The following is a double review of two recent coming-of-age films followed by images, videos, and observations gleaned from a much longer essay for which these reviews were originally intended.
Jonas did not want to go back. He didn't want the memories, didn't want the honor, didn't want the wisdom, didn't want the pain. He wanted his childhood again, his scraped knees and ball games. He sat in his dwelling alone, watching through the window, seeing children at play, citizens bicycling home from uneventful days at work, ordinary lives free of anguish because he had been selected, as others before him had, to bear their burden.
But the choice was not his.
The Giver (1993), by Lois LowryWhen the first whispers of Richard Linklater's Boyhood reached my ears - or rather my eyes, since I "heard" about it on Twitter - I knew I would like it. Shot sporadically over an entire decade, the film anchors its universal coming-of-age tale in a very specific place (rural and suburban Texas) and time (the post-9/11 era). Onscreen we simultaneously watch Mason, the character, and Eller Coltrane, the actor, grow from 7 to 18. While widely acclaimed, this novel approach has also also been called a gimmick, implying that novelty masks an uninteresting story. But the approach is the story.
In Boyhood, Mason provides the eyes through which we'll see his small corner of the world but he is not necessarily - at least not always - our subject. The film glides through a series of closely-linked events in the characters' lives before leaping forward another year or so (its transitions are abrupt rather than gradual). In later years, these events cluster ever-closer around Mason's personal life and other characters become more peripheral. Appropriately enough this occurs in the period where adolescence offers Mason greater agency. But in the earlier passages, Mason seems to be an audience rather than an actor in his own life.
His mother's determined work, his father's careless charisma, and his older sister's antic energy all hold the screen and drive the narrative in a way the quiet, glum, and often frustrated little boy does not. This is one of the ironies of the title: at times we don't seem to be witnessing the boy's story at all but rather those of the family members around him. This is a function of Mason's personality as well as his age. Like many a Linklater hero, he is thoughtful and observant; unlike most Linklater heroes he is not particularly loquacious (at least not until the last few passages catch him spouting semi-ironic incantations about cyborg conquest, along with some more typically angsty soul-searching). Such reticence marks Mason both as the ideally calm center in a constantly-shifting narrative and something of a dramatic cipher; fortunately the rest of the ensemble is more colorful, dynamic, and/or charming. Though the parents are simply designated "Mom" and "Dad" in the cast listings, neither they nor the other characters are limited by the relationship to Mason, even as they are framed by it.
For example, when a college-bound Mason cavalierly burns his bridges to childhood, his mother (Patricia Arquette) breaks down in tears. The frustrated, impromptu speech which follows is alternately funny and touching. While Mason apparently regards her outburst as an aberrant, discomfiting revelation, we don't. We understand and sympathize with her sorrow and exasperation because we've been watching her life (not just his) unfold over eleven years. Meanwhile Ethan Hawke exhibits roguish charm as the boy's lax father, a man who initially pops in and out of his children's lives seemingly on a whim, yet whose betrayal and abandonment are more keenly felt by Mason when he remarries and becomes more settled. We feel invigorated by the dad's presence yet sharply aware (in a way Mason may only vaguely be) of his irresponsibility, especially compared to Mason's mom who bears the brunt of raising two children and sacrificing her own youth in the process.
As for bratty sibling Samantha (Linklater's own daughter Lorelai), she can be as invigorating as she is exasperating, an assertive overachiever whose self-certainty provides a nice yin to Mason's drifting, contemplative yang. Surly stepdads Bill (Marco Parella) and Jim (Brad Hawkins) offer initially hopeful and eventually antagonistic energy for Mason to react to, while vivacious girlfriend Sheena (Zoe Graham) finally draws him out of his shell, only to leave him vulnerable and bitter when it turns out she's not the one. With all of these characters, we are aware of but not bound by their flaws - what presents itself to Mason as irritation or admiration unfolds in more complex fashion before our own vision, thanks to Linklater's approach. His camera generally observes without judging (except perhaps when it comes to the boy's drunken, overbearing stepfathers, and even they are allowed, initially, to make discordantly cordial impressions).
In noting Mason's limitations, I don't mean to underplay his importance nor criticize Coltrane's performance. Linklater took a risk casting a 7-year-old who would eventually have to carry the film as a young man, but it paid off. When I speak of seeing the film through his eyes I'm being literal as well as figurative: Coltrane's piercing and expressive baby blues offer a window to his soul, the way words usually do in Linklater's work. The eyes also provide a striking visual counterpoint to the driven, occasionally unreflective characters flitting across the screen. The conceit of anchoring the film around Mason is subtly but brilliantly executed; despite our attachment to other characters I can recall hardly any moment in which the boy himself isn't present.
