Sunday, December 5, 2010

"We are Sex Bob-Omb and we are here to make you think about death and get sad and stuff": 7 deep truths of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

"Scott Pilgrim is the first movie to articulate our popular culture."
---Guillermo del Toro

"From the opening 8-bit Universal logo (and matching MIDI theme) to a frenetic finale in which Scott brawls with Ramona's last ex, evil music producer Gideon (Jason Schwartzman, hopping down a faux pyramid à la the one from Q*bert), Wright creates an A/V whirligig to mirror teens' ever-connected day-to-day existences, a state of being in which eyes and ears are perpetually trained on cell phones, iTunes, the Internet, HDTV, and/or game consoles. His film's flash is, ultimately, as central to the proceedings as is Scott's plot-driving odyssey toward awareness of self . . . " ---Nick Schager

" . . . if Scott Pilgrim ends up as important a film as Breathless, it's only something we'd know about decades down the line. But let's just say I wouldn't be surprised. It unquestionably will be, and already has been, dismissed on similar terms as Godard's breakthrough film - a silly film for young people - but it's really quite astounding." ---Scott Nye

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World may well be my favorite film of the year. Some reasons why:

1) Because it successfully foregrounds technique over content. In Walker Percy's novel The Moviegoer, Binx Bolling describes two different forms of a search. One is the old-fashioned way of reading deep into books, what he calls the "vertical search." The other he happens upon more casually, when he takes a walk in his neighborhood and pays attention to his environment--the "horizontal search." Eventually, he finds that he prefers the horizontal search to the vertical.

In a similar way, Scott Pilgrim obliges the critic to shift the analytical emphasis from content to form. Instead of obliging the viewer to focus on the usual dull pseudo-realistic presentation of a story, Scott Pilgrim expands horizontally in one's mind as an oblique network of allusions and techniques. The movie demands that we view it differently, as if we are following director Edgar Wright's subversive imaginative play on a screen.

2) Take, for instance, Ramona's Evil Ex number 3, Todd Ingram (Brandon Routh). He has attained psychic powers due to his vegan diet. As he says, "I partake not in the meat, nor the breast milk, nor the ovum of any creature with a face." His eating habits somehow give him the ability to levitate, play a wicked bass, and throw Scott Pilgrim through walls, but then Scott tricks him into drinking some coffee with half and half. After Todd violates his diet, the Vegan police arrive (in a Smart Car, no less), cite two other violations in his Vegan diet (including the fact that he ate chicken parmesan), and then deprive him of his powers. The entire scene struck me as a perfect example of the increasing legislation of diet nowadays, whereupon we like to increasingly associate one's food choices with virtue or higher Laws. Anybody who has gone out with a vegetarian learns to anticipate the fascist implications of every meal.

4) When Scott runs up against Evil Ex number 2, Lucas Lee (Chris Evans), he encounters the movie star in the midst of a film shoot at Casa Loma, a favorite Toronto landmark. As they do battle, the scene seems to meditate on the nature of celebrity hero-worship. After Lucas threatens Scott, he reacts in a dreamy voice with "He's famous and he's talking to me." Even after Lucas punches Scott, Scott still asks for his autograph.

5) Wright has a mania for replication. Soon after Evil Ex Number 1, Matthew Patel, suddenly sprouts a gang of dancing demon hipster chicks for no apparent reason, Lucas summons his crew of body doubles to fight Scott as he wanders off to get some coffee. Increasingly, the 7 Evil Exes resemble Godlike figures with magical powers.

6) Naturally (?), the ultimate villain is Gideon Graves, a record executive played by Jason Schwartzman who wears thick-framed glasses reminiscent of his Max Fischer character in Wes Anderson's Rushmore (1998). Can a director legitimately semi-resurrect one of the great cinematic characters and allude to him indirectly? Has any director ever done that before? Even though Wright claims that Graves was meant to refer to the Phil Spector-esque character in Phantom of the Paradise, just the hint of Max won me over.

7) And what of the film's whiplash transitions that Guillermo del Toro likes so much? Its use of words on the screen that evokes the verbal play of Citizen Kane? Its many video game references that are, according Wright, always at least 15 years old? Wright's cinematic influences? The film's extraordinary fidelity to Brian Lee O'Malley's comic? Are the 7 Evil Exes obliging us to think of The Seven Samurai or Snow White? When Sex Bob-Omb sells out, are their thin ties and suits a nod to the early Beatles? How does one begin to analyze Wright's nuanced use of different colored hair? What of the Kurosa Ikiru-esque scene out in the snow on a swing? When Scott crumples a cup in his hand, is that an allusion to Jaws when Hooper crumples a styrofoam cup to mock Quint? There appears to be no limit to Scott Pilgrim's gleeful hall-of-mirrors hyperdrive referentiality.

16 comments:

realvirtuality said...

Agreed on all 7 points. It's certainly one of the most remarkable films of the year and I like your comparison with "Breathless".

Jake said...

One minor correction, Doc: it's Phantom of the Paradise, not Opera. But I'm thrilled you enjoyed this. I've rewatched this several times and it just keeps climbing my list. It might end up in my top five when it's all said and done. It manages to mix what Wright has been doing with his films before this -- only to a greater degree -- even as he returns to the more character-oriented style of his show Spaced. It's ingenious.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, realvirtuality.

Thanks for your comment and the correction, Jake. The Social Network and Inception compete as two other top films in my list, but I like the way Scott Pilgrim resists my analysis. I have difficulty saying why the 8-bit Universal logo and the MIDI theme is so effective. Perhaps it's because Wright mocks his own studio (as he does later when Lucas Lee cracks his neck to the drum beat of the same theme). It wouldn't have worked the same way if the video games were more recent. Wright somehow knows how to affect his audience on a semi-subconscious Pavlovian level.

