Wednesday, August 27, 2014

From him to eternity

There’s a scene in Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s remarkable feature debut in which the hero, a songwriter and musician reflecting on his life and work as he goes about his business on his 20,000th day (that makes him 54, for those accustomed to measuring in years), explains to a friend (or maybe a ghost), a popular character actor close to him in age, that, for a rock star, the idea of artistic self-reinvention isn’t an option. A rock star needs to appear as unchangeable as a god, the hero says, a cartoon you can sketch with a single line. The music itself can be fearsome in its scope and complexity (something that the hero articulates beautifully throughout the film), but the rock star needs to be simple, an icon, a conduit.

One of the things I loved about 20,000 Days on Earth is the way the film’s very existence belies its hero’s philosophy. With its highly creative approach to biography, this film, which we might erroneously call a music documentary, uses artifice to generate a domestic intimacy that starkly contrasts the hero’s carefully sculpted persona. That hero, of course, is Nick Cave (or Nick Cave offering us some version of Nick Cave), in my estimation one of the greatest living songwriters. (Some of those songs: ‘Tupelo,’ ‘The Mercy Seat,’ ‘From Her to Eternity,’ ‘Do You Love Me?,’ ‘Red Right Hand,’ ‘Straight To You,’ ‘Into My Arms,’ ‘Far From Me,’ ‘Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow,’ ‘Higgs-Boson Blues.’) Along with his band, the Bad Seeds, Cave is also of the most electrifying performers I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness. I’ve been going to Cave concerts all my adult life and he’s never been anything less than godlike, or devil-like, while his songs speak of love and death, fury and fear, desire and madness in ways that are strewn with details taken from lived experience. The best ones feel unmistakably mortal. That frisson between myth and reality is exhilarating and moving and supplies the current that runs through this film.

Once an apparent antisocial maniac with a fiendish double-focus on his career and drug habit (the latter somehow never overwhelming the former), Cave has aged into a studious craftsman with a life regimented by work and family. “At the end of the 20th century I ceased to be a human being,” he states in the film’s deadpan voice-over, by which he means that his every day is a routine: wake, write, eat, write, watch TV. We see Cave traverse Brighton, UK, where he now lives, by car, to go to his office to write; to go the studio to record; to visit his archives; to not-eat with his friend, band-mate and fellow Australian Warren Ellis; to attend sessions with a psychotherapist who looks like a caricature of Michel Foucault. As Cave drives old friends appear and then disappear in the passage seat: actor Ray Winstone, ex-Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld, and singer Kylie Minogue, who once did a duet with Cave (‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’) that briefly inched him and the Seeds into the mainstream. Cave converses candidly with these apparitions—and he often smiles! He wears a suit, resembling a sort of gangster, though with sunglasses on he can look like an emaciated Neil Diamond. He eats pizza and watches Scarface with his boys. He tells an amazing story about sharing a bill with Nina Simone, whose used chewing gum Ellis still owns. He lays down tracks for his most recent record, the hauntingly stripped-down, smoke-like-spooky Push the Sky Away.

Some of this will hold a special appeal for those of us who’ve long been under the spell of Cave and the Seeds, but 20,000 Days on Earth will engage any viewer with an interest in what it means to be an artist with enduring ambitions and a long career. Cave speaks eloquently and humbly about collaboration, memory, fame, formative experience, the essential not-knowingness of creativity, geography-as-destiny, how experience is transformed into art, how things we can’t believe in in our everyday lives become integral to our storytelling. Perhaps out of a desire to match the drama of a great Cave tune, Forsyth and Pollard end the film on a somewhat corny note, but I find this forgivable, because in getting there they’ve done something few films do: they get at truths by telling the right lies, and they peer behind the artist’s mask to examine the lines in his face, without ever losing sight of the fact that neither mask nor face exists without the other’s secret adherence.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Two kinds of love

We meet Robert (John Cassavetes) first, a novelist living in a spacious Hollywood Hills manor. He has many women around him, most of whom we won’t come to know, all of whom were pulled into Robert’s orbit by way of his stated determination to be granted women’s secrets, though whether this mission is for the sake of his art, a pick-up line, or both, is hazy. He’s middle-aged going on dead, divorced and estranged from his children, a hard-living, alternately charming and terrifying figure closing in on the final stages of some slow collapse. 