Linklater - both through his films and in interviews - appears to be the epitome of laid-back nonchalance, the calm craftsman of hangout movies, an avatar of relaxation rather than rigor. His breakthrough film, after all, was the aptly-named Slacker. Yet so many Linklater films, including that very breakthrough, are defined by very specific, often complex, and frequently restrictive structures, approaches which inherently impose discipline on the material. Both Slacker and Waking Life carve out relay-like dramatic paths, canals within which their streams of consciousness can flow. Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight contract themselves within tight temporal limits (in the individual films) but also stretch themselves across decades (when taken as a trilogy), in which the situations echo while the characters evolve. And now Boyhood offers Linklater his most simultaneously constricting and liberating approach, freeing itself of the pressure (but binding itself by the passage) of time. All these films, with their goals, restrictions, and larger concepts, offer a space within which Linklater can savor unique character moments and cultivate mood.
A small but significant moment in Boyhood occurs in Mason's first home, stripped of possessions as the family moves out. The little boy stands in a doorway and erases the marks which have measured his growth since infancy. This is a wonderfully poignant image, at once appropriate and ironic. Most obviously, Linklater is slyly contradicting the direction his own film will head in: Mason may erase these primitive markings, but what is the movie if not a multilayered, meditative version of that very wall chart? Yet the image resonates with sadness as well. We sense that little Mason, at 7, is already learning how the past slides away from us and that the present isn't just about collecting moments - it's about losing them.
The soon-to-be-erased wall chart is a visual antecedent of the mother's climactic speech, an image of melancholy loss providing a warmer yet more acutely painful incarnation of that bitter verbal despair. Linklater also recognizes the liberation inherent in this loss: if losing these moments robs characters of comfort it also allows them to be unburdened by the dead weight of the past. This is how Boyhood connects most provocatively with the zeitgeist, suggesting that as we lose our security we gain our freedom. Which, of course, is also the explicit theme of Phillip Noyce's The Giver.
Another coming-of-age film which took many years to reach the screen - in this case two decades rather than one - The Giver unfortunately has far less to show for its troubles. First published in 1993, Lois Lowry's slim, simple, yet chilling novel left its mark on a generation (mine) and has lingered as a classic whose impact is both universal and of-the-moment. We can delineate those dual qualities by asking, as Andrew O'Hehir does in his review of the film, whether the book belongs "more to the old category of children’s fiction, or what would today be classified as '9 to 12 novels,'" or "to the now-ubiquitous and deliberately ambiguous 'young adult' zone."
The Giver, as written, does exist in a heavily controlled, micromanaged society (albeit one micromanaged by the subjects themselves, moreso than their rulers) but descriptions are left purposefully vague and the tale reads better as allegory than sci-fi. As Lowry tentatively spins the book into a loosely-linked quadrilogy we do learn a bit more about this world, contextualizing it as a post-apocalyptic future society. Even so, details remain elusive and any conception of direct continuity with our own world is undercut by the a sense of psychic "magic." The story's central conceit, after all, has an official Receiver of Memories, re-dubbed the Giver, passing all the world's joyful and painful experiences (which the larger community has purposefully repressed) directly into the consciousness of young Jonas, his protegee and our protagonist.
Where necessary, advanced technology is fleetingly mentioned but the overall impression is of a quiet, minimalist community. I always envisioned a cross between a New Age commune and gated suburb, which is why I was rather surprised to see the bustling metropolis depicted onscreen. Elements of The Giver's visual presentation are intriguing and consistent with Lowry's spirit; for example, the community is depicted as clean, pleasant, and polite, more utopian than dystopian. However, both the size and specific geographical delineation of Jonas' world feel like a departure from the resolutely enclosed environment evoked on the page.
The romance between Jonas (Brenton Thwaite) and Fiona (Odeya Rush), his lovely redheaded friend from early childhood, is more deeply rooted in Lowry's text. Thanks to Fiona, Jonas experiences his first "stirrings" (the onset of puberty, circumscribed by pills on the page and injections onscreen). For many chapters she remains an icon of beauty and innocence for him. But Jonas never expresses his feelings to her directly and - far more importantly - it wouldn't matter if he did. Like the rest of the community, Fiona cannot return his love.
In one of the book's darkest moments, Jonas discovers that Fiona has already proved adept at "releasing" the elderly citizens she cared for, "releasing" being the community's euphemism for euthanasia. In the movie, the Giver tells Jonas that Fiona will eventually be trained in releasing. Jonas "awakens" her in time, teaching her how to avoid the morning medication. The two kiss, profess their love, and eventually collaborate in Jonas' dramatic escape. Our hero leaves the community cradling the stolen infant Gabriel, whom Jonas' "family unit" cared for until the baby's release was scheduled. This action echoes the book but rather than add numerous pyrotechnics (which paradoxically make the film's climax less intense), Lowry emphasizes the loneliness of Jonas' escape.
