On Boyhood and Goodness in Film, Art, Etc.

“BOYHOOD IS UNREVIEWABLE, BASICALLY.”

— Film Crit Hulk

Introduction

I hope the delay between the release of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and the release of this piece isn’t too long for any readers. If it seems so, let me offer two quick rebuttals before you dramatically throw this in a fire (or more likely just casually press ⌘-W w/o any visible affectation) in frustration at the insignificance of anything older than about six weeks. First, this seems for obvious reasons like the last movie one should feel impatient about. And second, this isn’t really about Boyhood anyway; it’s really about goodness. Boyhood is just a helpful example in this case because it’s so amazing. Yes, it’s true, I’ve shot my critical wad prematurely by calling Boyhood amazing in my first paragraph. Perhaps this is a film-crit no-no (I wouldn’t be surprised). But then, who’s going to deny that Boyhood is amazing? Like the laws of nature, this isn’t something to be accepted or denied; it simply is. That a director and cast were all able and willing to work on a project for twelve years1 is shocking enough without considering the even more unbelievable fact that this movie got funding. In a world where everyone and their grandma are competing to see who can be the most cynical about both the present and the future of modern American filmmaking, some studio agrees to throw $200,000 at a movie every year for twelve years.2 This may not seem like that long a time to some people, and in certain ways it’s not, but consider the world in 2002. If you can’t remember, we’d all just upgraded to Windows XP, and it was amazing. None of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies had convinced the world that grit automatically equals maturity, and we were all trying to recover from Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin. The Marvel Cinematic Universe™ was little more than a twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye.3 The entire landscape of American cinema was completely different. Linklater’s biggest “success” at the time was Dazed and Confused, which released nine years earlier and barely made back its own budget. Before Sunset hadn’t even come out yet, and his last movie was a fully rotoscoped animation of an aimless youth walking around and discussing such box office draws as André Bazin’s film theory, existentialism as a philosophy of despair [or not], and posthumanism. Consider, then, funding a relatively obscure art-movie from a barely-remembered director that will be released twelve years from now. It’s madness.  The mere existence of Boyhood is proof positive that crazy things can and still do happen in film, even in this “golden age of television” everyone’s so sure we’re living in now. But is this enough? Even if something is literally awesome, does that make it good?

This gets very tricky: different people have differing views on what qualities constitute good-ness in movies. This sort of seems obvious, looking at the varying reactions to [INSERT ANY MOVIE], but I’d like to point out (and, for the next few pages, explore) that this disagreement goes beyond decisions about whether a movie fits into the “good” category or not, and into the territory of questions about the “good” category itself, questions like “what is a good movie?,” “what do good movies have in common?,” “what do they do?,” “what do they make us do?” This may strike some as philosophizing, or abstract nonsense. I would disagree, for the simple reason that, while this is undeniably abstract, it’s not without practical purpose: how you feel about these questions will have a significant impact not just on your opinion of Boyhood, but of just about any other movie I can think of, and maybe even art in general.4 So, how do people define the good in movies?

Consensus

You could, and many would forgive you if you did, just hit up RottenTomatoes and look at Boyhood’s rating. Based on 261 critics, Boyhood is 98% good. The 50 Top Critics who reviewed it say it’s 100% good. If you’re the type of person for whom a comparison is necessary, Boyhood is the best movie of 2014. The RT consensus: “epic in technical scale but breathlessly intimate in narrative scope, Boyhood is a sprawling investigation of the human condition.” There are the obvious problems with this approach: “100%” doesn’t really say much about a movie, for one;5 and a one sentence “consensus” almost manages to say less by implying it somehow encapsulates what all the critics are saying (it doesn’t, and there’s a reason reviews are usually more than one sentence long); and anyway citing an RT score as evidence for a movie’s quality is a simple appeal to authority—that is, movies aren’t good because critics like them (ideally it’s something like the other way around). But subtler than these is an issue with the diction in the consensus that I doubt is the fault of any staffer at RottenTomatoes responsible for drawing up consensi, but more a mark of Boyhood itself, how it functions, and how it doesn’t. To illustrate this point I would like to ask a question: absent a big number next to it, what would the afore-quoted consensus mean? Reading it, would you think of this as a recommendation? Is the movie it refers to good?6 Of course, I know what movie it refers to, and I know how critics generally feel about Boyhood, and even if I didn’t the giant NINETY-EIGHT PERCENT next to the consensus is a bit of a tip off. But try to bracket all that. Think instead of words like “epic in technical scale,” “breathlessly intimate,” “sprawling investigation of the human condition.” Are these a recommendation? “Epic” has kind of lost its power for me on account of extreme overuse, and anyway it can mean things as mundane as “big budget”; “sprawling” just makes me think of suburbs that go on far longer than I’d like them to; “intimate” could really go either way; and I’m not sure what being out of breath has to do with anything. To me this whole consensus reads as if saying “this movie tried really, really hard” without going the extra step of judging whether or not it succeeded. It would be easy to blame this on an unpaid RT intern doing a poor job, but as I said before I think the problem (if there is one), though not unique to Boyhood, is especially visible in it, and particularly in the sort of response it seems to be getting.

Q.v. Jeffrey Overstreet’s review at Patheos, wherein he engages in a fictional conversation with seven-, fourteen-, and twenty-year-old versions of himself, reflecting on his childish innocence, teenage religious zealotry, and young-adult ironic arrogance, respectively. Or Drew McWeeny’s review at HitFix, with its autobiographical descriptions of moving away from a childhood home, a tumultuous teenage relationship, two breakups, and the birth of his first son. These are the sorts of things that don’t fit well into a RottenTomatoes consensus. They are also, of course, much of what gives art life, and so are not exactly discountable. But then, how does this translate into a summary? “This movie reminded this guy of his divorce, and this other guy of when he used to be a bigot. You should watch it”? The problem with this hypothetical recommendation is not that it follows up stories of occasionally drastic emotional pain with a recommendation of the very thing that caused this pain. This may perhaps make the sentence funny, but the real issue (at least in the present context) is that such personal experiences with a movie don’t hold up well to mathematical operations like averaging. This issue would (and does) crop up in every movie, of course, but I can’t help but think that Boyhood, with its focus on memory and the passage of time, all but explicitly cries out to have this sort of extremely personal, and so not generalizable, reaction. It’s the closest thing one can get, in a movie, to nostalgically skimming through old photos. And just like old photos, considered “in general,” there’s not much to say about it.

