Edgar Wright’s The World’s End is about a disappointment particular to a small-town local’s recrudescence, about both the urge to return to the place of one’s youth and the disillusionment inherent in doing so. It proposes that the worst thing about moving from your small hometown to the big city is the sad realization that your small hometown doesn’t care that you left. You inevitably find yourself, some years later, stirred quite inexplicably by nostalgia, overcome by an encroaching fondness in young adulthood for precisely the things you wanted most desperately to leave behind in adolescence. And so you venture back, expecting that your homecoming will feel somehow triumphant, a vindication of an imagined legacy, as if the entire town had been anticipating your long-awaited return from the very moment you left. But what you find instead is nothing, as you’re greeted not with the grand hurrah of a hero’s welcome, but rather a kind of blankness, the unchanged fixtures of your youth no more glad to see you than a stranger. You’re left to face the truth: that your hometown matters more to you than you ever did to it.
It’s a bitter lesson. But what’s remarkable, and sublime, about The World’s End is that it isn’t content to simply chronicle a formative experience and articulate the attendant pain. Wright understands that the cinema has the capacity not only to recreate lived experience, but to offer constructive and cathartic alternatives to it, working through difficult issues by engaging and then reconfiguring them. The fantasy scenarios that emerge throughout Wright’s work represent attempts to redirect and repurpose frustrations and anxieties that lack a healthy, sustainable outlet in ordinary life. He’s taking real, palpable pain and making something useful and wonderful and fun out of it: The familiar genre conventions he adopts become formal manifestations of the desire common to all of us to see the great big confusing messiness of our lives rendered clear and legible. Life, Wright concedes, is complicated and exhausting and basically just hard; the stuff we deal with every day, from relationships to familial responsibility to even just getting up for work in the morning, makes fending off zombies or cultists or straightforward baddies of any kind seem preferable.
This is hardly a new approach for Wright. In Spaced, the popular but short-lived Channel 4 series he directed for co-writers Jessica Stevenson and longtime collaborator Simon Pegg, the struggle of two twentysomething creatives to claw their way out of dead-end minimum-wage jobs and see their loftier professional ambitions realized was tempered by fleeting retreats into pop-culture daydreams, where reality might look like Murder, She Wrote one moment and Resident Evil 2 the next. Shaun of the Dead took this device a step further: When a breakup violently disrupts the complacent man-child bubble of its hero, zombies arrive to violently disrupt the whole world along with it, reframing one man’s personal efforts to grow and learn the value of responsibility as a more literal question of life and death. Hot Fuzz imagined the traditional conservatism of rural England as an outright conspiracy, one which could be thwarted only with recourse to the tropes of the buddy-action film. And Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, meanwhile, plunged headlong into its youthful reveries, inflecting every gesture with the tenor of a comic book or video game and making even dating a battle royale against evil exes.
The World’s End renews this well-cultivated strategy, here at its most refined. It takes the essence of Wright’s earliest work with Pegg—the perennial but sympathetic loser unable or unwilling to embrace maturity and graduate into adulthood proper—and marries it to the more accomplished style developed over his recent features, which have found him abandoning his former televisual habits in favor of an aesthetic more resolutely cinematic. The result is Wright’s masterpiece.
The film opens in flashback: Gary King (Pegg) regales us in voiceover with the story of the best night of his life, in which he and his four closest high school friends made a go of their small hometown’s infamous 12-pint, 12-pub quest-bender, “the Golden Mile,” tapping out four stops before the end. Wright shoots this sequence in a hazy, sun-bleached approximation of ‘80s-era home movies, scoring it to classic Britpop and lending the proceedings an air of freewheeling exaltation. But he then undermines his style’s own vigorous sweep: As Gary’s monologue reaches its conclusion, a shock cut reveals that he’s been telling this story to his Alcoholics Anonymous circle, whose dead-eyed stares and cough-punctured silence in response recasts his joie de vivre as essentially pathetic.