Sarah (Gena Rowlands) is Robert’s sunnier, manic counterpart, a woman resisting divorce from a man who, like her daughter, cannot endure her aggressive affections. Sarah doesn’t believe that love ebbs, ends or gets stopped up—love, once born, flows helplessly. Her psychiatrist tells her to get laid, maybe go on a trip; she does both, but really just wants to get back to the people who don’t want her. More than halfway into Love Streams (1984), Sarah and her copious luggage wind up at Robert’s, and their reunion is wonderfully moving. At some point we realize that Robert and Sarah are brother and sister, which feels odd, even disconcerting, since we might already know that Cassavetes and Rowlands were not only one of the movies’ great director-actress pairings, but also husband and wife. Jon Voigt was to play Robert, and when he dropped out at the last minute Cassavetes, already very ill from cirrhosis of the liver, stepped in. He’s falling apart and absolutely brilliant, on par with Rowlands, which is a huge compliment. 

Love Steams was Cassavetes penultimate and last truly personal work—he died in 1989. Now available in a gorgeously transferred, generously supplemented DVD/BD package from Criterion, the film is a masterpiece of finely managed chaos; hilarious, seemingly haphazard, yet fascinatingly structured, it feels more alive with love and loneliness and mystery than any three-hundred other films. Among the extras are Michael Ventura’s making-of documentary I’m Almost Not Crazy and interviews with producer/cinematographer Al Ruban and actors Seymour Cassel and Diahnne Abbott, all of which offer tremendous insight into Cassavetes’ process. There’s also a very good visual essay on Rowlands by critic Sheila O’Malley. 

Meticulously stylized and colour-coordinated, Pedro Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) would seem about as far from Cassavetes’ rough and tumble maundering as can be, yet these films share a remarkably similar theme: once touched by love, crazy people will do anything to be together. Upon his release from a psychiatric hospital, Ricki (Antonio Banderas) immediately seeks out Marina (Victoria Abril), a recovering addict and actress transitioning from porn to B-movies. Ricki escaped the hospital and had fleeting sex with Marina some years back. She doesn’t remember it, but it changed his life. Ricki was cured by his love for Marina, or rather, by his obsession. Or not cured exactly, but saved. Or not saved but liberated. And so he breaks into her home, knocks her unconscious and sequesters her until she realizes that they’re meant to be together. And, in a perverse twist that only Almodóvar could conceive of, much less pull off, she does realize it. 

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is about half-screwball comedy and half-post-Hitchcockian romance. It careens between masterfully crafted artifice and moments of arresting intimacy. Banderas and Abril exude a frenetic chemistry and an innate understanding of the essential absurdity and dictatorial nature of high desire. The film was enormously controversial and also happens to be one of Almodóvar’s masterpieces. It too is newly available from Criterion. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

The plots thicken

From the reunited comrades straining to reconnect in the wilderness of Old Joy to the young woman with a dog and a broken-down car trying to move north in search of work in Wendy and Lucy to the desperate homesteaders lost in the unsettled West of Meeks’ Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt’s characters are restless travelers the lot, folks without homes in any consoling sense, every one an outsider of some sort, marginalized by economics, geography, gender, ideology, searching for a place to call their own in an unfriendly United States. Reichardt herself seems a rogue wanderer in American movies, incorporating elements of familiar genres or styles (the western, the road movie, neo-realism) while largely refraining from generic tropes or token resolution, working with exceedingly limited resources along the industry’s peripheries, even when employing some of its famous actors. Collaborating for over a decade now with writer Jonathan Raymond, she’s favoured small stories in which drama is restrained and political commentary conveyed solely through suggestion.

The trio of radical environmentalists conspiring to sabotage a hydroelectric dam in Night Moves are in certain respects direct descendants of Reichardt’s past protagonists, yet they inhabit a narrative in which the political is now thrust right to the foreground, and Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) are far more aggressive than their predecessors, steering, or at least attempting to steer the story, rather than letting the story steer them—they are, after all, activists. If you’ve seen Reichardt’s films you probably have some suspicions regarding which direction her own politics lean toward, yet Night Moves is anything but romantic about its characters Leftist convictions. The chilling final act, which resembles a Kieslowski-esque tale of moral consequence, finds self-preservation trumping natural preservation.

