About two boys

Remember that film that followed a boy growing up in an economically precarious environment, that took us from the boy’s childhood through adolescence to early adulthood? The film about a boy whose father was (largely) absent and whose mother struggled with her situation, with getting older and feeling that she hadn’t done a good job of being a parent? That was told in relatively plot-free, naturalistic episodes that mostly began and ended in medias res? The film that most critics loved and that was nominated for most major awards?

In your mind, what colour was that boy?

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Mad about the boy

Most of what I’ve read about Richard Linklater’s Boyhood has been complimentary to the point of gushing. Recently, though, I read a forum post that compared the film to a dancing bear – it’s not such much what it does than the sheer fact that it does what it does that makes it remarkable. The post concluded that people should go and see Boyhood, but it still came across as somewhere between condescending and dismissive. Go and see the dancing bear, because you won’t see another one any time soon!

Growing up in front of our eyes

Yet, while I don’t want to be dismissive of a film that obviously resonates with many people, part of me sees what the poster was saying. Boyhood is a good film by a talented filmmaker – though one that is rather hit-and-miss for me – but take away its most defining feature, and what remains? The movie’s biggest asset is that it was filmed over more than ten years using the same actors, so we literally see the people on screen growing up before our eyes. Gone is that often distracting effect of a shift in time being indicated by a change in actors who, at best, look kinda similar to their younger or older selves. Gone is that even more embarrassing effect of changing age being indicated by uneven makeup, clothes and wigs or bald caps, which is convincing one out of 99 times and laughable and sad the rest of the time.

It’s not altogether fair to ask what is left of a film if you take away its defining feature – but few films have one single defining feature. Boyhood is well crafted and serviceable throughout, with some elements standing out (for a film that’s as long as this one, it flows remarkably well) and others falling short (some actors who may or may not be related to the director may not always be altogether convincing in their parts). It’s enjoyable, engaging and altogether likeable, and it is too smart and self-aware to fall for the faux-depth that coming-of-age films focused on thoughtful, artistic young people can have.

Still, none of these are altogether exceptional – the one exceptional thing that Boyhood undoubtedly has is its sheer verisimilitude. The actors become the characters, not so much by dint of their acting but because they do one of the things that is always, and usually not particularly well, faked in films. The effect is engaging and intriguing – yet is verisimilitude what I look for in films? It works for Boyhood, but it does most of the heavy lifting. The ghost of Goddard’s “The cinema is truth 24 frames per second” (though I doubt he meant it all that literally) haunts the film, but if truth and reality become the same the medium leaves me behind. The logical development of the film would seem to be documentaries along the lines of the Up series, yet cinema can never be a complete, unadorned reproduction of reality – if indeed it should aim for this to begin with. Does verisimilitude come closer to truth, or even to a more partial, incomplete though still relevant truth? Other than the stylistic effect of one element of reality, what do we get out of watching Ellar Coltrane – rather than Ellar Coltrane as well as two or three actors looking somewhat like him – grow up?

It looks like I’ve ended up being similarly condescending towards Linklater’s latest. Ironically, I would still say I very much enjoyed Boyhood; I just don’t think I am particularly interested in what it does. Like Mason, Boyhood is likeable and engaging – but in the end I don’t think its standout feature is all that far from being a gimmick. If it is used again, I hope it’s put to the service of a more ambitious film.

Relationship slump

I don’t usually mind when my opinion diverges from that of critics. Why would I? I feel fairly secure in my views on films, books, TV series and games, without needing others in positions of (questionable) authority to confirm my point of view.

Which is easy enough most of the time – except when every single critic seems to have an opinion that differs from mine. It’s at this point that I usually start wondering: what is it about the work in question that I missed, or misunderstood? What is it that rubs me the wrong way? I can’t remember many cases of this, but when it happens, it’s usually that my opinion is more negative than that of the critics. Case in point: Before Midnight, the latest team-up by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke.

Before SunriseCards on the table time. I didn’t particularly like Before Sunrise, the first of the three films. The characters were credible and well acted, the film was filmed and directed with a lightness – but I guess that at 34 I was too old when I first saw the film. The characters were credible and well acted, but they got on my nerves with their post-teen self-centredness. Since I’d got the two films, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, as a set, I thought I’d watch the second one too, expecting to be equally annoyed at the characters – yet I found myself liking Before Sunset and its more grown-up characters a lot. Jesse and Céline had caught up with me, so to speak, and now I was saddened to leave their company.

Come Before Midnight, I was looking forward to catching up with the two, not least because every single review I’d read suggested that this was the best film of the three. More than that, I like the concept of the series; there are lots of films that accompany characters over the course of decades, but the illusion that the people we’re watching aren’t actors with increasing amounts of make-up is one that is rarely complete. With Linklater’s films, it’s not an illusion – the people we see are a decade older. As the film started, I was almost instantly back with Céline and Jesse, enjoying their older, somewhat more jaded banter – but then, the longer the film went on, the less I could buy into it. For one thing, Before Midnight brings in several couples to act as a foil for the two central characters, but it does so in too obvious and schematic a fashion, winkingly telling us and the central couple, “Ah, this is the two of you when you were 20 years old – and that’s where you’ll be in ten years time. Wait ’till the next film and we shall work in a memento mori or two as well!”

