Coming from a secularist, Boyhood is a surprisingly poetic film. Linklater is not known for crafting highly aesthetic or spiritual films, but the means by which he weaves in philosophy and questions the meaning of life is a method of alluding to the unknown. He presents a cultural disposition which identifies with white, suburban, psychedelically curious youth. Most brazen in Dazed and Confused, Linklater’s philosophical tendencies serve as the impetus of his masterworks, such as Waking Life and the Before Trilogy, all of which convey experience through dialogue. With Boyhood, Linklater finds the spiritual impetus that his dialogue always alludes to; what his previous films don’t quite manage to convey. Boyhood is Linklater’s masterpiece.
Some of the most accomplished directors are known for their poetic means of conveying the ineffable. I have written extensively on Kieslowski, Tarkovsky, and Malick in these regards. These filmmakers use metaphor to express ideas which cannot otherwise be expressed—ideas which cannot be formed into mere words. In this respect, cinematography—film form—is used as a means of overcoming the limitations which are evident in language. For Tarkovsky, the abstract conveys the ineffable through metaphorical imagery, such as the dripping of water into a stream to convey vulnerability. For Malick, jump cutting conveys a sense of constant generation or genesis. Many of these filmmakers find a way of expressing, in a moment, a sense of eternity. They do this by—I’ll take Tarkovsky’s concept of it—”sculpting in time.” By treating time as a mosaic, the linear is forgiven and time takes on a more subjective and dynamic quality.
Linklater’s films tend to speak about such possibilities. Instead of artistically conveying this experience to others, he chooses to discuss the experience. He prefers to present people recounting their experiences after the fact. He wants to look back on these “moments that seize us” and share them with others; he doesn’t necessarily need to create that experience for us.
Whether he intended to or not, the form with which Linklater presents Boyhood allows his film, which is otherwise highly secular, conventional, and dialogue driven, to express the ineffable qualities of life. In no other film is life’s passing moments, episodic trials and tribulations, and impacting perceptions or moments of experience captured so gracefully. Through the dialogue, particularly towards the ending, Linklater provides an interpretation for what he is unconsciously expressing by shooting over 12 years. For Mason, somehow it is “always now.” Though life is a collection of moments or events which pass us by, we are always in the present. Next, for Olivia, is her funeral. But, as Mason explains, she’s missing about 40 years. That’s 40 years of changing; change as the result of the events in one’s life and the changes in one’s surroundings.
To some degree, I think of Boyhood as a companion piece to Malick’s Tree of Life. The films are extraordinarily different, but both filmmakers show a desire to convey the everything of life. For Malick, this is done by expressing feeling, sentiment, and interiority. For Linklater, this is done by presenting the objects of feelings, the events which inspire sentiment, and exteriority. Rather than evoking the inner states of man’s experience, Linklater uses objects and events in one’s life to expound the interior. He doesn’t need to show us the subjective experience of being in love, but the object through which love becomes inspired.
Boyhood focuses on a series of events in a boy’s life, but it doesn’t wish to present Mason’s experiences. Instead, Boyhood presents the surroundings—the environment—which Mason has passed through. These surroundings and what he comes in contact with during the 12 years shown in the film become our way of understanding who he becomes as a person. Like everyone, his thoughts and the direction which he is lead, is based on what he encounters in life—from a deadbeat dad to alcoholic step-dads; from the girl on the bike (clearly an homage to Before Sunrise) to his high-school sweetheart; from the sister he spends his childhood with to the isolation he faces as an awkward teenager.
By the end of the film, an expansive tableaux of episodes has been presented. Through this, one gets a sense of change—real, actual change. We see a real boy grow up, something which takes time, and yet each event feels like it exists in the present. Just as Mason comments that he is always in the ‘now’—in the present—we are always in the present of Mason’s life.
Since Bazin’s infamous “Ontology of the Photographic Image,” the notion of presence as the essential quality of film has been discussed. For Bresson, film is a manner of making the invisible present. For the filmmakers I discussed above, such as Tarkovsky and Malick, the value of film is in presenting the otherwise unpresentable. Though Boyhood takes a linear journey, time remains always in the present, and if one were to shuffle up the scenes, presence would continue to be conveyed, despite the impossibility of a boy becoming younger over time. In effect, we are not shown a boy growing up, we are shown a number of images, the images which make up a persons life, and though these images are presented in a linear fashion, it evokes the possibility of these images occurring concurrently.
While Linklater overtly discusses how we pass through time and become able to look back; the film’s structure and dialogue evoke the impermanent qualities of life. It suggests that as time passes, we don’t remember things which have passed, but that we are looking back at a moment which, in itself, is always present. 18 year old Mason remembers being 6 years old, not as something in the past, but as a past presence. 6 year old Mason doesn’t live in the past, 6 year old Mason lives in the now. 7 year old Mason lives in the now. And so on. Boyhood is truly a landmark in cinema history. It is what the Tree of Life would be if the poetic turned literary. It is concretized poetry; the spiritual made tangible.