Saturday, September 7, 2013

Clean Slates and the Cinema of Edgar Wright

Once, I was a train from Gatwick Airport to London, sitting across the aisle from a group of very amiable blokes.  I told them I was American, and as so often happens at home and abroad, the conversation turned to movies.  "You all make the best movies," one of them said, and he proceeded to name highlights from the blockbuster heyday of the 80s: Die Hard, Back to the Future, Robocop, Indiana Jones—films that, like it or not, represent a huge part of America's contribution to world cinema.  He finished his list and lamented, "We don't make anything like that here."  (I repaid the favor by telling him that Britain had produced the best rock music, and that I wished T. Rex and The Jam had caught on in the States.  Travelers, please note that this has proven to be a good way for Americans to break the ice in pubs).

Edgar Wright's "Three Flavours Trilogy"—Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and now The World's End, all co-written by star Simon Pegg—has played largely like an attempt to correct this, grafting genres associated with Hollywood or America onto British settings with a British sense of humor.  To oversimplify it a bit, Shaun was a tribute to George Romero; Fuzz was a tribute to the Bruckheimer mafia; and The World's End, about a small town invaded by body-snatchers, is a tribute to John Carpenter.  The invaders with glowing blue eyes are reminiscent of The Fog (intentionally, from what I hear), and fans of The Thing will thrill to a scene where everyone is accusing one another of being taken over, set to a decidedly Carpenter-esque minimalist synthesizer.  A huge part of the appeal of these films is that Wright is clearly a movie buff's director, more formally accomplished than Kevin Smith and more well-adjusted than Quentin Tarantino, prone to hosting screenings of Lubitsch classics or taking to social media to give a shout-out to obscure Brian De Palma gems.  That this trilogy of genre pastiches borrows its semi-official name from Krzysztof Kieslowski, replacing the colors of the French flag with the flavors of ice cream that cameo in the film, is a salute to middle-brow sensibilities (bless them), a testament to omnivorous cinephilia, and a reminder that in the grand tradition of British comedy, the smartest guys in the room are the best at being silly.

So far, word on the street/Facebook is that The World's End has pleasures to spare but is the weakest of the three.  On the one hand, this is understandable.  In terms of dramaturgy—that ugly, elegant science of moving characters from Point A to Point B as smoothly as possible—it's easily rougher than the other two.  Hot Fuzz in particular was some kind of miracle of comedic screenwriting, driving a complex plot forward, juggling characters, and piling on revelations while still having a good joke roughly every 30 seconds. The World's End is more of a series of repetitive loops, and the vibe of paranoia-as-comedy less developed than in its predecessors.  The World's End may be destined to be the Return of the Jedi of the series, a closing chapter liked by everyone but with few singling it out as their favorite.

That having been said, I would like to stick up for The World's End as not only more than Shaun of the Dead-lite, but also as a progression.  Formally, Wright continues to tinker: the opening scenes are a jerky barrage of sounds and images that reminded me of a vintage Public Enemy album.  But it's the treatment of Pegg's character in particular that goes deeper into emotional territory.  The bromance of Shaun of the Dead was a basic idea done exceptionally well.  The emotions in Hot Fuzz were rooted more in movie tropes than reality, but in exchange, the film had the most subversive, satirical writing of the series.  But the character of Gary King (Pegg), a middle-aged man pining for wild youth, feels downright naked, with a final reveal that should come as no surprise but is still startlingly sincere.

The last twenty years of mainstream comedy have shown no shortage of man-children who never grew up, but Gary is one of the select few—and the first in a long time—to be so potently tragic, chiefly because Pegg and Wright seem to understand how sad someone like Gary really is.  He's not made to seem cool in that loveable, mookish way that's so common; in fact, right down to his messy comb-over, Wright and Pegg go out of their way to make him look pathetic.  It's the interplay between both sides of screen: characters like Gary King are a fixture of entertainment, but real life Gary Kings are a mess.  The bizarro ending (another Carpenter staple), where Gary both appears cured and eerily resembles Sam Raimi's Darkman, represents the appropriate closing of an arc.  Not only has a character obsessed with the Past escaped to the Future, but the character with the most serious baggage of any Wright hero so far has escaped to a world of patent cinematic fantasy.  The World's End may be too messy by half, which is one reason why it's congealed better in my memory than it did on screen.  But it's fitting that this nostalgic farewell to a franchise takes such a thoughtful view of nostalgia, and that it ends by wiping Wright and Pegg's self-contained universe as clean as a blank slate.  After all, a blank slate is a beginning.  It makes me want to see what will come next.