Tag Archives: Richard Linklater

Boyhood (2014)

Richard Linklater and I have one thing in common. We’re both from the most boring as fuck generation in American history. Late Boomers and early Gen Xers, we grew up in the shadow of the 1960s. By the time we reached young adulthood, the sexual revolution was over. The counter culture was gone. Yet the the huge Boomer generation, as self-obsessed and narcissistic as ever as they entered their 30s and 40s, weighed down on all of us. They were disillusioned. They wanted all of us to be the same. Most of us complied. We were dull, unsexy, unimaginative, and apolitical. Dazed and Confused, Linklater’s third film, captures it all. The tedious jock culture, the even more tedious stoner culture, the casual acceptance of bullying and sexual hierarchy, the lack of any real hopes or ideals, it was a rotten time to grow up.

I retreated into classic music and high culture, into Beethoven and A.E. Houseman. Richard Linklater, on the other hand, refashioned himself into Ethan Hawke, flew to Europe, and got on a train to Vienna from Budapest. There met Celine, an upper-middle-class French woman played by Julie Delpy. Before Sunrise Linklater’s best movie, isn’t really set in Europe. It’s set in the world that Linklater built inside his imagination, the utopian alternative to the prison-like Texas high-school of Dazed and Confused. Where the typical American girl, as exemplified by Parker Posey’s Darla Marks, is the jock culture’s social enforcer, the ugly American in a cheerleader’s skirt, Julie Delpy’s Celine is an alienated American intellectual’s dream come true, European high culture as personified in a beautiful woman.

Before Sunrise was so good that Linklater collaborated with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke on two sequels. In 2004 came Before Sunset. Jesse is now a successful novelist, and Celine the director of a French NGO. They meet after a decade, and begin the relationship that, up until then, existed only in their nostalgic imaginations. In 2014, Linklater, Delpy and Hawke released Before Midnight. Jesse and Celine have been married for 10 years. He’s begun to worry that his success was just a fluke. She’s starting to obsess about getting old and losing her good looks. Before Sunrise, Sunset, and Midnight were not only a successful trilogy of films, they represented the passing of time from the Clinton years, through the Bush years, to the Obama years in two individuals.

So why repeat the same formula in Boyhood?

I think Richard Linklater realized that you don’t necessarily express the passing of time simply by observing how your actors age over the years. Over the course of their 9-year run, for example, the cast of Seinfeld went from their mid-30s to their mid-40s, but the show said almost nothing about how American society changed during the 1990s. What’s more, by the time you get to your mid-20s, like Jesse and Celine in Before Sunrise, your personality is already formed. You may get older, uglier, and more cynical in your 30s and 40s, but you’re still pretty much the same person, even after your breasts begin to sag and your hair falls out. Jesse’s anxiety over whether or not he’s a genuinely great novelist and Celine’s concern that she’s not as hot as she was in 1994 might best be classified as “white peoples problems.” But the biggest issue with Before Sunset and Before Midnight is that Ethan Hawke just isn’t convincing as a famous writer. That he could defy the odds and not only make a living writing novels, but be able to afford to jet back and forth between New York and Chicago, seems more like a fantasy than a representative American Story.

In “Boyhood,” Linklater brings us back down to the lower-middle-class American reality. Jesse and Celine have become Mason and Olivia Evans, the divorced mother and father of two children, six-year-old Mason Jr., played by Ellar Coltrane, and his older sister Samantha, played by Linklater’s real-life daughter Lorelei. Boyhood, which Linklater filmed over the course of 12 years, therefore, allows us to watch the growth of two children into adults, a transformation far more dramatic than that of two twentysomethings eventually reaching early middle-age. Mason Evans, also played by Ethan Hawke is Jesse, but he’s a real life Jesse, not the Jesse that won the lottery. A would-be-musician, he spends most of his time working at marginal jobs, never quite growing up or settling down. Olivia, Patricia Arquette, does more than just fret about growing old. She grows old right before our eyes. If Jesse and Celine talk about separating in Before Midnight, Mason and Olivia have already done it. But there’s no fairy tale ending for Olivia. The men she moves onto from Jesse, a brutal, authoritarian, alcoholic college professor, and an ex-soldier with PTSD, are much worse, not only inadequate boy men who can’t quite grow up, but verbal abusers and wife beaters. Nevertheless, Olivia perseveres. She goes back to school, and eventually becomes a full-time college professor with enough money to send her two kids to four year colleges. She and Mason, who remarries, stay on good terms.