Though he’s young, Josh’s idealism seemed wilted to begin with, and Eisenberg is an iceberg, keeping Josh’s inner world sealed within an emotional fortress whose formation may have more to do with frustrations over personal powerlessness than frustrations over the powerlessness of his fellow man or animal. We might start out on Josh’s side, but by the end we don’t want to be anywhere near him or his colleagues, whose myopia, not to mention sexism, belies their ostensible progressiveness.

So Night Moves is no manifesto. It is not about heroism or even good intentions. It is very much about plots, in both senses: the story tracks the hatching of a plot with procedural precision, and the film is by far the most plotted of all Reichardt’s works. Which might make it more accessible to a broader audience and, perhaps, less appealing to longtime admirers of her characteristically austere modus operandi. I’m not entirely sold on the climax, and I don’t know that Reichardt proves herself a master of fight scenes, but I think Night Moves is a smart move for her as an artist, challenging her comfort zone—and ours. There is no one to root for, other the salmon, the forests and the farmers. There’s a pervading feeling of helplessness and entrapment, and it’s earned. Reichardt is one of the finest, most resourceful directors working anywhere. She seems to me incapable of betraying the integrity of her beliefs, and regardless of what tack she takes or how much she bends to genre dictates, she’s not about to let us enjoy a clean getaway.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Walking for the cure

The question of purpose hangs over Tracks, an adaptation of Robyn Davidson’s eponymous book, which chronicles the author’s 1977 National Geographic-sponsored trek across 1,700 miles of Australian desert with four camels and a pooch. Davidson seems above all to desire solitude and escape from a so-called civilization corrupted by consumerism, sexism, racism and violence. We come to understand Davidson is also reckoning with childhood trauma. When asked point blank why she’s undertaking such a daunting, if not downright absurd journey, she claims that she wants to prove that any ordinary person can do what she’s doing. Yet it’s clear that Davidson is anything but ordinary. Though better prepared for her expedition than Timothy Treadwell (the subject of Werner Herzog’s excellent Grizzly Man) or Chris McCandless (the subject of Jon Krakauer’s masterful book Into the Wild and Sean Penn’s woefully naïve cinematic adaptation of the same name), Davidson comes to realize that there finally is no way to prepare for something so taxing on both body and psyche. What Tracks implies is that the true purpose of such a journey can only be revealed by doing it.

Similarly, you need to see Tracks to get a deeper sense of what it’s really about, and why it’s really quite good. Written by Marion Nelson and directed by John Curran (a curious director whose credits include The Painted Veil and Stone), the film’s flaws are exposed from the outset: a needless voice-over that feels like an emotional buffer rather than a way of heightening our connection to Davidson; and over-explanatory honey-hued flashbacks to childhood idyll. Davidson’s demands the evocation of loneliness and a sense of time’s passage—it requires an investment of time and attention. So the fact that the second half of Tracks, which clocks in at a reasonable 110 minutes, is considerably stronger than the first strikes me as legitimate.

Some highlights: Mandy Walker’s stunning cinematography eschews corny aerial splendour in favour of low-level vistas of heat-vapour and impossible expanse that feels more first-person than the alternative. The recurring appearance of Rick Smolan (a nicely measured performance from Adam Driver), the American photographer whose documentation of Davidson’s journey clearly played an enormous role in the formation of Tracks’ aesthetics, initially seems like a token love interest but becomes something far more interesting: a key to better understanding Davidson’s issues with intimacy and communication and the ways in which even well-intentioned people can violate the cultural dictates of aboriginal people. Speaking of which: Mr. Eddie, the Aboriginal elder played by Rolley Mintuma who serves as guide for part of Davidson’s journey, is easily the most charismatic and enigmatic figure in Tracks.

But I’m saving the best for last. Tracks has been in development for decades, but I’m so happy it took this long to get made for one simple reason: Mia Wasikowska, the young Australian actress who seems to turn up in every other interesting movie I’ve seen of late. Her remarkable work as Davidson feels immersive, a performance devoid of anything ingratiating or mawkish, a starring role without a single moment of winky movie star self-awareness. Davidson is a genuine adventurer, someone willing to do something without certainty of where it will lead, and Wasikowska does right by her subject by approaching the role with the same sense of surrender and attention. She never seems to be playing the end. Instead, she merely takes one step at a time.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

My sister's hand in mine

Petra Costa was born in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Her mother always told her she could do anything she wanted, except acting, and that she could live anywhere she wanted, except New York. Costa began acting at fifteen. She studied anthropology and theatre at New York’s Columbia University. Elena, Costa’s heartbreaking and gorgeous feature debut, begins with woozy nocturnal views of New York. Over these images we hear Costa’s voice. “Elena,” she says, “I had a dream of you last night…” In this dream Elena, Costa’s sister, is atop a wall, tangled in electrical wires. But soon the one being dreamed of becomes confused with the dreamer. It is the dreamer who is now atop the wall. She touches the wires, receives a shock, falls, and dies.

