Movie Love: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

An official movie poster for what’s a fairly astounding film.

Let’s just get one thing out of the way: I am a big Richard Linklater fan. I still think Dazed and Confused is Matthew McConnaghey’s best work. I came of age with Céline and Jess in what’s now called the “Before” trilogy. So I went into Boyhood with a predisposition to be pleased with it.

Pleased doesn’t quite cover it, though. Without giving anything away, it’s fair to state the obvious—the movie covers the life of one family, in particular as one boy experiences it—over the course of twelve years. And just as the aforementioned trilogy captures single, seminal days and nights in the lives of Céline and Jess separated by years of living in between, this one captures a series of moments over a large swatch of time, year by year. Some of these are life-changing, some of them aren’t necessarily so. But they all become seminal because they are the small moments that make up a life. Not a life that’s being lived in some overtly extraordinary way—one that’s extraordinary simply because it’s a life.

If you were a passerby observing the characters from Boyhood you would think their existences were totally ordinary. Sad sometimes, sure. But mostly pretty average. Peel back the surface and it’s anything but, though. Filmed over the course of twelve actual years, Boyhood does the seemingly impossible (and in my opinion rare and beautiful): it gives the viewer the gift of sight into someone else’s world. That it’s a fictional world doesn’t matter in the least.

Some of the best storytellers and some of their best stories—from George Elliot’s Middlemarch to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and many in between—do on the page what Richard Linklater tries to do on the screen. They peel back that surface and expose the epic struggles, the tragedies, the joys, the hard work, and the play that is day-to-day life of a single human being (or in the case of Middlemarch, of many). Because every life has these stories, and if you look deeply enough—closely enough—you can catch a glimpse of the wonder and struggle that exists just underneath the veneer that most of the world sees. It’s a gift to read such a story, and it’s a gift to see one on the screen.

Boyhood is likely not for everyone. It’s nearly three hours long, and if you’re looking for something plot or action-driven, then you are very much barking up the wrong tree. It’s also utterly lacking in cynicism. But it’s intriguing and it’s ambitious and it’s beautiful—and for me, personally, it’s yet another reason to love Richard Linklater and wonder at his ability to show moviegoers an inside look at what George Elliot described as the many who “live faithfully their hidden lives.” And for that reason alone, I’m looking forward to seeing it again.

Book Love: Judy Blume and Lena Dunham In Conversation

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A small gem of a paperback, only a little bigger than the glasses used to read it.

Yesterday, a package from Believer magazine arrived in the mail. It was much smaller than the usual magazine, so naturally, it was intriguing. Inside, was a pocket-sized gem of a paperback book: Judy Blume and Lena Dunham In Conversation. There had been an interview in the actual magazine itself, but here was a long version—in a perfect trim size—just waiting for me to devour.

It goes without saying—even though I talk about it a lot—that I greatly admire Judy Blume. Her books were always a treat to read, but in particular, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret was a touchstone for my younger reading self. She’s been controversial, she’s been banned, she’s been beloved. Throughout it all, she’s been honest and she’s taken her audience very seriously—and that counts for a lot in my book.

When it comes to Lena Dunham, I know only what I’ve read in interviews. I’ve never once seen the show Girls, but have wondered for some time if there’s something that I’m missing by simply not having the right cable television package to watch it. I’m more convinced than ever after reading this lengthy interview.

One is young and just arrived at her icon status, one has had time to adjust to it and live in her own skin as a writer. One has pushed the limits with her words, and the other sometimes does it with the baring of her own body. But both of these women have dared to go where no one expected them to—probably where a lot of people didn’t even want them to. They’re utterly brave in their creativity. So it makes sense that they sat down together—even decided to be friends afterward!—and talked about their process, their work, their families, and their lives.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to create—what the rewards and the drawbacks are, and why we as people are so drawn to the very act of creation. In the end, I think we all want to be brave as Judy Blume and Lena Dunham in what we create—whether we’re painting or writing or making music or dancing or acting or…whatever. We want to boldly go where no one has before—to tell a story in whichever mode of telling we choose that’s somehow both a part of ourselves and a part of something bigger than ourselves.

So, this interview—this brief look into the minds of these two very writers—struck a chord for me. If you have a chance, take an hour (or less, really) to read it. Heck, you can even borrow my copy. It’s a little dog-eared, but who minds that among friends?

Book Love: The Watch That Ends the Night

The Watch That Ends the Night, published by Candlewick Press

There are so many books and movies about the tragic sinking of the Titanic. With a market so glutted, a story so often told, how could you find a way to tell it once again that felt new, different, emotional? I’d be at a loss, but not so Allan Wolf, whose The Watch That Ends the Night does all of the above. (Full disclosure: once upon a time, I worked at Candlewick Press, the book’s publisher).

Told in verse from multiple perspectives–from posh millionaires to poor emigrants, from the ship’s captain to the ship’s rat, the range of voices and experiences of this tragedy is wide and all-encompassing.

Which brings me to the Iceberg.

Never before have I read anything in which voice was given so convincingly to something that isn’t actually, well, alive. The Iceberg is gigantic, godlike in its scope and vision, and completely fascinating. It feels it has a date with destiny when it comes to Titanic, but in the end, the collision changes the ice as  much as it changes the ship.

The Iceberg also acts as almost a foil, and certainly as a counterpart to the undertaker in ways I won’t describe here, so as not to spoil all the chilling glory of discovering it as a reader.

So, is there a way to make the story of the Titanic fresh and different? I’d say the answer, thanks to Allan Wolf, is a resounding yes.

Book Love (Throwback Edition): The Monster at the End of This Book

Mike Smollin, The Monster at the End of This BookRecently, I reread The Monster at the End of this Book for school (yes, it’s good to be in an MFA program!). Now, it’s not like I hadn’t read this book an untold number of times before, both when I was a kid and to my own kid. It’s a serious good time as a read-aloud, as now two generations of my family can attest.

Here’s what I discovered when looking at it this closely: it’s a brilliant book. Really brilliant. If you’re going to adhere to Leonard Marcus’s words about a picture book being a dialogue between words and pictures, author and child, well this is the ultimate dialogue.

Grover begins this dialogue on the cover of the book, and immediately digs into the emotional problem of the story with, “WHAT DID THAT SAY? On the cover, what did that say? Did that say there would be a Monster at the end of this book???” Why yes, it did say that. And who can resist wanting to know more?

Especially since the book asks kids to become direct participants in the emotional problem and in the resolution. Grover tells the child reader, “Listen, I have an idea. If you do not turn any pages, we will never get to the end of this book.” And you just can’t help it—you have to turn the page.

Turning the pages means you’re participating in the joke. Kids know that Grover will be the monster at the end of the book, even if Grover doesn’t, which turns any potential worry about turning the pages despite Grover’s pleas into humor in a nonthreatening way.

On an even deeper level, the dialogue in this picture book also has to do with expectations. Set up to mirror the houses built by The Three Little Pigs, Grover first ties the pages together with rope (straw), then gets nails and wood to fasten them together, and finally creates a strong brick wall to keep the pages from turning. From their knowledge of The Three Little Pigs, children are led to think that perhaps the brick wall might actually do the trick and stop the book in tracks.

Mike Smollin, The Monster at the End of This Book

When the wall comes tumbling down kids get the added thrill of upended expectations.

In the end, when Grover discovers that “This is the end of the book and the only one here is ME!”, kids get the satisfaction of seeing Grover realize what they knew all long—and the reassurance that fears of monsters are unfounded and often just plain silly.

It’s comfort for a common fear delivered with a giant spoonful of goofy, funny sugar to help it go down.