Friday, August 28, 2009
Inglourious Basterds so renewed my love for Quentin Tarantino that I find myself even going back to directors I can indirectly tie to him. For example, I went back to Breathless -- after all, Tarantino is the dumbed-down American version of the French auteur -- and finally connected with it, insufferable pretension and all. But if Godard inspired Tarantino, so too did Tarantino unleash a wave of imitators looking to score big in the post-Pulp Fiction "indie" scene. And if the transition saw tributes to philosophy and art give way to television and kung-fu movie send-ups, so too did the passing of the torch from the Weinsteins' golden boy to the next group of Sundance hopefuls result in a significant drop-off.
To be honest, the majority of, well I don't want to cheaply dismiss them as "clones" but sometimes that's an apt description, were simply awful. The one that will forever reach through the fog of my mind like the half-remembered nightmare that it is to haunt me in my quiet moments is of course Troy Duffy's nauseating effort The Boondock Saints, which apparently everyone I interact with loves because hell is truly other people. One of the few movies to mine the non-linear narrative and rapid-fire dialogue of Pulp Fiction successfully was Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, a film so fun Ritchie got away with essentially making the same film twice with Snatch (admittedly, bringing on Brad Pitt as a nonsensical gypsy street fighter didn't hurt). But even Guy Ritchie failed to grasp that what made Pulp Fiction, and the rest of Tarantino's canon, so special was the utter joy that was tangible in every frame. Sure, Tarantino may muddle his morality until it's unclear whether he's reveling in his madness or using it to some method, but no one seemed to even try to figure that out. All the imitators, they just gleaned the surface and left out the glue that bound it together.
The chief exception to this is the team of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. They made names for themselves with the superb Britcom Spaced, which Pegg wrote with Jessica Hynes (née Stevenson) and Wright directed; a glorious mix of film and television quotation (with some big homages to Tarantino, of course), Three's Company and Friends, Spaced is truly unlike any other series I've ever watched, with well-defined characters that never allowed themselves to be swallowed by the referential revelry. And for a series that so deeply mined geeky subjects like comic books and video games, it contained an effortless feminine touch courtesy of Hynes, who crafted her Daisy into someone just as nerdy as the fellas without calling any attention to herself, since *gasp* female nerds do exist.
After Spaced, Hynes went on to other projects, while Pegg and Wright took a bit from one of the episodes, in which Pegg's character has junk food-induced hallucinations of fighting zombies, and expanded it into what now must be acknowledged as a modern comedy classic. Its title suggests that Shaun of the Dead will be little more than a skin-deep parody of horror flicks à la the increasingly awful Scary Movie series, a cheap collection of pop culture references gleaned from whatever's hot in the tabloids or trash TV at the moment.
References certainly abound in the film, from the obvious cues to Romero's Dead series as well as works as diverse as James Cameron flicks, The Deer Hunter and the standard of film nerd quotation, Star Wars. There's at least one shot directly lifted from Halloween. But what Wright and Pegg understand about the zombie film is that zombies only work 1) in large numbers and 2) as satire. Danny Boyle's low-budget 28 Days Later fulfilled the second, but it got around the first by revising zombie rules to allow them to run, thus negating the need for large swarms. Shaun of the Dead also works on a small budget but, purists that they are, they found a way to cast swarms of extras to play the walking dead. Amazingly, despite the way in which every zombie appearance is turned into a gag of some sort, these throngs of zombies to pack some scares in them, because Wright and Pegg treat the subject seriously.
Wright spells out the satire of the film in the superb opening title sequence: in gentle tracking shots, he moves through the streets of London, touching on those who will soon fall to the outbreak, as they shuffle through streets completely indistinguishable from the zombies they're about to become. The titular protagonist, played by Pegg, plays like a projection of his Spaced character Tim, down to his directionless career path and vaguely homoerotic relationship with his best friend (played in both projects by Nick Frost). He's pushing 30 and working a job otherwise filled by teenagers looking for some pocket money on weekends, and he spends every night at a dusty old pub, much to the mounting outrage of his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield).
