Anders Bergstrom is a PhD candidate in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, ON. In 2011 he contributed an introduction to the second volume of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema. In 2013, his essay, “The Traces of ‘A Half-Remembered Dream’: Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 (2004), and the Memory Film” appeared in the collection, The Memory Effect: The Remediation of Memory in Literature and Film from WLU Press. He and his brothers run and contribute to the website Three Brothers Film. Asher Gelzer-Govatos is a Ph.D. student in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. He’s the founder and editor of the culture blog The Erstwhile Philistine and has written for outlets such as Paste and Books & Culture. He is also the film critic for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri, where he lives with his family.
Youth and Young Manhood
By the time I finally got around to seeing Boyhood at the end of the summer, it seemed like the cycle of hyperbolic praise, and the backlash that’s inevitable for any popularly acclaimed film, had passed. So, I saw it with my expectations somewhat in check, even as I’m generally a fan of what Linklater is doing in cinema. And what most of the film’s fans seemed to think he was doing in this particular film was attempting something unprecedented in cinema history: allowing the view to watch its main character, Mason Jr., age over the course of the film.
While the notion of revisiting characters as they age isn’t truly unprecedented (consider Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, Michael Apted’s Up series, and even the Harry Potter films, just to name ones that do this with children), Boyhood does do a few things that make its approach novel. First, Linklater’s project was always conceived of as a single film, shot for a few weeks each summer with no predetermined script, but telling a single story of one family. All of the other examples I can think of revisit a character from a past film, telling one discrete chapter in a single film, and returning for more. In the case of Truffaut’s films, he never intended to revisit Doinel after The 400 Blows, but subsequently returned to the character and actor Jean-Pierre Léaud in the short film Antoine and Colette and then three features—Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, and Love on the Run—over the next 20 years. As for something like Harry Potter, the episodic, school-year structure was built into the series from the get-go.
Second, Boyhood does away with any extra diegetic time-markers; transitions bear no on-screen titles to indicate the year or how much time has passed from the previous scene. The audience is expected to note the passage of time by way of changing haircuts, changes in a character’s height and weight, or a lowering voice in the case of Mason Jr. Thus, the film gains a sense of narrative momentum by way of setting the audience off their bearings in each new scene, forcing us to pay extra-close attention and to anticipate changes in the status quo of the characters’ lives (new husbands and wives for Mason’s parents, or moving to new cities). The film maintains a meandering, seemingly undirected narrative while still keeping the audience’s interest in the proceedings for the most part.
These formal choices shape Boyhood’s narrative through episodic, though not necessarily pivotal, moments in the characters lives, lending it a “shaggy dog” story feel; for me, it never really emerged into more than the sum of its parts. However, the same parts I found less than compelling are also part of the film’s appeal to others, because they’re primarily an appeal to verisimilitude—that is, unscripted stories feel more realistic to people. If life lacks any central guiding force, then a film that lacks focus is more “true to life.”
One way to understand the appeal of seeing child actors age in real life is that it reflects an audience perception that is more realistic than using make-up effects. It tells us something about what our film-going culture deems realistic—and I’m not appealing to some notion that “realism” is a neutrally determined quality. The collection of filmmaking techniques and storytelling modes that constitute “realism” are contingent on everything from socio-cultural milieu to technological innovations. For instance, shaky-cam only communicates “realistic” in a film culture acclimatized to hand-held documentary filmmaking and the unquestioned assumption that what we’re seeing is something being “filmed.” The same goes for any VFX and/or elaborate make-up. The visual resemblance is beside the point to many people. Such filmic techniques are deemed less realistic simply by being added after the initial filming.
What’s at stake is that such interventions draw away from the film’s realism, a realism anchored in a film’s claim that it’s representing the real world. And that’s essentially what the question of realism is. We’re asked to believe that by anchoring its formal structure in the actual passage of time, Boyhood is actually a more truthful account of what it means to be a young man growing up in America than a similar film using multiple actors to portray the same character or ages them with make-up effects (regardless of how impressive they are). Film scholar Tom Gunning has written on the notion of an “index” in relation to film “realism”; that is, the idea drawn from semiotics that film is a sign that testifies in some way to a real interaction with the thing represented, in this case that actual people and objects passed before the camera. Gunning’s argument cuts through much of the confusion about the issue and clarifies that such ideas rely very much on the audience’s knowledge of how a film is made rather than any visually accurate representation. This is something André Bazin already noted in his famous “Ontology of the Photographic Image” essay: A diagram or model may actually be more “accurate” or give more information, but it doesn’t bear the “irrational belief” of the photographic image. The discussion about Boyhood’s mode of production is as germane to this discussion as anything else.
