Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his father (Ethan Hawke) in Linklater’s family drama.
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In Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, time fades away

Made over more than a decade, this is a film that reminds us life is seen by children from a different angle.

Boyhood (15)
dir: Richard Linklater

Boyhood is Richard Linklater’s new film, though in another sense it’s also Richard Linklater’s old film. The prolific 53-year-old director set aside a month each year from 2002 to 2013 to shoot it piecemeal in between the other pictures he was making (among them School of Rock and A Scanner Darkly). The cast of Boyhood remained intact and can now be seen to age before our eyes, thanks to that most special of effects: time. It’s a shame in a project of this nature to find that one particular opportunity for product placement was passed up. When a character brandishes a jumbo bottle of fizzy drink, it feels almost perverse for it to be Sprite when that beverage is so similar to another that shares its name with the film’s main antecedent – the British television documentaries, still ongoing, which began with Seven Up! in 1964.

The pioneering Up project has called in on its subjects’ lives every seven years since then. No maker of fiction could hope to equal that endeavour but Linklater has come closest. (Michael Winterbottom’s 2012 film Everyday tried the same trick over five years – what a lightweight!) Long before Boyhood, he was picking apart the cogs and clock springs of time. When someone in his 1991 film Slacker apologises for being late, a woman replies: “That’s OK. Time doesn’t exist.” (It really didn’t in his 2001 animation Waking Life, set in one man’s subconscious.) That his characters tend to be college kids, dreamers and doofuses should not distract us from noticing that he is continuing the temporal experiments of Nicolas Roeg or Alain Resnais – that he has made his Don’t Look Now, Dude or his Last Beer at Marienbad.

Linklater’s Before trilogy (which culminated in 2013 with Before Midnight) tracked a romantic relationship at nine-year intervals. Boyhood is more compressed. It distils the youth of the blearily blue-eyed Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who lives in Texas with his sister, Samantha (played by the director’s daughter, Lorelei Linklater), and their mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette). The picture reminds us that life is seen by children from a different angle and not only because they’re closer to the ground. Watching the cryptic emotional transactions between their estranged parents from the bedroom window (Ethan Hawke plays their father), Mason and Samantha pass back and forth a pair of dinky yellow binoculars like anthropologists observing an alien species. In the first scene, Mason is six, burbling from the back seat in his dreamy-insistent way as Olivia drives him home from school. Nearly three hours later, he is 18, behind the wheel himself, heading to college. What occurs in between is both prosaic and profound: nothing at all and yet everything there is.

Time passes wordlessly through haircuts, music, models of computer. Understatement is paramount. When the family has to decamp to another part of Texas in a hurry, Olivia warns her children: “Don’t look back!” That could be Linklater speaking. Diversions into sentimentality or irony are rare. One amusing exception occurs when Mason and his father decide that there won’t be any more additions to the Star Wars series (cue our rueful laughter: Episode VII has since gone into production). The past is generally given short shrift. When one of Mason’s friends pedals after the family as they drive out of town for good, the car easily out-speeds him. He shrinks into the distance and is gone.

Boyhood wears its process lightly but the artistic gains are felt in every frame. There’s a crisp visual metaphor for this during a long, unbroken take showing Mason walking with a school friend. Throughout their conversation, the ground they have covered is always visible over their shoulders: we can see at every point how far they have come.

It is difficult to imagine after this movie how any film-maker can resort to the conventions of multi-decade storytelling – ageing make-up, dusty wigs – without appearing unforgivably lazy. Steven Soderbergh came up with a poignant innovation in his 1999 thriller The Limey: any flashbacks to the salad days of Terence Stamp were scenes from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow, shot three decades earlier when Stamp didn’t even know what the word “wrinkles” meant. But perhaps the idea of cataloguing time has not been attempted on Boyhood’s scale because it’s already something that film evokes effortlessly. Actors age from one movie to the next, with exceptions such as Nicole Kidman, whose recent work suggests she is living a one-woman remake of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Linklater placed a bet with Boyhood – on the potency that might accrue and on his lead actor, whose face sharpens over the course of the movie like a leisurely Polaroid. This isn’t a director who stamps his identity all over a film but the generosity of spirit is identifiably his. Snuggling up to sleep, Mason asks if there is any magic in the world. His father tells him of a creature in the ocean that uses sonar to communicate and has a heart as big as a car and arteries you could crawl through. Mason is nonplussed (“There’s no elves, though?”) but we may file the image alongside the Blue Whale Removal Company that shifts Olivia’s furniture, the deep-sea frieze in Mason’s bedroom and the sparkling lake into which Mason and his father plunge on a camping trip. Almost without us noticing, Boyhood makes the ordinary world magical and miraculous and innumerable fathoms deep.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage