SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD

That Scott Pilgrim vs. the World even got made is testimony to the fact that geeks have finally inherited the earth. The movie is based on a graphic novel, that geekiest of all media and uses images and basically steals the plot from video games, especially early martial arts combat games like Street Fighter. Plus, Michael Cera, a geek movie star if there ever was one stars in the title role.

Scott is a slacker from Toronto, 23 years old and drifting through life. He’s “between jobs” at the moment, playing in a band with a hard to pronounce name and questionable talent. He lives with his gay best friend, Wallace Wells, played by Kieran Culkin, and has started dating a 17 year old high school student named Knives Chau, played by Ellen Wong. While taking her to the library one day he sees the roller blading, pink-haired girl of his dreams. He discovers that her name is Ramona Flowers, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Ramona has a past and a reputation for being difficult. He asks her out, anyway, and they start dating. Unfortunately for Scott, her past includes seven evil exes that he must fight before they can have a real relationship.

Now you would think that a skinny aimless slacker would not be able to defend himself from a series of macho exes with mad fighting skills, but Scott is actually able to hold his own, both outwitting and outfighting them. Realism is not what this movie is about. That is evident in the scene changes which are abrupt and inventive. There are several instances where the characters walk through doors and are in a scene change and often they are aware of the awkwardness of the transition. The whole film has that sort of self-aware quality to it, from the names of some of the characters to the stylized fights (every one of which starts with a full shot of the protagonists with a big “VS” between them and ends with a bar of cheesy synthesizer music and the number of points Scott wins for the victory popping up on the screen) to the wild coincidences that would never have worked in any other setting. Thus you never really forget that you are watching a film.

My take on this movie is that it is about the muddle people make of their relationships. Ramona has left a trail of angry broken hearts behind her and freely acknowledges the unfairness of Scott dealing with her baggage. But Toronto seems to be full of Scott’s angry ex-girlfriends as well. Most of them were made angry by Scott’s inability to make clean honest breaks. He doesn’t like conflict. (Ain’t irony great?) So when he gets mad at Ramona for putting him through this, there’s always this voice in the back of his head, reminding him that he’s not perfect. You would think that the film’s unrealistic tone would allow the filmmakers to introduce concrete symbols of that guilt and indecision but actually they rely on Cera’s acting ability to project those feelings, which emphasizes them even more.

I suspect that your enjoyment of the film will depend on how you react to all this wild stuff. I can definitely see how people could be annoyed, if they weren’t expecting it. So be forewarned! I can also see how some people might find Michael Cera annoying. I like him, even though I admit that he plays the same character all the time and it’s not one he’ll be able to pull off in ten years. He needs to expand his range and quickly.

Plus the film is not without flaws. Not all those transitions work and neither do all the gags. There’s one section where they play the Seinfeld theme and introduce a laugh track. It only lasts for a few seconds and the meaning of it eluded me then and continues to do so now. Overall though, the hit rate on the gags is pretty high.

I don’t think Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is for everybody. It may in fact only rise to the level of cult film.

Which is pretty geeky.

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6 Responses to “SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD”


  1. 1 Mark Anderson August 29, 2010 at 4:22 am

    Thanks for the warning, I guess, since it is why I decided to see the film. I have read so many of your reviews and concluded,
    “He writes well, and it sounds good, but why bother to make a film about it? I’ll read the novel, or a book like it, and the same things will have been done better because the author has more control over the material and more time to develop the story”. But what I got from this review and confirmed at the movie house just now is that someone had to make a *film* to tell this story. Even a graphic novel couldn’t sustain the zooms that keep you flying willy-nilly through one door after another, through those extraordinary changes of scene and rat-a-tat-tat action that you seem so defensive about enjoying. You’re absolutely right, realism is not what this movie is about, but that is its strength, just as it is the strength of musical theatre or opera. If we want realism, we don’t have to go to a movie. We can get realism just by waking up in the morning.

    I wish you hadn’t damned this film with such faint praise.

