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Peter T Chattaway

Boyhood (aka Growing Up aka The Twelve Year Project)

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Barbara Nicolosi:

 

Through a Gospel lens, what makes Boyhood so important is that it tracks how a human person is basically lost through the lack of a serious and intelligent formation in his youth. As Aristotle noted in his Nicomachean Ethics, a happy life comes down to habits of virtue instilled in youth. Boyhood lurches through the journey of a young person who is given little if any formation in virtue. Because of his parents’ fundamental superficiality, and its resulting selfishness and immaturity, they have no habits of virtue to hand on to him. The concepts of justice, prudence, moderation and fortitude are never even offered to the child, never mind faith, hope and charity. He is raised without any measure of meaning beyond his own inclinations – in a truly, thoroughly, tragically, unexamined life. And, at the end, as the now man trips on mushrooms and exchanges banalities with another equally lost Millennial, we know that, probably, the man will live a life as Plato said, “not worth living” in the imprisonment and misery of narcissism. The cake is baked.

 

For me, the horrible, wonderful fascination of Boyhood, is knowing that the journey it tracks is not uncommon. In fact, the childhood it depicts is probably much less traumatic than that lived by lots of kids today. Still, this movie is a profile of the bulk of the Millennial generation. If you want to understand our crop of young adults with their blank stares, their conflict aversion, their utter disengagement from history or heritage, and their sad dreams scuttled early on by the absence of self-discipline, you need to see Boyhood. . . .

 

The film has a delightfully subversive, conservative agenda too! Ethan Hawke’s character, as the boy’s father, spends most of the movie wistfully picking out bad songs on his guitar. He’s a mess of a man and also – wait for it – a huge Obama supporter! The movie has a delicious little scene in which the character steals McCain lawn signs in between prating about how wonderful Obama is. Then, another blond female Obama supporter is shown to be ridiculous as she preens like a five year old about how much she loves Obama and wants to kiss him. It made me smug that the losers in the movie are liberals.

 

Added to that, the movie does allow Hawke’s character to finally find some maturity – when he marries a serious, Bible Christian. The Christian in-laws, with their guns and Bibles, are shown as being unhip, but still good. The movie gives the sense that they have stronger sense of identity and meaning, and that they would be the ones to call when tragedy happens. . . .

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Well... The question has been asked: What about a film following this boy as he becomes the young man?

 

Linklater has already made it. All the way back at the beginning of his career... Slacker. Which is a film more about cinema than anything else - specifically its ability to document what feels so weighty, important, and life-giving about a particular moment in time. Linklater often films things the way we recall the formative moments of our own biographies, which is the genius of his filmmaking (and perhaps Boyhood).

 

The problem with Nicolosi's critique is that she is reading the film through the wrong lens. The film is not a document of someone's spiritual formation. It is Linklater, as an artist, searching for ways to express the grandness of life as he has experienced it in particularities. Despite this difficult childhood, divorce, the moving, loss of friends, etc... he endures the sloppiness of childhood and its spiritual vacuities to find something worth pursuing post-adolescence. It is weak and trite in its first expressions (who hasn't had shallow conversations about stuff while drunk or high in college).

 

But, I once graded freshman papers through Nicolosi's lens. I found undergraduate papers to be shallow and insipid. I tired of hearing those philosophy 101 questions recycled over years as young students were convinced they had invented them. I would groan with each stroke of the red pen. But I turned a corner for some reason. I began seeing these paper cutout observations about life as actual flickers of interest in something deeper, something more meaningful. They had survived adolescence in the US. A stupifying proposition. Yet these students had survived it in such a way that they were now hungry for something substantial; they had begun their spiritual groping. They were, as Percy put it, "on to something..."

 

I am not a fan of the film for much different reasons, but we could revise Nicolosi to say:

 

"Through a Gospel lens, what makes Boyhood so important is that it tracks how a human person survives is basically lost through the lack of a serious and intelligent formation in his youth to become someone receptive, desiring some sort of engagement, radar fully alert for things of significance."

Edited by M. Leary

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FWIW, my reaction to the film was similar to Eve Tushnet's, who found that the film got less interesting over the last few years despite a strong start. I recently came across an interview with Linklater in which he said Ellar Coltrane began to collaborate with him on the narrative development of the last few years, and so the boy who was once "manipulated" by the filmmakers (in Linklater's words) ended up becoming something more than that -- and I cannot help but think that the film's drop in quality roughly coincides with the central actor having a greater role in the script.

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Linklater often films things the way we recall the formative moments of our own biographies, which is the genius of his filmmaking (and perhaps Boyhood).

 

It's actually a black hole of a fault, in my book.  When your own story is more interesting, by comparison, than the blankness of a story that he conjures up, you only so naturally go to the more interesting story.

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Nicolosi's review offers a fresh angle on this overlauded film, but I can't tell whether she's deliberately misreading Boyhood to support her own conclusions or if she's just uninformed. No one familiar with Linklater's body of work would believe him capable of a "subversive conservative agenda." 

