A Boyhood Epic

By Wai Chee DimockAugust 1, 2014

A Boyhood Epic

BOYHOOD — J. M. Coetzee’s fictionalized memoir about growing up in South Africa — ends with a funeral. In the book’s final scene, the narrator and his mother get a ride in the hearse bearing Aunt Annie, the aunt who had taught for 40 years and who owned many books. “What has happened to Aunt Annie’s books?” the narrator asks his mother, but she either doesn’t know or won’t say. “He alone is left to do the thinking. How will he keep them all in his head, all the books, all the people, all the stories? And if he does not remember them, who will?”

There are no funerals in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Its extensive lineup of cars (including a black Pontiac GTO with a throbbing engine, later traded in for a sensible white minivan) doesn’t include a hearse. The word “funeral” does come up though; on the day Mason (Ellar Coltrane) leaves for college. This also happens to be the last time we see his mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette) on screen, and the first time we see her burst into tears — something she could have done many times before: “My life is just gonna go, like that. This series of milestones, getting married, having kids, getting divorced, that time when we thought you were dyslexic … sending Samantha off to college, sending you off to college. You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my fucking funeral.”

That outburst is certainly memorable, but it’s just one scene, not the last word. In the next shot, Mason points out, reasonably enough: “Aren’t you jumping ahead by, like, 40 years?” It’s true, there’s no telling what might happen next, and the movie is not letting on. It ends in media res for her, as it does for everyone else, so that its only milestones are the inconclusive ones, like graduating high school and going to college; signposts, yes, but not guaranteeing anything or foreclosing anything. A funeral would have been much too decisive. Even marriages and divorces have to take place off screen.

The only thing that is irrevocable in Boyhood is the death of a bird. In an early scene we see the young Mason sitting by himself in an alleyway, staring at a dead bird with a mix of gravity and curiosity, knowing that this is the end of something. Like Olivia’s outburst, it’s a memorable scene but also a passing one, with no binding power over the rest of the movie. It is followed immediately by other scenes showing Mason doing something completely different: spray-painting graffiti; poring over the lingerie section of a Sears catalog with a friend; watching Britney Spears’s “Oops!… I Did It Again” impersonated by his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter). These nonevents are not even anticlimactic, they are non sequiturs — one coming after another for no apparent reason and, in that aimlessness, eliminating nothing from the field of narrative possibility.

Much is made of the fact that Boyhood was shot in real-time, a total of 39 days over 12 years, from 2002 to 2013. What transpires within these clear-cut chronological brackets, however, is much less straightforward. In fact, the cinematic medium here might be said to be unreal time, so elastic, and so weak in its power to eliminate that it seems to extend indefinitely in all directions, a horizontal field of possibility. Ethan Hawke, who plays Mason’s father, Mason Sr., says that at a very early stage Linklater had this idea: “What if I just got rid of all the plot? What if it’s just growing up?” And that indeed is what we see: a movie bearing witness to all the changes between age six and age 18, without submitting to the burden of subjectivity and burden of finitude that ordinarily come with that process.

Linklater says: “I had a rough outline. I had a grid, a lot of structure. First through 12th grade, that’s a structure. I knew it would be until he went to college. I knew the last shot of the movie pretty early on.” That last shot — Mason at Big Bend, talking to a young woman he has just met in his college dorm — is actually more like a beginning than an ending, and a tentative one at that. Yes, she has all the right vibes, and they clearly enjoy each other’s company, but surely it’s too early to tell? Linklater says: “I thought of it like this mirror: At the beginning, he’s alone, in first grade, waiting on his mom. Now he’s a free adult, and he’s with another young adult; he’s not alone, and he’s looking to the future.”

Unlike Coetzee’s Boyhood, tightly wound within the subjectivity of its narrator, beginning and ending with it as an invariant baseline condition, Linklater’s Boyhood is steadfastly intersubjective except for its opening shots. It leaves those shots behind. For the rest of the movie, the cinematic frame is almost always occupied by more than one person: not only is Mason himself never alone, everyone else also has company, thanks to the camerawork of Lee Daniel and Shane Kelly, Linklater’s cinematographers. Even a man Mason observes talking to himself in a restaurant late one night is alone only in his only head. Within the movie’s visual dynamics he is linked to everyone else, especially Mason, who identifies with him. The camera cuts back and forth between these two, a visual sequence decidedly communal rather than solitary.