So the problem: how does one distill a bunch of incredibly personal experiences into a percentage, or a consensus, or even a lengthy essay? I’ve always been a bit suspicious when newscasters describe how “voters” are feeling about a certain candidate or issue, or when “cultural commentators” describe how “we” are feeling about gun control this year, but to sum-and-average the response of that ever-diffuse beast “the audience,” to get a “ballpark idea” about how people-in-general feel about the whole idea of growing up seems like next-level reductionism in action.7 I suspect this is why Rotten Tomatoes’ consensus stops short of offering any sort of concrete judgments, instead simply declaring that Boyhood is “an investigation.” There’s just no way of representing so many intensely personal experiences in a single sentence.

And all of this hasn’t even mentioned what is (for me at least) the most practically significant problem with the appeal to consensus: what do you do if there isn’t a consensus? There are plenty of movies where RottenTomatoes, and even lengthy research sessions are no help. What should one do with Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel, currently at 55 percent? RottenTomatoes calls this rotten, despite slightly more than half of the sampled critics recommending the movie, yet still gives it a positive consensus. Or take Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, which had critics losing their minds both positively and negatively. RT’s solution is to call Spring Breakers fresh, though just barely, and to give it a consensus that quivers just exactly on the line between slight recommendation and objective description of what the movie is about. And this problem isn’t limited to controversial movies. What should one do with a movie that has no critical response, or very little? How does one make these sorts of judgments for oneself?

The individual

It’s tempting to see this over-reliance on consensus and the problems inherent to it and swing the other way, saying “well, this is just what I experienced,” and “I’m not telling you how to feel” and other such self-focussed responses. This may strike some readers negatively, but there is much to recommend it. For one, a certain amount of individual involvement is necessary. One can’t “objectively” watch a movie: it doesn’t make sense, and even if it did it would be pointless.8 For another, everyone else’s experiences with a movie are not (or at least aren’t directly) accessible to you, so consulting them when drawing up your own opinion is difficult at best. Added to this is the fact that the “consensus” RT claims to represent is completely illusory: these reviewers haven’t collaborated. Usually, reviews don’t discuss other reviews or even acknowledge them.9 The only consensus that exists among most of these critics is one that is forced on them by (a) nameless person(s), for basically financial reasons.10 And what is this consensus made from anyway? Correct: a bunch of individual experiences. Central to this whole approach is the notion that it is either impossible or simply pointless to consider art “in general,” since the really important part about art is how it acts in particular.

But the problem, then: how does one recommend anything, to anyone? It seems obvious to go from “I enjoyed this movie” to “you might too,” but there’s a pretty massive (and if the phrase “problem of other minds” means anything to you, philosophically tectonic) logical step going on between them. Because if it’s really just about your personal response to a movie, wouldn’t you only be able to recommend or criticize a movie to someone just like you? To meaningfully discuss one’s opinion of a movie with anyone more than slightly different from oneself would require some sort of generalized principle that would apply to both of you, would it not? I think it would, and think that in drawing a connection between your own experience with a movie and someone else’s hypothetical response, you are appealing to two ideas. First, some sort of universal human nature, at least to the extent that we all perceive things about the same.11 And second, that our perception of a movie indicates something about the movie itself, something that other people could perceive similarly on account of your shared human nature. This brings up a worthwhile point: in over 1500 words, I haven’t talked about the specifics of a movie once,12 only the responses to movies. There are likely philosophical pedants in the audience who would posit that these responses (and specifically our own responses) are all that can reasonably be discussed, since, as mentioned above, we have no objective access to anything outside our own minds. Everything we see, think, feel, do, say, hear: it all passes through our own arrogant, literally self-centred minds. To these pedants I offer the highest compliment such a mindset will ever deserve: congratulations, you’re right, and no one cares. Because this view is right (or maybe I should say it’s correct). There’s no logical problem with it. But what the pedants are unable or unwilling to acknowledge is that this sort of unswerving allegiance to the cold logic of the situation is no way for a person to live. Like it or not, we simply don’t operate on the plane of objective logic, and this becomes obvious as soon as you try to move even one step past a statement like “everything we experience is just a mental projection and doesn’t necessarily have any correlation with the outside world.” Try to reason with that statement. Try to think about the world in those terms. Try to produce any sort of productive thought or action based on that principle. You can’t. Neither can I. For a moment this feels reassuring—it gets us off the hook for having to explain ourselves—but this feeling evaporates once you remember there are people who really, really like Zeitgeist or Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed or Capitalism: A Love Story and you wish more than anything that you could communicate with these people. But this thinking doesn’t allow for communication: it, like much spawned from too much logic, gives no life; it only paralyzes. This can be a fearful or somewhat helpless feeling, leading to the reasonable question “well then what can we even do?” I don’t have a very logical response to this—though perhaps that’s for the best: I doubt the solution to too much logic should be to add just a bit more—but I’ve found the most productive response is to first acknowledge that there are limits to our abilities, and then do the very best we can anyway. In our context that means realizing that our own experience with a movie doesn’t dictate how every other properly functioning human should experience the movie, but then maintaining some level of faith that our experience still says something about the nature of the film itself. Which raises the inevitable question: what is it about a movie that we respond to?

This gets into a whole other debate, one which thankfully hasn’t yet sorted into camps with academic-sounding names like Prescriptivists and Descriptivists,13 but which is still roughly delineable into cohesive viewpoints. Neither of these views is ridiculous enough to pretend the other has nothing of value to offer (see: Prescriptivists and Descriptivists), but they will each stress the importance and the benefits of their own approach,14 which is a focus either on technical competence or on narrative competence.

