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Boys, Men, Dogs, Eels | The Nation

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Boys, Men, Dogs, Eels

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Ellar Coltrane, age 7, in Boyhood

Ellar Coltrane, age 7, in Boyhood

For such a quietly observant film, unhurried in pace and grounded in daily affairs, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood makes a lot of threats to end in violence. Drinking and driving, horseplay with flying saw blades, inexpert handling of a shotgun, assault with a blunt but shattering object: this is only a partial list of the potentially lethal activities that are made to coalesce, or sometimes erupt, around the central character, a boy named Mason, as he grows up in present-day Texas. Functionally, the notes of menace are useful for ratcheting up the tension now and then in a story that otherwise flows smoothly along Mason’s course, from city to city, school to school, parent to parent. It occurs to me, though, that a thematic purpose also animates these recurring moments of dreadful anticipation. They remind you, often obliquely but always with a pang, that it’s no sure thing for anyone to reach 18.

Nor was it a sure thing that Linklater would finish Boyhood. Maybe the hints of fatality in his story are also subtle traces, left on the movie’s surface, of an anxiety about the extraordinary way the film was made.

Linklater shot Boyhood intermittently over a twelve-year span, from 2002 through 2013, using a core group of performers whose central member, Ellar Coltrane, started as a 6-year-old and grew up playing Mason. The method made production as precarious as life itself. Money could have dried up at any time, or a key actor dropped out. Even the availability of the materials became doubtful, with the rise of video during these years making it increasingly difficult for Linklater to keep going with 35-millimeter film.

As you watch Boyhood and gradually catch on to its trick of honesty, realizing that there have been no substitutions in the cast—the 12-year-old on-screen is the same kid who was 10 before, and 8—and noticing that the actors playing the parents haven’t been aged with makeup but really are older, you might conclude, as I did, that Boyhood is one of the most patient, modest acts of daredevilry ever achieved on film. The persistence that Linklater maintained behind the camera must have been heroic; but in keeping with the subject matter, he doesn’t make a big deal of it. He just carries you through the story, as naturally and amazingly as an exemplary boy such as Mason reaches manhood.

When I call Mason exemplary, I mean he’s occupied with the activities of a great many American boys of his era. He steeps himself in the Harry Potter world, clicks madly at video games, listens to Coldplay, eats burgers, gets bullied, sometimes chafes under his parents and teachers, and eventually learns to talk to girls. So much for his main business. As for discovering the larger world, he experiences its events as myopically and discontinuously as most kids do: through a father who campaigns for Obama, for instance, and a mother and stepfather who buy a foreclosed house.

Maybe that doesn’t sound like enough to hold you rapt through a very long movie; but then, the exemplary is only half the picture. The other half is the characters’ back-and-forth struggle, by turns deliberate and instinctive, to pull away from the norm or squeeze back in. It’s this continually developing movement, more than any feint toward violence, that generates the deeper, more satisfying tensions in Boyhood.

In Mason’s case, of course, it takes a few years for the idiosyncrasies to show up. He seems at first to be much like any other 6-year-old boy with an arrowhead collection and a drama queen of an older sister (Lorelei Linklater). He’s just a little more full-lipped, perhaps, and more apt to spend the whole day staring out the window. It’s up to the estranged parents to give Boyhood its initial jolts of particularity.

The custodial parent (Patricia Arquette), a bundle of bustling organization and ripe sensual promise, is in her mid-30s when the story begins and has a habit of scattering declarations of need like psychic bread crumbs from a Hansel-less Gretel. Heedless, or perhaps not, that her children overhear them all, she will round on her current boyfriend at one moment, ordering him to get out if he can’t respect her for putting the kids first, and start wailing in frustration the next moment that she’s gone from being a daughter to a mother, with no time in the middle to be herself. Seeking a way out of her spiritual woods, she decides early in the film to return to college and earn a degree; and so she packs everyone in the car and moves to Houston, demonstrating a strength of will that is instructive for the children, combined with an equally characteristic impulsiveness that will keep them off-balance through most of their childhood.

Houston is where the mother remarries, disastrously, for the first time. It’s also where she rejects the advances of the Pied Piper: her dashingly scruffy former husband (Ethan Hawke), a would-be musician, who returns from a period of wandering in Alaska to play catch-up dad. He collects the children in his thrilling muscle car (no seat belts!), fills them with bowling, junk food and the patented Hawke jive-talk, and returns them late to mom, who is too infuriated by his irresponsibility (or just the sight of his face) to abide his shyly suggestive smile. Here, too, are lessons for the watchful Mason: grown-ups can try to correct for their mistakes (even if they’re not very good at it), and they also can have some fun.

Just above the boy’s head, the mother is repeatedly trying and failing to live as a good housewife but gradually succeeding in a modest academic career; the father is repeatedly trying to keep up his tom-cat image but ultimately succeeding (to his self-amused surprise) in becoming a chaste and gainfully employed married man; and all the while, young Mason is developing into—who? Someone just like his parents, of course; and also someone as unforeseeable as the elongation of his childhood moon-face into an adolescent trowel. (The physical changes in Ellar Coltrane are almost a plot development in themselves, perhaps worthy of a spoiler alert.) As Mason grows to occupy more and more of the center of his own movie, he remains as quizzical and easily bruised as when he was small but also develops something stubbornly independent out of his dreaminess—an artistic temperament that dislikes confrontation (he will move 600 miles to avoid an ex-girlfriend) but can hold out against conventional expectations and compromise.

