Co-author: Cristina Álvarez López
1. What is Life? (George Harrison)
Many documentary filmmakers have tried to live with their subjects over a long period of time — so as to insure they are there, on the spot, to capture every significant, dramatic moment when it really happens. The same filmmakers have, usually, also avowed the impossibility of this quixotic quest to “nail” reality: because the moment when the camera is not there – overnight, or while the equipment is being set up, or in the car on the way to the destination – is when something really does happen. Somebody dies, or leaves, or makes a scene.
So the documentary then has to stage its own catching up with what it missed: through breathless eye-witness accounts, and leftover traces. Most documentaries, in fact, are almost never there to film the primal scenes that motivate them. They are more like detective inquiries into what they have missed.
In the recently restored, Italian masterpiece Anna (Alberto Grifi and Massimo Sarchielli, 1975), the principal encounter that inaugurates everything – when one of the filmmakers meets destitute, teenage Anna Azzori in a town square – was not, could not, be filmed. So it has to be restaged. From that moment on, we are constantly placed in a position of confusion, as viewers, as to what is spontaneously captured, and what is re-performed in order to fill in those gaps when the camera was not rolling. In this way, Anna becomes one of the most honest documents in cinema history.
The impossible dream of keeping the camera on all the time has, as its ambition, not only to record the drama of life, but also the process of change: people will grow older, history will move on, the world will mutate – slowly, in an unwinding flow, but compressed by cinema into a golden thread that we can finally see and study. Jean-Luc Godard commented in 1978: “Cinema can be used for this, to see the creation of forms, their embryology”.
Raúl Ruiz once told a cautionary tale about this mad dream: talking about his young star, Melvil Poupaud, he said that, during the shooting of Treasure Island (1985), he framed one take: Melvil as a child. Then the camera was turned off for a moment for reloading. They began again: Melvil was now an adolescent, a totally transformed human being! He had grown up in the interval between two shots. But the visible moment of his sudden evolution was what, precisely, eluded film’s ability to capture it.
2. Band on the Run (Paul McCartney and Wings)
In Boyhood, Richard Linklater manages to both have his cake and eat it, too. He kept his cast and crew attached to him for 12 years. He dismisses comparisons with either François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle (1959-1979) or the ongoing British documentary series Up (1964– ), because those projects were always planned as a string of separate works, not one whole, entire, unfolding movie like his. And so he captures the golden thread: everyone in the story visibly ages before our eyes, over 2 hours and 40 minutes. The compression is impressive, no matter what is actually happening in each scene.
Yet, at the same time, Linklater cannily adopts a narrative method which is exactly the same as what those earlier filmmakers did: he films, goes away and takes a break, and then looks in on his subjects – whose changes he has, of course, carefully scripted, all the while drawing in some elements of the actors’ real lives (Ellar Coltrane, for instance, became interested in photography, rather than the teenage rock band destiny that Linklater first envisaged for him).
And so, each time Linklater returns – each time a new year, or a new scene, begins – there is that surprise moment of catching-up, often of the same kind that Ruiz observed in Poupaud: the revolution of puberty, for the both Mason Jr. the boy and his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), is the central spectacle of the film.
3. Maybe I’m Amazed (Paul McCartney)
Linklater steers a very particular path here. His view of life – perhaps a wishful one – is that “nothing dramatic really happens in ordinary, everyday existence”. At every point, Boyhood avoids great catastrophe and crisis – and he even expresses mild disappointment in those viewers who immediately assume that the appearance of a sharp wheel-blade or an episode of drunk driving signals imminent, life-or-death disaster.
Yes, there are tense moments – especially involving the succession of stern boyfriends of Mason Jr’s mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) – but no problem so great that an ellipsis cannot swiftly wash it out of the film’s flow. For a while (for example), Mason Jr and Samantha have another brother and sister, and when Olivia forces her children to leave with her in a hurry, they wonder what will happen to them; but by the next scene, those ex-siblings are as forgotten as completely as anything in last week’s TV sitcom episode.
How different this is to, for instance, Michael Apted’s Up documentaries. Here, surely, are the most ordinary people ever assembled before a camera. But faithful viewers of the series are always shocked by the endless revelations of what has transpired between the periods of filming: there have been momentous health crises, marital divorces, geographical relocations – and even death by suicide.
