Lately I’ve been fascinated about the relationship between the movie ratings at Rotten Tomatoes and my actual reactions to the films.
Boyhood is the much anticipated, critically acclaimed art movie that is getting overwhelmingly great reviews. Friday night Janis, Laurie and I went to see Boyhood with great expectations of being wowed. We weren’t quite – it was close though. Boyhood is mostly impressive and yet, somewhat dull in places. The same could be said about life though.
Saturday I went to see An So It Goes with my friend Anne, who is in love with Michael Douglas. I went thinking I would hate it because the film was getting almost universal bad reviews. As you might ironically guess, I enjoyed this film. It was far from great. It was slight and clichéd, yet it had a satisfying story, although there was much in it that annoyed me.
There was something in the “bad” film the “good” film needed, and vice versa. Films are mainly commercial products meant to make lots of money, but we all hope to go see something great, something memorable, something that will even have the brilliant insight of art, or the emotional impact of a classic. Boyhood is a unique film, and comes very close to being the winning Lotto ticket, but not quite. There was something missing that I can’t quite put my finger on, something that might have been in And So It Goes, but I’m not sure.
Part of this essay is about the ambition and success of movie making, and part of it’s about movies about males. Oddly enough, these two films make a good set of bookends about young and old males, about the nature of characterization, and what it means to tell a story. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is almost like a documentary in that it chronicles the life of Mason from age 5 to 18, and his life with his mother, sister, father and two step fathers.
Watching Boyhood reminded me of my own time growing up. Nearly everything Mason experienced I remember going through, although things were different over a half century ago. It’s obvious the writers wanted us to identify with the film, although why the focus on the boy, when the sister was so much part of the story too?
My parents were alcoholic, so like Mason I have memories of mental and physical fights between my mom and day, of hurling dishes and much worse, and car rides with drunken drivers. This part of the film was a post-card memory of my boyhood. It bothered me that the story had to race over these incidents because living through such experiences deserves far more story than the glossy note taking we’re given. Growing up with alcoholics deserve Marcel Proust volumes.
Like Mason I moved around a lot, and was always the new kid in school. However, Boyhood did not convey this experience with any depth either. Being the new kid involves a lot of different experiences. And being the new kid time and again has its own stories too. Learning the new environments, meeting new people from different regions, finding new friends, making a new best friend, over and over. The first kids that check you out are always the tough kids. I was always a year younger than everyone else in my grade, and a bit of a pussy, yet I always ended up hanging out with kids in trouble with the school administration or the police because I was willing to go along. Normal kids aren’t that open to new people right away. However, I was good at eventually finding the geeky oddballs, my kind of people, and making friends with them.
Again Boyhood just glossed over these kinds of events. To me it seemed Mason always had it easy, even when things were hard. I’m sure the writers and director didn’t want us to think that. I’m thinking this is where the artifice of art would have helped this movie. The movie is a series of snapshots taken over a dozen years. It needed some kind of thread to tie them together. We only get to watch Mason from the outside, so we don’t know what’s going on inside his head. Books like A Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar tell us interior of such suffering, but this movie doesn’t. Even when Mason becomes an artist, either from graffiti or photos, we don’t see any expression of his internal world.
Another memory I share with Mason was looking at panty and bra ads as a little kid. Back in the 1960s it was very hard for boys to come by porn, so we were limited to Sear’s catalogs and National Geographic magazines in our quest to find female nudity. I envy modern boys the internet. I was surprised the film didn’t have more unique takes on Mason’s boyhood sexual experiences. Actual boyhood is being tortured by horniness. It’s also filled with desperate longing for naked girls, either real, imaginary or on paper. This desperation didn’t come through in this story. And neither did any distinctive unique experiences that might have conveyed it.
I remember in 7th grade, my third of three 7th grade schools I attended in two states, where a new found buddy and I discovered we could get into the crawl spaces under houses pretty easy, and sometimes there was good junk hidden under houses. In one abandoned house on a back country road we found a big stash of girlie magazines. We guessed the boy who lived there had been too chicken to try and take his treasure with the movers. This pile of cheap Playboy wannabes made Chucky and I heroes with other boys at school for a couple weeks, as we gave, sold and traded them away. What really surprised me was how popular they made us with the girls on the school bus. They went crazy all wanting to sit next to me to look at the naked women too. Boyhood could have used an incident like this that would have made Mason’s life felt more unique and less generic.
And how could Boyhood pass up tales of masturbation? What a missed opportunity. Onanism is a huge factor in boyhood. All guys accidently figure things out on their own at first, and go through a period of worry about doing something very weird, until they talk to other guys and then discover that all the guys are doing the same thing. Then you have all those family years of furtively trying to sneak off a quick tug once or twice a day wondering if your family suspects. I can’t believe they left out that universal boyhood experience.