At book's end, Fiona has become a sad memory, another possibility never to be realized. True, Jonas' escape will unlock and return the collective memories to the community, a process left mysterious in the text but made explicit onscreen with shimmering blue gates helpfully labelled as "the barriers of memory" (or something equally literal) on a map. But Jonas will not be there to share their awakening - his lonely exit is the necessary precursor of the community's liberation. Jonas' longing for Fiona and his discovery that she has quickly become complicit in the community's inhumanity (a discovery which lends a human face to this unsympathetic coldness) are essential to The Giver's emotional tenor. By allowing Jonas to share his feelings with someone young and hopeful, the movie softens one of the story's sharpest edges.
The same can be said of the movie's casting: although Rush was only about 16 when the movie was shot (explaining, perhaps, why her performance is the most vulnerable and affecting), Thwaite and the other young actors are in their early twenties. The characters themselves are all 18. Crucially, in the book, the characters receive their life assignments at the Ceremony of Twelves. In Lowry's world, the usual growing pains of adolescence are elided not just by pills but by immediately easing children into their adult social roles. The notion of Fiona gently poisoning old women, or Jonas overwhelmed by vivid experiences of war, starvation, and deep despair, or the Giver's own daughter (played in a brief cameo flashback by Taylor Swift onscreen) - the previously designated Receiver - applying for, and getting, her own release are far more shocking when these characters are only 12 years old.
While the film's Jonas is a boy entering manhood, in the book he has manhood thrust upon him. The result is deeply disturbing and upsetting, and much more thought-provoking. Though she's generally tried to remain upbeat about the cinematic adaptation of her work, Lowry has rather clearly acknowledged that she was very wary of this particular change. Jeff Bridges, who produced the film and plays the title role, also objected to the studio's insistence on older characters, nearly walking from the project as a result. The 24-year-old Thwaite gives the role his earnest all and brings a certain cockeyed eagerness to the part. But return to my opening quote for a moment: for an 18-year-old to miss his childhood is mildly poignant, maybe even a bit pathetic, but for a 12-year-old to think those thoughts bespeaks a far more alarmingly violent violation and is all the more powerful for it.
These criticisms make it sound as if I hated the film, but in fact I found it intriguing and mildly enjoyable. It helps that I entered the theater with extremely low expectations, assuming from the start that the movie would not capture the magic of the book. The ways in which it doesn't - and the occasional ways in which it does (particularly the nicely-executed sledding sequence at film's end, though I could have done without the cross-cutting back to the community) - are interesting, reminding us how fundamentally unique this material really is. One reason that slam-bang third act feels so out of place is that even after all the cosmetic changes, The Giver remains radically different from the many young adult stories focused on physical action or intellectual concepts.
The axis around which The Giver spins, the center of its world, the phenomenon from which all else emanates, is the raw experience of human emotion. As such, the story requires the viewer - or reader - to bring something to the table, something that the work itself can only evoke, not manifest. At its best, on the page, The Giver acts like the old Giver himself, allowing us to pick up a psychic charge if we're willing or able. At its weakest, in much of the film, the story still evokes a sense of what it's missing, a dim awareness of something more out there (much like the characters themselves experience). It may be a failure but it's a notable - perhaps even noble - one.
More disconcerting than the film's inability to live up to the promise of its premise is its potential effect on the book's reputation, and the inability of viewers or critics to disentangle the two phenomena. Initially, this wasn't something that concerned me very much. One reason the film failed to offend me is that I felt the book remained untouched - it was as if I was watching an underwhelming production of a venerable play. The execution may be lacking, but the source remains strong. Indeed, as I watched the film I began to desire multiple interpretations of the story: The Giver is firm yet malleable enough to endure numerous variations, one emphasizing a certain aspect, another reorienting itself around a different element.
Of course, with the present dogmatic and unimaginative approach to intellectual property, this won't happen and that's a pity. The YA/2014 version of The Giver is harmless if we're allowed to see other versions as well, but taken alone it seems like a lost opportunity. Bridges' desperation to realize his oft-aborted passion project and share it with the widest possible audience is understandable, but imagine if he'd abandoned the conventional studio route. Think how powerful The Giver could be as a lo-fi, minimalist production, carving the otherworldly out of existing locations (like Alphaville). Consider how spooky and moody this could be if shot by a distinctive auteur with the ability to luxuriate and explore despite limited resources. The Giver could also thrive as semi-abstract animation, something fleeting and evocative like the work of Caroline Leaf or Frederic Back. In short, The Giver would work much better as an art film than a mainstream movie (and what a pity that it now seems impossible for a film to be both).
