Thursday, May 29, 2014

Growing Old But Not Up With King Arthur: Hanging out at The World's End

There are very few things that most people can agree upon, but one of those things is that growing older generally sucks big old deep-fried grizzly balls.  The inevitable ebb and flow of time causes us to drift towards that final unimaginable expanse of ocean until we are finally swept out into the unknown by the tide or, if we're really lucky, a tsunami that lets us take a lot of innocent people with us.  One of the most commonly occurring and overarching themes in human culture is the tension between youth and old age.  That dichotomy between childhood and maturity is pretty readily accessible by almost everyone because, unless you're Cher, aging is a pretty universal human experience.  It's an easy way to mark our progress through life, and that sort of temporal delineation has become a common trope to draw upon when constructing one's identity.

In Stephen King's introduction to the latest edition of his seminal Dark Tower series (which I've recently delved into with the gusto of a fiend desperate for his next fix of devil grass), he taps into what I think is a pretty fundamental cultural sentiment regarding the temporal forces at play in the very bowels of our collective souls:

"Another thing about being nineteen, do it please ya: it is the age, I think, where  a lot of us somehow get stuck (mentally and emotionally, if not physically).  The years slide by and on day you find yourself looking into the mirror with real puzzlement.  Why are those lines on my face? you wonder.  Where did that stupid potbelly come from?  Hell, I'm only nineteen!  This is hardly an original concept, but that in no way subtracts from one's amazement"

What King's insight illustrates is that Cusp between childhood and maturity, a sort of balance that we struggle to attain between the shit-kicking, conquer-the-world mentality of youth and the world-weary pragmatism of experience that alludes so many of us. I think that sometimes we tend to fall into the derogatory with the denunciation of middle-aged men or women "acting like they were teenagers," but I think what's at issue in that case is an imbalance, with youthful exuberance and its accompanying stupidity winning out completely over the tempered wisdom that comes only with age. Of course, this may be small comfort when the subject in question ends up fucking a coworker or spending Junior's college fund on some shitty American sports car, but the point remains that the goal is neither the eradication of youth nor the total denial of one's ever-accumulating chronology but a balance between the two.

Like most balancing acts, the one between childhood and adulthood is extremely difficult to maintain for any length of time. There are certain psychological, emotional, and existential tensions that seem irreconcilable like trying to wage war to bring about peace or finding value in the work of someone you find morally reprehensible (better known as the Roman Polanski Paradox or the Child Molester's Jam Problem).

Likewise, there are certain tensions at play between youth and maturity. Being a kid kind of sucks because that state of being is restrictive in some respects, and it seems, especially at the tail end of our teen years, that we are always beholden to some higher power that keeps wanting to stop us from having a good time. Conversely, being an adult totally sucks because that state of being is restrictive in a lot of respects as the fact that we are never totally in control of our own lives and are, in fact, beholden to various agents and authorities becomes readily apparent. (With the obvious exception being any form of media labeled as "Adult," which immediately signifies sexual content, and sex is awesome. And as we all know, as soon as we become adults, we all have sex all of the time. That goes double if you're married. No exceptions.)

I think that when we're young there's also a kind of intuitive understanding that though our age is socially prohibitive and disempowering in a lot of contexts, it is also liberating. There's a specific reason that childhood is often referred to with the modifier "carefree." The burden of actually having to worry about real life shit, for most people, doesn't come until after our teen years have been relegated to the Terrible Vault of memory or fade away into eternity, lost forever in the sands of time like a load of hot cum down a hooker's throat. Free from a great deal of burdens that seem perfect for letting the previous generation hang onto for as long as humanly possible, youth is the perfect breeding ground for that idealism and sense of hope, that feeling of infinitely regenerative vitality and virility, and that recuperative mechanism that lets us bounce back from even the greatest of cock shots that Life deems fit to throw our way.

