So I’ve got a painful ear infection, and really felt the best use of my time would be to finally finish my musings on The World’s End. Not a review, because that implies some thorough, objective weighing of all the elements and frankly, I freely admit that I’m probably NOT objective in the least. The first 2/3rds of the Cornetto Trilogy already sat proudly near the pinnacle of my Very Favorite Things file. They have done ever since I took a chance on a weird sounding zombie movie (I’m not a zombie fan; childhood “trauma”), just because it was Those Guys from Those Things I really liked late night on IFC (Big Train and Spaced). This is why a friend and I coordinated to collect trading cards and then sit on the sidewalk for hours (8 or so?) to gain access to a special premiere at San Diego Comic-con.
It’s a trust fall for the audience AND the filmmakers, doing those kinds of events. Fortunately, our two rows of people who had been nervously waiting all day immediately relaxed when the movie started. We weren’t thinking about anyone involved with the movie being there. I forgot I was close enough to Nathan Fillion and Alphonso Cuarón to peg them in the head with a Skittle. (I did not throw candy at celebrities. But I could have.) The last time I watched a film under those circumstances, I was keenly aware how hard everyone was trying to enjoy it. This audience didn’t have to. The movie took the wheel.
I could go on about how funny the film is, how subtly brilliant the acting is, how mind bogglingly amazing the action sequences are (poetry and song in a time of static and feedback), how clever it is. I could write an even longer essay than this, and then I’d have time to properly bring up the fantastic work of Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Martin Freeman, Rosamund Pike, and a whole bunch of supporting folks I love. But maybe it’s most important to talk about the poignant and expertly acted dramatic scenes. It speaks to the writing, acting, and directing skill involved that scenes which could have been in a “serious dramatic film!” are seamlessly integrated between action, comedy and sci-fi without seeming heavy-handed or out of place. It’s an established pattern in what has become known as “the Cornetto Trilogy”, that there are scenes that hit you right where you live, in the midst of seemingly unrelatable circumstances like a zombie outbreak (why, just last Tuesday…). But whether it’s an increasing mastery of their skills, the grounded reality of the scenario (I’d venture everyone has known a Gary King), or personal experience, a particular scene in this one really got me.
(to err is human…)
Obviously the most important content in the film would occur in the pub that shares its name. There is a fight over that final pint – the one that Gary simply cannot have – culminating in Nick Frost holding Simon Pegg in a bear hug on the floor. Suddenly we understand where Gary has come from, figuratively and literally. He’s brought everyone to the brink of destruction with him and it’s incredibly powerful. It’s fascinating how it capitalizes on our faith in the relationship between these two men built in the other films, even though the dynamic here is totally different. It’s a brief moment that eloquently summarizes the conflict between them: between the frantic mix of love and anger that motivates those who know an addict to refuse to give up, and the desperate self-destructive desire that drives the addict onwards. Even if you haven’t been on either side of that equation, we’ve all had someone or something we held onto so tightly it hurt, because we were afraid of what would happen if we let go. That’s one of the faces of love. And here it is, on the floor of a pub, as doppelgängers from outer space close in. The incongruity of it somehow makes it more profound. Maybe we’re always just one step away from the raw nerve of our humanity, for those with the skill to get us there.
This moment isn’t an orphan in an unrelated film, either. Why does the film end with Gary and Andy separately? Because together, they were always going to be mutually destructive. Andy would be an enabler. Their relationship is too tied up in co-dependency. That they went their own ways shows they did both grow as characters, so they can thrive separately. Each ends the film “leading” a group of children; Andy is no longer following in Gary’s shadow, and Gary has the self-respect he needs to be a true leader (a king). When they find the right way to let go, it’s not just that they thrive in spite of each other, but because of each other. That’s a really profound message on dealing with the painful past. We cling to it too tightly (like Gary), or try to forget it (like Andy), but what we need to do is accept it whole. When we integrate the good and the bad, we can move forward to real happiness the stronger for all our experiences. Our mistakes are our defining quality, but they don’t have to define us. To err is human.
