David Lowery is a filmmaker from Texas. His work as a director has been shown at Sundance, SXSW and the Cannes Film Festival, and includes Pioneer, St. Nick and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. As an editor, he has cut such films as Bad Fever, Sun Don’t Shine and Upstream Color, for which he received an Independent Spirit Nomination. As of this writing he is working on a movie about a dragon.
“It’s always right now,” the young protagonist of Boyhood says in the final moments of the film, as his ‘shroom-addled eyes open to one of those gentle profundities that frequently mark Richard Linklater’s movies.
I’m thinking about that right now right now, as I look at the clock and wonder if I can finish writing this piece before I board a plane to another continent. I’m heading out to scout locations for my next film; I didn’t think I’d be spending the last few hours before departure writing about Boyhood, but the opportunity arose and I jumped at it because I love this film, and I love Linklater. I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately, as the Boyhood press machine gears up at the same time that I’ve been putting the wheels in motion on this new picture of mine. Linklater’s always had this remarkable ability – in his movies, in his commentary tracks and interviews, and the few times I’ve spoken to him in person – to put life and art into perspective in the most wonderfully soothing fashion. In fact, I was listening to his commentary track on the Criterion edition of Dazed and Confused just the other day; if you listen to what he’s saying, it would seem that the production was a real nightmare of studio interference and creative battles; but if you listen to how he says it, it all seems OK. He got through it, he moved on, the past is the past, the movie endures. It’s a helpful thing to think about when the going gets tough; what better filmmaker to ruminate on as I get ready to jump into the studio world myself?
So I sat down to put my thoughts about Boyhood in order and quite quickly recalled that the first thing I thought after seeing the film a few weeks ago was that it’s not really possible to review it. Many have, of course, and done so quite well, but it seemed immediately clear to me upon that first viewing that any cogent argument for or against this film would be dwarfed from the outset by its sheer accomplishment. This isn’t an easy way out, mind you; I love good criticism, but shoot, it’s sort of refreshing when a filmmaker earns the right to be critic-proof.
Let me digress for a moment. Over the past two paragraphs, my “right now” has shifted from the table in the kitchen to the backseat of an automobile en route to the airport. I wasn’t planning on bringing contemporaneous circumstance into this piece, but I’m running out of time and it’s helping me grease the wheels. Now permit me to jump back to that closing line, a version of which, if I recall correctly, was going to be the film’s title at one point. Always Now, I think. It’s the sort of pop-zen realization which comes out sounding not corny or overtly earnest but clear and simple and definitive, as well as indicative of what Linklater’s always been after in his movies, ever since his first Super 8mm feature, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow By Reading Books (which was a guiding light for my first feature, St. Nick). His movies are all about reconciling oneself with the moment. He has a tendency to slip this thesis statement directly into his work; I was watching Me and Orson Welles last week and, right there in the middle of the film, the following conversation takes place.
“What happens?” Zac Efron’s character asks, in regards to a short story Zoe Kazan has written.
“What do you mean, ‘what happens?’” she replies. “Nothing happens. Does something have to happen? No, the whole story is, this girl goes to the museum, feeling blue, and she thinks about time and eternity, and then she feels a little better. There’s no action in it, if that’s what you’re looking for. Why does everything have to have a plot? All that melodramatic garbage?”
There he is, poking a gentle bit of fun at his oeuvre, and also paving the way for his magnum opus, which as of this writing is setting records in art house theaters across America. Regardless of however many great films Linklater has made or how many he has left, Boyhood will likely become the defining statement of his career. How could he top it? It’s such a grand gesture! Even if he replicated the experiment, followed the same boy for another 12 or even 24 years, there’s nothing like the first time (which Linklater knows, and which is why he avoided making Boyhood the litany of firsts that everyone might have expected, and in doing so he manages to avoid all of that aforementioned melodramatic garbage, leaving it to writers like myself to dredge up the sentiment of their past or present in their attempts to encapsulate just what it is he’s done). I was talking to someone the other day who suggested that if Linklater had made exactly the same film with different actors playing the characters at their varying ages, it wouldn’t have been all that good of a movie. This is true. It’s also a moot point, because Linklater wouldn’t have made that film. The movie he has made is one that by design gets out of its own way. He knows that its raison d’être, that steady march, is what needs to take precedence. There is nothing he needs to do as a filmmaker to impress us, or manipulate us or move us; Old Father Time will do all the heavy lifting.
For the record, I’m on the airplane now, and the use of approved electronic devices is once again permitted. While we were taxiing and taking off, I was reading Monsieur Proust, a wonderful memoir by Céleste Albaret, who served as the author’s housekeeper and confidant during the eight years of seclusion in which he wrote In Search of Lost Time. At the beginning of Chapter 13 she writes:
It was when he talked to me about his childhood and youth that I began to realize he lived only in and for the dream world of his memory. The image he retained of those two periods of his life was at once affectionate and full of wonder but without real regret or nostalgia, because to him to evoke them meant to still be living them.
When it was first announced that the title of Linklater’s 12-year project was Boyhood, this is exactly what I thought it was going to be; a luxuriation in the past, in memory, fleeting and florid. That’s what I’d have done with the premise, I’m sure. The Boyhood in my head looked a little bit like the portrait of childhood in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. In fact, when I saw that film and its follow-up, To The Wonder, I suspected that Malick was in the process of creating a cinematic equivalent of Proust’s masterwork; a deep dive into the dream world of his own memory, spread across multiple volumes, fast and free with fact but emotionally true every step of the way. So many friends who’d grown up with brothers reported back to me my own opinion of The Tree of Life, which was that I had never seen my own childhood captured on screen quite so well.
And so it was surprisingly refreshing to discover that this isn’t what Boyhood is in the slightest. It’s not the movie I would have made, which makes me love it even more. It is not an elegy. There’s no nostalgia present, other than what we might bring to it. The film possesses exactly those same blinders that keep us from dwelling too much on what’s always slipping through our fingers, especially in childhood, when the future is an infinite runway and the only perspective we might manage on rare wise days is that the present can be pretty awesome too. In many ways, Always Now is a more accurate title for the film that Linklater has made – except that the film is too big for it, which is why Boyhood is ultimately perfect. Whatever expectations that title conjures, the simple audacity of the film itself will weather them.
I wonder if Linklater will look back on the film with all the nostalgia that he’s kept out of it. I can’t imagine he wouldn’t, but I also suspect he knows how to handle it. He’ll leave it to us to chart the notable manner in which his filmmaking evolves throughout the film, to find the little bits of correspondence between this picture and whatever else he was making at the time, to make playlists of of the soundtrack and wince at memories of our own high school graduation photos. He’ll move on; the movie will endure, and if it does so in a different fashion than Dazed and Confused or the Before trilogy, well, he surely knew what he was getting into. I can’t wait to see how he follows it up – which brings me to the future, where my plane has just landed. This is one of those trips where you jump forward in time; when I return in ten days I’ll travel a little bit into the past. Considering my tendency to romanticize something as trivial as a paradox of international datelines, I think it’ll be helpful to keep Boyhood in mind; to be reminded of how effective it can be to simply be present.