Technical competence

“The filmmaking in Gravity is next level. I had no idea what 80% of the jobs in the end credits were, it made me feel like a kid.”

Rian Johnson

The main draw of evaluating movies based on technical competence is that it’s is the sort of thing that is (at least potentially) objectively considerable. With a few basic facts (e.g. what a shot was going for and how it was accomplished, the basics of various techniques and the difficulties inherent to them) one can say that, for example, Children of Men is technical genius by virtue of the car chase scene/shot alone. This quite nicely sidesteps the problems of appealing to consensus or solipsism: we get the ability to communicate, and it’s still possible to have an opinion about a movie without a critic-aggregator telling us how to feel. But there’s more to this view than its lacking the problems of the others. Thinking about movies on a higher level, isn’t it worthwhile and maybe even (gulp) noble to appreciate masters of a craft simply by virtue of their mastery, and not whether it entertains us? Should we not appreciate skill as, all else aside, a worthwhile end in itself? Getting even more cringeworthy, and on a more personal note, watching an amazingly skillful film is for me something like a redemption of human nature. Like an amazing athlete can make us feel paradoxically disembodied and also reconciled with our having a body, an amazing film can leave us speechless and also reconciled to our tongues.15 A great film destroys solipsism, not through logic (again, solipsism has logic on its side) but in the sheer emotional reality: for a moment you’re able to see undeniably real communication, and you can know that for all your stutterings and foot-in-mouth situations, it’s still possible to reach outside yourself—perhaps not right now, or maybe not even for you, but someone, someday.

Of course, as with the other views, the problem comes when you start to see this as the be-all and end-all of what makes a movie great. As long as the movies themselves are either innocuous or nonspecific hypotheticals, this problem is hard to see: if someone is going to take interest in a harmless diversion, it may as well have some skill involved. But there’s a niggle in this stance that shows up once we consider one or the other of two real-world examples. One is D.W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation. As far as I can tell from my amateur scholarship, BoaN was a technical powerhouse in its day, and is the inspiration for much of our film technique today. This is all great, but if you asked someone how they felt about BoaN and they simply said “it’s a good movie,” I feel like this would be seen as a bit problematic, on account of the horrific racism in it. The same issue comes up with Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will: summing up Nazi propaganda as “good” because it has a technically gifted cameraman seems, at best, bound for misinterpretation. But these examples aren’t the worst case. If you were to tell someone you think BoaN and TotW are good movies, they would probably just ask for clarification, at which point you would explain that you mean “good” in regards to technical achievement.16 The more glaring issue for me is when this thinking is applied to movies one loves. Say what you will about Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life—plenty of people have already—but just for a second pretend that you’re a person for whom this movie worked (regardless of your own experience with it, it’s patently obvious what sort of response it’s going for). Now imagine you try to talk to someone about this, trying to convey just how awesome and transcendent and spiritually gratifying the experience was, and they respond by saying yes, they agree, that movie was very technically competent. I can not be the only person for whom technically competent seems, as a be-all and end-all, cold, empty, missing something very important about why it is we watch movies and what they’re for.

Which brings us to the central and most problematic question for this view: who wants their life’s passion reduced, as I did above, to a “harmless diversion,” albeit with some skill involved? The emotional responses to this reduction can be quite readily seen in video game culture, which has for years struggled against entrenched ideas of what “art” is, in an effort to get video games into that category. The response of many non-gamers, saying “it’s just a game,” is in large part blind to the corollary to that statement, namely that “games don’t really matter anyway.”17

Needless to say, the response to this condescension hasn’t generally been positive. But this defensiveness isn’t limited to gamers. Call a devoutly religious person’s beliefs “neat.” Or to a poet say “really? Well that must be fun for you.” Or to a woman who spends fifty hours a week at a job she hates, who rushes home every day to spend a few hours carving wood because carving is the only way she feels like she can actually touch anything, say “it’s good to have a hobby.” Having a pleasant tone or a smile on your face while you say these things is of no help: this is a person’s passion you’re dealing with. You don’t have to respect it, but you should be aware that they would like you to. To a cinephile, say “it’s just a movie.”

And at the end of the day, even if something is tremendously talented without any sort of moralistic pitfalls, is this what we really want more of? Would we rather a man make a fifty storey sculpture out of Oreo™ icing than call his son to apologize for leaving? Sure, the icing thing is more difficult in the sense that fewer people possess the ability to do it, but who cares?

Now, applying this to our running example of Boyhood is difficult, and calls attention to the fact that even these subsets of goodness are not in themselves exhaustive—there are many sub-subsets of technical competence itself (and each of the other goodnesses), each of which sub-subset could be examined somewhat independently of the others. It all gets fractal very quickly, which is why I’m going to paint in fairly broad strokes in the next paragraph.

