Boyhood: Another Look at Richard Linklater’s Non-Millennial Millennial Film

roadtripThe conventional wisdom surrounding last year’s much lauded film Boyhood is that its theme and subject matter concern the early life experience of the millennial generation. For instance, regarding the film and its director Richard Linklater, Tribecafilm.com writer Andrew Bell states that, “From ‘Harry Potter’ to Facebook to ‘Twilight’ to Wii, Richard Linklater captures the millennial generation in his latest masterpiece.” Bell’s comment notwithstanding, what is curious about Linklater’s film is the key ways in which it is anti-millennial or at the very least not limited in scope or meaning to one single generation. Indeed, a case can be made that the meaning and import of this justly celebrated film is multi-generational.

According to Pew Research the term millennial is a sociological designation referring to the generation of individuals born between 1981 and 1996. The use of technology is the chief characteristic uniting these individuals followed by education, politics, and economic outlook. Millennials have “taken the lead in seizing on the new platforms of the digital era—the internet, mobile technology, social media—to construct personalized networks of friends, colleagues and affinity groups.” In short, millennials are “digital natives.” They are able to navigate their way through these platforms and networks with an ease unmatched by members of prior generations.

With this description in mind, the thematic tone of Boyhood takes a decidedly anti-millennial turn in one scene in particular. While on a road trip to Austin, Texas, Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and his girlfriend Sheena (Zoe Graham) discuss the former’s desire to delete his Facebook page. [See above image]. Instead, Mason wants to “try and not live [his] life through a screen.” He wants “some kind of actual interaction. A real person…” He also makes fun of the significance given to email and cell phone messaging. He clearly no longer wants to be a digital native.

Analysis of a later scene suggests that to find the film’s theme viewers not only must turn away from millennial considerations but the sociology of generations entirely. Here sociology gives way to psychology, specifically the psychology of types. As Mason readies to leave home for college for the first time he tells his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) that a computer program has placed him with his new roommate based on their shared interests and traits. His anti-millennial bent still showing, Mason exclaims “…Isn’t that kind of crazy though, that a computer knows who you are from just twenty questions off a form? I guess there are really only like eight types of people in the world.” He then mentions the existence of “subsets” to these types as well as the incredible 100% success rate of the computer program.

Mason’s words in this scene mirror those found in a passage on typology in Sonu Shamdasani’s Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology: The Dream of a Science. Writing about Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung, Shamdasani states, “Jung developed a schema of eight main types. These fell into two main groups – introverts and extraverts. Each of these was further subdivided into four sub groups, characterized by the main function of the individual” (p. 77). The functions alluded to here are thinking, feeling, intuition, and sensation. Placing the words introverted or extraverted in front of these functions yields the eight main types.

Introduced into the narrative near the end of Boyhood this scene involving typology is the third prominent reference to psychology in the film. The first reference concerns the classical conditioning theory of Ivan Pavlov and occurs in a university lecture given by Bill Welbrock (Marco Perella) who becomes Olivia’s second husband. The second reference is given by Olivia herself while teaching a class on John Bowlby’s attachment theory. As in the prior scene, a future love interest for Olivia is introduced, this time in the form of her student Jim (Brad Hawkins).

What is interesting about these three references is the manner in which the characters involved unsuccessfully embody the psychological principles discussed. Bill succumbs to a Pavlovian-like instinct to satisfy his need and desire for alcohol while Olivia fails to establish a healthy lasting bond with Jim. Also, her exclamation that her life is over now that Mason is leaving for college possibly points to an all-too-strong maternal bond with her son.

In contrast to Bill and Olivia Mason quite admirably manages his instinctual desires for physical and emotional satisfaction. Again, he knows better than to give into the constant urge to check email and social media outlets. He also has established a healthy bond with his parents, survives his break-up with Sheena with his self-esteem intact, and at film’s end appears on his way toward establishing a healthy intimate relationship with his new friend Nicole (Jessi Mechler).

A similar progression can be seen in Mason’s father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). An absentee parent in the early stages of the film, Mason Sr. gets a degree and a job as an actuary, remarries, and settles down with his new wife and child. Whereas other characters in the film represent the type of wisdom figures who through their own example impart the wisdom of how not to act, Mason Sr. conveys to his son through word and deed the rewards gained in pursuit of an excellent life. Such excellence depends upon the cultivation, realization, and sharing of one’s own innate talents and calling—a fact he makes known by singing the individual praises of John, Paul, George, Ringo, and, yes, Mason Jr.

