Monday, March 7, 2011

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim is inconsiderate, narcissistic, and continually absorbed in fantasies which involve him exerting dominance over romantic entanglements from his prospective girlfriend’s past while simultaneously violating his current relationship. Were he more casual about his prospective girlfriend and more concerned with his own past romantic entanglements that summary could have easily been applied to rather than Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Scott is younger, less invested in his current relationship, and more proactive, but essentially suffers from the same problems. Guido’s greatest strength is his ability to see his own failings and his greatest weakness is his inability to do anything about them. Scott Pilgrim is just the opposite: he is incapable of recognizing his biggest problems but seemingly capable of overcoming them if he could identify them. His preoccupation with Ramona’s exes is emblematic of this, as their defeat means absolutely nothing to him or to her in the end. As is the case with so many young relationships it is not incompatibility in the pairing that creates the most insurmountable rifts but the inability of either partner to think beyond themselves, something which dooms the first relationship in the film and threatens the second. Scott’s struggle against the world is little more than an avoidance of struggling with himself, a struggle which Guido is constantly fighting and losing. Thus, I posit: Scott Pilgrim and are essentially two sides of the same film, and I present Guido’s harem shenanigans as the most damning evidence of this conclusion. To achieve similar ends Scott Pilgrim sensibly uses elements of modern diversion and restlessness to tackle the mindstates of young love whereas uses elements of aged professionalism and reflection to tackle the mindstates of crumbling marriage, and neither ends up in direct competition with the other. As such, it hardly matters which I prefer, and if it did it would be senseless to assess such a matter before a full consideration of both was concluded, but I think both are immensely enjoyable and contain innumerable elements which reflect their respective blackly comic crises, one which leads to a relationship seeming like little more than a burden and the other to a relationship seeming like little more than a game.

With Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Edgar Wright shifts from infusing an existing film genre with a comedic twist into the paired pursuit of infusing an existing medium with a cinematic twist and finding a set of stylistic devices to establish the tone befitting someone else’s comedy. In the grand scheme of things I don’t really care who contributed what, but I think the circumstances imply that Wright’s major contribution in this film is in the cinematic grammar, that which I find to be the film’s strongest element. This is not to say that Wright has not borrowed film grammar from elsewhere: characters often appear on screen within scenes that they are not actually in to facilitate a surreal transition to a succeeding scene, something you will find in when Guido’s mother shows up in the hotel room where Carla is staying among other places. There are a great many effects such as this in Scott Pilgrim which serve to blur time and space including an astoundingly vast array of techniques to achieve ellipses. I was attempting to categorize them in my mind as I saw them this most recent time, but they appear in such rapid succession that it became overwhelming, and that they are the source of the rapidity is a testament to their effectiveness at creating an experiential blur. To assemble an incomplete list, there are: a.) straight cuts which bridge time, the classic method b.) unreasonably rapid information transfers within uninterrupted shots c.) uninterrupted dialogue exchanges which incorporate a shift in place and thus time d.) physical tasks whose duration is shortened through miming e.) uninterrupted shots which traverse locations through set changes. Many of these ellipses are humorous in and of themselves because of the way they distort the way time is perceived in the film, and this has a broad array of effects that may not seem immediately apparent. By creating humor out of distorting time and reality both with film grammar and conversational pacing Wright creates a comedic foundation upon which he can insert his mostly vapid characters without morphing the film into an outright exhibition of buffoonery. I think the comedic pace that Wright employs has the most in common with the screwball comedy, but by replacing unrealistically clever dialogue with far more underwhelming displays of intellectual prowess he achieves a bit of a twist on an established film genre, similar to his previous films, somewhat covertly. Instead of making the characters unrealistically smart Wright contorts the world in such a way to make it unreal enough for normal people to fit into a screwball film. Their conversations are often punctuated by anti-climactic non-punch lines which fit perfectly into the cadence of a screwball exchange but subvert the expectation of a zinger, another way that Wright uses existing film tropes to create humor rather than the words themselves. To what end is all of this contortion of the film’s world? It all becomes more apparent later on as the battles begin to break out, but the film’s reality contorts to mirror the distorted way in which they view the world. Any seconds of dead air are, as Scott at one point laments, boredom. Between video games, music, email, texting, and conversations they face constant sensory overload. The battles are the obvious result of morphing the world to reflect video games and an overblown focus on partners’ baggage, but the film’s opening stylistic elements seem to be forgotten. I think they are just as crucial, and even more interesting and unique cinematically. Like , Scott Pilgrim achieves a visualization of a subjective viewpoint through depicting exaggeration and fantasy, but unlike that film Scott Pilgrim manages to create a subjective viewpoint through the aforementioned methods of editing and ellipsis. As such, time becomes a meaningful element within the film, a dimension which is often ascribed to the so-called ‘slow cinema’ of Tarkovsky et al. Wright achieves an element of sculpting with speed, something that screwball comedy tends to simply chalk up to artifice and otherwise forget entirely. As a result of Wright’s acuity in editing and film grammar he is able to retain the realistically dim-witted nature of his characters, meaningfully adopt and simultaneously subvert the increased pace of screwball comedy, and comment on the mind-numbing level of stimulation in youth culture.

