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"Boyhood": Richard Linklater's Divine Comedy

The first image of Richard Linklater’s "Boyhood" is a vaguely circular opening in the clouds, the line of sight reaching out to the clear blue sky. On the soundtrack is the now embarrassingly familiar pop warmth of Coldplay’s "Yellow," still fresh in the early ‘00s, Linklater cutting to six-year-old Mason Jr.’s (Ellar Coltrane) eye on cue with Chris Martin’s lyrics telling us to “Look at the stars.” Of course, we, like Mason, cannot see the stars through the blue of day much less "see how they shine" for him, but he’s still searching through that stratospheric hole in the clouds for the yellow.

For 12 years we will persist in looking with Mason and at Mason, through windows and video screens, through camera lenses and binoculars, in darkrooms and around doorways, and finally up at the desert twilight. The fractals of what "Boyhood" presents us are the narrow and incidental puzzle pieces that Mason, in a wandering exodus, accumulates through an Empyrean journey to understand why “anything” happens. The film is not reducible to a life affirming passage through the boundaries of childhood to adult freedom, or merely a humorous novelty stunt with conspicuous markers, from pop music (“Oops, I Did It Again”) to rapidly changing technology (XBox). Even more than the philosophical digressions of "Waking Life" and the "Before" trilogy, "Boyhood" is Linklater’s most fully realized effort in reaching—and failing to grasp—the ineffable. It’s a comedy in search of divinity, an ascending journey through time with the same star-gazing longing that concludes Dante’s three Commedia canticles, its opening image reminiscent of the opening from Hell to Purgatory (“…I saw through a round opening, some of those things of beauty Heaven bears. It was from there that we emerged, to see—once more—the stars.”) Linklater himself, whose autobiographical reminiscences were reflected in the strikingly antipodal "Dazed and Confused," assumes the guiding role of Virgil, leading the incessantly gazing pilgrim Mason, the boy searching for something magical or transcendent in the suburban sprawl text, accumulating undecipherable bits of “urban art” along the way (his own tag, “KEZJO,” he admits “Doesn’t really mean anything”). And, as in Dante, the path to grace is seeing—and then understanding—out of which healthy acts of love grow.

"Boyhood" begins with Mason’s eyes and references to his wandering scopophilia: Mason spends most of class time staring out the window; he entrancedly sits in front of a TV set, delights in looking at lingerie ads with an older friend, and voyeuristically peers around a doorway to observe a late night fight between his struggling single mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and a boyfriend. External objects confusedly collide in Mason’s reading of the universe. Looking in the present, he conjectures how things are created; he threw a rock in the air, and then a wasp flew by, therefore wasps come from rocks. But there’s a budding awareness of the end, as when his sight is locked in morbid fascination with a dead baby bird in the dirt. Feeling the passage of time, Linklater invites us to share Mason’s confusion as to where things begin and end, beautifully conveyed as Olivia, Mason, and big sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) drive away from their old neighborhood for a new one, Mason seeing his bike-riding best friend waving to him before evaporating with the tall grass in the foreground.

We encounter Mason’s optical associations elsewhere with his taste for movies, love for videogames, interest in graffiti, compulsion to watch the “Funny or Die” bit “The Landlord” repeatedly, and finally a passion for photography. His watchfulness is even noted by Nature, when a Magnificent Owl butterfly—known for the owl-like eye shapes on its wings—perches on his shoulder. Toward the end of the film, Mason wears a psychedelic t-shirt with the mandala design of eyeballs encircling a blinding light.

While I won’t suggest that "The Divine Comedy" is a key influence on "Boyhood," Mason’s t-shirt is an interesting Dantean prop. In Italian, the poem’s most commonly used noun is occhio or “eye.” Dante is retelling episodes of horror and grace that he saw from hell to heaven, some of which he admits he lacks the proper language to describe. In Canto XXVIII of the Paradiso, Dante speaks about “a point that sent forth so acute a light, that anyone who faced the force with which it blazed would have to shut his eyes,” and around that blinding point nine rings of angels in spiraling revolution. Beatrice then explains to Dante that “blessedness depends upon the act of vision, not upon the act of love—which is a consequence; the measure of…vision lies in merit, produced by grace and then by will to goodness: and this is the progression, step by step.” Mason’s vision has become his key to freedom, his photography winning him a scholarship, but the irradiation in "Boyhood" is still transient and contingent on the maintenance of that vision, being able to see himself through his interactions during a process that never ends. Just as the men in Mason’s life who appear good-humored and well-natured—the stepfathers Professor Bill (Marco Perella) and military vet Jim (Brad Hawkins)—develop into contemptible and resentful assholes because of alcoholic flights from self-observation, he’s susceptible to losing sight of himself, such as during an argument with his ex-girlfriend Sheena, who’s left Mason for a college lacrosse player, when Mason’s defense mechanism is to make her jealous about girls that he’s been with. “Now you’re just trying to be an asshole,” she tells him and walks away, and he knows that she’s right. 

