Tag Archives: masculinity

‘Boyhood’ and Life in Time

31 Aug

Near the end Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the protagonist’s mother, Olivia, has a breakdown. Her son, Mason, is just about to head off to college, and she suddenly realizes that her life, long defined by the routine events of her children’s growth, will now lack any such signifiers.  A droll remark from Mason eases her back off the edge of the cliff, but—aside from making any boy away from home immediately want to call his mother—her moment of realization shows how we make sense of the passage of time. Filmed over the course of twelve years with the same actors, this is Boyhood’s revelation: it distills a childhood into a series of memories, flashing by in jarring little vignettes, exactly as we’d all remember it all as we look back on our first eighteen years.

Some of these moments are obvious, shared across many lives: family moves, fights with stepfathers, a first drink, a memorable 15th birthday, first sex. Others are distinct to Mason’s memory: his sister’s mannerisms, a haircut forced by a stepfather, a camping trip with real dad just after Mason’s voice drops, a change that coincides with his acceptance of his wandering father’s role in his life. There is no serious attempt to build a narrative through them all, but it all fits together seamlessly because this, we know, is how life flows. Meaning only comes out in retrospect, and often in the strangest of places. Boyhood knows this intimately.

Boyhood, for Linklater, is far from a youthful idyll, and one suspects it would have been the same even if the protagonist hadn’t been the child of a single mother who sometimes struggles to make ends meet. It is often defined by its most painful moments, and awkwardness and social struggle abounds. Those moments of boyish bliss are there from time to time, but the film persistently reminds us that innocence is far from the starting state of human life. Even so, nostalgia builds as the moments flash by, the past always seeming a bit less complicated simply because there was less for us to remember. Memory is the root of complication that breeds frustration, yet only by fitting those memories into a story does anything begin to make sense.

Manhood is just as much of a theme as boyhood in the film. Olivia’s three lovers are all sorry weaklings, two alcoholics desperately trying to impose order on a world that won’t cooperate, and Mason Senior, who spends the first forty years of his life just going with the flow, failing to take on anything more than the most routine responsibilities. Ethan Hawke’s Mason Senior is aware enough to recognize this, but only in time does he move past his self-absorption and see his son as a partner in a journey, one who is very much his own son, and in need of a guide who has been down this road and learned a thing or two. His growth over the course of the film is as dramatic as Mason’s, and his time away from his son gives him a sense of perspective that Olivia, forever down in the trenches, cannot match.

Mason doesn’t find much in the way of male peer companionship, either. As an introvert whose family is often on the move, he builds little that lasts, and his friends rarely aspire to anything more than instant gratification. It’s no wonder that his relationships with girls come to predominate the last hour of the film. He plays along with the dalliances of his peers without any serious discomfort, but he aspires to something else and wanders alone, his father coming out in him as he loses himself in photography. Here, finally, he finds an outside adult who takes interest, a photography teacher who tries to give his work ethic a bit of a nudge. Somewhere in here are the beginnings of a serious investigation of manhood in modern American life, a fascinating topic never far from my mind whose delicacy has kept me from tackling it head-on in this blog to date. (Too often, the fate of boys is tied up in a comparison to girls. While this has considerable merit—as the prevalence of certain gaps and some of the teenage misogyny in the film shows—the experience of growing up male needs to be confronted on its own terms, not just in relation to the opposite sex.)

Boyhood takes cinematic realism toward its furthest possible extreme. There is nothing at all remarkable in the circumstances of Mason’s childhood; sure, his home life is far from ideal and he dabbles in drugs at a relatively young age, but none of this goes to the extreme. It is just the story of a childhood, only one step removed from a documentary. The film looks good, but there are relatively few artistic and philosophical flourishes, separating Boyhood from the “self-conscious grandiosity” (in the words of Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post) of the similarly-themed Tree of Life by Terrence Malick. Malick takes ordinary life and tries to find transcendent meaning; Linklater takes ordinary life and revels in the simple idea of being ordinary. If Malick echoes Kierkegaard, Linklater echoes Camus.