What we’re talking about is taking advantage of cinema’s ability to capture time. As Bazin wrote in the essay above, film is “change mummified.” Duration captured. In the case of Linklater’s film, what has been captured is, on one level, a document of a boy aging over a period of great physical and psychological changes—and yes, I do think it’s interesting that this is about a boy, in fact, as are both The 400 Blows and Harry Potter. Arguably, following a female subject would offer as interesting a degree of transformation, given that a young woman undergoes equally dramatic transformations through puberty. But subjects such as the development of physical, sexual characteristics and menstruation seem to get short shrift, regardless of the character’s genders.
Is there an unexamined assumption that the male figure is the “neutral” human figure? In Boyhood, Mason is also white and heterosexual. I’m of two minds about this. Firstly, I think it probably just reflects the autobiographical aspect of the film, portraying what Linklater and Coltrane have experienced. But, on the other hand, given the title of the film and its wide embrace, is this a kind of universalizing move that just reinforces the idea that this white American experience is the norm? What if this was a film focused on a young woman from Brazil, who arguably represents as “normative” a human experience as any North American one.
It’s interesting to contrast and compare Boyhood with another contemporary, fictional film series that features its young protagonists age into young adults. That is, of course, the Harry Potter series. And not only because Mason Jr. and his sister grow up with the fictional characters in the film (their mom reads the books to them, and they participate in the midnight book launches). Again, Warner Bros. benefited from some fortunate casting and actors who remained committed to the project through the decade-long project. Audiences developed an attachment to the characters of Harry, Ron, and Hermione that was strengthened by the continuity of casting and seeing the characters age on screen. In big-budget franchises, I can’t think of another example of a character being played by the same actors through such a dramatic aging process (let’s ignore for a moment the less-than-effective attempt to age the cast forward a dozen years or more in the series epilogue; that does show there’s really no substitute for the natural flow of time). Sure, Hugh Jackman has played Wolverine for nearly 15 years now but has he really changed as much as young Daniel Radcliffe has in the same period?
This popular example bears out my intuition that there’s something especially compelling about seeing people age from children to adults on screen. Casting of different actors as the younger versions of the same character never comes out as well as one would like and generally requires the willing suspension of disbelief. Again, it comes down to an issue of realism and the film’s insistence that we believe what we see on screen.
One other interesting connection between both Harry Potter and Boyhood is that both Harry and Mason Jr. have been criticized as being too passive as central characters. The most dramatic events of the films seem to happen to them rather than being instigated by them. Is this part of the filmic strategy of making the characters every-persons? How does it affect our understanding of the film’s appeals to realism? I would suggest that the audience alignment with both Harry and Mason Jr., despite their more passive natures, positions them as audience surrogates. The audience lives vicariously through them (though I have to admit that watching Boyhood at this point in my life, I felt more connection to Ethan Hawke’s Mason Sr.). Furthermore, active characters carry more risk in storytelling; they can shape the narrative through their actions rather than merely being acted upon and reactive. And there is always the risk that something truly cataclysmic might happen to them. Despite their occasionally petulant natures, both Harry and Mason Jr. can be depended on to be around in the subsequent film or scene, respectively.
Do you think I’m correct in linking the appeal of seeing kids age on screen to the audience’s desire for cinematic realism? Or is there something more to it? It’s interesting to consider that child stars don’t always maintain their appeal. Perhaps playing a single character can be a way to help an actor transition from playing a child to an adult. Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson seem to be negotiating this transition fine, as did Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel himself, Jean-Pierre Leaud. Either way, I think it’s safe to say the transition from childhood to adulthood is not only thematically resonant, but that it presents a visually dramatic subject for film itself.
Adulthood and Old Age
You’re right that the presentation of time is one of Boyhood’s main attractions. It’s both bracing and disorienting to move from age to age with so few indications of time’s passage. With the Harry Potter series, there is at least the built-in separation of different films. Linklater has no such safety net. In the case of Boyhood, having Ellar Coltrane on board the whole time proves immensely important, as his changing but still recognizable features act as signposts for the viewer.