The cultivation, realization, and sharing of one’s unique talents and calling comprise a key aspect of what in Jungian parlance is called individuation. The first English translation of Jung’s Psychological Types was given the subtitle “The Psychology of Individuation” out of the awareness that typology and individuation are inextricably linked. What Boyhood suggests through the characters of Mason Sr. and Jr., then, is that in addition to learning to relate to one’s instinctual and emotional needs in a healthy manner individuals also need to develop and follow their innate typological compass. This holds true regardless of the generation to which they belong. Next month’s post delves more deeply into the specific typological argument at the heart of Linklater’s multi-generational film.

Posted in Cinema, Culture, Deep Realism, Typology | Leave a comment

American Sniper: A Psychological Commentary

film poster2.2In a remarkable wide-ranging 1912 interview in The New York Times entitled “America Facing Its Most Tragic Moment” C. G. Jung claimed that men in the United States possess an inherent brutality which they repress beneath a veneer of chivalry and prudery. Such repression, or self-control, makes possible the pioneering spirit, business success, and philanthropic generosity for which the U.S. is known. It also leads to savagery and inequality in relation to minorities, including women.

Jung foresaw two possible outcomes to this situation. Americans will be devoured by the machinery and way of life which are products of their inherent brutality, or they will more consciously engage their emotional and instinctual selves to “produce a race which are human beings first, and men and women secondarily.” This latter development shall be known in part through the art and literature of the newly transformed American citizenry. In Visible Mind: Movies, modernity and the unconscious Jungian analyst and writer Christopher Hauke describes this development as a move toward an “über-humanity” (61).

Current events suggest that such a transformation in American society is yet to occur one hundred years (and change) after the publication of the Jung interview. However, signs of progress can be found. The present post turns for support to Clint Eastwood’s recent film American Sniper (2014) which was adapted from the 2012 book of the same title.

Eastwood’s film starts in the streets of Fallujah, Iraq. U.S. Navy Seal and sniper Chris Kyle occupies a rooftop position which enables him to keep a protective eye trained on the Marine Company below him. Kyle watches as a woman emerges from a building and hands a grenade to an adolescent boy at her side. The boy begins to walk in the direction of the advancing Marines.

The film narrative abruptly cuts to an extended flashback sequence involving Kyle’s childhood, military enlistment, Seal and sniper training, and marriage. When the sequence concludes, Kyle is back atop the roof in Fallujah. The grenade-wielding boy moves toward the Marine Company and Kyle has to shoot and kill him as well as the woman when she picks up the grenade. Though Kyle’s radio crackles with congratulations from the Company Commander and another officer, he appears sickened by what he has had to do.

americansniperKyle experiences many tests and challenges over the course of the film with the most overt of these being his desire to stop a Syrian sniper named Mustafa. He also has to learn to adapt to life both in the battlefield and back home. The latter re-entry proves particularly difficult, but by the end of the film he discovers that emotional attunement, presence, and empowerment are by-products of helping others in need whether those others are wounded war vets or his own wife, son, and daughter.

Kyle’s transformation from a hardened sniper with one hundred and sixty confirmed kills to a warm and engaged family and community member is moving and irrefutable. It is also at odds with the traditional masculine hero found in most Hollywood films or for that matter American society. As Jung noted in his interview “You have in America the wooden face […], because you’re trying so hard to hide your emotions and your instincts.” Hauke alludes to this same face as “a type of male stoicism and flattening of emotional expression” (59). Almost any film with Eastwood in a starring role reveals such a stoic flat expression – which makes his late-in-life helming of American Sniper all the more noteworthy.

Current events around the time of the wide release of Eastwood’s film suggest that the American heroic ideal is in extremis. News anchor Brian Williams and political commentator Bill O’Reilly came under fire for telling tall tales about their own supposed heroic exploits. Alex Rodriguez returned to baseball spring training after a year-long ban caused by his use of performance enhancing drugs, and in a failed attempt to remain out of the public eye Lance Armstrong let his wife take the blame for driving into parked cars near their home. The hero most definitely is in the cross hairs. Even Chris Kyle has not been immune from such criticism.