  2. 2 Chuck Ebert August 29, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    Mark, I’m glad you liked the film so much and that it was my review that encouraged you to see it. I’ve always felt that the purpose of a film review is to give the reader enough information about the film for him or her to make their own decision about seeing it despite my judgment.

    When I reread my reviews, I often come across ones where I think, “My opinion has changed about that one,” or “I didn’t quite articulate accurately how I felt about that one.” But in this case I think I got it right. A film like Scott Pilgrim or Atonement or even something like Aguirre: the Wrath of God will use these Brechtian alienation techniques to disengage the audience’s emotions from the story and force them to use their minds. Such films are often admirable, but I find them hard to love. I think I caught my ambivalence about Scott Pilgrim pretty well.

    What really bothers me is your attitude toward the art of cinema. I agree that a novelist is able to delve more deeply into the psychology of the characters and provide a fuller more immersive experience, but I think the combination of a good director and actor can at least hint at that, and great ones can duplicate or even exceed it. Look at Bogie in The Maltese Falcon or Andy Serkis’s Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, two performances that fully capture the inner lives of their literary counterparts.

    But film is different also in that it is a collaborative art form. It takes a team of individuals, working together to bring a single vision to the screen. When it works, it provides a glorious experience that you can’t find in a novel. Now granted, Sturgeon’s Law is in full effect here and most movies fall short of the mark (as do most novels by the way) but I think it’s a little unfair to dismiss film as derivative, when it simply provides a different experience. You really can’t compare them.

  3. 3 Mark Anderson August 30, 2010 at 5:31 am

    First, I have seen few movies so I am always going to react to cinema in a literary frame of reference because that is the one I know. Also I won’t be able to respond directly to most of your examples.

    That said, are you sure that “Brechtian alienation techniques” is what you want to call them? I see that the Sword of Love and the Sword of Self-Respect that Scott uses in the final battles with Gideon are not named at random, we are supposed to rear back and reflect on the themes of the film when we see them, but the people who made the film are not, like Brecht, trying to distance us emotionally from Scott and Ramona and Knives and all
    the rest of the protagonists. The creators very clearly want us to care about those characters. This is not Mother Courage,
    where all the protagonists are purposely made doomed puppets so that we dismiss their personal tragedy and focus on the anti-war themes instead.

    The improbable things that keep happening in Scott Pilgrim are more like the improbable things that happen in genre fiction everywhere, and that are accepted by convention. In Shakespeare’s comedies, once a character dons a disguise it is accepted that the disguise is impenetrable even to the character’s nearest and dearest. In modern action-hero stories, it is accepted that the protagonist will be blown up, gunned down and run over and will get up and keep on coming. The creators of those dramas don’t do it that way to distance us from the story and the characters so we will stop and ponder wisely, they do it so that way because it enables those characters to do extraordinary things without burdening the story with an extraordinary amount of explanation. If the creators are good, the convention is not just a crutch but helps drive the story along: can Olivia, disguised as Balthazar, not only pass as a man, but as an attorney defend Antonio’s impossible case in The Merchant of Venice? In Scott Pilgrim, planting the conventions of video games into a romantic comedy is what allows the film to go hurtling along like a firework through scene after scene without setting up and explaining the transitions in a literary way. As long as the story keeps moving fast enough and just barely maintains coherence, we are “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”, as Keats would say if Scott Pilgrim vs. The World had been playing in his time. And, what’s more, that transplant is, in philosophy-speak, an ongoing “unexpected juxtaposition of incongruities”; that is, it’s very funny. The film is stronger for it.

    As for movies being derivative of literature, well, often they are, and to the extent that this is the case I think they are like the Reader’s Digest Condensed Editions of books that you buy if you are too busy or too feeble a reader to tackle the real thing. Movies don’t have to be wholly derivative, and many of them aren’t. Very likely The Maltese Falcon is everything you say it is, I haven’t seen it yet although I am sure I have read the Hammett book at least twice. Regarding Gollum in Lord of the Rings, well, perhaps that is remarkable also. I only saw The Two Towers, and I was so busy gnashing my teeth about how all the other characters had been flattened into cartoons of their Tolkien counterparts that I may well have missed the genius of Mr. Serkis’s performance. If you wanted to convince
    me that a movie can transcend the corresponding book, Lord of the Rings was absolutely the wrong example to offer. Now that you have raised the memory of that travesty within my mind, I have to sign off now and bash my head against the floor for awhile until I am able to forget it again. I still think you are wrong about Scott Pilgrim.