I also appreciate your nuanced discussion of realism in film. It’s easy to establish criteria that end up ignoring the ways in which culture (both within film production and the wider society) shapes expectations of reality. In spite of some evidence to the contrary, I don’t feel like Linklater strives too much for realism, especially in his structuring of the film. I can buy the idea that Boyhood’s episodic nature heightens its realism in the mind of the audience–childhood usually appears in the memory as snatches and fragments–but there’s something more poetic at work as well. I almost think a more appropriate title would be Boyhoods, since Mason’s life gets presented in such a piecemeal way. Though Linklater hits the many milestones that become a part of the narrative adults tell themselves about their youth, he also focuses on little moments that don’t fit neatly into the sorts of stories adults tend to remember. This narrowing of the film’s vision brings to my mind T.S. Eliot’s warning in Little Gidding that “A people without history/ is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern/of timeless moments.”
To return to your broader question of why we crave verisimilitude in our child actors, I have a little gloss to add to your idea that the thirst for realism drives this desire for continuity. I can’t imagine Harry Potter fans would have reacted with understanding to the news that one of the three main child actors was being replaced–in fact, there were worried rumblings when rumors spread that Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint might not return for the last few films. Contrast this with the case of superhero movies. Even taking into consideration the reboot effect, there has been surprisingly little controversy over the replacing of stars like Tobey Maguire and Christian Bale. There has been controversy over who is replacing them—sorry, Ben Affleck—but not over the mere fact of someone new stepping in.
In a strange paradox, it’s the very mutability of childhood that demands stability in the actors who play the roles. Perhaps wrongly, we associate childhood with a state of constant change while adulthood appears as an inflexible, monolithic reality. Because of this, it becomes easier to swap out actors in adult roles; the audience may feel an initial shock, but is soon able to adjust. Childhood, however, consists largely of the feeling of organic change and limitless possibility. Here we demand the gradual changes of nature: figures morphing over time, trees sprung from seed, but in such a way that continuity is established. To replace entirely one evolving life with another seems jarring, an act of filmed violence.
What I present here is, of course, more about perception than reality. As I’ve experienced it at least, adulthood has been no less full of shifts and transformations than childhood. If the limitless potential of childhood inevitably gives way to the more fixed parameters of maturity, it does so in ways that fall far short of determinism. That’s one reason I find Truffaut’s Doinel films so captivating: they present a protagonist who continues to change throughout his life in ways consistent with the foundation of his childhood.
Jean-Pierre Leaud’s presence in all five Doinel films again acts as a series of signs that allows us to process Antoine’s development. Like Linklater and the producers of the Harry Potter films, Truffaut scored a major casting coup in Leaud, who even as an adolescent radiates a mixture of pride and uncertainty. The 400 Blows derives much of its power from Leaud’s persona; scenes like the one where Antoine sits in the dark as his parents argue demonstrate his emotional intuition. Over the course of the films, he gradually broadens his range. While the short film Antoine and Colette mostly sees Leaud extending his adolescent angst from the first film, later entries like Stolen Kisses allow him to explore his comic acting, and of course the films also find his concerns widening as he moves from a child to a young adult to a father and husband.
The 400 Blows famously ends with Antoine, lately escaped from a youth detention home, running with abandon on the beach. Though his circumstances gradually improve over the course of the series, he never loses this wanderlust that animates him as a child. A general discontent pervades his life as he moves from job to job and lover to lover. The continuity that Leaud brings to the role matters less in a physical sense (though it’s fun to see his development from a child to a John Cazale lookalike) than in an emotional one. Leaud’s acting instincts simultaneously grow and remain the same over the course of the films, his disaffected cool that papers over a world of hurt eventually aging into a desperate need for affection. When Antoine is trying to patch things up with his wife Christine, or attempting to seduce old flame Colette, you cannot help but think back to his confrontations with his mother in The 400 Blows.
