Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Boyhood

The Uncanny Birdman

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Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman

Frankly, I don’t think anyone needs to read an entire blog post on how I felt about the Oscars. You can’t throw a stone—or an Emma Stone—today without hitting a handful of think pieces, of which the one by Dan Kois on Slate is typical: he hyperbolically, though not inaccurately, describes the win of Birdman over Boyhood as the ceremony’s greatest travesty in twenty years. So I’m not alone when I say that after an afternoon of doing my taxes, the four hours I spent watching last night’s telecast were only marginally more engaging. It wasn’t a debacle of Seth MacFarlane proportions, but it left me increasingly depressed, and not even the sight of Julie Andrews embracing Lady Gaga, which otherwise ought to feel like the apotheosis of our culture, could pull me out of my funk. It all felt like a long slog toward the sight of a movie I loved getting trounced by one I like less with every passing day. Yet I’m less interested in unpacking the reasons behind the snub than in trying to figure out why this loss stings more than usual, especially because indignation over the Best Picture winner is all but an annual tradition. The most deserving nominee rarely, if ever, wins; it’s much more surprising when it happens than when it doesn’t. So why did this year’s outcome leave me so unhappy?

I keep coming back to the idea of the uncanny valley. You probably know that Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist, was the first to point out that as the appearance of an artificial creature grows more lifelike, our feelings toward it become steadily more positive—but when it becomes almost but not quite human, small differences and discrepancies start to outweigh any points of similarity, and our empathy for it falls off a cliff. It’s why we can easily anthropomorphize and love the Muppets, but we’re turned off by the dead eyes of the characters in The Polar Express, and find zombies the most loathsome of all. (Zombies, at least, are meant to be terrifying; cognitively, it’s more troubling when we’re asked to react warmly to a digital Frankenstein that just wants to give us a hug.) And there’s an analogous principle at work when it comes to art. A bad movie, or one that falls comfortably outside our preferences, can be ignored or even enjoyed on its own terms, but if it feels like a zombified version of something we should love, it repels us. If a movie like The King’s Speech wins Best Picture, I’m not entirely bothered by this: it looks more or less like the kind of film the Oscars like to honor, and I can regard it as a clunky but harmless machine, even if it wasn’t made for me. But Birdman is exactly the kind of movie I ought to love, but don’t, so its win feels strangely creepy, even as it represents a refreshingly unconventional choice.

Edward Norton in Fight Club

The uncanny valley troubles us because it’s a parody of ourselves: we’re forced to see the human face as it might appear to another species, which makes us wonder if our own standards of beauty might be equally alienating if our perspectives were shifted a degree to one side. That’s true of movies, too; a film that hits all the right marks but leaves us cold forces us to question why, exactly, we like what we do. For me, the classic example has always been Fight Club. Like Birdman, it’s a movie of enormous technical facility—ingenious, great to look at, and stuffed with fine performances. To its credit, it has more real ideas in any ten minutes, however misguided, than Birdman has in its entirety. Yet I’ve always disliked it, precisely because it devotes so much craft to a story with a void at its center. It’s the ultimate instance of cleverness as an end in itself, estranging us from its characters, its material, and its muddled message with a thousand acts of meaningless virtuosity. And I push back against it with particular force because it’s exactly the kind of movie that someone like me, who wasn’t me, might call a masterpiece. (It may not be an accident that both Birdman and Fight Club benefit from the presence of Edward Norton, who, like Kevin Spacey, starts as a blank but fills out each role with countless fiendishly clever decisions. If you’re going to make a movie like this at all, he’s the actor you want in your corner.)

As a result, the Oscars turned into a contest, real or perceived, between Boyhood, which reflected the most moving and meaningful memories of my own life despite having little in common with it, and Birdman, which confronted me with a doppelgänger of my feelings as a moviegoer. It’s no wonder I reacted so strongly. Yet perhaps it isn’t all bad. Birdman at least represents the return of Michael Keaton, an actor we didn’t know how much we’d missed until he came roaring back into our lives. And if David Fincher could rebound from Fight Club to become one of the two or three best directors of his generation, the same might be true of Iñárritu—although it isn’t encouraging that he’s been so richly rewarded for indulging in all his worst tendencies. Still, as Iñárritu himself said in his acceptance speech, time is the real judge. The inevitable backlash to Birdman, which is already growing, should have the effect of gently restoring it to its proper place, while Boyhood’s stature will only increase. As I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, Birdman is an audacious experiment that never needs to be repeated, while we need so many more movies like Boyhood, not so much because of its production schedule as because of its genuine curiosity, warmth, and generosity towards real human beings. As Mark Harris puts it, so rightly, on Grantland: “Birdman, after all, is a movie about someone who hopes to create something as good as Boyhood.”

