Tempus fugit

I saw Richard Linklater’s extraordinary new film Boyhood opening weekend (at the always cool IFC Center here in Manhattan) and was treated to a Q&A with the man himself and his star, the miraculous Ellar Coltrane, following the film.  Chances are, you’ve probably been reading and hearing a lot about this film the last two weeks or so, and not without reason does it have a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  It is quietly moving, honest, and completely lovely; full of the real stuff of life that seems insignificant, but upon rumination, it is actually the important stuff.  It’s the stuff that shapes who you are.

Richard Linklater and Ellar Coltrane: changing the face of cinema, quite literally

Richard Linklater and Ellar Coltrane: changing the face of cinema, quite literally

And it got me thinking (and continuing to think as it is over a week ago I saw the film) about life.

But it also got me thinking about magic: both fictional and real.

Whether it’s coincidental or not, magic seems to be a recurring theme in the film.  In one scene, Mason’s mother (a sublime Patricia Arquette) reads from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets before bedtime.  In another scene, Mason and his sister, Samantha (played with feistiness by Lorelai Linklater), dress up and attend a midnight book party for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.  They’re wide-eyed and excited, clutching their newly purchased books to their chests like precious treasure.  A third scene has Mason asking his father (the always reliably affable Ethan Hawke) about magic and elves.  “Right this second, there’s like, no elves in the world, right?” he asks tentatively.  And this propels his father into a wonderful moment of vocal philosophizing about the definition of magic itself.  He explains that magic could very well be the fact we have whales so huge you can swim through their arteries, but is that magic?  He doesn’t know.  When Mason asks again, this time a little more pointedly, his father answers, “Technically, no elves.”

Mason Jr. and his female friend = the new Jesse and Celine?

Mason Jr. and his female friend = the new Jesse and Celine?

The last scene of Boyhood features a now nineteen year-old Mason sitting on a rock in the wilderness of Texas with a girl he’s just met that day, his first of college.  They’re talking about life.  “You know how everyone’s always saying seize the moment?” she asks. “I don’t know, I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around, you know, like the moment seizes us.”  He replies, “Yeah, I know, it’s constant, the moments, it’s just — it’s like it’s always right now, you know?”  And just as he’s saying that, the sun is setting, and you know you’re glimpsing another fleeting, magical moment, but like Mason, you’re hopeful, because you know another one will come along if you ground yourself in the present.  And THAT right there got me thinking about another of my favorite Linklater films, Before Sunrise (really just that whole trilogy, but the first especially).  In a scene in that particular film which is all about seizing those fleeting moments, Celine says to Jesse, “If there’s any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something.”

"If there's any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know, it's almost impossible to succeed but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt." - Celine

“If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.” – Celine

So is that magic?  Connecting with someone else on an almost spiritual level?  The kind of magic we’re accustomed to is often the kind associated with witches and wizards like Harry Potter where there are spells and people are transformed.  If you really think about it, all magic is about doing something to another person: cursing them, making them fall in love with you, changing them or yourself in some way.  The Oxford Dictionary defines magic in four ways:

  1. The power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.
  2. Mysterious tricks, such as making things disappear and appear again, performed as entertainment.
  3. A quality that makes something seem removed from everyday life, especially in a way that gives delight.
  4. Something that has a delightfully unusual quality.

So if we look at it this way, as magic being something that seems delightfully removed from everyday life that influences the course of the events in a life, then we really DO experience magic in the real world.  Mason’s father wasn’t wrong and neither was Celine: magic is very real and present.  I don’t think Richard Linklater featured Harry Potter in two scenes of Boyhood without reason; not only have the books changed the lives of millions of readers around the world in profound ways, but so too do Harry, Ron, and Hermione experience the magic of growing up, forging friendships, and discovering love (among other things like battling dark wizards and basically saving humanity).  Magic is ever present in all those milestones of life, big and small.

"We are the three best friends that anyone could have..."