This is the story of two women, one an elusive ghost, the other trying to find this ghost, to know her—and, for a long time, very much in danger of becoming her. (Make that three women: Costa’s mother also plays a pivotal role in the lives of both Elena and Petra, and in the narrative conveyed in this film.) Elena is a lyrical memoir of devastating loss and fortifying self-knowledge. Elena was Costa’s big sister, already entering her early teens when Costa was born. Elena wanted to act and sing, to live only for art, but also to go beyond the theatre and break into movies. She moved to New York to realize this. But Elena’s promise was thwarted by her own paralyzing despair and unreasonable expectations and prescription drugs. Petra, too, would grow up to act, sing, make art, go to New York, all the while struggling not to succumb to precisely the same demons that consumed her sister.

Elena received her first camcorder at 13 and, out of her desire to hone her creativity, and out of her perfectly healthy, even endearing adolescent vanity, immediately set about creating a trove of home movies—movies that, unbeknownst to her, would, along with other remarkable archival materials, become the foundation of this film haunted by her and named in her memory. Costa weaves together all this found footage with her own beguiling, at times astonishing images of water and drifting female bodies resembling Ophelia multiplied; of herself looking lost in a vast city; of interviews with those closest to Elena; and with the poignant use of the Mamas and the Papas’ ‘Dedicated to the One I Love.’ Occasionally these sequences overreach in their desire to attain poetics and meaningful gesture, but what could be better to desire? Elena is drenched in much sadness. It’s an abyss of grief and terror alleviated only by mere hints at self-realization (the biggest of those hints being the very existence of this film), but it also flows with tremendous beauty—beauty and fluidity are Costa’s key sources of consolation. The film is so intrinsically personal that it’s difficult to imagine what Costa might do next, but I can’t wait to find out.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The character assassination of Jesse Eisenberg by the coward Jesse Eisenberg

Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is rarely recognized and barely noticed. Simon says, “You’re in my place” to a guy on the subway early in Richard Ayoade’s The Double—a film which might as well take place entirely within a subway system, so stale and sunless is its meticulously constructed world—and you get to feeling that Simon probably says this several times a day. There is no place for Simon, but every day he goes to work, where his boss (Wallace Shawn) doesn’t appreciate him; to the diner, where the waitress doesn’t listen to him and anyway doesn't have anything he wants; to his miserable little room in a monolithic apartment block in some industrial wasteland, where he watches TV or uses binoculars to spy on a pretty girl (Mia Wasikowska) who, you guessed it, pays him no attention. Simon’s mom doesn’t even recognize him when he appears in a televised advert for “the Colonel,” the Big Brotherly figure who rules the company Simon works for, and maybe everything else in the insipid nightmare world Simon inhabits—a world that will soon be inhabited by James Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), Simon’s exact duplicate, except that he’s an asshole and everyone loves him. 

Like Jake Gyllenhall’s character in Enemy, you might say that Simon almost needs a doppelgänger because as it is he’s barely a person. Unlike Gyllenhall, who is remarkably nuanced in Enemy—which you might think of as The Double’s smarter, more genuinely disquieting twin—Eisenberg conveys that lack of selfhood mainly through mincing and sundry annoying tics that affect ineffectuality. The arrival of his doppelgänger should come as a relief, but the truth is that James is simply arrogant, bullying and nearly as dull. The notion that he’s irresistible to women is a reminder that we are indeed in the realm of fantasy. But it isn't just a way with the ladies that gives James a one-up on Simon; James joins Simon’s company, steals Simon’s ideas and curries favour with the boss. He’s getting everything Simon wanted. Will Simon snap and try to take it from him?