There are many who would say that Boyhood is a work of technical brilliance, on account of Linklater’s præternatural ability to keep actors involved with his projects far longer than is usual. Beyond this there is a certain logistical skill in managing to shoot what needs to be shot in just the few days a year one can get your actors to show up, and in properly parceling out 39 shooting days over 4200 days of production. But here’s the thing: aside from its central gimmick,18 exactly what is technically impressive about Boyhood? My own impression was that all the aspects of picture and sound quality (framing, camera movement, lighting, set design, dialogue mixing, music, foley, etc.) were thoroughly fine but basically unremarkable, and that the acting on display was not as bad as you might expect given the peculiar difficulties of a movie like this. Many would immediately praise the editing work, but considering the difficulty relative to that of other movies, is it really more difficult to cut together 39 days of shooting from the past decade than it is to work a seventeen minute shot into the beginning of Gravity, or to cut together something even barely sensible with the ridiculous number of cuts in The Bourne Ultimatum?19 The effective passage of years is frequently cited, as in Ann Hornaday’s review in the Washington Post in which she calls Boyhood “seamlessly constructed […] unfold[ing] with the flowing, unforced rhythms of a river, or real life.”20 Setting aside for a moment the comparison of Boyhood to real life, I have no response to this other than categorical disagreement. For one thing, I and every real person I could find to actually talk to about this movie almost always found the jumps between years either jarring or subtle enough to be confusing.21 For another, I’m not sure playing Coldplay for the early 00’s, alternately pointing out Bush, Obama, and Harry Potter for the mids, then playing Phoenix and Daft Punk for the 10’s qualifies as “flowing” or “unforced,” all this feeling to me more like picking the most obvious cultural touchstone possible for a given year and basically saying “remember this?” It does the job, to be sure, but I can’t see it as any less of a blunt instrument than a big “2008” coming up on screen. It pains me to say something so negative about a movie that is so clearly a passion project for its entire cast and crew, but take out the “actually shooting for twelve years” part, and what about this movie is, for a competent cast and crew, even slightly difficult to shoot relative to anything else out there?22 All this is to say that while I appreciate what technical competence is visible in Boyhood, I wouldn’t call this its greatest strength.

Narrative competence

“I think the important thing in the end is that the film should work, as a film, beyond how it was made.”

Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu

This is where the majority of the Boyhood-adoring critics rush in, respectfully pointing out that, of course, no one’s claiming Boyhood is great on account of its stellar production values (and they’re right about this, by and large). Their claim would likely be that what is really important is narrative competence. People really want a movie to tell its story well, regardless of critical reaction or technical concerns.23 What is really important, these folks might say, are things like character depth, how effectively a screenplay gives the audience the information it needs, how well a story’s conflict is moulded to impact its audience,24 how it deals with or avoids the social issues of the time, and how it uses or subverts the expectations of its genre. This list of factors is not even close to complete, but it’s just meant to give a sense of what kind of concerns are at issue here. These concerns have to do with the nature of the story itself, its relationship to its creator, and its relationship to society at large, and (crucially) they are not sensitive to time or to the viewer or to geography—even if we get to a point where no one likes Shakespeare any more, where no one has any emotional reaction whatsoever to his works, these works could still be called tremendously competent because of the skill with which they interacted with their society.25

I’m concerned this is still fairly confusing, so I’ll attempt to show what I’m talking about by again subjecting Boyhood to far more criticism than anyone has asked for. The question at hand: is Boyhood narratively competent? My answer is a firm “maybe.”

I say maybe because, if critics and audiences, in aggregate, are reliable indicators of narrative competence, then the answer is an obvious yes. It’s not just that NINETY-EIGHT PERCENT of critics gave the movie a positive review: nearly the same amount praised Gravity, yet it was clear that many focussed on its technical wizardries more than its narrative ones. Look closely at the kind of praise they throw at Boyhood. If you can make it through the ten paragraphs about the production process and find the one that talks about the actual movie, you’ll see the narrative praised left right and centre, and for one (narrative) reason in particular: realism.26 Rafer Guzmán says it “feels more like living a life than watching a movie.” Wesley Morris: “to sit with this movie and witness the concentrated passage of time is to watch, in a true, moving way, your life unspool before your eyes, without fanfare or idealism or romance.” Richard Roeper’s review includes a plot description that’s largely in second person, as if it’s obvious that I’ve lived through this all already. Ty Burr seems to think Boyhood is almost more realistic than life itself:27 “it reminds us of what movies could be and—far more important—what life actually is.” This idea pops up in many reviews, that Boyhood is a rejection of certain illusions about life, and an illustration of the way things really are, behind some sort of Hollywood make-believe.

However, if my own experiences are any indication of narrative competence, the answer would be no, and for basically the opposite reason. Nothing in Boyhood struck me as particularly representative of “life as it actually is.” Nearly every character felt thin to me, and after 166 minutes—not too long for a movie by any means, but certainly long to establish some sort of a rapport—I still didn’t care about them. It wasn’t that they were unlikable (though I must say I’m not nearly as chuffed with Mason as many seem to be), but that, in my own experience, they just didn’t seem important. More damningly, most of the plot elements seemed lifted, though with a considerable amount of polish, from Lifetime movies and after-school specials. The big details aren’t exactly wrong,28 but felt… off, like life in a parallel universe in which everything strains to be just like ours, but of course straining to be realistic is not in itself what our lives are actually like.29 To put it in terms most if not all of my compatriots will understand: it felt like watching Americans trying to say the Canadian syllable “eh”—affected, slightly stilted, just slightly off enough to make skin crawl. Even the passage of time, frequently cited as the defining realist element of Boyhood’s narrative, requires some clarification. Is it true that, “in the moment,” life feels as if it’s going by at a speed of approx. 4 years/hr.? In my experience, the feeling of “time flies,” or “blink and you’ll miss it” doesn’t happen in the moment at all, but rather after the moment has passed and one starts to reminisce. A true depiction of life as it actually is—the present tense being of some import here—would have time pass invisibly, or so gradually as not to be noticed except in retrospect. This may strike some as a nitpicky distinction, but given that the realistic depiction of time is, aside from Boyhood’s production process, about the one thing everyone shares a positive view on, it is all the more important that I point out that I, for one, don’t.30 About the only thing that felt genuinely lifelike was that there is no central conflict in Boyhood, no one driving force or character trait that determines the course of events. For this reason perhaps Linklater should be praised, but I can’t see what I’ve gained from watching a movie that occasionally feels as aimless and pointless as my real life.

