(A note: unbeknownst to online readers, I have spent time thinking about it and decided to write in the ‘Courier’ font on my Word Document, because it just seems the most fittingly square – in both senses – and jolting tribute to the subject at hand.)
It is not every week that you gain a new favourite film of all time, to add to the wavering – oft impossible to remember or articulate; controversial or desperately obvious – list that revolves in your mind. The week before last, I saw ‘Boyhood’. Last week, I saw it again. This week… Well I’ve resisted so far primarily for the sake of my bank balance, but you get me.
As is probably necessitated by its nominal subject matter, I found it to be a beautiful, rough-hewn, wonderfully real ode to awkwardness.
Perhaps not one of the most memorable moments in the main character Mason’s life, but one of my favourite scenes in the film – for its almost goose-bump inducing realism if nothing else – was Mason and his girlfriend being awoken by his older sister’s university roommate, who returned unexpectedly to the colourfully draped campus bedroom they had slept over in. There is no high drama from the roommate, no flashes of nudity or forced, wordy “awkwardness”. Sheena, Mason’s girlfriend, hides her head under the cover and the roommate stands quietly registering the surprise before telling them no worries, she’ll nip out to pick up something to eat. As she leaves, Sheena emerges to groan good-naturedly, “That was so awkward.”
Earlier on in ‘Boyhood’ Lorelei Linklater’s fantastically shruggy awkward teen sister Samantha gets an improvised ‘sex talk’ from her dad Ethan Hawke. Dad’s smiling, fumbling pretention of ease, Samantha’s painful grins and cries of “Da-ad” and Mason Junior’s non-plussed grimaces are so perfect it hurts. This makes me think not just of awkwardness and the strangely pleasurable flush of the ‘cringe’, but also of horror films, with their own inimitable brand of pleasing pain.
We all know about the fight or flight mechanism; apparently when you’re not in real danger this sheer, pointless adrenaline rush becomes a pleasure. Just like with extreme sports, our amygdala (which forms and stores memories linked to emotion) teaches us that precautions and training – or the remove of the screen – can allow us to enjoy our fear. Although, evidence suggests that some people get more of a dopamine kick out of this than others and that the ‘flashbulb’ memories created by moments of extreme fear or surprise can be high impact – explaining why some people who have been traumatised in the past by a haunted house or an embarrassing incident might have a lower tolerance for fear or awkwardness than others. My friend always talks about her ‘low cringe threshold’ as an explanation for her hatred of cinematic shmultz or celebrations of awkwardness like ‘American Pie’. Perhaps subconsciously this has its roots in her own chilling history with ‘cringe factor’.
There is another evolutionary argument for why we thrill in fear: stimulation and deviation from the norm is enjoyable because it helps us seek out new resources. Like reaching level 100 in a shoot ‘em up videogame, fear can teach us how to cope with new situations. At the very least sitting through a particularly scary film can give us a self-esteem hit for being so brave.
But maybe my favourite thing about awkwardness is that it doesn’t serve a purpose. It’s one of those emotions that bubbles up and then, once it has been acknowledged, goes back under again until the next time you need it – a bit like the warm, gentle tears that come into your eyes for a moment when you read or see something that can’t hurt you, maybe it isn’t even that obviously ‘sad,’ maybe it’s really lovely, whatever it is, it just gets you. It’s like an old friend that you can see after years and nothing will have changed or a little chuckle you have at something – an advert or a line in a book – that you will never remember again.
Awkwardness is not a means to and end; it doesn’t demand to be dealt with in the way that anger or worry do. This doesn’t mean it’s always an easy ride and at its most chronic it can be an uncomfortable, debilitating symptom of deeper personal anxieties. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so harsh on those that struggle with it.
Last year John Williams’ 1965 novel Stoner (about an eponymous university professor, rather than a hipster who likes to get high) experienced an unprecedented surge in popularity, after previously going out of print. Writing for the Guardian about how the novel became his book of 2013, Julian Barnes said: “Williams is wonderful at human awkwardness, at physical and emotional shyness, at not speaking your mind or your heart, either because you cannot articulate them, or because you simply cannot follow what has happened, or both.”
In her TED talk “The Power of Introverts” Susan Cain, author of the bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in A World That Can’t Stop Talking, describes the “self-negating choices” she made as a young introvert trying to sway to the bias of our pro-extrovert culture. There is a quality of truthfulness, honesty – whatever the opposite of ‘self-negation’ is – to awkwardness that might be what gives it its magic. You can’t fake it. You could try, but it would be something like a badly performed magic trick: pointless, boring, lacking in sparkle. So it has an authenticity, a sincerity, which for its very ambivalence is hard to find our clean and colourful, air brushed modern world.
So even when it feels unpleasant there is arguably an intrinsic value in the spontaneous moment of authenticity that awkwardness brings. When giving Mason Junior an (I suspect typically extroverted) pep talk about breaking up with his girlfriend, Hawke’s Mason Senior tells his son he should treasure the fact he is still “feeling things.” Sincerity of feeling, even if it’s hard to express – as Mason Junior tells Sheena earlier in the film, “words are stupid” – turns out to be the closest thing to the meaning of life that a father can teach his grown son.
While Mason Senior’s life pans out increasingly smoothly, William Stoner has what would widely be considered a mediocre career, a deeply unsuccessful marriage, a thwarted love affair and an increasingly distant relationship with his daughter. He is not particularly talented, articulate, socially accomplished or charming. He is awkward; certainly he prefers ‘quiet.’ But his creator John Williams insists: “He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing.” It’s the same sort of message: whatever you do, or don’t do, do it with some feeling.
The final scene of ‘Boyhood’ has twinges of awkwardness. Indeed both times I’ve watched it the final moments saw audience members forced into those breathy, barking laughs people make when they cringe. Mason and Nicole, a fellow student he has just met, are flirting and he mumbles a comment about how every moment in life is right now, which hovers somewhere between the nonsense pretentiousness only a hash brownie can bring and the sweetly true insight of youth. The pause after the line, as Nicole laughs, looks down, looks up, looks away is the perfect ending to a film in which Richard Linklater, an undoubted genius with words and virtuoso of the chatterbox (just watch any of his earliest films, or the ‘Before’ trilogy – he writes a mean monologue), paid tribute to the beauty of silence, inarticulacy and saying the wrong thing.