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She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.

Or, put another way, "It's constant, the moments, it's just - it's like it's always right now, you know?"

So little Laura figures it all out at the age of 5, while Mason comes to the realization only after implanting an ear gauge, leaving for college and getting high in a location of staggering natural beauty. But it's not like it's a competition or anything. Neither of them is real anyway.

But it could be a competition! That could be fun! Let's examine other points of comparison.

Watering down the Bechdel Test

Maybe it isn't fair to apply the Bechdel Test to a movie called "Boyhood." If two female characters were to talk about something other than a boy, they would at the very least be veering off topic. While there would seem to be at least a little time for digression in a 165 minutes, benefit of the doubt is, in this case, a costless commodity. Instead, let's consider progressively watered down versions of the test.

Are there two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man?

No, not in Boyhood. That one's easy. Little House, both in the original books and various franchises, features numerous female characters and conversations. Admittedly, the topics of choice are usually related to cookery and other domestic pursuits, but not exclusively about men.

Do two named female characters ever have a conversation that might even be about a man?

Arguably, in Boyhood. Olivia escapes from her abusive professor husband with the help of a friend, with whom some coordination is necessary, although most of it occurs off screen. Still, some conversation about man is implied. From Little House, of course, the collected conversations about Pa alone would make a book of respectable length.

Are two female characters ever in proximity long enough to have possibly conducted a conversation?

In Boyhood, sort of, but most of the characters in question are extras, so, for all intents and purposes, no. In Little House, most definitely, interminably even.

Does any single named female character ever participate in a conversation, with a man, but not about a man.

Kudos to Team Linklater! Olivia scores some brief interactions with Mason about his homework and curfew, and the young Samantha makes same sassy remarks before her character more or less shuts down (unhelpfully promulgating the myth that girls must shed all semblance of personality before growing up).

However, I think I'm going to give the point to Wilder, because the conversations are significantly longer and deeper, touching on issues as complex as the rights of indigenous Americans.

Does any single female character participate in a conversation with a man, about a man?

Score! Sheena listens appreciatively to Mason's Linklateresque ramblings, at lengths that would bring a weaker character to her knees. Nothing in Little House approaches such virtuosic abnegation, and your humble blogger was brought to tears by Zoe Graham's portrayal of a true American hero.

Do any male characters participate in a conversation about a woman?

Yes, though I recall most being along the lines of, "I think she digs you." There's that father and son bonding session after Sheena finally comes to her senses, but the Mason Jr.'s depiction of an adolescent in the throws of romantic grief is possibly the worst ever committed to film, and that may disqualify the whole conversation.

What about Little House? I must confess that my recall of the opus does not include the answer to this question. I am, after all, a boy.

Emotional resonance

We've all been children, so why do we like to see childhood depicted in film? I think the answer is that our memories of childhood are lossily compressed and nearly obscured by interpretation and revision. We have memories from childhood, but we've lost the memory of being a child, and we mourn that loss. The best movies about childhood take us back to a mindset that we can no longer summon on our own, tricking us for a moment into viewing the world without the lens of subsequent experience: Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows, Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, even the young Jack in Tree of Life or Danny in The Shining make us experience the unexperienceable for just a moment: not summarizing a memory but revisiting the past.

Boyhood, by comparison, feels like a movie about a boyhood as recalled. Mason is someone about whom we accumulate observations, but we never see the world through his eyes. Late in the film, there's an attempt to accomplish this trick literally, by showing us the framing of photographs that Mason takes, but this technique is as ineffective as it is shopworn. When Mason takes a well composed shot of some rusty Americana, what we learn is is complimentary to the cinematographers but nearly irrelevant to Mason's character.2

It has been pointed out to me that the film does do a good job of capturing Texas - in a way explaining the nostalgia that expatriate Texans feel, even expatriates who object to quite a lot about Texas

I'll go out on a limb here and predict that, 50 years from now, Laura Ingalls Wilder will occupy an order of magnitude greater heartspace than Mason.

Credit for originality

Ethan Hawke wrote in a Reddit AMA that "Richard Linklater and I have made a short film every year for the last 11 years, one more to go, that follows the development of a young boy from age 6 to 18." In making series of films depicting the same characters, portrayed by the same actors, over a substantial period of time, Linklater is not breaking ground. Truffaut did it with Antoine Doinel, starting with The 400 Blows1, mentioned above. The Linklater gang themselves contributed to the genre in their Before series, and it would be unfair not to mention Michael Apted's brilliant \(7\times n\) Up documentaries. Boyhood's original twist, therefore, is holding on to the footage and releasing it all at once, which is really just a marketing innovation.

Outside of film, the technique is even less original. While Proust, Dickens and the Bible come most easily to mind, Little House itself is an obvious example, so again, point goes to Wilder.

Salvage

There are a few good points.

First, Patricia Arquette has demonstrated an uncanny ability to bring vivid humanity to an underwritten, mechanical role, and she will have earned the Supporting Actress Oscar that is surely coming her way. It is one of cinema's great tragedies that we will never know the depths she might have brought to R2D2.

Second, Ethan Hawke does a credible job, creating a character of some complexity and evolving believably over the course of the film. It's not brilliant, but it's not annoying either.

And the winner is...

Little House on the Prairie. Choose your medium.


  1. Thanks to Stephanie Friedman for suggesting 400 Blows and making me look clever here. 

  2. Other than reminding us of every other pretentious dork who carries around a larger-than-necessary camera and likes to look serious. 



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