Awake in the dark

Published on July 29th, 2014

Alex writes about Boyhood, why he hates people applauding at movies, modern film criticism, and the Roger Ebert doc Life Itself.

At the conclusion of my screening of Boyhood, the audience erupted into applause. Regardless of my feelings for Richard Linklater’s twelve-year odyssey, I did not follow suit, because clapping at the movies is idiotic. It accomplishes nothing I desire accomplishing. In all situations, I would rather talk to one person about the movie than applaud with forty*. If the filmmakers are not present in the screening as the credits roll, you are applauding for nobody but yourself and those around you. You are merely informing the crowd that yes, you approve of this film. Richard Linklater was not present for this screening, nor Ellar Coltrane or Ethan Hawke, so my fellow moviegoers were clapping for each other. You were in the room with another approving voice, and you are congratulating each other on this mild accomplishment. “Nobody died mid-film, you guys, we did it,” these hands are rapturously saying. This crowd wanted people to know they approved of Boyhood, because that is the way we must react to this film.

*In fairness, I have applauded a movie before, but that was mostly because I was profoundly high and the Backstreet Boys made a surprise appearance in the epilogue, precisely the combination of baffling elements that cause one to throw all logic out of the metaphorical window.

Every once in a while (and it happens more frequently each year, for reasons that have little to do with a rise in quality films), a film is reviewed in such a powerfully positive fashion that we have to love it unconditionally. Her was a good example of this last year, and for a smaller segment of society, The Immigrant had this cache a couple of months ago. There have always been classical examples of this, as anybody that has badmouthed Psycho in a public setting has learned, but the modern numbers seem to be growing expediently. Boyhood has garnered overwhelmingly positive reviews; it still stands at 99% positive on Rotten Tomatoes, and I suspect the vast majority of my audience was aware of this fact going in. We were at the first non-premium Toronto screening of the movie; we were the people most excited to see this movie, albeit the ones too poor or too late for the VIP version that started thirty minutes earlier. My audience for Boyhood didn’t want to be left behind. They were clapping so that others knew that they liked the movie. They needed to slap their palms together, because this is what we must do now.

A few days later, I saw Life Itself, Steve James’ new documentary about the life and final days of Roger Ebert. Applause was not a problem here. I was in the theatre with one other person, and if he applauded, it was after I sprinted out of the theatre to get to a meeting Ebert and James had collectively and unintentionally made me late for. The film was good, however; the looks at Ebert’s final days were interesting, and there were thoroughly engrossing anecdotes about his earlier days as a film critic. The section about his relationship with Gene Siskel was particularly interesting, because it helped get to the bottom of the one thing that has defined Roger Ebert: a thumb raised in approval.

Roger Ebert was a very great film critic, and an exceptionally talented writer. I view these statements as inarguable, even when I have in the past tried to argue against them myself. As Life Itself documents, Ebert was a celebrity film critic in a way nobody else has been, and likely never will be again*. In concert with Siskel on their television show, Ebert made the most significant contribution to film criticism since the auteur theory; Siskel and Ebert used their thumbs to approve or disprove of a movie, and that idea became the most significant way to signal a movie’s worth. They were America’s most famous critics, because they were the critics on television, and they turned the common perception of criticism into something more like consumer advice. Ebert (and presumably Siskel as well) knew this was not the ideal method to get their thoughts on film across, that a more free-flowing, long-form discussion of a film would be more intelligent, but that the limitations of a half hour television show made this impossible**. Like all smart people who become more famous than they could have anticipated, Ebert’s life’s work was boiled down into the simplest distillation of his ideas possible. Life Itself goes to great lengths to show how Ebert helped the growth of film, from encouraging young directors to simply talking about certain small films enough that eventually people see them. But the one thing we will still all remember years from now is those damn thumbs.

*Quentin Tarantino is probably the closest thing we have now, and that guy can’t even spell.
**I have no doubt that, had he not lost his ability to speak before the popularization of the medium, Roger Ebert would have been the host of an unbeatably great film podcast.

