BOYHOOD: Not Exactly a Film Review

(for Luka, a bit later in his life)


I woke this morning thinking about Barack Obama, and how perfectly he fits the model of manhood proposed by Rudyard Kipling in his unjustly maligned and frequently parodied poem “If.” In case you don’t remember it, here’s how it starts out:
If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise…


Doesn’t that sound like Obama?

First, though, Boyhood, which provoked these thoughts. We finally got to see this beautiful and profoundly moving film last night. I loved the twelve-year journey of these skillful and committed actors, playing out the emotional development of fictional characters engaged in a fictional narrative as they themselves physically aged. I loved the “truth” of the story itself, of a family struggling with the realities of life—the failed and failing marriages, the financial woes, the abuse of alcohol and drugs, sibling love and feuding, school and the relationships with classmates, the pain of the teenage years, and so on. All along, start to finish, the story had the convincing “feel” of life as most of us experience it.


And the film is true to its title. It is about boyhood. Even at the end, the young boy, Mason, whose life we have been following from elementary school to college has not yet emerged fully into manhood. The last shot shows him, literally high in the beautiful natural surroundings of the mountains, and high on the mushroom fed him by his brand new college roommate. With a lovely young woman at his side—they sit still shyly side by side and not in some false, premature embrace—he gazes out in ecstasy into the landscape as though into a future filled with allure. But it is abundantly clear that he is still a boy. Boyhood still glows in his face; he’s all promise, no completion.


Which should not surprise us. He had no models of real manhood as he was growing up.  Mason’s biological father is a charming rogue in his early years, unable to accept the responsibilities of marriage, job, and family. The subsequent relationships his mother forms are with men whose manhood is as questionable as his father’s: a smooth academic whose insecurities lead him to drunken tyranny; a former military man whose immaturity is revealed in his insensitivity and inflexibility. With one notable exception—a photography teacher who attempts to move our Mason beyond his obstinate, lethargic adolescence—the strong, mature figures who surround the growing boy are women. The men are simply grown-up little boys.


Which leads me to reflect, beyond the parameters of the movie, upon this question: what are the qualities of manhood? We find what I think of as a real man all too infrequently in our contemporary world. We are surrounded everywhere by ungrown men: the drunks, the abusers, the workaholics; priests and teachers who take advantage of their positions of trust and exploit the vulnerabilities of children; lovers who take what they need and reject responsibility; politicians who lack the spine to govern and capitulate too easily to those who would manipulate them; gun-toting idiots who insist so stridently on their “rights” and are quick to spurn the rights of others; sports heroes pumped up with illicit drugs and phony testosterone; spoiled cultural idols, many of them scarcely more than teenagers.


Too often, the models of manhood we are offered are characterized by a false notion of strength. To return to the President and his current predicament, surrounded as he is by well-meaning progressives to the left and fanatics blinded by their own rectitude on the right, all nipping at his heels and demanding displays of strength. They fail to understand that the qualities of true strength are not intellectual inflexibility and rash, foolhardy action (the former President and his enablers come inevitably to mind) but the maturity to step back and take the longer view, the wisdom to listen and, when necessary, to change.  Even to bend.  That too is strength.  They have not learned the ancient lesson of the oak tree and the reed.


The qualities of manhood, in my view, are these: integrity, a sense of mission, a devotion to service.   We know how to teach these qualities.  We do it with our military men in boot camp (women, too, these days, of course, but I’m concerned here with men.)  While I’m not a fan of militarism in any form, I’ll concede that in most cases even this crass form of initiation can produce admirable men—men who have not only strength and skills, but a sense of purpose greater than themselves.  Our armed forces are worthy of the respect that they receive.  What turns boys to men is this kind of ritualized initiation—a process that’s significantly lacking in the development of the youngster who’s portrayed in “Boyhood,” as it is to the majority of us today.  Of myself, if I’m to be honest, I must acknowledge that I reached some measure of manhood only in my fifties.  For genuine initiation in our culture we have substituted such tepid rituals as Christian confirmations and bar mitvahs.


