Boyhood Richard Linklater


Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is an inescapably major movie, by virtue of the unique circumstances of its production if nothing else—and there is a lot else. Shot over the course of a dozen years, it follows a Texas boy, Mason, from his preadolescence to his first day at college. As Mason grows up, so too the actor who plays him, Ellar Coltrane, grows up before our eyes, while his divorced parents, played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, begin to develop the deepening lines and furrows of incoming middle-age.

Last week, the MPAA saddled Boyhood with an R rating for “language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use.” What this means is that a young person who is currently living through the same years that the film depicts cannot, officially, see Boyhood (at least alone). You also aren’t officially allowed to drink until age 21 in these United States, but if Boyhood testifies to one thing, it’s that in youth there is resourcefulness. “You can’t keep kids out. Kids find ways in,” as John Lydon aka Rotten wrote in his autobiography No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs.

I was recently thinking about Boyhood—the movie as well as the concept—because I was at the “American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell” show at the Newark Museum in New Jersey. Mark Twain aside, it is hard to think of another body of work that our popular conception of American boyhood is so wrapped up in as that of Rockwell (1894-1978), who in due course would take his crack at painting Tom Sawyer whitewashing a fence, and who throughout his long career would face plenty of accusations of whitewashing. In part this connection is due to Rockwell’s early and long association with Boys’ Life, the house organ of The Boy Scouts of America—one of the quintessential idealized images of American heroism is Rockwell’s 1941 A Scout Is Helpful, illustrating a vital tenet of the Boy Scout Law (“A Scout is helpful. A Scout cares about other people…”). That cleft-chinned scout carrying a worshipful blonde girl away from the scene of a catastrophic flood would be echoed by the iconic image of firefighter Chris Fields carrying bloodied baby Baylee Almon away from the wreckage of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. These are images which emphasize the reassuring presence of good, selfless, principled boys—and the men they become—regardless of the senseless catastrophe at hand. 

Norman Rockwell

Throughout Rockwell’s tenure at The Saturday Evening Post he would return to the subject of boyhood, and it is for his works that speak to an innocent ideal, rather than his portraits of contemporary statesmen like Jawaharlal Nehru and Richard Nixon, that he is best remembered. In one room at the Newark Museum you can view all 323 covers that Rockwell painted for the Saturday Evening Post between the years 1916 and 1963, hung chronologically. The effect is unexpectedly moving, for here is a half-century of American life—or American dream-life—all laid out to survey. There is an identifiable progress in the work: the relatively constrictive, vertical formula of the 1920s, which emphasizes head-on, full-body views of dynamically posed subjects cast into relief against a white background, gives way to a new freedom that allows the perspective to carry its share of the drama. Throughout, however, Rockwell’s work remains strictly gauged for narrative effect, the only concessions to new, non-representational developments in painting being the cracker-barrel Surrealism of his annual April Fool’s covers or the backwards glance at Abstract Expressionism in 1962’s The Connoisseur.

Norman Rockwell

There are a great many boys in “American Chronicles”—truant boys and studious boys, serious boys and silly boys, real boys and boys at heart—though the show isn’t entirely without depictions of girlhood as well. We have, for example, the defiantly grinning tomboy of 1953’s Shiner (Girl with Black Eye), or the adolescent subject of 1954’s Girl at Mirror, who glumly compares herself to a picture of Jane Russell in the fan magazine that rests in her lap. The really glaring absence in Rockwell’s work, as in the vast majority of Hollywood film of the same period, is the invisibility of black America in anything other than service roles—as in Boy in Dining Car, cover of the December 7, 1946, Saturday Evening Post, in which a middle-aged black waiter looks on with an indulgent smile while a white adolescent, weighing his change purse in one hand, contemplates the menu with the air of someone preparing for adulthood, and a lifetime of such transactions with their clearly delineated roles. As though to compensate for this oversight, a disproportionate amount of space in “American Chronicles” is given over to the later works with which Rockwell attempted to redress his general elision of the black American experience, these following the termination of his association with the Post. There is The Problem We All Live With, commissioned for a 1964 centerfold in LIFE, which depicts six-year-old Ruby Bridges being walked to school by a phalanx of U.S. marshals, past the splatter of a hurled tomato and a scrawled racist epithet; New Kids in the Neighborhood, in which the children of a black family newly arrived in a middle-class suburb are curiously looked over by their white neighbors; and 1965’s Southern Justice (Murder in Mississippi), which portrays the previous year’s murder of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. While Rockwell’s earnest attempts to move with the times are ultimately touching, it’s an awkward lurch to shift from showing black Americans not at all to showing them solely at the center of a Problem. One wishes that just once Rockwell had rendered a scene of quotidian black life as wreathed in sentiment and kitsch as his white American scenes, even if it would have been just as clumsy as his rare treatments of the urban immigrant experience.

