Adventures in America, 1921-2014

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) Earlier this year, New York culture critics came up with one of those trends that’s unprovable outside Brooklyn yet sets the entire Internet on fire. “Normcore,” allegedly, was a “self-aware, stylized blandness” adopted by cool kids, who were eschewing high fashion. (Surely this had nothing to with living in a city so expensive that two-income couples are willing to flee to Jersey City.) They were putting no thought into their clothes, so they could focus on the rest of their lives.

I thought of this trend — again, it may or may not be real — when “Boyhood” opened with the fake-dangeous guitar riffs of Coldplay’s “Yellow.” The song arrived in America during the dark reign of rap-rock and Sisqo, and it seemed meaningful at the time, but no self-respecting snob would admit to liking it in 2014. Yet here was Richard Linklater, who was¬†making Austin’s weirdness famous before anyone was willing to shell out for SXSW wristbands, putting “Yellow” on the soundtrack¬†and starting a movie with a kid gazing at a bright blue sky.

Much smarter critics (critics who are actually paid to analyze movies) have dissected “Boyhood” like a science class frog already, so I’ve got little to add beyond amazement at normal it is. It was filmed in yearly segments over 11 years, and the music cues reflect what was generally popular among average white people at the time. (The official soundtrack excludes schlock by Sheryl Crow and Soulja Boy, but it’s perfectly used in the movie.) There are many scenes of young kids playing video games.

Some of the story cues are familiar: Every time a character is drinking booze in a strange setting, he will turn out to be an alcoholic. But the callbacks to details filmed over 11 years are either nonexistent or purposefully transparent. The only Big Speeches are given by characters who have reasons to give them, which is Ethan Hawke’s Mason, Sr gets the most memorable dialogue as he spends precious weekends with the kids he’s left his estranged wife to raise.

There is no subtext. At one point, Mason, Sr pulls over his 1968 GTO to inform his kids that they simply are not going to be one of those families where the kids have bland conversations with their biological fathers. Yet after you watch the already-famous scene in which Mason, Sr gives his son a two-CD compilation of post-breakup Beatles songs (“There is no favorite Beatle!”), you expect Mason, Jr to meaningfully plunk it into his truck’s sound system at some point. That doesn’t happen. You expect some dark consequence when Mason, Jr drinks and does drugs. That doesn’t happen, either — he’s a white kid living in central Texas, he gets away with that sort of stuff on the way to figuring out what kind of man he is.

See, this movie is a rich and strange experience because there’s nothing particularly strange about it. What would it have been had Linklater just cast a few actors of different ages to play the same characters over 11 years? I don’t think it would have worked at all. The metatextual details are everything. The 2005 bookstore party for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince reminds you that Linklater did not invent the idea of tracking a few characters over their difficult years, but realized how much more vicariously you can live through characters if you watch them live and age, instead of living through one crazy night or the aftermath of some crime, or other plot contrivance. Like Slacker, Linklater’s first movie (and one of my favorite movies, period), it’s about how interesting human beings can be when they’re being alive. And, yes. When they are enjoying the music of Coldplay.

The Immigrant (James Gray, 2014) And here’s a movie that’s all about contrivance and setting. Set in 1921, Gray’s melodrama begins when Ewa (Marion Cotillard, whose voice is the quietest in any scene she’s in unless she’s crying) and her sister are prevented from entering New York City via Ellis Island. Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), the manager of a less-than-racy burlesque show, takes advantage of the situation and brings the beautiful, lost Ewa to his lair. Over the course of a few months, she’s degraded by her surroundings and rejected by her family and — well, I’d spoil it if I mentioned what happens with her love life.

It’s an old-fashioned melodrama, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I heard one critic describe Ewa as “the opposite of a Lars Von Trier character,” and I’d invert that — this is like a Lars Von Trier movie made by human beings who believe in strong women and happy endings. I ended up seeing this movie soon after Von Trier’s “Nymph( )maniac,” and funny enough I think Von Trier’s heroine asserts herself more fully. In the morality of that movie, sex is a pastime and a tool. In Gray’s movie, sex is like kryptonite to Ewa, depriving her of her destiny as a madonna finding her way in America.