Sunday, 15 March 2015

Linklater's Boyhood: finding meaning through family and connecting with others

Mason Evans, protagonist of Boyhood, at the movie's brilliant ending. Photo source. 

Boyhood, the extraordinary 2014 movie shot intermittently over twelve years by Richard Linklater, maps Mason Evan’s journey from six to eighteen years old, with all of the challenges and moments of joy in-between. The beauty of the film is ingrained in this detail, or the day-to-day intricacies of experience, emotion and connection.

As Ethan Hawke, who plays Mason's father, neatly states,

It's Tolstoy-esque in scope. I thought the Before series was the most unique thing I would ever be a part of, but Rick has engaged me in something even more strange. Doing a scene with a young boy at the age of seven when he talks about why do raccoons die, and at the age of 12 when he talks about video games, and 17 when he asks me about girls, and have it be the same actor—to watch his voice and body morph—it's a little bit like timelapse photography of a human being.

Boyhood is a story of family and connection from start to finish, although it is realistic and not without difficulties. We see sibling disputes, disagreements with parents, and failed teenage relationships that cannot fail to strike a chord.

Mason complains to his then-girlfriend, Sheena, that, "I just feel like there are so many things that I could be doing and probably want to be doing that I'm just not.", adding that, "I find myself so furious at all these people that I am in contact with just for controlling me or whatever but you know they are not even aware they are doing it."

Sheena replies by asking, "in this perfect world where no one is controlling you. What's different? What changes?" To which Mason responds, "Everything. I mean, I just wanna be able to do anything I want, because it makes me feel alive. As opposed to giving me the appearance of normality."

From one existential crisis to another, Mason is searching for meaning and a way to define his purpose. I love Boyhood's celebration of art and creation, yet as the film closes, we’re left thinking that perhaps Mason's pursuit of purpose lies precisely in the relationships that we’ve seen him shape in the last twelve years.

Reading Harry Potter in Boyhood.

After all, our lives aren't truly marked by the things we tend to obsess over achieving. Working past 5pm every day won’t win a place in your eulogy, nor will having the biggest house of your friends (I enjoyed how Arianna Huffington wrote about this in Thrive).

At one point in Boyhood, during a road trip to Austin, Mason explains why he wants to to delete his Facebook: “I just want to try and not live my life through a screen, I want, like some actual interaction… a real person, not just the profile they put up”.

We don’t need to delete our Facebook, but simply remember that life is made up of connections (as Whitman recently reminded us), and a life is remembered for the impact that it has on others. Creating a mark on the world is often more to do with connecting with others than making a name for ourselves. This is how we create meaning, and quite often it’s how we cultivate happiness too.

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Saturday, 7 March 2015

Navigating a Confusing World with Whitman's "Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances"

Walt Whitman photographed at his home in Camden, New Jersey. Samuel Murray, 1891.

"Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances" by Walt Whitman is included in my favourite poetry anthology of last year, Poems That Make Grown Men Cry by Anthony and Ben Holden. It is chosen by Stephen Fry in the collection, and it's also alleged to be J.K. Rowling's favourite poem.

I love this poem because it recognises that the world is a confusing place. It's not always easy to find meaning, and I think we all occasionally ponder why we're here.

Whitman seems to be telling us that this is understandable. Yet he also suggests there is a solution of sorts: spending time with those who are important to us, and creating meaning through connection.

The final four lines are worth learning by heart. As Stephen Fry beautifully puts it: "It's Uncle Walt at his most perfect, I think. The strangely jerky parenthetical hiccups in the middle all build into an ending that never fails to choke me".

Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances by Walt Whitman

Of the terrible doubt of appearances,
Of the uncertainty after all, that we may be deluded,
That may-be reliance and hope are but speculations after all,
That may-be identity beyond the grave is a beautiful fable only,
May-be the things I perceive, the animals, plants, men, hills, shining and flowing waters,
The skies of day and night, colors, densities, forms, may-be these are (as doubtless they are) only apparitions, and the real something has yet to be known,
(How often they dart out of themselves as if to confound me and mock me!
How often I think neither I know, nor any man knows, aught of them,)
May-be seeming to me what they are (as doubtless they indeed but seem) as from my present point of view, and might prove (as of course they would) nought of what they appear, or nought anyhow, from entirely changed points of view;
To me these and the like of these are curiosly answer'd by my lovers, my dear friends,
When he whom I love travels with me or sits a long while holding me by the hand,
When the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that words and reason hold not, surround us and pervade us,
Then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom, I am silent, I require nothing further,
I cannot answer the question of appearances or that of identity beyond the grave,
But I walk or sit indifferent, I am satisfied,
He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me.

From Leaves of Grass

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