Preparing to be Unprepared

Complexity as a Feature

Purpose, Goals, Destination

Boyhood

Life between the milestones. In one of the closing scenes of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood the boy’s mother (Patricia Arquette) breaks down into a tearful soliloquy as she says goodbye to her son, who is departing for college, departing his boyhood. She ticks off various parenting milestones and waves her hand to indicate the emptiness of her nest, the emptiness of the rest of her life now that her children are raised and out the door. Next stop, funeral.

But Linklater’s film hasn’t focused on the milestones. The story—if it can be called a story given that it has no real narrative beginning, middle, or end—meanders through time, peeking in once a year over the span of twelve years in real time at these characters’ lives. The gimmick (filmed over twelve years with the same cast) never seems gimmicky because one scene flows seamlessly into the other and everyone simply ages naturally before our eyes.

Boyhood is not a transformative coming-of-age story where a single incident plucks one from childhood and forces the protagonist to face adulthood. Instead it shows the stumbling progress of real life, where we keep putting one foot in front of another and end up in a different place without much sense of moving forward or accomplishment. No magical demarcation between boyhood and adulthood where you suddenly know what life is all about exists. The adults are still trying to discover meaning.

As the boy says. We do not seize the moment. The moment seizes us. Life is always “right now.”

For my part, I found Boyhood to be Linklater’s best love letter to Austin and Texas. More than any of his movies with this same setting, it evokes the world I inhabit. I walked home from the theater and felt aware of and appreciative of this specific time and place. Everything seemed more real.

Related

Years before I saw Boyhood, I wrote about life lived in the spaces

Aspirations

I used to dream of sitting in the garden but a gardener never can. At least not one’s own garden because it constantly calls to you with thing to do. You look up and see something that needs picking, planting, pruning, weeding, or moved from here to there.

So then I dreamed of sitting in a nice little cafe. Drinking something. Eating something. Writing in a journal or reading a book. Watching people. But when do I have time to escape guiltlessly? And all those calories! And the coffee shop is never as comfy as home. It’s crowded with people talking too loudly or crying children. There is too much distraction to either read or write. I gulp down my coffee before it gets cold, become antsy and then off I go.

Nantwich

Memory, Recall, and Significance

As we age, we tend to fret that we can’t remember what happened yesterday or last week as well as some events of our youth which seemed as if they happened just yesterday. Our most recent days seem to blur into each other.

I think this is not just an effect of age, but of perspective. We have sifted through those distant events. The ones imbued with the most significance rise to the top; the rest drain away. We recall them time and again, talking with friends and family, looking at old photos. We shape and mold those memories. We create them.

Likewise we have forgotten as many trivial moments of our early life as the trivial moments of our present life. We don’t remember the groceries we bought, the loads of laundry we did, the algebra homework, the endless boring meetings at work. Obviously we don’t remember what we have forgotten.

Until we have moved some distance away from this moment, we will not be able to assess its significance. When we say goodbye to a friend, we cannot know if those will be the last words we speak to him until some moment much later. When we say hello to a stranger, we cannot know if she will become a friend or a lover.

We live our life in the moment; we create our narrative upon reflection.

Lincoln

The difficulty with making films about historical characters is that the audience comes armed with prejudice. The face is familiar to us in a way that creates rather than closes a distance. It is a face that stands for something so that the person the face belongs becomes a kind of shorthand for an ideal or a moment in time. That person ceases to be a human being. He is larger than life.

Characters larger than life are conveniently not like us. We excuse ourselves for living our small, ordinary lives because, after all, we are not like the great men who perform great deeds.

So when faced with the choice to see a movie about Lincoln, who is much more a myth than a man, does it feel rather like a school assignment? Of course it does. As such, I went expecting very little. How would Spielberg make this movie something other than spectacle?

Spielberg succeeds by eschewing spectacle entirely, by starting with Lincoln listening to soldiers on the front and continuing with the small details of a domestic scene: a husband and wife talking. For the entire movie, he remains on this tight focus of personal conversation. (Don’t let the trailer fool you.) He removes the epic from what, in America, is always viewed as epic: our great divide, the Civil War. He makes history personal.

What a challenge to move us past the the filters of our eyes, that familiar figure, the costumes, the old-fashioned speech until we are caught up with the people, their personalities, their arguments, and personal passions.

The focus of the movie is not on Lincoln’s life, in a biographical sweep, or on the Civil War but on passing a piece of legislation: the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which abolishes slavery and involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime. The film is a study in politics, about what men do to get things done: when they stand their ground in the face of opposition and when they compromise—about doing anything you have to do when your need to accomplish it is more important to you than yourself as an individual…even if those things are not exactly neat and tidy.

The tone and pacing of the movie is very like TV show, The West Wing…just in a different period. And like that show, and perhaps the real life West Wing of the Clinton and Obama administrations, the president’s wife plays a key role as confidant and partner. She is not just part of the scenery. She has dimension.

