Boyhood and Films of Childhood

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* * * * 1/2

Dir. Richard Linklater, 2014

It is difficult to properly give a consumer-friendly starred review to this film (which makes me wonder why I do it, but it’s something of a compulsion to order, to rate and rank, I think), as it is with many other ambitious film projects. Often the feat itself is more commendable than the end result, or one must take into consideration the multitude of constraints that an ambitious production encountered. Boyhood is Richard Linklater’s now famous 12 year project in which he revisits the same people, as actors, in what has become this film. The notion itself isn’t new; Michael Apted’s Up Series has been revisiting the same children for almost 50 years. But this is, as far as I know, the longest such project to create a fiction film.

In his excellent book about film and ethnography, The Corporeal Image, Ethnographer/Filmmaker David MacDougall, who has had his own long five film project with a school in Northern India, devotes a chapter to “Films on Childhood.” The entire chapter would make a helpful companion piece to Boyhood, and brings up a number of issues of possible discussion. I will only look at a couple:

When adults make films about children, the films are more often about the frontier between adults and children than about the children themselves…Every film about children, unless made by children, is the record of a particular kind of adult-child relationship (73).

MacDougall, while interested more in documentary films, looks quite extensively at “fiction” films (annoying in quotes-from his argument a film then is a document).  He devotes some space to Italian Neorealist films and it is in these films, more so than in something like Boyhood, that the line between documentary events and staged events are quite blurry. The example that MacDougall gives after the above quote is of the complex relationship between Abba Kiarostami and the children he worked with, as well as his own children’s schooling, in his film Homework. But I think a more illustrative example of the adult-child relationship, which from this example appears to be more the adult director and child actor than the adult and child characters within the film, is in the work of another Iranian filmmaker (and the Iranian New Wave is likewise known for its blurring ,and playing with, the boundaries between real and fictional). In the scene in The Mirror, later a centerpiece/mmetaphorof This is Not a Film, the child actress suddenly refuses to act. The direction, to act like she doesn’t know how to get home, doesn’t make sense to her; of course she knows how how she gets home.

Every film is in some way a documentary in that it captures the events of a particular place and time. And there are things, marginal images, sounds or events, that perhaps cannot be controlled, that make there way into films that serve documentary purposes.  From MacDougall, and the examples above, if the child, who cannot differentiate the fictional from the “real” in the same way as their adult director, than this film is really two films: the narrative, but also the relationship between Linklater and his actors (and between his actors). In Boyhood, Linklater incorporated interests and talents of his actors into the lives of their characters and the events of the film. This itself has been practice in many fictional films, but the nature of Linklater’s project, and the suggestion that for the children involved the line between film and reality was experienced differently as participants, lends itself to a documentary considerations. The question is why make a fictional film that serves as document of it’s actors growing up?

All of the best moments in Linklater’s films to this point are rather documentary, in that he often spends time with his actors/characters in moments which may not add to the narrative imperative of mainstream cinema. And this film seems to be made almost entirely of those moments. The problem is that, as a film, it doesn’t have the traditional narrative arcs that we’ve been trained to expect (though there are a few conflicts, and a few of these I felt were weaker parts of the film), or even be seen as diversions from a more carefully managed art cinema style. Having the film be made up of a succession of events suggests a meaning that I don’t think Linklater (or his film) really want to get into (as demonstrated in Mason and his father’s final conversation). The problem that Linklater is running into is the nature of linearity itself; we expect what comes after an event to tell us something about what came before.

In psychology, play is a safe place and activity for working through; Freud specifically wrote about repeating and working through (a type of acting) in terms of dealing with memory. Documentarians have similarly used the fictional to get at truths that cannot, for political, psychological, or the limitations of film technology be expressed in traditional documentary forms. Jean Rouch’s writings are perhaps the most worth-while in explaining this in depth for those who want to read more about it. Rouch’s later career films are essentially surrealist fictions, though these are extremely difficult to find in English subtitles, a similar approach, though for different reasons, are some of Peter Watkins’ films: collaborative fictions that attempt to reveal something true about humanity and particuarly the political structures that we create or are trapped in. Yet, Rouch’s films retain important markers of self-reflexivity and crisis on behalf of the creators. In some ways, Boyhood might be a similarly play-acted project (only shot more like a traditional movie; and the cinematography is excellent) with those self-reflexive moments entirely edited out, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.

The extent of the children’s collaboration in Boyhood hasn’t been properly studied or documented (I’m sure it will be) but from interviews Linklater suggests that the film was different because of the involvement of the kids. One major change was the involvement of Linklater’s daughter, who was written into the film because she wanted to be in front of the camera. However, Linklater didn’t grant her request to kill Samantha off after she lost interest. It could be argued that a fictional world could be a more ethically responsible way to go about doing a project like this. First, following MacDougall’s advice, but not entirely giving the production over to them (which would be quite a film), allowing collaboration in a fictional work would give greater voice to the children: their interests, and insights into their world.  Second, it arguably allows distance. The children are not playing themselves but acting as characters. They may not have initially known the difference, but from the standpoint of a viewer, the films, while documents of their physical growth, are not 1 to 1 attempts to represent more personal, private emotional states or events which they may not want people to associate with them.

Of deep concern to MacDougall is the lack of agency allowed to children on film; that film “others” children (which leads him to look at this othering in extreme in something like Village of the Damned). Such a concern makes sense to someone interested in the ethics of film ethnography. In my own experience, I have found it difficult to watch films about children, or found myself averse to or annoyed by them. MacDougall articulates my feelings better than I knew how:

Sentimentality is misplaced emotion, cultivated at the expense of the subject. It projects upon children a sensibility that is not theirs. It many cases it filters the darker side of humanity out of their lives…Children are not unsentimental themselves, but they reserve their sentimentality for others. The most perceptive films about childhood reflect the ambivalence that children feel toward the adult world, regarding it with a child’s mixture of curiosity and mistrust. These films enter enter the spiritual core of childhood, where life is both immense and full of dangers. They show us how time stops for children and how their sensibilities swing rapidly between boredom and elation. In the best films about children, their inner world is expressed through their own inventions, rituals, and interpersonal relations (76)

Children then, are not miniature or purer adults, nor are they mirrors to reflect the loss experienced by adults, and this has been the most common mistake I’ve seen made over and over again in films about children (MacDougall himself may actually, unintentionally, venture out into similar territory when he begins to write more poetically). Boyhood, viewed in light of that quote, is a success in depicting the children in the film; though the older Mason might be portrayed a more sentimentally than his younger self in the film. There are three worlds in Boyhood: the world of the children, the world of the adults (who in some ways haven’t quite figured out they are no longer kids), and the world of popular culture. The children seem ambivalent towards the adults, and enamored by popular culture, only because it seems to provide promise of an alternative worlds of magic and elves in contrast to the boring world around them. I think the film was going to do something more with pop culture, but the last third of the film seems to abandon iy, though perhaps that reflects stages of development. Linklater’s approach to the children’s view of the “real world” is matter-of-fact, even ambivalent and I think that’s a good thing.

But then again there is the unwieldy problem that is the audience.  Even if Linklater doesn’t give into sentimentality, I read the children sentimentally. At least, at the end of the film I felt surprisingly affected. I’m sure there is a nice German word for feeling sentimental about other peoples lives, and that was part of it; I had spent 3 hours with these people. But as someone who is dealing with his own issues of growing older (I think life is a constant series of crises about aging), I projected my own issues onto Mason. Because of this, I think the film took on a sadder tone than was intended (though I’ll talk about why it is probably intended in my article on this film in relationship with Arcade Fire).

While sentimentality is the major problem he has with depictions of children in movies, MacDougall also suggests that we devalue the productive possibility of sentimentality.

The sentimentality of Mark Twain, Dickens, Kipling, James Barrie, Lewis Carroll and other Victorians toward children was never as simple or perverse or unreflective as a later age made it appear. It varied both in its content and forms of expression, and it contained some important insights about social relations (75).

Emil Guillermo has read the film as being about education, and I think that the narrative events in the film seem to suggest its importance. While it’s not a Dickensian call for social reform, and Mason isn’t exactly enthralled by school, the main narrative success in the film is Mason going off to college. It’s uncertain if he actually will stay there (he’s suspicious of it), or if it will work for him, but the film places faith on its characters “finding themselves” in education, both traditionally (in the cases of Mason’s parents) and more nontraditionally, where the film ends with Mason contemplating in nature. The film suggests that as the movie is a place to work out versions of ourselves, so too is education a place to work out who we want to be. This isn’t exactly child labor reform, but at a time of crisis in American education, it’s arguing for the value of a type of education that isn’t politically popular because it requires patience, allows for failure, and isn’t objectively measurable. An education that is a lot like Linklater’s approach to cinema.



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