My parents divorced when I was two. Afterwards, my brother and I lived with my mom, visiting our dad every other weekend. When I was six, we moved into a small cabin in a Big Sur Canyon, where my mom’s boyfriend lived. We stayed there for about a year, until my mom couldn’t stand his mood swings and drinking and the fact that he spanked me and my brother. We never lived with him again, though they were on again and off again for the next few years. Eventually, we settled in the house that I think of as “where I grew up,” and she married my stepdad.
As a younger man I harbored dreams of becoming a writer, which, to me, meant writing novels. But though I’ve worked my way into being a decent essayist, I’ve found that fiction is beyond me—as with my photographs, my strength is in observation, not construction. I know now that the only story I could ever really tell is my own, and writers who write only about themselves have long struck me as tiresome navel-gazers.
But then there is Richard Linklater, and Boyhood.
I’m sure that by now you all know about this movie. The thing that everyone is talking about is the remarkable length of the production, Linklater having brought the same cast together every year for twelve years in order to allow us to watch them grow and age. To be sure, that’s an impressive logistical feat, and it allows for a level of verisimilitude that I’ve never seen before in a movie. But what makes Boyhood the breathtaking experience that it is isn’t the fact that it took so long to make. No, the special thing about this film is how it presents a life in a way that is undramatic, yet intimate and resonant. Watching it, I felt like I could have been watching my own childhood. It makes sense, considering that Linklater drew from his own youth in writing Boyhood.
It’s more than just a portrait of a young man, though. Because in it I also recognized pieces of myself as a parent, and pieces of my own parents. One of the things that is so strange about growing up and having kids of your own is the way it makes you re-evaluate your memories of the people who raised you, to see them as people who were muddling through as best they could, the same way you are now. I watched this movie and couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like for my mom to have two young sons on her own, or what it must have been like for my dad to only get to see us for two days out of fourteen.
I wondered, in one of my recent movie reviews, whether there were any interesting stories left to tell about men. Boyhood showed me that a story well-written, a story with emotional weight, told with insight and quiet confidence, can make a familiar story fresh and vital. I’m so glad I got the chance to see it.
Viewed: 2/6/2015 | Released: 8/15/2014 | Score: A
Bits of Wildness
The sun was just starting to set as I made my way back up the hill to my in-laws' house. In another hour there'd just be a pink and orange stain on the horizon, but right then the light was still bright, and low enough to cast a long shadow on the far side of the canyon. Just above the trees, atop the ridge, a house perched, and down at the bottom of the canyon was the road as it passed by a horse pasture. But in between the hillside was steep, and I wondered if these trees had ever known a human's touch. It's strange and wonderful to think that there are still bits of wildness left in the world, even so close to the places we called home.
We had been there all day, piling rocks one atop the other, and the dam was really starting to take shape. Who knows whose idea it was—things have a way of coming together when no one is paying attention. Here and there a tadpole darted between the shadowy places between stones and algae, tickling our feet as their tails and little legs brushed past us. We laughed, splashed, hollered, and kept building.
At last the dam was done, the river deepening behind it, tinkling and rippling over and through it. We took off our shirts and lay in the little pool, letting the water wash past us. It was cold, even in the heat of the summer, and we sat until our lips turned blue.
Hearing the Song
Although most of the photographs I show here are family-oriented, I have always had a deep connection with landscapes. I grew up in one of the most naturally beautiful places in the world, a place people come to visit from all over the world just to see the hills and trees and rocky shoreline. The few times a year I get the chance to go back home, I always end up taking a bunch of landscape shots. And, indeed, the most landscape-heavy work I've shown is centered there, in my home town.
But although I do take a lot of photos around San Diego, none of them are what I'd really consider straight landscapes. There's some street work, a lot of urban/suburban architectural stuff, a smattering of still life, but nothing really of the land as land. I remember once when Juliette and I were talking about our life in Southern California, I talked about how, as much as I like having friends and having a job, I don't really feel connected to the place. "Back home," I said, "the land sings. I can feel it in my bones. There's no song here, no soul to the land."
Now, I do think it's true that things here are different, and a lot of it has to do with living in a city—something I'm never really going to be cut out for. But, more and more, I'm realizing that every place has some kind of spirit, and if I'm not feeling it, it's got more to do with me than with the place.
I recently signed up to participate in Stuart Pilkington's 100 Mile Radius project, the prompt for which is simply to "document the land using [my] unique voice." I think it's time I learned how to listen to this place, and hopefully this project will be just the kick in the pants that I need.
The Hundred-Foot Journey
Thinking about this movie, it really feels like it’s got just about everything you’d come up with if you were making an awards checklist. Beautiful food? Check. Award-winning female lead? Check. Danceable, Bollywood-style music behind a “we can do it” montage? Check. “Quirky,” ethnic side characters? Check. A rags-to-riches story about a lone genius who has to overcome the odds? Check. The Hundred-Foot Journey really seems like a bat upside the head of potential Academy voters. And, like a lot of awards-bait movies, it never rises above the level of feel-good schlock.
The Hundred-Foot Journey opens with a young Indian man named Hassan (Manish Dayal) telling his backstory to a European immigrations officer. After his family’s home and restaurant in India are destroyed during a political upheaval, they have come to the Continent (after a short stint in England) to try to make a new life. They are grudgingly admitted, and when their brakes serendipitously fail just outside of a small, picturesque French town, they decide to start again there. Unfortunately, the building they buy for their restaurant is just across the street from a Michelin-starred French restaurant, run by the aloof, driven Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). A rivalry ensues, during which the culinary genius of young Hassan is revealed.
The story of a young genius’s rise from poverty to fame is pretty standard fare, and there just isn’t much in this version to elevate it into something interesting. Om Puri gives a fine performance as Hassan’s father, and, as I mentioned, the food is beautiful. Helen Mirren was good in her performance, although I did find myself wishing they’d hired someone more convincingly French—accents are far from the be-all, end-all of good acting, but at the end of the day it’s very hard to accept a performance as real when the accent is wrong.
Mostly, though, it was just trite. The most interesting female character and performance was, in my opinion, Charlotte Le Bon as Marguerite, but while she starts out as both a friend and mentor to Hassan, she winds up being nearly dropped by the film once Hassan’s ascent begins. It’s so predictable and disappointing, having a woman be presented as interesting but ultimately only be used to prop up the leading man.
It’s not a terrible movie, but, for me, The Hundred-Foot Journey ends up being conventional and treacly. And as can happen with things that are overly sweet, it leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.
Viewed: 1/30/2015 | Released: 8/8/2014 | Score: C-