Throughout the month of March, Audiences Everywhere will be sharing appreciation for film trilogies, including personal reflections from our writers on some of their favorites. This week, we’re starting with The Cornetto Trilogy.
“Be (Reluctantly) the Change You Wish to See in the World: A Cornetto Trilogy Appreciation”
Shortly before the release of Rogue One, amid all the media hoopla and internet chatter, something compelled my older sister to call me. Not a rare occurrence, but not a regular one either. She was calling, she explained, because she wanted me to know that I’d been there for the original, in ‘77. I hadn’t seen it—our mom had been five months pregnant with me—but I was there. Hearing this felt very….”Huh.” Actually, I think that was what I said verbatim, “Huh.” It’s not that I don’t like the Star Wars films—they’re fun, they’re great, don’t @ me!—it’s just that I never personally identified with them. The characters seemed so heroic, so willing to die for a cause greater than their own, so serious about it all. Where was the heroic story of regular people? The ones who show up (albeit sometimes reluctantly) to just get the job done and keep the world from going pear-shaped for another day?
Enter the Cornetto Trilogy—three stories unified by a British ice cream, a running gag about running into fences, and the primal human desire for life to just get back to normal already. The three films that comprise the trilogy—Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), and The World’s End (2013)—are the progeny of the collective brain trust of Writer/Director Edgar Wright; Producer, Nira Park; Writer/Actor, Simon Pegg; and Actor, Nick Frost.
Each film works within a tired framework (zombies, buddy cops, alien invasion), but as an homage—sometimes caustic and sometimes loving—that breathes new life into these tropes. The film’s protagonists also share a central commonality: Each is after a specific, simple kind of freedom, all while facing comical and near-insurmountable odds to earn it (to varying degrees of success).
Right. If this piece were filmed by Edgar Wright, here’s where the quick cuts would start. Let’s take a hasty look back at the basics of each film:
Shaun of the Dead: Shaun, a loveable loser (Pegg), gets dumped by his girlfriend shortly before a widespread zombification of London begins. He enlists the help of his longtime best friend and enabler (Frost) to hatch a plan to win her back, rescuing his mother (and reluctantly, a few friends) in the process. As the world descends into chaos around them, the group holes up in their neighborhood pub, The Winchester, to ride out the invasion.
Hot Fuzz: Hotshot London Constable Nicholas Angel’s (Pegg) relentless policing makes the rest of the lackluster department look bad, so he earns a transfer to the quiet village of Sandford, Gloucestershire. He’s partnered with Danny Butterman (Frost), the underachieving son of the department’s captain. Sanford’s idyllic setting and obsession with The Greater Good (“The Greater Good”) means it’s a perennial shoe-in for Village of the Year, but (as the two discover) it also glosses over some grim business.
The World’s End: Here Pegg stars as Gary King, an affable-if-selfish and dysfunctional man-child who can’t let go of his glory years. He rounds up his teenage friends to give a pub crawl they tried to conquer in 1990 another try and make it to the final of 12 pubs, The World’s End. The friends reluctantly return to their hometown largely out of pity and a sense of obligation. The others have grown into successful, functioning adults while Gary lagged behind and stewed in toxic nostalgia. The night of drinking turns dark, as old grievances surface and new problems (in the form of alien robots) arise. What starts as a test of old loyalties turns into one of absurd survival.
I’m not nearly giving these stories as complete an overview as each merits, but the trope, the plot, the situation is never as important to the gestalt of the deal as is the sum of these film’s parts. Wright himself is on record as having thought of each movie’s scenario as a “Trojan Horse” to get the viewer to take a closer look at some commonly held beliefs about our larger culture. So before we disembark from the horse, let’s take a closer look at what each component brings to this unlikely hero’s trilogy:
Behind the Scenes
Director Edgar Wright is (and here I’ll use some technical jargon) just a baby. At 42, the list of hits he’s helmed (including co-writing, producing and directing Scott Pilgrim vs. the World in 2010) is impressive. Shaun, completed before his 30th birthday, was his first breakout success. Wright’s main characters roughly mirror his own age progression (likely because his stars do, too). It’s not what’s most essential to appreciating his movies, but it’s nevertheless exciting to experience a movie made by someone who is a contemporary and so clearly, a fan. In interviews, Wright has touted populist faves like the Hammer movies and An American Werewolf in London as being some of his biggest influences, and his own movies are peppered with pop culture references (I never hear “White Lines” without thinking of Shaun) that aren’t included self-consciously. In other words, they’re not meant to flatter you for catching them. Instead, each seems to be a nostalgic callback to what Wright simmered in growing up. He’s an enthusiast without being exclusionary and that dude-you-went-to-school-with vibe offers sure footing and a sense of familiarity that makes the viewer instantly comfortable. This is a guy who, in all likelihood, legitimately enjoys Bad Boys 2, and who can blame him?