If any of this seems familiar, you don’t know the half of it. The Double is based on Dostoyevski’s eponymous novella, but the cinematic forebears for its every detail of production design are myriad. Which is to say that The Double, with its labyrinthine Kafkaesque workplace, its noisy plumbing, bad wiring and semi-catatonic elderlies, is based on Brazil and Eraserhead as much as it is on The Double. Submarine, Ayoade’s first feature, leaned heavily on Wes Anderson and the French New Wave, so it’s no surprise that his second feature is brazen about its sources of inspiration. It’s just that the brazenness is stifling rather than freeing. Cinephiles could make a game of spotting quotations from other films, the company ball with a band on loan from Aki Kaurismäki or the many references to The Tenant. I find The Double as a whole admirable, airless and stiff, well-crafted, pedantic and mannered, eager to display its lovingly integrated citations. Life has been almost entirely sucked out of this deft pastiche, which, to be sure, is in keeping with its spin on the old story. So I won’t claim that The Double doesn’t succeed, only that what it succeeds at may not be something that’s either fun or profound.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

This one goes to 11

Nimbly traversing the “fine line between stupid and clever,” This is Spinal Tap (1984) rewards multiple viewings because its humour is rarely played for big laughs. One of the reasons I loved Spinal Tap as a music-obsessed teenager was because this faux-documentary about a faux-rock band barely registered as satire—it may as well have been a real movie about a real band. Mirroring the po-faced reverence and hagiographic silliness of so much rock journalism, the film simultaneously satisfies the aficionado and the casual viewer by merely pushing the genre’s absurdities to 11. You don’t need to be a nerd to get the jokes, but it helps. Metro Cinema is bringing back this enduring cult classic for a trio of screenings this month. 

This was the very curious directorial debut of Rob Reiner, known mainly to folks at the time as Meathead from TV’s All in the Family. He would eventually prove to be far from an adventurous filmmaker (see And So It Goes for the most recent evidence), with Spinal Tap turning out to be an anomaly. (Indeed, rightly or wrongly, actor/writer Christopher Guest would eventually be considered the film’s true auteur, applying the same semi-improvised strategies to numerous subsequent so-called mockumentaries on which he’s credited as director.) But Reiner’s prosaic framing and cutting, like his performance in the film, fit the material beautifully. For those who’ve yet to see Spinal Tap, I guess I’d better describe that material.

The film follows the eponymous British quintet on tour in the U.S. to promote their latest LP, Smell the Glove. The core members—David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Guest) and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer, hilarious to merely look at)—besides having the most awesome rock names ever, have been together 20 years at this point and undergone several fairly radical changes in style, though the hits played on stage—from the ridiculously cumbersome riffing of ‘Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight’ to the scatological agricultural metaphors of ‘Sex Farm’ to the mighty mud flap anthem ‘Big Bottom’—all fit fairly neatly into the 1970s cock rock idiom. As does the misogyny that typifies their album art. Problems with distribution will lead them to understand “what’s wrong with being sexy,” though the bromance/anti-Yoko triumph of the film’s conclusion upholds the paradigm that the world of all-male rock bands in tour is no place for women. 

Anyway, Billy Crystal shows up as a talking mime and the tour is largely a disaster, with numerous cancellations, signings that no one comes to and ill-advised gigs at air bases and amusement parks as the warm-up act for a puppet show, but the boys more or less soldier on, perhaps because they can’t possibly be qualified to do anything else. Except, of course, comedy. You can’t write lines much funnier than “You can’t really dust for vomit,” and the cutaway to Nigel’s solo in which he rubs a violin against his guitar while squinting and doing air-cunnilingus remains obscenely funny to me, even if numerous bands I revere have subsequently done much more ludicrous things to their instruments. Spinal Tap Forever.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Slipping into ruin

We see Dwight Evans (Macon Blair), though we don’t yet know his name, entering a stranger’s house to bathe, foraging for food, living out of rusted Pontiac Bonneville parked near a Virginia beach, a beardy ghost who resembles Iron & Wine’s Samuel Beam were Beam a homeless man barely able to speak much less sing. We sense that things haven’t always been like this for Dwight. He has a friend in a local cop, and seems to have retained his wits, though a comical episode in which he steals a handgun before realizing that he cannot use it without breaking an apparently unbreakable lock on its trigger might make us question his IQ. All of this transpires in the first third of Blue Ruin, which is a transfixing, nearly exhilarating display of spare, eloquent, quietly withholding cinema. There is almost no dialogue in the first 20 minutes—and there is a growing sense of disappointment when people begin to speak.

