Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
Oh boy. How do you do justice to a year like 1999, wchich produced films such as The Matrix, Being John Malkovich and Magnolia? That gave us the HBO gateway drug The Sopranos as well as a The West Wing, whose idealism would be much needed these days? Let alone games such as System Shock 2 and Planescape: Torment, milestones of the immersive sim and of choice and consequence in video game storytelling? I can’t pick the film, series, book or game that was most meaningful, but I will pick one that has been wrongly overshadowed by its creators’ careers since.
The flat-share comedy Spaced premiered on Channel 4 in September 1999, introducing a wider audience to the quick-fire, parody-heavy, pop culture-enamoured skewering/celebration of geeky arrested development by Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes (then Stevenson), combined with the visual inventiveness of Edgar Wright. Pegg and Wright went on to make the Cornetto Trilogy – Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End – but while the film’s became more and more polished as the two honed their respective skills, it’s the stream-of-consciousness exuberance of Spaced that’s still my favourite collaboration of theirs.
Spaced could be anything from one episode to the next. Not all of its jokes landed, but when it worked it was generous with its ideas, wonderfully silly and constantly surprising. It also had a heart, something that for me at least was lost somewhat as Wright’s visual comedy became more and more intricate. There was a love for the characters even when they were at their most childish and self-centred, yet any tendency towards sentimentalism was always balanced by the sheer fun Pegg, Hynes and Wright had with their band of misfits and losers that were so easy to identify with.
In spite of Wright’s elaborate visual humour being already in evidence, there was always an off-the-cuff quality to Spaced, an improvisational spirit where anything could happen, a roughness around the edges that fit the characters (and that’s still most there in Shaun, the first film of the Cornetto Trilogy). As Wright’s films became more and more accomplished, to my mind they lost that feeling – which is why in the end I keep coming back to the slovenly, twenty-something lack of direction of Tim Bisley and Daisy Steiner and their ongoing struggles with growing up while hanging on to their younger selves by the skin of their teeth. It’s a great time capsule and therefore my pick for 1999.
Apart from which it has the best slow-motion gunfight ever captured on camera, and I hope that is something we can all agree is a Good Thing.
The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.