Archive for February, 2015

Boyhood is a good film, but it is not a great one, as a near-unanimous critical response would have it. The reason why it is not great is because it is critically unaware of the stakes it presents its viewer, and its own depiction of twelve years of American society post 9/11: it shows some, but doesn’t really say. For some that could be its strength; for others, its weakness. Its central protagonist, shown in the opening shot as a six-year old cherub staring at an almost cloudless blue sky, is also an Everyman, a fairly colourless and characterless cipher who for the remainder of the film watches, and only minimally participates in what he observes.

What is genuinely novel in Boyhood is the opportunity to observe twelve years of the real aging of its core cast, especially its younger players, condensed into under three hours of film time. This is not real time but a kind of human time-lapse narrative, which offers intriguing windows for the interplay between the speeded aging of fictional people who are hyper-real in that filmic aging, and an observer’s awareness of mortality exaggerated in that: of how life is both oneirically timeless and intensely brief, so much packed into so little, and how by the time we leave the cinema Boyhood’s main protagonist Mason will already be in college, and doing…what? That is what I want to focus on here: the content, if not the formal interest, of the film.

Mason is repeatedly confronted, then threatened—by stereotyped junior-school bullies, and by a formulaic series of Dysfunctional American White Males: from educated but tyrannical pillars of society, to seemingly solid-headed Iraq-veteran salt of the land patriots, to other teenage jock buddies commandeering sexual bravado with non-existent ring-in whores, to the earnest but overbearing pep-talking photography instructor – and in which alcohol serves as an explicit or less-so currency of male definition for all of them. Yet through-out this roll-call of assault on his nascent identity as a growing individual that the film makes literally explicit in its 12-year time-lapse spacing of Mason’s (and actor Ellar Coltrane’s) life in just under three edited hours, he almost fails to respond with anything but casual indifference to any of these threats, as if they are not real. Mason is not a part of the dramatic content of the film; he is rather, if anyone, proxy for the film-maker himself, with doubtless much of Linklater’s own teenage aesthetic interest in an artsy photography that could well morph (in real life) into a life as a successful film-maker.

But virtually everyone in this film disdains the kind of life that Linklater has succeeded in—and that Mason may or may not himself, and the judgment that even Mason’s first real girlfriend (she looks just like a Calvins underwear model) offers up—that whatever, he is ‘weird’—echoes that larger chorus that clangs constantly through-out the entire film: that life is about getting somewhere, about progress, social mobility, success, winning, and ultimately, the conquest of the not-so-free world. (It is not for nothing that American military history is a sharp sub-theme, if lightly sketched, through-out, and that a scene of junior-school children making the pledge to state and nation is so authentically, and garishly, American in a way they cannot understand non-Americans failing to understand). The girlfriend story is anodyne and generic anyway and Mason barely seems to care when he loses her: there is nothing real life about it, either, and not a tear is shed.

The subtextual question to Mason’s twelve-year socialization through American normativity is: does he really want to become one of these kinds of Americans, who fail to witness the reality of who they are but continue to act it out, war after war, one alcoholic and abusive domestic storyline after another, more reiterations of the Manifest Tragic Destiny of American hubris writ large in family after family, melodrama film after film and foreign policy after policy? Linklater has enough natural filmic skill to simply show this repeated, and vicious, circle for what it is, and not pass didactic judgment on it. But is that really enough?

When Mason’s Dad’s new Texan parents-in-law celebrate his high-school graduation and the frankly caricatural paterfamilias pulls out a vintage shotgun as an heirloom gift, and trains the kids in using it, the bare echo of endemic gun-crime and multiple recent U.S. mass-killings by young people is very far in any kind of distance and not part of the real temporal Zeitgeist here. Mason mildly uses the gun in a bizarrely feel-good scene without a shred of what would be a normally secure irony for Linklater. (Who knows, Mason could become one of the bad guys in another, future installment, another listless campus weirdo for real (‘he always seemed normal to us’?)

