Monday, January 31, 2011


To your left is the worst movie poster of 2010. It gives you practically no clue as to the nature of Edgar Wright's film version of Bryan Lee O'Malley's mangaform graphic novel series, apart from the bare fact that it has something to do with someone in a band. A nondescript someone, too, since it doesn't even show us Michael Cera's face -- though considering how some folks hate Cera that concealment may have made sense. But on the other hand, how can any poster convey what the Scott Pilgrim movie is? Do you do one to look like Eighties game graphics, the way they primitivized the Universal logo and fanfare at the start of the show? No, since the movie has state of the art special effects, while "video game" is only the style or archetype through which the story is told. Do you use graphics from the actual comics? No, because then people might assume that the film is a cartoon and a rather ratty looking one at that. Then again, it is a cartoon of a sort, given its reliance on computer animation, comics-style framing effects, comics-style captions identifying characters, and Batman-style graphic sound effects. It's an advance on Zombieland's reliance on captions and lists, which seemed to have no justification whatsoever, since that film made no other effort to resemble a comic book or a video game. By comparison, Scott Pilgrim is arguably the first true video-game movie, as opposed to various bad movies that have been inspired by video games or have characters participating in video games. Pilgrim stands out for actually using video-game concepts as narrative devices, and for making "video game" a genre through which it tells its eccentric romantic-comedy story.

In short: Scott Pilgrim (Cera) is the 23-year old bassist for the Toronto garage band Sex Bob-Omb. He shares a dump of an apartment and a bed (platonically) with his gay roommate and whomever the roommate brings home. Dumped by the lead singer of The Clash at Demonhead, his new girlfriend is 17-year old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), who bonds with Scott while playing the Ninja Ninja Revolution videogame at the mall. As his bandmates aspire to earn a gig at the Chaos Theater by winning a battle-of-the-bands series, Scott falls abruptly in love with Amazon deliveryperson Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a woman he first saw in a dream. He places an order on the desperate yet accurate assumption that Ramona will deliver it, and pursues her while neglecting initially to break up with Knives. As both girls attend the first battle of bands, Sex Bob-Omb's set is interrupted by a man crashing through the wall and flying onto the stage to challenge Scott. This flying man, David Patel, had earlier e-mailed Scott notifying him of his new obligation to fight Ramona's evil exes to the death, but Scott had deleted it because it was boring. No matter: David is here and now Scott must fight.

Scott Pilgrim was one film not released in 3-D that maybe should have been.

I'd heard of O'Malley's comics but hadn't read them before watching Wright's movie. So at the moment of confrontation, I figure: Okay. Either Knives or possibly Ramona will have to teach the dweeb to fight, so that after a standard sequence of bungled training he will at last transcend his inadequacies and assert his rights as a man. In the next instant I stood corrected. Scott Pilgrim knows perfectly well how to fight. He has superhuman strength, speed and leaping ability, as do his antagonists. He is both a dweeb and a superhero. This is possible because he exists in a video game universe where he can accumulate points with every well-struck blow toward earning an extra life (he'll need it), where Knives and Ramona in fact do have super fighting abilities (and Ramona carries a giant retractable sledgehammer in her handbag) and where defeated enemies explode into clouds of coins.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ramona and --Jeeezus!!!

For all I know, anyone in the movie could fight like the main characters do, but most of them don't need to. That's because the fights are metaphors the way Astaire and Rogers's dances are metaphors, the latter for courtship if not consummation, the former for the modern struggles of lovers with one another's baggage of past but perpetually present exes. It may sound blasphemous to compare the work of Michael Cera's stuntman with the lyric agility of Fred Astaire, but the fight scenes and the dance scenes serve the same basic narrative purpose.

We can go further invoking the past. Scott Pilgrim isn't anything so much something new, apart perhaps as a matter of sensibility as it is a culmination of a century of genre evolution or a closing of an evolutionary loop. I've written in the past that the modern action film is an outgrowth of silent comedy, with the stunt-oriented work of Buster Keaton as the seminal influence (as recognized most explicitly by Jackie Chan) and The General as the first true action movie. Silent comedy itself derives from the burlesque tradition of vaudeville which exploits its inherent stage-bound unreality by making comedy out of exaggerated violence and the comic's ability to recover from it in mock-miraculous fashion. Early comic strips like Mutt & Jeff enhanced vaudevillian violence by liberating it from human limits, while movies emulated comic strips once liberated in turn by editing and special effects. With Scott Pilgrim, Edgar Wright takes everything that film has developed in special effects, stunts and fight choreography and renders it back into virtual cartoon form.

