Tag Archives: Dylan Thomas

Boyhood

boyhood

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

-From “Fern Hill” (Dylan Thomas)

“In a certain sense the past is far more real, or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers… Time cannot vanish without a trace for it is a subjective, spiritual category; and the time we have lived settles in our soul as an experience placed within time.”

-Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

I think it was Kierkegaard who said that while life is lived forwards, it can only be understood backwards. Certainly most art proves the truth of this statement. While life presses on breathlessly and leaves nary a moment for sense-making, artists are the ones who press pause and rewind, arranging the pieces, plot-points and colors for us in such a way that the full (or fuller) picture is seen. Most artists spend a good amount of their career (if not the whole of it) exploring their own histories, searching their lived past and re-creating it or reckoning with it in a manner that proves at the very least personally therapeutic and at best profound and transcendent for wider audiences.

Terrence Malick’s films are good examples of this. His recent films (To the Wonder and The Tree of Life) have been intensely, almost indulgently personal; yet they capture essences of things, “universes in grains of sands” so to speak, in beautiful ways. The latter film is Malick’s exploration of his own Texas boyhood, standing in for all boyhoods and, at times, for all of life period.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood does a similar thing, narrating a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story while at the same time evoking the universal. In both cases (Malick’s Life and Linklater’s Boyhood) the most resonant and transcendent moments arise from the most mundane and yet sharply perceived bits of minutia. These films are not metaphysically robust because they wax philosophical (though both do, at times) but because they pay attention to the little moments: hosing grass off the bottom of one’s foot on a summer day, reading Harry Potter books to children before bed, etc. Both films succeed because they focus less on a traditional plot structure than an episodic tableaux: capturing the overall picture and mood, impressionistically, through select scenes, glimpses, reminiscences of childhood. Given the huge amount of history to work with, and in both cases a huge amount of film from which to edit, both Malick and Linklater distill emotions and truth expertly from the mound of  “time” they have to work with. In this way they epitomize what Tarkovsky says is the essence of the film director’s work: “sculpting in time.”

Linklater, perhaps even more than Malick, has been particularly fascinated with cinema as “sculptor of time.” How can the moving image help us understand and appreciate the complexity of time? In films like his Before trilogy and now Boyhood, Linklater takes up the question in remarkable ways. These films don’t merely re-create times past (as most films do, including Malick’s) but rather document time as it passes. For Linklater, time itself is quite literally the biggest star in his movies. Sometimes this requires immense patience. His Before series has required the investment of Linklater and the series’ two actors (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) over the course of twenty years. Similarly, Boyhood required yearly commitments from its actors since 2002. But the results are profound. Part of what makes Boyhood and the Before series so significant (and I believe they will only rise in significance in decades to come) is that they evoke the passage of timeindeed, aging and growing up–without the magic of makeup or CGI but simply through turning on a camera after periods of time have gone by. Michael Apted’s astonishing Up series also does this.

Another way Linklater focuses in on the curiosity of time is by shooting in real-time. Several sequences in the Before series unfold in uninterrupted single takes and all of them occupy merely a few hours in their characters’ lives. Linklater’s 2001 film Tape unfolds entirely in real-time. His 1991 classic Slacker takes place entirely in one day in Austin. Linklater recognizes the powerful documentary aspect of film in that it can capture slices of life (or slices of time) like very little else can. Like a photographed image, a film transports us to another place and time. But a moving image can arguably immerse us in those long lost “sand between the fingers” moments more fully, capturing the unfolding in time aspect of life in a way static images cannot.

A third way Linklater’s films reflect on time is by having his characters wonder aloud about it. In the Before series, Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) are always talking philosophically about time, musing about lost time on the Left Banke of Paris, quoting W.H. Auden in Vienna (“O let not Time deceive you”) or pondering impermanence as they watch the sun set in Greece. Characters in Slacker and Waking Life (2001) are similarly fascinating by time. The latter film’s discussion of André Bazin, cinema and “holy moments” seems particularly salient for Linklater himself, as the transcendent potential in capturing spontaneous existence seems to motivate much of his filmmaking.

