Lessons for the Future

July 2014: Boyhood at The Phoenix, East Finchley

“Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t.” - Erica Jong

The Phoenix cinema at East Finchley, London

Call me a pessimist if you want, but rarely does a day go by where the human race doesn’t disappoint me in some way.

Seriously, do you ever stop to wonder what legacy we’re leaving for our children? What scorched lands and poisoned seas they will inherit because of our choices and actions? Think of the problems we’re creating that our descendants will have to live with: crippling food shortages, widening economic inequality, the reckless exploitation of natural resources.

And the back catalogue of Michael Bay.

I admire the bravery of people who raise children in a world that’s facing problems as great as it’s ever faced. But there are so many things to show them, and the experiences we give those children today will shape the answers they find tomorrow. They are blank canvases: just look at the tiny hands, the toothless gums; all the potential

As well as any feelings of pressure to show them the right things, I also imagine great liberty in the endless variety of possibilities. We shouldn’t forget that, as adults, we’re graced with the same liberty when it comes to making choices for ourselves. Decisions still have the power to shape us, and still help to illustrate our character.

July 2014 offered a choice; the kind of choice that makes it seem like the world has a sense of humour. A pair of films, both two-and-three-quarter hours long and both, arguably, representing opposite ends of the cultural spectrum. They certainly represented opposite ends of the critical spectrum, for the choice was between a film called Boyhood and a certain sequel called Transformers: Age of Extinction.

“Grammatically speaking, advice is an uncountable noun, like rice or milk.” - Wikipedia

They might have grammatical similarities, but since Boyhood skips the first six years of its protagonist, Mason’s, life, milk doesn’t get much of a look in over the 165 minute running time.

Advice, on the other hand, is abundant. Through the relationships between its adult and child characters the film explores the nourishment provided by experience and knowledge. And it does so in a manner deeply rooted in reality, isolating one family’s key moments during a twelve-year period – the same twelve-year period over which it was all filmed.

By stripping away the ‘in between’ time that we all think of as routine, and by capturing the actors as they aged in real life, Boyhood focuses on the questions and answers that define our growth. That kind of vision would be ambitious for any story, let alone one filmed a few days at a time over more than a decade. Like most blank canvases, it was one with plenty of potential to go wrong, so it’s hard not to admire Richard Linklater’s confidence (and patience!) in realising the concept.

It was a confidence, coupled with a cascade of positive reviews, that proved compelling enough to draw me to see if Boyhood could teach something of what it means to be a parent. I had just entered my thirties and the prospect of having children was increasingly real. Plenty of people around me were busy adding another level to their family trees, but the idea of undertaking the responsibility myself was daunting.

The previous year, two friends welcomed their first child into the world and they encouraged me to cradle him in my nervous arms. Even in the cocoon of a maternity ward, being entrusted with a new and precious life was a big deal, especially given my innate clumsiness. Happily I managed to hold steady and little Jack’s eyes remained closed, leaving him oblivious to who was responsible for the quality of his kip. “You’re a natural,” said the beaming parents.

I was predisposed not to believe them though. Some of the tension evaporated but I couldn’t admit I was beginning to relax – and not just because I was afraid of dropping him. Blame it on absent father issues; on fragments of negative experience fossilised in my emotional amber. What monsters might be created if I tried extracting something from it?

Blame it, then, not on watching Jurassic Park, but on being scared to try and bond with a child – in case it turned out that I couldn’t.

“The best advice is this: Don’t take advice and don’t give advice.” - Anon

So my childhood bore witness to plenty of paternal mistakes. They didn’t prevent me from turning out just fine, but they were mistakes that I was afraid of being unable to avoid repeating. Beyond answers about raising children, the thing I perhaps wanted from Boyhood more than anything was reassurance. The perfectionist in me needed a comforting arm around the shoulder to say that a little weakness – a little bit of what makes us human – is okay.

Why, though, was my own evidence not enough? Why was the opinion of my friends not enough? Why did I choose the film’s structure of highlighting the formative events in Mason’s life, over the structure of the memories I had preserved in the greatest detail?

