Why you should care

This meditation on growing up from an unsung 1970s auteur belongs alongside this year’s probable Best Picture winner.

Whether or not you agree with me that Boyhood was 2014’s best film, if you watched it, you know you saw something new. Director Richard Linklater has done something unique in filmmaking history: a single narrative movie created over such a long period (12 years) that the viewer’s experience is one of watching the characters age, some from childhood to adulthood, without special effects, in the span of two and a half hours.

Reviewers’ attempts to tie the film to precedents usually stop at Michael Apted’s Up documentary series, which updates us every seven years on the same few lives. Occasionally a reviewer cites the filmmaker François Truffaut, who used Jean-Pierre Léaud to play his young alter ego, Antoine Doinel, in five films shot over 20 years. But there’s a glaring omission in these discussions: 1970s Scottish filmmaker Bill Douglas.

His films move with the erratic, vivid nature of old memories, in exhilarating jumps of time …

Douglas, who died of cancer in 1991 at age 57 and with only four films to his name, isn’t well known even among cinephiles. And yet those who do know him call him one of Britain’s most creative and influential filmmakers. His masterpiece is an autobiographical trilogy, shot in black-and-white over a six-year period. It begins in 1972 with a 46-minute film whose title, My Childhood, already foreshadows Linklater’s magnum opus, and continues with two longer films, My Ain Folk (1973) and My Way Home (1978). The films are set in the 1940s, in the poverty-stricken Scottish mining town of Newcraighall, where Douglas grew up. They tell the bleak, often harrowing coming-of-age story of Jamie (played by Stephen Archibald) who, because his mother is locked in an asylum, lives in destitution with his grandmother and half brother, just down the street from the womanizing father he doesn’t know.

If Boyhood is a film about the experience of growing up, Douglas’ childhood series — closely based on his own life — is about looking back on growing up. In Linklater’s film, the leaps from one year to the next are largely unfelt, except in moments of retrospect, beautifully mimicking the passage of daily life. But Douglas’ films move with the erratic, vivid nature of old memories, in exhilarating jumps of time, leaving narrative gaps for the viewer to fill in.

Watch an eight-part documentary on Bill Douglas (by 400 Blows Productions).

One of the most striking things about Douglas’ image-driven films is how quiet they are — you’ll hear more wind than human voices. They’re quiet in the way childhood memories often are, in an isolated, preoccupied way, interrupted by sudden explosions of noise charged with the anxious energy of a troubled childhood.

Novelist Andrew O’Hagan, one of Douglas’ former students, recalls for me the filmmaker’s strange sensitivity to both noise and silence. “You could sit with Bill saying nothing for quite a long time,” he says, “and there was definitely something meditative in the moment, just as there always is in his films. A sudden noise could upset him, his eyes growing large, anxiety breaking out on his face, as if an unexpected noise could only mean a threat.”

Though Douglas died before he could garner the same degree of praise as his peers, his name belongs alongside Linklater and Truffaut as a daring, original filmmaker who found new ways to show on-screen how a boy becomes a man.

Buy the entire DVD collection of the Bill Douglas trilogy on Amazon, and watch the trailer for the trilogy on YouTube.

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