Friday, August 22, 2014

How I Experienced the Movie *Boyhood*

  • In a good way, Richard Linklater's movie Boyhood meanders.  It's a movie of vignettes.  They hang together, in the way a writer's collection of short stories or poems often do, but it's not a conventionally plotted story.  I flashed from time to time to Robert Altman's movie Short Cuts -- the way one part of the movie jumped without an explicit transition to another and how it always worked.
  • As I rode the train to downtown D. C., to the Landmark E Street Cinema and as I dined at Lincoln's Waffles before the movie, I thought about movies I'd seen about young boys and teenagers that had had the most impact on me over the years.  One came to mind:  Ordinary People.  When I saw this movie back in the fall of 1980 with my first wife, I remember feeling I'd never experienced the emotional turmoil of my teenaged years (as well as my twenties) more immediately and accurately than in Timothy Hutton's portrayal of Conrad, the boy who couldn't save his older brother, Buck, from being killed in a sailing accident.  On the surface, I had nothing in common with Conrad.  His family was affluent.  Conrad spent time in a psychiatric hospital.  He tried to commit suicide.  None of these things are or were true about me.  But, on the inside, Conrad and I were both afflicted with insecurity, self-loathing, constant berating of ourselves, guilt, and an inability to stop it.  Conrad experiences a breakthrough, as I remember, with his therapist, Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch).  I'd never experienced such a breakthrough.  Conrad's was temporarily cathartic, but didn't lead to a breakthrough.  Nonetheless, alienation I had felt, isolation I had felt with my inward life did break down.  Although it didn't free me from how I regarded myself, I no longer felt alone.
  • I didn't know if Boyhood would transport me back to my own boyhood and to my own experiences of becoming a teenager and graduating from high school and starting college.  For whatever reason, the movie did not do this.  Instead, my involvement was with the adults in the movie, especially Mason, Jr.'s mother.  Without needlessly creating sympathy for her, the movie, in a matter of fact way, documents the mother's difficulties with being a single mother.  I don't want to give plot details away.  Suffice it to say that the movie strongly challenged the concept of life being a series of choices that are either good or bad, reflecting either strength or weakness, being a good person or not.  I can't explain why the mother married the men she did.  I can say that from my experiences working with students at LCC and from many long talks with the Deke, who had been a single mother with three kids for over ten years when we got married, that the portrayal of the kids' mom in this movie was complicated and authentic. 
  • Because I was the most emotionally involved with the adults in this movie, I was uncomfortable, nervous, fearing the worst much of the time.  For about half of the movie, I was afraid for the safety of the children when they were with their biological father.  I never thought he would do anything mean to them.  He wasn't a dangerous guy.  But I thought he might do something stupid or negligent because of his arrested development and his constant line of bullshit.  Two other men in the mother's life were awful and dangerous.  At first, they both offered security and order to the mom and her children and their ever changing family life.  But, I'll just say she had to get her kids and herself away from them both.
  • Throughout the movie, I thought about a course I taught at Whitworth College (now University), The Family in American Drama.  I taught it in Jan. '83 and '84.  The course was initially inspired by an essay by Arthur Miller, "The Family in Drama".  He outlines how family relationship have provided the backbone of plays from the beginnings of drama to the present.  My deeper inspiration came from the self-righteous phrase that gained traction during Ronald Reagan's presidency:  family values.  When I arrived in Spokane for a temporary teaching appointment at Whitworth in the fall of 1982, I had been divorced for only a few weeks.  I was chafing at the simplistic story the "family values" people were telling about the sanctity of the stable family and the values that needed to be held and practiced to keep it from disintegrating.  My study of O'Neil, Williams, Albee, Hellman, Miller, and other playwrights and my viewing of movies like The Godfather, Godfather II, Ordinary People, and host of others inspired me to teach a course that would, through fictional plays and movies, not only examine how complicated the American families portrayed in these stories were, but how they might help students have more compassion for the complications of their own families, often Christian ones, especially the families that didn't seem to fit the image of a family adhering to "family values".  The course was very successful.  I watched Boyhood wishing that I could reunite the students from those two Jan terms and watch this movie together and discuss all that it was helping us see and all that it was exploring about the family in the U.S. A.  Now many of these students, after thirty years, would be parents, heads of families. I know some of my students never had children, never started a family with children.  I know that some of these students were gay.  I'd love to know how many of them have joined with a partner to raise a family.  Have any of the gay students married?  How many never raised families?  Would these former students be interested in my experience of two childless marriages and in how I became a stepfather in 1997, changing not only my experience with family, but my attitudes about family?  Boyhood would give us so much to talk about and in a dream world, such a reunion and viewing of this movie would happen.

  •  Boyhood  moved me to self-examination.  Because I experienced the movie with much more interest in the adults than in the two kids, I found myself examining myself as (step)father to the Deke's three kids.  The movie portrayed the difficulties of being a parent, or, for that matter, being an adult dealing with young people, whether as a teacher or a boss or in some other role.  I experienced this working with college students for thrity-five years. And I experienced it at home. I thought a lot about how the Deke and I tried to work out our roles in getting after the kids when they broke rules, slacked on chores, lied to us, or when, for other reasons, we had to get after them.  I looked at how frightening the two alcoholic husbands in the movie were.  I remember listening to the Deke early in our marriage about how her kids weren't used to having a man around the house and that I should know that even though I didn't mean to, they might find me scary at times.  This shocked me.  I never wanted to be scary, but I wanted to show the Deke my support and help her out when the kids were not doing their schoolwork or were being disobedient.  I remember pulling back and, in these disciplinary matters, the Deke took the lead and I focused on other roles in the family, especially involving material support and working to keep things together, often out of sight, often behind the scenes.                                                                                                                             
  • All of these memories came rushing back to my during Boyhood and I couldn't help but think, during and after the movie, about our family today, the different ways we relate to each other, the way the Deke and I moved to the D.C. area to be closer to Adrienne and Molly, but had to move far away from Patrick to do so.  It's complicated.  I was happy while watching Boyhood that the movie worked with these complications from the inside out, subtly, as they emerged, as the characters all aged, and it was satisfying for the movie to end with little resolution, but with hope that families can endure, not because of "family values", but families endure in being flawed, in the capacity of family members to be understanding, to forgive, especially as members come to realize that while families can be a source of fun and good feeling, at the same time, much of the time, being a family is difficult.    

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