I hate Rotten Tomatoes, and I used to hate Siskel and Ebert for accidentally creating a world where its existence is the approved method of film criticism. With the thumbs up or thumbs down, we began looking at film criticism as a yay or nay proposition, the type of consumer advice that Life Itself proclaims Siskel & Ebert At the Movies was. A simple three-word phrase was desired for all film posters, and the conversation surrounding that didn’t matter. For a time, if the digits pointed upward, your grosses often followed suit. But Life Itself reminded me why I actually watched At the Movies as a child, not for the approval or disproval so much as the actual arguing over it. This is a common process for one remembering the television show: the first thing one recalls is the rating system, but the more one thinks about the show, they invariably remember it as a show about passionate, cogent arguments. I suspect the only reason I ever screamed at my friend Gillan about the cinematic importance of Bad Boys II was because Siskel and Ebert told me that was an okay way to react to a film*. I’m annoyed by applause because the pair made a version of applause popular, but they also taught a number of these applauders to talk about why afterward, so maybe it’s a wash.

*Siskel had passed away by the time of its release, but Ebert hated Bad Boys II. The last sentence of his one-star review: “Everybody involved in this project needs to do some community service.” This review mostly makes me want to remake The Mighty Ducks with Michael Bay playing coach Gordon Bombay.

Alright. Back to Boyhood, the movie this thing used to allegedly be a review of. Contrary to my profound bitching about the approval process, I really liked this movie, because I really like the way Richard Linklater makes movies. The mere idea of the film is fascinating, and when you explain the film to others, the fact that it was filmed over twelve years never makes them less interested in seeing it. Almost every review of the film, including the few dissenting negative ones, mention this. Even if people don’t like the result, the idea impresses them. But when you actually remove the concept from your head, the film works in the way most of Linklater’s films work: it features people talking about real shit in interesting ways, and it gets one thinking about the core of human existence. And since it covers so many different aspects of one’s life, both those of the youths and the adults, almost anybody can find a piece of themselves in the film. Be it from a fifteen year old casually discussing a suicide attempt, or a wispily mustachioed thirty five year old trying to make sure No No Song lives on, there’s something for everybody emotionally. The film may be spotty at times and episodic throughout*, but there’s always that concept to get you through the parts you don’t love. Should the viewer become bored, they can always think about the part of their life most people love getting nostalgic about. Or if this viewer is a more logical, emotionless film lover, they can think about the impressive technical feat within the design of the filmmaking process. I have no qualms referring friends to this film like I sometimes do with Waking Life or the Before Sunrise series; everybody can put themselves in (at least) Mason Jr.’s shoes, and fill in the gaps around that because (almost) everybody likes thinking about their own experiences as a youth in some way. This has allowed for a sudden critical re-appreciation of most of Linklater’s work; the low-talking Texan was always well liked, but he has never been talked about more. Linklater’s not just the auteur we sometimes forget to mention anymore, he’s now the definitive auteur of time. Slacker is suddenly something we’re talking about again, and it’s all because of Ellar Coltrane.

*Albeit by design – in interviews, Linklater has taken to referring to each year as an episode.

When looking at Linklater’s filmography, it’s not hard to be impressed. Even aside from the aforementioned Slacker, a historically interesting movie (if not necessarily one that’s enjoyable to watch in 2014), the undisputed almost-classic Dazed & Confused, Waking Life, School of Rock, and Bernie are all very good movies. Before Sunrise and Before Midnight are at least equally good, and Before Sunset is a stone cold masterpiece. Boyhood falls somewhere in between the first pile of movies and Before Sunset; it’s really good, but it lacks something that makes me believe I will think about it every day over the next decade*. Linklater talks about the construction of Boyhood not necessarily as the ultimate coming of age film, but more as a construction of various moments that come together to create a whole. He wanted it to feel like a series of memories more than a constructed whole, and that’s mostly true. When Mason Jr. is being driven away from his first home, seeing a friend bike after the family’s car, it’s not a clear shot of his friend; he’s seeing him through tall blades of grass, watching him disappear as the station wagon rolls onto its next destination. This shot wasn’t constructed so much as it was grabbed right before it disappeared.

