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Is ‘Boyhood’ an Effective Story? Is it Effective? Is it a Story?

Richard Linklater’s new film Boyhood is anything but forgettable, and is sure to be talked about for years to come. There’s nothing else quite like it. What’s driving most of the criticism is its hook, namely, locking a cast into a single production over twelve years. But, for argument’s sake, let’s disregard this fact. Let’s assume for a moment that Ellar Coltrane was not cast, and a different actor played Mason at the various ages the audience inhabits his life. Would the film lose its impact? Does the story’s effectiveness depend on Linklater’s experimental choice? At first, I thought Boyhood was all concept no content, but the deeper you go the more there seems to be.

My initial reaction to the film was sort of ambivalent. It doesn’t swell to any sort of emotional conclusion, or resolve any dissonance. Mason, fully grown and Mumford and Sons’d up, is spouting some vague philosophical cuteness to a pretty girl, and it cuts to black. Moving from one scene to the next doesn’t really have any sort of rudder to guide the audience. Mason ages several years in a matter of just a few short scenes, and there isn’t any perceivable rhyme or reason to these time jumps. What’s more, Mason doesn’t really have a whole lot of defining characteristics other than being a generally cute kid who [eventually] cultivates a passion for photography/creativity. Mason just kind of exists rather than develops. The easiest example of this is when you put him side by side his two separate verbally abusive step-fathers (both of whom, sadly, came off way too stereotypical to yield sympathy from me).

In both instances Mason reacts to abuse rather passively, despite having had years in between the two step-fathers to process how to handle it. You could argue that in the second instance, Mason sort of shuts the door in his face, but that’s really pushing it. His personality doesn’t drastically change–he doesn’t make choices that he then has to grapple with. Mason’s just a timid dude, and for this film that’s perfectly fine–he’s likable enough to carry the film, which is really the most I think you could say about Ellar Coltrane’s performance. He’s a token, cute, sweet, responsible, kid–he’s average, like most of us–and he’s won enough of my affection to sit through three hours of somewhat-related scenes of his “life.” The family and friends surrounding Mason are doubly charming, and it’s delightful to be with them as time passes. I’m rooting for all of them, and honestly, you wouldn’t even know the film is approaching three hours long.

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So, if there is no decisive plot, no character transformation (excluding aesthetic), no assertion, why the hell is this film so gosh darn likable? Some might say that it’s because seeing such a realistic depiction of life is enjoyable. NICK, THE FILM LACKS STRUCTURE AND MEANING BECAUSE LIFE LACKS STRUCTURE AND MEANING. IT’S SUPPOSED TO FEEL LIKE A DISJOINTED STRETCH OF SEEMINGLY RANDOM EVENTS BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT LIFE IS LIKE, MAN! To those who hold this position, I say to you: BULL! Life is life. Movies are not life. If movies = life, then you could watch three hours of a lady bug crawling across a fern. And so a film’s success cannot depend on how close to reality you make it–unless it’s a documentary, and even then there’s a manipulation of reality but that’s a whole other article. The point is, making something realistic is not the same as making something real. This is not to say that building empathy by virtue of it’s depiction of real people in real circumstances is useless. Of course it isn’t. But it still isn’t enough by itself to make this film work. There has to be something more substantial to yield the emotional response that I experienced, and there is.

Initially it wasn’t clear to me why the film was such a critical darling, but when I started thinking about the film as a whole it started to click. No individual character changes significantly, aside from a haircut. But ALL of them change a tiny bit. Mom chases her passion, achieves her career goals, and then is left questioning if it’s truly what she wanted. Dad is clinging to the youth that was robbed from him by becoming a parent at 23–and decides to settle down the traditional way, later in life (once Mason is 18). Sister is really bad at giving toasts at graduation parties, but hopes that she’ll improve someday*. And Mason, even after being alive for 18 years, 12 of which we’ve watched him for–still doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. All of it is perfectly imperfect. To borrow from the monumentally awesome Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Wherever you go, there you are.” All of these events, however causally linked they are or aren’t, have culminated to Mason, sitting with friends enjoying himself. In an infinite number of ways to arrive at this moment, existence has worked its hand pulling knobs and levers behind the curtain, and chosen this path for Mason and his family. “The moments, they seize us.

Ultimately I think it’s a very personal film that’s either going to massage your nostalgia buttons or isn’t. It’s heartwarming, satisfyingly funny, and enjoyable–but, nothing totally new. I think it’s a good film disguised as a great film. But what the hell does any of this really mean about Boyhood anyway? Why can’t you just tell us if it’s good or not? Go see it an experience it for yourself, and why don’t you say goodbye to that little horseshit attitude?