The film's historic and aesthetic achievements vary. Scott Pilgrim is actually a mixed metaphor, since it sometimes emulates its original comics medium as well as video games. But it only looks cheesy when sound effects for doorbells and telephones are inscribed on screen. There's really nothing more to do with that gimmick than what Batman did more than forty years ago.

Meanwhile, there's an imbalance to the presentation of the Evil Exes when one is portrayed by a star (Chris Evans), another by a sort of name (Brandon Routh) and the rest (not counting Jason Schwartzman as the ultimate boss) by whomever. Nor is there the sense of progression through increasingly difficult antagonists that I'd expect from a video-game format movie. Scott even defeats a pair of twin-exes with a superior sound system rather than fighting skills, as if Wright had decided that that mere fighting had grown monotonous, while Evans destroys himself through a foolhardy skateboard stunt. From the nature of the entire project, the comedy is going to be hit or miss, but overall Wright proves that he contributed something to his Simon Pegg vehicles in the form of timing and pacing. As a big budget comics adaptation, Scott Pilgrim inevitably looks impersonal compared to Sean of the Dead, but Wright and his ensemble of actors infuse it with a conviction and vivacity that make Pilgrim arguably the best fantasy film of 2010.


Sam Juliano said...

"For all I know, anyone in the movie could fight like the main characters do, but most of them don't need to. That's because the fights are metaphors the way Astaire and Rogers's dances are metaphors, the latter for courtship if not consummation, the former for the modern struggles of lovers with one another's baggage of past but perpetually present exes. It may sound blasphemous to compare the work of Michael Cera's stuntman with the lyric agility of Fred Astaire, but the fight scenes and the dance scenes serve the same basic narrative purpose..."

Most interesting Samuel. I would never have made such a connection. And your subsequent discussion of the indeptedness of the modern action film to silent comedy, which in turn in derived from the 'burlesque tradition of vaudeville' is exceptional. But it's the typical MONDO 70 essay: the kitchen sink and then some. I'll make a confession here. I am no fan of this film, finding it torturous, incoherent and an an in-your-face assault of sound and action sequences that never goes below the surface. Scenes are remembered as blurs, and Cera is as always his obnoxious self (for the record, I don't hate him, and even liked him in JUNO) but his casting usual spells doom for the film he appears in. I can dislike a film, but still marvel in a defense of this caliber. Finding what you did and examining it's full worth as a fantasy, I can both simulatanously applaud you and then hide in the closet.

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam, some films aren't meant to go below the surface, and Scott Pilgrim is one of those. The superficiality of Scott's learning experiences, as symbolized by the game graphics, may be part of the point rather than a point against the movie. If so, it's still bound to leave the film wanting in many eyes, and there's no point in defending the film to people who expect more from movies than this one gives. In other words, I don't reproach anyone for disliking the movie, even if it worked for me more often than it failed.

As for Cera, this may be the first time I've seen him. I don't usually watch the sort of film he appears in, but I know the poor reputation he has with many people. I think the film needed his type of actor to drive home the absurdity of the premise, and I found him amiable enough, but I can also imagine any number of his peers doing just as well in the role.

Ben said...

Funnily enough, I think the poster for this movie is actually one of the better ones I've seen in recent years -- although anything that saves us from more giant, drained colour actor-faces rising out of the shadows and block capital pull-quotes about how so-and-so deserves an ocsar is welcome in that respect...

As to the film, I found it was a pretty charmless adaptation of a very charming comic book, but your thoughts on it are very interesting nonetheless, so cheers for the review.

Samuel Wilson said...

Ben: As a work of art there's nothing wrong with the poster and I appreciate your appreciation of its freedom from poster cliche. But it really doesn't tell you anything important about the movie it advertises while making it appear more dull than it actually is. As for the relative charms of film and graphic novel, I defer to your experience. Thanks for writing.

Anonymous said...

I didn't read the graphic novel and I'm certainly no fan of Cera, but I watched the movie with an expectation of disliking it and found the opposite to be true.

It is cinematic junkfood, but it's Cinnabon quality, compared to the generic potato chip quality we are often fed by Hollywood. I was highly entertained by the smartness and the fact that it didn't take itself seriously in anyway.

Though it clog my arteries and ramp up my cinematic diabetes, another helping, please.

brent said...

I just loved this film. I found it didn't really matter if you had read the comic...oops..sorry..... the graphic novel as you soon pick up the themes. Any sort of media, wether it be film , writing, t.v has its followers and detractoers. I'm a film fanatic and Scotty Pilgrim for me is as good as it gets film wise. Its quirkyness hits the spot for me as it is a trait that is truely hard to film, and here it is done magnificently. Love it, love it, love it!!
But all tastes are different, but for everyone who I spoke to about this film loved it wether they were film fanatics or not.