Monthly Archives: July 2014

All Grown Up

Today, the daughter of some very dear friends of mine turns 18. Thinking back to the day of her birth, it seems barely possible to believe she’s now an adult. That hot July day back in 1996 feels like it was a couple of years ago at the most. But then again, I look at my own kids, with another school year all but under their belts, and I realise they aren’t so very far from that landmark either.

Richard Linklater’s film, Boyhood, has been a gargantuan project. Filmed over the course of some 12 years, it tells the story of an ordinary boy, Mason Evans, as he grows from the age of six to adulthood. Nothing really huge happens. The family moves to Texas, Mason’s mum goes back to college then finds work as a lecturer. She remarries and divorces twice and we see Mason experience the variable geometry of modern family life as step-dads and step brothers and sisters come and go. The constants remain his mum, his sister and above all his dad, Mason Sr, played by Ethan Hawke, who although no longer living with the rest of the family, is a constant loving presence in Mason’s life.

Boyhood - film posterInstead of a story in the traditional sense, the film presents an incredibly intimate portrait of contemporary American life unfolding in real time. It’s fascinating to see Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, change over time, not just physically, but in his understanding of the world, his preoccupations, and growing emotional maturity until he reaches the point when he’s ready to step out into the world alone.

Initial experiments with girls lead to first real love, and first real heart-break. A fractious relationship with his sister grows into friendship. A clash with a teacher forces a new attitude to school and leads ultimately to success and a possible future career as a photographer.

Ellar Coltrane in 2013

Ellar Coltrane in 2013

The whole thing is edited seamlessly so that, as in life, the viewer barely notices the passing of time; the characters gradually change and age, grow, gain weight, turn grey and yet are essentially the same. For all its ups and downs, Mason’s family is loving and strong. At the end of the film, we are left with a moving portrait of an overwhelmingly decent young man, both completely unique and utterly ordinary, as he stands on the threshold of adulthood.

What’s ordinary reality for Mason, is the stuff of fantasy for the kids in The Golden Dream (La Jaula de Oro), Diego Quemada-Diez’s film about impoverished Guatemalan youngsters trying to make their way to the US. For the three protagonists, the US is an idealised land of the imagination where they cannot help but grow rich and happy.

La Jaula de Oro poster

Canny, adaptable and single-minded in their determination to reach their destination, they are nevertheless no match for the cynical adults that prey on them, exploiting them to harvest sugar cane or smuggle drugs and stealing even their shoes. One of the kids is a girl, but despite efforts to pass as boy, she’s hauled off by gangsters with the suggestion she’ll be forced into prostitution. When the remaining pair finally make it to the US, one is promptly shot dead by vigilantes and the other ends up working for peanuts in a stinking meat-processing factory. All the hopes and dreams of the three kids, all their energy and imagination are crushed with absolute ruthlessness. 

Where Boyhood leaves the audience with a feeling of optimism, The Golden Dream has the opposite effect.  Seeing both films in the same week I couldn’t help but be struck by the vast disparity in the lives and opportunities available to children whose destinies are decided by which side of a border they happen to be born on.

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Filed under Family, Film, Friends, Screenwriting, Stories

Lost and Found

There are few experiences as moving as standing in front of an object which is not only incredibly beautiful in its own right, but which was created, and has been admired, loved and handled over the centuries, by people we’ve only read about in history books.

A few days ago I finished reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and I’m still feeling completely blown away by it. The book, which deservedly won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction, tells the story of Theo Decker, whose mother is killed in a bomb attack on a museum in New York, leaving him at the age of 13 completely bereft of parental love or guidance.  In the aftermath of the explosion, Theo takes with him a small painting, also called The Goldfinch, produced in 1654 by the Dutch painter Carel Fabritius.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

In the days following the attack, Theo is cared for by the parents of a school friend until his alcoholic, drug-addicted father turns up with a recently acquired girl-friend and carts him off to a new life in Las Vegas. There, wholly neglected by his remaining parent and forced to fend for himself, Theo befriends Boris, the son of Ukrainian immigrants.   Time passes and Theo is drawn into a world of drugs, fraud, gangsters and crime, but throughout he clings to the painting as the one object that connects him to his mother and his ‘real’ life with her.

Tartt’s genius has been to avoid any sort of sentimentality or mawkishness in depicting Theo and the psychological trauma he undergoes. Bereavement leaves him with a vast unfillable void at the centre of his life but it doesn’t change his essential character. It is very much implied that the chasm of destructive behaviour he plunges into was already inherent in his character before his mother died; what has changed is that there is no longer the loving guidance she would have provided to keep him on a better path.

Untethered from any sort of moral compass, Theo goes seriously off the rails. And yet throughout it all, the painting somehow continues to represent the possibility of something purer and truer. The Goldfinch isn’t a mere fictional device; the painting really exists. Tartt provides details of its story; its creator was himself killed in an explosion at a munitions factory in Delft along with most of his work and yet this small luminous treasure somehow miraculously survived.

Carel Fabritius - self-portrait

Carel Fabritius – self-portrait

At the heart of the book is an incredible sense of the potency of art and how certain objects fashioned by human hands and imagination become invested with a sort of extraordinary totemic magic as they pass through the centuries to reach our own time. When everything around us seems polluted and lost, art provides a life-line that enables us to reach beyond our own grubby reality to what is eternal and sublime.

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