Pegg's slacker is the ideal protagonist for the film, as he personifies its underlying message. Already disaffected at work and incapable of concentrating on his relationship, Shaun responds to the realization of the outbreak by running back into his flat and turning on the television. When he finally decides on a course of action, he schemes to use the zombie plague to re-ingratiate himself with both his girlfriend and his mother (Penelope Wilton). Shaun slowly morphs into a capable leader over the course of the film, but the real focus is on Shaun's relationships with Ed, Liz and his mother Barbara, which works on both a sentimental and satiric level: it gives the film a more intimate feel even as it emphasizes the self-absorption and obliviousness of the current generation.
Now, listing off all the gags would be boring for both me and you, and I'd save time by just posting the screenplay, because barely any moment passes without something worth a laugh or at least the smirk of recognition that comes with spotting a reference. Even the sentimental moments have an underlying humor that makes the scenes funny without spoiling the severity of the moment. The best bit is, of course, the synchronized beating of a zombie to the tune of Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now," a comic dance routine that has gotten a laugh out of me after a good eight viewings. But I'm also quite partial to an early scene before the outbreak, where Shaun attempts to fill in for his manager -- who ominously called in sick -- and finding himself terrified of his younger co-workers. The idea of intimidating teenagers is a holdover from Spaced, and the idea that, when a grown man is as much of a slacker as a teen, even the younger guys will mock him. I also enjoy Shaun's inability to shoot when he finds a gun late in the film: too many action and horror films give the ordinary man far too much an understanding of weaponry and fighting under stress.
If I have any complaint about Pegg and Wright's films, it's that their post-Spaced work lacks the understated feminism of that series. Granted, both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz deconstruct the heterosexual male relationship and subvert the idea of the unstoppable masculine force, but I miss Hynes' touch. However, I noticed this time around -- my first viewing after watching Spaced -- that the women are the only ones who, for the most part, keep their heads in the situation. When Shaun fends off a zombie who attacks his mother, the women are the only ones who help him fight while the men stand idly by, either absorbed with their cell phones or too craven to act.
Like Tarantino, Wright isn't what you would call "subtle," but his frenetic style and frequent quotation is put to thematic use. His breakneck editing hysterically makes mundane activities such as brushing and cooking a light breakfast as action-packed as a shootout, but he also leaves items in the background that subtly recall other films without making a show of it. The equation of Shaun's uninteresting life with action via editing further emphasizes his banality even in an apocalypse, as well as, perhaps, his inflated opinion of himself; as Shaun must face truly horrible scenarios, Wright switches to filming in longer takes that remove the sheen from the first half and offer moments of reflection and cold reality. The film also excels because of its cast: Pegg and Wright must have won themselves quite a reputation with Spaced, because some big names signed on for the project. Martin Freeman and Lucy Davis of The Office have parts (Freeman appears in a cameo), as do Matt Lucas of Little Britain and Dylan Moran of Black Books. Even Bill Nighy turns up for a significant role as Shaun's stepdad. Every actor is perfect for the part, and the cameos manage to get all that name recognition in without distracting from the movie itself.
Their subsequent Hot Fuzz was more a thorough takedown of a genre, but Pegg and Wright crafted with Shaun of the Dead a movie built upon genre and references that somehow emerges totally original. Its seamless blend of romantic comedy and zombie film -- two genres so rigid in construction they practically come with rule books -- breaks the confines of both and makes a movie that is at once funny, meaningful, sentimental and spooky; it mixes the satire of Romero's Dead films with the over-the-top comedy of Evil Dead II, filtered through the impish charm of Spaced. Despite its grand climax, Shaun ends largely as it began, with the world getting back to normal, and the characters return to their lives of enslavement to television, which is changed insofar that the reality programs now have leftover zombies to fuel their concepts. For Shaun at least, this is a happy ending.