What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

"Boyhood": An Unsentimental Story of Tough Survivorship (Contra Richard Brody)

Finally, Richard Brody provides his reasoning for including Boyhood on his “Negative Ten” list (see "The Best Movies of 2014,", December 11, 2014). Today, in his "The 2015 Oscar Nominations: Selma Snubbed and Wes Anderson Triumphant,", he says,

But for all the performers and directors in the Academy who may have received bad reviews, there’s another category that absolutely everyone within it shares, and that accounts, I think, for the movie that will clean up at the February 22nd ceremony. They were all children, and they will vote for “Boyhood,” which is an audacious movie in the sole regard of Richard Linklater’s sheer tightrope nerve in keeping the production going a couple of weeks a year for twelve years. The very fact of pulling off “Boyhood” deserves praise, but the movie’s absurd sentimentalization of childhood and adolescence, its vision of a boy and teen without a spark of ferocity, without an evil thought, without energies to tame or impulses to master—without any wildness at heart—could satisfy the old studio system. Even Mickey Rooney’s Andy Hardy had more spunk. Linklater’s version of the best little boy in the world will, I think, win the Oscar. Having nothing to apologize for means never having to say you’re sorry.

What Brody construes as “absurd sentimentalization,” his New Yorker colleague Anthony Lane views as a depiction of “a tough, daily quest to refloat and sail on” ("Balancing Acts," The New Yorker, July 21, 2014). Lane says,

So many of the men in “Boyhood” seem like losers, or bullies, or both, minds and mouths locked tight with disapproval and denial, and the challenge for Mason—and, you feel, for any kid—is not just to survive the squalls of youth but somehow to grow from boy to man without suffering a death of the spirit.

Michael Wood, in his "At the Movies" (London Review of Books, August 16, 2014), shares Lane’s view:

There is also a sense in Boyhood that ordinariness is not what happens anyway but what happens if you’re lucky. The film invites us to conjugate the messed-up and far from happy lives of so many adults (and of the historical world around them) with the modest, mildly stubborn sanity of the children. They are lucky but luck isn’t all they have. Broken marriages, drunken husbands, desperate mothers, violent school bullies, drugs, temptations to drop out, break-ups with boyfriends and girlfriends: the children survive all these because they know when to stop, because they can’t be lured into the follies of their elders and so many of their peers.

Wood goes on to say:

At moments you think they are not going to make it. The alcoholic husband is thoroughly out of control, as are the school bullies practising throwing circular saws at their victims. Something bad has to happen here, you think. Because it often does in life, and because it always does in the movies, once the possibility has been announced. In movies where it isn’t going to happen the violent alcoholics and the flying sawblades don’t even show up. Still, what is guiding Linklater’s story here is not easy optimism but something like a best-case scenario when the odds are bad – a refusal of the odds as destiny.

Wood and Lane express my view. Boyhood isn’t a sentimental picture of “the best little boy in the world,” as Brody alleges. It’s an intricate portrait of a kid who, through luck and caution, manages to survive the psychological wreckage happening all around him. Brody’s criticism of Boyhood seems flimsy, disregarding the film’s many strengths – its brilliant use of elision, its naturalism, its intimate scale, its “twin sense of continuity and interruption” (Lane’s words), its miraculous ability to make time’s flow visible, its discovery of the extraordinary in the ordinary. Brody’s listing Boyhood  as a “Negative Ten” is hard to comprehend. He probably thinks it's a provocative move. It is; it's also a disservice to a great movie. 

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