Until maybe an hour or two before arriving at the theater this summer, I had no idea that “Boyhood” was almost three hours long.
I knew the details of its production — instead of one massive gulp of filming, tiny sips of production over the course of 12 years documented star Ellar Coltrane’s youth and adolescence even while, officially, the story was pure fiction. But despite the fact that it had been over a decade in the making, I’d assumed that “Boyhood” would come in at a running time not equivalent to “Lawrence of Arabia.”
And that proved to be a bit ironic, because the night before, I’d actually gone to see “Lawrence of Arabia” for the first time (I’d held out for the opportunity to see it in 70mm, which was very worth it). Two epics in 24 hours is pretty intense — I left “Boyhood” a bit tired, overstimulated, as it goes with most two-hour-plus features. But the feeling was somehow quite different from how I’d felt at the end of “Lawrence.”
Then it came together for me: “Boyhood” isn’t an epic. “Boyhood” is a marathon. A TV marathon, to be specific.
As awards season comes to a climax with the Oscars this Sunday, there’s been a fair amount of chatter about how “Boyhood” has experienced its massive success thanks to the fact of its existence, not the quality of the film itself. But to me, it feels like a rare instance of Hollywood acknowledging and respecting something that’s truly experimental — and powerful because of it. In Linklater’s hands, the mundane becomes affecting and beautiful because it parallels a storytelling experience cherished by so many these days — the TV binge-view.
Binge-viewing is currently treated largely as a side effect of today’s DVR and on-demand television culture, but the idea of watching multiple episodes of a show in one sitting at this point is considered now a testament to the quality of a series: One reason Amazon Studios cited last fall for quickly renewing recent Golden Globe-winning “Transparent” was because 80 percent of its viewership watched more than two episodes in one sitting.
But when we talk about binge-viewing, we’re often not talking about current series — there are plenty of people discovering classic shows via Netflix, or introducing newbies to their old favorites (I have a friend who’s right now introducing her partner to “The X-Files”). And the thing about television of the last 20-something years is that more often than not, shows will feature jokes and references relevant to their time periods — because the concept of television as a cultural product with a legacy is relatively new.
It used to be that an episode of a show would air once in its broadcast timeslot, and then get some syndication play, if it was good and/or lucky enough to be a show that had reached the syndication benchmark of 100 episodes. As a result, television had a more ephemeral feel, one that lent itself to topical jokes that don’t necessarily make any sense two decades later. (For a great example of this, check out the sitcom “Newsradio” — incredibly well-cast, and often well-written, but very much, forever, a child of the 90’s.)
Those classic shows might not have known what they were doing at the time — but “Boyhood” did. And yet that’s one of the movie’s most fascinating components: The way it acknowledges pop culture’s impact, especially for contemporary young people. Mason and his siblings attend a “Harry Potter” book release party, watch “The Landlord” (the first-ever Funny or Die sketch, and an iconic moment in the dawn of online video) — the film is layered with moments that draw you back to when they were made, creating nostalgia for times not so long ago.
So much of “Boyhood” feels like a period piece — but does it count as a period piece if it’s created during that period and just held back? It’s just one of the fascinating questions that the film inspires, one of the many reasons it’s taken hold of our attention over the past 12 months.
The film’s engagement with the pop culture of its time also adds an extra layer of involvement for the viewer — not only are you tracking character and story, you’re also seeking to remember the context for those moments. Which isn’t so different from watching, say, some old episodes of “30 Rock,” and being reminded that once upon a time, Tina Fey was simultaneously starring in a sitcom, showrunning a sitcom and impersonating the Republican vice-presidential candidate on “Saturday Night Live.”
Due to the the nature of the project, the structure of “Boyhood” is thoroughly episodic; whether that was by design or by accident, it means the transitions from one pocket of filming to the next are pretty distinct, and while there are plot threads that stretch over a few years of filming — most notably Olivia’s (Patricia Arquette) rocky marriage with alcoholic Bill (Marco Perella) — the film’s focus clearly shifts with the passing of time. It still has the feeling of a coherent story, though, in a way that binge-viewers might recognize.
For the thing that only people who have binge-viewed can understand is the way that gulping down episodes can give you a higher sense of a series. You internalize its rhythms, learn its voice, appreciate the crafting of the narrative — even if events blur together a bit. It becomes more about the experience than the plot, the great events rising to prominence while the mediocre or mundane moments fade from memory. It’s a lot like “Boyhood,” in that respect. It’s also a lot like life.