Monday, September 23, 2013

The Spectacular Now

Filmed in and around Athens, Ga., but not necessarily set in Athens, The Spectacular Now (2013) creates a paradoxical tension for the viewer who knows and lives in the places the film displays.  We want on the one hand to connect the events and people of the film with those places, but the film doesn’t necessarily encourage connections.  And although, according to director James Ponsoldt, filming in Athens allowed him to make use of emotional resonances stirred up by the images of his childhood and adolescence, the film isn’t really about his hometown.  It’s about a small and not always charming small town where the characters live and which most of them want to escape.

Ponsoldt has an impressive ability to create characters who don’t come across as Hollywood actors pretending to be normal people.  We saw this clearly in one of his earlier films, Smashed (2012), and there is little that is glamorous about the two main characters in this newer film.  Sutter (Miles Teller) has scars on his neck.  Aimee (Shailene Woodley) has bumps on her face, and she’s slender without the emaciation of a starlet model.  Neither is heavily made up.  Allie lives in a small, nondescript  home.  Ponsoldt, in an after-film question and answer session, credited the intelligence of the actors in understanding their characters and the importance of making them “normal.”  However, he clearly insisted on their normalcy, so that his film would give us characters we could be interested in, even identify with, not on a wish fulfillment level but on that of personal experience.

Let me be clear.  The main characters Sutter and Aimee are eighteen-year-old graduating high school seniors.  It’s been a long, long time since I was their age, or lived through the kinds of experiences they have. I don’t automatically identify with them, especially Sutter, who’s conflicted and complicated.  Amy’s innocence, her willingness to overlook Sutter’s failings (except, perhaps, in the film’s final moment) seemed to me a bit much.  But Ponsoldt makes these characters credible, and in the end you care about them because he’s made it possible on some level for you to understand and empathize with them as real human individuals.


Characters drive this film, just as they drove Smashed.  Ponsoldt is a gifted filmmaker.  His comments following the showing of The Spectacular Now at Athens CinĂ© (Athens, GA) made clear how steeped he is in film tradition.  He is highly articulate and his intelligence certainly comes across in the film.  Yet his background and training are not a hindrance in the film.  The only direct influence I saw in The Specatcular Now was Say Anything (1989, dir. Cameron Crowe).  Its two main characters—a goofball, directionless male and an intelligent, high-achieving young woman—are similar to Aimee and Sutter in this film.  Sutter resembled John Cusack of Say Anything in both appearance and personality.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Juicy and Delicious, by Lucy Alibar

Juicy and Delicious (New York: Diversion Books, 2012) by Lucy Alibar is the play that inspired the film Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Alibar knew director Benh Zeitlin, and years after she wrote the play, he approached her about adapting it as a film.  Together they wrote the screenplay.  There are several major differences between play and film.  One is the gender of Hushpuppy, who was male in the play and female in the film.  Another is the setting—Georgia in the play and Louisiana in the film.  The play is impressionistic, in the fashion of what we might call magical realism.  Certainly it is told from the child’s viewpoint.  It has the same sort of whacky, off-beat, fanciful humor as the film.  The film uses much of the dialogue in the play, some of it nearly verbatim, some of it changed.  The fact that Hushpuppy becomes a girl in the film creates an additional level of humor and irony, especially in the scene where the father tells Hushpuppy that “you are the man.”  The play creates the story in the child’s imagination, and uses the aurochs as well as the approaching “end of the world” presaged by Hushpuppy’s schoolteacher Joy as a metaphor or representation of how the child is working his way towards acceptance of his father’s impending death.  The storm (considerably more of an event in the film) and the boat on which Hushpuppy embarks after the storm, and after his father’s death, are also part of the play.  Essentially, the film fills in details of plot and character without significantly reducing the fanciful nature of the play.  And while the play probably didn’t work very well in performance—it is too slight (and too short)—the film works very well.  What is surprising is how fully the film incorporates the essence of the play, its underlying issues and images and characters and motifs, but most of all its tone and atmosphere.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Look Away, Look Away!, by Wilton Barnhardt

Look Away, Look Away! (St. Martin's Press, 2013), by Wilton Barnhardt) offers perhaps the most comical and painful account of a nightmarish Christmas dinner ever in American fiction.  A family undergoes a general breakdown and chaos erupts.  And if Barnhardt's account of sorority and fraternity life at UNC Chapel Hill in the early 2000s is remotely true, the NC governor ought to call out the state National Guard to subdue the depravity.

This novel about the decline of a Charlotte, NC family in the early 2000s, prior to the Great Recession, includes a vacuous college girl whose goal is to go to college and find a husband; her sister, of many appetites, especially gustatory and sexual, who against all expectations makes a killing in real estate; her brother, who hides his gayness from his parents by bringing his African American lesbian partner to family gatherings as proof of his heterosexuality; his oldest brother, a Presbyterian minister; their parents, a conniving and ruthless mother who resorts to every imaginable stratagem to maintain her place in the upper-crust social structure of the Charlotte community; her husband, a lawyer whose prospects as a political candidate inexplicably tanked some years before, and who spends his time puttering with his civil war relics; and his brother in law, a successful writer with real talent who squandered a promising career by turning to the writing of potboilers to make money, and who’s bitter that critics no longer show him respect, and so on.

This satiric novel traces the decline of the genteel Old South through the misfortunes of this self-absorbed family.  Barnhardt is never sure of his own attitudes towards his characters.  Early in the novel he treats them with merciless scorn, but as the narrative progresses his attitude softens, as if he feels sorry for them.  His targets are too easy and obvious—the vapor headed sorority girl, the puttering Civil War buff, the real estate maven, the brother who hides his gayness, the would-be Scarlet O’Hara.  It’s too easy to make fun of these figures, and because it’s easy, the satire often seems superficial. 

Too often Barnhardt's characters provide long histories of society in Charlotte or the real estate market.  In such moments the novel grinds to a halt.


Look Away, Look Away! is a comic melodrama that in the end shows too much fondness for its own characters, even as it lambasts them.