Truffaut of course has little use for realism in the traditional sense. He aims for emotional realism, using the artifice of film to gradually expose the conflicted feelings of Doinel and others. In every film after The 400 Blows, Truffaut intercuts footage from one or more of the earlier films, recalling past events or simply evoking a general mood. By the time of Love on the Run, the final film, this footage has taken over larger and larger chunks of the running time. In one sense these insertions are jarring, an effect that shakes the audience loose of any pretense of realism. At the same time, there’s something about seeing Doinel’s memories play out in real time, with recycled images that draw the audience into his experience. Truffaut plays around with ideas of memory and time, especially in the later films, in ways that preclude straightforward interpretation. Though he’s not as formally inventive as his contemporary Godard, Truffaut too knows the power of manipulating film, particularly to distort the audience’s sense of time.
Philosophers have long debated matters of personal identity. What holds someone together as a single person through the inevitable flow of time? His physical features? Our bodies constantly shed and replace component parts. His memories? I may not remember events from childhood–does that mean I’m no longer that same person? His soul? Seeing the youthful Antoine of The 400 Blows juxtaposed right next to the world-weary adult of Love on the Run forces us to ponder these questions anew.
Like Truffaut’s Doinel films, Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and Saraband use deliberately artificial construction to explore issues of time, aging, and identity in emotionally honest ways. The first film (originally a miniseries on Swedish television) follows Liv Ullmann’s Marianne and Erland Josephson’s Johan over the course of ten years as their marriage crumbles. Filmed thirty years later, Saraband—which would be Bergman’s last film—poignantly captures a rare encounter between the long-separated couple as each deal with growing old. Bergman abandons any pretense of realism both in the films and across them. In structure, they play out like stage plays more than films, centering on a series of two-person dialogs arranged in chapters. Between the films, there are a number of obvious factual errors (age gap between the two, the names of their daughters, etc) that could easily have been caught and smoothed over. If Bergman had been aiming for realism these mistakes would be failures of oversight that disturb the texture of the films; instead they serve as useful reminders of the arbitrary nature of life and storytelling.
Since you mention the gender disparity in the films we’ve discussed so far, it’s worth noting that, though the films ostensibly focus on a couple, Scenes and Saraband both find their center in Marianne. Ullmann pours herself into the role, and the character emerges as a coherent picture of a woman torn by love. Bergman, however, completely shifts the power dynamics in the two films. In Scenes, Marianne finds herself largely at the mercy of the philandering Johan, bound to him by love but robbed of her agency. In Saraband, the tables have turned. Johan, weakened by age, has become a frail, bitter husk of a man. Marianne steps in as a quasi-caretaker, and in doing so finally gains a measure of control in the relationship. In a sense, Saraband rewrites the text of Scenes from a Marriage, illuminating the actions of the characters in ways not possible during the original film’s release. The Marianne of Saraband has confidence and contentment–at least partially a result of her long time away from the influence of the bitter Johan.
While Marianne’s maturation manifests itself in primarily emotional ways, the changes in Johan are inscribed on his body. Here the physical power of watching a body age hits home. In Scenes, Johan provides an imposing physical presence, striking if not conventionally attractive. By the time of Saraband, his strength has left him, and he exists more as a wraith than a man. In Saraband’s first scene between Marianne and Johan, there is a heartbreaking detail that brings home the reality of the body’s decay. The two playfully bicker as they catch up on life, and at first it seems like not much has changed. Then, subtly at first but with increasing vigor, Johan’s hands begin to shake uncontrollably. A man intent on control in all areas (as shown by his domination of his son and granddaughter) in fact cannot even contain the frailty of his own body. This memento mori is perhaps the best argument for the realism of actors aging in a role: even a strong, resistant body like Josephson’s must slide inexorably toward the grave.
Saraband is framed by a prologue and epilogue in which Bergman tips his hand a little. The camera captures Marianne as she sits at a table full of photographs, sorting through memories as she glances at familiar images. I love the Bazin quote you shared about the “irrational belief” the photographed image instills in us, but as Bergman shows in these scenes, that belief may not be justified. Marianne’s photographs cannot form an adequate substitute for the realities of time; they can stem the loss of the mind but never replace lost memories. And this too is an image, Bergman seems to say, the bodies on screen at once real and artificial. Have we gotten any closer to cracking the secret of the allure of watching actors age in their parts? What do you think of my distinction between traditional and emotional realism? What role does memory play in the passing of time on screen, and how does the medium of film itself affect the memory?
