Wednesday, April 18, 2012
"[They] are so, kind of, like...their lives are so governed by pop culture and media and stuff that they can only think in those terms. So if somebody's having a...breakup with their girlfriend, they imagine it to have the same crushing kind of...feeling as the ending of The Empire Strikes Back."
When Edgar Wright first said these words, he was referring specifically to characters created by himself and Simon Pegg for the TV series "SPACED." However, over a decade after the debut of that program and three feature films later, he could just as easily be speaking for a generation whose have seen their dreams molded, stolen, and resold to them by media. And because of his ability to comprehend that mode of cognition, to meet and engage with it enthusiastically, and to convey deep and important ideas within that paradigm in such a way that it never feels condescending or pandering, it has made him one of the world's most beloved and influential filmmakers of the new century.
And I don't just say all these things because today is his birthday. Nor do I say them because I have a documented history of waxing Wright's car. After all, he doesn't keep one in America, because in this country, they drive on the wrong side of the road.
There are plenty of young and gregarious directors in the business right now, who, through the use of Twitter and blogs, or through strategic appearances on TV or at festivals, have learned the special skill of 24 hour semi-public engagement with their fans. Where another generation would look upon this as diving head first into a whirlpool in a fishbowl, these creative types welcome the chance to talk in a simple and unfiltered manner, to allow anyone interested to vicariously join them in playing with Orson Welles' great electric train set. But few have made use and benefited so greatly from this environment as Wright has. Wright's personal appearances all over the world, both on behalf of his movies and of other films that have influenced him, have become the stuff of legend, with sell-out crowds finding themselves getting a fun crash course in classic cinema. In 2009, during the long complex shoot for SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, he literally posted one small detail every day to the web, to let followers get a glimpse of the process and a peek backstage, and of course, to constantly whet their appetite to see the finished film that arrived a year later. And I defy you to find another director that eagerly welcomes and champions the reciprocal artistic expressions of people who love his work: Wright has reposted so many budding artists' drawings, parodies, and video tributes at his blog, you could call it the world's largest, most wonderful refrigerator door, and he's a proud parent with plenty of magnets to hang up more.
The best aspect of his graceful give and take is that underneath the witty banter, the signature whiplash editing, and the sly allusions that his films are known for, there are serious life lessons being addressed, responsible adult notions beneath the child's play. It's not just for irony's sake that at a recent BFI tribute, Wright asked to pair SHAUN OF THE DEAD with Mike Leigh's warts-and-all family comedy LIFE IS SWEET. Like Dr. Cosby and his carbohydrate-imbalanced animated hero, you will get music and fun from Edgar, but if you're not careful, you may learn something before it's done. I feel like enough better critics have discussed, say, SHAUN OF THE DEAD's message of having to leave comfortable slacking behind if one wants a future with a mate and a solid home foundation, or of SCOTT PILGRIM's literal pilgrim process of learning personal responsibility in order to roll with the punches of love, so if you haven't contemplated those concepts from seeing those movies, a couple pages of Google will reveal multitudes. But one of the best moral conclusions that I think Wright has ever offered in a movie seems to have gone unnoticed by even bloggers I respect, so I guess as my birthday present, it's my job to give him laud on this matter.
