A closer reading of the passage—and pausing—of time in Boyhood.
For Richard Linklater, life is a series of snapshots to be lived, grasped in the moment. His latest film Boyhood, currently in the running for six Oscars, captures the sound of your life rushing through your ears. It’s uniqueness as cinema comes from its trick as a form of “time-lapse photography,” according to one of its nominated stars, Ethan Hawke. We see actors literally grow older before our eyes. In its filming across 12 years, we first meet Mason Jr. (a remarkable Ellar Coltrane) at six years old, holding hands with his mother, asking about a raccoon dying, and noticing the world around him. There’s a sense of both the vastness and smallness of childhood: sunlight, birds, the warm concrete. Slowly Mason’s life unfolds as minutes equate with years. Over the course of 166 minutes, we see him age by 12 years. He fights with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), becomes a teenager, gets his heart broken by the prettiest girl in school, and moves towards the defining moment of his graduation. However, the story is not just about Mason, it is also about his family, who are on their own trajectories. His mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), a complex character, whose career blossoms while her private life remains fraught. There is also Mason Sr. (an engaging Hawke), a fun but carefree young Dad who turns up in his kids’ lives from time to time before settling down in middle age with a new wife and a quietly warm relationship with Mason.
The film’s most obvious achievement is the effect for the audience of literally seeing Mason age before our eyes. As the film progresses, you almost don’t notice it. Is his hair longer? Is it darker? Is his face a little less round? You have to concentrate to see the yearly changes, when Linklater returned for another few days of shooting. The film’s other, more subtle achievement is how it shows a view of life. Writer/directors’ life philosophies do appear in their movies, in the dialogue of characters for example, or in underlying questions, such as in Woody Allen’s latest, Magic in the Moonlight, in which he seems to be asking: is there an unseen world or is this all there is? In Boyhood, I realised at one point of the movie, when the camera lingered on a scene where the family were listening to a country and western band, that the director wanted us to notice this. Was this moment special? It was just another moment in Mason’s life, but there was something about pausing to notice what is going on around us that was important. Life is happening around us. We need to see that.
Linklater offers less of a traditional narrative arc where characters’ developmental turning points are flagged as flashing red signals, and more a series of moments that both the characters and ourselves must arrange into a narrative. Moments happen. We must work out what to make of them. A friend of mine interpreted the film’s last scene in the canyon as a moment of liberation and joy for Mason, who’d been the subject of his mother’s choices around her partners. Now he had come of age. He was standing looking out to the horizon of his own future. The friend had ‘read’ a life trajectory into the raw elements of Mason’s life that we see on screen.
The moments that stay in my mind are of Mason, in the back of the car with his sister, as his mother drives them away from their family home to a new city. As they drive off, he sees his best friend riding his bike behind the car. The car accelerates and they’ve gone. There’s also the scenes when Mason and his sister, in middle teen years, go up with their father to visit his wife’s family. The father and son swim in a waterhole; they go camping, they talk about Star Wars. They sit on the porch with the whole family and sing. Life as a series of moments to step into before they go by. We are to simply be in the moment. This being and noticing reminded me of haiku.
Haiku are ancient Japanese poems stretching back to the 16th century. They have a classic three-line 5-7-5 syllable form. Following the work of Basho, haiku echo Japan’s seasonal signposts. They concentrate on a single object and capture it in the barest of words, focusing simultaneously on what lasts, and what does not, on permanence and impermanence. Contemporary New Zealand poet Richard von Sturmer lived for ten years in a Buddhist retreat centre in New York. He wrote haiku while on his daily walks, as a way of taking a snapshot of the country in that moment, from season to season:
Autumn in the north:
a red maple leaf
bowing to the snowflakes
as they fall
on my fingertips
in the snow.
Haiku have been evoked cinematically before, most notably in the work of Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. Ozu’s extreme simplicity of directorial style, coupled with a Zen-like appreciation of silences, led his films to be viewed as “screen equivalents of haiku” where reality “is composed of an infinity of simple everyday events” which flicker past transiently.
Boyhood is also reminiscent of haiku in its pausing of time to focus on moments. It shows both the passage of time and the pausing of time. As one critic wrote, “Boyhood reminds us of time’s chariot passing even as it captures that elusive, eternal now.” This film, this saga of the ordinary, echoes haiku in its encapsulation of the essence of life in the moment; that life is a series of moments, and for us to pause and appreciate them.
As a viewer accustomed to watching traditional Western films with well-punctuated narratives, I noticed the slowness, minutes which, of themselves, were mundane. Yet in Eastern cinema, Ozu’s poetic directorial style composed art through silence and emptiness as well as movement. Such a style echoes a Buddhist belief in life as “composed of a vast number of elements whose source is unknown and origin impossible to discover.” The focus in both Ozu and Linklater’s work is on life as a composition of elements, or moments, which are both mysterious and transitory. It is up to the person/viewer to assemble these moments into a coherent narrative and make sense of them.
I can thus appreciate the half-finished effect of some of the individual’s stories in Boyhood, while also wanting more, wanting a conclusion. I wonder if Linklater could have offered more time with some characters. In particular, Olivia, the mother, seems unfinished and much of her life arc remains puzzling. There is a sudden ending to the blended family when Olivia leaves her violent, alcoholic husband, taking her children with her. When Mason asks her whether he will ever see the other children again, she says she doesn’t know. They never appear or are ever mentioned again. We see only a small fraction of Olivia’s relationship with her third husband, the student and war veteran. We see one moment in Mason’s relationship with him that is particularly hostile. Yet it is impossible to know whether this moment was part of a theme, or an aberration in their relationship. Here, it is only natural to want more answers, to crave some sense of completion. In Olivia’s last scene, she has moved into a small house on her own, and Mason is about to go to college. She breaks down in tears. “I thought there would be more,” she says. I wanted more for her life. Yet, the effect of these empty spaces in the narrative is that it is the audience who narrates Olivia’s life and makes meaning of her trajectory.
The film’s strongest message is to live life in the moment, to make the moment your own. In the last scene, where Mason takes up an invitation to drive out to the canyon with his brand new college roommate, this message emerges most distinctly. In the canyon, Mason sits next to an unknown young woman and they watch the night begin to fall around them as the high hits in. He’s in life, being in the moment, and making of it what he will. “You know how everyone’s always saying seize the moment?” the young woman asks. “I don’t know, I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around, you know, like the moment seizes us.” Yeah,” he replies. “Yeah, I know, it’s constant, the moments, it’s just—it’s like it’s always right now, you know?”