They don’t do the trick. In traditional cultures, the transition was a far more dangerous journey, involving genuine threat to life and limb as boys were sent out into wilderness or jungle to temper the vulnerability and fearfulness of boyhood into the steel they would need to function as a man. We in the modern Western world have no wild animals to deal with, unless we count those within.  We forget that these are powerful enough to rule our lives if we don’t learn to acknowledge and confront them. The early myth of initiation for us is the ordeal of the knight apprentice, who rides out into the forest to test his mettle against the dark knight—or the dragon—and returns prepared to serve his queen.


What is integrity? In simple terms, it is the fortitude to say fearlessly exactly what I mean, and do exactly what I say. Which implies, of course, a clear vision about who I am and what I am given to do. If I’m in doubt or confusion, I lack resolve. I dither. The answer lies not in denying doubt and confusion—they are a part of being human. No one escapes them.  In denying them I risk precipitous and futile action, when what I need first is to consult the inner wisdom that I’ve wrestled with myself to find, and rediscover the clarity before I act. A man of integrity is a man who “has his act together,” in the sense that his actions are in full congruence with his words. He has “integrated” the four mainstays of his being: mind and body, feeling and spirit, and they are properly in balance. Action that is not backed by all four of these in unison–action that lacks thought, or heart, or energy, or purpose–is as ineffectual as the failure to act at all.


Inseparable from a man’s integrity, then, is the understanding that he has left behind the innocence of boyhood, along with the freedom that accompanied it. He lives in a world of accountability to others and acknowledges his duty (yes, sorry, a quaint, old-fashioned concept!) to serve others than himself. Sadly, it’s true that most of us fail to live up to this ideal. We look around us, searching vainly for the most part for our Mahatma Gandhis, our Nelson Mandelas, our Martin Luther Kings—men who were certainly not lacking in the failings that made them human, but who managed to be magnificently greater than their weaknesses, and of spectacular, historical service to their fellow human beings.


We cannot all be men like these, but we can be men. Without the challenge of traditional initiation rites, we are required to find, or invent, our own journey from boyhood into manhood. It is no easy task to face the darkness and the inner demons that, without our awareness, can control our destinies. All of us need some form of support as we make that journey: a church, perhaps, a spiritual guide, a trained therapist… And the journey, for most of us, is never ending. Who can sit back on his laurels and say with certainty: I have reached the fullness of my manhood? Even in, at best, my last quarter here among the living, I still struggle with my own.


So we leave our young protagonist, in “Boyhood,” with the journey into manhood still ahead of him. He may already have been initiated into sex and drugs, into the drudgery of work and now, finally, the college dormitory, but none of these has opened the door to the real, deep, inner work he will have to do if he is to become the man he needs to be if he is to fulfill his life’s destiny.  And that is yet to come…


I’ve been a fan of Alan Furst ever since receiving a copy of The Foreign Correspondent as a birthday present from my son.  I wrote a review in The Buddha Dairies and, checking back in the archives, I see that it was in August, 2007.  I’ve read a couple more since then, and have enjoyed them.












Now I’ve just finished reading his latest, Midnight in Europe—another birthday gift. Furst is a master at recreating the scene in pre-World War II Europe. From bright cafés to sultry brothels and bleak hotel rooms, from rumbling trains to—in this case—rusty tubs fighting roaring seas, he creates a compelling world populated by diplomats and spies, dangerous enchantresses and jaded aristocrats, all on the make in one way or another, all engaged in the battle for survival in a world that is rapidly falling apart.  War is at hand, inevitable.  Every effort to forestall it, futile.


This time it’s the Spanish civil war that rages to the south, while most of the action takes place in Paris and points east.  Can the Republic be saved by its ragtag army of republicans and communists?  Or will Franco prevail, abetted by the superior air power of his Nazi collaborators?  We know the end of this story, of course, but in the meantime there’s plenty of skullduggery to enjoy, as the clouds spread from Spain to cover the entire continent.  The venom of National Socialism seeps everywhere; in Germany it’s out there in the open; in other countries it spreads its poison less overtly, under cover of darkness and in secrecy…


Okay, I had a good time with this book, but I was disappointed by the ending. In part, because I knew how it would all turn out. But then, I know the end to all Furst’s novels. I was, so to speak, there. I know the history. The Nazis achieve spectacular and frightening victories… provisionally; only to be creamed in the long run by the good guys. But I found it frustrating that this particular story ended not with a bang but a whimper—an anticlimax that undermined all the suspense that gripped the reader along the way Having feared at times for his life, I was saddened by the ultimate, inevitable failure of our Spanish hero to pull back his country from the brink. He had worked so hard and at such risk to save it.


