November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
April 27, 2015
I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
Tralfamadorians, of planet Tralfamadore, where flying saucers come from, cast a bleak vision of life outside time. These extraterrestrial beings, introduced in Kurt Vonnegut’s antiwar satire Slaughterhouse-Five, exist in all times simultaneously. They are privy to knowledge of past, present, and future—including the accidental end of the universe at the hands of a Tralfamadorian test pilot. Such knowledge, however, results in a fatalist response to tragedy. Death is met with a sighed “so it goes,” for though we die at a particular time, we still live in another time and place. Why mourn the death of a friend when we have the ability to return to a time when she was alive? If all time were to stretch before us as the Rocky Mountains, which is how Vonnegut described the Tralfamadorians’ perspective, then what would seem meaningful at one point is made meaningless by its contradiction in another time.
Though it may be difficult to conceptualize how our lives might be different outside of time, the human experience is made meaningful by our constraint in time. Our experiences of danger and anticipation, for example, produce character virtues such as discernment and patience for we do not yet know their outcome. Joy and despair are their own unique experiences bound by events as they occur in time.
Although Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood does not have much to do with aliens and the end of the universe, its long view of time serves to reorient our perspective about what is important and meaningful in a lifetime. In the film, Linklater tells a single story over the course of twelve years; during this time, he uses the same actors, a novel approach to filmmaking that is ostensibly the reason Boyhood continues to receive accolades. The film’s portrayal of time, despite its novelty, is the means by which Boyhood surprises, not by plot twists or spectacle but by the beauty of the mundane. Watching Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) age twelve years over the course of a couple of hours is certainly a unique visual and narrative experience. This passage of time, however, is merely a backdrop to the way in which the details of the characters’ lives are only made meaningful by the whole.
Boyhood ushers us into its nostalgic reflection of growing up by opening with a young Mason Jr. gazing into a clear blue sky while Coldplay’s 2000 hit single “Yellow” plays in the background. It ends much the same way twelve years later, with Mason Jr. on the cusp of adulthood, staring into a sunset horizon, contemplating the meaning of life. In between is a two-hour summation of Mason Jr.’s entire adolescence. Supported by his single mom (Patricia Arquette), older sister (Lorelai Linklater), and sometimes-present father (Ethan Hawke), Mason Jr.’s journey through boyhood is one of introverted reflection on success and failure in relationships, parenting, and the mere act of growing up.
The heart of Boyhood’s narrative is its depiction of the commonplace. There is no spectacle in the events that play out on screen; instead it is through the normalcy of daily life that the film powerfully explores life in development: Mason Jr. and his family move and resettle multiple times. Mason Jr.’s dad shows up for weekend adventures every now and then, ultimately enjoying parenthood without the responsibility of being a parent. His mom tries to reconcile her romantic partnerships with professional aspirations and having to care for two kids. His sister forgets to pick him up from school. Mason Jr. gets a job, graduates, and goes to college. Even some of Boyhood’s tensest moments are ridiculously dull. Will Mason Jr. wreck when texting while driving? Who will get hurt by those stupid kids throwing round saws, karate chopping two-by-fours, and drinking beer?
The anticipation and dread of these scenes speaks volumes about an audience that has been conditioned to expect plot twists and tragedy. In fact, Linklater purposefully filmed those scenes to be tense as a way of highlighting that very rarely does the danger we fear actually come to fruition. Given the film’s bird’s eye view of time, this choice is particularly poignant because it exposes the anxiety and worry we invest in small, meaningless events. In Boyhood, normalcy is mundane. In contrast, when major, life-altering events do occur, the film persistently marches forward without giving us time to process what we just saw on screen. Divorce, domestic abuse, relocation, alcoholism—such trials appear insurmountable when in the throes of suffering, doubt, and despair. Boyhood removes us from these throes before we ever realize we were there, and in doing so, it reorients our perspective of what is important and meaningful. We may come to define ourselves by tragedy when caught in its turmoil, but Boyhood’s twelve-year perspective offers a liberating hindsight that emphasizes how our personhood and character are formed through and after the trial.
Boyhood is a visual representation of King Solomon’s insight regarding the relationship between time and a life lived: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Eccles. 3:1 ESV). There is “a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away” (Eccles. 3:5b–6). But is it all in vain? Much like Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians, for whom death is nulled by the continuation of life at another time to which they can return, Boyhood’s long view of time and brisk pace at major events reframes what would normally be deemed important and meaningful. Do I celebrate Mason Jr.’s mom’s new marriage with the knowledge that it ends in a flight from abuse? Do I extoll in Mason Jr. and Sheena’s enrapturing trip to Austin, knowing that their relationship is dead by prom? Emotions at once meaningful feel meaningless when considered with the whole.