On the other hand, age tends to temper that youthful vitality and can-do attitude with a pragmatism born only of experience. It also provides a certain degree of wisdom, though that degree is relative to certain existential factors like socio-economic status, your raw computing power in the old cranium, and whether you sister is also your mother. Sometimes it sucks having to "be responsible," but on the other hand, sometimes it's quite advantageous having that little voice inside your head to stop you from doing stupid things, like sending pictures of your dick to one or more of your friends/coworkers/employees/Mr T (I pity the fool who don't understand when it's contextually appropriate to expose his genitals!).  Adulthood is a sort of necessary evil. It's the condom we have to put on to help keep our collective social cock free from the venereal diseases of anarchy, chaos, and Total Societal Breakdown. At some point, we all enter into that Great Contract and dutifully sign our names. We don't always read all of the fine print (which is constantly changing anyway) be we get the basic gist of things. You have to contribute to the coffers if you want there to be anything to withdraw later.  Sometimes, you have to feed the monkey.

Don't worry, me and my team of ultimate bad-asses are here
to protect you.
These kinds of anxieties around aging are at the core of THE WORLD'S END, the third movie in Edgar Wright's so-called Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy (or, alternatively, the Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy) along with former cinematic masterworks SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ.  The trilogy is unique in that it is linked not by characters but rather through overarching themes and tropes.  THE WORLD'S END is a tricky beast, and its true genius may actually take a few viewings as it did in my case. My first viewing left me a little underwhelmed, but watching it again and being able to catch all of the little nuances I missed the first time around, I think it might actually be my favourite of the three films.  It really ties the trilogy together, man.

THE WORLD'S END is the perfect companion piece to SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ because thematically it finds a balance between the two in several respects but most notably the resolution of tensions surrounding aging. SHAUN OF THE DEAD focused on a protagonist who had to set aside his childish ways and take up the mantle of maturity or risk the death of all of his relationships and his literal death at the hands of zombies. HOT FUZZ leaned the other way with an uptight and uber-responsible main character who had to learn how to relax and pull the proverbial stick from out his ass. THE WORLD'S END provided the perfect synthesis between childlike complacency and evolutionary progression into adulthood.  It exposes some of the hypocrisies that often accompany our clumsy attempts to adopt to our newfound adulthood while at the same acknowledging the need to balance out youthful and naïvely irresponsible notions of immediate and constant gratification with a more mature understanding of a social, cultural, and existential economy based on the currency of Consequence.

Childhood and adulthood are represented in THE WORLD'S END with a rather ingenious temporal analogy.  In the movie, the ethos of youth is represented by a medieval sort of fealty.  It's significant to point out that childhood is often idealized in the same way that the ancient past is idealized.  All of the main characters are named based on that theme: Andy Knightly, Steven Prince, Oliver Chamberlain, Peter Page, and, of course, Gary King.  And it is the king, Gary, who reunites his loyal knights (or the Five Musketeers) for the epic quest around which the plot of the movie revolves: a pub crawl in their hometown that they failed to complete in their youth (The Golden Mile):  

"Tonight, we will be partaking of a liquid repast as we wind our way up the Golden Mile.  Commencing with an inaugural tankard in The First Post, then on to The Old Familiar, The Famous Cock, The Cross Hands, The Good Companions, The Trusty Servant, The Two-Headed Dog, The Mermaid, The Beehive, The King's Head, and The Hole in the Wall for a measure of the same, all before the last bittersweet pint in that most fateful terminus, The World's End.  Leave a light on good lady, for though we may return with a twinkle in our eyes, we will be in truth blind - drunk!"

Though Gary King remains something of a dubious anomaly as he seems not have matured in any respect since the fateful night of their failed quest, the other four seem unable to resist following their fallen liege "into battle" one last time.  Adulthood, on the other hand, is represented by a corporate culture that seeks uniformity and compliance. This theme is prevalent throughout, from the "Starbucking" or commercial homogenization of previously independent mom-and-pop establishments throughout the small village of Newton Haven to the extraterrestrial Network revealed in the movie's twist that is trying to bring humanity up to par with the rest of the galaxy for the "mutual benefit" of all those involved.

In essence, it boils down to Medieval Feudalism versus Corporate Profitability.  The really refreshing thing is that THE WORLD'S END--unlike some other popular texts--doesn't strive to prove one viewpoint right over the other, but points out the flaws and strengths of both sides.  Neither extreme is painted as particularly enlightening in and of itself.