 

*This is a joke.

 

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Digital Detox

If you’ve ever eaten copious amounts of junk food or watched a long stretch of trash TV, you’ll understand and appreciate the need for a break from those things. Every so often, the human animal needs a period of respite to recharge the body. After your third Twinkie you might say to yourself, “Shucks, I really ought to stop eating Twinkies for a bit.” It would kind of make you nauseous to go for another Twinkie. That’s how I get with social media sites.

I’ll be in my laptop-lit room, hand trembling over the keyboard at way-too-late o’clock just refreshing my Twitter feed. What’s everybody tweeting #GoT for? And then someone will have posted a link to a YouTube video. Yes I do want to see Bryan Cranston’s toothpaste commercial from 1997. But then that’ll lead me to a whole set of Breaking Bad outtakes I haven’t watched in a couple of weeks. Haha! Aaron Paul is always forgetting his linesAnd then I’ll wonder what Aaron Paul has been up to lately, so I’ll flip through his recent photos on Instagram. Wow he got old already. I’m afraid I’ll keep going down that rabbit hole until I’m incapacitated in a pool of my own filth while a YouTube clip of a Neil Peart drum solo is buffering.

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Thankfully, it hasn’t actually gotten to that point yet. Like I said, I catch myself doing this stuff now which means that I’m much more aware of my own behavior (thanks, Mindfulness Meditation). August 2008 is when it all really started. I joined Facebook.  I was one of the last ones of my social sphere to sign up, and I was one of the first to jump ship (I permanently deleted my account in August of last year).  In these five years I’ve also been on and off of Instagram, Snapchat, Buzzfeed, etc. I’ve definitely cut down how much time I waste online, but I still spend plenty of time staring at a blinking cursor trying to think of a witticism that will get me a shit ton of favorites. That’s when I go, “Okay, Nick, enough with the Twinkies. It’s unhealthy.” I’d rather be staring at a blinking cursor in Final Draft, struggling with a piece of music, a drawing, or even just spending that time outside doing something.

So I’m going on a diet of sorts. I have a lot of creative work that I’ve been neglecting, and I’ve finally faced the following realization: the time to work on this stuff is now. In the past when I’ve done digital cleanses it’s been great. (I’d recommend it to anyone who hates feeling unproductive for too long.) And that’s really what this whole post is about, folks. In order to give me more time each day to work on a number of projects, I’m following in Patton Oswalt’s footsteps and I’ll be unplugging from the Internet from Tuesday July 1st up through Friday August 1st.

I’m using ChromeNanny to block all of my social media sites for the next month, I’ll be limiting the use of my smart phone, and I’ll be journaling how it all goes as best I can so that I can report my findings to you all when I get back. I’ll leave you with the words of a much more talented writer than I, Mr. Oswalt himself:

“I want to de-atrophy the muscles I once had. The ones I used to charge through books, sprint through films, amble pleasantly through a new music album or a human conversation. I’ve lost them — willingly, mind you. My fault. Got addicted to the empty endorphins of being online. So I need to dry out, and remind myself of the deeper tides I used to be able to swim in — in pages, and celluloid, and sounds, and people.” –Patton Oswalt on going “Radio Silent” for the summer.

 

Scare Yourself Every Day

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I’m currently in Santa Monica, on the first leg of a long road trip with two friends from my high school.  In the days leading up to the trip, I was incredibly nervous. I say “incredibly” because it wasn’t a normal degree of anticipatory anxiousness–I couldn’t keep food down, I had difficulty breathing, and I thought I was going to have to cancel the trip. I spent the better part of the night before my flight to San Diego hyperventilating and saying the words “I can’t do it” aloud.  I still don’t really know what I was afraid of, but I’m starting to see why I was afraid of it.

I’ve allowed myself to be comfortable for too long. Gradually, over a very very long period of time, I’ve gotten very comfortable being very comfortable. So, then, when a threat to comfort comes along my psychosomatic response is ten times as intense as it ought be. And I know this, because here I am sitting in California–breathing just fine. For once, I faced it. I’m living from moment to moment, and trying to notice what triggers my analytical mind. Going forward, I know that I need to allow myself to be scared in order to become stronger. This trip has been a huge wake up call to things I was already aware of, but did not take seriously. I need to build fear into my days so that it can’t control me.

Weirdly, I feel more confident than ever, when just four days ago I was a mess (We’ll see how long that lasts). If you’re reading this, I hope, a little at a time,  you’ll scare yourself every day.

