For part of my 20s, I worked as a journalist in New York, writing and editing news, and shepherding various forms of what I thought were important stories from pitch to completion. Then, in 2008, my wife set out to work full-time as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and I tagged along. Over the next five years, I watched her covering difficult stories: the growth of al-Qaeda in Yemen, the supposed wind-down of our war in Iraq, the failed revolutions in Bahrain and Syria. Faced with stories more urgent, perhaps, than the ones I’d known in New York, I became convinced that what I thought I knew about how cities functioned and how people ought to act with each other was untrue or at least incomplete and probably down-right naïve. In my new life, while my wife roamed the globe, I was meanwhile often a single parent, and with a great deal of effort I was attempting to find meaning in this new role. So I wrote personal essays. Some of them were uncertain, others emotional, and most of them raw and strange and inconclusive.
For many years, far from America, I stayed busy—writing, worrying, trying to think about how to live beside the chaos of war and strife. Living first in Riyadh, then in Istanbul, and finally in Beirut, I found few answers. Then I suppose I fled. In all that time, I had most certainly never turned to movies for comfort or answers.
Then, after half a decade away, we moved to Los Angeles, capital of all things cinematic—the kind of city that suggests a whole different constellation of stories you might consider important or true. At first, I remained as allergic to film as I’d ever been. But with each passing month, my life in Los Angeles increasingly began to play out like a series of half-baked television episodes. One day, I sat at my desk and watched live footage of a helicopter chasing a guy in a stolen BMW, wondering if the perp would pull over and charge the cops, committing suicide on camera. Another morning, I read about a man who ran over his wife’s Chihuahua, and realizing it was not dead, backed over it, finishing the job. There was speculation on another morning that actor Lindsay Lohan probably didn’t complete her required 80 hours of community service in the allotted nine days.
Sitting at work on a warm afternoon this January, I was surprised (and somewhat excited) when a colleague said matter-of-factly: “I’m sick. Take my tickets to see Boyhood.” I hemmed and hawed, thinking about sitting still for hours.
A brief acknowledgment: My wife can barely stand to watch a movie with me. I’m always pausing or pacing, sighing and getting worked up. I usually find the experience of watching a film to be an exercise in discomfort. By movies’ very shape and convention—the pushing, the prodding, the soaring music, the quick cuts, the drama about what might happen next—I feel not entertained or pleased or even delightfully distracted, but instead cheapened, bullied, pandered to, annoyed. A topic or scenario that might be important or true instead feels simplistic. Compared to reading or writing, where I’m in control, where I have convinced myself there is subtlety and nuance and beauty, I think of movies mainly as crude things that push me and make me miserable. (And I do not seek to manufacture misery, generally speaking. And also I’m probably watching the wrong films.)
A few weeks later, I tried to explain my feelings to film expert and Washington University psychology professor Jeffery Zacks, author of Flicker: Your Brain On Movies.
Compared to reading or writing, where I’m in control, where I have convinced myself there is subtlety and nuance and beauty, I think of movies mainly as crude things that push me and make me miserable.
“You should know one thing,” he says. “Most people really enjoy the experience of watching movies.... You are not normal.”
Then I tell him why I’m calling: That I went to see Boyhood. That I loved it. That I’m asking him to help me understand why.
Part of why Boyhood is so interesting, both for the movie-hater in me and the movie-lover in you, perhaps, is the idea that at the heart of the film is a clever and original conceit. For the most part, Boyhood is a film like all others, in that director Richard Linklater wrote a script, found some actors to play the parts, and from all that filmed material pieced together approximately three hours of finished product. With help from editing—the tricks of omission and re-ordering—he was able to portray a reality that was much longer than three hours—in the case of Boyhood, it was something like 12 years.
To create this manipulation—to allude to a series of moments farther apart than the three-hour viewing time—many films use multiple actors, make-up, costumes, and set design to portray the actors at different ages. It didn’t take 45 years to film Forrest Gump, for example. A little boy plays young Forrest, and then Tom Hanks plays adult Forrest. We accept this. We always have. It’s how film works.
What’s so thrilling about Boyhood, Zacks and I agree, is the fact that Linklater actually took a dozen years to shoot the film. The boy is six, in both real life and in the film. Then six very real, very human years pass. When we see the boy again, in the film, he is supposed to be 12 years old. In real life he is also 12. The film concludes when he is actually and fictionally approximately 18.
Many essays and analyses about this novelty approach have already been produced. Some critics focus on the fact that filming in 1992 means everything looks like 1992 because it is 1992. (That Gameboy, for example, isn’t from a props bin, it’s the actual toy the boy was playing with in his “real life”). So that’s a matter of authenticity.
