Tag Archives: terrence malick

‘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.

“Gravity” and “To the Wonder”: Sincerity and Cinematic Beauty

20 Nov

I’m no film critic, but I have seen two films over the past week that are worth some reflection: Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. The unifying theme here is a Mexican man named Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer, who frequently collaborates with both Cuarón and Malick.

To be clear, I’m not at all a cinematography connoisseur; I simply saw some scenes in Gravity that reminded me of Malick’s The Tree of Life, and was pleasantly surprised to learn the same guy was behind both of them. This gave me a good excuse to go watch Malick’s latest film. Warning: spoilers galore, though I’d add the caveat that if you’re fixated on the plot of either of these films, you’re probably missing the point.

Gravity, perhaps the most hyped film of 2013, tells the story of Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a rookie astronaut who must fight for her life after things go wrong in orbit, though she has some help from veteran space explorer Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Though it takes place in space, it’s hardly typical science fiction; aside from a few liberties with actual physics, it is entirely plausible, and could easily happen to a space explorer in 2013. Of course, more fantastical science fiction can offer compelling human drama, but by stripping away the alien races and souped-up technology and specialized terminology, the human drama comes to the forefront.

Still, Gravity is not a film one could accuse of having too much plot. There is only the slightest of backstory for both astronauts, and the action begins so early in the film that there’s not much time to get to know them. Kowalski in particular is hard to separate from Clooney, and while Clooney himself is a delightful enough personality to be reasonably compelling, he is not a deep character. That leaves us with Stone, and her story also runs the danger of being rather hackneyed: a broken woman, emotionally spent after the death of her child, is jarred back into life by a debonair man and a brush with death. Bullock does a good job of presenting the emotion of that journey. Her tears drifting off through space are real (if, sadly, not scientifically accurate), and the scene in which Kowalski “returns” and gives her reason to live, while threatening to head down the road toward mawkishness, is no doubt sincere. These moments resonate because we really do have moments like that in life, and just because something’s been done before (as most any plot has by now) doesn’t mean it can’t be meaningful.

Symbolically, the film is a masterwork, and on this front, it does take the full film to unfold. Cuarón and Lubezki have created a film of stunning beauty that is far more than CGI flashiness. From the umbilical cord tethers to Stone drifting about in the space station in a fetal position to her exiting the womb and heading out into the vast nothing beyond, it is a story of rebirth, and the creation of life from nothing. The film has an element of terror to it, a terror perhaps worse than anything that can be brought on by a villain or some sort of earthly destruction: sheer, endless emptiness. If Stone lets go, she is doomed to die adrift, alone, desperately sucking for her rapidly-diminishing oxygen, her mind running wild with fright. While a bunch of chunks of debris may set events in motion, Stone is a sort of Robinson Crusoe in space, and her most bitter enemy is not time or broken satellites, but her own wavering will. After the death of her daughter, she is lost in space in every sense of the phrase, with only some vague radio chatter in the background to numb her into a monotonous routine. She is drawn back to earth by Kowalski’s charm, both in the lightness of his humor and the gravity of his exhortations: she must find a way. The final scene, back on Earth and resplendent in color, with Stone emerging from the sea and feeling the sand in her fingers and rising up to take her first few stumbling steps, is reminiscent of Malick at his best.

To the Wonder is not Malick at his best; in fact, the film was widely panned, and it is not hard to imagine how its airy beauty and whispered religious musings could turn off a lot of people. (Roger Ebert, on the other hand, gave it a boost in the last review he ever penned.) Like Gravity, it is an exhausting picture, with so much in each frame that one can easily forget to read the subtitles as one tries to drink in all the details and figure out all the symbols and keep up with whatever it is that Javier Bardem is muttering in the background. The film stars Ben Affleck as an American who meets Olga Kurylenko in Paris and lures her back to Oklahoma, where their relationship goes through an endless number of trials and tribulations. (I assume the characters have names, but they’re never mentioned in the film, so I’m just going with the actors’ names here.) Unlike the sustained intensity of Cuarón’s film, Malick’s is an endless cycle of ups and downs, brilliant light juxtaposed against somber greys, all beautiful and, in a certain sense, more draining than Ryan Stone’s space flight. The accelerating pace in Gravity is constant, eventually numbing the viewer somewhat, while the peaks and valleys in To the Wonder can take fully invested viewers and lift them up into that wondrous state before crashing back down to earth. As surreal as it seems, its emotional swings really do capture the daily flow of human life.

