When Ramona Flowers washes her hands, it’s done with the visual equivalent of a drumroll: There’s a first-person shot of her fingers turning the knobs, then an overhead shot of her rinsing off, then an extreme close-up of her turning the fountain off. These insert shots aren’t providing necessary information—the film is Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, by the way—this is just how characters in Edgar Wright’s films exist. They can’t walk into a room without the camera crash-zooming into the door first. The Brattle Theatre will be playing the four films directed by Wright this weekend, along with films he’s named as influences. Remnants of disreputable subgenres drive the narratives: zombies in Shaun of the Dead (Sun 7.12, 2:15 and 9:30 PM), slashers in Hot Fuzz (Sun 7.12, 4:30 PM), aliens in The World’s End (Sun 7.12, 7 PM), and video game bosses in Scott Pilgrim (Fri 7.10, 7 PM). But beneath the varying brands of bloodletting, the movies are all telling the same story: the struggle of stagnant slacker men—and, in Fuzz, an overachiever—to maintain their identity and their relationships in a world that seems gamed against them. These are cinematic anxiety attacks.
One could certainly put together a grand unified theory of what that recurrence represents. But the beauty of these films isn’t always what they say. Instead it’s how they sing. Wright’s dialogue (co-written by Simon Pegg, with the exception of Pilgrim, which adapted a graphic novel by Bryan Lee O’Malley) bounces between his characters like a pinball, rhyming and repeating with the sort of cadence that ruled the screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s. The opening sequence of Shaun is a barroom quarrel where the characters interrupt each other—”Ed!” “Liz!” “Shaun!”—with the quickening flow of a tidal wave. It’s the rhythm of the delivery, moreso than the punchlines, that does the work. This is a filmmaker who can do more with names and words than most others can do with sentences. In The World’s End, Gary King—Pegg’s man-boy drunkard—is arguing about nonsense with his friends over pints, trying desperately to ignore the extraterrestrials singling them out. “I don’t even know what a pronoun is … I don’t get it.” “You just used one,” Nick Frost’s Andrew Knightley—a particularly exasperated member of the bunch—points out. “Did I?” “It is a pronoun.” “What is?” “It.” “Is it?” That last response has Knightley crushing his glass in outsized fury, but the reaction is believable enough. It’s Ben Hecht-level banter; sharp enough to shred skin.
The exhilerating beauty of Wright’s films is that his eye matches that ear. Shaun has a symmetrical structure that turns visual compositions into laugh lines: A nondescript trip to the convenience store, shot in one long take, is replicated again later on, with Pegg’s bumbling non-hero failing to notice the blood and gore that has enveloped his neighborhood. (These films aren’t uncritical of the aforementioned slacker ethos.) And other shots are doubled in kind—the early sequences in a Wright film are trails of gunpowder, leading like breadcrumbs to the payoffs. Film critic Dave Kehr once wrote that “no director ever matched Preston Sturges’ way of blending low slapstick and literate dialogue comedy;” a statement I would’ve held true until Edgar Wright arrived. And he adds a third element to the blend: a modern sense of visual literacy—comedy borne of the form itself. In Hot Fuzz, Pegg and Frost play pseudo-fascist police officers in the mold of other cinematic supercops (see also: Dirty Harry, Point Break, and yes, Supercop), which means lots of catchphrases. And whenever they holler, “Punch that shit,” Wright hits us with the same shot sequence: a series of zooms into the clutch, the pedal, and the wheel. The result of all the ramp-ramp-ramping up—the dialogue and the compositions crashing into one another until they form one monstrously overcranked whole—is like seeing an elaborate row of dominoes come tumbling down.
It’s the kind of harmonic effect you only get in the most relentlessly stylized of genre cinema, like some of the other films screening this weekend: the feature-length chase scene Run Lola Run (Fri 7.10, 5 and 9:30 PM) or the John Woo-directed shoot-’em-up masterpiece Hard Boiled (Sat 7.11, 7 PM ). The joke of Hot Fuzz is that Woo-influenced firefights are happening in a British village the size of a postage stamp, looking as though a high school had staged Bad Boys II as their class play. But the feverish momentum of these movies is just as crash-bang-pow overwhelming as anything in the more expansive films that gave Wright his inspiration. The drumrolls collect, one on top of the other, until the resulting racket starts to sound like a symphony.
WRIGHT ON! EDGAR WRIGHT AND HIS INFLUENCES. BRATTLE THEATRE. 40 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. FRI 7.10—SUN. 7.12. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT BRATTLEFILM.ORG