Simon said...

It's Phantom of the Paradise, I think. Unless you're talking about a different movie.

Brilliant points, you.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Simon.

Some day I'll get that title right.

count0 said...

"Scott Pilgrim is the first movie to articulate our popular culture."
---Guillermo del Toro

"Articulate" is not quite the right word, I think.

FilmDr said...

I agree with del Toro insofar as Scott Pilgrim finds a visual and aural vocabulary that reflects our experience. Movies like this emphasize how much imagery from video games, comics, movies, TV, computers, etc., do not get into films. I wonder how much most mainstream movies still follow a syntax that is at least 20 years old.

count0 said...

There have been several mainstream films directly stripped from video games, such as Doom, Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil and all that. What these films do not capture is some of the hipster culture around it, which is portrayed in Scott Pilgrim.

That is the right word by the way, "portray", not "articulate".

FilmDr said...

Scott Pilgrim is refreshingly nonjudgmental (if also very self-conscious) about hipster culture. I liked Matthew Patel's hint of insecurity when he points out that pirate fashion is in this year.

Jason Bellamy said...

This is one of those movies that I forgot I saw within days of seeing it. I wanted to like it. And often I did like it. But oh-my-fucking-god those fight scenes wouldn't end. By the end of the second one I thought, "Wait, I've got FIVE more of these!?!?" And then it turned out that the last fight scene had to be done TWICE.

In those moments -- and there are many of them, and they are LONG -- this movie is no more rewarding for me than Transformers. It's all noise. The rest of the movie, I enjoyed. Honestly, if someone released a cut of this film without the fight scenes, the way someone recut Phantom Menace without Jar-Jar, I'd buy it without hesitation.

(Sorry to be late with this comment. Catching up on reading.)

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Jason, for your thoughts.

The fight scenes didn't bother me at all. I especially liked the little Bollywood touches with Patel, the many Xs in various shots, the way Scott gets sulky about it after awhile. The early fight scenes especially give the film a kick of adrenaline, and I liked the incongruity of watching Michael Cera go macho. I wonder if Cera fatigue was the main reason the film didn't do that well with the American box office.

Scott Nye said...

I'm almost certain Cera fatigue was the reason the film tanked. That and movies that look like something new or different pretty routinely go down in flames - the lucky ones will rise again later (although those who champion these films ALWAYS insist "it'll find an audience on DVD, just you watch!").

Jason, I had almost the exact opposite reaction as you - it's a movie I've hardly been able to stop thinking about since I saw it! Although I am with you on the final fight scene - especially seeing the movie a second time, that really grinds in a film that is otherwise a pretty brisk watch (not that all films need to be brisk, but this one was certainly trying).

FilmDr, I'm with you on all seven points, and your dissection of the Todd Ingram sequence is especially spot on. The other thing that struck me there was that it reveals how much of Todd's identity is entwined with his dietary choices, and what that says about vegan culture in general (obviously a little dismissive, but what good is satire otherwise?).

I was also very...surprised and refreshed by its treatment of hipster culture; at once embracing and mocking it (a very hipster attitude I suppose). Wright and O'Malley clearly have a lot of love for that period in people's lives, no matter how it manifests itself. Wright explored a similar side to it with Spaced, and it was just so great to see that, ten years later, he could still tap into those exact emotions and have them feel just as relevant and fresh in an entirely different setting.

It's high up on my list of favorites for this year for sure.

Jason Bellamy said...

I'm almost certain Cera fatigue was the reason the film tanked.

I doubt it. I think the film is just difficult to market. (Also: Do we yet have evidence that Cera has ever been a headlining draw among the general public?) That doesn't reflect poorly on the film, of course. And the good news is that if the film is as rewarding as all of you guys think, then it'll find its audience over time on DVD/Bluray.

As for the fight scenes ...

I thought the first one was cute. And then, truly, I was done with it. I mentioned Transformers earlier, but I think a more apt comparison would be the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie, in that the action setpieces went on and on to the point that you wondered if the folks making the movie realized what actually makes the movie so charming: the characters.

I'd love to say I'll give it a second chance soon, but, truly, I find the thought of sitting through those fight scenes again quite daunting.

By the way, another big fan of the film is Will Pfeifer. I truly wish I felt the same overall enthusiasm you guys do. I felt it in places, but then, well, FIGHT SCENE ...

FilmDr said...

Thanks for your insights, Scott and Jason.

I agree that Wright's generous attitude toward hipsters helps the movie succeed. I should see Spaced next.

I think what I like the most about Scott Pilgrim is how I don't fully understand why certain details, such as the mockery of the Universal logo, strike me as both funny and oddly moving. I don't fully get why the movie works so well, and that's another reason to like it.

Anonymous said...

"Anybody who has gone out with a vegetarian learns to anticipate the fascist implications of every meal"...

I am one of those very annoying people who view their vegan diet as an important aspect of their identity, and the Todd Ingram battle is by far my favourite part of the film. This battle is so much better executed than the storyline in the original comic book, and I have shown it to all my vegan friends (who also have learned to love the film). Making fun of animal rights protesters/vegans/vegetarians is quite easy but seldom particularly clever (or funny), but as with anything else in this film (bar some of the longer fight scenes) it's expertly executed!

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Anonymous.

Yes, I like the way the film suggests that there's a correlation between dietary virtue and superpowers. Also, we live in an age when dietary police may come bust us at any moment for the tiniest infraction. Guilt seems to have shifted from the religious to the culinary. My friends are never more righteous than when they have a lunch or a dinner to sit down to. The film seems alert to the way morality has shifted in these strange ways but otherwise logical ways. It also seems perfect that the police drive a Smart Car, another example of smug righteous living (although I would like a Smart Car).