The dynamic between the two leads is fairly similar in both films. As with Bullock’s Stone, Kurylenko’s character is a bit damaged, and rather flighty; she is juxtaposed against the stolid Affleck, and although he does show some maturation and has flashes of anger and disappointment, the male lead is once again without a past and lacks the emotional range of his partner. Lost daughters are once again a theme: Kurylenko has a ten-year-old who at first comes with her to Oklahoma, but struggles to fit in and goes back to France to live with her father; Rachel McAdams, Affleck’s rebound after Kurylenko leaves him, lost her only child. The firm man and the emotional woman once again run the risk of cliché, but there can be truth in clichés, and viewers’ willingness to accept their sincerity will likely define their reactions.

The redeeming feature of To the Wonder is Bardem, who shows off his incredible range in playing the doubting priest in the Oklahoma parish. He gives the film a backbone, guiding us through the rises and falls in the love story, his own troubled relationship with God following a similar course. If the fear of loneliness motivates the terror of Gravity, the fear of commitment and the burdens of love drive To the Wonder; while Gravity ends with Stone rising up on to a beach and marveling at the beauty of creation, To the Wonder starts on one, a rather somber beach beneath the gothic church of Mont Saint-Michel, where Affleck and Kurylenko’s love is immune to the grey day around them. “Love is a duty,” Father Bardem reminds us, soldiering through parish politics and his visits to the poor and suffering, wondering where God is in all of this madness. To the Wonder struggles somewhat because it has taken such a massive theme—love—and tried to pack it into a two-hour feature, and while Malick and Lubezki fit an awful lot of stuff into those two hours, it’s hard to do it justice.

Despite the very conventional trappings of To the Wonder (love story in Paris, archetypal characters, life in suburbia with amber waves of grain), it is highbrow in a way that Gravity isn’t, and also has a radical edge. The reason for this is religious: Malick is, of course, an explicitly Christian filmmaker, and that makes him a bit of an odd duck in the modern film industry. He’s not here to proselytize or show off the wonders of faith, either; instead, much as in The Tree of Life—a meditation on the Book of Job—the emphasis is on the meaninglessness of it all, and on faith as consolation in the face of tragedy. It’s also intellectually robust, which explains why the film was lost on many people. And even some of the people who did understand what was going on might not have liked it if they were annoyed by the religious themes or frustrated with the vagueness of it all. Even so, Malick is the epitome of David Foster Wallace’s “new literary rebel” (see the last paragraph for the summary).

Gravity, as gripping as it can be, isn’t going to rock any planets. Its themes are far more universal (gah, so many puns): the rebirth-of-meaning arc is something you can find in just about any culture. This is great for happy liberal themes in which we all just get along, and also great for selling movies to as many people as possible. However, it also runs the risk of being glib, or being artsy for its own sake but not aspiring to much else. There is a trade-off here that many artists have to make: go deep and risk losing people (Malick), or stay away from those more troubling questions and let the prettiness stand alone (Cuarón). My own instincts, being somewhat on the snobbish side, tip toward Malick—even though I don’t entirely share his worldview.

This isn’t to condemn Gravity. It deserves all of the plaudits it’s received for its beauty, and it reminds us of how visual innovation in film is far from over. Demanding intellectual rigor out of all art can quickly grow tiresome, especially when that annoying life thing makes one do things other than be a critic. It may not really challenge anyone, but if one knows how to ask the right questions, middlebrow film is good enough to raise plenty of issues that demand further explanation. And given the confines of the two-hour feature film, there’s a good argument for relying on television instead of the silver screen for true depth. (Want a sincere, near-avant-garde look at modern American life, with much more profound characters and fewer religious trappings? Watch Friday Night Lights.) When it comes to visual power, though, the cinematography of a man like Lubezki offers so much that a film can stand on its own as a superb work of art. Whether that is enough for you, or if you want art to demand something more…well, that’s up to you, and there’s wisdom in both answers.