Boyhood is very impressive but also dull in a way. Maybe American city life in the 21st century has a lot of homogeneity to it. Mason and his sister lead sort of a slow frustrated existence. Their suffering didn’t seem that awful, and their peak experiences didn’t seem that high. I guess real life is like that, and we’ve gotten used to movie life being more exciting. I did share many of the exact experiences Mason had. Like having a religious relative give me a Bible and explaining the red words in the back, having an old guy teach me to shoot a shotgun, having a teacher or boss try to explain how to get ahead, or meeting strangers and getting high. But in this movie, these incidents has a sort of plain vanilla take to them. My memories were more intense, more complicated, more full of details. I guess that’s the problem of trying to squeeze twelve years into about three hours of art.
And that brings us to the other movie, And So It Goes, which is only 93 minutes. Michael Douglas plays a major asshole Oren Little, who openly promotes his animosity with everyone. Oren is a realtor that wants to make one final sale, his own house, which he insists is worth 8.6 million no matter what offers he gets. However, Oren lives in a run-down little four-plex he owns that he calls Shangri-la. His next door neighbor is Diane Keaton, who apparently is attempting to make a late life move into the lounge singing profession. Because this film is directed by Rob Reiner, you hope this old couple will give us another When Harry Met Sally. Well, no such luck. The film is so full of such old clichés that you feel insulted. I love geezer flicks, but I’m getting tired of the senile plot of old woman with heart of gold taming boyish asshole, especially when they add the help of cute kid and stupid dog.
Unfortunately, Hollywood doesn’t make many movies for us people with wrinkles, so we sort of have to like what we get.
One interesting take in And So It Goes is the contrast between the Michael Douglas character and the Rob Reiner character, Artie. Artie plays the piano for the Diane Keaton’s character Leah. He’s the safe, nice guy friend to her, who obviously dreams of getting lucky with Leah. The movie makes fun of Artie, which irritates me, because I’d look somewhat like Rob Reiner if I wore a bad toupee. What And So It Goes does is reinforce the cliché that women will go to bed with assholes and forget the nice guys completely, unless they need a favor. Which Artie fawningly obliges. See, And So It Goes doesn’t attempt to be anthropological about males like Boyhood, but it pulls off a good deal of insight with little time and effort. That’s where art pays off.
A tiny piece of dramatic conflict can say so much. To me, the most painful conflict Mason experiences in Boyhood is when he discovers his dad, played by Ethan Hawke, has sold off his antique Pontiac GTO to buy a minivan for his new replacement family. Mason has believed since the third grade that the GTO was his legacy. I felt for him, because as a teenager I wanted a 1967 Pontiac GTO badly. My father did buy the cheaper Pontiac Tempest in 1967, and so that was a strange compensation. To me, this one very specifically detailed experience Mason had was the most important emotional scene of the movie. I could tell what he was thinking in greater detail because this fictional incident felt more real, as if it could have been based on a real incident. Boyhood isn’t a documentary, and its characters are fictional, yet, it fictionalizes them in a very plain vanilla way.
And So It Goes is also fictional, but its fictionalize details have more color to them. Unfortunately, Michael Douglas gets all the character attention in this film. Keaton, kid and dog have very supporting roles. Oren is redeemed when he delivers a baby in strained humor and eventually accepts responsibility for the grand kid. Nothing is very good in this movie, yet I still enjoyed it. Movie makers know how to churn out generic feel good for the most part nowadays, partly by being inventive with character details. It’s a product, not an art. We give them $10 and they give us a couple hours of reasonable escapism. A good hack writer has no trouble making up details to paint a character.
Now an important psychological insight into me could be that I can see colorful details in movies about old people, but not about modern young people.
The trouble is Boyhood is being treated like James Joyce, and And So It Goes is being dismissed as a step up from fan fiction, and to me, the movie watcher, neither are as good or bad as the critics claim. I will soon forget both thoroughly, yet while I was watching I didn’t regret spending my time or money for either. That’s because we don’t really judge our escapism as real art. Boyhood was an extremely neat film hack, but it didn’t go deep enough to be art. The only other film I watched this week was Fahrenheit 451, a Truffaut film from 1966, that I think was the fifth time I seen it since it came out. Now, that’s art, at least in my mind. Any film you watch over and over again for a whole lifetime has to have a special tag. Art is good enough for me.
Art is something that will last, will be remembered, and has something unique to express. With movies and novels, the most artistic of them, will have a great story. That’s what was missing from these two films. Boyhood was too naturalistic, And So It Goes too contrived. And So It Goes had too many attempted stories in it. I can completely buy an old man obsessed with selling his house for a price that he believes in that no one else does. I can completely buy a story about an old man who has to raise his granddaughter because his heroin addicted son has to go to jail. I can completely buy an 65-year old woman trying to break into music as a Lounge Singer. But doing all three in a 93 minute film is a farce. Putting twelve years of boyhood into three hours is a stretch too. The shorter movie needed more realistic details, and the longer film needed more artificial structure.
JWH – 8/4/14 (Happy Birthday Janis)