8th Grade, time and storytelling

It’s fascinating how the use of time in a story can have so much impact. Watching Memento for the first time you are just as confused as the protagonist, because the film moves backward in time. It’s more than a gimmick because it connects the viewer to the character. A fan-made re-edit with the scenes in chronological order apparently transforms it into a standard, forgettable thriller. The magic was in the use of time.

Arrival takes this a step further, with time not just being shuffled, but always present. Not to spoil much, but there is an early poignant scene, which you later realize occurs later in the character’s timeline, only to later realize that it is somehow always happening… Insert exploding head emoji here. It is powerful because Amy Adams’s character chooses to take an action, knowing it’s consequences, confident because in some sense she has already been through it. For the viewer, the structure of the film, with that early out of sequence scene, gave the realization extra impact.

The play Stop Kiss uses time to take a story —which could have ended on a tragic note— and instead insist on a happy ending (at least in the chronology of the scenes).

The use of time in storytelling was on my mind after watching the excellent movie Eighth Grade. By focusing in a very specific period of time, it reveals so much of the main character and her world. You don’t get to see what the earlier version of Kayla (the one who made the optimistic time capsule) was like, but the Eighth-Grade Kayla’s life is not what she was hoping. By the end of the movie, she has a more guarded, but still optimistic view of the future. Based on her dad’s pep talk and the signs of personal growth the viewer can’t help but feel optimistic about her future too.

It’s interesting to me because it seems like the movie is using time in another, more subtle way. Most viewers will be well past their own Eighth Grade experiences, and will be thinking on some level, I’m sure she’ll turn out ok. After all I made it. There is a similar kind of reassuring open endedness in Ladybird and to a lesser extent Boyhood. 

It’s a compelling technique to use not just the character’s or the story’s sense of time, but the audience’s own sense of time/experience to send a message.

The Tao of Boyhood

I have no idea what Tao is. I’ve read the Tao te Ching, which says “the tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.” I suppose that means my confusion must make me an expert. After finishing the short, strange book my best guess that Tao is something like the mystery of life, which is harder to grasp the more you try to do just that.

This came to mind last night when I watched the utterly unique movie Boyhood.  Filmed over 12 years, the viewer watches a boy and his sister (played by the director’s daughter) grow into adulthood. The story itself I think was good, and well acted. Trying to compress so many years into 2 hours and 45 minutes necessarily meant that in some scenes characters needed to unload quite a bit of exposition, which was sometimes awkward. Still, I was totally along for the ride, even with the long running time.

It was a completely mind blowing watching the kids age year after year, completely unlike anything I have ever seen. I am a fan of the Up series, which starting at age 7 interviewed a group of kids every 7 years, with 56 Up, released in 2012, being the latest addition. However, there is something reassuring about the jarring 7 year gaps between interviews. It seems to break time into a series of steps, instead of the steady, incessant march of time in Boyhood. The thing about traveling on stairs is that you choose when to take a step and can linger on a stair as long as you want. In Boyhood…the “slippery slope” cliché, and all of the loss of control that implies, comes to mind.

That’s where Tao comes in, at least in my limited (and therefore perfect) understanding of it. What could possibly be more banal than the observation that kids grow up? Yet watching it in this condensed form felt profound. I can’t possibly explain it, but it felt like bearing witness to the mystery of life itself.