As an aspiring film writer and chronic procrastinator an above average amount of my spare time is spent reading what the rest of the world has got to say about film. Doing so allows me to stay in touch with the latest fads, deepens my belief that a good sub-editor is vital, and highlights when someone has been copying somebody else’s homework.
The numerous glowing reviews for Boyhood are a key example of when film journalists seem to be influencing one another or tapping into a limited group archive of cultural references. A striking number of reviews for Boyhood have made at least a passing reference to Michael Apted’s Up documentary series and I call shenanigans.
To back up my case I have performed a literature review of sorts and checked the coverage of Boyhood in 14 popular UK publications, skipping lowly blogs like this, to see how frequently Apted’s documentary oeuvre was mentioned alongside Linklater’s opus. The result is below:
As you can see exactly half the reviews I read mentioned Michael Apted or the Up series. I am being generous to myself here and including Mark Kermode’s review in the Observer which merely refers to all the other critics referencing Apted because 50% is much more satisfying a figure than 42.86%. As I see it there can be only two reasons for the ubiquity of the comparison:
- It is a valid and obvious observation.
- One person had the idea and everybody else copied.
First let’s see if Apted’s Up series is a valid and obvious companion piece for Linklater’s Boyhood.
Up is a series of documentaries following the lives of fourteen British children. The first installment was made when the kids were just seven years old in 1964 and the series has revisited the participants every seven years with the most recent film made when they were fifty-six. In contrast Boyhood was filmed for a few days every year for 12 years taking the lead character Mason from the age of six to eighteen.
While both do follow children growing up I would argue that the comparison of Up and Boyhood is neither obvious nor valid. Boyhood‘s filming process may have been periodical but compared to Up it has a relatively smooth flow. Watching the former it isn’t always obvious when one year moves into the next apart from when hairstyles or levels of pubescence have dramatically changed. The two projects have completely different rhythms with Up actually following a similar beat to Linklater’s other most popular cinematic work; the Before trilogy.
In the Before trilogy we follow the romance of Jesse and Céline at nine-year intervals taking them from youthful love to embittered marriage in the space of three films. This pattern is much closer to the Up series if we really do have to find an Apted-Linklater connection. I have visualised the pattern of filming for the three works below to prove my point beyond any doubt and perhaps beyond all reason.
Boyhood‘s filming schedule is a relative uninterrupted shoot when compared to both the Before and Up franchises. I think we can happily dismiss the first option and say that referring to Michael Apted when discussing Boyhood is both invalid and disputable. Linklater himself has dismissed Up as being a source of inspiration and now we have the charts to back him up.
Maybe it’s just because of my age – the Up kids have always been grown ups closer to Jesse and Céline but for
older wiser critics they are always going to be seen as the children that started the series decades ago. If only they could have seen my charts before they submitted their reviews.
All of this leaves us with the second option; that one critic had the crazy notion to compare the documentaries to the story of Mason and everyone else jumped on their wobbly bandwagon. I’m not saying they did this maliciously but by foul means or fair the idea lodged in their brains and resurfaced when time came to write their reviews. Perhaps a critic loudly made the comparison at a press screening, critics do love to say impressive things to each other, and it was subconsciously picked up by those seated nearby. Only a seating plan for all Boyhood screenings can prove or disprove this theory.
There really is no other conclusion; Boyhood is not akin to the Up series (but the Before trilogy may be) and if you read too many reviews for the same film certain analogies and opinions will start to repeat themselves until the cinema journalism community starts to resemble one hive mind.
A worthwhile investigation I am sure you’ll agree.