(the car is not the badge…)
This is a movie that doesn’t just “hold up” to repeat viewings, it benefits from them. Not just for thematic analysis, either. I’m a pretty sharp-eyed viewer, and I did catch much of the foreshadowing and background action on my first watch. But you can’t really appreciate the elegance of how it’s constructed without a few more passes (and, really, some guidance from the filmmakers). This isn’t because it was too subtle or trying to be overly brainy, but because the audience doesn’t need to understand how the engine works for the car to run. It all serves a purpose, it’s not just flash; so you do register all of it on some subconscious level. But popping the hood gives you a new appreciation of the complexity and beauty of what’s really going on to make everything function on the surface. And, look, it’s really flipping genius. It’s not some slapped-together jalopy that gets the job done. If symmetry is the ultimate gauge of physical beauty, in cinema it lends a sense of completeness that is just as compelling. These days perhaps especially there is much to be said for a whole work, that is certain of itself and expert in its motion, regardless of the subject of that work. There could be a whole college paper on the movie’s structure.
It’s such a well-constructed film, it’s hard not to be frustrated that it’s apparently not even in the running for an award (Oscar for “most effective storytelling using lens flares”?). There’s never been much love for sci-fi, but comedy seems to be a death sentence, which is bizarre. It may have had an effect sort of like…well, for many years my grandparents refused to eat Chinese food, until we finally found out they were convinced it all contained dogs and cats. Once disabused of this notion, they found out not only was it not terrifying, they LIKED it. I think many people feel that way about “genre film”; they refuse to even look for what may be lurking beyond their preconceptions of its value. Of course, much moviemaking hasn’t done anything to dispel this idea, and I can’t really blame the marketing; only, perhaps, the close-mindedness of those making judgment on what is “award worthy”.
Good genre films – and frankly any movie could be called a genre film – use their genre as a tool, as a platform to build a story that goes far beyond those perceived limitations. Maybe some people came to The World’s End expecting Beerfest with a British accent and got the best kind of bait-and-switch. I wonder whether anyone fully enjoying drunk people being funny, or a knock-down bar fight, suddenly found themselves in a deeply real and emotional moment at the World’s End, and that punch connected all the more for it. I wonder how many addicts saw a little of themselves, and pondered what that meant; and how many of their friends or family recognized the mechanism of self-destruction. I wonder if it changed anything for them, because that seems more meaningful than any award. Obviously it did something for me, or I wouldn’t go out of my way to talk about it incessantly. Let’s say maybe I have familiarity with how destructive addiction to the pain or successes of the past can be.*
(the roundabout to truth…)
The funny thing about truth is that most of the time we can only get at it sideways. Many things, head on, cause us to shy away and not take them to heart. Like staring at the sun, it takes a camera to help us see. And that’s really the point of storytelling in any media; to use the fabricated to illuminate the real.
I think the reason the trilogy is so beloved – even if it’s mainly in my little corner of the universe – is how effectively they do just that. While there are doubtless multiple valid interpretations of the Cornetto films, here’s my take, which I scrawled down after a movie theater screening of the trilogy (I highly recommend watching them back-to-back). Shaun of the Dead is about fear of the future, Hot Fuzz anchors the middle solidly in the struggle to fully grasp the present, and World’s End is about the weight of the past destroying both. This isn’t at all backwards if you think of the characters aging; I think we’re daunted by the future in youth, and still are as adults but turn to the breadth of the past for comfort. I argued when I initially saw Shaun (and I do mean argued, it was a point of contention) that the zombies were a representation of apathy. With all three in hand, it could be argued the overarching theme is the danger of allowing the status quo (self-imposed or otherwise) to muddle ones’ priorities; the chiefest priority being recognizing the importance of human connection and friendship. So maybe the three films as a whole are united by one theme: that inaction consumes us, but friendship redeems us, and love saves us.
…Look, I wish I could do better justice to it. I’m going to blame my disjointedness on being ill. Grandiose conclusions aside, it’s just a fucking great movie. All three are. I’m going to have to make them an award so they don’t feel left out. I’m serious. Because finally making a blog so I could talk about it isn’t enough. I’ve even got an idea (a filmstrip wearing shades. It’ll have to be a plush or something though)…send me a mailing address, gentlemen.
*Giving up on past mistakes, except maybe the bit where I’m still really gutted that a strange sequence of bizarre coincidences and disasters led me to be AT the after party for the Hollywood premiere of World’s End – which I was 100% uninvited to but made no attempt to crash – and I left. Universe dropped that one in my lap, and I had a complete sitcom moment. Fsck. I need to work more on letting go of THAT.