Little Fugitive

Little Fugitive

What brought me to the Garden State in the first place was a screening of the 1953 film Little Fugitive at the historic Loew’s Jersey Theatre in Journal Square, whose presently imperiled state I have written of elsewhere []. Little Fugitive is the work of the writer Ray Ashley aka Raymond Abrashkin, and the team of Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, later husband and wife. Engel and Orkin were former co-workers at the Leftist daily newspaper PM and fellow members of New York’s socially conscious Photo League. They shot Little Fugitive, their first film, in a style that owed much to street photography, using a discreetly concealed proto-Steadicam 35mm camera to capture candid scenes on location in Brooklyn and Coney Island. In so doing, they returned the jostle of urban life to American narrative cinema in a way that had only been occasionally hinted at in the past. (Useful points of comparison are Jules Dassin’s 1948 Naked City, named for a collection of photographs from New York City’s vital fringes by photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, and 1954’s Hoboken-shot On the Waterfront, with which location-shooting exponent Elia Kazan struck the blow that began the gradual dislodging of American movies from the studio.)

Little Fugitive follows 7-year-old Joey Norton (Richie Andrusco, in his first and only role) who, fooled by a malicious prank into thinking that he’s shot dead his older brother, Lennie, goes on the lam to Coney. Once there, cowboys-and-Indians obsessed Joey settles into a kind of routine, collecting soda bottles, exchanging them for a nickel a pop at the deposit stand, and using the proceeds to buy himself an endless succession of boardwalk pony rides, training for a future career of riding the range.

“Joey’s smart for his age, especially about horses,” goes Lennie’s quickly abandoned introductory narration. “He don’t hardly think of nuttin’ else. In all ya whole life you never met a kid that happened to be so crazy about horses.” Joey lives half in the real world, half in a dream world whose imagery is supplied by Hopalong Cassidy and The Lone Ranger. He’s first seen making a chalk drawing of a cowboy, accompanied by his brother playing “Home on the Range” on the harmonica. Here we encounter a favorite Rockwell motif—as much as his works, taken collectively, form a fantasy of American life, they are also keenly aware of the role that fantasy plays in it. Rockwell’s Post illustrations abound with Walter Mittys—the weak-chinned poindexter subject of 1923’s The Age of Romance (aka Boy Reading Book of Chivalry) who imagines himself a Lancelot; the ink-stained scribbler in 1924’s Escape to Adventure who rides the swells of the high seas in his mind while his body slumps over a desk; even the general store clerk in 1927’s Law Student (Young Lawyer), who burns midnight oil over his books beneath a shrine to Abraham Lincoln, bootstrap folk hero of the self-made man. 

Little Fugitive

Little Fugitive

Joey, a filthy rug rat who wears Fudgsicle all over his face and talks with a marble-mouthed outer-borough brogue, isn’t a typical apple-cheeked Rockwellian scamp, exactly. Even in Rockwell’s Eisenhower-era apotheosis, the artist’s monopoly on boyhood was being chipped away at by new models—like Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace, who first appeared in 1951, or Charles Schulz’s Charlie Brown, who’d preceded him in 1950. Little Fugitive shares Schulz’s sense of childhood as a lonely and rather mortifying time: there is a scene where Joey, collecting deposit bottles, accidentally upsets a paper cup of water that a young mother is holding up for her baby to drink out of. Offering to refill the cup, Joey squeezes through the crowd around the water fountain, carefully wends his way through the splayed-out sunbathers… then trips and spills the water when he’s in sight of his finish line. He hesitates for a moment, then retreats in shame. Viewing the film with an audience, you will invariably hear a collective gasp and sigh at this moment, so wholly recognizable is the sense of chivalric mission, failure, and humiliation that is encapsulated here. Joey saddled up to play Hopalong, and has come up short trying to save the day.

