Tag Archives: Michael Apted

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.

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Catching Up With Time in the “Before” and “Up” Films

A professor I admire once said — while discussing the films of Yasujiro Ozu, or maybe it was semiotics (can’t remember) — that watching the sun set can be both a thing of incredible beauty and deep sadness, often simultaneously. I thought of this as I watched Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, which includes a scene of a couple sitting by the sea in Greece, watching the sun slowly dip below the horizon. It’s there, there, there — and then it’s not there. A fleeting flare of arresting orange. Present and then absent. Perhaps the beauty and sadness of a sunset has to do with the fact that it’s the process in nature we humans most identify with. Ours is a context of ephemerality.

Midnight just released in theaters, and it is certainly one of the best films of 2013 so far. But before you see it, be sure to watch the two preceding films in Linklater’s Before series: Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). Together they comprise a trilogy that is one of the most understated and elegant in the history of cinema.

Before MidnightLinklater’s films follow the love story between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) as it plays out in more or less real time in one Vienna night in 1994 (Before Sunrise), a sunset stroll in 2003 Paris (Before Sunset), and an evening jaunt in Greece in 2012 (Midnight). The films let us peek in on these two lives every nine years, witnessing only as much of their “present” as the 90-100 minutes of movie watching allows us to see. The glimpses we get into this couple’s journey together are snapshots not just of their particular world — compellingly characterized by highbrow garrulity, philosophizing and Gen X angst — but of humanity in general: how we age, how we love, how we fight and how we dream.

Similar in many ways to what Linklater, Hawke and Delpy are exploring in the Before series is what Michael Apted has done and is doing with the astonishing Up series. Beginning in 1964 as a British television documentary examining the lives of fourteen 7-year-old children representing a diverse array of socioeconomic positions in 1960s Britain, the Up series has followed its real-life characters every seven years since. 14 Up (1970) checked in on the children at age 14; 21 Up (1977) updated audiences on their lives as they each turned 21; and so on.56 Up just came out a few months ago and is now available to watch on Netflix, as are all of the other Up films.

In his review of 56 Up, the late Roger Ebert — who once called the Up series “the noblest project in cinema history” — wrote this: “It is a mystery, this business of life. I can’t think of any other cinematic undertaking that allows us to realize that more deeply.”

Indeed, I think that one of the great potentials of cinema — particularly when it is used in the way Linklater and Apted are using it in their respective series — is that it can capture some of the idiosyncrasies and mysteries of the “business of life” that we might otherwise fail to see (presumably because we are too busy wading through our own “business of life”). Things like the peculiar experience of the passage of time: simultaneously the most obvious and yet ungraspable mystery of existence.

The Before series is about love and relationships on one level, to be sure. But the real subject of these films is time, and the frequency with which it is discussed by the characters in the films hammers home that point.

“O let not Time deceive you, You cannot conquer Time,” says Jesse (Hawke) in Before Sunrise, quoting Dylan Thomas quoting W.H. Auden. At other times Jesse waxes philosophical about how surreal it is to self-consciously observe himself living in real time, or Celine shares about how she always feels like her life is either a dream of the future or a memory of the past. Meanwhile, the couple walks and talks in (more or less) real time, as the sun — that most vivid of all reminders of temporality — either rises, sets, or cedes its position to the moon. As Hawke said earlier this year when Midnight premiered at Sundance, the star of the Before series “is not Julie or [Hawke] but Father Time himself.”

Up SeriesThe Up series is far less meta in its treatment of time; yet like the Beforefilms, Father Time is a palpable presence in every frame. There’s something compelling about observing the passage of time — 56 years, in this case — as it molds, batters, refines and weathers these people on each of their wildly divergent paths. Some of the original fourteen children grew up to be very successful; others not so much. Most started families and now have kids, grandkids, stepkids, and exes. Some (but not all) exceeded the expectations of the social class into which they were born. Some are happier than others (from what we can tell in our peeks inside, at least), and the only thing they all have in common is that none, not a one, has conquered time. They are all aging, and with every passing Up film we feel the weight of this ever more.

Cinema is unique among mediums in its ability to “sculpt in time,” as Andrey Tarkovsky wrote. It’s all about compressing, elongating, speeding up, and editing time to tell a story (that may span millennia or minutes) in the span of just a few hours. But Before and Up are especially compelling because rather than focusing on the filmmaker’s power over time, they focus on time’s power over us. Linklater tries his best to tell each Before film in real time, avoiding cinema’s manipulative power and instead foregrounding the somewhat eerie feeling of just sitting with time as it unfolds.

The Up films leverage cinema’s ability to compress time by including footage from the previous entries in each present portrait. What we get is essentially a moving-image scrapbook of each of these peoples’ 56-years, summarized in about ten minutes each. Watching it evokes the emotions of looking through an old box of photos and reliving an entire past in one quick burst of nostalgia. It confronts us with the expansiveness of what has come before; which seems large to us because our memories are painfully small and cannot hold every special moment we’ve had or beautiful thing we’ve seen, let alone the histories of other lives and lands.

Unless we have cameras there to capture every moment, our pasts are just as inaccessible to us as our futures. Memories, photos, tales of old can only reconstruct former glories up to a point (for a smart take on all this as it relates to “documenting” one’s past, see Sarah Polley’s amazing new film, Stories We Tell). And yet it could be argued that the “present” is the most elusive of all. For in reality, what we think of as the present is really just our brain processing things in the past — even if just a millisecond ago. Time is most relentless in the present because try as we might to slow it down or speed it up, it only goes by its own pace. The past and future are more malleable categories because they exist entirely in our minds, where we can elongate, embellish, or edit our recollection or vision of an experience, to our liking.

Tarkovsky puts it well in this excerpt from Sculpting In Time:

“Time is said to be irreversible. And this is true enough in the sense that ‘you can’t bring back the past’. But what exactly is this ‘past’? Is it what has passed? And what does ‘passed’ mean for a person when for each of us the past is the bearer of all that is constant in the reality of the present, of each current moment? 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, acquiring material weight only in its recollection.”

The Before and Up films are powerful because they embody the “sand between the fingers” brevity of the present: reminding us that even the most magical moments in life are fleeting, that our “when I grow up” dreams will be here and gone before we know it, and that as a result it makes little sense to live in search of a permanent state of pleasure or satisfaction. Such a thing would be, as Solomon might say, like “chasing after the wind.” Our hearts will be restless, said Augustine, until they rest in Thee. And perhaps that is “Father” Time’s greatest gift to us: stirring up a restlessness in our souls that directs our longing to something Other, unfathomably infinite and unbound by time.