*This is an admittedly hyperbolic review of Before Sunset, but only barely. That movie is tremendous.

If there’s a problem I have with this film, it’s that the ending lacks the power one might desire out of something that you have sunk so much (moviemaking and movie watching) time into. The idea of a movie ending with Mason Jr. talking about the moment seizing you, and how it’s always right now, is much too corny for my taste. That he and his compadre Natalie are still at least partially stoned during this conversation is helpful to not be upset that the dialogue exists, but that it’s the film’s final point hurts Boyhood’s overall feel. I’m aware that we’re supposed to imagine Mason sitting there on his first day of college, reflecting on everything that came before him, like all but this last scene is a memory, but I just can’t handle it. The film had the graciousness to cut to black instead of fade (always preferred), and there was no freeze frame ending (which would have been unforgivable). We got no breaks in the chronology, and no flashes through Mason’s early days to remind us where we once were. All of these were correct choices. But there was something missing.

I assume Roger Ebert would have loved Boyhood. The thumbs would have risen, and not only because he became a kinder reviewer as he aged. He always seemed to be into movies about growing up, and one of the more memorable reviews late in his career is about The Tree of Life, a similarly experimental look at the coming of age film. Roger Ebert enjoyed movies about growing up. There are some things that just stick with us, some things that will always appeal to us.

If my review mattered to Rotten Tomatoes, it would garner a positive rating. Ebert’s presumed thumbs would too. So would any otherwise erroneous applause. But that would do Boyhood an unfortunate injustice, just like it would do for any great film. You don’t merely say, “I really loved this film.” There must be a because or you can’t have truly loved it. I don’t believe there is something as ethereal as just having liked or disliked something, wanted or not wanted to do something. That’s for lazy people. You can trust your gut, but any non-idiot knows their gut is still a made up concept. Your stomach makes no decisions for you, unless you eat too many McNuggets.

Similarly to Ebert, I adore movies about people growing up, and I love few things more than generic teen movies. I will watch any movie about eighteen year olds, preferably those with a propensity to crack wise. I am more than willing to talk about films like the unseen The Myth of the American Sleepover for hours at a party, not unlike I will viciously insult your mother if you say anything negative about Can’t Hardly Wait. Applying the idea of the Linklater style of conversation and time-based examinations found in Before Sunset to a (mostly) teen film was something that was always going to be profoundly appealing to me*, and Linklater made Boyhood live up to its promise. Boyhood feels like one of the better entries into a genre I am obsessed with. Like all good teen movies, it’s enjoyable, sporadically funny, and makes one think about (at least) one element of their own life.

*See also: The First Time, a not all that good film that I have decided is worth watching six times. It is (and will likely remain) the closest thing to a mixture of Before Sunrise and a generic teen film to come out of Hollywood.

The thing that surprised me the most about Boyhood was that I identified with the boy the least. I saw some elements of myself in Mason, but to these hazel eyes the most interesting scenes always involved Mason’s mother or his father. This probably should not have surprised me. I am now much closer in age to either of Mason’s parents than I am to Mason Jr. himself, so identifying with Ethan Hawke is much more logical. I merely assumed things would continue as they do at the movies, that I would always identify with the youthful protagonist, like I would always adore the cinema of Michael Bay or Chocolate Fudge Pop Tarts. Explosions will never get old, and I will always identify with the teenage protagonist. These are things that are set for life, I assumed, which is where all the trouble begins.

