By Josh Oakley
I remember the turf.
I never played football, or any sport. A couple of times, for gym class, we ran around the field, but that's not what I recall. Our senior picnic, while fun, isn't the event that I associate with that faux-grass. It's no event at all, just a night. Not the search for perfection that the characters of The World's End set upon. Nothing that severe. Just a couple of kids, home for the summer, sneaking onto their old high school's football field in the cool summer evening, throwing a frisbee, admiring the stars that the city prohibits. I'm only a couple of years off from who I was then, but a significant deal has changed, both in my heart and my circumstances, and impending college graduation has me wistful. I remember the turf.
The World's End, the brilliant and heartfelt final entry in Edgar Wright's Cornetto trilogy, sees five high school friends reunite for a pub-crawl they never completed back in the day. That day was 1990, when they were teenaged boys, but decades have passed and now their 40s are just around the corner. Simon Pegg’s Gary King is the only gung-ho member of the group, the one who rallies the other four to return to Newton Haven for the Golden Mile: twelve pints at twelve pubs. The others range in interest, from the more curious Steven (Paddy Considine), Peter (Eddie Marsan) and Oliver (Martin Freeman) to the heavily reluctant Andy (Nick Frost). Andy and Greg, former best friends, had a falling out that is told in piecemeal throughout the film, culminating in a devastating rant from Frost that doesn’t even count as the emotional climax between the two characters. This is a fun film, a genre parody in the vein of former Cornetto entries Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead. But this is also a deeply felt journey through what it means to grow up. The resolution doesn’t settle for simplistic answers like similar man-child comedies. Four of these men (Freeman’s Oliver, while a good character, is more of a prop than an exploration of theme) dive into what it means to return to the place you used to live, where everything has changed besides the wounds you wish would disappear.
Peter’s hang-ups stem largely from a former bully not recalling the man he used to harass. Peter believes this to be the most painful injury: it isn’t just that this tormentor used to wreck his life, it’s that he doesn’t even remember doing so.
I was never bullied in high school (I was beat up once in grade school but that’s a cocktail party story for me at this point, rather than a dark secret), but I know the sting of being forgotten. Whether it’s a corner shop that you consider yourself a regular of but the owner fails to conjure your name, or a partygoer with whom you shared an illuminating conversation but they don’t recall your face, falling between the cracks of somebody’s mind can stick with you. It’s not simply the fact that their memory may be weak; it’s that they couldn’t bother to store your name away. It is the knowing that what you thought to be vital was, in their mind, just another moment. At a post-World’s End beer, a friend of mine noted “I’m bad with names” is just an excuse to forget somebody without consequence. It’s true, but it matters little after the fact: if I can transcribe our conversation three weeks from now, you should be able to as well. We place importance on not just being remembered, but being remembered in the specific way we desire.
Steven was in love with a girl, and never told her until just now. It’s a classic tale, one I relate to in a uniquely yet generically wounded way. I’ve written about this before so I won’t linger for too long. What I’m more curious in exploring than the specifics of my situation is the questions we ask ourselves concerning our regrets. Why did I never tell her how I felt? World’s End isn’t overly concerned with this specific “why”, but the question is asked, and it does linger in any such situation. Why indeed do we push possible experiences towards a future in which they may never exist? If the sci-fi plot within World’s End didn't occur, Steven would have never admitted his heart, and he’d be continuously unsatisfied. It shouldn’t take the apocalypse for you to tell the truth, to reach for something better.
Here we see the brilliance in World’s End “lessons”. While the movie is aware that Gary King is fairly pathetic for so furiously reaching towards the past, it also scolds Steven for living only half of a life. The film doesn’t settle easily into a moral (a speech delivered by Frost & Pegg towards a nefarious foe near the end of the movie makes a joke of the very idea of a neat teaching moment, while simultaneously administering one). This isn’t a screed against growing up or staying young, but an admission that whatever path makes you happy and doesn’t hurt those around you is inherently the correct way to go. Steven, spilling his heart, exemplifies the way that past mistakes can be fixed, but not everyone has a robot invasion to motivate them. Let us all take this to heart: don’t wait until the end of the world to make your life better. It’s never worth it, no matter what your age.
“I hate this fucking town.”
I don’t hate the town I grew up in, like Andy does his, but I can see its glaring flaws. And, more than that, I lived my pre and post-pubescent (and, well, pubescent) years in Wheaton, IL, and I’m glad I did, for the people I met and experiences I had. I was fortunate to grow up in a nice, safe suburb where my concerns could be girls and schoolwork instead of money or security. But after spending much of this past summer there I can admit that that place can be a bit of a fucking drag. There’s only a handful of bars within the downtown area, and few good non-chain restaurants. And more than that, as it is a nice place to live, it’s that it’s all been done. I know the streets and the McDonald’s and the Target, and while they’ve all served me well I don’t know how many more times I need to witness them in person. I deeply love my family and friends from Wheaton, but as for the place itself? I’ve had my fill.
Gary King fancies himself royalty, akin to his family name. But he’s Gary, the fuck-up, the man in his late 30s who can’t move beyond the dreams of a “perfect night” that propelled his younger self. Gary does grow, in intriguing ways, towards the end of the film (and I’ll take a moment here to say that Simon Pegg has given one of the year’s best performances in any genre or medium). But the growth never betrays who he is. This is a man who wants adventure, a bigger life than he’s been granted. The fascinating irony is that this can be satisfied by something as simple as a bar crawl, by one truly great night.
I’m terrified of the next few years. I’ll graduate college and face the real world and the only thing that I know I love to do is write things like this. There are much scarier places to be (to paraphrase another of 2013’s best films, Frances Ha, calling myself anxious about my future is offensive to those who are actually anxious about their future), but this is the place I’m at. I don’t fear becoming Gary (at least not on my good nights), but the general fear of failure is there. And as you can witness here, I’m a bit stuck within what was. The World’s End proves that one’s own past can be a dangerous place to reside in.
The (World's) End
One of the best devices in The World’s End is the claim that Newton Haven is the home of Britain’s first roundabout. The roundabout spins the driver in circles, until they commit to a path and happily glide along. Late in the film a car powers through the central circle, ignoring the rules laid by people before. Those rules, that structure that many strive for, is just a messy construction of the human psyche, a way of rationalizing all of the things we go through. It allows tragedies to be opportunities to grow, missteps to be lessons learned, broken hearts to be roads to a true love. The World’s End obliterates the idea of a pat answer to all of the unruliness inherent in simply living one’s life. Yet it does not ignore that those attempts, and failures, at conformity within a society, are vital. We do learn from our mistakes, but that is not the point. The point is not the accomplishment of a pub-crawl. The point is the friends, the fights, the missteps, and, yes, the alcohol, that courses through our veins and reminds us: We are human. And as much as that sucks, thank god for it.