I have heard the sound of a civilization collapsing. It occurred at the end of the newly released, highly worshipped film Boyhood. It happened when the film ended and the lights came up, and a few people in the theater actually applauded.
They may have been the only ones left awake. To say that Boyhood is dull is to say that that anthrax can cause an adverse reaction in humans. This film, written and directed by Richard Linklater, is so totally aimless that it eventually enrages. It seems to go on for weeks and nothing really happens.
It also validates two claims of modern cultural critics. The first is that we are now living in a post-literate age. The second is that American boys are having a very difficult time becoming men. Boyhood validates those two claims in spades.
For too many filmmakers today there’s no need to impose a narrative on a film, or create suspense, or even have cinematography that’s all that interesting. More, they’ll give you millions of dollars and even awards. It’s why the great director William Friedkin, who made The Exorcist and The French Connection, called modern films “opium for the eyes.” You don’t have to worry about things like character, plot, motivation, or tone.
The big gimmick of Boyhood is that it was filmed for a few days each year over the course of twelve years. The main character goes from being a six year-old kid to a college freshman. His name is Mason and he’s played by Ellar Coltrane. Over the course of more than a decade, Mason deals with three bad fathers, a mother with very bad judgment, and a sister who’s just kind of there. Also: changing schools, moves, his first beer and girlfriend, evil jocks, and the other usual teenage rituals in postmodern America.
By the end of the film, Mason is mealy-mouthed, taking drugs from strangers, unable to articulate any philosophical ideas about the world, and sporting a scruffy beard. It’s I Became a Teenaged Hipster.
I suppose there should be something exciting in seeing Mason get older. But the thing is, Mason is not interesting. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the adults in his life are either the dissolute liberals like his biological parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke), or borderline crazy conservative law and order types. Between those extremes there is nothing to really engage Mason. At one point his mother tells him and his sister, “You two are adults,” but there’s no indication that that’s true. Mason hasn’t been in a war, joined a band, gone on the road, or been in a fight.
Every adolescent boy has a moment where they read a book, play a sport, play in a rock band, or meet a girl—or all four—and it transforms them. Mason reads Kurt Vonnegut’s great book Slaughterhouse Five. He meets and kisses a lovely girl. He has his first beer with a group of other teens. Yet for the endless hours that Boyhood unspooled, he seems like a bystander; nothing seems to excite him, make him want to charge ahead and change the world, or even fall in love with it. Martin Luther King, Jr. once famously said that if a man hasn’t found something he’s willing to die for, he’s not fit to live. At some point in the teen years, most men have found something they are willing to die for, be it a girl, your buds, or your country. Such turning points are the stuff of great, or even good, movies.
Not everything in the culture has to come down to a liberal and conservative thing, but there is a moment in Boyhood when you wish, if only for the sake of the story, that conservatives in the film were treated a little more fairly. It’s clear from what passes for a script that Linklater doesn’t like Republicans. There are terribly dated jokes about George Bush and Sarah Palin, jokes that seem doubly weak now that we’ve had six years of Barack Obama. Then Mason’s step-grandparents give him a Bible and a rifle for his birthday. The liberal Washington, D.C. audience I saw Boyhood with guffawed with smug laughter at the scene—what right thinking person would ever give a boy a rifle and the Good Book?
I longed for Mason to actually read the Bible, and not only because I’m a Christian. I just wanted the kid to come into contact with something, anything, that would turn him from a diffident and mumbling goth wallflower into a dynamic and engaging presence on screen. He could have been hit by the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, The Lord of the Flies, the Communist Manifesto, anything. Anything to jump-start this endless, enervating, boring film.
So why the critical hype for Boyhood? Reviewers are not just praising this film, they are praying to it. Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post is typical: “Filmed for a few days every year over 12 years, Boyhood breaks open a brand new genre: a fictional drama contoured and shaped by reality; a lightly scripted ensemble piece executed by both professional and non-professional actors; an experiment in time, narrative and cinematic practice that utterly transforms the boundaries of what film can look like and feel like and achieve.”
I think what we have here is an example of the Sideways syndrome. Sideways is a mediocre 2004 independent movie that became a hit when critics began gushing about it. A.O. Scott in the New York Times had the courage to write that critics loved Sideways because the main character is a schlubby wine snob and critic. In others words, critics saw, and praised, not Sideways, but seeing themselves in Sideways.
Something similar may be going on with Boyhood. Movie critics identify with Mason’s social awkwardness, the liberalism of his biological parents, even the gender-bending when Mason lets a girl paint his nails. Ann Hornaday: “By the time Mason, now a deep-voiced teenager, affects an earring, blue nail polish and an artistic interest in photography, viewers get the feeling that he’s dodged at least most of the misogynist conditioning of a boy’s life.”
Yes, and he’s also missed the passion, and conflict, and girl-crazy adrenaline-rushed joy of being a boy. In a film that is so long it seems to take place in real time, Mason goes from being a cute six-year-old to a clueless and barely literate college student with no spiritual depth and an inability to understand or articulate the world around him—just one more man-child to add to America’s supply. But then, he got off easy. At least he never saw that Bible again.