Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Official Retraction: SCOTT PILGRIM is a Champion!

I'll confess, when I saw those doofus posters for SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD in the subway last summer, I slammed what I thought was another prong of the wuss attack, as Cera and Eisenberg had been in so many films at that point, playing the same nebbishy introvert, that I felt an older brother's compulsion to intervene, to Mickey Rourke-ify. Watching PILGRIM go up against THE EXPENDABLES in its opening weekend, for example I was sure Cera's film would win: 
...isn't it sending a wrong message to the pale hipster dudes coming of age today? That they can be shaking in their ironically rhinestone-studded boots with longing for a hot chick, do nothing about it but stammer and then--when she gets bored of waiting for him to cowboy up, and tries to seduce him herself--skittishly refuse her advances, since she's "ahem" drunk? (As Cera did in the and here I use quotation marks, "SUPERBAD.")  (cont.)
You can tell that I had 'issues' with that scene in SUPERBAD, and with scenes in ADVENTURELAND, ZOMBIELAND, et al, and was taking it out on PILGRIM, based on a poster, and clearly I'm not over my own painful adolescence as a Cera-esque-ectomorph, for whom a dozen gaping wounds still exist trying to date hipster chicks for any length of time in the 90's,  but then an amazing thing happened: PILGRIM nose-dived at the box office. I hadn't expected it. I felt contrite:
 If you read my savage entry last week (it)... had a lot to do with the way you "hate" your little brother for getting better grades, but still would defend him in a fight if he was getting picked on. I thought PILGRIM would win, so I jeered him, but I never kick a kid when he's already down. In fact, I switch sides, bloodying my own nose like Tyler's mirror double in FIGHT CLUB!! (cont)
Now that I finally am done 'waiting for the DVD' (thanks, Netflix!) I rue the day I passed on seeing it in the theater. It would have been so awesome and loud. And not only did it work as a comic book film, it was also the most realistic portrayal of life as a shy-but-womanizing bassist in a local band I've seen, and I should know, as I was a shy-but-womanizing bassist in a local band. I was also a raging drunk/stoner/tripper/smoker--which Cera's Pilgrim is not--but as its set in Toronto, where the drinking age is much more civil, i.e. nonexistent, I guess boozing it up doesn't have the same currency. And now, like Scott Pilgrim, my main drink is... Coke Zero (or Pepsi Max). Cera's squeamishness is no longer offensive since: a) it's clear he's using his shyness as a defense and offense in the heartbreak roundelay of local band singlehood (in small towns if you belong to a 'scene' you see all your exes and exes-to-be at every show, and they always end up talking to each other, and you can't hear what they say because you're onstage and its fucking loud) and b) he's not afraid to kick the other guy's ass with the quickness and c) the music the band plays is actually perfect, spot-on, ass-kicking garage-style punk rock! It's the most realistic 'good' live band music I've ever heard on film, d) the meshing of video game action with band drama and angsty indie romance makes perfect sense, since that's all boys do - game, jam, and angstify, and the fights are better than they've even been in most video game adaptations, like MORTAL KOMBAT (I think) -- So what the hell was I thinking? This movie is awesome!

I'm not the only reformed geek-turned-film critic that's had to admit their deeply personal ambivalence towards SCOTT PILGRIM was all-wrong. Just check out this from Dennis Cazallo:
 My mistake, revealed in a screening of the movie over the holidays, was in assuming that the movie itself didn’t recognize the asshole at its center, that because it played in the world of an indecisive, self-centered and immature man-boy that the movie itself was somehow guilty of the same negative qualities (including a careless cruelty to one of its obviously sweet, perhaps a tad obnoxious central characters) displayed by that man-boy. Upon second viewing it became clear that Wright’s empathy for his directionless hero did not preclude the recognition of his many flaws, or that the imaginative dreamscape in which Scott Pilgrim battles his girlfriend’s seven deadly exes, and his own fear of growing up, was full of sounds and images and sequences that were far more inventive, delightful and resonant than I ever gave them credit for.