And in the end, of course… well, I mustn’t tell it, must I, and spoil other people’s fun? But at least we all know already who won the Spanish civil war.  Looking now to the Middle East, looking to Ukraine, looking out at the world at large and the ignorance, cruelty and violence of those who vie for power, can we help but wonder: who will win the next one?


It’s summer reading time for The Buddha Diaries.  I just finished this (mostly) entertaining mystery novel by Joel Dicker


Imagine you’re doing a jig-saw puzzle. Do you do jig-saws? I enjoy the challenge but they eat up so much time that I rarely allow myself the pleasure, except around Christmas. This jig-saw, if you can imagine, is constructed in such a way that there are seemingly multiple possible solutions, but each time you get close to finishing one you find there are a few key pieces that don’t fit, so it’s the wrong solution, and you have to start again…


A bit frustrating, no? So you can understand how I felt about this book. Like the jig-saw I’ve described, it’s cleverly constructed to lead the reader to multiple possible solutions—but each time you get there, you’re told it’s the wrong one. Okay, a normal strategy for the mystery-thriller writer, but Dicker carries it, more cleverly than most, to the extreme. So for me this was a terrific read for most of the way through, but when I reached the end, when he showed me a whole new picture by putting all the pieces back together for me, I felt… not cheated, exactly. But manipulated by his cleverness.


Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the read. It’s compelling, challenging, sometimes even funny. The characters are finely drawn and for the most part believable. The protagonist is a writer suffering from a bad case of writer’s block, whose master teacher, life coach and inspiration is the other major character–the illustrious Harry Quebert; the others are the denizens of the small New Hampshire town (think “Our Town”) which is shocked by the disappearance and, we eventually discover, the murder of a fifteen-year-old high school girl: the owner of the diner where she worked, the local pastor and his family, the cops, the wealthy businessman from a nearby town and his facially-mutilated retainer (think Frankenstein!) The story is a complex (and extremely cleverly!) interwoven mix of texts, interviews and memories that span a more-than thirty year period in time-warp fashion—and it keeps you, as they say of movies, “on the edge of your seat.”


All this was good—though I started to sense some credibility problems early on. Was the love affair at the center of the story truly believable? Would the lovers really have behaved like this? And would a “great writer” be capable of such sloppy sentimentality in his prose? Also, for this reader, the hyperbole that idolizes what purports to be the greatest literary figure of the past fifty years rings a little false.  But so what?  A little exaggeration is a part of the game.  But it was the accumulation of all these little problems along the way that somehow set me up for the big credibility problem at the end: after all the deception and all the false narratives and dead ends, are we willing to finally accept the way that every forgotten loose end now locks so neatly into place, with the impeccable logic of the completed jig-saw puzzle?



So… a lot of ambivalence about this one. I did very much enjoy it, and was hooked throughout by the story and the characters. It’s just that, well, looking back at this “international bestseller” when I was done, it seemed to me too clever for its own good. Is that too picky a complaint?


As a product, myself, of the privileged British boarding school/Oxbridge education system, I know a thing or two about the stiff upper lip, the Old School ethic, and loyalty.  The upside is what used to be, at least, the best education in the world and the opportunities it affords, along with a refined accent that makes you sound a lot smarter than you actually are and a sometimes deceptive, self-deprecating charm that allows you to get along with everyone with ease and grace–so long as you skate along the surface.  Because the downside is a tight-lipped emotional immaturity that can cut you off from the world and, behind the facade, prevent you from developing any truly deep relationship.

These thoughts occur as I finish reading this excellent tale of that infamous gang of five Cambridge graduates whose treachery wreaked decades worth of damage on the intelligence agencies in pre- and post-WWII Britain and America.  A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre is a gripping account of that period, beginning in the 1930s, when bright–and privileged–young people on both sides of the Atlantic looked with empathy at the post-Depression plight of the working classes and thought to find in communism an answer to injustice, poverty, and war.  Most were cured of their idealism by a glimpse at Stalin’s Soviet Union.  Some, tragically, like Kim Philby, never were.