Eastwood’s American Sniper shows the way past such bravado to the heroism needed in the new millennium, i.e., the heroic choice to become emotionally vulnerable and attentive to physical and psychological wounding. Additionally, near the end of the film the scenes of Kyle reconnecting with his family suggest that an instinctive love for and play with others is also of great import. Horsing around at home with his wife before leaving on his final fateful outing, Kyle is living proof that laughter shared with another human being can be restorative and healing. In time such sharing may also help lead to the more humane race predicted by Jung.

Posted in Cinema, Culture, Deep Realism | Leave a comment

Deep Realism, Part II: The Upper World of Cinema

Cave and Cosmos Cover

In this and the prior post the comparison of cinema and shamanism is not meant to arrive at a precise one-to-one correspondence. Neither experience is reducible in meaning or import to the other. Rather, I am comparing shamanism to cinema analogically so that something known and well elucidated helps us understand something else which is less well known. The world of shamanism as detailed in the books referenced here is brought to bear on the mysterious power of cinema to fascinate us through image and narrative.

In Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality Michael Harner outlines the Upper World of the shamanic cosmos in ways that prove quite revealing when applied to certain films. For example, Harner relates that with the aid of steady drumming, or auditory driving, shamanic practitioners often depart for the Upper World from a raised platform located in the Middle World. Ascending through clouds into the sky or sometimes flying along what is called the trail of heaven, practitioners often are accompanied by a bird such as an eagle or themselves transform into a bird or man-bird deity. Such magical flight and transformation brings feelings of out-of-body levitation, love, beauty, and ecstatic spiritual union.

During the journey shamanic practitioners also often hear celestial music such as heavenly choirs, and they meet famous figures from history and religious tradition. From such figures they learn answers to hitherto unanswered questions. Finally, the advice or wisdom gained from such answers helps move them and others further down the path of spiritual, psychological, and physical healing once they have returned to the Middle World.

streakpng

The opening images of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) alert viewers that they are about to accompany protagonist Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) on a cine-shamanic journey. That is to say, as the film’s title sequence begins so does a steady drumbeat. Then a strand of ominous music briefly joins the drums, and the first visual image of the film, a bright light shooting across a darkened sky, fills the screen. A comet, Icarus falling to his fiery death, or perhaps Birdman himself, the light (pictured above) also resembles an apocalyptic trail arcing down out of heaven.

This image gives way to one of Riggan alone in his dressing room on an upper floor of a Broadway theater. Legs crossed in front of him, Riggan levitates a couple feet off the ground. He meditates on the question that comprises the first spoken lines of the film: “How did we end up here? This place is horrible. We don’t belong in this s—thole.”

Virtually every scene in the film provides the answer to the question just posed. It is “that little prick called ego”—to quote Iñárritu in accepting the Oscar for Best Director. Or, as I noted in my earlier post on Birdman it is inflation, arrogance, grandiosity, and a sense of entitlement. On a collective level it is what Jung called the spirit of this time. No wonder that when I left the theater after seeing the film the phrase from Wordsworth “the world is too much with us” popped into my head.

The solution or cure to the “too much-ness” of ego and world is found in another exquisite and much lauded film of the past year: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Like Birdman, Boyhood also begins with an image of the sky and as such signals that we are about to take a journey into the Upper World of cinema. We are about to encounter teachers and wisdom figures—some of whom through their behavior instruct us how not to lead our lives. In the case of Boyhood, the second and third husbands of Olivia (Patricia Arquette) come to mind in this regard.

Love, beauty, and ecstatic spiritual union are also evident in Boyhood, perhaps most noticeably in the film’s concluding scene. I look more closely at the wisdom contained in this scene and in the film in its entirety in a future post. For the moment, however, what is important to note is this: whereas the cine-shamanic journeyer returns from the Lower World of cinema better able to meet the demands of his or her material existence, the journeyer to cinema’s Upper World having received an answer to one or more of life’s hitherto unanswered questions returns ready to face his or her spiritual existence.

In the context of the two films discussed, if Birdman asks and answers “How did we get here?” the question at the heart of Boyhood is “Where do we go next?” The presence of “we” in both questions reveals a final tantalizing possibility. The lessons learned or wisdom imparted in cinema’s Upper World have collective implications not found in the Lower World’s emphasis on individual adaptation and empowerment.

Posted in Cinema, Deep Realism | Leave a comment