Memory and Cinematic Narrative
In your insightful analysis of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and Saraband, you wrote how Saraband “rewrites the text” of the earlier film, “illuminating the actions of the characters in ways not possible during the original film’s release.” It strikes me that not only can time reveal the past, the very fact of time’s passage—of lived “duration”—results in a constantly changing relationship with the past. Memories can only ever be viewed from the present, so our current state of mind is inevitably the one through which we view the past.
I notice definite similarities to this relationship between past and present and the concepts of memory and duration as theorized by the French philosopher Henri Bergson. Bergson was married to Marcel Proust’s cousin, and, like Proust, memory was at the heart of his work. In Bergson’s idiosyncratic philosophy, memory is defined as the process of conveying the past into the present. He relates this to our experience of “duration,” the accumulation of past experiences that gets larger and larger, “rolling upon itself, as a snowball on the snow” (Creative Evolution 2). For Bergson, the constant flow of time and experience of duration means that the past can never really be revisited as such. Instead, memory makes the past present to us at all moments in a sense. Bergson’s concept of memory does seem to conflict with both colloquial and scientific notions that portray memory as a permanent recording stored in the brain, something undeniable to some extent. But wherever memories reside, Bergson’s idea is very helpful when thinking about the relationship between memory and cinematic narrative.
His philosophy has found its most direct influence on film theory in the work of Gilles Deleuze. Without getting bogged down in Deleuze’s even more esoteric film writing, I want to consider cinema as a kind of medium of memory, capturing images and sounds from the past and representing them in the present for our viewing pleasure. For a cinema of aging, memory becomes a key framing device. As you point out, Saraband not only shapes our understanding of Scenes From a Marriage, but each revisiting of the film is informed by past viewings. You literally can’t watch the same film twice. A second viewing of any film proceeds with knowledge of the ending—where the characters will end up, that a relationship is going to end, or a character is going to die. Even if you could erase your knowledge of specific events, a viewing in a different time and space is affected by other events in your life or the environment you watched the film in (e.g. at home on the couch or in the theatre, in the afternoon or late at night).
To return for a moment to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, perhaps the reason I was less than enamoured with the film was that I find Linklater’s other (ongoing?) project, the Before series, to be a more revealing and sustained meditation on experience, duration, and aging than Boyhood. Like Bergman’s two films, Linklater’s shows us a fluid, changing relationship over many years. Each chapter in the Before series is separated by nine years. Each revisiting gives the viewer a chance to see how the actors have aged. But most radically, the films potentially take into account the nine years of experiences the viewer gained, assuming they followed the series from the beginning. It’s a rare experience to be able to return to characters as one grows with them.
My experience of watching Before Midnight, the third film of Linklater’s trilogy, was shaped by my thoughts about the characters over the preceding nine years and the changes in my own life. I was in my early twenties and single when the second film came out but had been married for six years and had a child by the time Before Midnight came out. But one’s first experience of Mason Jr.’s boyhood is static. I view his entire childhood from my position in my early 30s, whereas I grow with Celine and Jesse, with my relationship to them growing based on both my experiences and the changes from film to film.
In contrast, I only saw Before Sunrise shortly before seeing Before Sunset. Linklater’s conceit served me well nonetheless. There’s a vast unspoken weight of memories that Celine and Jesse bring into their conversation as they walk through Paris. After the first film, we wonder, did they ever meet up? Did they marry? Such questions are answered in due time, but also plausibly, naturally, because the characters themselves want to know. The viewer is then either confirmed or corrected in his speculations about the characters. In contrast, Boyhood never seemed to have much weight of duration, despite its also being filmed over a number of years. I think this is because the viewer never has to do the hard work of holding these characters in their own memories; any questions we have about Mason Jr. are answered in short order. Where has Mason Sr. been? Wait, he’s here explaining his time in Alaska as best as he can. Will Olivia break free of the cycle of abusive relationships? Well, within a couple of hours we know. It’s just one thing, then another. Mason Jr. never accumulates a real sense of lived experience. Some critics have complained that that the narrative of Boyhood lacks narrative tension. What I think these critics are identifying is the way that the events of the film never seem to hinge on the scenes that came before. What lived experiences take place offscreen? Unless we return to the film for a second viewing, we don’t have an opportunity to contemplate what has transpired or bring our own memories to bear on the experience of watching. Thus, we never get to know Mason as well as we might think.