 

But the "lens" she chooses here is interesting. To wit, Nicolosi, a classically educated Christian, is viewing the film in the context of Aristotle's Ethics and finds much resonance there. Central to Aristotle is this idea that human beings, in order to function properly, must express virtue. For the virtuous Greek, all the things that can be quantified (money, physical pleasure, fame, etc.) must be removed in order to attain happiness. What's more, virtue is the very thing by which one understands happiness, beauty, and practical reason. I tend to see Linklater as a classic liberal humanist, and within the diegesis of Boyhood this notion of virtue goes unexamined. I would say the film is about self-discovery, or the discovery of some thing deeper, as Leary explained. The confusing part about Nicolosi's review is that she credits this absence to the filmmaker as genius. If Boyhood were truly Aristotelian, it would arrive at the conclusion that the best things in the universe are not human beings, but the beings composing the universe, and that happiness needs external good--loving your neighbor, for instance--in order to be realized. 

 

Aristotle also believed that mothers love their children more than fathers do, since giving birth is more strenuous for them, which aligns perfectly with the depiction of the Arquette character! Barbara's assessment of the parents in Boyhood may lack charity, but at least she has the courage to suggest that as a parent, loving your children means training them in virtue.

Edited by Nathaniel

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Critics (and viewers) often conflate what they bring to a film with what the film is doing and hence mistake a subversive (or even just a peculiar) reading with a subversive film.

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Critics (and viewers) often conflate what they bring to a film with what the film is doing and hence mistake a subversive (or even just a peculiar) reading with a subversive film.

 

True. I guess I'm wondering whether Nicolosi is doing this knowingly and jokingly (as when an Indiewire critic called D'Souza's America a brilliant left-wing parody) or ignorantly and earnestly.

Edited by Nathaniel

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Nathaniel wrote:

: No one familiar with Linklater's body of work would believe him capable of a "subversive conservative agenda."

 

It's the art, not the artist, that ultimately matters though, no?

 

: Aristotle also believed that mothers love their children more than fathers do, since giving birth is more strenuous for them, which aligns perfectly with the depiction of the Arquette character!

 

Really? Hmmm. I tend to line up with those who think the film is critical of the mother for ditching Ethan Hawke (who *does* turn out okay in the end) and then hooking up successively with a series of much-worse guys. Which is not to say that the protagonist doesn't love his mother. But the film does seem to support Steve Sailer's supposition that the film essentially expresses Linklater's belief that his mom shouldn't have ditched his dad.

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Curious that this statement comes from the very same review in question:
 

The truth about a movie’s merits or problems seems sadly impossible to just state in a climate where everything is politics.


Frankly, I'm not sure I can think of any climate in which "the truth about a movie's merits or problems" can be "just stated." In my experience, speaking truth about a work of art tends to be far more complicated and tricky than that, especially for just one person.

However, it is possible to discuss art in places where not everything is politics. A&F is one of those places. And I'm grateful for that. 

 

Anyway, taking a note from M. Leary, I'll rewrite the statement: The truth about a movie’s merits or problems seems sadly impossible to just state inaccessible to someone who chooses to live in a climate where everything is politics.

Edited by Overstreet

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The relatable villains here, of course, are the parents, played perfectly by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette

 The parents are villains?  I mean, the film is certainly critical of both of them, but ultimately I thought it portrayed them as good, misguided people trying their best.

 

He’s a mess of a man and also – wait for it – a huge Obama supporter!

Wait, one imperfect character means the movie is critiquing everyone who has something in common with that character?  I guess that makes sense, since Nicolosi does think Eli Sunday was meant to caricature all Christians. My only question is how does she explain the conservative who proudly brandishes a confederate flag and threatens to shoot the kids?

 

I've said this before, but I really don't get the love for Boyhood, and the longer I've sat with it, the more I dislike it. I am glad for all those who do find something of value in it, but forcing it into one's own political lens, as Nicolosi did in her review, is a service to no one. It makes it very difficult to talk about the movie's merits (or lack thereof), and it denies the value of the powerful, near-universal experience which most people have had with the movie, if they interpret it differently.  Reading the film as a product of a culture where broken families are common is a possibility, and while the film is undoubtedly critical of the more selfish decisions of its characters, it is also far less critical of them than Nicolosi gives it credit for.

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So I'm gonna parse some of my thoughts regarding this film and why I found myself ultimately disappointed.

I read Jeffrey Overstreet's review right before this, and it was funny finding myself nodding along with Young Adult Jeff a few times (dunno what that says about me)

I watched this film in 2014. To think about the events surrounding 2014, and I won't get into them all here, but just suffice to say they certainly color my viewing of it.

He doesn't grow up. Well, sorta he does, but I'm not sure what he grows into.

