August 5, 2014
“Time never goes as fast as in your childhood; an hour is never as short as it was then. Everything is open, you run here, you run there, do one thing, then another, and suddenly the sun has gone down and you find yourself standing in the twilight with time like a barrier that has suddenly gone down in front of you: Oh no, is it already nine o’clock? But time never goes as slowly as in your childhood either, an hour is never as long as it was then. If the openness is gone, if the opportunities to run here, there, and everywhere are gone, whether in your mind or in physical reality, every minute is like a barrier, time is a room in which you are trapped.” -Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle Book Three: Boyhood
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is in part about the elasticity of time, the manner in which it compresses and expands depending on the moment. This emerges simply through its production circumstances. It was filmed over twelve years with the same cast, shooting three or four days each year, allowing the actors to age along with the characters. A cut can age the performers from angelic kid dreamers to the drooping baby fat broodings of early teendom. It is full of digression and offhand detail, and very little plot. It follows itinerant Texas kid Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from middle-school through his acceptance into college. It is not a progression from here to there, but a thick bisection of his life that prefers to move sideways rather than forward. We see Mason playing in dirt, leer at a Victoria’s Secret catalog and cheer on the medicinally-enhanced hurler Roger Clemens. These are irrelevant to the progression of the story, and could be considered boring, but they make up the texture of his life. And when all of these accumulated moments have passed, and the film cuts to black, it feels like no time has passed at all.
The third volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel My Struggle is subtitled Boyhood, and was translated into English in 2014 (released in his native Norway in 2010). With microscopic detail he describes how he grew up on a new housing development on the southern coast of Norway. He maps the path to the gas station candy store so often it forges a new neural network in your brain. At 427 pages Karl Ove ages from 7-13 – this is not a bisection of the period but the whole goddamn thing, pushed out of Knausgaard’s memory as if in one breath. Where Linklater’s work is deeply considered and pre-meditated, with a year in between each shoot, Knausgaard pushed out all six volumes and 3,600 pages of his six-volume opus from 2008-2011. In his Boyhood Knausgaard inhabits the point-of-view of his child-self but with his adult vocabulary. In Linklater’s Boyhood we see Mason sneak behind a trailer to flip through a Victoria’s Secret catalog with one of his tow-haired buddies, triggering sense-memories in the hetero-male crowd (one guy couldn’t help exclaiming behind me, “this is spot on”). In Knausgaard’s Boyhood the search for porn is an all-encompassing journey that takes up multiple pages and searches through the town garbage dump. When an older kid tosses some in his lap, it is a full-fledged sensorial event:
The sun was low in the sky over the ridge behind us, and his shadow stretched a long way across the ground. From the islet in the bay came the sound of screeching gulls. Feeling weak all over, I took a magazine and rolled onto my stomach. Even though I looked at the pictures one at a time, and focused on one part, such as the breasts, which I only needed to catch a glimpse of to feel an electric shock of excitement shoot through me, or such as the legs and the wild thrill aroused by the sight of the slit between them, more or less open, more or less pink and glistening, often accompanied by a finger or two nearby, or near the mouth, which was often open, often contorted into a grimace, or such as the buttocks, sometimes so wonderfully round that I couldn’t lie still, this wasn’t about the parts in themselves, this was more like bathing in the totality, a kind of sea in which there was no beginning and no end, a sea in which, from the first moment, from the first picture, you always found yourself in the middle.
Linklater approximates this passage with closeups of grubby thumbs flipping pages, but he has to move on. Mason is called home to dinner and he ages another year. I wish Linklater had the time to settle into these sequences longer, to bathe in the totality of moments a little more. It’s an absurd wish, but I think it would be a greater film at five hours than three, to allow more weight to accrue to each image – to discover how they snuck off with that Victoria’s Secret catalogue, to see the little adventures that feel so momentous as children. I would have preferred that to some of its rushed characterizations, including a Hispanic handyman who pops up years later as a waiter, thanking Mason’s mother (Patricia Arquette) for encouraging him to go to night school. He is not given a personality, used only as a prop to illustrate the mother’s empathy, which Arquette was demonstrating quite well on her own.
Patricia Arquette is the star of the film. While Ellar Coltrane grows into his dreamy teen and Ethan Hawke does a winning variation on his fidgety man-child from the Before series, Arquette is a revelation. She is perpetually steeled against bad news, her face pulled back in forced grins. Each day is a battle to keep the kids in food and video games, whether she’s the hip sloppy young mom to no-bullshit business suit mother. Arquette makes motherhood look like work – the effort involved is made visible in her every movement. And then, the kids are gone. When Mason is about to drive across Texas to college, time slows into a room in which she is trapped. Sitting in her scaled-down apartment, she realizes there is no more looking ahead. Her whole life had been dedicated to foreseeing and destroying obstacles to her kids’ lives. Now both of her children are off at college, and she is forced to contemplate the present moment. Arquette breaks down, declaring the day to be the worst of her life. All of the indignities of motherhood, the scratching and clawing to make a living, the settling for moneyed husbands, and the endless drives to-and-from school, have accumulated into this moment. And for the mother, it has accumulated into nothing. It depicts the tragedy of parenthood with unsentimental finality. Kids leave. And Mason does, now trying to hang on to moments of his own. Neither the mother or Mason seems to be able to build a cathedral to their memory as Knausgaard has. Their past has just disappeared. My Struggle is an attempt to overcome meaninglessness with towers of words built out of memory, to concretize the banality of our existence. And I think it works.
After the moving van had left and we got into the car, Mom, Dad and I, and we drove down the hill and over the bridge, it struck me with a huge sense of relief that I would never be returning, that everything I saw I was seeing for the final time. That the houses and the places that disappeared behind me were also disappearing out of my life, for good. Little did I know then that every detail of this landscape, and every single person living in it, would forever be lodged in my memory with a ring as true as perfect pitch.