Finally watching Boyhood after half of year of laudatory reviews and full-episode Fresh Air interviews was surreal to say the least. It turns out the movie is a unique kind of mediocre, the kind of special failure generally reserved for a James Cameron movie. A paranoia sets in, suddenly nothing is taken for granted—what is this culture, who are these people, who am I? Kenneth Turan wrote half a thousand words not really on the movie, but on this feeling. What is wrong with me? What even is criticism? What is movie?
In part because I don’t consider myself an enemy of “Boyhood” and didn’t want to rain on its parade, I ended up not reviewing the film when it arrived in theaters. I’m departing from that original impulse for a variety of reasons: because I believe there can be value to the culture of film in being out of step, because I feel an obligation to readers to express solidarity with those few who share my doubts, and to go on the record about the most talked-about film of the year. But mostly it’s because being so out of step called up so many disconcerting thoughts and feelings in me — about the film, about the process and culture of reviewing, even about what it means to be a critic and who I am as a person — that I simply had to write them down.
To us, and maybe to others, somewhere out there, maybe, the movie felt wrong before the first image hit the screen as the sweet strum of Coldplay’s “Yellow” fades in on the soundtrack. CUT TO: the image from the movie poster—you know the one—the boy in question laying on the grass, arm crooked behind his neck, staring into the sky. You knew this is what the movie was, and it delivers immediately. You knew this was to be in 2002, that is the gimmick after all, so Coldplay seems appropriate, but you had no way of knowing that the movie poster image would come at you with angel Chris Martin’s croon of “look at the stars, see how they shine [high note] for you.” Suddenly you think—wait a second: everybody making this movie is in 2002! They don’t know that everything that year created by culture was a huge mistake. Hello in there, you rap on your widescreen or your laptop, or you shout at the screen in the movie theater that’s been playing this since July, stop! You are expressing what you don’t know is a laughable culture! COLDPLAY IS A JOKE! But it’s quickly over, and what you were told was art film becomes a Lifetime movie. Seriously, you could spend the next half hour brainstorming less contrived scenes to compose a hypothetical childhood.
With James Cameron movies it feels more plausible that the mainstream media tricked intelligent people into seeing, for example, Avatar, as though spending a decade on a movie could guarantee something other than the audience reaction of, oh wow, they really did spend twelve years making this movie. Oh, wow, it’s like they’re older, but just a little bit older, you know. This film really plays with our perception of time, you know? Oh, wow, I almost sound like Terry Gross! Oh, boy! I knew that superficial thirty-second interaction forced cliche of a scene four years before in the timeline of the film would yield something more: another unnatural and meaningless thirty-second interaction! And they even got the same actor to come back! He might have been out of town or something, but they got him, and he’s four years older like everyone else, too! They really mastered the logistics of this project, didn’t they? There have been other movies that followed characters over decades, with the same actor playing them as they’ve gotten older. The Up films, of course, chose a bunch of seven year olds to follow in a realist documentary style, based on the Jean-Paul Sartre notion that a person has their destiny already decided at age 7. Indeed we see the essence of each child remain and express itself in a different human every seven years when their story was revisited. This series of films is beloved to cinephiles (meaning people who watch intelligent films all year and not just the ones mentioned in December and January on NPR), as is Truffaut’s 400 Blows, which is basically a cliche of a favorite movie, for someone who realized that, for the past fifty years, people cooler than them have been taking the French New Wave for granted. 400 Blows gave the world Antoine Doinel, and through this autobiographical avatar of its auteur, François Truffaut. The difference between Doinel and Truffaut is deconstructed through the course of the film and, ultimately, the Antoine Doinel series that continued into the ’70s. Unlike the affection that Truffaut expresses for his subject through beautiful cinematography, original storytelling, and, for lack of a better word, art, Linklater’s love of the boy is paternalistic and patronizing, unaffectionately shot, inconsistent, and generally forced. What is interesting about movies that follow different characters over time, like the Up series or the Antoine Doinel films—or even Linklater’s Ethan Hawke/Julie Delpy love trilogy—is that they consist of good movies. Fantastic, unique expressions of a moment in time. I first saw 49 Up and I cried without ever seeing a previous one. The raw emotion of the subjects, the empathy of the filmmaker, and the way the documentary had begun to rebel against itself—had in fact done so decades before already—made me lose it. I first became infatuated with Truffaut films at the behest of my older brother around the time Boyhood was underway, back when Coldplay first began to trickle onto the radio. It was a shitty time to spend time with popular culture; yet I was lucky enough to discover that in the 20th century people made great movies that people didn’t talk about anymore. Thanks, older brother. We watched them because they expressed something inexpressible, not because it contained a podracing scene whose sound effects alone took years to produce. We watched movies for their lack of gimmick. And we watched the ones that continued on those themes because we knew their makers had more to say. Boyhood combines the worst of both worlds. It takes the existentialism of the Up films—best summed up in Sartre’s summation “our life is only a succession of ceremonies and we spend our time showering each other with tribute”—and combines it with the cheesiest approximation of New Wave sentimentality. It takes the charm of amateur, non-actor subjects, and strips it by not letting them be themselves, and giving them forced out-of-touch dialogue. At a certain point the movie just feels like a catalogue of coming-of-age moments, interspersed with boy-dad-figures-sure-are-dicks moments, in a way that feels like it’s supposed to be complicated. But it’s not complicated: an old guy tried to make a movie about my generation which is insulting and a waste of time. Linklater’s on-screen avatar is not the boy he’s suppose to imbue with agency, warmth, and love. It’s Ethan Hawke who’s “with it” because he listens to Wilco and can imagine the Beatles in their ’70s solo stuff mixed the right way. His burnout friend plays in a rock band. He makes adult compromises—which the film constantly seems to insist on as inevitable—like pretending to become Christian, selling his GTO to buy a minivan, and growing a creepy mustache. Whatever it is, I don’t really care. Make a movie about your own damn childhood, and it will feel infinitely more real. Or don’t. I’ll just watch Dazed and Confused and listen to Kendrick Lamar’s last album (which actually is the coming-of-age masterpiece of the 21st century, mostly because it was made by somebody who came of age in the 21st century), knowing that members of my generation are more aware of their nuanced places in the world than anyone in your generation ever did. And please—this goes for you too, Lee Daniels—stop shooting nostalgic scenes of Obama’s 2008 campaign and election like it happened in the fucking ’60s and you’re remaking Forrest Gump. It’s 2015 for god’s sake. Speaking of Forrest Gump, I hope you enjoy your Oscar, Mr. Linklater. Hopefully this will be the last year anybody pretends to care, although I thought that would happen when Avatar won best picture, so, to quote a character, any character really, from one of your ’90s masterpieces, whatever. I hope you’re feeling better, Kenneth Turan. You were right about Titanic, and you’re right about Boyhood. Whether there is a deeply entrenched conspiracy by Hollywood to preserve the egos of middle-aged white men who spent a long time trying really hard to make a good movie—and the investments of their backers—by preemptively telling everybody they need to see their movie and like it, I’m still not sure.