You discuss Truffaut’s Doinel series as doing something similar, playing with the viewers’ memories and shaping our sense of time. Linklater’s Before films are similar, focused in their moments and the viewer’s shifting emotional responses. But through their conversational structure—they maintain something close to a unity of time by taking place over a few hours—the Before films also have something of the “traditional” realism that you mentioned as well. They combine the audience fascination with seeing actors age onscreen with the changes and experiences of the many years between them. The relationship between the past and the present person, the unity of identity that you alluded to early in your response, is maintained both bodily and in our memories. And because the changes are more abrupt, memory plays a more key role.
This conversation has me also thinking about filmic conventions and realism with regards to aging actors. If a filmmaker is not going to do what Linklater, Bergman, and Truffaut did—that is, film over a number of years so that we can actually see the actors at different ages—then a film that takes place over a number of years is expected to take advantage of make-up effects . While this doesn’t always achieve the same effect, there is an expectation of verisimilitude that is being respected. Think in Citizen Kane, as 25-year-old Orson Welles convincingly plays Charles Foster Kane from his 20s into old age with convincing make-up serving to bring an additional sense of realism to his effective performance. Nonetheless, the effect of seeing a person age on screen is different. As the cinematic medium moved into maturity, we were allowed to see more and more actors at many different ages, and could compare the older person with their younger self in make-up. The truth is that people don’t always age and change in predictable ways. One of the things about Boyhood that is fascinating is seeing the rapid year-to-year changes in Mason Jr. over his teens. Aging and growing doesn’t follow a regular curve, as evidenced by his rapid gains in height and transitory periods of adolescent awkwardness.
Before I finish, I wanted to reflect briefly on Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden, a film that rejects both the rigorous time-based realism of Linklater and the conventional filmmaking verisimilitude of make-up effects. Eden debuted at TIFF last fall and tells the story of a DJ named Paul (Félix De Givry), a fictionalized version of Hansen-Løve’s brother, Sven, who was himself a DJ during the period depicted (he also co-wrote the screenplay with his sister). Some critics have noted how Paul doesn’t noticeably age over the film’s run time, despite covering a period from the mid-90s to the present. Some have accused it of sloppy anachronisms—in addition to Paul’s non-aging, scenes set in the past feature background characters holding phones they couldn’t have at the time—but is it possible that Hansen-Løve is going for something else in her rejection of verisimilitude?
Arguably the lack of aging serves a thematic purpose; its temporal flatness accounted for in the lack of maturity or growth in Paul. Paul is still spinning garage-house at the club long after the trends have shifted and the genre itself has transformed. The fact that Paul looks roughly the same at 15 and 30 is somewhat appropriate since, unlike his friends and family, he hasn’t moved on or changed. He’s stuck in the past. Perhaps what jars is that the rest of the film never appropriates such a display of poetic literalization of his immaturity. The rest of the film follows a fairly conventional style of realism in terms of editing and spatial representation.
Memory is always subjective and so is cinema. There is no such thing as objective realism, and films like Boyhood or Eden are merely representations among a continuum of how one can approach aging on screen. Our memories—of our own lives and previous encounters with characters and actors—and the audience’s knowledge of how a film is made—for instance, whether a film utilizes make-up (Citizen Kane), real aging (Boyhood) or even CGI (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) in depicting aging—are things which deeply affect our experience of a film. I don’t know if we can come to any conclusion of what kind of portrayal is most effective, but do you think there is a preferable form? If our belief in the image is always shaped by our relationship to our memories of past images, then what is the advantage conveyed by the actual appearance of aging?
The Return of the Real
I appreciated your patient, insightful dissection of how memory and experience shape our understanding of the films we revisit over time. This applies of course to all films — my experience of, say, Duck Soup is much different now than when I first saw it in middle school — but there’s some special alchemy that occurs when we look at films that follow characters as they age.
Your explication of Henri Bergson clarified some of the varied, messy streams of thought I have regarding memory. I tend to distrust pop neuroscience, with its sweeping claim of being able to reduce everything to brain chemistry. Bergson’s idea of memory bringing the past into the present is a profound one, with deep implications for the way we think about the past in our own minds. St. Augustine, the thinker who has most influenced me regarding memory, meditates on similar points. What makes his Confessions a lasting contribution to philosophy and psychology is his recognition of the past as a sort of archaeological dig site, one that needs careful attention to reveal its true meaning. His own work of self-examination, of probing the past from multiple angles, joins nicely with your discussion of how we revisit films.