And yet I still have to say that this may be a tremendously competent movie, not only in light of the overwhelming consensus against me but also for a reason hinted at above: I’m not an American. Or at least, I didn’t grow up in the States. Given that most if not all of the reviews I could find were from American publications and by American authors, it is entirely possible that Boyhood excels in ways I simply can’t understand because I have lived just a slightly different life. The references and cultural touchstones it uses come at me from a slightly different angle. This could be, as the consensus indicates, the best movie of 2014—but only for Americans, because it so effectively deals with the life of a white, middle-class, specifically American male.31 Then again, it is also entirely possible that the American coming of age depicted in Boyhood is as whitewashed and inaccurate as the images we’ve all seen of the American 1950s, and corresponds not to actual reality, but to how we perceive(d) it, or wish it were perceived. And at any rate it remains an open question whether a movie can be called narratively competent on account of its working well in its context when its context (America) is (shields up) quite limited. Obviously a movie doesn’t have to work for every context—and trying to make this happen usually makes for incredibly bland film—but at what point is geographic and temporal specificity a downside? If I make a movie that is absolutely wonderful, but is only really relevant to one person and only for a month, is this, all else being equal, a problem? I don’t have answers for these questions, and I don’t expect to any time soon, but I should hope that the above discussion gives some idea of what is meant by calling a movie narratively competent (or not), and what kind of issues come into play. As you might expect, though, this view, like those above, is far from bulletproof. You may have noticed that in my initial description of narrative competence, all of the factors were in neutral terms. It involves things like character depth, how well a movie “deals with the issues,” and overall how effectively it functions, sure, but this is only an identification of the factors at play. This says nothing about how the factors influence a movie’s goodness. “Character depth” is involved, yes, but do we want deep or shallow characters? What kind of depth do we want? In what way should a movie “deal with the issues”? Dramatically? Comedically? And what exactly does “effectively” even mean? To what effect? If we want a movie’s narrative to make us think, what should it make us think about? A critic espousing only narrative competence will have little to say in answer to these questions because, at its core, this view assumes some sort of ideological answer to these questions.32

Ideology

Now I think it’s necessary to preempt a certain knee-jerk response on the part of many readers, namely a feeling of immediate disgust at the suggestion that they may have an ideology. On some level this response is understandable since ideology has become a very dirty word for many people, who associate it with ignorant and stupid belief systems that are impervious to any new argument or evidence.33 Really, though, ideology is basically a neutral term referring to a system of ideas, goals, and expectations that influence how we see things, a system which, it bears emphasizing, we all have. That we all have at least one ideology ties in with the point made quite a ways above that objectivity is by definition impossible for a person to have (and not particularly worthwhile anyway) but is all the more important to keep in mind here because of the prevailing politics of our time: we like to think of ourselves as progressive beacons of understanding, beyond party politics, ready to appreciate craft wherever we find it. To not be this way—to be ideological—is to be close-minded, or even (tragedy of all tragedies) intolerant.

But then, it has to be admitted that (beyond the obvious problem that the extreme moral, ethical, aesthetic and epistemic relativism that spawns these sorts of thoughts is logically self-immolating) our appreciation of a movie we fundamentally disagree with, genuine and well-intentioned though said appreciation may be, always comes at some sort of a distance. I can genuinely say that much of the comedic timing and writing quirk in Frank are funny, and that Michael Fassbender’s performance is, as always, fantastic, but to do so I have to step past the part of myself that feels very uncomfortable with the climax’s seeming implication that singing a song with your friends can cure your mental problems. I just don’t think psychology works quite so neatly, and I think that in many cases the idea that it does can be quite harmful. The converse has similar problems: our appreciation of a poor movie that well or even perfectly represents our ideologies is limited at best, and I might argue it actually doesn’t exist. We don’t really like the movie. We may like what it says, sure, but this is a fairly bleak, mechanistic, reductive way of appreciation, which shares an uncomfortable amount of brain-space with the thoughts you have watching workplace safety videos: “yes, well, I’m no more enriched as a person, nor will I ever be, but you have to admit, you should try to avoid spilling bleach in your eyes, so the message is solid.” This is a view of art that allows it to be no more than a tool, and trust me: there’s more to life than tools.

What is to be said then of Boyhood’s ideology depends quite a lot on what one believes this ideology is. Looking just within the movie, we see alcoholism portrayed as degenerate, Facebook portrayed as narcissistic and clingy, and “the moment” portrayed as something we should all strive to be “in.” I wouldn’t say I totally disagree with these theses, but the latter two are in serious need of qualification in order not to sound like a Lululemon shopping bag, and at any rate can already be found, somewhat ironically, in many Facebook posts.

On a slightly more abstracted level, some have argued that Linklater’s choices of how to tell the story is an argument in itself. Chris Vognar at the Dallas Morning News says Boyhood’s lack of dramatic set pieces or stylistic elements and its abundance of “small stuff […] show us that no moment is really small,” with Michael Phillips at the Chicago Tribune adding that this should “remind us that we’d better appreciate what and who we have in our lives while we have them.” This is an ideology that I agree with, but it’s also the sort of ideology I would never even think to point out that I agree with—what sort of a contrarian Scrooge wouldn’t? Cognitively, exactly who takes issue with the notion that we should appreciate our blessings? The intellectual component of this thinking is both bulletproof and almost universally accepted, so I don’t feel this is an ideology in need of any intellectual defence, but rather in need of visceralizing. People don’t need to think that they should appreciate the little things; people need to feel this, hopefully while actually doing it. Unfortunately, I never got the sense that Boyhood was instilling this in me, nor that it was likely to instil it in anyone else. This could be a result of many things, but my thinking always centres on the fact that even in Boyhood, the little things really aren’t that important. They’re focussed on, sure, but what really comes of Mason’s question about elves, or his gun, or the oft-cited GTO scene? I don’t mean to imply that a movie can’t or shouldn’t be understated, but these things didn’t seem to be important to the plot, to me, or even to the characters themselves. The only argument I could find as to why these things should be focussed on was that there was a camera focussed on them, which more or less begs the question.

