My thoughts on Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World

Poster for Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World; image courtesy of wikimedia.org

When I saw Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World a few nights ago, my first thought was “man, someday I gotta get back in graduate school. If I were working on a dissertation, it could write itself. Throw in Michael Hirschorn’s ‘Quirked Around‘ essay and James McDowell’s ‘Notes on Quirky‘ piece on top of all the other stuff I’ve read about film, feminist media studies, and music culture and be done with it.”

My friend Erik put it differently, but in a more succinct fashion: “it’s nice when they make a movie for me.” A stylish adaptation of a cult comic book series about a young guy who plays bass in a band called Sex-Bob-Omb and has to fight seven exes arcade-style to win the affections of a girl he likes speaks to a lot of people I know. 

This comment interested me. After the screening, my friends and I were talking about our thoughts, which slid into a some musings on how the movie isn’t raking it in at the box office. However, we left a packed audience at the Alamo Drafthouse. Recently, there have been a rash of quirky indie-friendly movies about hip white young people falling in love and/or finding themselves that I was surprised weren’t making piles of cash given how popular they were in Austin (see also Whip It!, Adventureland, and (500) Days of Summer, but note that Scott Pilgrim was released through Universal instead of Fox Searchlight). 

Like desultory twentysomethings, this is hardly a new phenomena. “Cool” cities feed on desultory twentysomethings’ disposable income. Austin has a thriving film community, a varied music scene, and a substantial population of amateur and professional pop culture enthusiasts. Nonetheless, I do think looking at the box office activity of certain cities in relation to gross revenue is an area worth pursuing.

I especially wonder what a bunch of Southern post-grads share with like-minded peers in Toronto. Are we just watching ourselves on screen? And if so, are our daily routines and heterosexual courtship rituals boring whether or not the people in them listen to indie rock or play in bands or fight like arcade avatars with something to prove? God, we’re probably as annoying as mugging hipster celebrities.

This may be a depressing thought, and one I’ll continue to wrestle with until more like-minded productions challenge heterosexuality and music fandom. By my estimate, none of the movies I listed do, including Scott Pilgrim. I wouldn’t even wager that they recontextualize the soundtrack as an ansillary product. 

As John Caldwell discusses in “Critical Industrial Practice: Branding, Repurposing, and the Migratory Patterns of Industrial Texts,” these byproducts indicate how what he refers to as “critical textual practices” help cultural industry professionals consolidate political and economic power by intervening in cultural formation of media’s significance in that process. Extrapolating this concept for his argument about the use of heavy metal in contemporary horror movies, Joseph Tompkins argues “that film music functions not only as a cross-promotional medium for marketing movies and licensed recordings, but also as a key site for effectively managing and containing processes of consumption (Tompkins 2009, p. 68).” Hence the employment of Beck and lauded producer Nigel Godrich in the architecture of Scott Pilgrim‘s soundtrack, which is just as critical to the movie’s production and reception as the casting and directing.  

Indeed, it’s nice when they make a movie for me, even if I’ve been engineered toward this response.  

Here are my thoughts. First the good stuff:

1. By my estimate, director Edgar Wright pulled off the comic’s style without making it insufferable. As the series modeled itself after manga and 8-bit arcade game graphics and juxtaposed the quotidian daily lives of its characters with a manic tone, this is no small feat. This could’ve been a precious movie on a level surpassing Juno and (500) Days‘ quirk, but I feel it remained grounded by solid performances and Wright’s control. Yes, sometimes this meant that entire passages of the series were lifted for the movie. But it remained faithful to the source material while using a different medium to enhance the storytelling. 

1A. The fight scenes were pretty good. Since I know Hot Fuzz is awesome, I wasn’t so worried about Wright this pulling this off. That said, Wright did a good job incorporating his directing style into the action sequences. After listening to Jody Rosen, Dana Stevens, and June Thomas discuss Sylvester Stallone’s lethargic direction on The Expendables on Culture Gabfest, I remembered the importance of the director — along with the cinematographer and editor — to establish the pacing and framing of action sequences for maximum effect.  

2. Michael Cera did a good job. I was concerned about this casting decision, as Pilgrim is cowardly, impulsive, juvenile, giddy, thoughtlessly cruel, but somehow also charming. If he were younger, I believe Vince Kartheiser — who demonstrates many of these traits in a different fashion as Mad Men‘s Pete Campbell — would have been great in the role.  