Unfortunately not all critics are familiar with the subject's pedigree; some reviews openly wonder how the book came by its reputation given what's onscreen. More unfortunately, critics familiar with Lowry's book occasionally see the film's flaws as an extension of the text's. In what is probably the most routine critique of The Giver, Andrew O'Hehir writes, "Lowry never makes much of a case for her totalitarian utopia. Color, music, weather, geography, history, emotion and all forms of sensual pleasure have apparently been eliminated in favor of a pharmaceutically controlled society of 'sameness' that experiences no war or racism or inequality. As earlier critics of the novel have noted, this feels like a writerly contrivance cooked up to make an overly obvious point, and never like a plausible social construction. Bradbury, Collins and Roth all imagine future societies built around servicing the pleasure principle and other innate human qualities, whether or not they are salutary."
O'Hehir is not the first, and won't be the last, to scold Lowry for the vagueness of her worldbuilding, seen as lazy rather than evocative, careless rather than dreamlike. Such hardnosed insistence on materialist rigor over musty mystification perfectly encapsulates the intellectual frustration with "young adult" literature's all-purpose archetypes. At its best, such an attitude provides a breath of fresh air in the stultifying atmosphere of pop-culture discourse (take, for example, O'Hehir "death of adulthood" retort). When it comes to The Giver, however, this pragmatism entirely misses the point.
These reviews were intended as part of a much longer essay discussing my fascination with chronology, aging, and history, my first, memorable encounter with the book The Giver, and a lengthy response to the two recent "Death of Adulthood" essays by A.O. Scott and Andrew O'Hehir (which has been abbreviated and included as a coda to this post). Sadly, the piece just wouldn't cohere though I really liked certain parts and found the overall concept interesting. Oh well. In lieu of the original essay, here are some images, videos, and observations I would have included.
Boyhood is rooted in the classic Lumiere/Melies dichotomy - how much does its appeal owe to fiction, how much to nonfiction? I think most great movies have a foot in both worlds.
In the Up documentaries, director Michael Apted revisits a dozen or so Brits every seven years, checking up on the course of their lives and comparing/contrasting their present and past selves.
The Godfather Part II, along with Citizen Kane and It's a Wonderful Life, is a favorite film which explores the changes in a character (or, in this case, a family) over the course of many years, against a specific historical backdrop.
I drew these when I was in my early teens, exploring my fascination with characters aging against the backdrop of the twentieth century. The first picture is from a series of portraits I sketched out, aging the characters decade-by-decade. The second picture was based on a marginal illustration, copyrighted 1970, in a French textbook which caught my eye. I traced the couple several times, altering the faces and fashion to reflect their age. The third picture was the cover for a story I wrote over the course of about twelve months, in which each page represented a different year in the character's life. Pretty much unreadable now, though it was an interesting idea. Why he has the same name as the actor from the Ernest movies I couldn't tell you.
Around the time I was creating those fictional biographies, I was captivated by Peter Jennings' ABC documentary miniseries The Century. I still very much enjoy the introductory passage, which perfectly articulates my fascination with the passage of time and its effect on human lives. Here it is (0:42 - 5:31 in the clip):
Unsurprisingly, the first film I premiered on my blog was an heir to my earlier projects and fascinations. It documents the lives of five young people through their snapshots and home movies and is narrated by their classmate, Jacob Jordan, who witnessed their passage through crises both personal and historical. You can watch Class of 2002 below:
Much like the Up image (as well as the one for Class of 2002) this graphic depicts Mason growing up over the course of Boyhood. I also planned to include the following images from the film:
...as well as yet another characters-aging graphic, this one from Linklater's Before trilogy:
And I planned to include the following images from The Giver:
...before bringing the discussion back to the book:
As mentioned above, I think impressionistic animation would do better justice to The Giver. I specifically mentioned Caroline Leaf and Frederic Back; the above is an image from The Man Who Planted Trees (directed by Frederic Back). You can watch his film here:
...and here is The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa, directed by Caroline Leaf:
These images are from home movies shot in 1995, during a family road trip. This was the first time I read The Giver, and it had quite an impact on me. Soon after, I was enveloped in a strange, powerful, unsettling mood that lasted for the rest of the trip. Although I'm sure it had more mundane causes (the unfamiliar landscape combined with the onset of adolescence) at the time I blamed on the book, as if it was a kind of totem harboring dark spirits! I've never forgotten the book or that experience.