This sequence sets the tone of much of what’s to come: Gary, unmoored and unchanged since that fated Golden Mile, decides to gather his former gang together for a return home and, he hopes, a return to the glory days of old. And so he assembles his team—Peter (Eddie Marsan), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine), and Andrew (Nick Frost)—and trucks the decidedly uninterested bunch back out to Newton Haven, the sleepy British hamlet where they grew up. The early scenes of their strained reunion and journey back to town have a deliberately stilted, even unfunny quality, with Gary rattling off jokes that fall flat and generally finding more derision than good times. Past trauma, including one oft-alluded to rift between Gary and Andrew, has long-ago curdled the friendship of the group. Their contempt for Gary has calcified in the years since the group split and went their separate ways, and it lies over every interaction like a thin film that settles on a bowl of tomato soup.
Eventually, of course, the acute pain of lived experience once again finds itself channeled, almost therapeutically, into the conventions of a recognizable genre, this time around the science-fiction fantasy of the sort popularized in the mid-1950s. The central theme—the disenchantment that arises when that nostalgic impulse to return home is followed through—is here projected atop insidious alien invaders, a body-snatching but otherwise benevolent race conspiring to replace an unruly populace with more subservient plastic models. This dimension of the story isn’t introduced until nearly halfway into the film, and the tonal and stylistic pivot required to account for it seems considerably more jarring than, say, the steady and seamless shift from rom-com to zombie film undertaken by Shaun of the Dead.
The reason is that The World’s End, far more than any Wright film before it, is an ordinary drama embellished and in some sense infringed on by genre elements rather than the other way around, which is to say that it’s the Wright film which most confidently and openly grapples with its weighty thematic issues before sublimating them into something supernatural. It’s only once the film has reached its breaking point—when it can no longer support the weight of the drama and the narrative seems on the verge of collapse—that it turns to action and special effects. After rather tortuously ushering his former mates through four of their planned dozen pubs, the group declares that they’ve had more than enough of Gary, whose total lack of maturation nearing 40 stands in sharp contrast to their established careers and family lives. It’s decided that round four will be the last; Gary, crestfallen, slinks off to pee before the leave. It’s there that he encounters the first of what will be many robots to come, and it proves to be the excuse he needs to keep them on their journey and prove himself worthy of their affection.
These elements aren’t meant to lighten or dumb down the proceedings, but to liberate the characters and the audience from a situation which has finally escalated to the point of unbearable. The joke is that the presence of the robots, while obviously terrifying, actually alleviates the pain of the situation: The disappointment you feel when you realize that nobody in your small hometown recognizes or remembers you is explained by the fact that, yes, they’ve all been replaced by robots. The film suggests, quite brilliantly, that this is somehow less scary than the alternative. This is a mature, sophisticated approach to issues of responsibility, friendship, nostalgia, and growing up, not just a lark through sci-fi history, but a commendable attempt to grapple with something real. The situation does indeed turn catastrophic, and nothing past the robot reveal is meant to be taken as dramatically credible. It doesn’t matter. However outlandish the film gets in terms of content, it’s founded on a basic emotional truth, one it articulates beautifully.
Could any other filmmaker working today be expected to helm a $20 million blockbuster sci-fi comedy and make it among the most personal and affecting films of the year? It’s clear now, after four features and all manner of TV work, that Wright belongs not only in the pantheon of comic auteurs, but more specifically to what Dave Kehr described as an “almost antiart tradition, that of the comic filmmaker who, in pursuit of his particular vision, gradually leaves his audience behind as his obsessive explorations take him into ever more dangerous territory.” Kehr observed that “the movies seem to produce one obsessive comic genius every 20 or 30 years: Buster Keaton in the 20s, Frank Tashlin in the 50s, Jacques Tati in the 60s.” If Albert Brooks was that genius for the 1980s, Wright seems an ideal candidate for nomination in the 2010s.
Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman Director: Edgar Wright Screenwriter: Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 109 min Rating: R Year: 2013 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Berlinale 2019: A Dog Called Money, Lemebel, & Searching Eva
Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices, nine of the Panorma sidebar’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.
The ostensible goal of the Berlinale’s Panorama sidebar is to offer a 360-degree snapshot of the current state of world cinema, but this year its curators seem inordinately concerned with the pursuit of artistry. Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices—Honor Swinton Byrne as a fledgling filmmaker in Joanna Hogg’s sublime The Souvenir, and Mei Kayama as a cartoonist with cerebral palsy in Hikari’s sweet-natured 37 Seconds—nine of the section’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.