Certainly Boyhood has its fair share of what may be called “holy moments.” It has a lot of tragic moments as well, to be sure, as does Malick’s Tree of Life. But both films favor the charged goodness of life’s “holy moments” as fortuitously recorded by the camera. Where the holiness Malick sees in cinematic moments speaks to something Other and transcendent, however, Linklater’s “holiness” inheres in the moments themselves. For him, the very act of capturing moments through a camera, thereby arresting the otherwise painfully indifferent onward march of time, is where transcendence is found. It’s worth noting that Mason (Ellar Coltrane), the “boy” of Boyhood, finds himself drawn to photography as the one consistent source of meaning in his life. In a life where no house, no father figure, no friend stays around for very long, Mason clings to the “pause” power of a photograph to stop time and preserve a fleeting moment for a bit longer.

This is exactly the power of cinema on display in Boyhood, and it’s why the film is such an magnificent achievement. As specific as it is to this one boy and his coming of age story (from age 7 to 18), and as relatively intimate and mundane as its storytelling may be, the film nevertheless feels epic and existentially resonant.

As I reflected on the film I thought of my experience a few weeks ago in Scotland, exploring the streets and hills in Motherwell, where my grandfather spent his boyhood–when he was “young and easy in the mercy of his means,” as Dylan Thomas would say. I thought of how inaccessible the reality of his childhood is to us now, apart from a few photographs and passed-down, half-forgotten memories. But then my own boyhood is the same way. More photographs and video documentation of it may exist, and my memories of it are still clear. But they are fading and will one day disappear, as will the physical artifacts and photos. Eventually my descendants will render my life only sketchily in their imaginations, and then not at all.

The power of poetry like that of Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” or films like Linklater’s Boyhood, is that they do what any human with memories longs to do: they reconstruct the elusive past, vividly conjuring holy moments of old that would otherwise be lost. This is the power of narrative generally.

I’ve often wondered if in heaven we will have infinite access to re-constituted past: a sort of “on-demand, all you can watch” pass to travel back and watch any moment in history unfold, whether our own childhood or that of Christ. Perhaps eternity will bring all time and history into wholly manageable perspective. Perhaps Marilynne Robinson is right when she speculates, in Gilead, that “In eternity this world will be like Troy, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.”

Maybe so. But in the meantime, I’m thankful that God created us to be creative, so that Homers and Linklaters and Malicks can help us bridge the gaps in our experience and grab hold of time even as it slips away.

Memorial Play

A few hours before I watched Wes Anderson’s new film, Moonrise Kingdom, I was watching the undergraduate commencement ceremony at Biola University. It made me nostalgic to see 670 seniors receive their diplomas and officially conclude a long chapter in their journeys. I remember being there myself, seven years ago at Wheaton College, “commencing” a pivotal new chapter as my 22 years of being a kid gave way to the new adventure of independent adulthood. What a memorable moment, graduation day–abuzz as it was with the teetering uncertainty of the liminal spaces which were its backdrop: between youth, inexperience and protection on one hand and adulthood, maturity and risk on the other. Everything then was new, curious, possible. The world was there to be explored; adulthood to be experimented with.

Moonrise Kingdom dwells in a similar liminal space: between the innocence, wonder and “firsts” of childhood on one hand and the danger, letdown, and regrets of adulthood on the other. In the same way that Saturday’s commencement reminded me of the coming-of-age threshold of “student” life giving way to a truly independent “working adult” life, Moonrise evoked nostalgia for another transition moment: when the pleasant domesticated adventures of childhood began to mix with the restlessness and reckless passions of adolescence.

Among the many merits of Moonrise is the uncanny way it captures the way that children understand reality: as a parade of wonders, thrills, discoveries, not unlike the adventure novels they read. The film’s central pair–Sam and Suzy–forge a path together that flirts with adulthood (french kissing, setting up a camp together, “getting married” and setting off on their own), but they still make time to revel in the wonders of the world as curious children: dancing on the beach to the music of a portable record player, drawing portraits of each other, creating a camp in an imaginary inlet they call “Moonrise Kingdom.”

Moonrise excels at representing the intersection of “play,” “game” and “real life,” and the manner in which they sometimes all blur together. The Boy Scouts motif (“Khaki Scouts,” as they’re called in the film) exemplifies this. Scouting is a an activity of domesticated danger and simulated adulthood, where young men can play at being adults–warriors, indians, explorers, doctors, etc.–while also having fantastical adventures. As exemplified in the film, scouting is about learning to be mature and “adult” without having to give up one’s sense of whimsy and boyish bravado.