Contrast this with something like Breaking Bad, which for all its potential glamourizing faults paints a pretty startling picture of the power of little moments. While many still rooted for Walter far longer than would be appropriate if he were a real person,34 most whom I talked to had a point at which this loyalty broke, and all justifications for his actions faded away. There are two things I find interesting about this. The first is that, even among my limited friend group, there is quite an assortment of these moments: everyone’s loyalty snapped at a different time. The second is that, when asked to identify the moment when Walter began the decline that ultimately lead to being deemed a “bad guy,” most people work their way backwards until they end up at some point within the first couple episodes. These points highlight how well Breaking Bad is structured, as a very slow, gradual, almost invisible descent into evil, a descent that, though powered almost entirely by little moments, is deadly serious in the end. Perhaps a few of Walt’s initial actions are forgiven as stemming from the confused thoughts of a person with a newfound cancer diagnosis, but in retrospect it becomes clear that these are perhaps seemingly small but genuinely bad decisions he’s making that, crucially, have a material effect not just on the plot but also on Walt’s character. With each choice, Walt takes one more step down the road toward that point where no one is on his side. He makes himself into a bad guy, one random act of pride at a time.

But there is one more ideological tack people take when it comes to Boyhood, and it comes (I truly am sorry) at an even more abstracted level. This is the idea that Boyhood stands as an argument for either a certain type of movie or a certain kind of filmmaking. In particular, critics seem very supportive of the verve and/or gumption and/or testicular/ovarian fortitude that we can only assume must have gone into such an ambitious process.35 This is something I can wholeheartedly and without reservation get behind: movies should be daring; risks should be taken; people, be they audiences or filmmakers, should be surprised, shocked, stunned, occasionally outraged, and always challenged. That said, I would like to point out that this is hardly the only movie out there that’s taking risks. It hasn’t been that long since Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers decided to lure in the 18-25 y/o male demographic with the promise of wacky antics and barely-legal ex-Disney star nudity only to give them a movie that absolutely demolishes spring break culture as vapid and destructive. True, this isn’t as immediately impressive as filming the same cast for twelve years, and I’m not trying to make the case that it’s equally difficult, but try going into a studio executive’s office and tell him that you’re going to fundamentally mislead your audience about what movie they’re going to see: s/he won’t be happy about the negative word of mouth this will almost surely result. Spring Breakers risked pissing off the very people it needed to buy tickets. Or look at Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s The Interview, which it turns out carried the risk of destabilizing relations with North Korea, but which also carried the risk of the exact reaction it has gotten in the West: that it is a stupid movie filled with toilet humour and profanity, which should be protected and maybe watched for reasons of free speech, but which really has no importance beyond this. It risked people assuming that comedy implies a lack of seriousness, that broadness implies unintelligence, and that jokes about a horrible situation imply said situation is funny. Or, hell, look at Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, which has been roundly condemned for its excessive length. I do agree with this criticism, and think that The Hobbit might have worked better as one or two movies rather than three, but keeping in mind my support of creative risk-taking, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Jackson shouldn’t have tried to make a trilogy out of a single book. In fact, I would say that this sort of risk—the kind that doesn’t pan out—is the most important kind there is. Jackson risked his reputation and the integrity of a story he quiet probably loves on his ability to keep audiences interested for eight hours.36 It didn’t work, sure, but if we really want people to take risks, we can’t say “but only the risks we know will turn out.” Perhaps the particular sort of risk involved in these other examples isn’t as immediately eye-catching as the filming-for-twelve-years thing, or perhaps they just don’t fit as well into our schema of a tortured, but ultimately righteous, starving artist. Whatever the reason, these risks seem much less appreciated than Boyhood’s, but I can’t see why they are less valuable.

It could also be that those praising Boyhood for expanding the possibilities of cinema aren’t talking about risk taking in general, but about the specific technique of real-life aging. This technique is undeniably interesting to look at, but I would find this praise for it suspect. Despite what many reviews have claimed, Boyhood isn’t anywhere near the first movie to integrate the passage of real-life time. Everything from Toy Story to Indiana Jones, to a bunch of François Truffaut films that critics will act like you’ve seen, to Rocky, to Michael Apted’s Up series, to Linklater’s own Before series have used the passage of real time for story purposes. Those pointing out that Boyhood is the first movie to integrate this passage of time into a single movie have to contend with Michael Winterbottom’s Everyday, which did exactly this and is now all but ignored: I only found one Boyhood review that even mentioned Everyday’s existence, and it is 128 words long. When thinking through this it quickly becomes apparent that there is little ideological rhyme or reason behind when real-time aging is respected and when it is not, and so I would posit that the reason Boyhood gets this sort of praise above and beyond all its cohorts is not ideological at all, but comes from one of the other aspects mentioned above.

So Now Then

But as some of you may remember, I did say way, way above that this essay isn’t really about Boyhood at all. You would be forgiven for asking why, if this is the case, I’ve just spent several thousand words delving into Boyhood-related minutiae that hardly anyone could be bothered with. This might seem on a level with a biology teacher cutting up a frog in front of class, tossing it aside, and saying “right, today we’re going to study botany.” I would like to argue, though, that this case study has secretly been an argument for the general thesis, which, believe it or not, I actually do have: “good” (and, by extension, “bad”) is, on its own, diffuse enough to be practically meaningless. Not only is goodness incredibly multifaceted, but each facet is woefully incomplete on its own. This has implications for review-criticism, for awards shows, and for people who get far too hung up on whether or not something really deserves to be a classic. All of these thrive on the binary distinction between movies being good or bad, first or last, worthwhile or not, winners and runners-up. But really, keeping in mind the previous 10,000 words on the subject, would it be possible for me to adequately give my answer to the question “is Boyhood good?” with either a yes or no? It’s critically and popularly adored, yes, but I didn’t enjoy watching it. It’s technically incredible in some ways, and about average in others. Its narrative is heartwarming and poignant for most, but I found it basically uninteresting. And its ideology is either trite, vapid, obvious, inspiring, or commonplace, depending on your viewpoint. Or else try the same thing with David Fincher’s Fight Club. Critically, it’s thought to be Pretty Good; audiences love it; I get swept off my feet whenever I watch it; it’s technically off the charts; but its narrative borders on ridiculous, and around the time of the big twist the story starts to clash with its own ideology, an ideology that may be defensible in theory but in practice ends up degenerate. I would think the point is obvious, but if not I’ll make it so: none of this nuance is reflected in a yes/no, worthwhile/not, winner/runner up distinction. But for some reason we feel a need for this binary. And so things start to get simplified. Movies get categorized as mandatory viewing or artistic garbage. Respected or ridiculed. Funny or boring. Progressive or racist. And all of this because we’ve neglected to add two extras syllables to our initial question: instead of “is it good?” how about “is it any good?” Of course this wouldn’t solve all our filmic problems. People will still insist that Spiderman 3’s failings can be attributed exclusively to its number of villains, or that Citizen Kane snobbery can be defeated by reference to an unimportant plot hole, or that practical effects are inherently superior to CGI, or any number of other ridiculous oversimplifications. But I think it’s at least a step in the right direction, a direction where we realize that art is complex and is made to have complex reactions, that not having the definitive answer doesn’t mean we or someone else don’t have something of import to say, and that claiming to have the definitive answer is about the only surefire way not to.

