Sunday, April 19, 2015

Don't go changin'

You never know what you're going to get out of a second viewing of a film. It's sort of a dangerous proposition, because you could lose love for a movie you once loved. (That's happened to me recently -- twice in the past month, in fact -- but I won't elaborate on which films.) You could also, however, discover that you love a movie you thought you only liked.

When I rewatched Boyhood on Saturday night with my wife (her first time), I figured the needle wasn't likely to move a lot. I expected to like it a little bit more or a little bit less, but nothing radical.

What I didn't expect was that I would come out thinking it should have been longer.

See, although I was enjoying myself quite a bit when I saw Boyhood in theaters, I definitely felt a fatigue setting in around age 15 or 16. I attributed my less-than-perfect rating for Boyhood (I gave it "only" 4.5 stars on Letterboxd) to the inescapable awareness of that fatigue. (I had also had a beer with lunch beforehand, which could have been a contributor.)

Having watched all two hours and 45 minutes of Boyhood a second time, I realize there was an additional component that was discomfiting me during that first viewing:


See, I felt an actual sense of anxiety as Mason (Ellar Coltrane) would go from one age to the next. I thought "No! Wait! I want more time with that Mason! I WANT MORE TIME!"

Certainly I am not the first one to make this counterintuitive observation -- that a 165-minute movie might need to be longer -- but it's hitting me as kind of a revelation, since I originally considered its length a mild deterrent to the overall effectiveness of the film.

Instead, it's that each version of Mason is so appealing that I wanted five or ten minutes more with each one.

Of course, I don't really think that the movie should be, or even could be, longer. If it had crossed the three-hour mark, it would have also crossed that imaginary line that separates Richard Linklater from his own self-indulgence. At the length that it is, you can argue that Boyhood is basically free from self-indulgence. If it had gone too much longer, those worries might start to creep in.

Strangely, Linklater actually takes a less-is-more approach to this film. It can sometime be hard to believe that Mason's ages will evenly space out to fill a whole movie, given that some of them seem to have fewer than five minutes of screen time. I'm sure none of them actually do -- just as I'm sure someone out there has taken the time to break down Mason's screen minutes by age, and if I did a web search I'd find it -- but each Mason does seem to come and go so quickly within the overall scope of the film.

That's a testament to Linklater's smart pacing, but also to the overall effectiveness of what he's trying to do. Of course each age is supposed to seem fleeting, because that's supposed to be our overall takeaway from the film -- that life moves by in a flash, and the next time you look up, your child is a year older. Then three years older. Then ten.

Having been able to acknowledge this phenomenon more concretely this time around, I'm inclined to wonder whether the feeling has a basis in my own life. Oddly, it doesn't, really. My own children grow, and it's natural to make such remarks as "Can you believe only six months ago ..." But then there's the part of me that feels like I have been a parent for an eternity. It's hard to imagine that my older son is only four-and-a-half years old, because I feel like I've been his father much longer than that.

And yet I suspect that on my next Boyhood viewing -- which this viewing has assured me will definitely be forthcoming -- I will probably feel this stress even more acutely. I will be more desperate for Mason not to change, because I will feel myself approaching my own "I thought there would be more" moment when my own kids are out the door.


Speaking of that, one thing my wife and I did conclude -- and I think I felt it more strongly this time myself -- is that there's an unfortunate imbalance between Mason's parents in this film.

Although clearly both are culpable for the way their lives turned out, and Mason Sr. is sometimes taken to task for being absent, I recognized more clearly this time that Boyhood really wants to forgive Mason Sr. his shortcomings, and not so much Olivia.

The straight reading is that the parent who stays has the thankless job. Olivia is the legal guardian of her two children, so it's she who does the hard miles, makes the tough choices and lives with the consequences. Mason Sr. just parachutes in whenever he feels like it (or really, whenever their custodial arrangement dictates it). Because Olivia is doing the harder job, it seems like there should be some rewards built in for her.

But there aren't. Not only do her kids never really appreciate her -- she has to have a Mexican immigrant give her the thanks her kids should be offering -- but they do seem to appreciate their father. At the very least, Mason Sr. gets a series of "fun" scenes with his kids, whereas Olivia's are all business. And it's telling that Mason Sr.'s final moment with his son is one of sharing and introspection that seems satisfying for them both, while Olivia's final moment leaves her in tears.

The thing I really noted this time is that the film rather unambiguously relates these two scenes and concludes that Olivia is to blame for breaking up with Mason Sr. In that final scene with his son, when he says that things might have turned out differently if only Olivia had been more patient with him, Mason Jr. then offers that he could have been spared the succession of drunken assholes. Mason Sr. seals up his lips and throws away the key: "I didn't say it, you did."

But it is the movie that's saying it, through Mason Jr. The movie is saying that Olivia kind of "deserves" to be unhappy because she never gave this loveable, directonless rascal a chance to be a better partner and father. Because I love Olivia's character and I'd like to think things turn out well for her in the end, I'm optimistic that her tears are just an isolated moment, and once she's freed from the burdens of children her life will develop the sense of purpose it may not have had before that. We should also note that her career is an unambiguous success, and that Mason Sr. thanks her for doing such a great job with their children. Olivia is, in most regards, a success.

But because the movie chooses to leave her with her head in her hands, we must conclude that that is the only reality we can trust. Anything else is just a flight of fancy, wish fulfillment on our part.

I voiced to my wife that the movie put me in mind of Kramer vs. Kramer, the 1979 best picture winner about a divorce between a young boy's mother and father. I often quip that the movie should have just been called Kramer, because Dustin Hoffman's Ted Kramer gets the vast majority of screen time, and his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) is the one who walked out on the family. The movie's title posits a balance between the two warring parties, but the movie itself does not give us one. It's so unambiguously in Ted's corner that it's simply not a fair fight.

Boyhood, which did not quite win best picture, is not in that same category of imbalance. But it's in the same conversation. I do wonder if Richard Linklater's personal affection for the type of character played by Ethan Hawke -- which Hawke has actually played for him on numerous occasions -- interfered with his ability to give the movie better balance. Or whether it was consciously imbalanced against Olivia, and if so, what that says about his own biases. Interestingly, it's the woman who is punished in both films -- even though she's the one who leaves to find herself in Kramer vs. Kramer, and she's the one who stays in Boyhood.

Still, one of the great things about Boyhood is that this is one particular family, and it is very explicitly constructed as that. It's not meant to be the perfect encapsulation of any person's childhood -- it's this one particular character's childhood, and this is how it played out. I am more than okay with that.

So even with these mild concerns about the imbalance, I'm glad to say that the needle did movie somewhat radically when I saw Boyhood a second time.

Having worried that I'd be stuck in "really like" with Boyhood, I can now say with certainty:

I love it.


Nick Prigge said...

"...each age is supposed to seem fleeting..." I know it's ridiculous to say, but that's exactly why I've been avoiding a re-watch of Boyhood. In some way I feel like to re-watch it is to ruin the spirit of the idea that time is fleeting. What's gone is gone, and all I have is the memory.

And yet...your analysis of the parents REALLY makes me want to re-watch it. And is why I will. I mean, it is a film, and there must be more for it to say to me.

Derek Armstrong said...

That's a thematically perfect reason to watch Boyhood only once. However, if I had not watched it a second time, I would not today appreciate it as much as I do, so I'm glad I did.

Thanks for suggesting I contributed something new to the discussion of Boyhood ... I doubted that was possible, but I was compelled to write about it and am also glad I did.