Before Sunset

So, there’s snag one: the film did have to vary the structure of the first two – it could no longer be a more-or-less chance meeting after nine years, so there had to be something more to it than “Jesse and Céline meet and talk in some picturesque European city.” – but it does so in rather clumsy ways. Snag two, ironically, is more or less the opposite: Before Midnight returns to the banter in ways that aren’t always particularly convincing. Yes, I enjoyed the two characters talking, it’s just like old times, with the added benefit of nine years of life having happened in the meantime. But people who’ve been together for almost a decade, let alone a couple with two small kids: would they talk like this? Wouldn’t they have talked about most of these things before? And wouldn’t they be glad to enjoy some, well, silence? Jesse and Céline still talk as if they had been apart the last several years, which may be fun but isn’t particularly convincing. While watching the film I didn’t really mind, but once my girlfriend made this point after we’d left the cinema I had to agree: I don’t really buy it.

Snag three is the main one, though: the last third of the film is an escalating argument between the two characters that got more grating the longer it went on. Dramatically it made sense to have the couple fight – but while Jesse’s side of the argument is credible enough, Céline’s more often than not seems to have little to do with the character they’ve created over three films. In fact, most of the accusations she throws in Jesse’s face decidedly sound like Cosmopolitan‘s Top 10 Anxieties of Women In Their 40s. They don’t particularly fit with what we know of the two characters’ life together – they’re generic. They make her sound like a stereotypical middle-aged, middle-class shrew with stereotypical middle-aged, middle-class resentments and fears. The two first Before… films always played with the characters’ stereo? proto? arche? -typical qualities, they always balanced what made them easy to identify with with the things that made them individuals, but in Before Midnight‘s last half-hour, Delpy’s character loses her credibility as an individual to such an extent that it hurts the film.

Before Midnight

Except none of the reviews I’ve read seem to think so. Rotten Tomatoes has the film at 98% Fresh, with only three of 152 critics giving the film a negative grade. It’s not an ego thing for me: I can very well live with others having different opinions. In this case, however, it almost feels like they’ve all seen a different film. Several even mention the big argument scene as the highlight of the film. Am I too harsh on Before Midnight and on Céline? Am I too dismissive of the ways in which, regardless of what Tolstoy may have suggested, all arguing middle-aged, middle-class couples are the same in certain ways? And will I have to wait another nine years for another film in the Before… series to reconcile myself with Linklater, Hawke and Delpy’s latest?

Growing pains

Remember when I wrote about my reactions to watching Before Sunrise for the first time at the age of thirty-something? Back when I got the film on DVD, there was a special offer for its nine-years-later sequel, Before Sunset, so I got that one too. After disliking the earlier film quite a bit (my reaction was pretty much that of constantly thinking, “Oh, grow up, you two!”, which didn’t make for an enjoyable experience), I’d decided that I wanted to get this over with: watch Before Sunset so I could pass the two DVDs on to someone. I don’t often get rid of DVDs I’ve bought, but shelf space is at a premium as it is. I knew I was unlikely to watch Before Sunrise again, unless I had some way of reverting to the age of 21 without illegal drugs.

Imagine my surprise when I enjoyed Before Sunset. Not just a bit. Not just in comparison with its predecessor. No, I enjoyed Linklater’s follow-up to his Viennese romance much more than any romantic film I’d seen in a long, long time. And what was even more unexpected: the later film has given me an appreciation for Before Sunset – not so much as a film in its own right, but as a chapter in the overall story.

Jesse and Céline, nine years later, are still the same people – but they’ve both left behind the self-involvement their earlier selves had. Yes, they’re still neurotic, yes, they still go on about the same topics, but differently from the earlier film they actually seem to have a life outside the present moment and a focus other than themselves. Céline’s had a string of unfulfilling relationships, Jesse’s got a son and is trapped in a marriage that has pretty much flatlined. Neither is all that original, but the characters and conversations ring true. Yes, they did in the earlier film, but just to the extent that I disliked the characters more for being credible self-centred twenty-somethings who barely see beyond the horizon of their own navels.

One thing I actually liked about the earlier film was the ending: as much as I didn’t particularly enjoy spending time with Jesse and Céline in their early twenties, there had obviously been something between them, so the moment where they have to leave one another – regardless of their promise to meet again, there, six months later – clicked. The way Before Sunset picks up on this is clever, but it tops it with an ending that in terms of tone and characterisation is perfect.

I’m curious whether I’d now see Before Sunrise with different eyes. I don’t think I’d suddenly like it – I still think it’s a difficult film to appreciate unless you respond to, or identify with, the self-involvement of the characters at least to some extent. But I’d find it easier to see the older characters waiting to emerge from their younger selves. And after this film, as perfect as it is as an ending, I wouldn’t mind catching up with the two again, some years into the future. I don’t actually want that to happen, mind you – but the thought that Céline and Jesse are somewhere out there, living their lives, is one that makes me feel strangely better.

So... Uma Thurman, huh?