What distinguishes art from reality? Part of what differentiates the two is that we know that someone has produced an "artwork," and we, as beholders, relish and appreciate its production. Art becomes interesting when artistic genius renders the borders between art and reality fuzzy or indistinct. For much of its history, art was appreciated for how well it depicted or mimicked reality. The Impressionists changed that perspective by distorting a scene and having us become aware of splotches of paint on canvas. Some have suggested that the popularity of photography during the latter half of the 19th century contributed to this change, because a photograph could depict a realistic scene with virtually perfect shading and linear perspective. Why should a painter be restricted to creating a "window to the world" when a photographer can do the same with a click of a button?
As is famously (or infamously) known, Marcel Duchamp in 1917 bought a men’s urinal at a local store in New York City, set it on its back, signed it "R. Mutt," and submitted it to an art exhibition with the title, Fountain.
The original "artwork" was never displayed—the judges did not think it was "art"—yet through word of mouth (mainly Duchamp's) the incident and artwork became legendary. During the 1950s and 1960s Duchamp commissioned replicas of Fountain (i.e., urinals bought and painted to look the same as the original), which are now prominently displayed in prestigious art museums. In 2004, 500 art experts were asked the question: “What is the most influential modern art work of all time?” and Fountain received the top vote, thus surpassing any work by Picasso, Matisse, or Warhol. Why? Because Fountain blurred the boundary between art and reality and changed the very meaning of art—if that piece could be viewed as "art" then what is "not art"?
Movies offer a potent way of depicting reality through its audiovisual presentation of fictional dramas. We expect movies to give us a window to a world, yet we know that we are watching actors on the screen playing fictional roles. The boundaries between art and reality are sometimes blurred, as in movies that include real documentary footage or those that claim to be "based on a true story." Yet with any engaging movie we are sucked into an unfolding drama, as if what we are watching is real. If we become aware of the fact that the scene is unreal, perhaps through bad acting or poor staging (see my blog on The Hobbit), we very quickly lose interest. Indeed, we really don't want to be aware of the real reality of moviemaking as it is a complete artifice with staged sets, makeup, and artificial lighting—and who wants to be reminded of that?
It is the very fact that we are aware of the moviemaking process in Richard Linklater's Boyhood that makes the movie so incredibly interesting to watch. Prior to watching the movie, many, including myself, were aware of the extraordinary means by which the movie was made (spoiler alert: if you haven't seen the movie and don't know about it, stop reading, go see the movie, and comment on your experience after reading the rest of this blog). The story revolves around Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and begins with him as a six-year old boy living with his divorced mom (Patricia Arquette) and sister, Samantha (played by Linklater's own daughter, Lorelei Linklater). We then watch the family, including dad (Ethan Hawke), play out their lives over a 12-year period. The plot is thoroughly engaging and the acting, particularly by Arquette and Hawke, is superb. The incredible feature of the movie is that Linklater actually filmed the same actors in their roles over a 12-year period. Thus, we watch the characters/actors age as the story progresses from Mason as a first-grader to his entry into college. Since the fictional timeline begins in 2002 and the actual filming began that same year, the boundary between art and reality becomes quite blurred. Dramas with the same actors over an extended period have been made, such as François Truffaut's five-movie saga of Anotoine Doinel, which begins with Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud) as a young boy in 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) or even the Harry Potter series in which we watch Harry (Daniel Ratcliffe) and the other children of Hogwarts grow up. Yet such epics don't have the same feeling as watching the characters in Boyhood age, as we witness in this movie real people aging over the span of 12 years in 165 minutes.
After watching Boyhood, I wondered whether the movie's aesthetic value depended on the way it was made. Would I have a different, less enthusiastic, feeling about the movie had Linklater made it in the typical manner, using different childhood actors to depict the characters at different ages and makeup to increase the ages of the adult characters? Is our engagement during the movie facilitated by knowing that it is the same actors filmed over a 12-year period, a unique and incredibly demanding feat of moviemaking? Also, what would my experience have been if I had not known in advance how the movie was made? I suspect that viewers who did not know in advance would at some point during the movie realize that the same actors are portrayed and actually age in real time. In this case, prior knowledge (or not having knowledge) can completely change one's experience with an artwork.
We expect certain things when we experience art than when we experience reality. Boyhood is a fascinating work that merges the two. Interestingly, when I was watching the movie, the blending of art and reality made me wary of what was going to happen to the boy. Reality has its ups and downs yet it is rarely the case that during childhood one experiences life-threatening, dramatic events. In Hollywood movies, however, such events—murder, suicide, illness, danger, violence, mental disease—occur all the time and are often a movie's primary plot point. Our expectations of what we see in a movie and what we see in real life are clearly not the same. In this sense, Boyhood is also unusual as it depicts a slice of life, more real than fiction.