I’ve been moving the content in this blog in a consistent direction the past few weeks. This is prompted largely by feedback. My younger brother likes to read when I am doing criticism (and hates when I talk about my life!) so I’ve been erring more on the side of that. However, I’m not comfortable shilling, which is kind of what he suggested. A conversation I had with my oldest friend when I was last visiting Nottingham, part of an ongoing dialogue which we have had over the years, a replay in micro of the tension generated by criticism, reminded me that this is actually an unusual view. He finds that criticism just tears stuff apart, or at least the way I do it does that. “Why can’t you just enjoy it?” is not exactly his words, but the implication is there. Perhaps obviously, I don’t see it like that. Putting aside for a moment whether or not my tone’s all wrong (which it probably is, I am blunt to the point of stupidity at times!) I sincerely believe that critical engagement with any piece of artistic production is integral to the enjoyment of it. It enriches the experience, and enlivens us as human beings. Furthermore, a film or book that is at least aware of issues of critical engagement can surprise us and produce something, for lack of a better way to put it, better.
One of my favourite films is Scott Pilgrim vs The World, released in 2010, directed by Edgar Wright and starring (among others) Matthew Cera and Mary Winstead. I first heard about it in the (relatively muted) promotion in the months before. I heard very little about it other than it was a hipster film, and it had some problematic issues with race representation. I wrote it off as a lost cause but, a few months later, the same friend I refer to in the opening paragraph got me to watch it. It was an absolute revelation. Scott Pilgrim was funny, witty, and it had heart. Furthermore, it spoke to me on a level that few movies do. For a while, it was my default feel good film. I can say with no hint of irony that I would watch Scott Pilgrim to prepare myself for going out in to the world the same way some people listen to music. The film is a very, very modern coming of age story. It’s not about being or becoming a man, but a story about being an adult, making adult choices and accepting adult consequences. The film asks us to bear with it as we follow the progress of a relatively shabby, if not outright awful, person as he develops in to something approaching maturity not through overcoming hardship, but through self-reflection. It does all this to an excellent visual language and catchy soundtrack, not harmful in winning its place in my heart.
Scott Pilgrim, a Canadian ass, is played by Matthew Cera. I think the best summation of his roles to date has been made in contrasting him against this role. Until this point, Cera had made a name for himself playing pleasant, quiet, unassuming young men; the sort of dorky guy who has heart and, in older films, would find his inner lion or something, but these days more often serves as the non-threateningly foil/self-insert for a certain subset of people. Casting him as the (at least initially) dickish Scott Pilgrim is something of a triumph of this film, as it intertextually spears that particular character-type, who all-too-often intersects with nice guyism and hipster lifestyling in place of genuine introspection. It’s also something of a problem, though, because by and large, movies with unlikeable protagonists drive their audience out. For the majority of stories, that Cera-in-another film, the story would be about realising what a great guy he really is and how much he has to offer. Pilgrim instead shows a guy who learns that actually, he is kind of a bad human being and needs to change if he wants to be happy.
Cera carries this off very, very well. He’s self-absorbed, tactless, borderline sexist and explicitly racist at various points of the film, all in ways and with an understated delivery that high-lights how easily these sorts of behaviours get ‘stealthed’ in to everyday life; consider his interactions with “fake high school girlfriend” Knives Chau. When she confides she has never kissed a boy, he makes a glib joke; when offering to introduce him to her parents, Scott asks if she is even allowed to date outside her own race. Cera’s insouciant delivery, his noncommittal tone, absolutely makes these: Scott’s an all too believable asshole. He won’t be planting a cross on anyone’s front lawn, but he will be the guy tone policing. That the film culminates in the confrontation with Nega-Scott, rather than G-Man, and the resolution is not of an all-out brawl but rather acknowledging that Scott has a lot in common with his dark side is a stroke of genius, a clever summation of the main thesis of the film: someone can be an ‘alright guy’ and still hold horrible values, do horrible things, and need to change to be a better, adult human.
It’s a shame, then, how the film undermines this. The hipster scene of Toronto is uniformly white. This might be forgivable in the context of Toronto demographics (though keep in mind that the Toronto of Scott Pilgrim is a created Toronto, not the real thing) except that the only persons of colour included in the film are… iffy. Knives’s personality is developed only in cursory notes as an obsessive fangirl, and the Katayanagi twins are the only ‘Evil exes’ to not get to speak at all, and are presented as voiceless, interchangeable electro-drones.
I go back and forth on my opinion of Matthew Patel; I think that in a film embedded in the hipster music scene, it makes sense for him to use music in his fight with Scott, but Patel is undoubtedly a (struggling) hipster, so why bhangra style music? Likewise, while we are told that cheating on Ramona/Knives is bad, Ramona remains a prize to be fought for – even though Scott only triumphs with the power of self-belief. His self-actualisation is only realised by getting the girl. Envy broke Scott’s heart; in return he gets to kill her boyfriend (who is admittedly a “cocky cock”).
