In our contemporary blogosphere, it’s becoming commonplace for opinion pieces to spark galled backlash. With these internet ripostes in mind, allow me to start by addressing a point that’s heated “Jezebel” and “The Gloss” writers alike. I am now and have always been of the opinion that skinny female characters and the actresses who portray them can most certainly be strong. Some examples of this reality include Jada Pinkett Smith as The Matrix trilogy’s Niobe: a skinny woman who’s physically buff and whose on-screen presence as captain of the Logos packs a commanding wallop. Jennifer Lawrence as The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen: a skinny woman who exudes strength in controlled stoicism, perseverance, deft reflexes, and cunning. Emilia Clarke as Game of Thrones‘ Daenerys Targaryen: a skinny woman who commands dragons, the most powerful weapons in all of Westeros… when she can find them. In fact, my list of skinny badass women could go on for the duration of this entry because, quite frankly, skinny badass women proliferate the action genre. In some cases, the tiny but strong physiques that parade across theater screens are totally warranted, such as Katniss Everdeen’s lifetime of meager rations and near-starvation, which produced not only her precision in archery but also her emaciated frame.
These rare cases of justified slenderness aside, last weekend I begrudgingly sat through an aspiring blockbuster which reminded me all too blatantly that in most cases Hollywood’s coveted runway-ready action heroines possess slender builds that go without explanation, or outright contradict their characters’ backstories. Said film that I knew I would execrate from the first teaser trailer was 300: Rise of an Empire.
Now in a continued effort to keep the peace, let me apologize henceforth to anyone who adored the second installment of the 300 franchise and warn anyone who’s optimistically awaiting the DVD release that these next paragraphs aren’t for you. I would hate to rain on anyone’s pending parade but in my effort to lay down the skinny, an explanation is in order.
Perhaps my seventh grade history reenactment of the Battle of Thermopylae gives me a sense of personal connection to the story, or perhaps sneaking into the sold out premiere after enduring Wild Hogs and being forced to sit in my friend Davin’s lap in the front row made it all the more exhilarating, but 300 is one of my all-time favorite movies. A hyper-stylized, Greco-fetishism action film whose place in my heart outlived my teenage affinity for violent, adrenaline-fueled cinema, 300 is like a classical painting injected with testosterone and set to a mashup of choral hymns and industrial guitar performed in a Mediterranean arena. Couple this with my Frank Miller phase sophomore year of high school, during which all my paintings suddenly looked like Sin City and all the dialogue in my stories had the private investigator timbre of a film noir revival, and it’s a shoo-in that 300 would have me hooked.
As such, from the minute my ear registered the first inklings of a possible sequel, I knew I was in for a pile of sepia-toned, slow-motion dog crap. And when I broke down and saw the film as an escape from last Sunday’s heatwave, my expectations were not disappointed. Seven years ago when it was released, 300 was something we hadn’t seen yet. Sure Neo’s back-bending, decelerated bullet dodge in The Matrix ushered in the stylized fight sequences that pervade action films to this day, but as far as I’m concerned 300 was a new form of visual gluttony that was candidly cool. From the sheer mythos of ancient Spartans, to the absorbing narration, to the gritty and simultaneously painterly aesthetic, to the machismo choreography, to Gerard Butler and his conical beard, and to the archetypal characterizations–every facet of this narrative oozed cool.