HOT FUZZ is a movie that understands playing cops and robbers is one of the most exciting games we learn in youth, and no matter how many ways parents try to shield the next generation from the glorification of violence, there will be that primal urge to run amok with screams of "BANG! POW! BOOM! YER DEAD!" That even efficient, clean-handed Nick Angel, who has rarely had to fire a weapon in the course of his job-ruiningly effective career, can't resist "a no-holds-barred, adrenaline-fueled thrill ride" of gunplay when he watches action films with the firearm-fetishing Danny Butterman. And as most of the popular action films champion the "loose cannon" cop who must work outside the law, especially when he learns the higher brass is corrupt, there is certainly the expectation that when Angel narrowly escapes the clutches of Sandford's Neighborhood Watch Alliance, he will take the familiar mantle of the one man wrecking crew and mow them all down. But when the climactic take down arrives, while there is a ridiculous amount of gunfire, Angel and Butterman do not shoot to kill, and when all the bullets are gone, they arrest all the conspirators and book them. Moreover, said villains are all suffering painful injuries, from the bullets and other unforeseen weapons (most memorably in the infamous wound suffered by Timothy Dalton's character). The only person that is killed in the finale is the ostensible weapons expert of the town, and that is by his own inadvertent hand, not in vigilante anger by Angel. In this masterstroke, Wright is able to have it both ways: deliver an exciting, guns-a-blazing showdown with a lone righteous hero, but also ever-so-politely demonstrate that 1) getting into a firefight can really bloody hurt; 2) the proper punishment is to put the bad guys in jail rather than killing them off in the name of catharsis; 3) no matter how many dirty cops there are, one can and should use the law to bring about justice and change.
I also rather like how Wright takes a look at longstanding problems of race without preaching. I'm sure many viewers get a touch uncomfortable when Lt. Frank Butterman gets blatantly ugly referring to the "gypsy scum" whom he blames for his wife's death, but for me it was a sharp reminder that so-called peaceful small towns like Sandford often are seen by their older residents as the last safe harbor from "them other people." It also gives extra counterpoint to his son Danny's need to ultimately reject him, since among other things, the movies he loves like BAD BOYS II feature black actors. When Angel gets a look at the hidden trove of comically macabre victims of the N.W.A. he sees that they are often either minorities1 or represent their influence (the hoodie-wearing teenagers, who no doubt must have frightened Geraldo Rivera when they were first onscreen). And the more blatant joke of having the initials that scared white suburbanites for years being used for a cabal of deadly Caucasian nitpickers is not unwelcome, although Wright may not have been aware that for me in my childhood, the letters N.W.A. more often brought to mind Horsemen and Freebirds than urban gangstas. But lemme tell ya about that later, Gordon Solie...
Among the many reasons he has to celebrate today, Edgar Wright can take stock of the fact that his clever multi-tiered writing and his generous outreach to the people who have embraced him have engendered a goodwill that very few filmmakers enjoy right now. Where one can get lost in a morass of venomous character assassinations when reading about Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith or Joss Whedon, the harshest criticism you'll find about Wright, that doesn't come from some fogey crank who already hates millenials, is that he's spending too much time fraternizing with the public and doesn't have a new movie in production.
See that? Even the haters want you to keep making movies!
As a small sidebar, I'm sure many fans know that Edgar's GRINDHOUSE alumnus Eli Roth shares this birthdate. While I've seen CABIN FEVER and enjoyed it, and had pleasant personal interaction with him, and am also impressed with his courtship of the public, I must admit I can't yet write an essay on Roth because I'm just too darned chickenshit to watch the HOSTEL films. And I say that having sat through A SERBIAN FILM without breaking a sweat. But Edgar has opined that people who have not yet seen well-known films should be envied, because they will have the excitement of watching them for the first time. Thus I'm not ashamed, but instead I look forward to the day when I've got Roth's repertoire under my belt and can discuss him in my own particular fashion. Otherwise, I just dig having these cool guys born on the same day. I imagine sultry Barbara Magnolfi, in an alternate-universe version of SUSPIRIA that would take place at film school, strutting into a classroom theatre and purring..."Eeee-li...Ed-garrr...my mother once told me that names that start with the letter "E"...are the names of Excellent Entertainers!"
So Happy Birthday Mr. Wright. Scott Pilgrim may have battled the world, but from the vantage of my theatre seat, you have conquered it.
1 When I first published this essay a year ago, I had mistakenly identified a gold-painted living statue performer as black; Edgar, while appreciating my sentiment, informed me that the actor and his character were in fact white. While this does somewhat throw a melted Cornetto into my theory, I still find the overall reading valid due to the other story details noted within my paragraph. Nonetheless, I make this public correction in the interest of offering both truth and legend.