Mid-gallop, a horse’s hooves, all four, are suspended in mid-air—this much we now know. Sallie Gardner at a Gallop—Eadweard Muybridge’s proto-slo-mo, proto-film wager-winning motion study—paved the way for perceptual manipulations galore: the corporeal eye transcended, film hastened, the natural world under the thumb of technology. Rapid, organic locomotion needed to be slowed, frozen even, to capture an edifying moment of minutiae in time. Trace that idea through a history of violence: Kurosawa, Peckinpah, Scorsese, Woo, et al., and reels of detailed, beautiful carnage splattered across widened retinas in dilated time—grandeur and repulsion and swagger extraordinarily protracted. Then picture Kenny “Fucking” Powers and Neal Gamby strutting down high-school hallways to cock rock and the applause of pimple-faced masses like a gladiator unto the Coliseum. The world between the ears is projected and amped and it’s intoxicating and absurd.
Vice Principals has a horse (Shadowfax, naturally). He’s soon enough hocked for something more fuel-injected. In my addled, insular mind, this qualifies as a metaphor for the arc of cognition. But, Jody Hill and Danny McBride are committed to slow-motion as a gregarious, majestic aesthetic, so pipe that. Unspooled, some episodes of Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals would run minutes shorter. So said Rudy Arnheim: “Motion being one of its outstanding properties, the film is required by aesthetic law to use and interpret motion.” To wit, “the great actor is distinguished by a simple, characteristic melody of movement all his own.” As a potato-shaped avatar of photogénie, McBride obliges.
Slow motion cracked open and demystified the natural world; McBride and Hill reinfuse the curious, malignant aura of heightened perception. The recesses of the collective consciousness achieve expression in sustained reverie syntagms. Time yawns and the glacial pace of the cosmos and modern civilization comes clear. These fugues’re invariably punctured and deflated by a warped reality. Both series get off on the distension that results from this constant whiplash. McBride embodies this modern tunnel vision. He’s uncannily adept at navigating sluggish trances. He has an odd grace that’s simultaneously uncivil and regal. Slow motion was seemingly made for him, as if the Lumieres and Edison tinkered with physics just to crystallize his visage a hundred and a score hence. He’s the consummation of visual media law, the boorish, lumbering Buster Keaton of our times, with physical comedy, once athletic and balletic, now ravaged, brow-beaten, and out-of-shape. Now that’s a modern metaphor for you.
His is not just motion slowed, it’s the mind’s eye amplified. Reality is broken to substitute a stylized humdrum, not as a means of waking up a sleeping culture, but to narcotize and burrow the mind deeper in the grind. Stranded in the purgatory of middle-class—middle-rung high school enforcers, washed-up major league relief pitchers, directionless sad sacks with delusional philosophies—he’s a carbon-based embodiment of empty ambition and entitlement and inert self-pity. All the Spanish moss and dewy haze only makes the world feel heavier and slower, all the better for off-axis gear-shift spectacle. He’s somehow the arrogant and destructive foil and apoplectic apotheosis of the navel gazing antipathy of late-gen-X, post-slacker anxieties, punching down by choice and futilely clinging to a toxic faux-indifference while trying to resorb youth through osmosis.
His persona is the spawn of W.C. Fields and Matt Foley; he’s the American Peter Capaldi, bundling all the contradictions that raises—his virtuosic profanity more porous and belligerent; it being that of a blustering man-child lashing out as a defense mechanism. He’s a Falstaffian figure for the information age—a gleefully profane tragicomic teddy bear. Still, no man has ever rocked a mullet with more saturated pathos. He somehow combines sanguine southern languor with Yankee impatience and cynicism. And, Vice Principals is the muddy, funhouse mirror of a complacent, blinkered dominion in crisis—pitting, pointedly, “brusque yet fussy” v. “diplomatic but less trustworthy”—that’s just savvy enough to cut too-neat parallels off at the knees.
Time enough amidst grander allegories to savor: When Daniel McBride tells schoolchildren to “shut the fuck up,” it’s hyperbolic wish-fulfillment that’s as natural and therapeutic as breathing—like a release valve opening in your brain, or a kangaroo kicking the shit out of a down-on-his luck challenger. Eastbound & Down was his Chimes at Midnight; the second entry in their Bible Belt diptych needs only to coast on the spare parts of his métier. That it does more and less is commendable. The pair capture a uniquely magisterial disillusionment, a place where ambition is hollow, unquenchable, and beautifully savage. In overextended time, the intersection of a goosed mundane and an aggrandized inner-monologue snaps into focus. Praise be.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.