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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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times