Boyhood, Bears, and Roger Bannister
On February 22nd, the 87th annual Academy Awards will be handed out. Odds makers tell us that Boyhood, written and directed by Richard Linklater, is one of two plausible winners for Best Picture (along with Birdman). As you can probably glean from this fact, critics have been kind to Boyhood. But that praise has often been qualified, because the film raises some tricky questions for anyone attempting to appraise it. Questions like this one: Can a film's beauty occur off screen?
Here are some quotes from reviews of Boyhood. See if you can spot the theme:
"The major accomplishment of Boyhood is that it was made over a 12-year span with the characters and actors actually growing older. That's a formidable achievement. But that's not an end in itself. Is the life interesting? Are the characters interesting? Is the dialogue convincing and revealing?"
-- Tony Macklin
"There's not a great theme, a great performance or even a great scene in '“'Boyhood.'”' But I think it might be a great picture."
-- Lawrence Toppman
"We see Ellar and Lorelei grow up before our eyes! What is so remarkable about this?"
-- Victoria Alexander
"Nearly every review that I've read of this film points out the unique method Linklater used to film this family's story, referring to the 12 years it took to make, but then they nearly all state something similar to Patrick by saying that it's not a gimmick. But of course it's a gimmick. It's the most unique thing about this movie and the only thing that makes it in anyway interesting. Without that angle, it's just a very long, uneventful film about one very ordinary boy growing up."
-- Scott Nash
In 2013 a documentary called Tim's Vermeer was released. It detailed inventor Tim Jenison's experiments and conclusions about how Johannes Vermeer, a 17th-century Dutch painter, managed to paint photo realistically long before the invention of modern photography.
Jenison uses a complicated (but low-tech) setup involving mirrors that allows him to essentially duplicate Vermeer's The Music Lesson despite having no natural artistic talent. But there's a catch: it takes him forever. Seven months, in fact, not counting all the setup time. It's tedious, agonizing work.
Reactions to the film were mixed, and sometimes harsh. Some people were impressed by Jenison's ingenuity and dedication, but others were angry at his demystification of the process. Specifically, they disliked the idea that the famous painter may have been less an artist than an inventor himself, and that his work might have been the result of painstaking labor more than some Mozart-esque, innate virtuosity.
But the film anticipates these reactions, and makes the argument that there is no meaningful difference between these things: it is beautiful and impressive either way. I find it easy to agree, with one caveat: the method does change the reason the painting is beautiful.
Something interesting is happening in the video game world: people are starting to take the medium seriously. The majority of games remain rote mechanisms for the delivery of mass entertainment, but more and more releases are acting as pioneers of poignancy, expanding the emotional horizon of games beyond mere leisure. They're taking themselves seriously, which is in turn making serious people take them seriously.
One of the most prominent voices on the topic is Frank Lantz, the Director of the New York University Game Center. Lantz has talked extensively about the medium, but perhaps never as profoundly as his self-described "rant" at the 2006 Game Developers Conference. His rant was titled "The Immersive Fallacy," and its target was the implicit assumption that the destiny of video games was to become less and less distinguishable from reality, and that the progress of the industry was largely measured in terms of how close they had come to achieving this.
I could summarize further, but I won't be able to say it better than Lantz himself:
Why does the phrase 'the player will be able to go anywhere and do anything' sound like nails on a chalkboard to me? Partly because it's based in what I think is a very naïve and unsophisticated understanding of how simulation works. Of how representation works.
You have a thing, a part of the world, and you have a simulation of that. There's a gap in between, the gap is made up by all the differences, the way that this is not this. The immersive fallacy is this idea that computer simulation allows us to close this gap and makes these things identical. But this gap is an essential part of how this representation works, this gap is where the magic happens.
Let's say a bear is attacking a friend of yours and is about to kill him. The word 'bear' will warn your friend. The word 'bear' would not be better if it had teeth and could kill you! The same thing is true of the bear mask that the tribal priest puts on, or the bears on the wall of the cave, and of the game Bear.
And it's also true of statues. Statues would not be better if they could move.
That last sentence is a bombshell of compacted insight. It made me think of another person who excelled at constructing bombshells of insight, G.K. Chesterton, who once said something similar: "All art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame."
When I was younger, I thought this meant that no work of art was capable of displaying all of human experience, and therefore all artists had to decide where to draw the line. I still think this is true because, like most of what Chesterton wrote, it probably works on multiple levels. But as I grow older, I think the quote is mostly about how constraints are what make art possible in the first place.
The difference between the photo of a landscape and an impressionist painting of it is what makes it art. The fact that you have to represent something imperfectly, through other means, is the entire point. If you were God, and had the ability to put the person in front of that landscape to see it for themselves, that would not be art as we know it. Trying to convey the experience without duplicating it is a struggle, and it is the struggle that is beautiful.
The painting of the landscape is defined by the ways it is not the same as standing in front of it in reality. The statue is defined by the ways it is not the block it is chiseled from.
Art exists in negative space: it is made up of all the things it isn't.
I once had a debate with a friend about language. I'd pointed out that a word was being misused, and he told me I shouldn't issue those kinds of corrections because language was meant to flow and evolve naturally. I argued that language is useless if words don't have an agreed-upon meaning, and he argued that hewing too closely to those meanings makes language less dynamic and interesting. It was largely a disagreement of priority and emphasis, rather than the kind where either person is saying the other is simply wrong.
But then it hit me: you can't break rules that aren't there. Language can't be dynamic without a standard to transgress against. When Michael Jackson says he's "bad" to essentially mean "good," it's cool and interesting because he means the opposite of what he says. This wouldn't be possible if words didn't have well-understood meanings to begin with.
Structure doesn't kill art, it breathes a new kind of life into it. Is poetry the lesser because it has to have meter? Is literature hurt by punctuation? Do we even know Jackson Pollock's name if he doesn't first exist in a world where people have generally thought paintings should look like things?
Art is pervasive. It is not more or less beautiful because of the restrictions it lives under: it weaves itself around them, like ivy. It incorporates all hurdles to become something new, something often more beautiful in oppressive places than open ones, whether that oppression is life-threatening and specific, or a trivial grammatical correction.
Or, as Orson Welles put it in The Third Man:
In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
When Roger Bannister became the first man in history to run a four-minute mile in 1954, it was an incredible achievement, because human physiology is not conducive to that speed. But what if it was? What if humans were, on average, twice as fast? Would it be more or less impressive for someone to run a two-minute mile with twice the ability?
You may have noticed that I've gone about 1,200 words without saying anything specifically about Boyhood. But the connections between these things should be obvious: Boyhood is a beautiful work of art because it strains further against one of the boundaries of filmmaking than just about any other film ever has. This alone makes it remarkable, independent of the film's quality. But is it an example of a beautiful film, or beautiful filmmaking? Should there even be a distinction between the two?
Most of us watch films and gauge their quality based on their ability to generate emotions in us in the moment. But to ponder whether or not Boyhood is beautiful, you can't only reflect on what you felt while watching it; you have to reflect on the way it rages against the limitations of the form. You have to reflect on the patience and dedication required to make it a reality. You have to decide whether or not the act of creating a film, rather than the film itself, can be the work of art.