Tom Gunning has forgotten about the evolution of early cinema than anyone I know. So let’s consult him. Gunning has argued that the earliest form of cinema was one of “attraction.” The audience watched new and interesting pictures in much the same way that carnival crowds would gape at the bearded lady. Had it remained in this form, cinema may well have died out rather quickly, as was predicted by many of its earliest purveyors. But within about a decade, Gunning suggests that cinema evolved into a form of “narrative integration.” The “narrative” part is straightforward. Movies began to tell stories. The “integration” part is the key, for movies were better able to involve an audience in that story than any previous art form. When you see a good movie, you feel as if you are part of it – no longer merely gaping at the lady in need of a shave.
Fast forward about 100 years to a pair of current releases that sketch out the state of attraction and narrative integration in 2014. One of the movies is ostensibly about evolution. The other is actually an example of it. On the surface, it would appear that Luc Besson’s Lucy and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood have little in common. That appearance is mostly accurate, except for this one Gunning-esque parallel.
To say that Lucy is Luc Besson’s best movie in years is faint praise. His stylish crime stories such as La Femme Nikita (1990) and Leon: The Professional (1994), came more than 20 years ago, early in his career. He moved more seriously into writing and producing after that, creating highly lucrative franchises such as Transporter and Taken that have gotten progressively more derivative and less interesting over time. His most recent directorial effort The Family (2013) was an abomination – my pick as the worst movie of 2013 (though if you want to argue in favour of The Counsellor, I feel you). Lucy shares Besson’s recent modus operandi, action stories that use the senseless and brutal slaughter of countless people – some evil, and many innocent – as their primary grist. Lucy at least has an intriguing set up and in Scarlett Johansson, boasts the go-to gal for playing extra-human characters. Lucy as a character occupies a middle ground between the fun-loving and very human computer Samantha in Her and the emotionless alien machine in Under the Skin. No one does evolution better than Scarlett, though I do kind of long to see her play a regular woman again.
But Lucy is far from a good movie. Early on, Besson seems intent on copying the less successful elements of Shohei Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama (1983), showing us literal translations of all the evolutionary animal behavior being described with great expository convenience by Morgan Freeman’s Professor Norman. But after a somewhat clunky first act, the movie does begin to build up some real narrative momentum in the early part of act two when Lucy, having accidentally ingested a new experimental drug, begins to evolve. For a while, it looks like this might develop into a nice twist on the film noir classic D.O.A. (the 1950 one with Edmund O’Brien; not the rather pale remake with Dennis Quaid). Lucy knows her time is limited. She has to act quickly.
Then we hit the problem that not only infects most of Besson’s recent movies, but the majority of mainstream movies today. The movie ceases being a story of narrative integration and reverts back to being solely concerned with its attractions. The final act of Lucy is a pyrotechnical display of special effects devoid of logic or believability. Worst of all, it abandons its characters. Lucy, as a character, is becoming less human by design, but the script still could have provided a glimpse inside her evolution. And the other characters really have nothing to do but aid or hinder Lucy’s quest. They are witnessing the most remarkable things any human has ever witnessed, and yet we get almost no insight into what they are thinking or feeling. Min-sik Choi (magnificent as the bad guy in I Saw the Devil) is a run-of-the-mill villain here. Amr Waked’s cop, the only character who has a meaningful relationship with Lucy, is in too little of the movie to really matter. If it wasn’t for Morgan Freeman’s acting ability, even Professor Norman would be a totally forgettable character. Lucy abdicates story and character in favour of spectacle, and as such, is highly representative of the current state of movies.
But do not despair. We still have Richard Linklater.
Those of you who are familiar with my writing may recall that I am not a big Linklater fan. I think he has made several good movies, but I don’t especially like his acclaimed trilogy. I thought it was quite an achievement, but I was not moved much by the films. However, his latest movie Boyhood, is magnificent, both as an achievement and as a movie. Furthermore, it has the potential to be evolutionary. Not the monopoly money evolution we see in Lucy. This is the real thing. It abandons traditional Western three-act structure to create an episodic journey of pulses and moments. Many have tried this, but few have succeeded as brilliantly as Linklater does here (I’m looking at you, Terrence Malick). He filmed the movie in 39 days, but those days were stretched out over 12 years as his four primary characters – children Mason and Samantha, and adults Olivia and Mason Sr. – all grew older. And in doing so, he coalesced many of the most important film movements and theories into a new and organic whole. You see echoes of Dziga Vertov’s Kino-Eye attempts to present “life as it is lived.” You see Cesare Zavattini’s neo-realist ethos presenting real people and places as part of the daily drama of life. You see Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 and its attempts to free modern cinema from its reliance on spectacle and contrivance.
And most importantly, you see a confidence in plot and character. You see a new and exciting form of narrative integration.
Boyhood is not without flaws. At a little under three hours, it feels long in places. But the remarkable thing is that given its episodic nature, it actually moves along quite well. It is prone to pontificate, especially in the person of Ethan Hawke’s character Mason Sr. But Linklater is so freaking smart that I would rather listen to his pontifications than those of most other writer/directors. And he makes the very wise decision to keep Mason Sr. off screen a lot, focusing instead on Patricia Arquette’s Olivia as the grown-up in the story. A little Mason Sr. goes a long way. Most glaring for me is that Linklater doesn’t end the story as well as he might. The movie, which is entirely chronological, concludes with Mason leaving home to go off to college. As such, there are half a dozen potential ending sequences. The one he chooses seems trite to me. Just before that final sequence, there is a build-up scene in which Mason is chatting with a young woman he has met at his college. She tells him that she teaches dance to children, ages 6 to 8. Mason says something to the effect of “right before things start to get awkward.” They continue walking. That would have been a perfect ending to this movie, since that is the age when we first meet Mason, right before things started to get awkward. Alas, Linklater didn’t ask my opinion.
The other truly remarkable thing about Boyhood concerns its acting. First off, I have never seen Arquette be better and she delivers the best performance by a lead actress that I have seen so far this year. But the kids – Ellar Coltrane as Mason and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei as Sam – are the really fascinating actors to watch. Early on, when they are very young, they are, as is described at the end of the movie, fearless in a way that only the very young and very old can be. Their performances are more natural when they are young. When they age, they become more mannered, and when they are playing scenes with professional actors, you can see that they are not pros. The performances are not polished. They are just a bit self-conscious. And yet, given Linklater’s brilliant construction, that very quality plays perfectly. I realise that talented actors can play teen-age awkwardness quite well. But I don’t believe that is what is happening on screen in Boyhood. I believe we are seeing genuine awkwardness. I don’t discount Coltrane’s and Lorelei Linklater’s talents, but it is a remarkable thing that Richard Linklater has captured here. It’s a remarkable movie he has made. One that shows amid the dreck and commerce of modern mainstream cinema, there is still room for evolutionary narrative integration. There are still new cinematic fortresses waiting to be breached.