In Simon Pegg, Wright found a once-in-a-lifetime writing partner and off-screen collaborator. Pegg began his career as a standup and comedy writer and those rhythms drive his performances in all three films. And he’s not a one-note writer, either. He also scripted 2016’s Star Trek 3, proving that while he can lampoon lad culture, he also transcends it. Somehow the combination of the Wright and Pegg is a celebration of silliness mixed with a deep respect for structure. And make no mistake—they’re structuralists in the truest sense, concerned with the basic components of their films and interested in the oppositional forces that act upon their characters. For instance, Wright will frequently make visual call-backs within his films to denote the passage of time or make the viewer consider how the last time they saw this image, things were somehow different. Recall Shaun’s early morning neighborhood routine both pre- and post-zombies, the cloaked figure’s appearances in Hot Fuzz, the 5 pours shown at each pub in World’s End. Each of these instances effectively contrasts where the character was before and where he is now, a kind of visual shorthand uniquely Wright’s own.
Finally, I’d be remiss to not mention the contributions of Nira Park, but here’s the problem: There are precious few interviews with her and frustratingly little to go on. And aside from credits, the most informative details I could find out about her are that she purported to be a hands-on producer, a constant presence on the set, up for doing anything that needs to get done (including the mundane) to make the film happen. Park may in fact be just a private person, but it’s hard not to experience a twinge of concern she’s not getting her due (either because her job is less glamourous or because she’s the lone woman on this crew). Still, I like to think that her capacity for making shit happen is reflected not only in the trilogy’s success, but also in its scrappy protagonists.
In Front of the Camera
The pairing of Pegg and Frost onscreen is just plain satisfying. First, because they’re beautifully, British-ly, consistently funny (even when their characters are flawed). And you do laugh a lot when you watch the movies. Before I watched the three again for this piece I remembered each of the films as being laugh-out-loud funny, but that’s not quite true. At moments they certainly are, but what I realized is that in each there were far more moments when I would just catch myself grinning like an idiot. Each film hums along with rhythmic and consistent comedic timing that never feels false (contrast the intervals of honest laughs in a Wright film with the forced ones of a Chuck Lorre sitcom, for instance). After a while, the cumulative effect on the viewer is a buzzy sort of mild euphoria.
Maybe that’s why the word I keep coming back to when viewing each of these films again is “affection.” It’s present in the way the actors connect, the way the viewer connects to them (with supporting cast members recurring in different roles that make you gasp at each new sighting like they’re an old friend), and in the filmmakers’ approach to the subject matter. There’s a love of the British way of life that is satirized (the polite friend Shaun keeps running into and exchanging pleasantries with during the zombie attacks) without being mocked. These characters are driven to defend their way of life—even its most maddeningly mundane aspects—because of that affection. It may be repetitive (Shaun), provincial (Fuzz), or immature (World’s End), but it’s theirs—not perfect, but they’ll take it. And this collective character mindset speaks to something central about our outlook as well. Life’s sweet spot can be hard to find and perhaps because each of us experiences such disorienting highs and lows, sometimes it’s inertia that feels safest.
When that inertia is thrown off by external forces (as in each of these films), we compensate in the ways we’re able. Fortunately the arc of the Wright universe bends toward the absurd, softening the blow of the progressively bleaker, retrograde endings (Ed, a zombie chained in the shed; Danny learning his dad is essentially a serial killer; the literal end of civilization). Somehow this team pulls off the near-impossible—to make this all feel comforting.
On their 1968 concept album Village Green Preservation Society—an ode to British life that plays fittingly in a Hot Fuzz background scene—The Kinks sang about “Preserving the old ways from being abused/ Protecting the new ways, for me and for you” asking, “What more can we do?” What I love about this trilogy is that in each film, Frost’s and Pegg’s characters are doing everything they possibly can to save their small corner of the world, and sometimes they’re still really bad at it. Maybe because they’re a bit slow, or immature, or drunk (it’s probably because they’re drunk), but that doesn’t hold them back.
Wright gives us characters that are earnest enough to question how they’re going to get out of a mess, but not always self-aware enough to understand why they’re in the midst of it—at least in the beginning. It’s the way any of us stumbles into valor when we’re pressed into it and, in this way, each of the transformations these protagonists go through feels authentic, even in the midst of near-unbelievable predicaments.
Even if the essential lesson of this trilogy is that our capacity for redemption is only an unintended consequence of our compulsion to fuck up, I don’t feel disheartened by it. Instead it feels sweet and humble and fundamentally human in the same way that just getting through the day can sometimes feel heroic. It may not be perfect, but I’ll take it.
Featured Image: Focus Features