The Spectacular Now is not the kind of movie that works as well if you know what’s coming or what it’s about, and this post will talk to that point, and so you are forewarned that you really ought to see the movie before reading on.
This goes for this movie more than most, because, as I will attempt to explain, the trailer is almost purposely misleading:
Like a lot of people, I actually quite like watching trailers. They often give you the kind of emotional boost that the film itself is at pains to deliver. This one was a bit puzzling, though. It cited what looked like sterling reviews, but it wasn’t clear what the central conflict might be. These kids fall in love and talk about how important the now is — which is nice I guess? — but that didn’t seem to be enough of a dramatic point to carry a whole movie.
It was a Frenchie weekend for me, more specifically, a Frenchie throwback weekend: First I saw 8 Women, Francois Ozon’s murder-mystery-musical from 2002, and Populaire, a romantic comedy released in France last year. Not only were they both French and set in the 1950s, but in both the costuming and decor were so colorful and stylish they bordered on cartoony. Characters from either movie, or at least their clothes, could have been transposed into the other.
Even though they have this much superficially in common, the movies use the 1950s to different ends. I’ll start by talking about Populaire, whose French ‘50s are a lot like the American ‘60s of That Thing You Do!, where the general public shows an enthusiasm for celebrities and fame that feels very dated to a guy born in 1980.
Like the pop-music act of That Thing You Do!, Populaire’s Rose Pamphyle is a starry-eyed small-town girl with innocent aspirations for worldly success. The big difference is that in the world of Populaire, the speed-typing champion of France is conferred the acclaim and attention normally reserved for movie stars. The pure joy and credulousness of popular interest — in That Thing You Do! as well as Populaire — seems perfectly right for the image I have of the 1950s, a decade that, for me, is characterized by vintage advertisements, the kind where the announcer seems blissfully unaware that the listener might be skeptical of what he has to sell. It was a time, I imagine, when the audience’s relationship to stars and glitz was much less troubled and ambiguous than it is today. With this in mind, the idea that speed-typing could hurl you into the limelight is, if not plausible, at least evocative of that period.
That scene I blogged about last week from early in Take This Waltz? Totally referenced later in the same film. To the screen shots!
The top shot is the early nighttime scene, and the bottom is the later daytime scene that comes near the end of the movie. The compositions are a near match, and by starting the second scene this way, director Sarah Polley is practically telegraphing to us that we should be on the lookout for parallels (which are even easier to spot if you’ve already written a blog post about the earlier scene).
I’m as guilty as anyone of not paying enough attention to the use of sound in movies. From Take This Waltz, a movie I’m frustrated at for sociological reasons, here’s a really nice little sequence: