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Filtering by Tag: Boyhood

Boyhood, Birdman and the Problem of Existence, Part 1

Drew Trotter

20 Boyhood:existentialism Birdman and Boyhood shared more than the race for the Best Picture Oscar last year. Though the two movies were as different as can be imagined in tone, form, subject matter, pace, and just about every other movie-making category, they were unified in pushing to the forefront a philosophy that goes back some fifty years, but seems to be gaining momentum as a philosophy of life: existentialism.

Existentialism is known best at the popular level as the theory that the only meaning one can find in life is by living authentically, i.e. passionately and sincerely, in the moment. The “now,” not the “then” on either side of it on the timeline of existence, is the only part of reality that is relevant, and an existentialist is responsible for creating meaning in that “now.” That meaning, however, does not transcend the “now,” but rather requires the doer to live in a series of disconnected moments as authentically as possible to achieve significance. All of this is predicated on the universe being meaningless, there being no God, and therefore no revelation of where meaning for the human being is to be found.

The conversation that shows how serious Boyhood is about its existentialism comprises the last scene in the film. Mason, Boyhood’s main character, is on a hike on his first day of university. He has typically skipped orientation and has met a new girl, Nicole; they are hitting it off. At a beautiful moment of sunset with the rocks glowing that soft red they do in the Texas desert, Mason and Nicole are sitting together, enjoying a brief rest, awkwardly trying to continue the conversation they’ve been having during the walk. Suddenly Mason’s roommate, a crazy extrovert, yells out from down below: “This moment’s having a falsieful whoregasm! It’s like as if all of time has unfolded before us so we could stand here and look out and scream, ‘Fuck yeah!’ Wooo!”

This juvenile moment prompts the much more thoughtful, yet still feeling-her-way Nicole to turn to Mason tentatively and volunteer, “You know how everyone is always saying, ‘Seize the moment!’? I don’t know. I’m kinda thinkin’ it’s the other way around, you know, like, the moment seizes us.” Mason responds, “Yeah. Yeah, I know. It’s constant. The moments. It’s just, it’s like it’s always right now, you know?” She agrees. They look at each other, again in only that way two young people can, who aren’t sure of the future, but are thinking, “I really like this girl/guy; do you think he/she is the one?” They look away, then look back, and the movie cuts to black, ending.

As if this weren’t enough, as the credits roll, a lone voice begins singing, “Here, at my place in time, and here in my own skin, I can finally begin. Let the century pass me by. Standing under my sky, tomorrow is nothin’.”

One couldn’t find in modern film a more existentialist way of viewing life. “It’s like always right now, you know?” But Boyhood cheats because it ends hopefully. The viewer feels Mason has his whole life ahead of him and sees it as an adventure, filled with moments, some of joy, some of sadness, some of reward, some of punishment, but all to be embraced and simply lived until the next one comes. Classic existentialists, on the other hand, could not get over the loss they felt at the knowledge that we create our own meaning in every moment. It made life absurd, random, without any ultimate significance. This newer popular form of the philosophy simply chooses to ignore the consequences of the future, particularly the looming specter that so terrified Sartre, Camus, Becket and others: death.

That specter dominates, in some ways, the other movie, the one which won the big prize: Birdman. Stay tuned.

Boyhood and the American Family

Drew Trotter

20 boyhood While thinking about the movie Boyhood recently, an image appeared in my head of a bleak landscape, but not a realistic one. Dotting the landscape were a number of brightly colored objects, malleable, some standing at angles, some flopping over edges of rocks or ledges, like the clocks in Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. But the objects weren’t clocks. They were all teenagers—all heights, all ages but all thin, visionless, falling. Maybe the image was more like the orgy scene in the desert of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point—flat, detached, choreographed sexual movement. Love in the desert of meaninglessness.

In both ways of seeing what I imagined, the edge of the knife was the teenagers, robotic, spineless kids with vacant eyes and joyless lives.

I am sure this picture was spawned by the sadness I felt for the American family, as I watched Richard Linklater’s autobiographical Oscar nominee again for a talk I was preparing. In an extra on the DVD, Linklater says, “The film’s called Boyhood, but it could have been called Motherhood, Fatherhood, Bumbling-Into-Adulthood. It was an opportunity to see adults evolve as well as kids.”

The mother in Boyhood in fact evolves very little. Played by Patricia Arquette, in an Oscar-winning performance, Olivia is from the beginning the neediest person in the movie. In one of the earliest scenes, we see her break up an argument between her two small children by simply yelling at them to quit, followed by an argument with a potential boyfriend about how she’d like to go out to a movie, but she’s got to take care of the kids. She doesn’t even know what it’s like to be free to go out, she says. “I was someone’s daughter, and then I was someone’s f**kin’ mother. Okay? I don’t even know what that’s like.” It’s so early in the movie, you pity her, but it doesn’t take long for that to change.