Among these, A Dog Called Money is perhaps the most fascinating, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Directed by photographer Seamus Murphy, it charts the making of PJ Harvey’s 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project, which was directly inspired by trips the pair took to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and deprived neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. The famously publicity-shy Harvey then took the unlikely step of turning the recording process into an art installation, setting up a pop-up studio in London’s opulent Somerset House, and inviting members of the public to observe her at work through a one-way mirror.
Though the project appears to have been a noble attempt on Harvey’s part to broaden her political and cultural horizons, A Dog Called Money demystifies her creative process in a manner that proves extremely unflattering. Murphy presents the overseas excursions solely as material-gathering missions: We see Harvey exposed to human suffering in various guises, and hear her recite song lyrics that matter-of-factly recount her observations, but are offered no insight into her overarching aims for The Hope Six Demolition Project, and no sense of how these experiences may have affected her worldview.
There’s something strangely distasteful about the way Murphy juxtaposes haunting footage of Middle Eastern warzones and American ghettos with scenes of Harvey, safely cocooned in her sleek studio, joking around with her overwhelmingly white band as they endeavor to distill the world’s misery into a whimsical art project. And frustratingly, the film fails to address the controversy surrounding album opener “Community of Hope,” which describes Washington D.C.’s predominantly black Ward 7 as a “drug town” full of “zombies,” and which led to a local official ridiculously saying that Harvey is “to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.”
Joanna Reposi Garibaldi’s Lemebel, which just won the Teddy Award for best queer-themed documentary, does a far better job of representing the aspirations and achievements of a politically motivated artist. The film explores the career of late Chilean writer and activist Pedro Lemebel, who spearheaded a public LGBT rights movement amid the hostile environment of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Weaving together evocative archive footage, intimate talking-head interviews, and grainy home movies, Garibaldi charts the formation of Lemebel’s provocative queer collective dubbed the Mares of the Apocalypse, his flair for attention-grabbing performance art, and his masterly manipulation of Chile’s mainstream media.
An erudite raconteur, Lemebel is fascinating when discussing the intersection of LGBT and working-class communities, and appears remarkably ahead of his time when explaining his rejection of the word “gay” and his reclamation of derogatory terms like “maricón.” Occasionally it seems that Garibaldi, who befriended Lemebel years before attempting to make the film, is a little too close to her subject to offer an objective portrait. She fails, for example, to interrogate Lemebel’s conspiratorial views about the origins of AIDS. But given the fearless, trailblazing nature of his work, a somewhat hagiographic approach can be forgiven.
Many would surely balk at the description of Eva Collè, an obscure twentysomething blogger and Instagrammer, as an “artist.” But her scattershot, disarmingly frank musings on Tumblr have inspired a formally ambitious documentary feature, Pia Hellenthal’s Searching Eva. The film delivers an impressionistic account of this nomadic young woman’s compellingly chaotic existence, encompassing her move from conservative small-town Italy to hedonistic Berlin, her professional experiences as a sex worker and fashion model, her embrace of sexual fluidity, and her struggles with drug use and mental illness.
To underscore the fact that Collè elects to live out her daily dramas before an enthralled online audience, the film is narrated by anonymous comments lifted directly from her blogs. But while said comments tend to be either blindly sycophantic or scathingly judgmental, Hellenthal delivers a refreshingly even-handed assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of online culture. Eva seems to derive much of her self-worth from the knowledge that she inspires others to be their authentic selves. And there’s a sense that the barrage of criticism she faces only strengthens her resolve to carve her own path through life.
Hellenthal’s perspective becomes much harder to fathom when she’s exploring Collè’s life philosophy, which seems to boil down to a flat rejection of any label you might try and attach to her. At one point, Eva states her intention never to work a conventional job, on the grounds that the working class must refuse to be defined primarily as a workforce in order to make its mark. But it’s unclear whether Hellenthal regards this as a bold political statement or the pseudointellectual ramblings of a self-involved millennial attempting to justify her decadent existence. Those who suspect the latter will likely have a hard time fully embracing Searching Eva, but its assured approach to nonlinear storytelling makes the journey worthwhile.
Berlinale runs from February 7—17.
Berlinale 2019: I Was at Home, But, So Long, My Son, and Ghost Town Anthology
These films depict in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting the dead’s presence in our lives.