Zack Snyder may have taken the M. Night Shyamalan route and fallen quickly from a laudable perch in film esteem to directorial leper, but based on the utter disaster that is 300: Rise of an Empire, upcoming director Noam Murro could do with a touch of Shyamalan. Where 300 was fresh cinematic confectionery, 300: Rise of an Empire came seven years too late, after a horde of fanboys reproduced its aesthetic to death in both film and television, à la The Immortals and Spartacus. As if this latency weren’t enough, 300: Rise of an Empire then took everything that was impressive about its predecessor and lamed it past the point of entertainment. Where 300 presented us with hardcore-by-definition Spartans, it’s sequel centralized around the farmers and poets of Athens, and expected us to believe that men of these dispositions would possess the same chiseled and airbrushed abs of life-long, fanatical warriors. Where 300 brought us iconic dialogue to rev up battles of hand-to-hand combat and impossible feats of flight and strength, Rise of an Empire gave us horrendously convoluted and unimpressive speech, generally followed by tedious ellipses, before merely smashing their CGI ships into one another. Where 300 brought us powerful archetypes, such as the inexplicably behemoth god-king Xerxes, the sequel squandered said mystique with inane, humanizing backstories. Where 300 brought us bizarre, prosthetic monsters that served a purpose, the new release tossed in a couple half-attempts at poorly animated creatures that did nothing but hiss, spit, and disrupt deep sea dreams. And where 300 brought us female dynamism in Queen Gorgo’s plight to aid her husband and her people by whatever means necessary, Rise of an Empire brought us Eva Green.
Prior to seeing the film, I read a review in the Los Angeles Times written by a woman who ranted and raved about Eva Green’s magnetism as the Persian navy’s most formidable commander. While it’s nothing against Green’s acting skills, I found both the writing and choreography for Artemisia dry and unimpressive, and the casting of waif-like Green (who attributes her paper-thin mien to her French affinity for “cigarettes and laziness”) really got my goat for the very reasons I started this blog entry.
Artemisia is a Greek woman betrayed by her countrymen and hot on the trail of vengeance, and as such she’s been training with the Persian herald (of all people) in combat since childhood. Her lifelong vendetta builds her up to be one of Darius’ and Xerxes’ most vicious soldiers, and when she’s pitted against the Athenians at sea, her skill with a sword makes her a killing machine amidst the onslaughts of unexplainably robust seafarers.
With a backstory and profile like that, you’re not pulling one over my eyes this time Hollywood. If Artemisia was a real woman who’d devoted her entire life to Greek-Decapitation Boot Camp, she would at least have arms like these female Adonises:
(And look Hollywood, you could even keep the cinched waist for sex appeal!)
For some reason, despite the beautiful, muscular women like the afore-pictured 1905 “circus strong woman” and 1890’s Vulcana–a woman who actually looks like she beats foes to a pulp for a living, Hollywood insists on ignoring the characters’ profiles and casting the Gal Gadots of the industry as Diana of Themyscira.
Occasionally Hollywood does get it right, utilizing Gwendoline Christie’s striking height of 6’3″ to create a totally believable warrior in Brienne of Tarth, or casting stunt woman-turned-lead-lady Zoë Bell for her genuine physical prowess and ability to literally kick butt. More often than not, Hollywood makes feeble efforts at best, tailoring B-movies to women like mixed martial artist Gina Carano, whose leg locks far supersede her abominable acting. That, or they bypass accuracy altogether in favor of sex appeal.
As a girl who’s been a limp noodle far more times in my life than that period of lopsided racquetball strength and that one year track and field made me muscular, I completely understand the argument that thinness does not equate to weakness. After all, there are numerous fighting styles out there that enable a narrow figure to bring down someone twice their size. Plus, there’s always the fact that a thin actress can bulk up for a role. But I’m not going to kid myself into believing that Hollywood’s decision to cast skinny women as beastly characters is an attempt to emanate female empowerment. Rather than utilizing low-weight modes of combat to their advantage or following in the BBC’s footsteps and casting actors that realistically look the part of their roles, Hollywood is clearly only concerned with selling tickets via sex, and the current mainstream definition of feminine attractiveness is runway model thin… with breasts if she can manage to pull off that Victoria’s Secret feat.
Thus, until the the media’s interpretation of desirability begins to morph towards something of Polynesian proportions, I’ll have to buckle down and swallow my gripes, watching adequately muscular film and television contenders get passed by in the casting hunt for the fiercest commanders of the shitty-remake sea.