Why? Because, done right, cinema distils universal moments with elegant objectivity, encapsulating and presenting them ready to be coloured by the prism of our own feelings and beliefs. To witness characters bestowing their wisdom on the adolescent Mason was a perfect context for my quest for answers from the film. I’m a great believer in the value of experience, but the adults in Boyhood dispense advice with liberal abandon. For whose benefit are they doing it, exactly?

On the face of it, of course, it’s the children. Passing on the knowledge of lessons learned helps them make better choices and enjoy a better quality of life. But while Mason’s mother, Olivia, overcomes a string of disasters in her personal life to become a successful college lecturer, by the end of the film she is forced to confront a crushing emptiness. The privilege of having a positive influence on any number of lives cannot fill the void of seeing her family leave home.

Is that what we become scared of in adulthood? That we will cease to be relevant? Do we offer the sum of our accumulated knowledge in order to maintain a sense of being needed and depended upon?

For both Mason and his sister, Samantha, adopted father figures come and go in clouds of unsuitability and booze-tinged breath. Their biological father remains ever-present, but himself struggles to grow up. Mason Senior’s late blossoming mirrors the development of his children, and is a good advert for keeping in touch with your inner child, however hard life tries to crush it out of you.

Early in the film, after picking up his son and daughter for one of their regular weekend visits, Mason Sr. senses a lack of engagement and encourages the kids to tell him everything that’s been going on since he last saw them. They resist his impassioned questioning, telling him that it’s not like he is practicing the same as he expects from them. He pauses to consider, then says:

So you’re saying we should just let things happen more naturally, right?

It’s one of the best lessons in the whole film, and one that becomes increasingly relevant as Mason gets older and develops his individuality. People around him struggle to understand that individuality, and it leads to his first girlfriend cheating on him, but his father encourages Mason to pursue his passions and his creativity. As a philosophy for living – not just parenting – I can think of nothing finer.

Boyhood addresses was a rare and astonishing piece of work, and one that I suspect the film-makers were reluctant to bring to an end. But then it would have been called Life, not Boyhood, and at some point you simply have to let go and accept when things are no longer under your control. Everything into which you have invested so much of yourself, you have to finally allow to blossom.

“The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself.” - Oscar Wilde

It was sixteen months since I’d last visited London, and since I’d unsuccessfully tried to fit in a trip to East Finchley. If we’re talking about childhood influence then it would be silly not to acknowledge The Phoenix’s role in fostering the love of film in one of it’s most vocal and passionate advocates: film critic Mark Kermode. The chance to find out what he loved so much was long overdue.

You wouldn’t necessarily know from the outside but the building is grade II listed. Among all the indie cinemas on my travels so far (nearly two dozen of them now), there have been beautiful traditional buildings and modern contemporary arts centres. In many cases, the cinema in question has successfully combined both.

The Phoenix cinema's divine single screen!

With its vaulted ceiling and art deco panels, The Phoneix’s single screen was like nothing I’d seen before, and the auditorium was the first to make me say, “Wow” upon entering. The classic architectural features lent a rare gravitas to the cinema going experience, perfectly suited to a film of the quality of Boyhood.

The power of cinema is its ability to open a window on unfamiliar places, cultures and stories; to give viewers experiences that might otherwise be impossible. Cinematic moments are as meaningful as those we enjoy (or endure) in real life, and they deserve to be witnessed in venues that enrich the viewing experience rather than detract from it. They deserve to be witnessed from an early age too.

I know how much I’ve been inspired in the last four years, and I know how much the likes of Kermode were inspired by the picture houses they grew up with. Should the day come when I can watch films with my own child, trusting the people who devise programmes at cinemas like The Phoenix – people of the finest character; people who choose Boyhood over the latest Transformers – is absolutely okay by me.

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If you enjoyed this blog post ...

... then you might like the tale of my journey around some of the UK's finest indie cinemas (and a few further afield). A Tour of the Indies: A Creative Quest for the UK's Best Cinema's ... and Cake has this dedicated page where you can read more.