Daniel Day-Lewis delivers the goods by not chewing the scenery. When his Lincoln is very, very angry he gets deathly quiet. After awhile you forget Lincoln’s face, you forget Daniel Day-Lewis’s face and you begin to see a person not unlike yourself.

The only bone I have to pick with Spielberg is the usual one. He doesn’t know when to end a movie. He should’ve stopped several scenes earlier, with Lincoln walking down the hallway after success. Instead, we have to continue onto the assassination and the mourning and one last ending speech.

Other than that quibble, Lincoln is a good film. It’s probably the only film I’ve seen this year that I’d like to see again. In fact, if you were here, I’d say let’s go now.

Bottom Line: Recommended

We Need to Talk About Kevin

I had heard great things about Tilda Swinton’s performance. She is a mother racked with guilt and duty. She lives her life in a hollow-eyed state of post traumatic stress. What I wanted most from this movie was a character arc. I was disappointed. In an interview with Swinton that played before the film, she said she most enjoyed playing characters whose basic foundation was shaken–who were forced to change. For me that just didn’t happen in Kevin.

Part of the fault lies in the structure of the movie. It’s one of those modern intercut movies, where the past is overlaid on the present. I don’t think we can even refer to the scenes in the past as flashbacks anymore. In this particular story, I felt the technique defused the tension, rather than heightened it. If we want to witness Tilda Swinton’s character dragged into her own personal hell, doesn’t she have to start off in a good place? I was surprised, somewhere two-thirds of the way in the film to learn that she was a successful travel author. In every other scene she seems trapped by circumstances.

Reading around the web, I see that Roger Ebert disagrees with me completely about this. He says,

“The mistake would be to take the film apart and try to reconnect the pieces in chronological order. The wife and mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton), has been so overwhelmed by despair that her life exists in her mind all at the same time. There is no pattern. Nothing makes sense.

I guess how you feel about the film’s structure depends on what you think the film is trying to portray. Is it enough to be adrift in the mind of the sufferer? Is the audience supposed to feel what it is to know that there is no way out. The film certainly succeeds providing a sense of eternal damnation–the sameness of the eternal present.

Every scene in the movie is colored in red. One is always aware of it. The effect is not like Ozu, however; it’s more like a B-horror flick. Like Lady Macbeth, Swinton’s character cannot wash the blood off her hands. And time after time we see her try, whether it’s red paint, or tomato juice, or strawberry jam. I can’t decide of this is overdone or the best thing about the movie.

Bottom Line

Well-played. Intriguing. And yet I can’t think of a single person I’d encourage to see it.

Retribution Falls

This was recommended to me as a fun bit of fluff, “Firefly in airships.” So I didn’t approach it with the bar set high. Even so, I apparently expect more from my fluff because I was disappointed. Reading it I spent most of my time wondering why it kept missing the mark. What sets a good book apart? What makes the beloved motley crew of Serenity beloved and the pale imitations pale?

One bad habit is the awkward revelation of information in dialog. Yes, it would be nice if the reader learned things as the characters do but if there is no way to make this natural, the writer should just tell us, quickly and simply. Don’t set up a conversation just to have one character ask another to explain the political/religious/economic situation of their shared environment.

For the most part, the narrative flow is competent. Despite starting off at gunpoint, it is slow to get going. The real plot doesn’t kick in until page 50. A heist. A double-cross. Our motley crew caught up in machinations and plots, pawns in someone else’s game. Can they foil the plot, save their hides, and clear their names?

In Retribution Falls, the point-of-view refuses to settle. We get inside most of the crew’s heads but don’t stay with any of them long enough to build affection. The most interesting character is the passenger, Crake, a daemonist (someone who harnesses daemonic forces in a scientific way, as we might use electricity). Jez, the navigator, also has some interesting differences she is trying to keep from bubbling to the surface. Had the story been told entirely through either of their eyes, it would have been more interesting. Ostensibly, the ship’s captain, Frey, is the hero. This kind of story demands he be a lovable rogue, a bit crusty from his hard luck life.

A frat boy immaturity clings our band of misfits. They each have a distinctive twitch but they don’t have any depth. They whore, drink, and gamble in a gentle PG-rated way — and I’m thankful that Retribution Falls lacks any real ugliness. For the most part, it’s just flat. And then there’s the matter of our captain’s love life. Painful. Rather than making him admirable, his attitude made me root for the other team. Are we supposed to muster sympathy and feel his outrage when he says, “You murdered our baby!” to the woman who attempted suicide after he left her at the altar, pregnant with his child. Really?

Overall, I found the construction of the characters and environment lazy. The imagined world reminded me of the criticism that Richard Harter made of The Mote in God’s Eye: “Hack after hack has rewritten Roman and European history into galactic Empires, dark ages, etc. It has been all too much a matter of projecting the romanticism of the past into the future without any real consideration of plausibility.” Retribution Falls is Renaissance Fair with pirates in airships.

The surface and beneath the surface