Every once in a while, a moving asseveration comes barreling your way through the routines of diurnal life. In my case, yesterday’s unexpectedly stirring experience resulted from a long chain of quotidian events. Forgoing my usual desire to remain bedridden until 10 a.m., it all began with a sudden spurt of productivity at 7:30 in the morning. Hopping out of bed with a vigor my body hasn’t demonstrated since Saint Nick still existed, I got right down to business and washed the sand-steeped vestments that comprised my suitcase while vacationing at Newport beach, entered a juried gallery exhibition on the subject of portraiture, conducted an array of business calls that my indolent-self would have delayed, safeguarded my bank accounts against the Target hacking fiasco, rendezvoused at the grocery store, and ventured to Victoria’s Secret to exchange a blind pity buy I’d made after receiving word that Steve Job’s infantry of Geniuses couldn’t salvage my fried laptop. Because my newfound productivity was so potent, I then decided to take up my neglected hobby of drawing for the first time since completing a festively gruesome Christmas gift that parodied The Walking Dead. Avid illustration led to a late night of BBC mysteries, and watching Mark Williams of Mr. Weasley fame merge Catholic priesthood with amateur sleuthing soon segued into one of OPB’s film critic programs. Thus, at the very end of my long day, it was this adventitious sequence of causality that ultimately introduced me to The Spectacular Now.
I had never heard of The Spectacular Now before, but with my detachment from zeitgeist culture that hardly comes as a surprise. After conducting some curiosity-fueled research and interrogating my movie database boyfriend, I learned that the film’s reception had deemed it “a slightly better than average coming-of-age film.” This response, coupled with the OPB critics’ repeated comparisons to The Way Way Back (a story that only cultivated grins and furrowed brows as it strove for profoundness), made me question whether The Spectacular Now was actually worthwhile. But when restlessness prompted me to watch it at 2 a.m., I was pleasantly surprised by a genuinely resonant narrative: one of those rare, arresting movie experiences that we’re lucky to encounter in a film era where unoriginality runs rampant amidst an endless procession of sequels and remakes.
As its average reception suggests, The Spectacular Now isn’t for everybody, and anyone whose stomach turns at the thought of teenage insecurities, judgment calls, and hormones would be wise to avoid this film. Considering my personal retrospection on the roller coaster that commences at thirteen and keeps you dipping and diving until you’re twenty, I regarded The Spectacular Now as one of the most honest film depictions of teenage sentiment I’ve seen to date, and was very grateful that someone finally endeavored to do it right.
The film starts out in typical teen-flick fashion à la She’s All That and 10 Things I Hate About You. Our protagonist Sutter Keely serves as both a party animal and wounded recipient of a recent break-up, two stereotypes that pervade the coming-of-age genre for their existing veracity. As the diegesis advances, Sutter’s preoccupation with his ex is gradually sidelined by an interest in his humble classmate Aimee Finecky. While the OPB critics dubbed Aimee “the quiet girl,” I would argue that the original author and screen adapter devised a character refreshingly atypical of Hollywood’s teenage pigeonholes. From my perspective, Aimee straddled the archetypal barrier between solitary academia and the whim to experience new phenomena, just as a real teenager exhibits contradictory mannerisms. Not to mention, it was nice to see a character who laughed her way through her dialogue just as persistently as I laughed my way through my entire institutionalized education. Once Sutter and Aimee’s courtship comes to fruition, the film turns to examine another relationship, that of our main character and his absentee father. Subsequently, we witness an estranged 18-year-old become increasingly entrenched in the pathos of inherited alcoholism, subject his relationships to an utter disdain for the future, and ultimately face the crux of how to approach the “now.”
The plot is no revolutionary tour de force by any stretch of the imagination, but the way in which the filmmakers divulge this prosaic concept is immensely effective. The critics discussing the film remarked that cinematic analyses of teenage experience are becoming more frank and relatable, citing The Perks of Being a Wallflower as an exemplary character study. In my opinion, The Spectacular Now takes human verisimilitude to a whole new level by evading the flawlessness coveted in celebrities like Logan Lerman and Emma Watson and instead presenting a cast that looks so natural you might as well be watching a documentary. The last time I was this impressed by the film industry’s stab at reality was when the latest Star Trek franchise allowed Chris Pine’s pockmarked complexion to fill screens in high definition. But even then they had Pine’s pre-established sex appeal to justify such tight cinematography. In The Spectacular Now, makeup was mostly foregone in surrender to the Georgia heat that would have melted it off, and in an uncommon scenario, we’re free to scrutinize scars, pores, double chins, and ultimately the unique beauty of real human visages.