Granted she does take responsibility for her children: she feeds them, gets them to school, clothes them, puts a roof over their heads. But along the way, Olivia—already a divorcee—marries two more times, and divorces two more times. She moves three times, uprooting the children’s lives each time. In fact, there is only one scene in the entire movie, where we see her approach expressing tender love for them; when the children are small, she reads Harry Potter novels to them in bed. Even her graduation toast near the end of the movie is comprised of her telling her son how much fun he’s going to have in college. Admittedly, she does say she loves him and is so proud of him, but she has already spoiled the moment by telling everyone he didn’t want to have the party, yet they had it for him anyway.

In every other scene she appears, she is either flirting with her next husband or suffering from his abuse, fighting with her daughter, commanding Mason, Jr. to do something or talking about how bad her life is. As Mason, Jr. says to a girlfriend when he’s gone on a trip to UT-Austin: “I don’t think [college] is the key to my future. ‘Cause, I mean, look at my mom. She got her degree and got a pretty good job. She can pay her bills.” Girlfriend: “I like your mom.” Mason: “Well, I like my mom, too, I just mean… Basically, she’s still just as fuckin’ confused as I am.”

In her last scene of the movie, Olivia’s narcissism is really put on display. Angry at Mason, Jr. for not being sad because he is leaving home to go off to college, she says, “This is the worst day of my life.… You know what I’m realizing? My life is just gonna go, [snaps fingers] like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. The time that we thought you were dyslexic. When I taught you how to ride a bike. Getting divorced again. Getting my master’s degree. Finally getting the job I wanted. Sending Samantha off to college. Sending you off to college. You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my fuckin’ funeral!… I just thought there would be more.” The scene would be funny, if it weren’t so pitiable.

I could go on about Olivia, or about the father, Mason, Sr., played by Ethan Hawke, who gets dealt a much better hand in the script, and does evolve positively in the movie, or about the main character, Mason, Jr., who wanders aimlessly the entire film from age six to age eighteen. The whole film is filled with little moments, some happy, some sad, but none that give Mason any clarity, any vision for his life because his parents don’t have any vision to give him.

One of Boyhood’s stories is of the single mom, who try as she might, simply can’t give her children a vision for what could be because she is so consumed with her own needs. If we stretch this story into a narrative of the state of the American family, we are confronted with the slow-death-by-internal-decay narrative that we have heard so often about our country: parents without vision and foundation, and so kids without hope. It turns into a painting in which the kids are all soft and floppy, visionless and vacant. It saddens me so much because it doesn’t have to be that way.


Alissa Wilkinson

boyhood-linklater-14233-1 Richard Linklater made a movie about growing up called Boyhood. He cast a six-year-old boy named Ellar Coltraneto play Mason, an ordinary American boy growing up in ordinary American suburbs. Then he shot the story of Mason’s life over twelve years, ending as he graduates from high school and moves into his first dorm room in college.

There’s no plot to Boyhood. Or there is—Mason gets older, and so does everyone else. But that barely qualifies as a “story.” There isn’t a central conflict, exactly. There’s no motivation, no villain, no three-act structure with a climax and a resolution.

And yet the movie is gripping, in my opinion; funny and sweet, sometimes heartbreaking. It’s also gentle. You can sort of settle back into it and let it remind you of the best—and some of the not-best—bits of your own childhood.

This is a marvel to me, because as a writer of nonfiction I struggle all the time to shape “what happened” into a story. Bare facts don’t make a story. For writers of creative nonfiction, bare facts are the building blocks. Your job is to put them together so they make something with shape and meaning and substance—and something that will help the reader live her own life through yours.

The measure of a good memoir or personal essay, then, is that at the end the reader has not just learned something about you, the writer, but also something about themselves. They have navigated a trial, or relived an experience, or been given a roadmap for something they have not yet encountered. They have been put through an emotional experience and experienced a sort of holy catharsis, an empathy.

The story of Boyhood—perhaps more than any other film I can remember seeing—is unique, in that it is just as much about you out there in the audience as it is about Mason up on the screen. Watching the film leaves you feeling as if you’ve just relived your own childhood. It feels, oddly, as if you’ve been given a second passage into adulthood. Mason, and Linklater, have empathized with you. You leave the theater, and step into the light, and know yourself better.