As much as for its sensitive handling of moments such as this, Little Fugitive is an enormously endearing movie because it does what Rockwell could not or would not do—it shows, without emphasis or affect, an everyday American scene in which people of all races and creeds are casually mixing, here in the relaxed social sphere of Coney. At one point there is a close-up shot of a baby sitting on the beach, holding one of the coveted deposit bottles that Joey is hunting for. The baby happens to be Asian—I say “happens to,” because the Little Fugitive filmmakers make nothing whatsoever of this, while it is a depressing but incontrovertible fact that in almost any other movie of the period, this child would be introduced by an interpolation of the Oriental riff on the soundtrack.

Little Fugitive is a work that bridges the gap between Rockwell’s America and Robert Frank’s The Americans of 1958. A photographer-turned-filmmaker like Engel and Orkin, Frank’s own efforts in motion pictures, beginning with 1959’s Pull My Daisy, addressed the emerging counterculture in a way that Little Fugitive does not. Nevertheless, Little Fugitive’s influence is inestimable. It is a landmark moment in the story of American independent film, and its effect on Truffaut has been much spoken of—there is a scene in Little Fugitive where Joey, after sleeping the night under the boardwalk, washes his face in the Coney water fountain, a scene which, transposed to the Parisian scene, is almost exactly reproduced in The 400 Blows.

Little Fugitive

Little Fugitive

I am particularly touched by one performance in Little Fugitive, given by Jay Williams, who is credited as “Pony Ride Man.” This Pony Ride Man works at that boardwalk attraction where Joey spends all of his hard-earned nickels. When Joey first spots him, he’s preparing to take another boy on a ride. “I’m gonna show you some special things about ridin’,” the man says, “Then I’ll tell you a little story about how I learned to ride.” Joey is instantly smitten—he and his brother are without a father, and it is an unspoken subtext that Joey’s fixation on cowboys probably has something to do with his casting about for an absent male role model. Williams was a former borscht-belt performer who, along with Little Fugitive co-author Abrashkin, would go on to write a series of children’s science-fiction adventures about a boy called Danny Dunn, including Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine and Danny Dunn and the Smallifying Machine. What I find most affecting about Williams’s character is that there is absolutely nothing sinister about him whatsoever. He is, insofar as we can tell, a totally affable fellow who enjoys sharing his fondness for horseback riding with young people. Hell, I wouldn’t half mind learning how to ride from this dude myself. With his tall, thin, knobby frame swimming in loose dungarees, Williams might’ve modeled for one of the bony, ascetic, thrifty Yankees that Rockwell preferred to paint, that Ichabod Crane body type, with Adam’s apples that could double as letter openers.

The basic public benevolence that Little Fugitive takes for granted is no longer in fashion, and had the movie been remade during the Nineties boom of the American Indie, the Pony Ride Man at the very least would have been an alcoholic, if not a full-blown child molester. (I have not seen the 2006 retooling of Little Fugitive by Joanna Lipper, which apparently features Peter Dinklage as a troubled patriarch, and so can’t say what further liberties it takes with the material.) And times being what they are, it’s not surprising that Rockwell’s preoccupation with childhood and play have, in recent years, given rise to allegations of suppressed pederasty, most prominently in a new biography by Deborah Solomon, American Mirror, which further embellishes allusions made in Richard Halpern’s 2006 volume Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence.

The American Boy, however, springs eternal. In fact he is the star of the year’s top-grossing movie worldwide to date, Captain America: The Winter Soldier—which might instead be subtitled The Underside of Innocence. I must confess that I didn’t see 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger on its initial release, though I found star Chris Evans’s dead-earnest aw-shucks act as the unfrozen Greatest Generation fossil in The Avengers rather poignant, and I was intrigued by the general praise that greeted the Captain’s latest outing. While I haven’t read a superhero comic since childhood, I’ve retained a soft spot for Steve Rogers, the proverbial 98-pound weakling who, after being injected with experimental Charles Atlas serum and transformed into a supersoldier, was shipped off to fight the Nazi menace who had to be prevented from, uh, using human guinea pigs to carry out perverse experiments. (The nearly indiscernible difference between good guys and bad is very much emphasized The Winter Soldier.) 

Captain America

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier

The fulfillment of a fantasy of virile transformation is key to the appeal that the superhero comic makes to the adolescent imagination, though it hardly begins with the relatively recent phenomenon of the superhero. We can think to the earlier America of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Rockwell’s dreamers, projecting themselves into the worlds of Robert Louis Stevenson and Thomas Malory. Rockwell was himself a bony ectomorph of the sort he so often depicted, rejected for service in World War I because he was underweight, like 4F Steve Rogers. One can extract an autobiographical element from Rockwell’s 1922 Champ (Be a Man), which depicts a sallow-chested, bespectacled weakling working up a sweat with barbells in front of a poster depicting his he-man ideal—probably unattainable, short of an experimental serum, Vita-Rays, or a radioactive spider bite. (For Solomon, Rockwell’s keeping company with rugged outdoorsmen is further evidence of his latent homosexuality—a reductive and regressive bit of psychology.)