The (excellent) character of Wallace and the (admittedly played for laughs clichés) of his on-screen homosexuality are undermined by the defeat of Roxxie through sexualised attacks. It’s uneven and a little thoughtless. The film has some great, funny women and they get some of the best lines and schticks. Scott’s sister Stacey has excellent turns as supportive and cruel, and Julie Powers is simply great every time she shows up – “did I f*cking stutter?” is a great line delivered in exactly the right flat tone. Yet I come back to the rather poorly concealed fact that most of the time, the women of Scott Pilgrim are there as props or enablers of Scott’s development as a human. I found it awkward that the alternate ending was Scott ending up with Knives Chau; obviously the limitations of youth-targetted comedy abound but it makes me wonder if no consideration was given to an ending in which Scott is on his own, but ok with that. This is not as punishment – you were a bad man Scott Pilgrim, now you must alone – but as a realisation that even if you are a better person now the consequences of your actions follow you from the past. Also, possibly, that as a person previous defined in part by his negative relationships with women, it might be good for Scott to get a little distance and figure what else he might want out of life.
Mary Winstead’s ultra-cool Ramona Flowers is the perfect foil to Scott’s insincere disinterest – his affected ennui is exploded in the face of her genuine prioritisation of what she wants and doesn’t want. (Though the Scott & Ramona in bed scene is initially shot in a way that makes me frown). This is attitude revisited in Scott’s assault on the Chaos Club; the first time he gains entry through nonchalance, tired of all this shit deflections. Even now he hasn’t learned. When he returns he is ready to strike out, to put his selfhood on the line because, actually, he does care about this and he doesn’t want or need to hide behind affectation. He achieves this not through a will to power, but thanks to the critical appraisal of his peers (and a bit of exposition from Ramona).
This might seem needless. The film is not about those people, it’s not about their problems. I argue, though, that by not seeming to care overmuch about those things, the film does harm to the central premise of growing to acknowledge that the harm you do unintentionally is still harm, still something you have to take responsibility for. Think to the final final club scene, where Scott takes the time to address Kim to just say “sorry… for everything.” There’s no more he can do, nothing he could do, but Scott owns up to his past of hurting people. Can we, living vicariously through the film, do any less than to acknowledge those things within the film that limit this message?
The visual language of the film is similarly brilliant and myopic. I cannot express how much I absolutely love the melding of real and computer life, the clever way it is introduced to the humorousness with which it is used. Scott and Knives’s earliest date is at an arcade where they play a fight game; this could be an allusion to Scott’s immaturity but also serves to introduce to a world that looks like any other romantic comedy but obeys the rules of a side-scrolling beat ‘em up. As Scott says to Miles when the other is freaking out “You know bands, I know battles.” Even though Scott is a skinny dork, we see he is a fighter as well as a lover. Similarly, the fourth-wall shredding ‘Pee bar’ is both a hilarious visual joke and a reminder of Scott’s evasiveness; the numbered shirts of the evil ex’s and Scotts almost constant ‘zero’ shirt marking their position and his as-yet-undefined position in his narrative arc reminding us that Scott is always a risk of becoming evil ex eight. This postmodern playful penetration flows from world into speech – Scott has learned to play the bass-line from Final Fantasy, Young Neil plays a variety of computer games. It’s another facet of the hipster world of Scott Pilgrim, obscure old computer games played by younger nerds.
Yet I think it probably skews a little too old. Scott is twenty-two years old in this film; Wallace, his wise ‘old’ friend is twenty-five. When I first watched Scott Pilgrim I was twenty-seven, and only got most of the jokes because I have older brothers who introduced me to this stuff. This isn’t too much of a problem, surely? Well, no, except that the film is a coming of age story, a realisation that the things you hold dear about yourself might not, in reflection be great about you, and as such the audience skews in to the late teens and early twenties. Scott’s a fighter, yet his ultimate conflict with himself can’t be resolved with fists; he’s a lover, but it turns out he’s pretty awful to women and his only serious relationships have been ruinous to one party or the other. It’s a hard sell to get people to care enough about an unlikeable person. A film like Scott Pilgrim is going to find it difficult to communicate with it audience when it’s speaking in the language of their teachers or (at best) their aunts and uncles, if not their parents. It spoke to me but I was older than any character in it when I watched it, and am now older than most of the actors were. I don’t doubt that an enthusiastic enough teen could decipher all the in-jokes and cues but with such a steep entry requirement, Scott was destined for cult status, not breakthrough blockbuster.
And that’s alright. It is a beautiful, flawed film that does ask the viewer to pay attention to it and, in doing so, you notice more and more flaws. The message at the heart of Scott Pilgrim is not that Scott is or becomes perfect, but only that he might, if I can paraphrase Beckett, fail better this time. It is a good message to give. Similarly, by looking at films, books or games in the same way, we can do the same. This is the value that being able to critically appraise anything gives us; it provides us with the tools to reflect in media on those things we might not realise about ourselves. By learning that there are problems in the things we like, and still like them while acknowledging these things, we might learn to see those things in ourselves not as something to abhor or hide, but aspects to learn and grow past. A critical impulse is not axiomatically destructive, but rather a reflexive and reflective one: the knowledge that even if the things we love have feet of clay, we love them all the same. It is through this that we learn, gain, and develop empathy. Much like Scott, when we question ourselves we allow ourselves the opportunity to grow beyond what we were in to the greater people we might yet be.