I am twenty-eight now. My review of the aging process is a staunchly positive one: I am smarter today than I was three years ago, and a creaky left knee and lower tolerance to alcohol are more than worth that trade-off. I have no desire to be a day younger than I am, and I will always feel this way, because the loss of intelligence is the only thing about life that actually frightens me. As a twenty-eight year old though, I’ve started to realize something. This intelligence that I’ve accrued has mostly been applied to things that don’t matter, things like remembering stuff that happens in movies. I don’t remember whether or not the parties I attended in the mid-2000s actually employed red Solo cups as drink receptacles, but I know that Boyhood’s avoidance of them makes it a total game changer. At this point, I remember more about Molly Ringwald’s fake high school experiences than I remember about my own real ones. I’m not even that far removed from my own high school days, really; as it stands I’m only at episode ten of Boyhood 2: The Quest for Further Enlightenment. But my high school memories are becoming almost entirely simulacrum. I have been corrupted by the vibrant pink and green colour palette of Degrassi: The Next Generation. This doesn’t bother me, really, it’s just another thing I’ve been around long enough to have the ability to learn. It makes more things better than it makes worse. That said, learning something is never without its concerns about losing something else.

I make most of my money shooting wedding videos. This is something I like doing, and it’s something I’m good at. It’s a decent way to maintain a lifestyle filled with matinee movies and writing 4500 words of nonsense about them. If nothing else, it makes my friends’ weddings less boring, if significantly more sweaty. This is not a job that is taken lightly, however. I understand the likelihood that (assuming a couple stays together and society never develops a Black Mirror-like device for memory recall), in ten years the wedding video I make will be the strongest moving memory they have of the day. Initially, there will be their own memories, memories as strong as you have when you discussed what happened on The Leftovers last night. But like all memories, they will fade. There might always be a few strong memories of the day, but nothing concrete. There will be stills from the photographer, and moving pictures from the videographer. The simple fact that the couple can watch the exact same thing over and over makes it stronger in their head and over time, the video will win, not unlike Mean Girls has become much more memorable to me than that afternoon in spring 2002 when somebody threw a Wendy’s Frostee at me. Eventually, the thing made by that guy you will never see again becomes the memory of your wedding day. This shadow figure crystalized your wedding day, but that is not authentic crystal you’re looking at. I know this when I’m shooting a wedding, and I know this when I am editing that day’s footage. This is why I’m not terrible at it, because I’m terrified of it. And you can’t be good at something if you don’t worry about it constantly.

If there’s one broader point to be found in Boyhood, it is that the details are always more important than the whole. This is why the meandering method of storytelling is interesting, and why the film is structured as one looking back on their memories, as opposed to a checklist of the key moments we all understand are important to growing up. Boyhood isn’t nonsensical, but we don’t need the connecting thread so much, Linklater says. As Mason starts to take steps to becoming a photographer, the only photos we see him take in the film focus on small details. He likes close ups of stoplights, not the whole intersection. Mason cares not for your establishing wide shot; he shoots no coverage. When shooting a football game, he focuses on the disappointment on the face of a benched player, and even then frames it through the placekicker’s practice netting. Mason has no interest in the actual event going on, more by the elements that surround it, the elements that would likely be the first to be forgotten by most. I approach my wedding videography in a similar fashion; I shoot what I need to make sure the bride and groom get what they need, but my favourite shots are (almost) always of an out of focus person walking past a crisply focused flower arrangement. It’s the poor man’s extension of The Tree of Life’s gorgeously abstract storytelling style that Ebert so loved, a type of storytelling that David Denby called a re-writing of film language. We don’t need to have these moments connected for us anymore. We have watched enough storytelling, and we know the cues, so something more powerful and emotional can be created out of much less. Linklater and Boyhood know this, and they rely on our intelligence to find something in Boyhood that might not literally be present in the frame.

There is a moment late in the film that immediately follows my favourite scene, one where Mason finally goes off on his own, away to college. He is driving by himself in a blue Toyota, having left the homestead for good, and it is one of those moments that helps wrap up the film by showing our hero drive away to his own new world. The scene is scored by Family of the Year’s Hero, a song about collective individualism in which a chorus of voices sings about being a lone wolf. Removed from the film, I probably barely like this song, and if this scene focused more on the road than the stop Mason makes, I might find it problematic. But the song’s selection for the placement in the movie, and its placement in the trailer, are impeccable. I can’t imagine a better song that hasn’t already been used for this same purpose. I thought the scene worked, and it encouraged me to listen to the song again later that afternoon, and to put it on my iPod just in case I wanted to hear it again that evening.