Although Linklater artfully dodges the more ghoulish implications of this thought, the pact he entered into with his actors for Boyhood was truly vampiric and Faustian: if someone had died during those twelve years, wouldn’t that fact have had to be incorporated, tastelessly, into the fiction?
4. Watching the Wheels (John Lennon)
Some cinephiles will recall the bizarre rumours that circulated around Stanley Kubrick’s closed-shop development of A.I. over many years: did he really have a small child incubated in a secret location, a prisoner of his camera, whose development would be painstakingly recorded for the sake of his movie? It was all nonsense, of course, but the mere presence of Kubrick in that tall story – the director who implanted a meditation on B.F. Skinner’s behaviourist tract Beyond Freedom and Dignity into his A Clockwork Orange (1971) – seemed to make it half-believable: the growing of a sheltered individual did not seem foreign to his intellectual imagination. Linklater transformed this legend into fact in one respect: the well-protected secrecy of Boyhood as a project as it evolved.
And Linklater also plants the traces of this debate about determinism versus free will into Boyhood, signalling which side he is on: where the Bad Dad, Bill (Marco Perella), lectures about “Pavlovian responses”, Olivia favours a more humanistic revolution that stresses surprising transformations and uneven evolutions in human personality … And when Mason Snr. (Ethan Hawke) gives no less of a filibuster lecture on The Beatles while driving his car, what he stresses is not the death of that band in 1970, but the imaginable, re-united future they enjoy within the time and space of a blended mix-tape, titled the Black Album, of their solo recordings (from which the section titles in this text are taken).
5. All I’ve Got is a Photograph … (Ringo Starr)
When Truffaut arrived at this final Doinel instalment, Love on the Run, he revelled in the time-travelling possibility of free, inspired montage: with two full decades of footage of Jean-Pierre Léaud (including unused outtakes) at hand, he could go crazy with leap-frogging comparisons between then and now, between the older and the newer Antoine, between black-and-white and colour. Linklater stoically resists this (no doubt great) temptation. There are only ever the small, framed or pinned-up photographs around the house, casually there in the background of shots (never given an insert close-up), to serve as a visual aide-mémoire as we glide through the time of the film. It becomes almost comic in its extreme discipline: will he ever cut to one of these photos? Nope …
All the same, those photographs do point to a certain cultural history – of artists (such as Nicholas Nixon in USA or Sue Ford in Australia) who have painstakingly gathered the same people to pose in front of their lens once every year, all through their lives … In the back of Linklater’s mind also, no doubt, is a certain tradition of experimental cinema for which he professes great admiration: films by Jonas Mekas, James Benning, Robert Kramer or Stephen Dwoskin that – through the everyday familiarity and intimacy that these filmmakers enjoy with their close-by-hand subjects – seize the opportunity to show faces and bodies, landscapes and buildings, as corroded, metamorphosed or cancelled by the march of time. Dwoskin’s Dear Frances (2003) and Kramer’s ironically named Milestones (1975) are classics in this mode.
6. My Sweet Lord (George Harrison)
Linklater likes to claim, in interviews, that his film is about memory – that it captures how we remember things. But this is true only anecdotally, like when many parents see the film and remark afterwards, “It was just like raising my kids – they seemed to grow up so fast!” Boyhood is a long way, in this regard, from Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2012), which truly does try to capture a remembered childhood in all its fragmentation and fantasy.
Linklater opts for a more conventional, even conservative structure: his film is a linear chronicle of social and developmental milestones – birthdays, graduation, first day at college … His approach is essentially benign: family affection (even when strained) means more to him than the systems of control and influence wielded by social institutions like education, media or law. The film shows, without irony or disapproval, the God-fearing side of the American South.
Boyhood is a cinematic group hug: it is about a family that muddles along and survives everything. It deftly swerves away from both the painful devastation of a Maurice Pialat fictional chronicle (such as La maison des bois, 1971), and the cool, sociological eye of a Frederick Wiseman documentary. But its tenderness and sweet humour are undeniable.
© Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin August 2014