Written by nevalalee

February 23, 2015 at 10:00 am

The films of a life

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Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita

The other week, while musing on Richard Linklater’s Boyhood—which I still haven’t seen—I noted that we often don’t have the chance to experience the movies that might speak most urgently to us at the later stages of our lives. Many of us who love film encounter the movies we love at a relatively young age, and we spend our teens and twenties devouring the classics that came out before we were born. And that’s exactly how it should be: when we’re young, we have the time and energy to explore enormous swaths of the canon, and we absorb images and stories that will enrich the years to come. Yet we’re also handicapped by being relatively inexperienced and emotionally circumscribed, at least compared to later in life. We’re wowed by technical excellence, virtuoso effects, relentless action, or even just a vision of the world in which we’d like to believe. And by the time we’re old enough to judge such things more critically, we find that we aren’t watching movies as much as we once were, and it takes a real effort to seek out the more difficult, reflective masterpieces that might provide us with signposts for the way ahead.   

What we can do, however, is look back at the movies we loved when we were younger and see what they have to say to us now. I’ve always treasured Roger Ebert’s account of his shifting feelings toward Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which he called “a page-marker in my own life”:

Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw La Dolce Vita in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom “the sweet life” represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello’s world; Chicago’s North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello’s age.

When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was ten years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him.

Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes

And when we realize how our feelings toward certain movies have shifted, it can be both moving and a little terrifying. Life transforms us so insidiously that it’s often only when we compare our feelings to a fixed benchmark that we become aware of the changes that have taken place. Watching Citizen Kane at twenty and again at thirty is a disorienting experience, especially when you’re hoping to make a life for yourself in the arts. Orson Welles was twenty-five when he directed it, and when you see it at twenty, it feels like both an inspiration and a challenge: part of you believes, recklessly, that you could be Welles, and the possibilities of the next few years of your life seem limitless. Looking back at it at thirty, after a decade’s worth of effort and compromise, you start to realize both the absurdity of his achievement and how singular it really is, and the movie seems suffused with what David Thomson calls Welles’s “vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent.” You begin to understand the ambivalence with which more experienced filmmakers regarded the Wellesian monster of energy and ambition, and it quietly affects the way you think about Kane‘s reflections on time and old age.

The more personal our attachment to a movie, the harder these lessons can be to swallow. The other night, I sat down to watch part of The Red Shoes, my favorite movie of all time, for the first time in several years. It’s a movie I thought I knew almost frame by frame, and I do, but I hadn’t taken the emotional component into account. I’ve loved this movie since I first saw it in high school, both for its incredible beauty and for the vision it offered of a life in the arts. Later, as I rewatched it in college and in my twenties, it provided a model, a warning, and a reminder of the values I was trying to honor. Now, after I’ve been through my own share of misadventures as a writer, it seems simultaneously like a fantasy and a bittersweet emblem of a world that still seems just out of reach. I’m older than many of the characters now—although I have yet to enter my Boris Lermontov phase—and my heart aches a little when I listen to Julian’s wistful, ambitious line: “I wonder what it feels like to wake up in the morning and find oneself famous.” If The Red Shoes once felt like a promise of what could be, it’s starting to feel to me now like what could have been, or might be again. Ten years from now, it will probably feel like something else entirely. And when that time comes, I’ll let you know what I find.

Written by nevalalee

July 23, 2014 at 9:30 am

A boyhood at the movies

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Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, and Everett Sloane in Citizen Kane

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your favorite movie of the year so far?”