There is an important question in Scott Pilgrim: is the film a parable with its message so conveniently gift-wrapped at the end, a satire of the self-aggrandizing nature of youth culture, or a black comedy where callous disregard for others and even murder create tentative chuckles? I would say – a bit of all of it, actually. All of the creative members of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World are in some way or another a part of the culture being described, so there is an element of self-satire, and yet Scott is probably not purely autobiographical so there is an element of satire which must surely be tempered with the recognition of the inevitable folly of youth, a consideration which naturally leads a satire into a helpful parable for the inevitable but innocent victims of naivety. The core of the film involves a perfectly delightful underage girl being deluded and discarded in favor of someone else who must be attained by violently crushing opponents, though, so I can’t imagine there will be too much argument if I say that the film has a bevy of black comic elements. All of the ambiguity between self-satire and pure satire and parable only naturally fits into the realm of black comedy. One of the most prominent tools in the black comic arsenal is the anti-climax and it makes an appearance in a number of ways throughout Scott Pilgrim. Four of the seven battle scenes seem to end in anti-climax, with a simple taunt, a sip of coffee, a touch of the back of a knee, and a convivial conversation proving the pivotal moments in the clashes. Anti-climaxes don’t simply exist in the storyline’s dramatic climaxes, though, and inhabit conversational patterns, as earlier referenced, and cinematic tropes, as when a ‘hip-hop montage’ concludes with an anti-climactic leisurely paced tying of shoelaces. None of these smaller instances individually amount to much of a coherent statement – whether he ties his shoes faster or slower is not important at all, but it does serve to interrupt the flow of a piece of film grammar which has a snowballing effect, and thus these stylistic devices act to constrict this flow while simultaneously employing the elements which would otherwise enhance it. As such, the intermittent interruptions of the flow of the film’s fantasy serve to distance the viewer from the spectacle that Scott himself is entirely absorbed in without giving the illusion that Scott himself is at all aware of the implication. It is important that Scott does not break the fourth wall because the central conceit of the film is that he is entirely wrapped up in this fantasy, but the audience is at all times kept aware of the flaccidity of his pursuit. As such, Scott’s actions are displayed within the context of an exciting montage, and the element which breaks the audience’s illusion is an act which is in Scott’s mind perfectly sensible – the tying of shoes. This method of subverting cinematic tropes without providing a subversion of Scott’s own perceptions creates the conflicting levels of awareness that the viewer must grapple with, and by consistently disrupting the film’s flow with humor Wright achieves a comfortingly discomforting conflict which rewards those who love the struggle of black comedy (and perhaps befuddles those who don’t).


  1. Sam JulianoMarch 20, 2011

    Jean, you've certainly blown a big hole in my own long-standing disatisfaction for this loud and seemingly pretentious film, but it isn't the first appreciative estimation I've come across. You done very well with this difficult subject, and have made a re-visit a proper persuit. I guess I can be more specific, but I'd need to have the film in front of me again. The theatrical experience left me cold.

  2. I think the film takes its approach from black comedy, with its confounding of expected tropes of both screwball comedy and outright buffoonery, to create something which confounds the comfortable comic release but creates a far more compelling examination of both the character and the tropes than good films in the standard modes. I think the material is far more inherently comedic than most black comedies, given that it is an examination of the disparity between reality and perception achieved through confounding contrasting comedic tropes as opposed to a black comedy with tragedy as one counterpoint. Still, each depends entirely on recognizing the underlying contrasts and their accompanying implications, otherwise the point of it all can be lost and it will appear merely as a poor instance of both contrasting modes. Hopefully you'll be able to get a foothold which will prove more rewarding if you happen to see the film again. I enjoyed it more on second viewing than the first time, which surprised me, and I think it's pretty brilliant especially as an instance of a filmmaker toying with film grammar.

  3. Sam JulianoMarch 26, 2011

    "Still, each depends entirely on recognizing the underlying contrasts and their accompanying implications, otherwise the point of it all can be lost and it will appear merely as a poor instance of both contrasting modes."

    Indeed Jean. That's a brilliant delineation that I can't contest in any sense. I need to give the filma second go round as you did.

    Hope all is well, and look forward to your next scholarly review.

  4. Thanks for checking back in! Everything is well, and I have the next film on DVD right next to me so it shouldn't be too long. I've been sidetracked with a slate of films that aren't really relevant to this particular blog's central aim, but maybe I'll write about them anyway just to keep things flowing.