Monday, 9 February 2015

Whose "Boyhood" Is It?

I don't watch the Academy Awards each year, and in fact, most of the time, I have not seen even one of the movies nominated.

This year, however, I had a chance to see one of the critics' top picks, the work of Texas film-maker Richard Linklater entitled "Boyhood."  It's the story told over 12 years of the life of a young boy growing up in quasi-rural Texas.

The "angle" of the movie, and it is a clever one in my view, is that it was shot in sort-of real time.  Each year, the crew and cast would get together for a few days and shoot various scenes to capture the life of the lead character, Mason.

You almost literally see the kid grow up.

The life of little (and not-so-little) Mason - divorced parents, a mother who goes through several serial marriages, a dash of alcoholism, and despite all of that, relative calm - is unlike my own, but the movie to me was fascinating.  And as the father of a kid who is about 10 per cent of the way along the journey shown on film, captivating.

And excellent.

Linklater and the crew have, for the efforts, been nominated for many awards, and even the US President Obama has noted that the film is his favourite of 2014.

Oddly, it has come under attack from various quarters.

The Atlantic attacked "Boyhood" because it too narrowly focused on the youth of a white American kid, noting that the experiences of Mason are non-universal.

It's an odd criticism, really.  As someone who was, himself, once a young, white American, the film doesn't reflect my youth, either.

But do we expect, or even ask, movies to speak to the experiences of us all?  Last years' "12 Months a Slave" touched not a single of my life's experiences, either, and in fact, slavery has been outlawed in the US for 150 years.

A second criticism, from the Wall St Journal, focuses on the crypto-sexism of the movie's point-of-view.  Apparently, as Mason goes through his life, that of his older sister fades into the background.  The movie becomes, for two feminist writers at Columbia University, a sort of Millenial Ophelia cri de cœur -  a way of showing how society discourages women's voices.

The reality, as I see it, is that it would be odd for a movie called "Boyhood" to focus on the older sister, who about half-way through the film is off to college anyways. The authors make a number of other errors, but again, I don't see why a film Linklater made about - ostensibly - his own experiences needs to be a vehicle for universal expression.

It's been said, more than once, that the average colour of a rainbow is white.  The current need to ensure that everyone and everything is represented risks turning unique works like "Boyhood" into a Kraft Dinner of bland, pointless pap.

Finally, from some corners, the film is attacked because there is no central crisis nor conflict.

But in a film about the life of a young kid, isn't that the point?  John Lennon said, once, that life is what happens when you're making plans.  Here, Mason is remarkable not because he discovers a comet or invents the internet or overcomes, with his own bare hands and the pluck of a teacher who left a lucrative corporate career to 'save' disadvantaged youths.

In other words, there is no Mihkei Pfieffer.

What we get instead is not melodrama or Karate Kid show-downs, but a real life of a sort.

I suppose that is what really, in the end, made the film so excellent for me.  It doesn't need a "Lifetime" hero waiting to swoop in and save the day.  As the story closes, as Mason heads off to the next stage of his life, in fact, one is left to ask if the day has been "saved," and "from what?"  One doesn't know what will become of Mason.  One only sees from where he has come.

Just like the rest of us.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Bang the Drum, Ringo

One of the things I enjoy in my leisure time is running, something I've been up to for 20 years now.  I try to mix up my routines a bit to add a little variety, but also attempt to have some day-to-day reproducibility to allow me to do some benchmarking.

I'm a mathematician by trade, and thus a significant chunk of my waking (and even some of my non-waking) mental energy is devoted to numbers.  To paraphrase Pooh-Ba from The Mikado:  "I cannot help it; I was born sneering."

Living as I have for the past couple of years in Paris, my courses are around some familiar icons, but a significant piece is around the nearby Parc Monceau.  It's a pleasant, English-style garden with a fake pyramid, Roman colonnade, huge, Palatine trees, and a loop course.  It works well, as one loop around the park is almost exactly one kilometre, and thus, I can run up to the park, a few laps around it, and then home to complete my 10k.

Parisians have taken to jogging - a surprising thing to say for someone who just a few years ago was laughing when Nicolas Sarkozy's running routine was derided as too Anglo-Saxon.

The French, despite being seen as avant-garde and progressive, in fact are quite a socially conservative, conformist lot.  I wrote last summer my observations that virtually everyone running in Parc Monceau ran the same direction, circling the park in an anti-clockwise sense.  When I headed the opposite direction, I was greeted with stares that ranged from bewilderment to shock to in some cases, disapproving angst.

It was almost like the scene from Midnight Express where Brad Davis decides to march against the direction of the other prisoners.

WELLL.... it turns out that there is. in fact, a method to the madness.

In the local Direct Matin this morning, the daily "Savez-Vous..." question and answer section asked about why in track and field, the runners always circle the track anti-clockwise.

According to the article, the direction is not par hasard, but instead, is rooted in brain physiology.  When the modern olympic games were revived in the late 19th century, the tracks ran clock-wise.  The athletes complained.

In the article, the brain's centre of balance resides in the left hemispheres, and thus the right side of the body for most dominates.  When running clock-wise, the eyes, legs, and balancing mechanism is thus turned opposite of where our internal gyroscopes are needed.

The article went on to note that, in events where people run clock-wise vs. anti-clock-wise, the body feels more stress, and times are slower by two seconds on average per 400 metres.  For a race like the "metric mile," (1600 m) this is a significant obstacle.

It also explains, I think, why open skate among other things also require skaters to circle anti-clock-wise.

So here, the French desire for conformity has science to back it up.

Now, if we could only answer why they always wear black and continue to see smoking as glamourous...