  4. 4 theotherebert August 30, 2010 at 11:50 am

    Mark,
    I grant you that the English language does not possess the adjectives to describe the differences in tone between Mother Courage and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But tone and technique are different things, as is intent. Productions of Mother Courage use strange lighting and staging to remind the audience that they are watching a play and to distance them from the emotional impact of the doomed characters, allowing them to concentrate on the theme. The filmmakers of Scott Pilgrim use the conventions of other media, namely video games and and sit-coms to reinforce the rigid narrative structure they’ve constructed to put us one remove from the characters. They do this to echo the inside of Scott’s mind. Scott is too immature to really know what he is feeling. That’s why he’s always adding phrases like “or something,” or “and stuff,” to the end of his declarative statements. This is his misguided attempt to be precise about his feelings but of course the effect is the opposite.

    Your example of the swords is part of the filmmaker’s technique. It is telling instead of showing. The emotional impact of the moment is there, I guess, at least the first time, but I don’t think that the intent was to create an cathartic experience, such as you would have in a more conventional film. In fact the intent may have been to get a laugh. Plus all those switches during the falling action (I won’t go into specifics in case there’s anyone reading this who doesn’t want the movie spoiled) seem arbitrary to me. He could have wound up with either of them.

    There is a difference between the narrative conventions and short cuts you mention and what they’ve done in Scott Pilgrim. For one thing, the devices in Scott Pilgrim have been lifted from other media. I very much doubt that they will become a permanent part of storytelling vocabulary. The other difference is intent. When Shakespeare’s characters are able to throw on impenetrable disguises it is because he knows that to take the time to go into what it takes to make such a disguise would slow down the plot too much. When Bruce Willis gets up after being knocked down by an explosion that in real life probably would have knocked him out or even killed him it’s because Hollywood knows we love explosions, especially in the summer. These are conventions that over time have been accepted. They help put us in the narrative flow. What happens in Scott Pilgrim takes us out of it.

  5. 5 Mark Anderson August 31, 2010 at 4:54 am

    Certainly those devices take you, The Other Ebert, out of the narrative flow. That’s too bad; I expect you’d like the film a lot more if they didn’t distract you so.

    But just as certainly they don’t have that effect on me. I understood right away how the conventions worked, and I was startled and delighted to find them in this unexpected setting, and I climbed aboard and rode them as fast as they could take me. It didn’t matter to me that they were lifted from other media, that they weren’t traditional devices and aren’t likely to become so; as far as I’m concerned, they work here and now in this film to send it flying along its way. It is true, as you have written, when you’re at Scott Pilgrim you never really forget that you are watching a film; if the hyperbole doesn’t remind you, then the irony following right at its heels will. But so what, I never forget I’m watching a movie anyway. That awareness doesn’t stop me from being completely intent, completely absorbed in what’s going on, from wondering what’s going to happen next and being surprised when it happens, from identifying with the characters and caring about what’s going to happen to them, and from wishing that the story would keep on going after the credits have started to roll.

  6. 6 theotherebert September 1, 2010 at 12:40 am

    Mark,

    I agree. What it comes down to is does the film work for you. I liked Scott Pilgrim. You obviously loved it. One of the things I love about movies is that they inspire such passions. I’m passionate about a lot of films, and in my experience so are a lot of people. It’s what made watching Siskel and Ebert so much fun. There were times when I thought they were close to coming to blows.

    I also enjoy thinking about film and have learned over the years to articulate the reasons why I love something or hate it, or am indifferent to it. You seem to have always had this ability. I had to work at it.

    Anyway, I think these debates are fun.


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