I don’t think there’s another movie this year that I’ve been more excited to watch than Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Anyone who has visited Linklater’s IMDb page over the last decade or so has been curious to see how this project—which he’s been filming off and on for more than twelve years—would turn out, and the rapturous response indicates that the wait has been worth it. I’ve always been deeply moved by depictions of growth and aging in film, whether imagined, as in The Last Temptation of Christ or Saving Private Ryan, or real, as in the wonderful documentary Ballets Russes, and Boyhood, which follows actor Ellar Coltrane as he ages before our eyes from grade school to college, seems like the ultimate realization of this theme, which the movies can depict so mysteriously. The irony, of course, is that I probably won’t see it for a while, because I have a daughter of my own at home. And I have a feeling that the viewers who would benefit the most from this movie—the parents of small children—will probably wait for it to show up on video, even as art houses are packed this weekend with twentysomethings with kids still in their future.

As I’ve noted here all too often, now that I’m a father, my moviegoing habits have been severely curtailed. (The only new films I’ve seen so far this year are The LEGO Movie and The Grand Budapest Hotel, both of which I liked, even if the parts in the latter seem just as interchangeable as those in the former—it’s the ultimate Wes Anderson construction set.) And while I’ve thought a great deal what this means for my love of movies now, it only recently occurred to me to consider its implications for my cinematic education in the past. When I look back at my life, it seems likely that I’ll have seen most of the movies I love in my teens and twenties, when I was single, possessed of disposable income, and willing to make the long trek to an independent theater or midnight screening. Those trips to the Brattle or the UC Theatre were a central part of my young adulthood, and the way I think about the movies was deeply shaped by my early experiences. In retrospect, I was lucky: the act of sitting in a darkened roomful of strangers to see a scratchy print of Ikiru seems increasingly remote from the lives of budding cinephiles, so I feel like I came along at just the right time.

Jeanne Moreau and Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight

But the fact that I saw so many of these movies when my firsthand knowledge of the world was so limited seems like an important factor as well. When you’re young and impressionable, you tend to be drawn to works of art that speak to you in a language you understand, either because they resonate with your own life or because they’re exhilarating on a formal or visceral level. As a teenager, I never had much interest in movies that reflected my life back to me—it took me years to get into John Hughes, for instance—but I fell in love with films that appealed to my senses in new ways. I was a devotee of Kubrick before I started middle school, largely because his virtues were the kind that I could immediately understand and admire: scope, symmetry, meticulousness, and intimate attention to image and sound. Even if you’ve never been out of your hometown or a narrow emotional comfort zone, you can react instinctively to films that thrill your eyes and ears. And the canon of my own favorite movies is still primarily a young man’s list, even if I’ve since come to appreciate the depths that the best of them conceal beneath their spectacular surfaces.

Of course, that’s the path that most of us follow: we’re drawn to the movies at a young age, gradually refine our tastes to look beyond their surface aspects, and end up with a personal pantheon populated both by old favorites and by films that we might have found difficult or uninviting at an earlier stage. At the moment, though, I sometimes fear that the process has been arrested for me just at the point when I’m ready to make new discoveries. The list of filmmakers who honestly confront the problems of marriage or old age is vanishingly small compared to those who construct beautiful fantasies, and even in the work of highly gifted directors, like Paul Thomas Anderson, we can sometimes sense enormous talent and will compensating for a lack of experience. It’s revealing that the most essential movie of them all, Citizen Kane, is a young man’s systematic impersonation of the old man he might one day become, and the difference between Welles as Kane and the incredible creation of his later years reminds us of how even the greatest movies can fail to predict what life has in store. Welles later made his aging a central part of his work, but far more of us have seen him in Kane than in Chimes at Midnight. And as we get older, as hard as it might be, it’s all the more crucial to make time for the films that speak to us now.