Me, twerking atop Mt. Lee apparently

Me, twerking atop Mt. Lee apparently

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize

how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Thomas Edison

It’s all happening. Today is my first day breathing as a college graduate. The first twenty years of my life have been locked inside of institutionalized education, the goals of which are to teach you rudimentary life skills, encourage curiosity, and thirst for knowledge. And now, the comfy curtain that isolated me from the real world has been yanked back to reveal an unforgiving, cold, awesome, jungle. Hopefully, you’ve made some friends along the way so you’re not crossing the threshold alone. And I guess that’s why it’s so hard to pin down how you feel upon graduating college, because, yes, college’s very existence is contingent upon it’s end and your inevitable release into the professional world, but, you don’t want to leave because it marks a time and place during which you got to figure things out for yourself. For most, college is the first taste of autonomy. You’ve always wanted to stay up until 4AM and eat pizza for breakfast, now’s your chance to do that. And you do, and then you realize in your own time that your body does need rest and it does need nutrition. Or, maybe you keep doing it because it turns out it’s in accordance with your values. But either way, this time it’s come from a place of truth; it’s a self-initiated lesson. You aren’t doing things because someone else told you it’s good/bad for you.

So when you graduate and leave behind so many different kinds of memories–the good, the bad, and the ugly–it can be kind of a bummer. It’s easy to take one look at the professional world while you’re in college and think, “Things are never going to be as good as they are now.” At the same time, though, it’s transcending because you’re sad and you’re happy and all at once–but at the end of the day, you’re ready to move on. You have to be.

This took awhile to sink in, for me. In fact, I’m still not sure it has.  I commuted to school about thirty minutes from where I grew up.  Now, I visited plenty of colleges far away–I think the furthest one was about nine hours from my house. Back when I made my decision in March 2010, I had a wide range of choices with different scholarship options and whatever. But I wasn’t ready. And I guess you could say that no one ever is, but I was so not ready that I decided to play it safe, stay at home, work a job, save my money, and go to school at the same time. The thing I didn’t know about commuting to a residential school was that I would immediately be excluded from nearly everything. In the beginning, I was only at school for my classes. I knew my professors, the small fraction of the student population that I shared class with, and the parking lot.  My friends from high school would come home on the weekends and tell me how exciting college was for them as they fumbled through life. It was a really weird feeling. I felt like I was missing out on so much, but at the same time, I didn’t want what I was missing out on. I wasn’t interested in beer or frat parties, and I’m not knocking people who are interested in that stuff. It just didn’t/doesn’t appeal to me.

I knew something needed to change, or I was going to get stuck being incredibly unhappy. Things got better slowly. I joined clubs my junior year, met some really funny comedy writers, I did standup, made short films, and honed my skills. After some fudging with my school schedule, and so-called “career choices,” I found the film program, and eventually, a room full of writers with whom I felt right at home. Living away from the heartbeat of campus life was the biggest obstacle, and because of it, it took me awhile to really get sucked into the college experience. In fact, I don’t think it really hit me that I could be happy in college until my last semester. So then, by the time graduation rolled around I was really confused and upset. I felt like I’d wasted opportunities to meet people and be happy, and now I was being shoved out the front door with a diploma.  It’s easy to point to my choices as failure. I should’ve went away to school, made relationships, allowed myself to be afraid, learned how to take care of myself, etc. And people do tell me this, all the time. I’m sure there’s some truth to it too, which is really a downer. Or even living at home, I should’ve been less aversive, been more bold, less afraid of everything.

But here’s the thing: I already didn’t do any of that.

College is over, and now I get to decide how my time is going to be spent.  All of those experiences have lead me to where I am now. And you know what, I was bound to learn what I’ve learned regardless of where I chose to go to college. Maybe it would’ve been a colossal failure if I went away to school? Who the fuck knows. It’s not useful for me to dwell on things, so I’m going to do my best to apply what I’ve learned from them.  I know what kind of behavior I need to enact to avoid the way I was feeling at the onset of college. I know, because I’ve lived it.  But I also refuse to accelerate at other people’s pace. It’s easy for others to predict that X, Y, and Z will be good for me, but only I know what is.

Here’s four things I’ve learned in college: (1) You know you best. (2) Slow growth is still growth. (3) Weird isn’t actually that weird. (4) Nobody really knows anything.

I’m starting small. I’m talking to more strangers than I normally would be comfortable with, making choices without thinking as much about the outcome, and relishing in the fact that everything is happening exactly the way it should.

“What I must do, is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance