With Richard Linklater’s new American masterpiece still in cinemas, we talk how Boyhood uses time like no other film.
Boyhood, as in life, shows the passing of time in tune with how we remember it. There are no placards, no title screens or datelines; we do not remember our years by numbers. We remember years for who we were in love with at the time or where we lived and with whom. We remember years by the songs we listened to, the movies we watched, the events that shaped the year in which they occurred. We remember years in moments, small ones that at the time felt o so big: first kisses, camping trips with your dad, moving house with your mom. We remember years by things smaller still, like bad haircuts or awkward birthday gifts. We don’t remember the years in integers, but in instants.
We don’t remember the years in integers, but in instants. Richard Linklater understands this
Richard Linklater understands this – understands that our moments in life, no matter how big they feel, are relatively minute, and it is only when these minutiae are pieced together over a certain period of time that they become as meaningful as we thought they were; they become small parts of the magnificent whole. His film is a snapshot, a 12-year time capsule, a whole that isn’t even whole when you consider that Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is only 18 at the film’s ‘end’. The cameras stop rolling, but his life, real as it seems, continues, and the 12 years that the film depicts will again become minute until another 12 or so are lived.
Boyhood is a transformative masterpiece, one that for the first time in cinematic history presents the passing of time – ageing – as exactly that. (Save, that is, for Michael Winterbottom’s less-seen and less ambitious Everyday.) We are attuned to films that try and convince us that what they see on screen is real life, real ageing, real time (whether that be by make-up or period detail or different actors playing the same character at different points). When we see Patricia Arquette early in the movie, we know that that was how Patricia Arquette looked at the time; when we see her later on – a little rounder, a little more world-weary – we know that that was how she looked then, too. No make-up, no trickery, just time. The same goes for Mason: we see him aged six and at every succeeding age until he reaches 18, but what we are presented with is not a different actor interpreting how a character might grow and age, but how an actual person does grow and age. Of course there is acting involved, but, in Mason’s case especially, it’s hard to know just how much.
In the case of Ethan Hawke, however, he plays Mason’s dad in such a way that, even though he is actually acting, we never really sense it. This is one of the most nuanced performances in cinema. In just under three hours, Hawke conveys fatherhood in the two ways that will be familiar to anyone with an absent, but ultimately loving, father. From cool to uncool, rogue to reconditioned, Hawke is utterly convincing as a man who succumbs to normality in order to make the most out of his life as a father. He loses something, but gains everything.
Their time is our time, we live it with them, we are them and we have been them. Their moments are our moments
Just look at his jubilation in presenting his son with The Black Album (a compilation of The Beatles’ finest solo material). Here Hawke reverts to being the cool dad, brilliantly distilling The Beatles in one bravura little speech (“Here’s Paul and he’s saying ‘hey, let’s party’; then there’s John, and he wants to make love; there’s George telling us about God; and then there’s Ringo saying ‘hey guys, let’s just chill it all out'”). Yet all the while he is driving his uncool minivan, as his new family sleeps in the back. This is Hawke ageing for real and ageing with grace – a new man no doubt, but wanting to pass on the torch of coolness to his son if only to prove he was once cool himself, a notion best personified here, I think, by Thomas Hardy: “Time changes everything except something within us which is always surprised by change”.
To quote again, “time is the most valuable thing a man can spend” (Theophrastus). And how true, because, for just under three hours, Boyhood lets us spend 12 years in these peoples’ lives, which is nearly an entire lifetime for some of the characters. We share everything with them, from the good (those expeditions, the first beers and loves) to the bad (abusive step-parents, break-ups) to the euphoric (those existential ponderings, that final mushroom-trip in the desert). Their time is our time, we live it with them, we are them and we have been them. Their moments are our moments, shared, sought after, and dreamed of together. Their pain is our pain, and the pain recedes when we realise that we’re all just trying to put together the parts of this magnificent whole, whether on screen or not.
All images: IFC Films