As tears go by

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Jon Hamm and Kiernan Shipka on Mad Men

I’m not really a crier. I don’t think reading a book has ever caused me to shed tears, although many—from The High King to The Magus—have left me an emotional wreck. And the short list of movies at which I’ve cried is an eclectic one. I almost always tear up a little during The Last Temptation of Christ, although invariably at a different time; I welled up during the first minute of the extraordinary documentary Ballets Russes, as it cuts between archival images of ballet dancers in their prime and the same dancers fifty years later, all of them still beautiful; and the only time I’ve ever really lost it at the movies, I’ve got to admit, is during the last scene of Saving Private Ryan. As different as these films are, all these moments have one thing in common: they take place during or shortly after a scene when the face of a young man is juxtaposed with the same man in old age. If I’m moved, it’s both at the thought of the fleetingness of human life and at the ability of the movies to express it. Cinema can cross enormous expanses of time and space in a single cut, and the ones that we remember are often those that push this ability to its limit: the cut from the match to the desert in Lawrence of Arabia, or the bone and the spaceship in 2001. But it’s especially powerful when it’s applied to something as simple as a human face.

Of the three movies I mentioned earlier, Ballets Russes might be the most haunting of all, because its leaps over time are real. The Last Temptation of Christ uses makeup to effect its changes, much as the intensely moving fantasy scene at the end of 25th Hour did many years later, and Saving Private Ryan simply uses a different actor to convey the passage of five decades. But there’s nothing quite like seeing time itself do the work. You get a glimpse of it at the end of The Godfather Part III, when we cut from Michael’s final tragedy to images of him dancing with the women he has loved and lost—Apollonia, Faye, Mary—and remember, in passing, how young Al Pacino was when the series began. The Up series by Michael Apted is structured around such a miracle, as, in their own way, are the Harry Potter films. And now we have Boyhood by Richard Linklater, shot over the course of twelve years, allowing us to watch actor Ellar Coltrane age from first grade to a senior in high school, and to witness time work more subtly on his parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. I haven’t seen Boyhood yet, but I’ve watched its trailer several times, and I’m as excited about it as any movie I can remember: Richard Linklater has always been one of the most inventive and ambitious directors of his generation, while gaining only a fraction of the acclaim of his peers, and this is his most daring gamble yet.

Kiernan Shipka and January Jones on Mad Men

Television, of course, allows us to see the same process unfold, and though it’s usually so gradual that we barely even see it, it can still catch us by surprise. I don’t think there’s ever been a greater stroke of casting luck than when Matthew Weiner selected Kiernan Shipka, then eight years old, to play Sally Draper on Mad Men. When we set the earliest episodes of the series, with Sally running around with a dry cleaning bag over her head, next to its current run, as she takes on aspects of both her mother and her father while negotiating her own adolescence, it reminds us of the creative coups that television can achieve almost by accident. Sally, in a way, has become one of the three or four most essential characters on the show, a visible marker that expresses the show’s themes of change more vividly than its writing ever could. (Comparing Sally to Bobby, who has barely registered as a character over seven seasons, only underlines how much chance is involved.) Television, by its very nature, is about the passage of time, and its presence in our lives lends it an almost unbearable intimacy. Seeing Sally grow up in real time, or going back to watch the earliest episodes of any series that runs for many seasons, informs us that we’re all aging, too.

This may be why I’ve grown more sentimental as I watch my own daughter grow up. It happens so slowly that I can’t see it from day to day, but when I look back at her baby photos from a few months ago, or hold my newborn niece in my arms, I’m amazed by the changes that have taken place right before my eyes. And it’s affected the way I think about the books I read, the movies and television I watch, and the music I play. If I choke up at unexpected moments these days—playing “Two-Headed Boy Part 2” on the ukulele, reading The Lorax aloud—it’s partially because I have another life apart from my own to think about, but also because my subliminal awareness of the passage of time charges everything with new meaning. In The Nature of Order, the architect Christopher Alexander makes a surprising statement, and I’m just going to leave it here:

To set the stage further for understanding unity in a building, I go back to the emotional underpinning of the living structure, its personal character, its rootedness in feeling…What feeling, exactly? What am I aiming for in a building, in a column, in a room? How do I define it for myself, so that I feel it clearly, so that it stands as a beacon to guide me in what I do every day?

What I am for is, most concretely, sadness…I try to make the building so that it carries my eternal sadness. It comes, as nearly as I can in a building, to the point of tears…

What makes it sad is that it comes closest, in the physical concrete beams and columns and walls, as close as possible, to the fact of my existence on this earth. It reminds me of it, it makes me take part in it. So when it happens, it is also a kind of joy, a happiness.

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