Philby, along with his fellow conspirators Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean caught the bug at Cambridge.  Burgess and Maclean, notoriously, were exposed and defected to the Soviet Union in 1951.  Incredibly, Philby, the mastermind who rose through the ranks of MI6 to a position of respect and authority and who facilitated his friends’ escape, managed to elude detection and rehabilitate himself, serving the interests of his Soviet bosses for another decade before being himself exposed and taking the escape route to Moscow.  Macintyre skillfully exposes the schoolboy mentality, the willful blindness and the misplaced loyalty of Philby’s “friend” Nicholas Elliott and other members of the British upper crust who dominated MI6, overlooking the increasingly obvious signs of his treachery.  If Macintyre is to be believed–and his research seems thorough–the lives of these people were dominated by foolishly promiscuous relationships experienced through a haze of alcohol.  They simply never grew up.

I was thoroughly engrossed in this book, beginning to end.  It has all the suspense of a good spy novel, and its characters are a complex mix of charm, eccentricity, intelligence and wit.  And it offers a great–and mostly troubling–insight into the behind-the-scenes workings of those we entrust with the most important of our political and military secrets.


There’s a formulation I use when I ask myself why I write–or why I continue to write well past my realistic “shelf-life” as a writer: it’s because this is what I am given to do.  That I continue to ask the question is an indication of a level of uncertainty about the way in which I have chosen to define who I am, to myself as well as to others.  And writing is really an odd thing to do.  I make no money at it.  My “name” is known only to those very few people who read my reviews of art and books, or who read my blog.  I receive little in the way of the response to what I write, and have at best a tiny readership–though it’s nice to know that there is a handful of people throughout the world who read The Buddha Diaries.  So why do it?  Because that is what I am given to do.  It’s that simple.

And yet… I hate that other formulation, “I do it for myself.”  No.  I’d be a fool and a narcissist if I did it for myself.  Writing is by definition a means of communication.  Words are a way of reaching out into the world and saying something to my fellow human beings that I judge to be of value.  The other side of the creative equation is the reader, without whom my words are no more than an empty echo.  So I struggle with this conundrum.  How far do I need to go in order to be heard–in order for these words I go to so much trouble to write to have meaning?  I see it to be a part of the responsibility I incur, as the writer of those words, to see to it that they are heard, by someone.

These thoughts recurred as I read David Zweig’s Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion.  I say recurred, because I have struggled with them for many years.  On the one hand, I preach the values of invisibility, as does Zweig.  I admire those who toil in anonymity–who seek nothing but the reward of appreciating the excellence of their work. Zweig’s criteria for the “invisibles” he writes about are threefold: ambivalence toward recognition, meticulousness, and the savoring of responsibility.  The people he writes about–and they are a fascinating and varied bunch–are those who measure success not by celebrity or financial return, but by the quality of the work they do.  And it’s a persuasive argument that they are happier, more fulfilled human beings as a result.  Fame, as Zweig demonstrates, is a hollow, fickle thing, and money is much overrated as a source of happiness.

For me, this is personal.  In the world of art and letters, I’m always delighted to discover the unknown, the solitary painter who might labor for a lifetime without recognition, and yet make work that is worthy of any museum’s walls.  I sing the praises of those who devote more time to the studio than to Facebook or LinkedIn.  I published, myself, a collection of essays under the title Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit in a World Gone Mad with Commerce.  The oldest of these essays, written more than three decades ago, was titled “A Word for the Amateur,” and it was written as a protest against the teaching of “professionalism” in art schools.  So, yes, I have been thinking about matters related to “invisibility” for much of my working life.

And, to be honest, agonizing too.  Like Zweig, I find the whole notion of “branding” to be anathema.  The “relentless self-promotion” about which he writes has had a baleful influence on our common culture.  And yet, for the artist, for the writer, there is a responsibility to the work itself, and we neglect it at our cost.  Zweig’s ideas are important; he writes about them with great persuasiveness and passion, and his book is an important reminder of some of the less appetizing aspects of our culture, as well as a celebration of some extraordinary individuals.  It calls for the kind of promotion that will ensure the promulgation of its ideas–though there is a healthy distinction, to be sure, between promoting the work and promoting oneself.  His thesis notwithstanding, I wish the author every success in getting the word out.