Ten years later, I created a collage-type film to visualize my memory of that time (as well as some more recent experiences). What a Long Strange Trip It's Been incorporates home movies, an animated Wind in the Willows, and original footage. I posted it online a few weeks ago (although it was completed in 2007) and here it is again:
Notes on "The Death of Adulthood"
After initial excitement, I found myself disappointed with A.O. Scott's recent column, which - despite its sober title, "The Death of Adulthood in American Culture" - seems more concerned about being perceived as square than with diagnosing what ails us. Andrew O'Hehir's response, "The death of adulthood is really just capitalism at work," is far more (pardon the pun) on the money, but by sharing Scott's materialist outlook (albeit without the rosy glasses) O'Hehir also misses an opportunity to propose an alternative to cultural immaturity.
[T]he suit-wearing, gin-drinking 35-year-old Organization Man of 1964 and the couchbound, action-figure-collecting 35-year-old fanboy of 2014 are dialectical mirror images of each other, economic archetypes called forth by their respective eras. The freedom and autonomy each perceives in himself is better described by some other term, a force of compulsion or overdetermination ... that disguises itself as liberation from the stodginess of yesteryear.
Clearly he doesn't feel the need to choose between these two options (though what he'd choose instead remains unclear).
Scott, on the other hand, feels his choice is forced. His definitions of "adulthood" and its "death" are skewed by digressive concerns. Initially he equates the concept of adulthood with American manhood, and both with patriarchal power. Later in the essay, he casts American masculinity as essentially anti-patriarchal. It's unclear, then, what exactly is supposed to be in decline: old-fashioned patriarchy, old-fashioned male rebelliousness, both? While making excuses for contemporary culture's arrested development (and scolding his own grouchiness), Scott fails to identify what is most pernicious about that culture: the glib tone, the lack of manners, the arch irony adopted by grown-ups who've decided that sincerity doesn't sell.
By establishing intellectual rigor, emotional maturity, and a sense of responsibility and restraint as square and perhaps even reactionary (and a stubborn, striving sense of adventurous assertion as fun...but also probably reactionary), Scott doesn't allow himself any exit from the postmodern playground. His disappointment is palpable even as he tries to make his peace with the "way things are now" - there's an odd sort of masochism at work in Scott's consistent attempt to undermine and second-guess his own instincts. Existentialism is never presented as a viable option; presumably it's to be thrown out with the rest of the old-school bathwater. The essay is full of interesting insights and observations, and as prose it shines. Somehow, though, the arguments don't quite add up. (Says the guy who has reduced his own response to a series of fragments...)
One of the problems with Scott's scenario is that he addresses American culture as if it was a monolithic entity which must choose a single path and forego any others. There's an either/or mentality at work here, a slippery-slope paranoia which ends up working against itself. After all, middle-aged men and women can wear sandals or butterfly barrettes without succumbing to childish behavior (if they do, that's a separate problem, not a byproduct of fashion). Meanwhile, virtually all Scott's examples of cultural immaturity are comedies, which immediately forces him to concede the point (who the hell wants to be anti-comedy?). But comedy has always thrived on self-mockery and playful irresponsibility. This shouldn't destroy any possibility for seriousness elsewhere. The Marx Brothers were just as irreverent eighty years ago; this didn't mean Samuel Beckett or Thomas Mann no longer mattered. If pop culture has become too imbalanced toward comedy that isn't the fault of the comedies, which will always be essential - as will tragedies, melodramas, and myths.
To seize upon the example of immaturity that both Scott and O'Hehir seem most concerned with, the issue isn't that grown-ups read YA books and flock to YA movies. The problem - if there is one - would be that these grown-ups aren't also engaging with more complex, challenging art. One option needn't cancel out the other. Then again, as I noted earlier, perhaps the "young adult" genre taps into something "grown-up" culture doesn't: an earnest grappling with maturity, responsibility, and growth whose absence Scott otherwise bemoans (at least when he isn't complaining about it in the form of "gloomy-man, angry-man, antihero dramas that too many critics reflexively identify as quality television"). Society - all of society - will always need a mythological outlet; that the authors and protagonists of these tales are often female should at the very least question Scott's implicit assumption that the romantic seeker is an inherently masculine fantasy.
The real answer, I think, is neither to make excuses for a culture that ignores emotional/intellectual depth in adult experience nor to gnash our teeth in impotent frustration. Instead, we should celebrate or create works that do express a mature, intelligent, enriching view of the world, featuring characters who explore, challenge, and take responsibility for themselves and their situations.
Growing up is not a choice. Our response always will be.