Mason is wearing the eye shirt while receiving advice from his father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), and then in the presence of his mother being thanked by a young man whose professional development from a migrant pipe worker to restaurant manager and college student, he says, is indebted to her advice years ago. Both scenes argue about progress, as Mason Sr. has become the minivan-owning insurance salesman Olivia probably wanted him to be 20 years ago, while his paternal advice, related to Mason’s heartbreak over Sheena, is, if practical, insistently trivializing in how it generalizes women and men, and simplistic in assigning Mason’s responsibility for his self-esteem and actions. Similarly, the pipe worker’s progress is uplifting, but I wonder if there’s a hint of ambivalence regarding someone acclimating to the English-speaking dominant culture and buying into the system for bourgeois success; his conspicuous rosary from the earlier scene replaced by a dress shirt and tie. The navigational process through human encounters in "Boyhood" however isn’t judgmental, but beseeches us to keep our sight and hearing attuned through those encounters, understanding the melancholy truism, famous from "The Rules of the Game," that everyone has their reasons. This differentiates Mason from other young protagonists, including most of Linklater’s notorious "Dazed and Confused" ensemble. During an early conversation with Sheena, he notes how he hates how people try to control others, but he understands that these trespassers don’t even realize that they’re doing it.

The sentiment evokes Christ’s forgiveness on the cross, the notion that Love is seeing and understanding others, who know not what they do. "Boyhood" is brimming with religious intimations, sometimes even subverting the expectations of an audience Linklater understands is secular. We laugh when Mason Sr.’s rural in-laws from a new marriage give 15-year-old Mason a Red Letter Bible for his birthday (Mason’s name inscribed on the cover), and chuckle more at his puzzled expression when he attends church with this fresh extended family. The pastor is speaking about John 20, when the disciple Thomas was doubtful of Jesus’ resurrection and needed to see and feel the physical scars of his teacher’s crucifixion. What could have been a condescending scene about red state faith suddenly alters, as Linklater cuts from the pastor to Mason, his fingers thumbing through his new Bible as his eyes remain intent on the preacher; he’s reading the moment. The message of John 20 is “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” but the pastor is sensible to how Thomas could at least touch the nail marks on Christ’s body; he saw Jesus in the flesh and we don’t have that advantage. “But we’ve felt him in the spirit, or at least I have,” the pastor says and the scene ends, the resonance completely different from where we thought we were going, hushing any smug laughter as Mason wanders through mazes lost, struggling, like Dante, to see God, which in Canto V of Purgatorio we learn is the primary goal: “[Then] light from Heaven granted understanding, so that, repenting and forgiving, we came forth from life at peace with God, and He instilled in us the longing to see Him.”

That spirit, or desire to believe in something transcendent, follows Mason throughout his journey, as he looks at the stars that aren’t there, draws his amusingly absurd corollaries between rocks and wasps, and, most pointedly, when he asks his father if magic exists in the world (namely, elves). The phenomenal world, into which early friends fade into grass and birds decay in the dirt, isn’t enough, even in the majesty of Mason Sr.’s description of a blue whale as a feat of evolution. Alternative magic is in human ingenuity, which Mason grows up idly adoring (video games) and then of which he’s very wary, as human beings seem to be evolving into cyborgs by the ubiquitous gadgetry around them, the bower of private subjectivity unlocked and exposed by an algorithm that neatly figures out the right college roommate for you, satisfaction guaranteed. It’s magic, yes, but far removed from the magic felt by a child who grew up emulating—as he we see Mason in costume during a book release party—the wizardry of Harry Potter, and then the universe of Star Wars. The real world of biological and legally binding relationships has let Mason down; he mistakes the Totem his father has given him as a gift for a Tiki—the symbol of land and family for a religious and transcendent symbol.

This dance between the mystical and technological points to how magic means different things through changing times, but behind Linklater’s pragmatism, so pertinent to "A Scanner Darkly" and "Before Midnight"’s discussions of a “last generation” and posthumanity, he probably sees things in the manner of George Lucas’ Force, with a benevolent Zen side of letting go and a Dark Side based on power and control, where good men (like the film’s two stepfathers) become bad. During a brief exchange between Mason and his neighborhood friends, Star Wars’ own villainous cyborg, General Grievous from 2005’s "Revenge of the Sith," is set up as a superior alternative to the sage Jedi mysticism of Yoda; it’s a comparison that would probably only gain traction with viewers of George Lucas’ prequel trilogy, summarily dismissed by fans of the older movies (similarly, when Mason Sr. advises 17-year-old Mason, via FaceTime phone conversation, to “be Obi Wan” during a road trip with Sheena to Austin, we probably take for granted that Obi Wan Kenobi denotes two very different characters for father and son). Roger Clemens, pitching for the Houston Astros, looks like a miracle on the mound, with a 1.90 ERA and striking out hitters half his age, but in retrospect—and something Linklater could have only suspected but not known at the time of filming—such remarkability on the mound may be reducible to anabolic steroids (or maybe midi-chlorians, if we’re going to stick with the new generation’s Star Wars parlance).