It is this visual candor and the equally credible performances by the film’s principal actors Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley that result in a tangible, recollective look at youth. It’s a shame that my first exposure to Woodley was the trailer for Divergent, in which we’re expected to believe that this unthreateningly skinny girl could aid an ass-kicking insurgent squad while decked out in false eyelashes and thick slabs of concealer befitting children’s beauty pageants and the aging Southern belles who “jog” Forsyth park in hot pink sweatsuits and teased up-dos. If my familiarity with The Spectacular Now had preceded said trailer, I could have saved myself some initial cynicism, revering Woodley as a thoroughly endearing actress whose conjunction with Teller’s charisma yields palpable on-screen chemistry.
Fortunately for those of us with flighty attention spans, this is not your typical Mandy Moore and Shane West love story. True to its sense of authenticity, Sutter’s newfound feelings for Aimee don’t drastically alter his character, and their relationship is periodically marred by an ongoing reverence for his former girlfriend and the assertive asides he makes to a buddy that he’s “just giving this girl a first boyfriend experience.” Where Aimee’s concerned, it broke my heart to watch her fall victim to the rapid stages of First Serious Boyfriend Syndrome, an ailment that can be very detrimental if the first serious boyfriend is emotionally unavailable, infatuated with a previous girlfriend, and prone to abusive behaviors inherited by no fault of his own, all of which define my first serious relationship to a T and serve as further evidence of this film’s cathartic impact.
Examining The Spectacular Now from a critical perspective, there were a few sensationalistic scenes that took me out of the otherwise pragmatic depiction of adolescence. And don’t worry parents, not all senior girls who become helplessly besotted with the school’s resident Bacchus start taking casual swigs from engraved flasks. I also have to admit that some of the dialogue was a bit trite, but overall these clichés reinforce the fact that the characters are in the awkward throes of high school, a period where mentally engaging conversation is few and far in between. Despite this minor limitation, every moment of teenage discomfort, joviality, and sorrow is illustrated perfectly, reinforcing the fact that high school truly is a lodestone for insecurities, superficial behaviors, and the drive to find your personal definition amidst a throng of amorphous identities. Comparably, my own high school experience was riddled with self-centered ephemera and laughably awkward anecdotes, such as the many times I was seated behind one of my boyfriends in Advanced Algebra II and found myself repulsed by the fact that his hands looked like rubber whenever they lay motionless on the desk before him. Or the way I consistently vacillated between extremely loud, obnoxious tomfoolery and respectfully silent and diligent studiousness. I even used to pour serious effort into keeping my eyes wide open at all times to reap compliments about how attractively large my peepers were, and can clearly remember the day I opened my eyelids to their natural resting position and thought to myself, “Why does this feel strangely comfortable?” Lastly, I would be remiss to exclude the hilarious occasion on which I finally succeeded in ensnaring a crush of many months by taking him on a date in my dad’s wholly unsexy Astro Van.
The fact that The Spectacular Now transported me back to the emotions of youth and evoked so many parallel memories speaks to its powerful effectiveness. In striving for an organic ambience, this film melds the universally visceral experience of growing up and harboring raw feelings for others with a very personal story about the perceived absence of love. Not only does the visible heat of the Georgia landscape appeal to my personal ideologue of living in Savannah, but the many dimensions the filmmakers have imbued in their characters allow you to identify with, or become engrossed in, or harbor sympathy for the candid nature of human experience. It’s not often that I see myself, my former boyfriends, and my high school cohort reflected so frankly through the frames of a film, but thanks to the detailed attention paid to actuality, The Spectacular Now proved to be quite the sincere and poignant mirror.