Other observers focus on the thrill we experience going back in time to watch actors who don’t yet know what we now do—that, for instance, a black man will one day be president. In this respect, the film is a kind of visceral lesson in the way future history is unknowable in the past. Much praise, too, has centered on the ostensible joys, nuance, and difficulty the process of coming together every six years must have meant for the actors. What’s underlying all this acclaim (and occasional criticism) is one of Boyhood's more-hidden theses: Sometimes we cannot control what we see, or when we see it.
Presumably, this bold and provocative approach to the problem of filmmaking gives Boyhood an advantage. Perhaps even, the experience of watching this kind of film is in fact different than with other films?
Maybe not, Zacks says. Yes, Linklater’s stunt may have ushered my first foot in the door. And yes, it may have earned the movie a great deal of critical attention. But the reality is that, for the many of us who saw Boyhood—whether or not we came into the film thinking about this age progression—science suggests that we pretty quickly forget about anything other than what we are seeing onscreen. Our brains get to work, making memories. And those memories don’t necessarily call up specific images; rather, they help us form a story.
Part of Zacks’ cognitive and behavioral research is in pursuit of an understanding about how we remember the films we’ve seen, and why there is almost no difference in our brains between how we store our actual memories and the “memories” we see (or read or are told). It’s a so-called adaptive trait: that we can later remember whatever we consume—be it a film, printed story, or oral story—and think of it as “real,” and to use that information to refine how we live. Zacks puts it best in Flicker: “It’s not the case that you have one bucket into which you drop all the real-life events, another for movie events, and a third for events in novels.... There is one model-building mechanism in there that grabs information from lots of different sources.... That machinery is perfectly happy to operate on stuff from your life, from a movie, or from a book.”
After talking to Zacks, I’m re-reading this passage in his book about buckets, and I imagine my own bucket, trying to picture all that’s stored in there. There’s a lot in Boyhood you might want to store away, lessons about what to do and what not to do. The movie is called Boyhood, but there’s plenty about being an adult, and a whole lot about being a woman.
So I see the movie. I sit in a theater, surrounded by other people, all of us watching scenes that at times have my chest tight with emotion. In particular, I’ll never forget that stunning moment with Patricia Arquette (who may yet win an Oscar). She’s sitting at a dining room table, sobbing because her son is going away to college. I’m a guy who allegedly doesn’t like movies, and I’m sitting in the dark, crying just as hard. I decide in that moment that despite any clever editing schemes, and however overly sentimental this film may be, I have loved it. My life is better for seeing it.
Then the lights come up. Judging by his ability to command instant respect—and the audience's shock—I can tell it's Richard Linklater standing in front of the us. (I’d heard a rumor there’d be a special guest.) He's joined by most of the cast, including the woman who’s just made me weep. I’m overwhelmed, I will later tell Zacks. It takes an incredible amount of restraint not to run down the aisle and hug them all, even Ethan Hawke. It’s announced that the cast and director will conduct a Q&A. I join in applauding, all of us in the audience whooping with joy and maybe something deeper and more profound.
I decide in that moment that despite any clever editing schemes, and however overly sentimental this film may be, I have loved it. My life is better for seeing it.
I tell Zacks about how, aside from falling in love with the film’s characters, in a way, seeing the Boyhood actors in person was like seeing a version of myself. “Mmmm hmmm,” Zacks says thoughtfully. Then he explains how it’s a very fragile system that keeps our memories distinct, that it’s very easy to think of yourself as having participated in a movie.
A few days later, I call Dr. Uri Hasson, a neuroscientist at Princeton. We talk about my conversation with his colleague, Zacks—they know each other; academia is a small world. I tell him about my understanding that all films, regardless of how special they might be, get stored in the same memory bucket. If this is true, I reason, Boyhood is actually not all that extraordinary.
“I’m not so sure that is right,” Hasson says. “We are very sensitive creatures.” As we talk, I realize my understanding of Zacks' idea of memory and model-building is incomplete. We might have one bucket, but it would be simplistic to say that every movie we see sits in that bucket like all others. “Everything makes a difference,” Hasson says. “The editing makes a difference. The quality of the actors makes a difference.... If you made the same movie twice, but one of lesser quality, well....” In other words, taste determines the likelihood we will access the memory of a movie once it’s dropped into our great, big bucket.
Filmmakers make important choices, Hasson tells me, and some of them are new. For instance, there’s the invention of the close-up—something that occurred almost by accident in the early-1900s Western, The Great Train Robbery. At the end of the film, the director zeroes in on one actor. (In some showings, this moment is at the beginning of the film.) Whereas the rest of The Great Train Robbery was all mid-range action shots, with this close-up there was a moment when the viewer could study a human face for what it was: a real and beautiful and oddly moving reflection of ourselves. And in this case, it’s the lead bandit, pointing a gun and firing. The audience reacted strongly, and filmmakers began training the camera closely on faces all the time. “We love close ups,” Hasson says. “Because it’s not something we can do on a daily basis.”