The same disconnection registers strongly in Arquette’s dogged but unreflective mother Olivia who only after twelve years’ passing wonders what all the mobility, achieving and abusive white patriot men in her life were for in the end, when it all went by so quickly and she never seemed to appreciate its passing. Arquette’s all-blonde kindof smart but kindof dumb character, however ‘well acted’ is the most likeably wooden of the film, and it is difficult to see in her psychology-lecturing maturity the woman who, in another trope of repetition, is at the very end of the film again organizing herself, Mason and justifiably emotionally-benumbed (and hungover) sister, in a doggedly simple 4-steps, for yet another house-move: the biblical epic of American story-telling if it ever had one.

It is this likeable woodenness that also extends to Mason, who is, at least, more of a real watcher of life than his mother, and who engages in some typically Linklater-lite philosophizing, but who is also essentially numb to its larger reality. And it is in this sub-subtextual sense that Mason is really Linklater, who doesn’t know what kind of film he really wants to make about America post-9/11, post-Bush, post-Iraq II, but who sits on a generically accessible, aesthetically and morally bland fence that will doubtless garner still more universal praise. The 90s were ‘like, so ironic’ but it’s way too late for that now. His films are good, just like Mason is a good guy, who will make good photographs, and maybe even a good film, as he graduates out of ‘dazed and confused’ and slackerdom into ‘Austin, Texas stardom.’

But will Mason make real art? His pushy photography-class instructor would settle for that kind of all-American stardom, and Mason, just like Linklater, will have won his stars-and-stripes and remain a true patriot, of a nail-varnish wearing, slightly effete but perfectly soft-hipster sort, one who never liked football and couldn’t knock down a tenpin like even his slacker boheme dad wanted him to. That’s success, in which case he’s bought into the myth after all, and mastered it, but is it great art?

Linklater’s films are the sanitized versions of what a film-maker like Harmony Korine has delivered once or twice as a compelling because uncompromised truth about America, as some of van Sant’s own post-9/11 films sometimes succeeded in being. But if Boyhood wins an inevitable Oscar, it will be because it has succeeded in showing America its own perennially mirrored face, in an almost blameless because oblivious narcissism that rarely if ever incorporates self-reflexivity into the reflection it trades so well in.

Mason, and Linklater, come close, but they never break out of their own bubble enough to question what they observe, ponder, and float gently, pointlessly above. No bold move, artistic or otherwise, is ever made in this film. Mason at the film’s end is much as he was as a real six-year old: a child, with an uncanny ability to slip through life in an insulated bubble, despite the booze, bombs, bullets, blindness and bullshit. A lot of time-changing real-world actuality could have been written into Boyhood, one that registers the intensely critical times the film’s very temporal acceleration seems to heighten and point towards, but it floats within a level of benign dream instead. Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, Climate change, the GFC, Occupy, U.S. military escalation beyond Afghanistan, the NSA exposure, Obama’s post-romance political fallout don’t really register here despite some very minor gestures that soon disappear, much like time does – even when it is frozen, as here, in film.

This is not Real Life after all, but just the movies. It’s the same anaesthetic dream of America that Mason, Linklater, and his viewers, should know better than to keep selling, and buying into. What the film temporally zooms towards is the very realness of Now: yet the now it finally celebrates is oddly empty, and falsely transcendental. When in the final scene Mason, in another all-American empty desert-space (and assisted with a hash-cookie high) concurs with a new photogenic love interest that ‘It is the moment that seizes you’—it couldn’t be more true. Especially when you’re not really seeing it for what it is.

Read Full Post »

A World Order

poem published in CORDITE Poetry Review 49.0: Obsolete, Feb. 1, 2015:


Read Full Post »

En Passant

poem published in CORDITE Poetry Review 49.0: Obsolete, Feb 1, 2015:


Read Full Post »