King Solomon’s lament in the Book of Ecclesiastes wrestles with such perceived realities:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after. (Eccles. 1:1, 8–11 ESV)
Solomon’s lament echoes the desperate prayers of a humanity imprisoned by time. If only we could stand outside of time, one might posit, our weeping could turn to dancing and our mourning into joy. Although we may experience the sting of our brokenness in one moment, outside of time we would be able to see beyond it. All is not vanity, even though particular events might appear so for a season. Our joy is not made meaningless by its contradicting despair at another time; rather, it is enriched by our lament, which in turn rebirths even greater joy. To return to the questions I posed earlier, is Mason Jr.’s mom’s happy marriage made meaningless by its subsequent abuse and divorce? No, for one experience begets another, forming the core of who we are and who we will become. Mason Jr.’s trip to Austin with Sheena is good and beautiful, regardless of the longevity of the relationship. Boyhood’s long view does not make meaningless that which was once meaningful. Rather, its swift pace around major events serves to paint a grander picture.
By refusing us the time to agonize over divorce, fear, abuse, despair, or brokenness, we are given the opportunity to step outside of time and to see the way in which single events can pale in comparison to the whole—no matter how insurmountable they may seem in the present. Life goes on. This too shall pass. Our lives are not single events existing apart from one another; they are a tapestry of details entwined to form something beautiful. Even the Creator, the one existing outside of time, calls himself the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end. Time has a trajectory, and we get to participate in its drama. Such is the universality of Boyhood.
Time changes all of us, and it changes everyone around us. Our pasts and potential futures are often in tension or contradiction with each other. We all seem to learn from experiences, but only after living, and sometimes suffering, through them. Even our last-week selves can appear to be immature reflections of the present us. Take, for example, a scene late in the film, after Mason Jr.’s high school graduation. As the family celebrates, Mason Jr.’s mom and dad find themselves in the kitchen, secluded from all the activity of the party. Mason Sr. thanks his ex-wife for raising their son so well on her own. His subtle regret remains unspoken, as he ultimately acknowledges that it has taken him eighteen years to become the man she wanted him to be when they were married. And now he gets to start over with a new wife and kid. It is a simple scene that beautifully exemplifies the long view of Boyhood. Who we will become is not a contradiction to who we were; instead, our successes and failures in growing up, parenting, and making sense of this life are inextricable to our past, present, and future experiences. Our lives are on a trajectory, with everything before feeding what is to come. We might not all get the opportunity to start over, as Mason Sr. did, but we can at least look back and give thanks. Our trials and everyday experiences are not unrelated meaningless events, but a small view of a much grander picture.
In striving to be generalizable—to pick the most ordinary and commonplace childhood events that Linklater could apparently imagine for a generic white middle-class family—Boyhood may fail to capture the everyman experience of growing up; yet its metanarrative of time, transition, and the meaning of life is much more universally applicable than its mawkish, stereotypical plot might suggest. Unlike the Tralfamadorians, whose presence outside of time begets a meaningless universe, our captivity to the fourth dimension forms our being, with a meaningful endpoint at the consummation of all things: “Time is filled with swift transition / naught of earth unmoved can stand / build your hopes on things eternal / hold to God’s unchanging hand.” The twelve-year perspective of Boyhood does not encourage one to disengage from life’s sufferings with the fatalism of Tralfamadore. Rather, the film encourages us to meet our sufferings with the expectation of the good for which we have already been promised they will produce.
1. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death (New York, NY: Delta, 1969).
2. Richard Linklater, “Filmed Over 12 Years, ‘Boyhood’ Follows a Kid’s Coming of Age,” interview by Terry Gross, Fresh Air, NPR, July 10, 2014, http://www.npr.org/2014/07/10/330291891/filmed-over-12-years-boyhood-follows-a-kids-coming-of-age.
3. Jennie Wilson, “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand,” public domain, http://www.hymnary.org/text/time_is_filled_with_swift_transition.
Tyler Godjo is the managing editor at Christ and Pop Culture. He earned his MA in intercultural studies at Union University and is currently pursuing a PhD in English composition and TESOL at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He lives in Jackson, Tennessee, where he teaches ESL in the public school system and adjuncts at nearby Union University.