Gary King (Simon Pegg) is an obviously flawed character who has embraced his youth with the fervor of a politician locked alone in a room with a million dollars, a fresh prostitute picked straight from the streets of Amsterdam, a pound of pure, uncut cocaine, and no video cameras.  But he hasn't just embraced his youth; he's clung to it desperately to the point of stagnation.  Something is indeed rotten in Newton Haven.  He drives the same car, wears the same clothes, and listens to the same music that he did when he was 19.  More to the point, this stagnation has affected his ability to interact with other people as his worldview does not allow him to adapt to change.  At the beginning of the film, he is also depicted as a self-centred asshole, manipulating people for his own purposes, and it is later revealed how he fucked over--in one way or another--each of his vassals.

Oh what, this little number?  I just rolled out of bed and
threw this on.  
At first, each of King's trusty companions is depicted as living the "typical," stable middle-aged life.  Peter Page (Eddie Marsan) works at his father's car dealership and is married with two children, Steven Prince (Paddy Considine) is a successful architect who makes it a point to mention to everybody that he is fucking his 26-year-old fitness instructor, Oliver Chamberlain (Martin Freeman) is a making a living as a well-dressed, well-groomed real estate agent, and Andy Knightly (Nick Frost) is a respectable lawyer or something (he has a really nice office).  At first it seems like these four have a leg up on their King, but throughout the course of THE WORLD'S END, the façade is slowly chipped away: Peter is a hen-pecked shell of man who has allowed himself to be bullied by everybody in his life since high school; Steven is unsatisfied having been thwarted by Gary and then by his own insecurities from pursuing the love of his life, Oliver's sister Sam (Rosamund Pike); Oliver lacks the ability to be present in his own life and is constantly talking to some disembodied voice on the Bluetooth headset he keeps jammed thoroughly in his ear; and Andy is a workaholic who has become estranged from his wife and children.

Though each of the opposing worldviews have the piss taken out of them, neither one is stripped of all merit.  In the end there's a sort of synthesis between Gary's reckless youthful exuberance and his friends' ability to accept responsibility.  Perhaps best articulated by Gary King's (once and future) best mate, Andy Knightly explains the reason that he and the others keep moving forward in their lives despite the fact that things may have gone or are in the process of going to shit: because they have to.  You can't just give up because things aren't as perfect as they were (or seemed to be) before; you have to keep fighting, keep moving forward.  This sentiment is one of assuming responsibility for one's own actions and facing the consequences (good, bad, or ugly), a mantle that King never could quite find the strength to bear in his years since high school.

The key to Gary's strength is, perhaps, his youthful earnestness.  As he explains to Andy early on in the film, he stills wears a Sisters of Mercy t-shirt and listens to their music because he genuinely still likes the band.  The thing about Gary's act is it's not really an act.  Though he has become an alcoholic, he wears the trappings of his youth not as some bullshit hipster statement, but because he still derives pleasure from them.  Though in one sense he has stagnated, in another sense he has remained true to himself in a way that the others have failed to do.

THE WORLD'S END starts out with what serves as a creed of youthful rebellion for Gary before later becoming the King's Royal Decree and taking on another meaning entirely.  The Royal Proclamation is taken from the Primal Scream song "Loaded," which in turn sampled it from Peter Fonda in the film THE WILD ANGELS:

Just what is it that you want to do?
We wanna be free
We wanna be free to do what we wanna do
And we wanna get loaded
And we wanna have a good time
That’s what we’re gonna do
(No way baby let’s go)
We’re gonna have a good time
We’re gonna have a party

In the beginning, the lyrics seem to be nothing more than Gary's rationalization for his immature and (self) destructive behaviour.  By the end of the movie, however, after Gary has completed his quest and faced down the demons (both literal and metaphorical) that had been plaguing him, the words take on an entirely different meaning.

I knew I should have taken that left turn
at Albuquerque...
As the five friends make their way through their night of drunken debauchery, they gradually uncover an extraterrestrial conspiracy with a goal so banal as to actually be believable.  According to THE WORLD'S END, it turns out that all of our recent technological progress has been the result of an alien intelligence that has replaced a small percentage of the Earth's population with robotic replicas (We're not robots!) in order to help us advance to a standard of excellence set by our galactic neighbours.  At first this seems like a pretty sweet deal, as all that our extraterrestrial benefactors seem to want to do is raise our collective standard of living so we don't come off like the drunken cousin of our intergalactic family who is known for his off-colour remarks and that one time he made a pass at his cousin even though he maintains to this day that he was so drunk he didn't recognize her.