The dead haunt Berlin. The Martin-Gropius-Bau, the museum building in which the Berlinale’s European Film Market is hosted, is still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin—as are many other buildings in the center of the city. A 10-minute walk north of Potsdamer Platz, the center of the film festival, is the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction down Stresemannstraße and you’ll see the bombed-out façade of Anhalter Bahnhof, once one of Europe’s most resplendent train stations. And all over Berlin, you trip over Stolpersteine (or “stumble-stones”), small, square, brass plaques laid into the sidewalk bearing the names of former residents of that street, dispossessed and killed by the Nazis.
Like any city, Berlin is many things, and it’s certainly most known today for much more than its tragic past. But the history of the 20th century is in particular written across its face, and while it can be easy to turn your gaze away from the dead, they remain a part of life in Germany’s capital. Several of the best films up for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale contemplate the persistence of the dead in the lives of the living, depicting in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting this presence in our lives.
Set in Berlin, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But opens with an anomalous prologue that foreshadows the film’s equal-parts mix of despair and world weariness, of tragedy and banality. A dog excitedly chases a rabbit; the camera catches the rabbit initially running, and then seeming to give up, panting on a rock. In the next shot, the dog is greedily pulling apart the rabbit carcass in its den, a dilapidated building it appears to share with a donkey. It’s a potentially fruitful odd-couple scenario: You can almost read subdued exasperation in the donkey’s face as it ignores its roommate’s greedy consumption of a fellow herbivore.
What does this prologue have to do with the remainder of the film, which concerns a woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), and her children’s flailing attempts to process the grief of losing their husband and father? This quietly masterful film never even comes close to connecting these threads for its audience, requiring us to make connections on our own. We’ll see a foot being bandaged, but not the event that caused the injury, and characters dancing to entertain someone in a hospital bed, but not the person in the bed. Elsewhere, a needlessly obstinate Astrid demands money back for a perfectly reparable bicycle she bought on the cheap, and middle-school kids perform Hamlet in the most neutral of ways.
These still, vignette-like scenes elliptically narrate Phillip’s (Jakob Lassalle) week-long disappearance and return. Infused with the profound pain of grief and with the consciousness that such pain is both inescapable and futile, a universal tragedy that has played out innumerable times, each scene in I Was at Home, But could stand on its own. Assembled together, they comprise a story told between the lines. When Astrid theatrically collapses in front of a headstone, lying silent and immobile like a stage corpse, we don’t need the camera to show us the name on the grave to let us know which tragedy she’s currently performing.
Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a pointed critique of China’s one-child policy, which was relaxed in 2013. Cutting between at least four different periods in the life of a couple, Liyun and Yaojun (Mei Yong and Wang Jingchun), whose family is shattered over and over again—first with a forced abortion, then with the drowning death of their biological son, and finally when their adopted son absconds from their home—the film is a stark condemnation of an inhuman measure undertaken for the sake of the ultimately abandoned dream of a workers’ utopia. Surprising for a film produced in a country with heavy censorship, the story is explicit in its political and ethical concerns, demonstrating how China’s strict rules in the 1980s imposed unjust sacrifices on the country’s people only so, as one shot set in today’s Beijing suggests, shopping malls could be erected behind statues of Mao Zedong.
Mixing around the story’s timeline, Wang opens with the death of Liyun and Yaojun’s son, and flashes forward to their adopted son, also named Xingxing, fleeing home, so that Liyun’s coerced abortion feels like a third loss, even though it actually comes first. This captures something of the temporality of regret: The abortion, which Liyun was pressured into having by Haiyan (Haiyan Li), a close friend and local communist party functionary, is the decisive tragedy of their lives. Having been denied the choice of having a second child, Yaojun and Liyun’s repressed grief and self-imposed exile away from the pain of their old relations has excluded them from sharing in the winnings wrought by China’s rise.
The unhappy accidents, betrayals, and suppressed resentment that make up the story could easily lend themselves to overwrought, melodramatic treatment, but Wang’s dedication to the details of Chinese working-class life grounds the film in a reality unmarked by melodrama’s hazy-eyed stylizations. Fine leading performances by Wang and Yong capture the simmering sadness of a life whose fulfillment was precluded by an overbearing ideology. So Long, My Son runs a bit long, piling a few too many poetic parallelisms into a protracted conclusion, but it’s a precisely constructed, deeply felt, and humane drama.
