paints over the lines marking the growing children’s heights on the wall, preparing the house for the market. There is something heartbreaking about a child erasing his childhood. In another sequence there is a deeper poetic reflection on time. For his fifteenth birthday, Mason’s dad gives him a CD he has complied of Beatles’ songs post their breakup. Mason is bitterly disappointed that his dad has forgotten his promise (which the father may or may not have made) to give Mason his car on his sixteenth birthday, which he has now sold off to buy a minivan for his new family. But in compiling the best of John, Paul, George, and Ringo’s solo work after the Beatles’ split, the dad, who is now with his new family, seems to tell his son that the split need never be permanent.
Is this also not the promise of cinema? That we can keep the lifelike image of those we love even after they are gone?
Although the film touches upon the anxieties of raising children in the midst of uncertainty, what a contrast it is to the recent spate of nightmarish Hollywood thrillers on the same subject! The most recent of these, The Hunger Games (2012), showed children pitted against each other, killing to survive. When Linklater started shooting in 2002, there was already a profound sense of disquiet around the blurring of boundaries between adulthood and childhood — a theme made popular by the Hollywood family film in the 1990s. That decade saw the likes of Home Alone (1990) and Matilda (1996) whose children looked and acted like little adults and were capable of taking care of themselves in the face of absent-minded or ineffectual adults. The growing up of Hollywood’s children and the growing down of its adults was a feature of a radically individualized neoliberal world in which each and everyone, including children, was supposed to take care of himself or herself, while childhood was turned into a commodity available to anyone who could pay for it.2 So we had breakfast programs for children cut down while the market shelves were brimming with an unprecedented number of goods and services “for” children and adults playing at childhood and youth. This trend towards abandoning childhood to the market returned as horror in the new century, in films like Children of Men (2006) or Panic Room (2002), which dramatized the abysmal scenario of a world in which children were forgotten, abandoned, or simply no longer born.
Eschewing the Hollywood convention of a tightly woven narrative built around protagonists and their deadlines, which all tie up neatly at the end with redemption, Linklater favors an episodic narrative, moving from one open-ended, contingent moment to another. Whether or not we like the pacing of Boyhood, the overall effect is that the film makes it difficult to forget our own reality, i.e., the passing of time in that darkened movie theater. It does so by producing a palpable tension between multiple experiences of time within the same frame. First, there is the objective, onward time of history whose markers are the Iraq war, the economic crisis, and the aging of the film’s characters — a movement that cannot be changed once over. This intersects with a cyclical awareness of time, of repetition, growing up, and the relationship between parents and children where what is done can be undone — as in the numerous ways in which the parents try to make amends and restore the original family for the children. In our times, it is the latter that has come undone, lurching the cyclical into a fast spin towards an onward moving future whose outcomes appear out of our hands and thus entirely accidental. So we see the children and adults survive, but barely. Mason survives the boys’ night out and the bullying. The mother manages to get out of the marriages to two alcoholic husbands, in particular the first one who is also violent. But, in one of the film’s most poignant scenes about the accidental nature of life, the family also loses touch with the biological children of the first stepfather. The film ends, as it had started, in the middle of their lives. Maybe Mason will grow up to be like his father, torn between conforming and not; maybe Sam has already taken to alcohol and is on to a series of mistaken relationships. Regardless, their future is as uncertain as the life we have seen so far.
There is also a third sense of time, which the film is also able to materialize. It is the experience of aging itself, a generational sense of time, as we see the parents and children both reflect on that experience. In the generational experience of aging, the objective and the subjective, the linear and the cyclical, intersect in the most intimate way we know. One of the most powerful instances of this is shown towards the end. The mother sits alone, framed between a lamp and the door in her new compact apartment while Mason is getting ready to leave for college. They argue over a trivial detail — the first photograph Mason had taken. The mother wants him to take the photograph with him while Mason wants to leave it with her. Here two experiences of time collide. Against his mother’s stinging realization of the finitude of an individual lifetime expressed in the simple statement, “I thought there would be more,” Mason is memorializing his childhood in the photograph he is leaving behind. The scene replays here a recurring generational drama between parents and children: the former have seen the face of death and the latter cannot as long as the former are alive.
Why has our awareness of time become so compelling now? And what is it about the cinema screen that lends itself to materializing it so fully?