Linklater calls Boyhood an “epic of the intimate.” That seems about right. Like epics in general, it has a large cast, with minor characters often at center stage and often appearing more than once. Mason’s first stepfather, Bill, actually gets more screen time than either Olivia or Mason himself as he morphs from a genial academic to an abusive drunk. The friend who helps Olivia rescue the children from Bill gets to have a second appearance at Mason’s graduation party. The migrant worker who fixes Olivia’s broken pipe and goes to college on her advice shows up as the assistant manager in the restaurant where the family happens to be eating. And the musician (Charlie Sexton) who contributes to the messiness of Mason Sr.’s bachelor apartment reappears toward the end of the movie, warming up with his band, showing the road not taken by his former roommate.

As befits an epic, Boyhood’s emotional landscape is dispersed rather than individuated, crowdsourced rather than subjectively centered. In that sense it is less about boyhood — or any other phase of the individual life cycle — than about the tangle of relations that collectively create an episodic web. Like the Coen brothers in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Linklater strings everything together using Olivia, an inverted Penelope, as a plot device — a Penelope out of patience with her man, not waiting for him to come around. If Olivia had been more like Homer’s Penelope she would have ended up with a pretty decent guy and avoided what her son calls “a parade of drunken assholes,” but even that sense of regret is barely felt amid the more tumultuous emotions in the foreground: the excitement at the book-signing of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; the political passions occasioned by the Iraq War; the thick-skinned brazenness needed to campaign for Obama in suburban Texas.

That’s why the movie is so long, a whopping 166 minutes. (In contrast, Coetzee’s Boyhood is a mere 166 pages). Linklater says that he worried a bit about the length, but eventually decided “that’s who it is.” What makes the movie so relaxed, so comfortable with its unwieldiness, and so sure that the burden of representation, or burden of proof, isn’t exclusively on its shoulders, is a sense that this is “a collaboration with culture.” Linklater is the first to admit that the period-specific soundtrack, beginning with Coldplay’s “Yellow” and ending with Arcade Fire’s “Deep Blue,” wasn’t actually the music that he himself listened to during those years. Of the 41 recordings in the movie, quite a few were included “in hindsight,” he says, brought to his attention by family, friends, and members of the production team. “Hero,” the Family of the Year song that accompanies Mason as he drives to West Texas for college, was suggested by an intern. Soulja Boy Tell ’Em’s “Crank That” came from his nephew. And the post-Beatles mixtape, “Black Album,” that Mason Sr. puts together for his son is actually a mixtape that Ethan Hawke first created for his daughter, Maya.

Hawke and Linklater have worked together on eight movies, beginning with Before Sunrise in 1995. Many in the production team are likewise longtime collaborators. John Sloss, Linklater’s lawyer, has been on board since Slacker (1991). Sandra Adair has edited all his films since Dazed and Confused (1993). Kirsten McMurray answered an ad for part-time work as a college student 10 years ago, and is now Linklater’s office manager. Vince Palmo has been his assistant director for the past decade. And, behind all these people, behind Linklater’s own career-long experiments with time — the one-day snapshot of Austin, Texas, in Slacker, shooting in real-time in Tape (2001), following a man and a woman over 18 years in the Before trilogy (1995, 2004, and 2013) — there is also the example of the Up Series, Michael Apted’s documentaries, begun in 1964 with 14 children and checking back with them every seven years. Boyhood is a collective undertaking in this sense as well: “not my idea or his or hers,” as Mason, Sr. says, “but some unforeseeable magic that happens in creativity when energies collide.” Yes, the Beatles only stayed together for 10 years, and listening to the Fab Four separately isn’t quite the same thing; but meanwhile, here’s “the best of John, Paul, George, and Ringo’s solo work, post-BEATLES,” mixed in such a way that “basically I’ve put the band back together for you.”

So we have two Boyhoods, on opposite sides of the spectrum. Coetzee’s: a distilled form of the modern novel, death-haunted and subjectivity-bound, a ride in a hearse from day one. And Linklater’s, a crowdsourced modern epic, voluminous and interminable, not dying now and not going to die any time soon, because the hearse is retreating ever further back into the future.


Wai Chee Dimock is the William Lampson Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University.

LARB Contributor

Wai Chee Dimock is William Lampson Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University. She has published widely on American literature of every period, and is best known for Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time (2007). Editor of PMLA, her essays have also appeared in Critical Inquiry, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New Yorker, and The New York TimesHer team-edited American Literature in the World: An Anthology from Anne Bradstreet to Octavia Butler (2017) was published by Columbia University Press in January.


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