In Book IV of the Confessions, Augustine recounts the death of a close friend. As he burrows through his own grieving process, he delivers this astounding line about the nature of time’s passage: “Times lose no time; nor do they roll idly by; through our senses they work strange operations on the mind. Behold, they went and came day by day, and by coming and going, introduced into my mind other imaginations and other remembrances.” This is exactly what you’re talking about: as time drifts past, it carries us in its wake, helping us gain new perspectives on what has come before.
But time’s strange operations mean that memory is prone to gaps and errors. That’s what intrigues me so much about your discussion of Eden. Though I’ve yet to see the film, your presentation of its deliberate, jarring disjunction between time and aging intrigues me. What you seem to suggest is that Eden forwards a sense of time heavily shaded by the symbolic, even the moral. A typical film would likely highlight Paul’s arrested development through having him age normally, presenting his attempts at maintaining age as a bittersweet farce. There is something even more unsettling, though, about keeping him the same age as the years pass. I cannot help but think of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, where the title character’s eternal youth becomes increasingly creepy as his selfish nature becomes more pronounced.
Even if they do not take Mia Hansen-Løve’s radical approach, the best films about time and aging honestly approach the inherent difficulties of memory and the gaps that inevitably occur as we remember the past. In your discussion of the Before series, you highlight the way Linklater invites the audience to play along, to engage in a guessing game about what has happened in the story’s gaps. Though I like Boyhood more than you, I agree that the condensation of Mason’s life into one film does take away from that unfolding process. Perhaps Boyhood falls in an uneasy in-between space, where the events neither connect in coherent ways (a la your complaint of one thing just happening after another), nor do they make enough space for the gaps which would develop over a series of films. Now, if Linklater were to wait a few years, then go back and film more of Mason’s saga, I’m curious to know how this would affect our reading of the first film.
Considering the gaps that naturally arise between films in a series, I’m again drawn to Truffaut’s use of flashbacks as a device in the Doinel films. As I said in my previous entry, I think Truffaut is doing something more than simply helping audiences catch up when he inserts clips from earlier films into the later ones. If we think of Truffaut desiring to engage his audience in a conversation about Antoine Doinel, and aging more generally, I can’t help but wonder if Truffaut uses these peeks into the past as a sort of deliberate misdirection, a celluloid legerdemain that highlights the past’s tenuous relationship to the present.
Think of the scene in Love on the Run when Antoine meets with his mother’s old lover, whom he glimpsed fleetingly kissing his mother on the street in The 400 Blows. Truffaut flashes back to that brief scene as the two get together, and it reminds the audience of the youthful resentment Doinel felt towards his mother in the first film. His mother’s lover appears as a sinister figure in this flashback, a leering reminder of his mother’s hypocrisy. Yet the truth, as revealed in the course of their conversation in Love on the Run, is much more complex. The old man, so vivid as an evil specter in the memory, turns out to be a kind soul who helped care for Doinel’s mother. It’s a disconnect which jars Antoine and the audience: another reminder that even those personal experiences most deeply seared on the memory do not tell the full story of the past.
All this talk of flashbacks makes me think of the other set of films which have become an instant point of comparison for Boyhood: Michael Apted’s Up documentaries. In our discussion of aging on screen, we have yet to touch on films where the aging process affects real people, not characters in a story. The nonfiction format has its own set of issues and questions to explore, many quite different from the concerns of fiction films, but in the case of the Up series we can learn a lot about what fascinates us when people age before our eyes.
One of the many remarkable things about the Up series is the way it has spun out from its original premise to create a whole world of its own. Originally riffing on the Jesuit maxim “Give me a child till he is seven, and I will give you the man,” the series set out to conduct a social experiment, testing how much impact class had on British society. In the year 1963, fourteen children, taken from all points on the British class spectrum, are interviewed about their lives at age seven. A few dropouts notwithstanding, Apted (who worked as an assistant on Seven Up) has gone back every seven years since to follow up and see how they have changed over the years. What began as an experiment, with very rigid hypotheses about what would happen, has blossomed into a constantly surprising record of life, with all its unpredictable swerves.