Of course, some critics would rather have their grandiose gestures (and lest I sound opposed to them, I adore Tree of Life). In a withering takedown of all things that attempt to be “relatable,” Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker blasts Boyhood as “the apotheosis” of art aiming to speak to viewers on a solipsistic level, with the novelty of the passage of time covering up a “the banality of the plot and the cliché nature of much of its characterization.” This trouble will confront any work of art that tries to describe things as they are, and trying to pin down an “average” American childhood or other such experience will inevitably hit upon a number of well-worn themes.

There is more to Boyhood, however, than just relatability and the novelty of the twelve-year project. Parts of Mason’s childhood are clearly relatable, but that’s hardly true for every viewer, and there is just enough instability in his life that a happy ending isn’t quite a given. There is something else going on here. The philosophical musings of Mason and his teenage friends, while often half-formed and not entirely original, are also not thoughts straight out of a can. The struggle is evident, and if that’s what is most “relatable” here, it is because this really is a universal: we all face these questions in life, and they do not come along as platonic ideals placed in front of us by some philosophy professor up in the sky, but within the muck of daily life as we confront obstacles with which we have no prior experience. We’re frustrated and we don’t quite see the full picture, and thus the things Mason and company observe don’t seem hackneyed; they’re genuine struggles. Unlike most any other film, they really don’t know where their story will go.

This is how the Big Questions in life come to us, and Boyhood captures that lurching evolution in a novel, precise manner. If the goal of social realism is to show us how we live, Boyhood gives the ‘how’ a new dimension, grappling not just with the passage of time, but the manner in which we perceive and remember it. It’s not relatable just because people can see bits of themselves in Mason, but because their very experience of living is just like Mason’s. Boyhood is art that seeks to make sense of life, and while that is not all that art can or should do, its power in this field overwhelms any weaknesses elsewhere. It is a triumph.

Y Tu Mamá También: Into the Mouth of Heaven

8 Jun

I spent most of my weekend engrossed in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2001 film Y tu Mamá También, either in watching it (twice) or in quiet reflection, even as I went on with a bunch of other tasks.I’d somehow missed it until now, which makes little sense, since it’s a film that brings together so many of my favorite things: masterful cinematography, rapid-fire dialogue, the vividness of Mexico, coming-of-age stories, detached political commentary, road trips, reflections on mortality, and gratuitous sex.

The story is about two wealthy Mexican teenage boys, Tenoch and Julio, afflicted with a serious case of affluenza and the resultant ennui. They do drugs and drink and generally live for sex, whether it’s with their girlfriends or their friends’ girlfriends or tu mamá también or just relentless masturbation. They make a pass at a married Spanish woman named Luisa at a foppish birthday party, and she, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, takes them up on an offer of a road trip to a nonexistent beach named the Mouth of Heaven. And so the threesome sets out across southern Mexico, in pursuit of both literal and figurative mouths of heaven.

It sounds like the old life-changing road trip trope, but Y Tu Mamá También never quite settles for the comfort of the genre. Frequent voiceovers render the characters small pieces at the mercy of the whirlwind of Mexican life, at times the narrator gives a voice to the touching stares, as when Tenoch shows some fleeting recognition of his housekeeper’s hometown, jarred into awareness of life beyond his pampered world. Mexico’s troubled past and uncertain future are woven in the adventure through poignant vignettes, though if the film has a weakness, it might be its attempt to carve out a place in Mexico’s political narrative. (It’s set in 1999, on the brink of the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party’s electoral defeat in 2000.) Its critiques of Mexico are more timeless than anything particular to that moment, and when it comes to conveying that reality, Emmanuel Lubezki’s beautiful cinematography should be allowed to speak for itself.