The wackiest of the competition’s films that contemplate loss is Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, which sees the Quebecois director returning to his favored rural Canadian terrain with an ensemble cast. Shot on grainy 16mm, and somewhat resembling a ‘70s-era drive-in cheapie, the film remixes the iconography of ghost stories and post-apocalyptic thrillers to narrate its characters’ collective confrontation with death.
A town of 215 residents somewhere in Francophone Canada is rocked by what their imperious mayor calls “our first death in a long time,” the presumed suicide-by-car-crash of the 21-year-old Simon Dubé. That Simon’s death is the first in a long time raises a couple of questions about the dreary and desolate village: Where are the old people and, for that matter, where are the children? Côté shows us some children, but they’re strange, impish creatures who wear clay masks and heavy ponchos, and they appear to live in the surrounding woods. When Simon’s car crashes, they play amid the wreckage; later, they chase the frightful, innocent Adele (Larissa Corriveau) into an abandoned garage, backed this time by a group of adults who stand silently behind them in the snow, simply staring forward.
It turns out that the dead are returning but not exactly back to life; this isn’t George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the ghostly figures who begin sprouting from the snowy landscape don’t do much of anything but stand and blankly stare. The villagers, accustomed to a life close to outsiders—Côté makes his point clear when a hijab-draped official sent by the government to consult with the mayor elicits cool, suspicious stares from the denizens—are forced by the dead’s mere presence to confront what lies beyond their provincial life. “They’re like us, in a way,” one character muses toward the end of Ghost Town Anthology, a belated realization that the radical difference of death is also a commonality.
Berlinale runs from February 7—17.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Film Editing
Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories?
Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories? AMPAS has officially brought more queens back from the brink than this year’s season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars. Now that the academy has reneged on its plans to snip four categories from the live Oscar telecast, after first attempting damage control and assuring members that it will still run those four awards as not-so-instant replays in edited-down form later on in the show, we can once again turn our attention to the other editing that’s so vexed Film Twitter this Oscar season. We yield the floor to Twitter user Pramit Chatterjee:
People, actual fucking people, are watching scene after scene like this and are saying “bruuuh! best. movie. of. the. year”?
This is objectively bad. Someone with no idea about editing will notice it. My brain is on fire thinking that this is an OSCAR NOMINATED MOVIE! FUCK! pic.twitter.com/QVDCxe2iaf
— Pramit Chatterjee 🌈 (@pramitheus) January 26, 2019
Very fuck! The academy would’ve been shooting itself in the foot by not airing what’s starting to feel like one of this year’s most competitive Oscar categories—a category that seems like it’s at the center of ground zero for the voters who, as a fresh New York Times survey of anonymous Oscar ballots confirms, are as unashamedly entertained by a blockbuster that critics called utterly worthless as they are feeling vengeful against those who would dare call a film they loved racist. Interestingly enough, the New York Times’s panel of voters seems palpably aware that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is the nominee this year that’s going to go down in history as the “right thing” they’ll be embarrassed for not “doing.” No arguments from this corner. Lee’s film is narratively propulsive and knotty in ways that ought to translate into a no-brainer win here. (My cohort Ed recently mused that he’d give the film the Oscar just for the energy it displays cutting back and forth during phone conversations.)
We’re glad that the academy walked back its decision to not honor two of the most crucial elements of the medium (editing and cinematography) on the live Oscar telecast, but what we’re left with is the dawning horror that the formless flailing exemplified by the clip above might actually win this damned award. Guy Lodge sarcastically mused on the upside of Pramit’s incredulous tweet, “I’ve never seen so many people on Twitter discussing the art of film editing before,” and honestly, it does feel like Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody getting publicly dog-walked like this stands to teach baby cinephiles-in-training the language of the cut as well as any of the myriad montages the show producers intended on airing in lieu of, you know, actually awarding craftspeople. But only a fraction of the voting body has to feel sympathy for John Ottman (whose career, for the record, goes all the way back with Bryan Singer), or express admiration that he managed to assemble the raw materials from a legendarily chaotic project into an international blockbuster. The rest of the academy has their ostrich heads plunged far enough into the sand to take care of the rest.
Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody
Could Win: BlacKkKlansman
Should Win: BlacKkKlansman