So now then, an exercise: is this essay any good?


  1. A fun fact is that Boyhood’s working title for some time was 12 Years, which was eventually changed to the current title in deference to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which is no doubt a kind and respectful and all around decent thing of Linklater to do for a fellow filmmaker, but I’ve got to say I am somewhat disappointed that we’ve lost out on the potential for someone to accidentally watch one instead of the other (see: 28 Days and 28 Days Later).

  2. “Some studio” in this case being IFC Films, which I think deserves a bit of credit for the gamble. See: Variety

  3. He was at the time probably busy bankrolling such successes as Daredevil, Hulk, Elektra, and perennial favourite Blade: Trinity.

  4. Reasonable question in response: what real “practical purpose” is served by one’s view of Boyhood, movies, or art in general? This question probably stems either from Immanuel Kant’s notion of disinterested pleasure in aesthetics (see: Kant’s Critique of Judgment), or more likely from the prevalent idea that movies are just for fun, and that fun can’t coincide with practicality without becoming work. Neither of these viewpoints is dumb, but they do overlook firstly the fact that both fun and aesthetic appreciation are goods which, all else being equal, it makes sense to make practical steps towards; and secondly the fact that, like it or not, movies aren’t just passive objects: they affect us—no one would watch them if they didn’t. Keeping these points in mind, the “practical purpose” that movies serve is simply a positive effect in their audience, be that effect increased empathy, hope in dark times, or just fun. Assuming our view of movies impacts which movies we watch, it would then impact the efficacy of these positive effects. Right?

  5. And for anyone who’s unclear how Rotten Tomatoes’ rating system works, 100% only means (approximately) that all the critics polled think you should see the movie, not that all critics think the movie is flawless. This is helpful to keep in mind when you see a movie hovering at 50%: half the critics polled still think you should see it. I can’t fault RT’s methods too much here. Of course boiling things down to a single number is reductive and inaccurate (how exactly is Boyhood better than The Lego Movie? RottenTomatoes’ answer would be: 2% better, which I sincerely hope is disheartening), but this hardly started (and it certainly won’t end) with RottenTomatoes, and at any rate they at least put the metric for a “fresh” rating at 60% (basically “most critics think it’s worthwhile”) rather than at a level more in line with a B+. Then again, I can’t imagine the RottenTomatoes staff are dumb enough to think we won’t see 63% and immediately think “basically passable but it’s certainly not what we’re shooting for.”

  6. OK, three questions.

  7. I’m concerned I’m coming off a bit too much like an anti-RT zealot, which is a persona that’s far too played out in cinephilic circles, so I would like to extend some generosity to the RT staff/stock(a) and point out that, if you’re trying to figure out if an ordinary person will like a movie, going by what people ordinarily think about it is hardly the worst place to start. It’s just that it’s a pretty terrible place to end.

    (a) Or, more accurately, the TimeWarner stock

  8. “Photon from pixel 535,096 travelled out at 44° from the (hypothetically ideal) plane of the display, travelling 5.3ft until contacting the floor, at which point diffraction…” You can see, “objectivity” isn’t the real goal. As long as we’re humans, some facts are simply more important to us than others, and this is purely subjective.

  9. Armond White being, as always, a notable exception.

  10. Financial pressures that, of course, influence the critics themselves—since what publication wants to employ a critic who flagrantly disagrees with its own readers (Armond White being, as always, a notable exception)?—but which are all the more salient with RT itself since there’s no personal authorship involved and as such little competition between commerce and artistic integrity: it’s basically just commerce. Which this is fine, don’t get me wrong, but it’s good to keep in mind.

  11. Psych majors: hi, good to meet you. I’m a psych major too. You can tell by the fact I’m not doing psychology. Also, point to blind spots on the retina, change blindness, McGurk effects, and the phi phenomenon all you want, but our perceptions are remarkably consistent from person to person. People tend to see even these illusions similarly.

  12. Unless you count acknowledging Boyhood’s production process. In that case, I’ve mentioned it once, briefly, but even then I didn’t discuss the final product so much as what went into making it.

  13. Prescriptivists and Descriptivists: don’t. Not here. Also, you’re both wrong.

  14. It’s a healthy debate, basically, and as such a pretty good example of why it seems like opposing viewpoints always hate each other so much: healthy debates are boring to watch and to be in, so we tend to ignore them. It’s all “I see your point, and…” or “that’s really interesting, but I’ve always thought…” and you never get to just have fun, throw thoughtfulness to the wind, and call somebody a douchebag like you do on Jezebel.

  15. Eagle-eyed readers will recognize this as basically a wholesale ripoff of David Foster Wallace’s thesis in “Federer as Religious Experience” (New York Times, 2006). As he puts it, “There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body. If this is not so obviously true that no one needs examples, we can just quickly mention pain, sores, odors, nausea, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits — every last schism between our physical wills and our actual capacities. Can anyone doubt we need help being reconciled? Crave it? It’s your body that dies, after all. There are wonderful things about having a body, too, obviously — it’s just that these things are much harder to feel and appreciate in real time. Rather like certain kinds of rare, peak-type sensuous epiphanies (“I’m so glad I have eyes to see this sunrise!” etc.), great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important — they make up for a lot.”