Early in Before Sunset, Ethan Hawke’s character Jesse Wallace, an authour, talks about the next book he wants to write. He describes a tome that takes place all in the span of a pop song, but a pop song that causes the novel’s protagonist to see their entire life flash before their eyes. I assume a version of this happens to a lot of baby boomers when they hear Hey Jude today. I always wrote this speech in Before Sunset off; it didn’t hurt the film, but it definitely took me out of it a bit. “That is exactly the fucking book Ethan Hawke would want to write,” I said to myself in 2004. By 2014, I was walking to the grocery store in between Linklater films, and I put Hero on my iPod, immediately having a variation of the feeling Jesse explains. I recalled large chunks of my high school experience, and parts of my college years. These weren’t comprehensive memories, of course, it was mostly a combination of a song and a movie stirring up all of these things I already knew and bringing them all to the forefront for three minutes and seventeen seconds. It is one of the most bizarre experiences I have ever had, and if something else happens like that ever in my life, I will be shocked.

I saw Boyhood again this afternoon. This is not an odd occurrence; I like being at the movies more than I like existence, so I think anything is worth watching once, and most films are worth watching twice. I found myself less engaged with Boyhood this time, which is not odd. On a second viewing, I tend to look more for the visual storytelling aspects, and Linklater films are not immaculately staged. He enjoys the free form, which generally doesn’t allow for elaborate blocking. In the lead up to Mason’s high school graduation, I thought about the last scene approximately thirty minutes before the film actually got to it. I tried to place Mason’s graduation party in context with the more relaxed hiking party I would see shortly. I remembered Mason sitting with his new friend Natalie on a rock, having their conversation about seizing moments and vice versa, and I remembered the film ending with a close-up one shot of Mason.

This is not exactly how the film ends.

In my memory, I removed Natalie from the final shot even though she is absolutely present. I have no idea why I did this. Left to my memory, I kicked Natalie out of frame for some reason. She might be a talented dance teacher, but evidently I do not view her as paramount to my enjoyment of Boyhood. By removing her from the frame in my memory, though, I basically proved her point that I initially thought I disliked. I thought the idea of the moment seizing you was an oversimplification of memory, until I realized that exact thing happened to me within this film. I lacked control, because one always does.

Roger Ebert cannot control how he is remembered, even though he had some input on the film about his life before he passed away, and his wife Chaz was surely involved in some capacity as well. Ebert embraced the thumbs up as a logo of sorts, but we took the thumbs up and turned it into Rotten Tomatoes. But the same gateway to Rotten Tomatoes allows for pieces like this to exist. Regardless of the quality of my writing (or lack thereof – although if you’ve made it this far I suspect you don’t hate it), critics like Siskel and Ebert encouraged a deeper discussion of film. We might not immediately remember this when we think about them, and we will always remember the simplest distillation of what they did, but that doesn’t mean the influence isn’t there. We applaud to show our approval in a wordless way, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have the words to back us up.

I once worked in an office where you would be applauded for walking in the door in the morning, and again when you left at the end of the day. I have experienced few things more stupefying. In the mornings it felt like I was being applauded for managing to find a pair of pants and a TTC token; the end of the day seemed like I was being celebrated for simply not dying at any point in the past eight hours. These things are not deserving of applause, even if the intended audience is there to receive it. I did nothing worth remembering, so let’s not pretend I did. But Boyhood is a really good movie. Richard Linklater made something worth remembering, even if I remember a few of the specifics improperly. People in the theatre clapped because we collectively watched a meandering movie that engages us in the most abstract of ways, and Boyhood allowed me to momentarily understand everything by placing me in a situation I didn’t understand at all. No amount of thought was going to repair this shattered brain, at least until I had ample time to figure it all out. This is the best part of going to the movies, which means it’s also the best part of anything.

I should have applauded.

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