I’m only human: opposing thoughts on Boyhood

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I grew up being taught that it was OK to hold more than one competing thought in one’s head about a given subject at any one time. It’s an approach that seems sorely lacking in our current cultural/critical climate: just consider the fount of “hot take” articles about certain recent films (American SniperSelma) in which the author stakes out ideological ground and defends it with ferocity at the expense of nuance.

Yesterday, Richard Linklater’s timid epic Boyhood – which has had its fair share of vocal detractors along the way – was subject to a hatchet job editorial which screamed ‘Racism in BOYHOOD is the worst kind’, and compared it unfavourably with D.W. Griffith’s 1915 KKK shocker Birth of a Nation. Just like Kanye West’s indefensibly tone-deaf request that the highly qualified and experienced artist Beck “respect Beyonce’s artistry”, the claim should be taken with a dumpster of salt. Yet the outrageous surface shouldn’t totally obscure the genuine feeling propelling it. While Kanye’s more salient (and perhaps indivisible) points about historical white industrial colonisation of black music are full of merit and worthy of investigation (particularly by many of the white commentators so quick to dismiss Kanye as an idiot), many nonwhite viewers’ ire has been stoked by the non-presence, and patronising representation of, nonwhite characters in a film that’s been described by some as an American epic.

I think what’s really pissed people off is the feeling that Linklater’s film – and much of the critical discourse around it – represents, essentially, a glowing elevation of white mediocrity in a world where such constructions aren’t hard to come by, and where female/queer/POC/disabled people have to fight 76 million times as hard to get their work seen/championed. As I once remarked upon emerging from a screening of Miranda July’s blank-eyed hipster gadabout The Future, “I want to be alive in a time when black people can get to make a film about so fucking little and have it released internationally.”

Anyway, here are my opposing (or maybe even complementary: you decide) thoughts about Boyhood repurposed from a couple of end-of-year round-ups at Reverse Shot, the Museum of the Moving Image, NY’s wonderful online journal. Why now? Well, consider it a cash in. Lots of people are talking about Boyhood this week, seeing as its up for the Best Picture Oscar on Sunday, and I figured this was a decent way to get a few more hits for my blog.

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Good!

Without wishing to indulge in hyperbole, the real miracle of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood—a moving, intimate family drama shot in small chunks with the same core cast over a period of twelve years—is not simply that its audacious concept was ushered through to completion. (Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mason, the youngster at the center of the film, could have at any moment decided the acting life wasn’t for him, and effectively scuppered the enterprise.) Rather, it’s the unshakable faith that Linklater has invested in stillness, subtlety, and—whisper it—banality, as a pathway to emotional resonance. Think about it: how many other directors would make a film over the same period and resist the temptation to shore up the intimidatingly diffuse timeline with dramatic clichés, coming-of-age touchstones (for instance, young Mason’s hilariously perplexed reaction to a pair of locker-room douchebag bullies), and actorly pyrotechnics? Save for one spectacular, alcohol-fueled family blowout, Boyhood is comprised of hushed, beautifully observed interactions that cut across generational lines, performed with grace and restraint by underrated actors like Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, who both shine as Mason’s separated parents. Moreover, the film is structured with stunningly brusque ellipses—sometimes the only way to spot the significant passage of story time is in the unheralded alteration of a character’s hairstyle, or the sudden appearance of an ill-advised moustache. Linklater’s decision to shoot entirely on 35mm film lends the potentially patchwork project a rich, sun-kissed aesthetic unity, while simultaneously rendering it a gentle elegy for an ailing medium. Boyhood plays like some magical collapsed-time capsule: inherently nostalgic thanks to its production history and in the sense that it represents an extratextual commentary on the evolution of Linklater as a filmmaker. But with its implacable forward momentum and refreshing belief in the importance of living in the present, it is thrillingly now.

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Bad!

I loved Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, for reasons I outlined in a brief write-up above. That said, it’s an imperfect work. Much of whatever opprobrium has been directed toward it has, not outrageously, focused on its representational approach. One recurring allegation, more or less boiled down: with its pretentions-to-universality title and monocultural core cast, Boyhood posits the white, middle-class experience as default. And it’s certainly true that some critics have fallen into a trap by lauding this representationally limited film for its portrayal of the quintessentially “American” experience, consequently—without pre-planned malice—abetting the replication of patterns of cultural dominance all too familiar to those of us (like me, a critic of color in a white-dominated field) who fall outside the previously described demographic.

I’m a firm believer in critiquing a film for what it does include rather than what it doesn’t, so with that in mind . . . In all of Boyhood’s 165 minutes, there are, I think, four noteworthy speaking roles for actors of color: less controversially, an awkward college roommate, and a young schoolboy who gets teased by his older friends. And there’s mom Olivia’s black female colleague, who in a brief, very curious moment, appears to make sexual advances toward a freshly graduated Mason Jr. (Perhaps it’s the result of a bad edit—there’s no laugh to release the tension—but the scene carries a weird charge, unwittingly reviving the old jezebel stereotype of the sexually ravenous black woman.) And then there’s inarguably Boyhood’s nadir, the use of the character of the family’s Hispanic one-time handyman (Roland Ruiz). He first appears in a scene in which Olivia slightly patronizingly praises his skills, calls him “smart,” and recommends he take night classes. Then, in a forehead-slappingly silly moment near the film’s conclusion, he reappears at a restaurant where Olivia is dining with her now grown kids. He’s managing the restaurant and, rather than let the audience process his presence independently, Linklater has the man gushingly thank Olivia, this shining beacon of white womanhood, for changing his life. The smug, clunky sequence not only ruptures Boyhood’s refreshing absence of diegetic self-referentiality—rarely does Linklater feel the need to have the film comment on itself to foster continuity—it also plays like it was directed by a drunken Cameron Crowe in ultra-sentimental mode.

In the grand scheme of Boyhood—a generous, expansive, and ultimately loveable work—it’s a minor thing, but it did raise my hackles. Linklater had an opportunity to afford a young Hispanic actor a role with agency, but disappointingly opted instead to utilize him as a symbol genuflecting toward that time-honored trope: the white savior.

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