We’ve all got that friend who tells the same joke, over and over - no matter how many times you’ve heard it before. Exasperated, you come to associate that one joke with that one friend. They are the joke. Yet, over time, the joke becomes comforting. It starts to make you laugh. It is this same comforting humour that many directors seek to encapsulate through the skilful art of foreshadowing.
Pick any film by British director Edgar Wright and behind the comedy lies this clever plot device. Though talk of ‘devices’ and ‘foreshadowing’ bring back memories of studying musty Shakespeare plays in secondary school, such plot devices abound in film and television. Foreshadowing, to give it a very simple definition, is when something is said or done ahead of time as a warning or indication of what’s to come.
Often tragedy is the arena of such plot devices, yet Wright in fact employs the device of foreshadowing for comedic effect. It works brilliantly, bringing with it a sense of comfort for the audience. For one, Wright’s notorious Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy holds a few well-known examples. An early exchange between Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s characters at the start of horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead foreshadows the entire plot of the film to come: “We’ll have a Bloody Mary first thing, have a bite at the King’s Head, ‘couple at the Little Princess, we’ll stagger back here. BANG! Back at the bar for shots.”
Wright’s follow-up film Hot Fuzz also employs the technique. Danny (played by Frost) asks Nicholas (Pegg) about his time as a city cop - “have you ever been in a car chase?” The film then reaches its climax with the high-speed chase Danny has always wanted.
Another example can be seen in the screen adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010). Scott Pilgrim, played by Michael Cera, aims to win the heart of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but in order to do so he must battle her seven evil exes. Throughout the film, Pilgrim refers to the challenge as battling the evil ex-boyfriends, which Ramona corrects to evil exes (one of them is an evil ex-girlfriend). The film is also littered with X shapes and insignia, which appear with increasing intensity as battle scenes draw near.
Though cunning and creative, foreshadowing is above all comforting. It brings the audience in, allows us to build that relationship with the characters, and that same sense of familiarity we find in that one friend’s joke. While it works well in tragedy to build suspense, foreshadowing is a subtle, yet very clever, bonding exercise in comedy.
Words: Aaron Lambley
Image Source: Still-shot from Shaun of the Dead, 2014 by Edgar Wright