Watching childhood home movies can be a confusing experience, a mix of amusement, embarrassment, and nostalgia, as we watch our past selves—creatures so familiar and yet horrifically foreign—grow, change, and do silly things. So what would it be like to grow up in an actual movie? Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” coming to theaters this weekend, answers that question.
Filmed over the course of 12 years, “Boyhood” follows one six-year-old boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he stumbles and jumps through the years—all the way until he is 18. It’s a fictional plot acted out by actors as they aged in real time, in some ways a movie and a documentary. While we can’t wait to bring you a review of the actual film, here are three movies that also condense and play with time in the course of a film, and in so doing, paved the way for Linklater’s audacious new creation.
“Seven Up” series (since 1964)
Cast: Bruce Balden, Jackie Bassett, Symon Basterfield, Andrew Brackfield, John Brisby, Peter Davies, Susan Davis, Charles Furneaux, Nicholas Hitchon, Neil Hughes, Lynn Johnson, Paul Kligerman, Suzy Lusk, Tony Walker
All installments in the “Up” series are streaming on Netflix; “Seven Up” is free on Amazon Instant with ads, further installments available for purchase
The spiritual ancestor of “Boyhood,” Michael Apted’s extraordinary documentary series began as a social experiment and evolved into something much larger and more profound. Begun in 1964, the original intent was to test the famous Jesuit saying: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” To do so, Apted brought together 20 British children from all walks of life and asked them about their likes, dislikes, aspirations, and prospects. They then reconvened every seven years to follow the children as they grew up and fulfilled (or failed) those aspirations and prospects. It is a fascinating study of the British class system and social mobility, but it’s also an eerie, poignant abstract of human life—decades compressed into the space of a few hours.
Apted chooses ordinary lives and places extraordinary focus on them, and life, documented in such a way, seems both ordinary and extraordinary. There’s something extremely uncanny about watching this series, as if seeing all the possible permutations of your own life unfold upon the screen. Time passes, choices are made, and it’s only afterwards that the narrative becomes clear.
The most recent installment was “56 Up,” released in 2012. Only five more years to go until the next, for Apted, for the participants, and for us all.
Available streaming on Netflix, Hulu, or to rent/purchase streaming on Amazon Instant or iTunes
From the one-crazy-night construction of “Dazed and Confused” to the nine-year-installment cycle of the “Before Sunrise” trilogy, Richard Linklater has always had an interest in exploring and playing with time, bending the temporal flexibility of film to suit his purposes. The ambitious production behind “Boyhood” wasn’t the first time Linklater has gone to such extremes, either: his very first feature was a similar experiment in the cinematic time-space continuum, only at the opposite end of the spectrum. Unfolding in what is meant to feel like real-time, “Slacker” seems to be following a drifter (played by Linklater himself) fresh off the bus in Austin, Texas – until that drifter collides with another aimless young man on the street, and suddenly we’ve spun off into a whole different story. Five minutes later, a wandering musician becomes our new protagonist, and then a sidewalk t-shirt salesman, then a paranoid schizophrenic, an aspiring psychic and her companion, and on and on and on, rolling through characters credited with names like “Dostoyevsky Wannabe,” “Sadistic Comb Game Player,” “Budding Capitalist Youth” and “S-T-E-V-E With a Van.” The rotating focus is not a new gimmick (Max Öphuls’ “La Ronde” tried the same structure, to similar success, about 40 years earlier), but Linklater’s unobtrusive, observational style and penchant for vivid characterization makes “Slacker” a sensational debut for a career that, even after the massive critical acclaim given the director’s way the past two years, might remain underrated.
“Synecdoche, New York” (2008)
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Tom Noonan, Dianne Wiest
Available for purchase on Amazon Instant or iTunes, on disc from Netflix
If “Boyhood” quite literally condenses a life in front of our eyes, Charlie Kaufman’s baffling cerebral drama opts for the more post-modern route. Are we seeing the life of playwright Caden Cotard (the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his best performances) genuinely play out, from the banality of early fatherhood to the isolation of death? Is it all part of Cotard’s elaborate, seemingly planet-encompassing theater project? Or is this the fever dream of a screenwriter desperately seeking meaning in his art, in his personal life, in his very existence? Considering this is the same man who had no trouble inserting himself (along with an imagined twin brother) as the protagonist of “Adaptation,” one might lean toward the latter. But there’s something eerily empathetic about Kaufman’s floundering, a compression of an endless array of questions and problems into this one man, representing many. It is easier to say what “Synecdoche, New York” is NOT about than what it is (hint: it’s not about transforming robots).