For the first two hours (four-fifths) of Gone Girl I thought I was watching one of the best mystery feature films I had ever seen, as good as the best BBC television mysteries. Then it began to fall apart. Holes appeared in the plot. Important clues were not followed up. The strategies of the main characters made no sense. Motivations became obscure. And the film ended the way only the most masterful mystery story may be allowed to end – and even then, it’s a downer: with the villain getting away with it.
Gone Girl was a whodunit with a very, very good basic plot – as good as anything devised by Agatha Christie. Why did its writers give up on it and let it fall apart? The classy reviews had hinted at the problem, then justified their positive reviews by investing the film with a deeper meaning – about the battle between the sexes (sorry, I know I shouldn’t put it like that), about the state of a media-driven society, about the emptiness of life. Sorry. The film, the script, didn’t live up to any of that. It was a great mystery story that got you in its grip, then opened its fingers and let you fall to the floor.
Boyhood was shot over a period of twelve years – something which only a Martian without internet service would have to be told. It wasn’t some sort of psychological bio-pic, following the growing up of a real boy; it was a scripted, fictional film. The actors aged as the characters aged. The physical changes in the characters were absolutely real. What is more, they were absolutely true to the change in outlook, change in psychology – the look in the eyes, to put it bluntly – between a 32-year old and a 44-year old, even if she is Patricia Arquette. I, you, have never before seen exactly that happen in a movie.
Of course the change in the kids in the movie – the hero, Mason, his sister, a friend or two – is greater by orders of magnitude. The director, Richard Linklater, took a step into the unknown with a six-year-old actor who, in twelve years, would somehow have to fill the role of an eighteen-year-old starting college – as a skinny, goateed, sweetly pretentious one, as it turned out. But what if the six-year-old had grown into a jock, a hulk, with large hands and a booming voice? (“What then?” as Peter’s grandfather says.)
Outside of that incredible wrinkle, however, the film, the script, was unexceptional – run of the mill, really. The way you follow a little family in Houston over the years is marvelous; they and the settings look real because they are real. The scene set in 2002 was shot in 2002. But what the characters do and say is not real; it is what characters do and say in a movie.
As I watched Boyhood I thought of my own growing up and looked for parallels between the boyhood of the hero and my own – putting aside the difference in our worlds, of course. I felt a sort of kinship with the six- and nine-year old Mason. I had felt the same kinship with the brothers in Terrence Malick’s flawed Tree of Life, but more viscerally. Just a few seconds of the brothers wheeling their bikes around in front of their house brought back more of what life felt like back then, than anything in Boyhood. That could well be because the Malick scene was set in the 1950’s and that is exactly what I might I might have been doing on a lazy summer afternoon.
Mason’s life does not seem to resonate again with my own until his third year of high school. It was the point, for me and for the fictional Mason, where the inclusion of girls into one’s circle of friends opened up a new world of how one behaved, how one allowed oneself to think. Sexual attraction was the draw, of course, but that is not what I am talking about. With girls in a group of friends, the tenor of the group and, therefore, of the individuals in it, changes – D. H. Lawrence would say it was the acknowledgement of the feminine. The boys behave differently to each other – or, to put it more explicitly, they behave the same, but there is more content to what they say and do, and more self-revelation.
This is the time of adolescent pretentiousness, theories of life, brilliant ideas, a snobby connoisseurship. The fictional Mason’s experience of this felt very similar to my own. Something was missing however and, as an old guy looking at the past, it makes me quite sad. Books had almost no role in Boyhood. There was one short conversation in which books were the subject – To Kill a Mockingbird and two or three others, Catcher in the Rye, perhaps. No one in the film is shown reading anything but text on a screen – not even a newspaper, if I remember correctly.
Books were the backbone of the pretentious airs that we put on at that age. None of us really was sure what Sartre was all about, but his name sure got bandied about a lot. We knew who the icons were, even though most of what we averred about them was bullshit based on vague impressions from Life magazine, from Tom Lehrer, from intellectual Seniors or cultured schoolteachers. (It was Rabbi Winters, when he was preparing me for my Bar Mitzvah, who introduced me to Kafka.) Sure, we read lots of books, but we could talk a good game about books we hadn’t read. Sartre, Kierkegaard, Gertrude Stein, Joyce. These names were part of the culture, (along with the authors we did read, Hemingway, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Dickens, and Kafka, of course) just as were the names of baseball players and movie actors. If we wanted to convey some adolescently brilliant thought – the delicious and anxious excitement of doing which the Boyhood script so well portrays – back in my day we would have mentioned as many impressive writers and thinkers as we could, to make our idea seem credible and deep and serious.
One scene in Boyhood is indicative of that change, which I see as a lack, a loss, a pitiable misfortune. Mason has taken up photography. His photography teacher has a one-to-one, tough but kindly, mentor-to-pupil talk with Mason, on how becoming a successful photographer requires hard work. But the success that the teacher sets as Mason’s goal is fame as a highly-paid and celebrated photographer. In the 1950’s, in a similar scene, the teacher would have mentioned the names of certain photographers – Cartier-Bresson, Weston, Penn, wherever ran the teacher’s taste (which, at least for a while, would be the student’s taste, as well) – and set the quality of their work as the goal to be achieved.
In Boyhood’s 2011 the goal is to take pictures that are good enough to attract a great deal of appreciative attention. In my 1956 the goal would have been to take pictures as good as Cartier-Bresson or whomever (not “like,” although it might start as that, but “as good as”). Material reward might well follow, although it could be that you are one of those artists whose genius isn’t discovered until they’re dead – a sad fate, true, yet a noble one. Certainly, that was the approach of the English teachers who encouraged me to write. Young writers today – from what I gather, anyway – hope to write what most people will want to read. We hoped to be write well.