But it is at this point at the climax of the film that Gary King of the Humans and his trusty companions unite and call bullshit.  Though they recognize the benefits that the alien Network and his intergalactic corporate cronies have to offer, they also see the tradeoff of humanity losing its freedom to choose its own path as too steep a price to pay, even if that freedom means being free to be a fuck-up.  That idea of agency and self-determination is not new, but THE WORLD'S END ups the ante by showing that there is also a cost to being free to make your own choices, as the apocalypse triggered at the end of the movie by the departure of the Network due to its exasperation with human "belligerence" illustrates.  In the context of the film, it might actually have been seen as the right choice by some to let our alien benefactors take the helm and steer us towards some Grand Utopia; make the short-term sacrifice for long-term gains.  The problem in this case, however, is that the gains would have been ill-gotten. There is a real danger in acquiring power without having to learn/earn the requisite responsibility that goes along with it.

THE WORLD'S END places value on certain aspects of childhood without romanticizing it as the ideal state of being.  In this sense in might be seen to be a counterargument to other cultural texts that deal thematically with being young versus growing old.  The best example I can think of is FERRIS BUELLER's DAY OFF, an '80s staple of youthful defiance. FERRIS BUELLER was ostensibly about the triumph of youthful freedom over an inflexible social authority bent on conformity and retribution against any and all opposition but really ended up glorifying the archetypal loveable asshole who lived in a hermetically sealed twilight zone of Zero Consequences.  Watching that movie now, part of me wants to celebrate alongside Ferris Bueller for embracing a philosophy of defiance and self-gratification, and the other part wants to punch that arrogant little prick right in the middle of his fucking face and not stop until there's nothing left but a slimy puddle of bone and grey matter like Hartigan does to Yellow Bastard in SIN CITY.

The terrible truth about adulthood is one that everybody (almost) knows: sometimes you work for the asshole, and sometimes you are the asshole, but usually, it ends up being both.  I think as a culture we've become obsessed with the idea of "selling out," which is typically used in the derogatory but is also kind of an apt metaphor.  In fact, I would argue that selling out is sometimes necessary depending on two factors: 1) what one is selling and 2) what one is getting in return for the sale thereof.  In the monetary sense, I tend to agree with Kevin Smith, who in the introduction to the CLERKS II DVD/Blu-Ray opines that if you accept even a single penny for work you have created, that is technically selling out.  In the larger philosophical sense of getting older, selling out is more a matter of effectively calculating the cultural return on investment.  In the case of THE WORLD'S END, it seems that the price of self-determination was too steep to pay for technological and social advancement.

In the end, though, aspects of both childhood and adulthood are validated in the THE WORLD'S END. There is a union between Gary's youthful tenacity and his companions' accountability and adaptability.  Even though all electronic technology (including Internet porn) has been disabled, society is shown struggling ever onward even in the midst of the wreckage, and there is never any indication that humanity cannot once again rise to the technological and social heights to which it had previously aspired (including boatloads of free porn circulated with the speed and efficiency of a tactical nuclear strike (all over your pants)).

For his part, Gary King is still partially guided by his medieval mentality questing around with his four new eternally youthful robot pals, but he has also managed to finally sober up and has befriended and embraced the Network's leftover robot replicons while many fellow humans practice a new form of (robo-) bigotry.  He has also adapted to his surroundings, and no longer lives in a sort of juvenile delusion stuck in the past.  He's eking out a living and having a little bit of fun when the situation allows (which presumably involves having lots of sex with hot women in public rest rooms).  It's not a perfect end, but then again, it's also not a perfect world.        


THE WORLD'S END is yet another underrated gem from the power trio of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost and a hard-won 10/10 = One Robot's Head Getting Smashed Unceremoniously on a Public Urinal in an Anonymous British Bathroom


Post a Comment