Monday, August 18, 2014

Time Travelling Monday at the Multiplex

As I ate a pizza prior to showtime I noted the clutch of kids lingering outside the multiplex.  A sign that the doors were closed and that the venue and the product were aimed at them at this hour, 1pm on an August Monday.  Looking ahead to the movie I meandered here to see, I wondered which of the movies on the screens today would mark this summer for them.  When I was their age, I'd likely footnote E.T. and Poltergeist from the summer when I was 15.  The other details -- my parent's ailing Buick Century wagon, the house, the food of the day, the paper route -- all come back, but only with a bit more effort than either of the movies brought, or even those respective trips to the theatres.  I still distinctly recall the spill that resulted from trying to lug three drinks with their straws already installed. The decay of the Buick and the gamut of repairs that piled up, however, escapes me in its entirety.

This afternoon, this 47-year-old father of a 2-year-old (okay, he's closer to 3) looked back at various pasts and into the future as I occupied the back row of cinema 6 for Richard Linklater's Boyhood

There were maybe a dozen viewers in total, all adult and probably a decent turn-out for the time of day. Given Linklater's reputation for pushing the envelope on the narrative of his films with the Before series he has done with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy and by adapting the non-fiction book Fast-Food Nation into a feature picture rather than a documentary, the notion of him taking 12 years to make a coming of age picture does not come as a complete surprise or a viewing experience that would lack reward.  As the film moved from limited release to gradually wider release this past weekend, I was eager to take it in before it slipped away from the local screens.

From the moment Eller Coltrane's Mason begins dialogue with his mother, played by Patricia Arquette, as the two drive home from school and discuss his homework, it is clear that Linklater cast the lead role brilliantly, if not perfectly. Coltrane's performance from these opening moments one that is unguarded and nuanced with a realism that throughout the movie that left me feeling more like a bug on a neighbour's wall rather than a popcorn-eater in the dark.  The movie was a constant invitation to meditate on the era that has just passed, my own youth and look ahead to the rites of passage that my son will go through and lead me through as the years ahead fly by all too quickly.  There were occasions throughout the movie, where I reflected on my own experiences dealing with peer pressure and as a parent think of how precarious a situation may unfold if my son does not have the sense of direction and moment that Mason had in most instances.

The drama in the movie was realistic and did not resort to more substantial traumas that might unbalance other characters in other stories and leave them scrambling to rediscover equilibrium by the end.  Instead, the audience is asked to follow the path and thoughts of the quiet, thoughtful dreamer splayed on the lawn in the first shot and grapple with the ever-lingering question, "What do you want to do?"  It is not an unfamiliar question but the story of Mason's growth is presented with such a degree of intimacy that the characters feel familiar in ways that they do not when the drama is more contrived to suit formula.  There are dramatic elements on the home front throughout the movie: changes of homes, careening marriages and the trouble that kids find their way into when they are finding their way and testing themselves and their boundaries but the main question that lingers in the audience is the opening one.  What is Mason going to grow up to be?

With this film, Richard Linklater has invited the audience to meditate on the gradual growth of his character in a film with novelistic depth.  Its poignancy, eye for the era that has passed and for the rites that all boys go through in one way or another resulted in a movie of quiet, confident brilliance.  As the story closed on this chapter, I thought about the years that lay ahead for my wife and I until, as Mason's mother put it on the day he leaves home, "The worst day of my life!"  This movie is more likely to resonate with me 12 years from now than it may with the boys who lined up for Guardians of the Galaxy (probably the 3D version) but it will be one that I will dust off for my son at a certain moment in our lives to let him know that -- even if he may find himself out of his element at some point in his life -- his experience is a common one and that he'll get through it somehow.  Really.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