Writer/director/cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier is clearly very smart and very skilled when it comes to atmosphere and place, and the evocation of ruin generally, but by the time we enter the second half of Blue Ruin those atmospherics are overwhelmed by plot, and that plot is very familiar and more than a little tiresome. Turns out we’re watching yet another American vigilante revenge film, this one about a tit-for-tat family feud: Dwight’s parents were murdered and, harmless as he initially seems, he’s out for blood. Because the style is so strong, the craft so expert, and the story and most of the supporting characters so unimaginative, Blue Ruin feels like a calling card, a way of announcing a promising new filmmaker whose gifts simply need resources and a great script to soar, though this is in fact Saulnier’s second feature, following 2007’s Murder Party, which I haven’t seen. (Saulnier’s also shot some equally evocative films for other directors, like Matthew Porterfield’s I Used to be Darker.) I really look forward to Saulnier’s next film, and certainly recommend this one if it sounds at all up your alley, but I hope he can find a story truly worthy of his filmmaking.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"...all these little intimate moments, nothing more than that...": Richard Linklater on Boyhood

Dear readers,
Once again it is incumbent upon me to do some figurative flagellation for my neglect to post anything in this phantom country for over a month, though the truth is that ol' JB has been recovering from an accident and the blog had to fall in priority below stuff like, you know, health. 
But hey! Who doesn't want to read a Richard Linklater interview? Will that make up a little? Will that appease those of you who so graciously read this blog with whatever degree of regularity? Huh? Huh? Anyway, more to come real sooooon...

Boyhood’s visual refrain are its protagonist’s wide open eyes, taking in the world, first at six, then at seven, eight and nine, all the way to that age when boyhood is shed for manhood. Mason ages 12 years over the course of Richard Linklater’s truly extraordinary film about ordinary things—trying to make arrowheads by putting rocks in a pencil sharpener, going camping with your father, poring over lingerie catalogues, catching sight of awful images from Fallujah on TV in a bowling alley, watching your smart mother make seemingly inexplicably poor choices in men—as does actor Ellar Coltrane, who began making Boyhood with Linklater in the summer of 2002, when he was only six.

Overwhelmingly moving and brimming with perfectly realized moments of childhood discovery, there has never been anything quite like Boyhood before. Its time-lapse effect has its precedents in, say, Michel Apted’s Up series, Truffaut’s Antoine Doniel films, and Linklater’s own Before trilogy, but the peculiar vertigo you feel in watching characters age 12 years in 164 minutes feels like a watershed moment in movies. And Linklater’s decision to refrain from melodrama feels like the right way to try out this gambit. We can best feel time’s passage by letting it pass without imposing cataclysm or wilds fortune upon it.

Coltrane is joined onscreen by Lorelei Linklater (the writer/director’s daughter) as his sister, Patricia Arquette as his mother, who goes back to school and finds a new career while being a single mother, and Ethan Hawke as his dad, already out of the picture by the time the film begins, though he shows up more and more as time passes, first in a GTO, later in a minivan. The family lives in Texas, and a memorable interlude has Mason receive a Bible and a shotgun for his 15th birthday, his “redneck bar mitzvah,” as Linklater puts it. Songs by Cat Power, Wilco, Flaming Lips and Yo La Tengo help place us in time, as Mason/Coltrane’s voice changes, face changes, body grows, and ideas gradually get articulated. “I just thought there would be more,” Arquette says near the film’s end, watching her son prepare to leave her with an empty nest. Those words are heartrending and ring true, yet for the viewer, it’s hard not to think, “But there was so much!”

Richard Linklater

I spoke with Linklater a few weeks back. There is indeed so much that can be said about Boyhood, but I’ll cut this short and let the below conversation cover some of that.

JB: Is this a project you would have undertaken were you yourself not a parent?

Richard Linklater: Never. I wouldn’t have had the idea. When I did I’d been a parent about six years. Which really thrusts you into the mind-set of that developing kid, and which can’t help but dredge up memories of your own childhood. It wouldn’t have felt worthy of exploration had I not been experiencing it, I think.

JB: Whatever parenting skills you’d developed by that point must have came into play not only when directing your own daughter, but also when directing your lead actor.