The Noah’s Ark motif also showcases the tension between “play” and “reality.” The film’s early scene of the youth musical presentation of Benjamin Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde,” in which Suzy plays a “raven,” is then juxtaposed with a real life flood near the end of the film. The former is a “safe” experience of the reality of the latter, and perhaps a preparation for it. Like the Boy Scouts, “play” is here both a whimsical experience of dress-up simulation but also something very grounded in and linked to reality.

In 1938, Dutch anthropologist Johann Huizinga defined play as “a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious,’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly.” Pioneering computer game designer Chris Crawford adds that playing games provides “the psychological experiences of conflict or danger while excluding their physical realizations. In short, a game is a safe way to experience reality.”

The “playing” of childhood–as beautifully portrayed in Moonrise–is thus a sort of “bracketed” reality, a “safe” experience in between parentheses that nevertheless exists within and is informed by the larger narrative of a very real and dangerous world. From the opening sequence of Moonrise we see the motif of childhood and “game-playing.” Inside a comfortable house–“Summer’s End,” a name itself evoking childhood play–we see children playing games, listening to a recording of Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, safe and comfortable while a storm rages outside.

The “Wes Anderson aesthetic” of symmetrical, boxed-in mise-en-scène also works to underscore the “parentheses” subreality that is childhood. Everything in this world is in a nice, tidy box: framed as if on a stage, or in a doll house, or a scene of toys a child might arrange in a particular manner. It’s a surreal, bracketed-off existence, full of adventure and “danger” that is very contained, as if in a Nancy Drew novel. In childhood as well as adulthood, play and games are about artificial conflict; about that protected place where we can experience adrenaline rushing, the overcoming of conflict and the solving of problems without any real, imminent dangers or threats. Sam and Suzy’s camping adventure is about “playing at” survival in the wilderness, like the Chickshaw Indians had to do. Sam suggests at one point that if they get thirsty they should suck on pebbles to generate more saliva; but then he admits that he brought plenty of water, so the pebbles won’t be necessary. In any case, he’s prepared–like a true Boy Scout.

In many ways college–my experience of it, at least–was like Moonrise Kingdom: a “bracketed-off” experience of surreal life, in which we played, and learned, and became prepared for the adulthood to come. It was a safe place–a “bubble” of protected learning, in a way–though not entirely innocent. We were free to fail, to be broken, to learn real-life lessons about heartbreak and suffering, just as Sam and Suzy are in Moonrise. But above all it was a time of exploration, of discovering oneself and the world; seeing it through new lenses (like Suzy and her ubiquitous binoculars), new books, new compadres (like Sam’s Scout buddies) with new teachers and guides (like Edward Norton and Bruce Willis are for Sam).

Moonrise is an elegiac memorial for those moments of youth in which we were “young and easy under the apple boughs… green and carefree… Golden in the mercy of his means,” to quote Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill.” For me, it’s also a call for us to recover the sense of wonder that characterized those days–those Peter Pan days when we lived for fictional adventures, became transfixed by the breakdown of instruments in an orchestra, and  paused on our merry way to marvel at the curiosity of a drinking fountain. Those days weren’t actually a “subreality” at all, but in fact as real as what we call “real life” in adulthood. Or more real.

It’s a call for us to regain a vital imagination, in which dreaming and creation infuse us again, and not just as part of a nostalgic longing for our pre-utilitarian innocence. Imagination is key to thriving in this world.

I think part of the sadness and elegiac quality of something like commencement is that we remember what it was like to be young and free, “Golden in the mercy of his means,” with the world as our oyster. We lament that we’ve lost the sense of adventure, bravery, and risk that electrified those long lost days. And yet the truth is we need not abandon such things. We should be lifelong learners, career explorers, always re-imagining the world and discovering its wonders anew.

We may no longer live in the “lamb white days” of youth, or in the green days of the undergraduate college “bubble,” but we still exist in a world of inexhaustible wonders –a world with “the sun that is young once only” and “the moon that is always rising.”

“Fern Hill,” Dylan Thomas

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace,

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.