It is a privilege to recall Robin Williams' brilliant career from that meteoric rise in the late 1970's to all that has transpired since.  There is a stock photo of Williams' as a street performer in New York, complete with the grease paint of a mime in the 1977 World Book Encyclopedia Year Book.  The publishers' assumption may have been that Williams still had the anonymity to pass as just another bit of local New York street colour but by the time the volume was in circulation he had already appeared on Happy Days as the alien Mork and spun off on to Mork and Mindy (and made a leap into the present) shortly after that.  The attire was much the same template that Mork wore the blue and orange striped T-shirt and suspenders so there was no denying that Mork was Williams' The childlike energy and sense of wonder that Mork possessed was convincingly alien to me and Garry Marshall's casting of Williams as an alien may have been the only way to bring Williams' talents to the large audiences that he achieved with his previous sitcoms.  It was the first of countless revelations as Robin Williams matured.

As the spark of inspiration that fed Mork and Mindy ran its course and Williams took his talents and his profile onto the concert stage that energy was unbound and there was a sense at the time that he was where he belonged and that the movies like Popeye and Moscow on the Hudson were either respectable efforts or bombs because they just didn't get Williams or make the most of the talents that he had.  The stand-up routines where he spun off moments such as Elmer Fudd singing Bruce Springsteen's "Fire" or conjured the notion of Pavarotti working a night club with a "two Jews walk into a bar" riff that are firmly deeply etched in my mind.  If there was such a thing as stand-up karaoke there are countless wannabes (myself included) who would revel in the opportunity to bring their best tribute to Williams to the stage.  In that medium he was unbound by script and expectation and improvised at will.  The results were brilliant, profane and profound.  In his 1987 A Night at the Met, Willams emphasizes his concerns about raising his kids and poignant concerns about whether he or any of us for that matter can do it in a world that has given him the material that it had during the Reagan era.

Could any of us have imagined Mork was a mere 20 years away from an Oscar?

The serious work was always there, whether as that respite during stand up work, the efforts such as the adaptation of Saul Bellow's Seize the Day (for PBS no less) and the touches that he added to those more manic film roles he was expected to perform his shtick in.  Good Morning Vietnam had acknowledged the war rather than merely used it as a backdrop for Williams and that indicated the transition to "more serious" work and his performance in the face of the street warfare was on-key and the transition to the role in Dead Poets Society gave him the platform and space to do what was familiar to audiences while bringing a complex character to the screen.  Was John Keating doing right by his students to inspire them as rebelliously as they did?  Was he giving those students that proper opportunity to think critically by having them tear pages out of the texts on day one? He made teaching literature cool.

Awakenings. Robin Williams had the quiet, introverted, awkward part while DeNiro had the role that let him cut loose.  It may have been the most stunning moment of his career, a revelation of the depth he invested himself in a role or a performance.  (I should not overlook the curiosity that Penny Marshall, sister of Garry, directed him in this role.)  There was never a moment in the movie where he turned manic with one of those signature riffs that left me wondering how in the hell the animators on Aladdin managed to adequately animate the vocal performance he provided without massive doses of coffee or a hair transplant or how everyone else on the set of his other performances could keep a straight face.

The energy that went into those broader performances was present in the calm, restrained roles such as Malcolm Sayer in Awakenings and in that you could see the professionalism and commitment to his craft and the ability to immerse himself into his roles as deeply as actors we are more apt to laud and lionize.  It was a commitment that made Williams succeed, regardless of audiences' expectations and it may have challenged writers and directors to ensure that he had plenty of material to draw on to make a character. Each time he performed he took those around him to a new and unexpected place and the results were breathtaking. In Awakenings, however, he did so much with his hands in the quietest most private moments to communicate the vulnerability of a brilliant character he played in that movie.  He was capable as packing as much into the slightest, most minimal gestures as he did into his entire body when doing improv or stand-up.

That vulnerability that he exposed in Awakenings and in Good Will Hunting was at the heart of his work throughout his career and life. There was so much more left in him, but maybe I'm assuming that with the selfishness of the audience when he actually left us when he was truly and finally spent. Farewell and thank you.