RL: Absolutely. Everybody knows the old saying in film about not working with kids or animals, but I actually found I was good at it. I like working with kids. I went from the first shoot on Boyhood directly to working on School of Rock. That’s how confident I was. That film was nothing but a bunch of nine- and ten-year-olds.

JB: Parents always talk about how time flies when you’re watching kids grow. One of the things that makes Boyhood so moving is that you’re watching 12 years of a boy’s life fly past in a little over two-and-a-half hours. We feel swept up in time’s passage in such a visceral, overwhelming way.

RL: Yeah, there’s something there about the fleeting nature of our lives. I think you can feel that even if you’re not a parent. Everyone was a kid once. Everyone has parents and siblings and schools. We’re so similar in our maturation process worldwide—more similar than we are different. That’s just what I was hoping to get at with this movie and its particular process. Time flies and we do all get a year older.

JB: Is there anything that might have happened to Coltrane that would have thrown you for a loop? I mean, if he became a juvenile delinquent, or something horrible, like he lost an arm?

RL: [Laughs] I think I would have just kinda gone with it. I never viewed him as a risk. Technically it’s a little insane to make a movie like this, but I had some faith that things would work out. It’s just a way to approach life. You got to assume the best and work hard and hope you get lucky. This whole film involves collaborating with an unknown future. Which is the deal we all make in our lives. So I just tried to feel ready to deal with not only my four cast-members, who are growing up and aging, but also the world in general.

JB: I know that some of Boyhood is autobiographical for you, and I was thinking that, if you were to write a book based on your childhood, or make a period film, like Dazed and Confused, you can control most every aspect of the story and its degree of fidelity to your life, whereas making a film like this one you’re obligated to reflect whatever’s going on around you. That feels like something new to me: it’s fiction, it’s also based in history, yet it’s inherently responding to things happening in the present, like documentary.

RL: It’s a pretty simple idea and people keep asking me why no one’s ever done it. It may have something to do with film people being control freaks. With this MO you have to relinquish certain levels of control and go with the flow. For me, that was exciting! I didn’t know what was coming in the future but I was committed to just adapting. Like life. There was always a life corollary behind our decisions. 12 years is a long time. But I’ve committed my life to film, so to commit 12 years to one project isn’t that crazy.     

JB: One of my favourite scenes in Boyhood is when Hawke is coaching the kids in conversation—and they coach him right back, reminding him that conversation should happen naturally. As I watched this scene it occurred to me that I was watching a lesson in acting in a Richard Linklater movie. Something I like about your films is how people have fluid, easy conversations about big ideas. Ethan Hawke seems particularly deft at capturing that element of your work.

RL: I remember 20 years ago, when I was casting for Before Sunrise, thinking that what I really needed was just the most verbally dextrous and really sharp actor around for that role. That was Ethan. 100%.

JB: Boyhood is filled with things that only happen in a person’s life once. I wouldn’t assume that you’re ever going to do anything quite like this again, so, given that you spent 12 years working on this, do you feel bereft now? I can imagine it might be hard to let go.

RL: I don't know that it’s bereft exactly. On one hand I come away feeling elated that it worked as I’d hoped. On the other, honestly, I just haven’t really processed it yet. It’s out, people are seeing it, but I don’t know that I’m fully cognizant of its being over. With other films there’s been a pattern to help me predict how I’m going to feel. But everything about Boyhood has been unpredictable. Everything about this film was always different.

JB: I think about the moment when Patricia Arquette is driving the kids away from their home forever and she says, “Don’t look back.” That sounds like a crucial survival technique for her. But as an artist you don’t really have that option. It’s hard to tell stories, much less promote those stories, without looking back on your own experience.

RL: Tell me about it. You can’t help it. Your mind is always going forward or back. You have to talk it out lots. But yeah, “Don’t look back” is a way of getting through sometimes, filing something away like it never happened.

JB: I know people keep asking you what would have happened had Ellar given up at some point in the project, but what about you? Did you ever want to give up?

RL: I never stopped feeling lucky just to have the opportunity to make this film at all. I had waves of doubt maybe at the start. We were accumulating all these little intimate moments, nothing more than that, and I did wonder, “Will this be enough? Will it be compelling?” I bet the farm on this idea that the accumulation of such moments over time could be everything. But one or two years in I knew it would work the way I wanted it to. If you can’t draw people in with such moments of universal truth, what can you draw them in with?