  16. Actually, let’s be honest, they would probably say “what the hell is Triumph of the Will?” But assume you’re having this conversation in a particularly snobbish film club.

  17. This debate has died down quite a bit of late, which I would attribute to the release of such seminal (and discussed-to-death) art-games as Gone Home; Papers, Please; Journey; and This War of Mine, which combined compelling the gameplay design commonly seen in mainstream titles with a relentless focus on theme and/or tone seen in earlier though less successful examples such as Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia.(a) Unfortunately, the end of this debate seems mostly to be a result of everyone just assuming not only that games are art, but that everyone agrees which of the artistic factors at play is of supreme importance. This has resulted in much shouting.

    (a) If you are a Dys4ia evangelist, and this judgment makes you hate me, I’m sorry, and I hope we can still talk. I just didn’t get anything out of Dys4ia that I couldn’t have gotten out of reading a short paragraph about gender realignment, and at any rate the gameplay conceits were mostly just literalizations of text, which isn’t very interesting to me.

  18.  And, keeping in mind that this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s of no value, it is a gimmick, or, at the very least, once the marketing procedure got started, it was treated as a gimmick.

  19. David Bordwell puts this number at “about 3200” which, within the ~105 minutes of actual runtime, leaves an average shot length of “about 2 seconds.” I’ve made the personal decision to just trust him on this number.

  20. See also: Ty Burr at the Boston Globe, calling the editing “graceful.”

  21.  To those who would contend that such a declaration is a mark of my lack of awareness of such in-your-face filmmakers as Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noé, or such relentlessly subtle ones as Andrei Tarkovsky, or the perennial favourites Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson who do some of both, let me put your minds at ease by saying I understand that both “jarring” and “subtle” can be good things. The problem is that from what I could tell, there was no rhyme or reason to the shifts. Even a simple teenage romance and breakup sequence became far more confusing than it should have been, for me and everyone else I talked to. Yes, this still leaves the door open for the “the movie shouldn’t do all the work for you” argument. I can’t fully rebut this. I will, however, point out that there’s a difference between someone telling you a riddle and someone mumbling at a distance and saying “you figure it out.”

  22.  The wittiest riposte to this I could find was from Chris Vognar, who claims that “To say Boyhood wouldn’t be that special if it were shot in a conventional manner is kind of like saying that elephant in the zoo wouldn’t be so big if it weren’t so big,” which is entirely true and exactly the problem: there’s more to elephants than being big, and there’s more to movies also.

  23.  Or, alternatively: strip all that technical mumbo jumbo out for a second, and look at what’s left behind—that’s the difference (if there is one) between Gravity and Children of Men (or, in this case, the difference between Boyhood and the seven other movies it’s going to beat at the Oscars).

  24.  I’m nervous as I write this because, left unclarified, this seems bound to be confused with individual enjoyment. The difference between these can be subtle, but I feel it in my bones. I swear it’s important. Individual enjoyment is a simple measure of how much you as an isolated cell like a given thing. It says effectively nothing about anyone other than you, or even about the movie in question. It’s completely limited to you and your reaction. Narrative competence is much broader than this. It involves factors and concepts beyond you, like those between you and another person, or between two people who aren’t you, or between groups of people. It brings in considerations of audience, of context, of cultural myth, of humanity and how it receives story, and it effectively uses this understanding.

  25. By this I don’t mean that good art would remain good even if released to another audience, at another time. Released today, Toy Story would rightly be criticized for shoddy animation, and 12 Years a Slave might have been entirely ineffective if released in present day Botswana two hundred years ago (though it would have been quite impressive, since film hadn’t been invented yet). What I mean is that, if one decides that a movie is effective in its context, this doesn’t then change once the context does.

  26. A representative sample would be far too large to include. Read any review, basically. It’s probably in there somewhere.

  27. “Life itself” being, in many reviews, suggested as a more accurate though already taken title.

  28. Though I had trouble not laughing at the peer pressure scene, which gets the realities of peer pressure so strangely wrong (no one says “drink this beer or you’re a pussy,” since even the teenager saying this would see how ridiculous it is—peer pressure is subtle, even to the perpetrators, which is exactly the issue) that I flashed back to so many similarly ridiculous D.A.R.E. presentations which I can’t help but feel were undeserving of a Best Picture nomination.

  29. Of course I constantly strain to be realistic and/or normal, but I don’t have the perception that everyone and everything else does.

  30. This may also come under fire as the musings of an unwise, sophomoric youth, with no conception of what the passage of time is really like, once a good amount of it has passed. This may be true, although it invites the question of how, if one is so down on the musings of sophomoric youths, one got through half of Linklater’s films in the first place.

  31. A demographic which has, as we all know, been tragically underrepresented.

  32.  This is similar to certain perennial debates in science. Science, being in the abstract a completely objective pursuit, offers no guidance on what to do with the knowledge it gives us. The second we make a decision about what the facts mean, even if it’s something as simple as choosing to administer a drug because we know it cures a certain disease, we bring ideology to the table, and this ideology cannot itself be scientific. This shares some mental similarities to Gödel’s incompleteness theories in math, in that a system can’t prove itself by itself.

  33. That is to say, ideology basically means “those stupid beliefs that other people have.”

  34. Though I contended and continue to contend that his fictional nature is not at all irrelevant when passing judgment on people’s allegiance to him.

  35. See: SFGate, The New Yorker, The Seattle Times, and The A.V. Club.

  36.  That the splitting of one book into three movies was a decision at least partly based on financial concerns is rather obvious, but one can’t pretend similarly motivated decisions aren’t made for other movies all the time, movies that in many cases remain artistically valid.