And speak it does: Y Tu Mamá También is a gorgeous film, teeming with that dust-covered tinge of the Mexican countryside; that sense that, despite the presence of that omniscient voiceover, nothing here is quite understandable through the languages we speak. While the boys blather on about sex, they’re sharing spaces with stoic Mexican peasants, worlds apart, which the cameras will occasionally follow down back halls in their slow pans. The film wisely keeps any growing awareness well-hidden, which magnifies the moments when it does come through, as when an aged woman gifts Luisa a little stuffed mouse with her name on it, and when the boys play in the surf with a fisherman. There are no eureka moments boys, but the baleful looks and moments of silence coupled with spurts of serendipity say what words cannot. Nor is their growing awareness entirely a force for unity, as they begin to examine the basis of their own friendship.

It’s easy to dismiss Julio and Tenoch as total dirtbags, which they pretty much are. And yet the film is still tender with them, even as it slowly tears down their world of teenage revelry. Their manifesto, while predictably juvenile in places, aspires to a code of brotherhood: a pledge of unity in the face of a dead Mexican elite, and a desire to live as freely as they can. “Truth is cool, but unattainable,” says Julio; “honesty is the best policy, but fuck, it’s hard to reach it.” And so the boys make their own truth; an unsustainable one, perhaps, but its aspirations are enough to delight the lost Luisa. One is reminded of the claim that Nietzsche is the adolescent’s philosopher, the little Ubermenschen relying on their bravado to build something for themselves in the midst of a wasteland.

Despite the trappings of wealth, it really is a wasteland. Not coincidentally, neither one has a father figure worthy of respect; Tenoch’s is a corrupt government official, while Julio’s is absent. Tenoch’s mother is a naïve dabbler, while Julio’s is a career woman who never appears; their friends appear even more drug-addled and less stable than they are. The boys, raised in an environment masquerading as paradise, must manufacture the drama in their lives, seeking new highs and any gratification to give it all meaning. The pathologies at play are the same as those afflicting countless boys in any country: products of broken homes and superficial cultures and lives without limits. Luisa and her husband may be literal orphans, but they are all adrift. Julio and Tenoch think they know who they are and what they want, but the road trip starts to eat at those certainties; Luisa has no idea who she is and where she is going, and starts to find exactly what she needs simply by living.

The film is often reminiscent of Kerouac in its tricky balance. It grabs attention by reveling in the awesomeness of being a sexed-up boy in the prime of life, and yet through it all there is an elegiac tone of longing for something more. The boys don’t see it at the start; depending on how one interprets the ending, they may not necessarily see it there, either. What they do have, though, is that willingness to seize life on their terms, which leads them to make a pass at Luisa, and that sets a chain of events in motion that will both break them and give them a chance to start anew. A well-executed bildungsroman is never clean in its progression, and there is a superb tension between the boys’ bravado and their brokenness, both of which have a necessary place.

The character who gives the film its elegiac edge is Luisa, who is the antithesis of a Kerouac female; she’s not there simply for the boys’ sexual pleasure, but instead is a thoroughly complex character, alluring even when haunted. She is a woman with nothing left to live for, on the run in search of any sort of release, and ready to take delight in most anything. There is a quiet urgency to her search, as she latches on to the boys, tries to teach them a thing or two, grows alienated by their failures, makes amends, and then, finally, discards them so as to “become one with the sea.”

There is no death or violence on the screen in Y Tu Mamá También, but the fragility of life and the resultant immediacy push its characters to throw aside all caution and tempt fate in their exploits. This is a very Mexican theme, and Octavio Paz would most certainly have appreciated the cathartic rush of tequila shots that builds toward the climax. Luisa tells the boys that their country “exudes life,” but that life may only be possible because death is also so present. This is life on the edge, its vividness riveting and its loss a genuine tragedy.

It is also masterful cinema. It’s pretty and political and laden with symbolism and edgy and so many of the other things a great film should be. But its real strength is in its three brilliant leads, who take their viewers along with them on three journeys that seem so very real, and all deeply personal. There is a struggle to harness masculinity, a brush with those questions on what we’re doing here, and a literal journey through Mexico, exactly as I remember my adopted second country. Days later I’m still processing, not always finding comfortable answers. What more can we ask for?