Boyhood" follows a boy growing up over a period of years. The film has many predecessors. Yet aging is frowned upon in Hollywood cinema.
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke young and in love in 1995 in "Before Sunrise" … Image: imago/Entertainment Pictures
Some films make something seem newly invented, even though it’s been around for a long time. Richard Linklater’s "Boyhood" is not the first film project to bring together the real aging of its actors with the fictional aging of its characters. Linklater himself has already accompanied the ravages of time in a long-term perspective with his "Before …" series. From "Before Sunrise" (1995) to "Before Sunset" (2004) to "Before Midnight" (2013), Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke could be seen aging a total of 18 years.
It was never about the real age of the actors, but about that of their characters and, above all, their relationship. The 20-year-old interrailers became 30-year-olds with the first kinks in their biographies and then 40-year-olds who, despite all their neuroses, make quite acceptable, responsible parents.
The fact that "Boyhood" similarly focuses on the story of growing up, i.e. a process, and not on the mere passing of time, contributes to the intensity that makes the film, which has just been released, a special experience. So special, in fact, that since its premiere at the Berlinale, a new genre term has been making the rounds: long-term fiction.
The term is based on that of the long-term documentary, whose probably most famous example began just like "Boyhood" with children in the process of starting school. Michael Apted’s "Up" series began in 1964 with the observation of 14 seven-year-olds. Since then, the British director has been delivering new episodes at seven-year intervals, each bringing together freshly shot footage with archive footage.
Can you escape your origins?
No one has been soccer world champion as many times as Brazil. Read how ministers, corporations and activists use this myth in the taz.am wochenende of June 7/8, 2014. Also: Six children and young people from Syria tell how they fare in refugee camps in Lebanon. And: What the janitor and the housemaid of the legendary sports school in Malente know about Franz Beckenbauer and Lothar Matthaus. On the kiosk, eKiosk or right away in a practical weekend subscription.
Apted was once inspired by the Jesuit motto: "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man. The inner tension of the assertion that in the seven-year-old the man is already recognizable has the effect of the quiz question that everyone tries to answer for himself throughout his life (and which still has particular sharpness in class-conscious Great Britain): Can one escape his origins, his early imprints? Is it the environment or one’s own will that decides?
Anyone familiar with the "Up" series, one of its worldwide imitators, or even the German prequel "Die Kinder von Golzow" (which began in 1961 in the Oderbruch region) knows that the question remains astonishingly open even after 50 years of long-term observation.
As similar as the premise is, as completely different is the effect of, on the one hand, the long-term documentaries like the "Up" films and, on the other, a long-term fiction like "Boyhood." Certainly, in both projects the viewer experiences a reflexive maternal/paternal emotion in the face of the adolescents: how the limbs grow long, how personality and beard stubble move into once tender childlike faces.
But Linklater erects a protected space, as it were, around his fictional character in "Boyhood," something the makers of the "Up" series are unable to do. Even if the aging of the characters is equally "real" in both cases, for Linklater in "Boyhood," just as in the "Before …" trilogy, it still boils down to a means of representation.
The passing of time in a protected space
Age and the passing of time can be viewed as "pure" in the protected space of fiction. At the same time, they are elements through which something else is told: the passage through the institution of school, modern family life with divorces and shared custody, the gradual change of rituals and attitudes. What the documentaries present to the viewer in snatched morsels, the fiction presents in perfectly formed, well-timed density.
With his attention to the process of maturation as opposed to the disdainful "growing up," Linklater is also in the tradition of Francois Truffaut and his Antoine-Doinel series. In the first film, "They Kissed and They Beat Him," 15-year-old Jean-Pierre Leaud embodied this Antoine as a difficult child with memorably self-willed charisma. One can understand that Truffaut did not want to give up the figure of this boy (which bore autobiographical traits) right away. In one short film and four more feature films, he let him go through the cycle of falling in love, marriage, divorce and several jobs.
None of the following films developed quite the emotional pull of "They Kissed and They Beat Him," but something else came to the fore: the maturing of actor Jean-Pierre Leaud. He made the Doinel role so much his own that his name now towers over that of his fictional character. A success that seems inconceivable for Daniel Radcliffe, for example, whom the world has seen grow from a tender eleven-year-old to a shy 20-year-old as "Harry Potter.
Everyday routine bores as monotony on the screen
… and 18 years later in "Before Midnight" (2013). Image: imago/Unimedia Images
In Cedric Klapisch’s trilogy about the former Erasmus student Xavier Rousseau, who was billed in France as a new version of Antoine Doinel, you can watch not just one character but an entire group age and mature. After "Barcelona for a Year" (2001), there was "Reunion in St. Petersburg" (2004), in which Xavier continued to be at the center, but nevertheless almost the entire former shared flat was seen in short appearances.
For the third part, "Beziehungsweise New York" (2013), Klapisch still brought together the three most important women in Xavier’s life. However, the film also illustrates the pitfalls of long-term fiction. As great as the joy of reuniting with a familiar figure is, what one accepts as the daily grind in real life is boring as monotony on the screen. Some things that began as an exciting new situation in the film – the year in Barcelona – grow into the umpteenth variation (St. Petersburg, New York) into a fad: which city will our hero stumble into next? Berlin or Beijing?
The mother of all long-running fictions is often cited as the so-called "Andy Hardy" series, whose leading man Mickey Rooney recently died at 93. Filmed from 1937 to 1946 (with a 1958 straggler), Rooney aged as an ordinary American from teenager to 26-year-old in 16 feature-length films. But according to the plot of these "sentimental comedies," whose cloying pettiness is hardly tolerable today, he remained the eternal teenager throughout all the films and years. The insistence on the same old thing undermines the ostensible intention of the long-term life narrative fiction.
In which one thing above all is evident: Hollywood’s very ambivalent relationship to aging. Watching a child grow up is just about okay. In the Tarzan films with Johnny Weissmuller from 1939 to 1947, his adopted son "Boy" was allowed to mature from seven to 16 years old, but then it was over. Growing up was not an option for the character "Boy," any more than gray hair was for Tarzan.
Showing aging is frowned upon in Hollywood cinema wherever it’s not a mask trick. In all the sequels that gather a fixed arsenal of characters over the years, the aging of the actors is in fact always faded out rather than used for the narrative. For over 50 years, completely independent of the biographical age of the actor in question, James Bond has embodied the "man in his prime."
Cinema is watching death at work, is one of those quotations roaming around without a master, which appears as soon as the subject of film and age comes up. The phrase has one of its origins in Jean Cocteau’s "Orphee," where it is said that one need only look in the mirror throughout life to see death working like a busy swarm of bees in a hive.
It seems like spectator confusion to declare cinema a mirror. After all, we don’t see ourselves, but the "others" on the screen. And as for watching death at work: aging is rather the enemy of cinema, at least the personal one of all actors.
But perhaps that’s also hidden in the popular quote: the clammy schadenfreude with which the longtime moviegoer can basically declare every actor’s career a long-term fiction. Daniel Radcliffe from eleven to twenty is nothing compared to Jeff Bridges at 25 in "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" and at 61 in "True Grit. Or James Spader at 29 in "Sex, Lies and Videotapes" and at 54 today in "Blacklist.
Finally, we look back at "Boyhood," where the adult actors Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette age by twelve very real years. Although kept in the background, it comes through how different this transition from 30-something to over 40 is for men and women. Patricia Arquette from 34 to 46 – that’s an experience in itself. And would be a completely different topic again.