The first half of Boyhood is excellent. But “Boyhood” should actually be called “Motherhood.” Once the film loses its focus on Olivia and starts to follow Mason Jr., it begins to drag. Samantha, who might be the more assertive and intelligent of the two siblings, is pushed to the margins of the script. Mason Jr. is just not that interesting. In fact, he reminds me a little of Randall “Pink” Floyd from Dazed and Confused, a vapid stoner kid who talks about himself as a non-conformist, but who, unlike his mother, just seems to follow a script. Indeed, Mason Jr. doesn’t seem like a millennial generation kid at all. He comes off more like just another Gen Xer. Neither he nor Samantha seem to be worried about paying for college, which, for the two children of a divorced community college professor, would be a lot more daunting in the 2010s than it would have been in the 1980s. Mason Jr. is interested in (film) photography, but neither he nor his sister seem to have developed musical tastes or other cultural interests that would mark them off as distinct from their father. Couldn’t we at least have seen Mason Jr., just once, for example, try to explain hip hop to Mason Sr.? Isn’t there at least something, beside wear nail polish, he does that a teenage boy in the 1970s or 1980s wouldn’t have?

In other words, Mason Jr., for all of the artful illusion that he’s a millennial kid, and in spite of the fact that we watch Ellar Coltrane grow up right in front of our eyes, is no less a fantasy than Jesse from Before Sunrise. If Jesse was Richard Linklater’s alter ego in Europe, than Mason Jr. is Linklater living his childhood and youth over again in the Bush and Obama years. Linklater doesn’t manage the passage of time very well, something that filmmakers like Martin Scorsese do almost effortlessly. Early on in the movie, Samantha hums a Brittany Spears song, and, at the end, we hear a selection from “Somebody that I Used to Know” by Goyte, but neither Mason Jr. nor Samantha seems particularly interested in either. Mason Jr. goes from 6 to 18, but his style doesn’t seem to evolve along with his body. On the contrary, the older he gets, the more he starts to look like his father. That certainly happens in real life. But it does nothing to illustrate the passing of 12 years. The pretense of unvarnished, unscripted reality has become more oppressive than liberating.

Boyhood ends with Olivia shipping Mason Jr. off to Sul Ross State University, a rather dreary looking state college in southwest Texas. He meets his roommate. He meets Nicole, a young woman who will almost certainly become his next girlfriend. They go out into the desert to do mushrooms. “Aren’t we really all just living in the moment?” he tell her. No, we think, you’re not. You’re being dragged back down into the 1970s and 1980s. Rebel while you can.

Before Midnight (2013)

Twenty years ago, back in 1994, Ethan Hawke starred in a movie called Reality Bites. He was Troy Dyer, a prototypical, angry young slacker with a high IQ, and without a job. The heroine of the film, an aspiring documentary filmmaker played by Winona Ryder, when she was still cute and didn’t shoplift, had a choice. There was Troy. There was Michael Grates, a young Ben Stiller as an executive at an MTV like cable TV channel called “In Your Face.” We all know who she would have picked in real life. In the film, she picked Troy, even though he was an abusive prick, nowhere as near as smart as the movie told as he was, and was probably destined to end up selling real estate, or living with his parents.

In 1995, Hawke starred in another, much better film called Before Sunrise. Here he played “Jesse,” basically Troy Dyer on his “junior year abroad.” Jesse, like Troy, was a prototypical young slacker. He wasn’t as smart as the movie told us he was. But, even if the heroine, Celine, a young Frenchwoman he met on a train in Vienna, wasn’t quite as cute as Winona Ryder, she was European. So he was nice to her. She represented “culture.” He also remembered that old American cliché that you should never talk about religion or politics. Troy, for all his faults, at least knew capitalism sucked. Jesse? I’m not sure what Jesse believed in. He certainly didn’t believe in “exchanging addresses.” He and Celine have sex once, get back on the train, and go their separate ways.

In 2004, during the very darkest days of the Bush Administration, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy released the sequel, Before Sunset. Jesse and Celine are now both in their early 30s. Celine works for a non-profit dedicated to fighting for the environment. She never talks about the environment, but she’s French so we knows she’s on the far left, and probably even reads Althusser. Jesse is now a successful novelist, having written a book about their night together back in Vienna. He’s on a book tour. Celine decides to look him up, and, even though he’s already married, and has a young son, we’re rooting for them to stay together, for Jesse to dump whatever American girl he married because, after all, Celine is French. Before Sunset ends before we learned what happened.

Oh let’s not kid ourselves. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset were both critically acclaimed films that cost about 2 million dollars each, peanuts by mainstream Hollywood standards. Of course they got together. How else would there be a sequel? It’s now 2013. Troy, uh, I mean Jesse, didn’t end up selling real estate or living with his parents after all. He’s that rarest of individuals, not only a successful novelist, but a successful novelist who’s able to live in Paris, vacation in Greece, and commute back and forth to Chicago to visit his son and his ex-wife, all on royalties from a book that, to be honest, doesn’t even sound that good. It sounds like he won the lottery.