In fact it felt like he grew more self absorbed as he grew older, less aware of the world around him. Perhaps this was intentional, but the last scene of the film especially speaks to me of aimlessness. "Maybe everything is right now" and other silly philosophical thoughts of the last few minutes just seemed..off...to me. This was like the kind of thing you'd see a bunch of white privileged kids saying as they sat around a fire, aimlessly contemplating life. Like...that's it? That's what you got out of the whole experience of your last 18 something years?

In the wake of so much injustice in the world, I don't see beauty in that ending. I see a self absorbed privileged teen who I hope gets quite a wake up call as he grows older.

Then again, this IS called Boyhood. Yet I liked younger Mason so much better than older Mason, and perhaps that's my disappointment.

The way the mother is treated, and the sister too (who unlike others I just didn't feel like she was a real person), just felt like a sort of middle finger to single mothers. Especially in that last line from Mason Sr., the guy who I honestly think never learned how to treat a woman, and imparts some crappy advice on how to to his son, when he says "she shoulda just been more patient." Like he believes it's all her fault. And there's no correction there. there's also a moment when his mother cries and looks to the floor, lamenting that she thought there was  more to life. like she suddenly realizes she was just being silly the whole time to have left Mason Sr. and tried to make a better life for her kids...and really why does she have to be such a stereotype, emotional woman unable to choose the right kinda guy the whole time.

Sorry the feminist in me hated how the mother got treated.

And the way that the father taught the boy to think about women

I love coming of age films...and I guess I expected this to be the coming of age film to define all coming of age films, and it truly disappointed me.

Perhaps some 20 years down the road I'll return to this and see something completely different. such is life.

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Richard Linklater discusses a scene in which two characters remember something differently (which is to say, one of them remembers something happening and the other one doesn't remember it at all). I originally found myself thinking that scenes like this exposed the somewhat haphazard nature of the filmmaking -- I wondered if Linklater couldn't have at least filmed a scene during one of the earlier years that would have anticiapted this scene, just to give us some sense as to how to "read" this scene -- but now, hearing Linklater discuss the scene, I actually kind of *like* the way we have no idea whose memory is more accurate.

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Brian Godawa:

 

The gimmick doesn’t work. The boy is an okay actor, but his sister is terrible. Quite frankly, the boy looks so different as he ages that Linklater could have used a different actor. The result would have been much better had he just cast GOOD actors to play each age. Ah, but you see, such bias as that comes from those of us narrow-minded unsophisticated moviegoers with our unreasonable demands of actually wanting a good story.

 

And story this movie does not have. Yes, it is a “character study” of the interfamily dynamics of divorced parents and the attachment theory of its effects on children. But good storytellers can accomplish character study within a good story. Every scene plays like a moment that will lead to something, but never does, leaving the viewer unsatisfied. . . .

 

I won’t begrudge Linklater’s philosophizing. I actually think its one of the few good things about this movie. I actually appreciate a film that wrestles with the universal search for significance, even if I don’t agree with his conclusion. And for that attempt I thank him. . . .

 

But back to the philosophizing. Linklater really does have a talent for capturing those universal type moments of life and building interesting scenes and thoughtful dialogue. The problem is that Linklater uses his talent in the service of a bad philosophy which results in ugly art. Scenes set up well that end nowhere and pay nothing off. Characters with lives that have no meaning or purpose. Meandering plotless meaningless narrative. His philosophy of existentialism leads to the moral, metaphysical and ontological despair that results in a boring story without meaning. And why shouldn’t it? He posits that  life is but a series of random experienced moments without transcendent meaning. So it makes sense that he would tell a story of random experienced moments without transcendent meaning. . . .

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I wasn't going to take the bait, but since Steven bumped this, I'll just say that it's funny he says "ugly art" b/c my wife (an art major) said her problem with Boyhood was that it was a beautiful film about how life had no beauty.

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Godawa's tone is really unattractive.

 

Pretty much all the time.

 

So, for those keeping score: Boyhood = "ugly." The act of killing God's enemies = "Beautiful." According to Godawa, anyway.

Edited by Overstreet

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So... cherry-picking and mockery to Godawa's post?  No attempts to actually engage his arguments (which I largely agree with)?

 

I know some here love the film, and it has a good shot to win Best Picture, but if it comes up short compared to a "remember when" episode on a long-running family sitcom, then there are problems to be had.

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That is incorrect. If you look back a few pages there are many examples of people having already talked through Godawa's issues. I, for example, do not like this film. And I even addressed very specifically why the film is as insipid as it sounds - oddly enough, that is the film's only real strength.

 

But it is entirely fair to point out that Godawa's tone is unattractive. It lacks nuance. It lacks economy of language. It pivots on a backhanded compliment. It relies on really thin moralisms instead of reasoned critical thought. This is simply not the kind of Christian rhetoric I feel compelled to engage. I have never really seen an interest in film history or criticism in Godawa's writing, so why should I seek to engage him or respond to him in those terms? Since we are talking about Linklater here, I can't think of more appropriate terms.

Edited by M. Leary

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