Instead of life opening up to Dante’s blinding Empyrean wonder of something all-encompassing above the nine heavens, education neatly dissects our wonder. Dante’s Creation, the good and bad of it, is Love, which is God, the radiant Living Light of Paradiso’s Canto XXXIII where the poet’s words fail to reach the measure of what he gazes (“As the geometer intently seeks to square the circle, but he cannot reach, through thought on thought, the principle he needs, so I searched that strange sight: I wished to see the way in which our human effigy suited the circle and found place in it--and my own wings were too far weak for that.”), but now Love is reduced to Pavlovian responses and Bowby’s attachment theory. Relatedly, Linklater’s choice of Arcade Fire’s “Deep Blue” for "Boyhood"’s end credits isn’t an arbitrary music selection, but lyrically intones Linklater’s fears about holding onto something cosmic through accelerating changes, the melancholy of the singer’s prayers “to a dying star” tying the end of the film to the callow aspirations of Coldplay at the beginning. The star dies and collapses and the emerging technology can now “see through you,” alluding to chess master Kasparov’s defeat by the Deep Blue computer in 1997—or to Mason’s prediction that NSA data scanning will essentially unriddle every human being. The song admonishes us to “put the cellphone/laptop down for a while” because “in the night there is something wild, I feel it, it’s leaving me.” Mason notes how the Inbox ring presents us with the newest Pavlovian response of mental salivation, “experience” jotted out for the stream of “information” as the desire to feel the transcendent “in the spirit,” awakening oneself to divinity, evaporates with the stars when I can see a cute little pig on my cellphone right now.

More than technology, cybernetics refers to “control” and that’s from which Mason longs to escape, in the same way Dante aspires to get out of the political machinations of his Florence. Himself exiled from home because of political corruption, Dante often alludes to the Psalms and Exodus, relaying the prayers of wandering shadows looking for home though, because of nostalgic disobedience (the golden calf, hearkening to the time of slavery in Egypt), they’re doomed to wander in the desert until the whole Exodus generation has passed on, still nevertheless dreaming of seeing the Promised Land. This is the condition of Purgatory, where souls purge themselves through the span of their earthbound timelines in order to reach Paradise. All time, in Dante and as we come to see in Linklater’s "Boyhood" (and memorably spoken about elsewhere, particularly "Dazed and Confused" when each of life’s stages is realized as another step to dying), is bound with the Future. Olivia, Mason, and Samantha go from household to household, stepfather to stepfather, school to school, where the freeing endgame is college’s freedom. The rest of life passes by, Mason even jokingly identified as “a stick in the mud” by Samantha.

In 2013, Mason Sr. has gone from wild musician vagabond to affable (and uncool) bourgeois dad; Samantha is content in college, but is indolent (she doesn’t seem to really care who her mute, handsome boyfriend is as a person) and zombiefied; and most devastatingly, long-suffering Olivia, finally with an empty nest, can only see death after the Exodus’ completion, even if she’s jumping 40 years into the future. These three characters have fulfilled, however abstractly, their respective Future roles, but the aspiration’s satisfaction makes them look thirsty and girdled in the motions of circular repetition, the condition of which is not parallel to Paradiso but Inferno.

Mason, though not sculpted as a heroic character, is different. Unlike Linklater’s slackers and good-time getters in "Dazed and Confused," Mason resists the given rites of passage from boyhood to manhood. He is ushered into it by age 6, mimicking his older friend pointing and laughing at lingerie ads, then taking football lessons from his dad and golf tips from a stepdad; attending parties where he drinks, smokes pot, and enacts “manly” destruction (in this case, throwing a saw blade at a drawing of a man), but, by virtue of his perceptiveness, he sees through the rituals. His definition of Manhood is tainted by a loving but absent father and two macho abusive stepfathers—all three of whom are eager to define how a person should act when they lack their own reflexivity (Mason Sr. is certainly lovable and listens to reason, but notice how he instructs the politically indifferent Mason and Samantha how to vote in the 2004 election). His peers further influence him: encountered by bullies in a school restroom, Mason doesn’t play along as victim or combatant so much as he tolerates the pestering stupidity of two more abusive males who don’t understand why they’re doing what they’re doing; Mason observes how a friend who refuses to drink a beer is taunted by older boys who call him gay; Mason’s head is shaved at the behest of stepdad Bill, who tells him he’s “not going to look like a little girl anymore”; older, Mason’s ears are pierced and he doesn’t mind wearing fingernail polish to the dining room table, where new stepdad Jim abusively teases that next he’ll be holding a purse.