But he didn’t. As Midnight opens with Jesse, who still dresses like Troy from Reality Bites, taking Hank, his 13 year old son from his first marriage to the airport. Jesse and Celine, now married with twin girls, have spent the Summer on a retreat in the Peloponnese with “Patrick,” a writer even more successful than Jesse. We know he’s a great writer because he looks vaguely Mediterranean and has a British accent. Jesse’s son Hank seems destined to grow up into another Troy. He’s sullen, resentful, the child of a divorce. You can almost see his mother getting drunk back in Chicago— we never see her but Celine repeatedly lets us know he’s an alcoholic — and pulling aside the poor little boy as a captive audience. “Your father left me for that French bitch.” Jesse, feeling guilty, seems eager to please. He’s still Troy, still the American slacker boy man.

Back in the car, we meet Celine and the twin girls — who conveniently remain asleep so Jesse and Celine can fill us in on what happened in the past ten years. Celine, while never as cute as Winona Ryder in Reality Bites, still looks “pretty good for her age.” Let’s cut to the chase. The Celine of Before Sunrise is a woman from “my generation” who probably would have rejected me when we were both in our 20s. If I stalked her on Facebook — which I certainly would — and found the Celine of Before Midnight, my reaction would probably be something along the lines of “yeah. I’d probably still do her if I got the chance but wouldn’t feel quite so bad now if she rejected me.” Celine is not a happy woman. Why should she be? Her husband’s a famous novelist and a “great writer” who, as we realize during an excruciatingly boring dinner party, isn’t even very smart. Jesse is Troy from Reality Bites, if the world bought Troy’s hype. Celine knows it. She knows that if anybody should be the great writer, it should be herself. Unlike Ethan Hawke, who comes off like a mediocre actor reading lines, Julie Delpy has a certain gravitas. She embodies her part. Hawke only acts his.

If Before Midnight begins with Jesse eager to please his son, he spends the rest of the film trying to please his wife. Don’t listen to the critics about how this film “takes no sides.” Before Midnight is Celine’s movie. It’s Julie Delpy’s film. Before Midnight is about a woman’s fear of getting old. It’s about her dissatisfaction that men get shoved to the front of the line. It’s about her realization that the her culture, the same culture that declared her husband to be a great writer because he wrote what was basically a letter to Penthouse Forum expanded into a novel — “you won’t believe what happened to me on the train in Vienna” — is a complete fraud. We feel her seething throughout the long, boring dinner party, where Jesse floats ideas for the plot of his next novel that sound like they’d be rejected in a freshman year creative writing class. Celine may be politically incorrect. She uses the word “cunt” and theorizes about why women over 35 don’t get raped. But Before Midnight is a decidedly feminist movie. If ever a white male needed to “check his privilege” it’s Jesse from the “Before” series.

If I’ve sounded a bit cynical about Before Midnight up until now, rest assured I’m not. It’s a great film, but you have to wait until the final 30 minutes to realize it. The dinner party has broken up. Jesse and Celine are alone in a hotel room that was given to them as a present by their friends, some Greek couple who come off as Southern Europeans right from central casting. They start out trying to maintain the illusion that Linklatter maintained for the first two and a half movies, that they’re both living out a grand romantic life together, when, in fact, their marriage is nothing but a brief flirtation that’s been drawn out for two decades. Then they began to squabble, not in a balls out “I hate you” sort of way, but in the passive aggressive manner of two verbally sharp members of the cultural elite. But it doesn’t stop there. As the argument goes on, we realize something. Celine is now Troy. Yes, she’s got some job at a non-profit. She’s got two kids and an affluent live, but, at heart, she’s still a 20-year-old rebel trapped in the body of a 40-year-old mother. If Before Midnight never mentions politics — In Greece in 2013? — then it’s partly because we know how much Celine would love to be out on the barricades in Athens fighting the riot cops. But she can’t. She’s got twin little girls. She’s trapped in a loveless marriage with some loser American boy man who got lucky. Finally, she tells him she doesn’t love him anymore. The narrative that’s played out over the past 20 years, the perfect, perfectly apolitical love affair for the neoliberal age, is over. It’s been turned on its head. Celine is civilized, and French, so she doesn’t throw a lamp at his head. But we realize how deep her discontent runs.

Before Midnight ends perfectly. We certainly hope she’ll get on with her life and there won’t be any more sequels. I hope hey don’t draw it out into their old age, or, if they do, at least let Jesse get a clue and realize he’s been a fraud all along, that he should get a job teaching English, become a “house husband,” and babysit the kids while his wife finally gets to live her life.