One of the great productive tensions between Jewish tradition and contemporary spirituality is that between time and the timeless. On the one hand, the passage of time is central in Judaism. Some of this time passes in a linear fashion — we age along with life-cycle events , from birth to death — and some according to the cycles of the seasons and holidays. But it all passes.
Much of contemporary (and contemporary Jewish) spirituality, however, dwells in the timeless. “In the Now,” in Eckhart Tolle’s bestselling phrase. “Be Here Now,” in Ram Dass’s. The dance between temporality and the evanescent present is in many ways the dance of our lives, whether we articulate it in this way or not.
Richard Linklater’s astonishing new film “Boyhood” enacts this dance as no work of art has done before. It is an instant masterpiece that took 12 years to make. And it is about the grandest of themes while remaining entirely familiar.
In a sense, “Boyhood” is a slice-of-life story — except the slices are spread out over 12 years. Twelve actual years: The film was made from 2002 to 2013, with its actors aging along with it. We watch Mason, the titular 6-year-old boy, grow to 18, and his messed-up, divorced 20-something parents grow into adults. And alongside them, we watch as cordless phones change to cell phones, cell phones into smart phones; the heady politics of post-9/11 to the exasperation of post-recession America; Blink 182 to Arcade Fire. Without nostalgia, “Boyhood” becomes the story of all of our recent pasts.
Never before has a project like this been attempted, and the result is an entirely new kind of cinematic experience. Several times, Linklater seems to play with our expectations, setting us up for climactic moments (a car crash, a horrible accident) only to deny them.
One of the film’s lessons, possibly, is to savor each moment, as time marches relentlessly on. Several of the characters make this point, not least 18-year-old Mason himself, observing in a pot-shrouded conversation that “it’s always now.” Many critics, raving about the film, seem to agree.