PILGRIM "recognizes the asshole at its center," and thank God. Cera actually is quite brilliant at letting us see the calculating--even if he's not conscious of it--manipulator underneath the affectless veneer. We begin to see Pilgrim as a kind of avatar of hipsterdom, controlled from beyond by someone trying to rack up points any way he can, and we realize that hey, this what these innocent-seeming pishers do. As the typewriter tells Bill in NAKED LUNCH, the best agent is one who is unaware he is an agent. His cover cannot be blown.

Isn't it ironic, that so many of us in the film criticism endeavor to be fair-minded as we review things, but can rear back like a startled horse if films get too close to personal issues we'd rather not address. We're always digging for that unknown gem or defending the unfairly maligned: I railed against the general public's rank dismissal of OBSERVE AND REPORT, which on the surface looks like a dumb 'mall cop' comedy, but is actually a darker-than-the-heart-of-darkness TAXI DRIVER-esque portrait of Middle American masculinity (probably Middle American mall cops had the same problem with it I had with PILGRIM, before even seeing it, that is). I've stuck up for TWILIGHT series, which is dismissed as drivel by the bulk of adult critics, but is actually very coherent atmospheric, archetypal filmmaking that uses soapy girl mistiness the way Peckinpah used violence (I also like that it totally ignores my demographic. How novel!) But more outright entertaining than either, frankly, is SCOTT PILGRIM, which manages to be as appealing to girls as to guys and packs endless 'true' i.e. sharply observed and genuinely intelligent detail into its graphic novel structure, and all without ever being obscene -- i.e. no foul-mouthed Jonah Hill type to irk my feminist breeding.

The film itself interestingly addressed and explained to me my own knee-jerk condemnation of it. As a barely competent bassist who was in a regularly gigging band from 1986-1989, for example, I know the terror of seeing an even marginally better bassist open for you onstage. When you're an aspiring local rocker, you go see all the shows you can, just to stare at the frets of your rivals, and PILGRIM's players do this without director Edgar Wright needing to call attention to it.

Or what about the inevitable way a girl you really like and the girl you're halfway broken up with inevitably meet up at one of your shows? Why is God such a dick that way? In my experiences it always ran in threes: past, present and future girlfriends, all sitting at a table jawing away while I shrank as far off in the other corner as I could, which--since you could smoke cigarettes in bars then--made me totally invisible as the fog was thick and the tasty carcinogens floated wild, free, and opaque.Without the smoke screen, Pilgrim has no defense, no wonder he's so nervous!

Here's an example of my Pilgrim days. That's me on the bass at right, please don't judge my Prince Valiant bangs, booze bloat, tinted glasses, off-notes, or slack jaw:

Anyway, there's not much drinking, drugging, and smoking in PILGRIM, which is too bad. But I guess future generations want to live and be healthy, and... what? still be rockers? Hey, anything's possible with CGI, even--another PILGRIM anachronism-- the floors in these hipster pads are spotless clean! Where are the dusty coffee table empties? The filthy clothes piled in every corner? The silkscreen stains on the carpet, stacks of t-shirts, fliers, tangles of cords, drum cases and spilled beer now dried? Truly, I am a man-out-of-time (I recognized few of the many video game noises in the film, but did spot all the 1980 FLASH GORDON references), but from this day forward, I shall endeavor to not curmudgeon on youth's startling new non-depravity. AA amend complete.


  1. Glad you liked it Erich. Though if you ever do get an opportunity to see it in theater (and it's already begun playing revival houses at least here on the left coast) do so. It is awesome as you think.

  2. you might like the actual Graphic novels even more, they touch base more with the type of life you had hoped Pilgrim would have near the end of your entry, mostly because this movie had to stick to a PG-13 rating while comics are free game, well to some extent. Of course you lose all the music and sound effects in the books, even though at times they give you lyrics and cords to play along to, as for hwy Scott doesn't have piles of clothes everywhere, a) he's living with a gay guy, b)he literally owns just barely enough to fill a garbage bag, which he uses to move out in the novels. I'm glad you gave the movie a chance at the very least, so many shut it down so I made it my own mission to get at least 3 people to try it.