Thanks to the astonishing consistency of Linklater and the cast, and the faultless editing of Sandra Adair (a heroine in her own right), all this happens in Boyhood much as it would in reality, as a continual unfolding, without on-screen titles or chapter breaks. Neither is there anyone to explain what’s going on—at least, not from outside the frame. As in most of Linklater’s films, though, the characters have ideas, which they express in wonderfully alert yet unforced walking-and-talking scenes or sometimes, as when Mason drops in on one of his mother’s lectures, a formal setting. She happens to be teaching John Bowlby’s attachment theory on a day when Mason swings by, and so he hears, in a single moment, both her nutshell version of evolutionary psychology and a covert confession about his own family’s life: we survive through love.

Mason seems ready for love when we leave him. He’s just wandered off from his first day at college, still acting a little feckless but already (due to long experience) blending in with a new set of people, and is watching a sunset side by side with a potential girlfriend. With a wisdom that is either Ellar Coltrane’s, Linklater’s or a blend of the two—such is the seamlessness of the movie—he gazes ahead calmly, as if over the heads of the audience, and speaks the film’s last quasi-explanation of itself. They tell you to seize the moment, he says; but really, the moment seizes us.

Another spoiler? Well, that’s Boyhood. That’s life.

* * *

Steve James’s uncommonly moving portrait of the late film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert, Life Itself, is in a sense the story of a movie that didn’t get made. Originally, James was supposed to tail his subject, so he could provide an ongoing, present-day context for the memories and reflections drawn from Ebert’s autobiography of the same title. But in December 2012, just when shooting was to begin, Ebert suffered a fractured hip—the latest injury from the cancer that was eating him away—and had to enter a hospital. It was his seventh time in rehab, and (although no one yet knew it) he was four months from death.

He had already lost a lot: the ability to speak (though he continued to communicate with a computerized voice synthesizer); the strength to carry on with regular film reviewing (though he poured his energies instead into a wide-ranging and widely read blog); and large chunks of his body—notably his lower jaw, so that only a loose, toothless flap of skin was left dangling at the bottom of his face, giving the impression of a perpetual mask-of-comedy smile that you could see right through. But Ebert was not going to lose a collaboration with James, a fellow Chicagoan and the director of films after his own heart, such as Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters. He brought James into the hospital on repeated occasions, spoke with good cheer from his bed using the voice synthesizer, and at times grandly took over the direction, even ordering James to get a shot of himself in the mirror.

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After that, there were few other opportunities to film Ebert, none of them all that encouraging. Somehow, it didn’t matter. Taking what he had, James made a different movie, capturing interviews with the people closest to Ebert—above all his valiant wife Chaz—and assembling a vast collection of archival material, which he’s used, with great skill and honesty, to narrate the life.

It was outsize in many ways—the work, the rewards, the influence, the eating and drinking and egotism, the beneficence, the joy of the late union with Chaz—but contrary to what James might have intended at first, these biographical facts ultimately became the frame story. The main subject, glimpsed in the hospital, turned out to be Ebert’s grace. Life Itself is a film about living and dying well. It measures up to Ebert’s definition of cinema’s best possibility—”a machine that generates empathy”—and reveals, by the end, a man who became fully worthy of that ideal.

* * *

What does Jafar Panahi have in common with dogs? Both have been decreed invisible in Iran: the former banned from making films, the latter banned from walking on the streets. Out of this absurdity came the germ of Closed Curtain, the most recent film directed by Panahi in defiance of the ban. Made in collaboration with Kambozia Partovi, it gives new meaning to the old title My Life as a Dog.

In a vacation house by the sea, a middle-aged screenwriter (Partovi) holes up with his little dog, having taken the precaution of blocking the views from his windows with blackout curtains. At first, the writer seems to be working on a script about a man hiding with a dog. But then a young woman (Maryam Moghadam) barges in, to the writer’s alarm. She might be fleeing the morals police; or maybe she’s an informer for them, or a would-be suicide. All we know is that she comes and goes mysteriously and mocks the writer for thinking he can capture reality in these circumstances. Then Panahi himself shows up. He opens the curtains and takes the dust cloths off the posters for his movies, but he doesn’t seem to see either the writer or the woman. Maybe they’re both figments of his imagination: competing, fragmentary ideas for possible films, or about the possibility of going on with life.

Enigmatic, unresolved (perhaps deliberately) and strangely reminiscent of Bergman, Closed Curtain is not Panahi’s strongest work but manages, all the same, to make visible the effects of a tremendous condensed power. Take a look: this is an artist’s mind under maximum pressure. The film’s US theatrical run has begun in New York City, at Film Forum.

* * *

Lacking the 50,000 words, all of them iridescent and polymorphous, that would be needed to describe Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo, I will limit myself to calling the picture a fight to the death between whimsy and invention. The third film version of Boris Vian’s absurdist 1947 novel L’Écume des jours, the movie stars Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou as charmed, doomed lovers in a retro-futurist Paris filled with slapstick, Duke Ellington’s music and frantic Svankmajer-like animations. (Eels poke out of water faucets; doorbells, when they ring, turn into skittering insects.) I decided by the end that invention had somehow managed to pry whimsy’s death grip from its throat.

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