Thursday, July 24, 2014

You can't go home again

Just saw Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" - for the second time. I saw it first ten days ago in Los Angeles, the day I dropped off my passport at the Consulate, and now it's come to San Diego too. Like other viewers, my first reactions (along with "a miracle!") was "I need to see this, right away!" How weird and wonderful would it be to go back to see the boy, his parents and sister, and so many others young again - actually younger, not through makeup or computer simulation? It seemed an unprecedented chance. I was also enraptured thinking about how the film must have been made, cast and director winging it, living into the contingency of every collaboration but here in extreme form since it was over 12 years and deals with a child coming into his own (it's not a documentary but the actors bring lots of their lives into it). Open-ended plans, corrections, serendipitous discoveries, new ideas from all sides... the word that came to me to describe the director's ability to let it happen was "generosity."

But I didn't go set the film again right away, even when it opened in San Diego a few days later. Why? There's one scene in the film which is painful to watch - an abusive drunk terrorizing a family - and I found I didn't want to experience it again, it was too raw. But I suspect I was also worried that the magic would be spoiled somehow on re-viewing. I'm a Linklater fan and this has happened before. "Waking Life" is one of those movies that messed with my mind in strange and cool ways, showing things the mind is capable of though we don't usually notice it or let it. I was really experiencing things different way for a while after seeing that film, and tried desperately to hold on to that widened play of consciousness the way you try to cling to the gossamer remains of a dream... but the magic soon ran dry, and I haven't dared see the film again, as the memory of its transport is so strong and precious.

So how was "Boyhood" the second time through? Not at all what I expected. It was, once again, entirely absorbing. Every scene again rang true. The music once again made me misty. The violent drunk was again terrifying. The parents, growing up too in their own troubled ways, were again painfully real. The boy's sequence of haircuts and voices was again more varied, extended and interesting than you'd expect, and the mellow young man who emerges at the end was once again intensely likable, indeed lovable. I thought again: "the students who show up in our first year classes already have whole lives behind them!" But the magic? There was a little less of it. The story seemed more scripted, more normative. I felt Linklater's generosity less keenly, had more questions about what he was up to and whether I approved of it.  

I don't think I was wrong about his generosity the first time, though. I was unable to see the film the same way. Knowing where character Mason (and all the others) end up, I couldn't but listen for cadences and foreshadowings - and found them - in his younger self. He wound up just where I knew he would, which was pleasing but not in the same way as before, when his becoming that person was a mystery and a miracle and a cause for celebration. I saw a "how to" movie where before I saw a movie full of "how" and "what" attending the mystery of "who."

I think this reveals something about more than this film, though part of the film's incredible gift is that it offers us this experience - at least for the fresh viewer. We can't but see the past in unifying retrospect, projecting into it tendencies and inevitabilities that, in the living of it (Linklater referred to this as "the living movie" as it was being made), weren't there, or at least couldn't be seen. Relatedly we see the person we know from the present already there in the past. (This is a much remarked phenomenon, crystallized for me by someone's - wish I could remember who's - observation that in pictures of one's parents as children one still sees adults.) But part of the wonder of people is that they change, especially children, and "Boyhood," at least on first viewing, takes you to the everyday landscapes in which such changes unfold. Linklater's generosity is kin to one of the virtues Sara Ruddick described in Maternal Thinking, the way a parent "fosters growth" in allowing a child to become their own person, an intellectually wondrous mix of patience and appreciation and encouragement and letting go.

So am I glad I saw it again? Yes, though a little chastened: sadder and wiser. I know that I can't watch it for the first time again, and that has become part of its truth. I feel a bit more keenly the disjunction at film's end where Mason's (almost) adult life begins as he heads off to college, and his mother thinks her life is over. Growth when you're part of it is life itself. When you're outside it it's alien, seems to have lost that openness essential to it. The past, once narrated, is closed - at least until something shows you it wasn't so fixed, so determined: learning something new about a past you thought you knew or, perhaps, seeing a film which captures the joyful-sad opacity of life from all vantages...

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