Thursday, August 6, 2014

After posting my proposition about giving those born on the cusp of the millennium the name of “search engine generation,” Linda and I went to a screening of Boyhood, the first two-thirds of which surprised me with its lack of interaction with search engines.  Finally, in the last third of Boyhood, the protagonist, Mason, has a moment of technological satori and starts to come to terms with the social programming that the proliferation of search engines has found itself imbricated in. This break-through realization happens when our up-til-now placid hero suddenly launches into a wise-beyond-his-years monologue while he’s driving a pick-up truck in the company of a young woman who eventually rejects him because of his pessimism. This scene, which reveals Mason’s intuitive comprehension of the full consequences of search engine technology, is meant to link up with his comments later on about the 100 percent success rate that colleges now score in using a 20 question form to sort applicants for dormitory assignments into compatible roommates. Think about it: Mason shoots apparently outstanding photographs, but he doesn’t share any of it on social media? Perhaps I am exaggerating this aporia, but I doubt it. I will concede that search engine technology is acknowledged in Boyhood, but imagine a film made with the same premise that covered the years between 1960 and 1972 that would dare to make an equivalently minimal use of television and radio. Such a film, screen in 1975, would have left its audience wondering if the people who had made the film had lived in the same time period. There are many missing qualities in Boyhood, but this one in particular stuck out as especially egregious.

More disappointing than the film’s blissful ignorance of actual ground level conditions (note that the one brief bullying scene is something that could have occurred in a film such as My Bodyguard decades ago! What happened to cyberbullying?), however, are the few negative reviews that the film has received. I myself join with the handful of critics (such as Kenneth Turan) who dare to shrug their shoulders, but I also find myself startled by the lack of insight into the real problems of the film as an alleged masterpiece. I’m happy to see the movie get a lukewarm reaction from at least a few other critics, but what astonishes me is how little the negative critics seem to be able to see the most obvious problems. Let’s start with the ending: Oh, really? If this were a genuine documentary film, which it gives off a faux aura of being, I would accept the triumph of the protagonist as a well-earned prize, but it’s not an adaptation of an actual life. This fictional film wants to deliver the fictional formula of a happy ending, and it’s going to make certain the audience gets what it wants. Correct me if I’m wrong, but what’s the difference between this film and Flashdance. The young person triumphs and wins the scholarship. I almost began laughing at the end of the film. Are critics really falling over each other in a rush to praise such a predictable trajectory?

The film gets worse than that, however. Not only does he win a scholarship, he shows up at college and before he even attends a single class, he meets a young women who is going to be the kind of companion he wasn’t able to find as a high school student. I’ll grant you that the film didn’t completely follow formula. After all, IFC popped up on the screen at the start, so we can assume that we’ll be spared the kiss at the end of the movie that signifies the fulfillment, but as you can see, I’m hardly in the mood to award points for that.

It might be nice if critics, both those who loved the film and those who found themselves bored by its lack of genuine dramatic tension, bothered to take the time to step back and place a bildungsroman-type film into a larger context, but that might mean that would have to revisit a genuine masterpiece of American literature, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. Yes, that story has an “upbeat” ending, too, but it’s a bittersweet one, something much closer to another recent film, Begin Again, which is a minor classic of “small story” poignancy. If you have the time and money to choose between films, I’d recommend Begin Again in whatever theater still might happen to be playing it. Granted, it too used a formula, the old “let’s put on a show, kids” routine, but its refusal to go for the easy December-May romance gave it a twist that enabled its characters and the fine actors playing them to feed off its dramatic integrity. I also appreciated the relative accuracy with which the film depicted the world of music production. The scene at the beginning where the producer hears a different song than the audience was worth the price of admission alone.

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