These swerves of life have forced Apted to reevaluate his ideas about the films’ subjects. Who could have predicted that Nick, son of farmers in rural Yorkshire, would go on to earn a PhD and teach physics at the University of Wisconsin? The most famous example of this swerve, which Apted openly admits, is his prediction that Tony, a tough kid from the London lower classes, would end up a criminal because of his temper and his circumstances. As of the most recent installment, 56 Up, Tony is a successful cab driver and part time actor, with a loving family and a summer home in Spain.
This unpredictability extends to the bodies on screen. Some of the subjects progress along a physical development which makes perfect sense: Bruce, a ruddy-cheeked boy at 7, slowly morphs into a jolly looking, slightly portly adult. Others, though, undergo less expected changes, or lack thereof. Suzy, a girl from a privileged background, found herself rebelling against her heritage in the early films, complete with a nonconformist aesthetic. Over the years, however, after marriage and children, she has come to resemble more and more the image of the successful, cookie-cutter woman she once despised. Some of the subjects age surprisingly well, like Paul, who despite spending most of his life doing outdoor manual labor looks not terribly different at 56 than when he was 28. Others, like Neil, who has wandered around England and often been homeless, seem like shells of their former selves.
Given the vast changes most of the subjects have undergone, Apted does a remarkable job keeping the audience connected to them as they age. He has a knack for going beneath the surface to get at the kernels of who they are as they undergo joy and grief, success and failure. Like Truffaut, he uses clips from the previous films as he interviews each subject. And just as in the Doinel films, these flashbacks provide more holes for uncertainty than they do firm glimpses of the past. One of the running questions the films explore is how much to trust the images on screen. Many of the subjects protest that viewers tend to assume what their lives are actually like based on a tiny sliver of access. Real life, they assert, is lived in between, in the space where the ellipses go.
The Up films raise for me the same questions you encountered, Anders, as you revisited Linklater’s Before trilogy. When I finally got around to viewing the series, I saw all seven available at that time — Seven Up through 49 Up — in a mad rush of just a few weeks’ time (as fast, to date myself, as Netflix would deliver the DVDs). At that time I was just finishing college, not yet married, and without much life experience. I had also been deprived of the unique experience of following along with these lives one chunk at a time. So my experience watching 56 Up in late 2013 was in some ways revelatory. Grown up since my first encounter with the films, I now had a wife, two kids, and a real job. Though I am much younger than the subjects of the Up series, my change in life situation, with its accompanying sense of world weariness, made my viewing experience of 56 Up much more melancholy, and has informed in retrospect my initial viewings of the previous films.
That melancholy was for me intensified by a specific fact. Like many young cinephiles, I was introduced to the Up series (and so much of the film world) by Roger Ebert. Long before I had seen the documentaries, I was aware of them as eventual must-sees, thanks to his effusive praise. It was a bittersweet, strange experience then to watch 56 Up knowing it was the last of the series Ebert would ever watch. His review of the film came mere months before he died after a long battle with cancer, an aging process itself captured in painful and tender ways in last year’s documentary Life Itself. Watching the film with all that in my head, I could not help but treasure the way the lives of these subjects have accumulated meaning over time, opening up like a fine wine exposed to the air. Even as they get closer to death, life continues in all its rich complexity.
Here at the end of our conversation, Anders, I don’t know if we’re any closer to knowing what makes aging on screen work or not work, or why it exerts such a strange pull on our imaginations. I think we’ve found many points of agreement, though, most of which seem to center on the idea that life and film cannot be reduced to a simple, objective point of view. Whether the narrative gaps occur in the space of one film, like Boyhood, or span multiple films and decades, like the Doinel films, films about aging seem to need empty space into which the audience can peer. Whether fiction that captures true emotion, like the Before films, or nonfiction which probes its own veracity, like the Up series, films about aging reveal that life and memory require imagination as well as analysis. In his review of 56 Up, Ebert says “It is a mystery, this business of life. I can’t think of any other cinematic undertaking that allows us to realize that more deeply.” This seems a fitting benediction for our conversation. Aging is a mystery, in life and on film, but the best stories allow us to confront that fact, and wonder at it.