It was years and years and years and years ago, just past the turn of the twentieth century. 2001, to be precise, January, only a few months before, well, you know. That single day. When everything supposedly changed.
We’re in Park City, Utah, at the largest of the Sundance Film Festival venues, the 989-seat Eccles Center. The latest film by Richard Linklater is about to debut, and there are whispers that afternoon that this showing will be a tightrope act. Two hard drives had arrived too late to test, only just in time to show, from a then-pioneering video effects company in Europe called Swiss Effects. There’s a primary and a backup of Linklater’s first animated feature, a movie about all time set in no time at all, “Waking Life.” A deep breath: this is new technology, made on computers in Austin, finished in Switzerland. It might not work at all. There’s no time left.
Of course, it worked. (So did “Waking Life,” the film.) No one in the audience knew the difference unless they’d heard the chatter. The illusion of onrushing narrative in continuous time swept us all away, as it has a way of doing. Not too long after that, Linklater shot the first portion of contained annual bursts of what was eventually entitled “Boyhood.” He hoped to trace the rituals of childhood, with a soulful-eyed, pout-lipped little casting find named Ellar Coltrane trusted with holding the center of the narrative for the twelve years to come. His character, Mason, would grow from the age of six or so to eighteen, from 2002 to September 2013, from pouty little boy to willowy, pillow-lipped man.
His parents, Olive and Mason, Sr., would be played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, who had already participated in “Before Sunrise,” one of Linklater’s many films that observe the unity of a single day in limited locations. (Those films also include “Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Before Sunset,” “Before Midnight” and “Tape.”) In short, a film that encompasses lifetimes. The characters—the actors—transforming the way we do in the eyes of our families, our friends. Life as a long quiet river. But this time, we’d see the flow.
“Time goes by, and people cry, and everything goes too fast,” a Julie Delpy lyric for “An Ocean Apart” goes in the middle segment of the “Before” trilogy, “Before Sunset.” At “Boyhood”’s lavishly-lauded 2014 premiere at Eccles, Linklater marked the time from shoot to premiere of the 164-minute miniaturist epic as a mere 4,207 days.
Mason, Sr. remains vagabond dad, a well-meaning Peter Pan who sometimes seems to hold on only by his cheekbones, while Olive goes through abusive, inferior men who are never the father that free-spirited Mason manages to be just by being himself. The marvel, as you’d expect, is observing the course of time subtly etching the faces of the adults, and the deepening of their fine performances through the years-long shoot, as well as the transformation before our eyes, in semi-documentary but dreamy fashion, the faces and bodies of Coltrane and Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei, who plays Mason’s older sister, Samantha.
Among the many fine choices in the background, including IFC financing a chimerical dream project that may well have collapsed into nightmarish junk in other hands, was the notion to shoot on 35mm film, taking into consideration that the changing quality and characteristics of digital video across a decade would simply be too distracting.
Linklater is also one of the few filmmakers you’d expect to foresee the fact that he would be shooting a period piece in the present: that is, that each year would be seen from a distance of years, and however the present was characterized, through pop culture and other social artifacts, would accrue into simple nostalgia. But Linklater’s better than that, and the ending, the very ending, is open-ended yet also a summation of what so many of his wanderers have been searching for all their on-screen lives. The song score presented at Sundance felt right, even with on-the-nose choices, including a fall 2013 scene that was the first to use Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” as a sonic signpost. That cue got cut, as was Outkast’s “Hey Ya,” but there are many glimmering matches of scene to song that include Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize,” Yo La Tengo’s “I’ll Be Around,” Jeff Tweedy’s “Summer Noon,” Lady Gaga’s “Telephone,” a little Dylan and “Band on The Run.”
“Boyhood” is perfectly imperfect, and surely not the last exploration of feature filmmaking as the ideal form to encapsulate duration and unities of location to come from the dogged, invaluable fifty-three-year-old writer-director. Time. Time itself. More than any of Linklater’s movies, “Boyhood” fits squarely into the exquisite expanses of one of my favorite poems, my fellow Kentuckian Robert Penn Warren’s “Audubon: a vision.”
Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.
“Boyhood” opens Friday.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.