The characters in "Dazed and Confused" might be drunk and high (well, dazed and confused) but the social hierarchies and charades are well in order. Buying a six-pack at the local liquor store is a step toward success, whereas in "Boyhood" (featuring the same dopey liquor salesman from "Dazed and Confused") it feeds into the infernal repetitions and degradation of a malignant household, hidden by the appearance of suburban affluence and normality. Mason is, however, a stick in the mud. Whereas "Dazed" ends with incoming freshman Wiley Wiggins coming home, lying to his mom about alcohol intake, and closing his eyes and ears into headphones that take him away, Mason is, however coyly, frank with Olivia about drugs and alcohol. Mason is strikingly alone, bereft of camaraderie with only one male friend at his graduation party (a friend who doesn’t really want to be there), and, crucially, he’s resistant to sharing a beer with his old man during the long-awaited final scene of fatherly advice—which is advice that amounts to very little Mason can find helpful, further feeding into long-standing generalizations of men and women.

Mason remains—literally, we see—in the desert, wandering, in Exodus, and grasping the weight of how all time is the Present. Sitting on the rocks of Big Bend in southern Texas with his college roommate’s friend Nicole, he says, “It’s like each moment is happening right now,” and it’s hard not to laugh as he fumbles in articulating something that sounds both philosophically complex and kind of dumb. But as the film cuts to the credits we see the point: that for which we’re nostalgic is happening now, as Linklater filmed it, from 2002 to 2014. There was no time to reflect and remember.

Like the filmmaker, Mason is committed to the sanctity of time; the moments themselves indifferently create and take away. Professor Bill became a monster, but Mason’s years with him engendered important experiences with two step-siblings from Bill’s previous marriage. Jim seemed a corrective to Bill, an intelligent war veteran who actually gave Mason his first camera and engendered creative bliss, but he too became a ghastly domineering obstruction, psychologically crumbling under life’s disappointments. People go in and out of Mason’s life with such sorrowful consistency that we can see why he’s taken his photographic vocation and committed himself to antiquated celluloid development.

On the road to college, Mason turns his film camera on ghostly markers, abandoned stores, old signs, and useless traffic lights scattered on the eroded sprawl. Maybe his urge to commemorate the past is because the future scares him. He’s still reading the abject and wasted world, watchfully trying to decipher the magic within the profane. In this sense he hasn’t really changed. Think of the 6-year-old listening to Olivia read the moment from Harry Potter when the young wizards talk about the ghost Moaning Myrtle, who haunts the Hogwarts restrooms and whose wailing gets in the way of one having a pee, and then years later camping with his father, going through a “Native American ritual” of giving back to the Earth by pissing on last night’s campfire.

For all the spiritual yearning, even touching the indescribable Empyrean that produces “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars,” Dante comes back to the human body and the living Earth, where he will return, write his poem, and seek to move readers to investigate the same divine mystery and desire for freedom that moved him, on the page and on the Earth, right now. "Boyhood" looks up at the stars and searches for the same encompassing mystery, and its resolution of freedom, time, and understanding comes through a similarly circular trajectory, seeing the old familiar world with new eyes. Mason sits with Nicole, a dance instructor whose passion is tap because of the creative freedom it allows. If we remember, her visage and ethnicity is similar to a girl who smiled at 7-year-old Mason in class while he cut out the state of Texas on construction paper. Some years later, Mason bashfully walks in late to another classroom because of his embarrassing haircut, just in time to complete the Texas pledge of allegiance; sitting down, he receives an admiring note from a girl—named Nicole—a few desks away. Here he is now, a subset in the ageless geography of his home state, looking out at Big Bend Park, with another Nicole who seems to hand him the answer to time’s riddle of how we are subject to its demanding Now. Another reminder of his origins, she’s a shade of what he glimpsed at years ago, not played by the same actress from that early schoolroom scene but certainly an eerie evocation of her. It’s as if this moment has been chasing him his whole life, through the past and toward the future, and landing squarely at the present—which is what time always is.

Time’s not a perfect circle, but maybe it’s close enough, like that vaguely round opening in the clouds from the film’s opening moments. Though his life and destiny are hardly complete and assured, this moment, as Mason’s companions profanely yawp at the glorious universe, is one of calming transcendent union, a conclusion that makes "Boyhood" a truly divine comedy. Mason and Nicole look out at the twilight around Big Bend, recognized as one of the nation’s best sites for stargazing, their searching eyes likely to find what that embarrassing Coldplay lullaby promised at the beginning, Mason, like Dante at the summit of the Earthly Paradise, now “remade, as new trees are renewed when they bring forth new boughs…pure and prepared to climb unto the stars.”  

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