Winter Soldier inevitably succumbs to the weight of grand-finale spectacle, but it stays buoyant for quite some time, and its merits are undeniable. It is a widescreen movie that has actually been composed for widescreen, a fact immediately apparent in the carefully framed opening, which shows Rogers lapping a fellow early-morning jogger around the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool. It has lucid, tense setpieces, including an artfully set-up and staged melee inside a crowded glass elevator, for which much credit must be due to fight choreographer James Young (Raze). And yes, it is even quite touching at times, as when Rogers visits former WWII-era flame Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who has aged to infirmity while he has remained forever boyish and fresh-faced. Atwell working behind the best spotty, saggy old-age mask that money can buy is not exactly an achievement on par with what Linklater has done in Boyhood, but it is a simple fact that cinema can make the passage of time seem present and real in a way that other arts cannot, and Evans sells a line like “I couldn’t leave my best girl, not when she owes me a dance” with a sincerity that’s enough to give you a catch in your throat.

The director credit on Captain America: The Winter Soldier belongs to brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, whose last feature film was 2006’s You, Me and Dupree. (They both hail from Cleveland, where much of The Winter Soldier was shot, and this probably helped them pull permits to shut down the West Shoreway for two weeks to shoot the film’s centerpiece car chase.) The screenplay is the work of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, also responsible for the first Captain America film, the ill-fated Narnia franchise, and last year’s Thor: The Dark World and Pain & Gain. Given this not-particularly-promising pedigree, there should be no reasonable expectation that The Winter Soldier would be any better or worse than the average run of Marvel fare, but either the Russos were galvanized by the opportunity or, just as likely, it’s impossible to attribute authorship to one of these works-by-committee. 

The Winter Soldier

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier

While The Winter Soldier’s script flirts with ripped-from-the-headlines drone strike controversy, in interviews the Russos have name-dropped a plethora of paranoiac, Watergate-era thrillers as influences. Closer to the source, the film draws heavily on writer Ed Brubaker’s mid-Aughts “Winter Soldier” story arc from the Captain America comics, as well as what a friend described as “a beloved Seventies iteration of Cap where he renounced the flag suit because of Vietnam and Watergate and went nomad as, uh, The Nomad with the aid of a hip black sidekick named The Falcon.” Here the Falcon is played by Anthony Mackie, the abovementioned morning jogger—Cap isn’t thrown by returning to a post-Civil Rights movement America because, as we learn in The First Avenger, the U.S. Army was apparently completely integrated in 1943.

Cap/The Nomad’s Seventies disillusion had something to do with learning that a figure in the highest echelon of government—possibly Saturday Evening Post cover boy Nixon!—had been secretly working for the Secret Empire, a subsidiary of covert terrorist organization HYDRA. In The Winter Soldier, the HYDRA rat is World Security Council bigwig Alexander Pierce, played by Three Days of the Condor star Robert Redford. Once again, it rests on America’s top Boy Scout to save the day, by putting homespun values like faith and trust over protocol and secrecy.

When talking about Captain America: The Winter Soldier, of course, we cannot neglect the Captain himself—who represents not only a communally-authored intellectual property whose timeline began in 1941, first seen cracking Hitler flush across the jaw on the cover of Captain America Comics #1, but an ideal of clean-cut, straight-shooting American boyhood that’s at least as old as George Washington and the cherry tree. (The first Captain America film has some fun with the American passion for profitable mythmaking, sending Cap on the road to hawk war bonds.) Marvel Studios is to be congratulated, for as long as they have pitchman Chris Evans under contract, they have a Captain who can say things like “For as long as I can remember, I just wanted to do what was right” with a clear-eyed sincerity that makes you really believe. This is not to take anything away from previous on-screen Captain Americas, most notably Matt Salinger, statuesque star of the dreadful 1990 Captain America. As son of author Jerome David Salinger, Matthew is a sort-of kid brother to his father’s most famous creation, Holden Caulfield (b. 1951)—another pillar of American boyhood, bedeviled by the idea of blighted innocence. But that, as they say, is another goddam story.