November 27, 2014

Must Watch Before You Die #42: Boyhood (2014)

On 15th of October, I watched 'Boyhood' for the first time at the Mumbai Film Festival and recommended it as a must-watch-before-you-die. Exactly one month later, on the 15th of November, I watched it again in a packed evening show. Since then, I cannot stop thinking about it and I feel the earlier post that carried a small discussion on it does not do justice to the film. Hence this post, and a stronger tone of recommendation.

A couple of evenings ago, I was having a discussion with a friend, a psychologist and a mother of two, on this latest Linklater movie. It was I who had introduced her to the director's 'Before' trilogy, which she had loved, and I had been waiting for her reaction to 'Boyhood'. As expected, our discussion went on and on, both of us sharing different but doubtlessly agreeable perspectives on the film. Suddenly, I stopped her. "I had a feeling just now" I said. "I can picture several people in different parts of the world talking about this movie at this very instant." In that moment I realised what a powerful achievement the film is. It is not only being understood and analysed by an unquantifiable number of people, like most Linklater movies, but deep beneath its casual and impressive surface lies something that is the stuff of materpieces, and a rare human achievement.

One big reason why motion picture, since its invention, struck an instant chord with people all around the world was how it became a rare human expression that could so powerfully affect our temporal perception. When we read a novel, or watch a play, or when someone narrates us a story, we understand the passing of time in the world of those characters, but never really feel it. When an author writes - "Several years went by," we develop an intellectual understanding of years going by, and fill in the gaps, and readjust ourselves to the changed temporal reality of the story. We never actually feel the passing of those years. Motion picture can use and alter our sense of time in more powerful ways. Slow-motion or fast-motion cinematography makes us experience time in a way no human can experience unless being under the influence of an intoxicant. The use of real-time storytelling in cinema has been another unique achievement of the medium - a 100-minute story told in 100 minutes is a rare experience, operating not just at the level of narrative, but also mood, and tone, and sensory feeling. But despite being the most powerful medium to play with time, no film, none before 'Boyhood', had managed to convey the feeling of passing of such a long span in less than three hours. Cinema has told stories spanning over decades and centuries, even millennia ('2001: A Space Odyssey'), but by using the same trick that the novelists use - "Several years went by..." With the use of time transitions, and most commonly - different sets of actors, movies have traditionally made us understand that years have gone by, rather than making us feel it. The young Vijay starts running and that shot dissolves to the shot of the adult Vijay, now Amitabh Bachchan, and we know that time has passed. Imagine a movie where we would see the same young boy grow up before our eyes. He would never grow up to be Bachchan, and hence no one ever conceived a film like that. By covering twelve years in the lives of its characters, played by the same actors who also, obviously, have aged, 'Boyhood' unfolds itself like an experience no human has had before. It's not the turning of the pages of the diary of your teenaged years, not even the flipping of the photographs in your family album. It something more real, alive, vivid, and affecting than anything you have felt. It is like the strongest memories of your growing up stitched together without the loss of its minutest details. The movie experience that comes closest to 'Boyhood', and I am amused at myself while making this analogy, is the Harry Potter series. It shows seven years of the boy's growing up, and since the cast remains primarily the same, we do feel that we saw Harry et al grow up before our own eyes. But even this experience was spread over eight movies that we experienced over ten years! That Linklater's achievment is not only a landmark in cinema, but in the history of human art and expression is well reflected in this succinct assertion by Rolling Stones about the film: "There has simply never been anything like this movie!"

But is the fact that it was shot over twelve years using the same set of actors the only thing that makes 'Boyhood' a great film? Of course not. Because then it would be easy to beat it, right? Let us start making a film today to be released after twenty years. There you go - we have a greater film! We all know that it doesn't work like that. Even if we try to underplay the passion and the persistence that the makers of this 'project' possessed, writing new scenes every year, shooting for a few days, and then going back to their other commitments, before reuniting again next year, we cannot ignore the wonderfully written scenes that became its ingredients and the imaginative edit that seamlessly joined it, with unforgettable transitions. I would recommend watching this movie more than once because only then you stop bothering about the plot and the whats and focus on how the film is one great scene after another, delicious dialogues, charming performances, and a gutsy, authoritative, self-assured narrative pieced together by perhaps the most organic editing in the history of scripted fiction films. Without getting overtly dramatic, and not once losing its tone, the film mimics life itself. It is like a great Marquez novel, containing within itself all that is funny and all that is sad about the human condition, with insights and themes that speak differently to different people in the audience, and also that will speak differently to us at different stages in our lives. If you are not convinced by the greatness of the film, try watching it about ten years down the line and you will find how the film appears all fresh. Today, I react to it like a son, although I relate most with the young boyish-man character played by Ethan Hawke. But ten years from today, I think I would react to it as a husband, or a father. How often does cinema come with this unique ability to reinvent itself with every passing decade? What else can be called 'timeless' if not this? And which other film can be called 'an unassuming masterpiece' as Peter Travers calls it in his glorious review of it?

Despite loving all kinds of movies and celebrating all the filmmakers we have among us today, in my heart I know that the biggest achievements in cinema are over, achieved by the films of the past. Technological innovation is the only tool cinema possesses today, the grammar of its craft and the originality of its narrative has already been explored to almost its fullest. But in 'Boyhood', we have a modern film that stands tall amidst its peers and contemporaries, and the great films of the past. It has given us something to talk about with the cinephiles of the next generation whom we will tell how we had waited for this movie, had excitedly watched its trailer, and then had experienced it on big screen with hundreds of equally enthusiastic women and men. And some, like me, would show-off by saying that we watched it more than once on the big screen, and immediately proclaimed it as one of the greatest achievement by not just a film-maker, but an artist, and a human.


  1. Brilliantly written piece about a masterpeice...your awe & amazement of the film trickles out through every word above.
    I follow your posts diligently, keep up the good work
    Power to you :)

    1. Thanks so much for your appreciation! And thanks for reading my blog.
      Power to good cinema! :)