The answer lies in the nature of cinema and the history of its development in capitalism. The camera records what is in front of it, but the cinematic image can also alter, distort, and present the most lifelike simulation (as in Sci-Fi) of fictional worlds or, as Alain Badiou indicates, a simulation of an artificial world.3 The dream of a machine that could replicate life in its entirety and the resulting anxiety that people would be manipulated into substituting — or willingly substitute — life for the image preceded the birth of cinema in the 19th century and have continued unabated through the digital age. More recently, Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) has explored the very real lure of living in a fake reality and the price it extracts, especially from parents and children (the emotional core of that film is the question if the protagonist will return to his children).
The desire to step out of the seat and disappear fluidly and transparently into the fantastic world of the screen (whether it is the movie screen, our home movies on the TV screen, the iPhone, 3D, Imax, holograms, or other attempts at virtual reality) is very real. What we see rehearsed in our contemporary image culture is the despairing fear of being lost in a virtual world while the actual collapses around us — where children are left alone to raise themselves and we are unable to distinguish between sleep and death. After all, a life led while dreaming, passively lost in multiple screens, is akin to death.
Surviving the holocaust, Hans Jonas concluded that the human race was no longer capable of imagining immortality. 4 The irony is that we have a machine capable of preserving our image almost in perpetuity. All too aware of the perishability of the human race through human folly; burnt by totalitarian regimes that have eviscerated entire peoples and made life utterly cheap, reducing memory and history to images to be doctored and manipulated (now even high school photos are doctored); and no longer able to imagine a future, we come face to face with the only reality we can all agree upon: death. And so, Jonas writes explaining the roots of existentialism, each of us is compelled to take that “lonely stand in time between the twofold nothing of before and after” and ask: “What is the point of it all?”
The characters in Boyhood raise that existential question and make it come alive for the audience as well. In the end, the film seems to indicate, the adults know as little or as much as the children and all that matters is that you have lived and felt in the moment. It is simultaneously a sad and brave conclusion because it is at once a declaration of faith in the beauty of human life and an acknowledgement of the accidental nature of its survival. Here it must be reemphasized that the family the film represents is white and middle-class — the epitome of the “normal.” The uncertainty that lurks under it would have been all too real and upfront for an impoverished family in an urban setting. All over the world, many families and children have never been able to assume the naturalness of life’s milestones. That growing up has become an extraordinary achievement even for the relatively still privileged in the United States is a sign of the times.
As the end credits roll, the following lines from Arcade Fire’s song “Deep Blue” plays in the background:
We watched the end of the century
Compressed on a tiny screen
A dead star collapsing and we could see
That something was ending
Are you through pretending
We saw the signs in the suburbs?
And, this is what makes this film so true for our times: Almost all characters in the film try to manage, cope, and do the best they can for themselves as far as their families go, but they fail miserably at politics — at joining others to take charge of the nation, let alone the world, that is hurtling at breakneck speed towards a future in which human life continues to become ever more expendable. They try, but the efforts are weak. The children join their father in planting yard signs for Obama in people’s yards. It is a lot of fun, but they meet adults who are embarrassingly stupid. In an earlier sequence, the recently-returned father goes on about Bush’s propaganda even while the children have yet to see him as their father. They ask him if he will stay. The mother, who appears to be a progressive, buries her politics in marriages to men who conform rather than resist.
In a very profound sense, the film seems to indicate that the failure at politics is the failure of adulthood itself. And without politics we are just spectators in front of a screen. Just before the credits roll, Mason’s girlfriend declares that you don’t seize the moment, but the moment seizes you. As a life lesson for another generation, it is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it can mean just living moment to moment, adapting and surviving in the flexible economy, like the generation prior, and wonder at the end of it “if that was all.” On the other, and I hope that this is the case, that young people will be gathered up by the momentum of moments like Occupy or the anti-capitalist protest at the recent global climate march in New York City, where they will find their peers, and the parental generation too, ready to take another chance at making this world. By bringing us so palpably close to the last twelve years, Linklater’s Boyhood makes it difficult to not think of the future, of where we are headed and why that matters.
1 “But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality” (Capital Vol. 1, www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch07.htm). Marx’s analogy connects human labor to the externalization of the imagination and an expression of humanity.
2 See Jyotsna Kapur, Coining for Capital: Movies, Marketing, and the Transformation of Childhood, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005. Also, Jyotsna Kapur, “Fear on the Footsteps of Comedy: Childhood and Paranoia in Contemporary American Cinema,” Visual Anthropology 22.1 (2009): 44-51.
4 Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, New York: Harper and Row, 1966.
Jyotsna Kapur teaches at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.