“We are the three best friends that anyone could have…”

Celine and Jesse experience that magic as they wander the streets of Vienna, talking for hours and essentially falling in love.  I’ve written about it before, but we’ve all had those moments of connection with someone else.  It’s usually those moments we actually FEEL life happening to us and around us; we become acutely aware of our own mortality and the preciousness of it all.  It’s the thing where you feel infinite and finite at the same time.  Mason Jr. becomes aware of it at the end of BoyhoodCeline and Jesse know it too.  And so too do we when we allow ourselves to be swept up in those moments, to be seized by them the way Mason’s female companion posits during their conversation.  And those moments are also usually the ones that transform us with their magic, because our lives are never quite the same afterwards.  I just felt it late last Wednesday night as a guy and I recklessly climbed ladders to the roof of his office building just to look at the Empire State Building and essentially, each other.  To hold hands and talk about life, both of us sensing it was the start of something new and treating that beautiful fragility with reverence and wonder, because we know it will never be like that ever again; we will never have these moments again.

A now iconic movie poster for a now iconic film

A now iconic movie poster for a now iconic film

Boyhood often is about the mundane of life, but further examination reveals the mundane is the magical.  So often we remember these small things more so than the milestones.  The little setbacks and victories.  The way your mom would make breakfast.  Summer days spent riding bikes and drawing with sidewalk chalk.  Long conversations to your best friend on the phone.  Or maybe harboring a crush on a college professor.  Or climbing on a roof to look at the city lights with someone just because you’re young and feel invincible.  Things DO change, people DO change, and that’s the magic of it all.  Time is magic, because as it passes, it transforms you and the world around you.  You’re always under its spell.

Just as he’s leaving for college in Boyhood, Mason’s mother is crying and poignantly admits, “I thought there’d be more.”  So do we.  All the more reason to appreciate whatever time and magic we’ve got.

*Run to see Boyhood whenever it hits your local multiplex.  Heck, even drive to a showing nearby if it’s not.  It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of movie.  Truly something special.

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Blue Skies

After returning a few books to one of my favorite libraries in the city (Jefferson Market on Sixth Avenue; it has these beautiful stained glass windows, and a turret!), I decided to go for a walk downtown towards the Village and Tribeca. It was Memorial Day Weekend, and as of that moment, I had no real plans to do anything or go anywhere. It had just stopped raining, and the sun was beginning to peak through the clouds. I started heading south on Sixth Avenue not sure of my destination, but rather in want of a nice journey in getting there.

I came to where Sixth intersects Carmine Street and stopped. In front of me was the most charming little square of a park with a fountain and trees. In the background, the tall steeple of a church was visible over the treeline, and for half a second, I was able to convince myself I was in Italy rather than New York. I had been to this park once before, but had nearly forgotten it as I’m never in this part of the city very frequently.

Father Demo Square: a piazza in the midst of the West Village.

Father Demo Square aka where I found the light in the Piazza

Father Demo Square aka where I found the light in the Piazza

The last time I had been here, it had been a chilly, grey day in the winter. All the trees were barren, the fountain empty. Snow dotted the tops of the benches and the iron railings surrounding the park. The only constant between that winter’s day and this decidedly summer-like one was the endless bicycles locked to the railings on all the sides of the park.

With the fountain bubbling and gurgling on this warmer day towards the end of May, I decided to sit for a while and enjoy its relaxing sounds. I chose a bench on the Carmine Street side of the square, under the canopy of leafy, green trees. I closed my eyes for a second, still trying to convince myself I was in Europe instead, and that’s when I heard him. A voice nimbly accompanying the strums of an acoustic guitar.

I quickly opened my eyes and glanced over to my right. There, with just a long, empty wooden bench in between us, was the most beautiful (and I choose that word instead of handsome, because his features were more delicate than jarring) twentysomething boy with a beanie on his head and a guitar in his long-fingered hands. He radiated Greenwich Village stereotypes, and yet he was unique somehow. We made eye contact for a second, and then both looked away as if we realized we were invading each other’s privacy in a very public space.

