Don’t ask what end the gods have given me or you… How much better it is to endure whatever will be! … Be wise, be truthful, strain the wine, and scale back your long hopes to a short period. While we speak, envious time will have already fled: seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future.
That’s from a collection of poems written over two millennia ago by a man named Horace, originally in Latin: Carpe Diem. We know this. Seize the day, Horace implores. Seize it. Trap it. Possess it. Possess the present, because the future is beyond our control. Indeed. But the next question is, (or should be), can the present really be seized at all? Is it, in fact, ours to seize? We, who grasp so desperately for time, only to see it rush through our fingers like water through a sieve? Is seizing the day, in the end, just an exercise in folly?
Filmed over a span of twelve years, BOYHOOD is comprised of incremental slices of the life of the main character, Mason, played by Elar Coltrane. Picking up when he’s about six years old, we come to know Mason as he navigates a childhood that’s tumultuous more often than not in its major strokes, and colored with awkward moments and everyday banalities in its finer details. Though loving and well-meaning, Mason’s divorced parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, are too young and, therefore, glaringly ill-equipped to be good parents at Mason’s outset. So Mason and his big sister do what they can to cope with their lot in the various stages of their childhoods.
And that’s pretty much it as far as plot goes. There are no cinematic narrative familiarities or dramatic archetypal plot points to assuage us, nothing that smacks of convention to assure us that the sweet kid we’re watching will emerge triumphant, overcome his adversities, and walk safely into his future. Instead, we watch the life of the aging human being on the screen much the way we watch our own lives when we are at are most vulnerable, raw, and clear-sighted: that is, with a sense of profound uncertainty about what’s going to happen, with an uncertainty that provokes feelings that vacillate in tone from ominous foreboding to delicious ecstasy. In fact, as in our own lives, mine anyway, there are no easy answers to be had for Mason and his family, no clearly-defined right or wrong. Shitty things happen, along with the good, and kids and parents alike have to figure out a way to deal with it, to wing it, as Mason’s father says.
This isn’t the first film to show us characters aging on screen. Films like the Up Series documentary and The Harry Potter series come readily to mind, as do the multitude of sitcoms that tried to freeze time for just a few years too long (remember cute little Arnold from Different Strokes whose TV aging was uncomfortable and slightly obscene to behold?) but this film is unique in that, as a single narrative work filmed over a more than a decade, it has as its major theme the transformative agency of time at work on a human being.
The characters’ aging is, at first, distracting. At first blush it even felt a little bit gimmicky to me, but that’s only because I’m too jaded and cynical and my first impulse was to quickly categorize it with the rest of the gimmicks I’ve seen in film over the years. But, about fifteen minutes into it, witnessing the aging process of Mason and his family starts to become something remarkable. Seeing how a face actually metamorphisizes over time as opposed to the usual Hollywood aging make-up trickery we’re used to is like the difference between holding an wild orchid in your hand, or picture of one. It’s life made palpable. As a result, without fully realizing it at the time, I found myself moved in ways entirely distinct from the typical emotional experiences of drama. Hours after the credits rolled, I realized that I was effected by this picture the way I’m effected by talking to the people I love about their lives. Mason and his family started feeling like members of my own.
In the sacred space of the movie theater, where we normally go to take shelter in the safety of fiction, it’s unsettling to see the characters on the screen susceptible to the same tyrannical passage of time that we are. Reality crashes into fiction in a startling way here and it’s an unsettling, cage-rattling truth. I can’t quite get words around what’s at work here, but I do know that watching this film was closer to an actual life experience than anything I’ve ever witnessed in a movie theater. Quite literally, the film is a living work of art.
Linklater as a visionary filmmaker, of course, designed it to be such, and to reinforce this imitation of life, what he shows us in addition to Mason’s major life events is a compendium of platitudes. Moments, otherwise banal, take on the greatest of importance because we begin to feel the weight of time pressing in on the characters. Moments like watching the clouds or riding a bicycle through a weed-choked lot. Looking at brassiered breasts in a department store catalog when you’re ten years old. Squeezing mustard on hot dog at a baseball game. A campfire talk about Star Wars. Finally feeling the courage to put your arm around a girl. This is what this movie is about, this parade of silent celebrations, of which Mason is comprised. Life, we come to understand, is the collection of sweet banalities such as these.
And if we can realize that, soon we come to know, through this film, that even the hardships are sacred: A divorce that hurts like an earth splitting open. Seeing your mother smacked around by her alcoholic second husband. Breaking up with the first girl you ever loved. Watching your mother’s heart break when you leave home for the first time. This is the most difficult lessons the movie—and life- offers: that life’s tribulations should be accepted with gratitude. Yes, life’s shit should also be accepted with gratitude, for they are also sacred, they also comprise us.
There’s a moment that comes to every kid when magic as he knew it comes to an end. At one point Mason becomes disillusioned about the existence of elves. His father makes a case that magic does exist in the world if you just look at it right. He cites whales. “What if I told you there were gigantic animals that live under the sea singing songs and have hearts as big as cars? That sounds magical, doesn’t it?” This moment reminded me of an Einstein quote, something like, you can choose to believe that there or no miracles in the world or you can choose to believe that everything is a miracle. BOYHOOD is a kind of litmus test for these two types of people. If you’re the type who thinks that everything is a miracle, you probably won’t be one of those who walk out the theater because you’re bored. Instead, you’ll probably think that what Linklater might be trying to say is that every moment is a sacrament. It’s no accident that Mason becomes an avid photographer when he gets into high school– photography, that artform that attempts to seize the moment, to trap the moment like a rare bird in a golden cage.
I don’t know if you just need to have had a childhood to respond to this film or if you need the dual perspective of being a parent as well. I can tell you that my wife burst into tears in the parking lot after watching it and that when I took my fourteen year-old son to see it two days later, he burst into tears when we were all the way home, at the front door. That’s thing about Boyhood, it doesn’t pull on the heartstrings right there in the theater; it finds its way into some deep, carefully-guarded recess and lives there with you.
Obviously, it got to me in a profound way. This is the first movie I went to see twice in the theater in I don’t know how many years, and it’s still living with me nearly a week later. It also compelled me to break the silence of The Cutting Room’s summer hiatus here, mostly because watching it felt close to something that just happened to me personally. It was one of those clear mid-summer mornings and I was walking out onto the beach of a pristine state-protected stretch of land off the coast of Maryland with my family. The beach at that time was nearly deserted, and watching my kids walk out into that singular east coast dawn sunlight, I felt acutely attuned with the moment that was playing out before me. It was a moment suspended, and I was intensely aware of the fleeting impermanence of it. It produced a rapture and a simultaneous anguish. I knew that it would never happen again, that the four of us were who we were– to ourselves, to each other– only for that instant and that the next we would be changed. The moment would be gone. As would be the next. The next after that. Words can’t do it justice, can’t hold it. But then, neither could I. I had trouble containing myself and, not wanting my kids to see me shaken for seemingly no reason, I rushed into the ocean. There, leaning in against the waves, I realized that what’s been called tears of joy are really tears of mourning for the temporality of all things, and that they’re also our tiny offerings of gratitude, ritual offerings to whatever forces allowed you to witness the moment passing you by as you breathe.
Seeing BOYHOOD a couple of weeks after that ocean helped me realize that, like Mason in the closing passage of the film, I was infinitely lucky, let’s just say it, I was blessed, not to have seized the moment there on that beach with my family… but to have been seized by it.
Joseph Christiana, August 2014