Going back to previous moments in your life through films

I watched Boyhood yesterday for the first time in eight years. For those unfamiliar with Richard Linklater’s astonishing film, it tells the story of Mason Evans Jr growing from the age of six to eighteen in Texas after the divorce of his parents. It was filmed over eleven years and captures the unfolding of his life against a backdrop of constant change in the relationships around him:

I originally saw this at the cinema the evening before my PhD viva in 2014. I came away inspired by the sense the film captured exactly what I had tried to do in my research, foregrounding the process of becoming who you are without losing the relational complexity of the process. It does this through a focus on the turning points and fateful moments which led Mason to change as a person. The film presents us with a succession of these, ranging from crushing encounters with emotionally and physically violent adults through to the much more mundane moments of self-clarification which punctuate adolescence. What makes the film so powerful is the way in which it avoids the risk of fragmentation carried by this growing pile of biographical snippets, instead conveying a vivid and concrete sense of Mason becoming more fully himself as he is forced to cope with this accumulation of life situations.

I found it curious how resistant I had been to rewatch this film. The inspiration it provoked in me prior to my PhD viva was matched by the intellectual affection I felt for it on a second watching only weeks later. Since then I’ve regularly contemplated watching it, only to feel that familiar disinclination which psychoanalysts describe as resistance. I felt this again last night and effectively forced myself to watch it as an act of stubbornness, including policing my inclination to pick up my phone during a film I had previously found as engrossing as any other. In a thoughtful study of the mundane character of the object world psychoanalytical theorist Christopher Bollas explains how:

Certain objects, like psychic “keys,” open doors to unconsciously intense—and rich—experience in which we articulate the self that we are through the elaborating character of our response. This selection constitutes the jouissance of the true self, a bliss released through the finding of specific objects that free idiom to its articulation.

Being a Character: Psychoanalysis and Self Experience, Pg 17

I wrote earlier about the inspiration Boyhood provoked in me. This is a sense in which the film-as-object acted on me but it could do because there were things in me which it spoke to, particularly the night before I was preparing to explain six years of intellectual work to an examiner. This is a powerful conjuncture in which the film left me with a sense I’d come to understanding something important, that I’d made an original contribution to knowledge, which others shared even if they articulated it in a different register.

Which makes it curious is how resistant I’ve been to return to either the film or my PhD over the subsequent years. It has felt like something I wanted to leave in a particular moment, even as I look back to see the value which I left waiting there. It felt like something I could (and should) retrieve but fundamentally didn’t want to. There are lots of mundane reasons for this I could point to, ranging from the weird direction in which my career unfolded through to drifting away from the approach to social theory expressed in my thesis. But these are mundane and superficial, obviously unable to capture the deeper dynamic at work. In the terms Christopher Bollas uses, I could say there was something of myself evoked by Boyhood:

When we live according to our desire, we naturally choose objects in the ordinary process of selection. Some objects (a book, a friend, a concert, a walk) release us into intense inner experiencings which somehow emphasize us. I think of this as a form of lifting, as encounters with objects lift us into some utterance of self available for deep knowing. We shall have sensed in each such unit of experience an idiom of the self we are by virtue of the character of the evoked.

Being a Character: Psychoanalysis and Self Experience, Pg 29

This was a matter of the intellectual project I saw reflected in the film. Obviously it’s deeper than this because the intellectual project was, as so many of them, fundamentally self-interrogative. To talk of being inspired by Boyhood the evening before my Viva suggests I felt enthused by the experienced success of my project. I had captured something I wanted to know. I had answers questions about/for myself which I wanted to answer. But oddly I then wanted to shut it down and screen it off. Much as submitting the PhD had made me want to immediately throw myself into a series of massive projects which ultimately left me burned out long before they reached fruition. There was something in this film which I wasn’t ready to carry with me, which I left in a sense in the film rather than carrying it off into the distance.

While I wouldn’t suggest the language of ‘key’ (from the first Bolas quote above) is quite right to capture the experience of rewatching the film. It certainly feels like it led me back to a nexus in my life which I’ve been consistently walking away from since then, often with little awareness of doing so. There was a sense of freedom, of a blank canvas in front of me, combined with little sense of how to fill it and a gnawing anxiety about the possibility it would remain unfilled. Perhaps a freedom I wasn’t ready for, not least of all because of the hyperactive planning it provoked in me. I felt like Mason in the diner towards the end of the film, weighed down by a sense of expectation about a coming transition. But unlike him not able to calmly greet the unpredictable reality of that transition when it came. The last scene in Boyhood is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen in any film. I hope you choose to watch it if you haven’t already.

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