Now, he really started to play and sing, his voice confident but not imposing. It took me a second to realize what song he had chosen, because he was playing it as if he were Django Reinhardt, all French-style jazz guitar. Was I in Italy or France now? (No, I was still in New York, but this City can change its skin faster than Mystique in X-Men.) Cole Porter. “Blue Skies.” It totally surprised and delighted me that this beautiful boy would choose the Great American Songbook rather than Bob Dylan or Simon & Garfunkel, which would have been more obvious were we basing our decision on appearance.

And there was something about the way he was making this old song his own that delighted me too; it felt new. The casualness of it all, the way his voice scatted around the notes was downright sexy; it was like he wasn’t even trying. I looked over at him and realized there was no tip jar out, no expectation of getting money for his troubadour-ing. This was purely for pleasure, whose I’m not sure, but I certainly shared in the sensation. I realized too I was harmonizing along with him, not loud enough for him to really hear, but I’d like to think he did, because we locked eyes again for a second. I felt like he was playing just for himself and me in a way. In my head, we were entangled in a duet, and only we knew it.

I turned back toward the fountain, and a small smile crept over my lips. I was having one of those classic “I love New York” moments, but it was more than that. How could I have forgotten that art is chiefly about passion and pleasure? I’ve been spending so much time in my almost three years in New York trying to figure out how to make money from my art that most of the pleasure has been sucked right out of the whole process. This beautiful hipster boy with his guitar felt so good to my ears and my heart and my soul. I know it sounds like one cliché after another, but sharing in his apparent pleasure stemming from his art made me happier than I’ve been in quite a long time. He was having a journey that day too, albeit an artistic one, without the need for knowing the destination or even having one. Art for art’s sake. Pleasure for pleasure’s sake. I needed to find those things again for myself.

He switched gears into something mellower, more soulful. He would stop every so often, fiddling with a different chord until he found one he liked, and would continue on. I pulled out my journal and began writing, hoping to remember some of this moment for later, and I felt him glance over at me ever so briefly as my head was engrossed in my scribbling. I wanted to say “hello” but I felt like it would break the magical spell, and I wanted that spell to last for as long as possible. Music is one of the few real magical things in this world, and I wasn’t about to ruin such a delicate thing as this. I was trying to savor it, not knowing if I would ever see this soulful troubadour again (but secretly hoping I would).

A minute or two later, a man came and sat on the empty bench in between us, and the illusion was shattered. Beautiful Guitar Boy noodled around a minute or two more before packing up his instrument and silencing his voice. I felt desperate all of a sudden. Don’t go, don’t go, please don’t go, I thought to myself as he stood up from his bench, lit a cigarette, and took a long drag, surveying the park. I had had a taste of his music, his pleasure, and I wanted more. I kept my eyes down on my journal, but I longed for his voice in my ears so much I glanced back over at him just in time to see him flick his cigarette to the ground and carefully sling his guitar case over his back.

He started walking in my direction, and I got excited for a half second thinking he was coming over to say hello and ask me to run away with him to Paris where we’d sing on cobblestone street corners and live on baguettes and red wine and cigarettes just like something out of a Truffaut or Goddard film.  But he passed me by, his cool, lanky figure leaving the park and walking up Sixth Avenue to some unknown destination and possibly chic, artsy girlfriend (or boyfriend…who knows anymore?), and I felt sad to be losing him and his music. For a brief interlude, they both had brought me such happiness, such sheer delight in art and music and life, and now I would probably never see him again. But I had felt something stir in me that I thought I had been dulled by too many hard things in life, and it gave me hope.

Alas, parting is such sweet sorrow.

And so I too decided I needed to move on, and casting an affectionate glance at the bench my beautiful, mystery troubadour had just occupied, I thoughtfully strolled out of the park and in the direction of the sun, hoping its illumination might also enlighten my mind and heart.