Vince Kartheiser's Pete Campbell, a bratty child posing as a businessman; image courtesy of blogs.amctv.com

Cera’s screen persona tends to be defined by reticence, discomfort, displays of grave maturity that belie his age, and being put upon. Scott Pilgrim is supposed to be relentlessly youthful. Cera looks like he’s lived through 45 years of other people’s bullshit. But Cera struck a competent balance between how he’s defined himself and what’s expected of the role. 

3. The comic is largely defined by its supporting cast. Likewise, Chris Evans, Jason Schwartzman, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, and Kieran Culkin are great in their roles. Credit casting director Allison Jones, who’s been responsible for creating several great ensembles. One interesting credit is Parks and Recreation, a show that substantially increased Plaza’s profile.

And now my issues.

1. The movie ends differently than the series, which makes more sense and is considerably more satisfying. In the movie, Pilgrim and ex-girlfriend Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) band together to defeat Pilgrim’s girlfriend Ramona V. Flowers’s seventh evil ex, Gideon Gordon Graves, a weasely venue owner and tastemaker. This was potentially a remnant from the movie’s original ending, which had Pilgrim reconcile with the underaged Chau. In the series’ sixth volume, Pilgrim and Flowers battle Graves. This makes their ultimate reconcilation feel earned, and also serves as an indication that Flowers is kind of a bad-ass. In the movie, however, Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays her as a saturnine pixie dream girl, her arms permanently folded and her mouth always formed into a pout. This brings us to my second issue . . .

2. The female characters are much more interesting in the books. As I mentioned in a previous post, Sex Bob-Omb drummer Kim Pine is my favorite character in the entire series. She’s smart, loyal, talented, resourceful, and unimpressed. She’s also the person who both Pilgrim and Flowers confide in. Here, Alison Pill and the script render her as a lobotomized Ellen Page, only able to play the drums and deliver a pointed quip in deadpan. 

Kim Pine: insert quip here; image courtesy of iwatchstuff.com

Brie Larson plays Envy Adams, one of Pilgrim’s exes who becomes a successful pop star. In volume 3, we learn that Natalie V. Adams is devastated by super-cool Pilgrim’s kiss-off, and reinvents herself largely out of revenge. In doing so, parallels are drawn between Adams and Chau, as well as between Pilgrim and Flowers’ treatment of former lovers. This is barely acknowledged in the movie, yet one of the more interesting aspects of the series.  

"Hi, I'm Envy Adams and I'm barely in this movie"; image courtesy of collider.com

In short, the female characters in the movie are subordinant and passive. This may have trickled into its marketing, best illustrated by the limits of the Scott Pilgrim Avatar Creator. Mine is below, but the folks at Paste created some interesting celebrity avatars.

My Scott Pilgrim avatar, who unfortunately cannot play her white Gibson SG left-handed because her arms are folded. Girl avatars get the passive aloof pose and boys get the active "rock out" pose.

3. Oh, how troublesome difference is here. Race relations are strained. This was actually a problem I noticed in the series. For one, appropriating manga to tell the story of two straight white people falling in love is awkward enough on its own. For another, having Chau be a Chinese Canadian high school student seems to infantilize women and girls of East Asian descent.

In addition, three of Flowers’s exes are men of color. The first is Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), who actually performs a Bollywood-inspired musical number during his battle with Pilgrim. The other two are musical twins Kyle and Ken Katayanagi (Shota and Keita Saito), who only appear in a battle of the bands sequence and have no dialogue. So much for inclusion.

Homosexuality is sidelined as well. Pilgrim’s roommate Wallace Wells (Culkin) is somewhat developed and well-played, but a minor character. Flowers’s ex Roxie Richter (Mae Whitman) is represented as crazy and bitter and identifies as a lesbian. Flowers — like Summer Finn before her — dismisses their time together as merely a phase before helping Pilgrim finish her off.

But I still liked it. As summer popcorn movies go, I certainly enjoyed it more than Inception or Salt. It wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped and it won’t beat The Expendables, which is making a killing at the box office. But perhaps Pilgrim‘s disappointing returns best prove that it’s a movie made for me. But arguing about it potentially suggests my resistence toward having my consumption managed and contained.

One comment

  1. c8ic8

    You do a terrific job of summing up what worked and what fell short in this film. I also really enjoyed it but wished that the female characters were rendered more complexly. Still, it’s a lot of fun and works very well visually despite the potential for kitschiness.

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