I think about Boyhood, and the way it allows us to linger on “real” faces – not just for a couple hours, but for 12 years. During our conversation, Hasson also tells me about a study with monkeys, where the animal was bated to choose between drinking juice and looking at one of three pictures: a photo of a dominant male monkey, one of a scrawnier male monkey, and one of a female monkey's ... well, butt. Each photo cost a certain amount of juice: three portions for the photo of an assertive male, two portions for a posterior shot, and one for the gangly monkey. The experiment showed that monkeys will pay more to look at the face of a dominant monkey, because seeing the big, strong one up close is something they can’t normally do in real life—not without courting serious danger. Pictures and films provide a chance to glimpse into a world we might not normally have access to, and like the monkeys in the study, that's something we value.
During the Q&A, I looked at Ethan Hawke in his sharp suit, and I felt a strange rush of pride. I wanted a nice suit! I’d just spent hours staring at his face, making memories, maybe learning how to live. Illuminated by a spotlight, Patricia Arquette said the movie had changed the way she parented. I was compelled to think of how I could, would, or should change the way I parented—just like Patricia Arquette! Ellar Coltrane, now 20, was tongue-tied and awkward; this felt authentic. For 12 years they’d all worked to get here! For the last 12 years, I too had been working.
After the Q&A, another strange thing happened. I’d just basked in the joy of watching this film, experiencing the thrill of seeing the actors I’d gotten to know over 12 “real” years. Now it was time to go home and start living again. In a daze, I wobbled out of the theater and down the stairs to the parking garage, when I noticed a young woman, remarkably tall, walking carefully on heels beside me. She glanced at me and I had that electric feeling of recognition. Old friend? Former colleague? I knew her. Emotions fired. Was she in my bucket?
The woman I’d recognized, I realized with a start, was the actor who had played the boy’s high school girlfriend, Sheena. But now she wasn’t on stage. She also wasn’t walking toward one of the chauffeured Escalades set aside for cast and crew. She was alone. Or nearly alone. Trailing in her wake, I noticed, were two older people who may or may not have been her parents. And whatever hopeful lessons I thought I’d learned from Boyhood were substituted in my mind by a pain that felt maybe more real than anything I had just experienced in that theater.
Nothing felt as important as watching this girl in a parking garage smile at whom I assume were her parents, before all three of them climbed into a late-model minivan and closed the doors.
A flurry of thoughts rushed through my brain: Why wasn’t she onstage, answering questions? Was it awkward to watch this film as a member of a paying audience? How many times had she seen the movie? Is there some anxiety about her next project? Does part of her want to ask Ethan Hawke for career advice?
I wanted to ask her all this. I wanted to help. I wanted to write. I’d just spent two hours more or less learning from strangers who through art had become less strange. The world had felt small. Knowledge and kindness seemed possible. But all I’d done was sit there. This. This was real. Nothing felt as important as watching this girl in a parking garage smile at whom I assume were her parents, before all three of them climbed into a late-model minivan and closed the doors.
Zacks and I talk about whether or not seeing a movie like Boyhood can indeed make you a better person. “I buy that,” he says. “Yes, sure. You are now better.” I certainly felt improved, sitting there during the Q&A. I was even thinking that maybe I needed to give movies another chance.
But how did I feel afterward, after having seen this actor come to life—real life? Zacks and Hasson had, I suppose, helped me to know more about how movies function. But what I think I now know even more viscerally is that afterwards, when I saw this young woman all alone, in a parking garage, the fact that I could record that moment for myself gave me an even greater sense of the power of the ordinary. It snapped me back into reality—into a less beautiful and more interesting realm, where people aren’t as beautiful, and they have parents with minivans and go to art school in Maryland (which this young actor does). Where 12 years actually takes 12 years.
Standing there, feeling sad about everything, I think, felt more real and thrilling and useful, to me, than any scene I can remember from the film. (Her name is Zoe Graham. I find her Twitter feed: Pizza, a selfie with a dog, her lament about not knowing how to cook well. Then I read that she’s just signed on to play the daughter of Julia Roberts in an upcoming film.)
I’m not saying you shouldn’t see Boyhood, or indeed any other movie you think you might enjoy, or that reality is more important than fiction. In his book, Zacks talks about how hard our minds need to work to remember that what we’re seeing isn’t true. We are wired to believe; it helps us survive. A completely unstructured film—like some sort of raw tape of the lives we actually live—wouldn't be of much use to us. We all have to decide what matters, what we want, how we will remember, and who we will try to be. Whether we’ve seen this film or that, this much remains true: Each of us, more or less alone, walks out into the night. And each of us sees something different.
Lead photo: Ellar Coltrane as the film's titular boy, Mason Jr. (Photo: IFC Films)