August 14, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. Your Face

Not pictured: giant sandwich board labeled "Remember this?" and "Get it?"
Edgar Wright is easily one of the smartest pop-culture mavens working in the movie industry today, which is why his latest film feels like such a betrayal: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (hereafter Scott Pilgrim) is perfectly content to drown itself in 16-bit graphics and comic book flash-bang because, the movie happily concludes, it never had all that much to say in the first place. Shy, mumbling Torontoan Scott (Michael Cera, natch) is a bassist in a shitty garage band who falls head over heels for American delivery girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). However, before they can commit to a serious relationship, Scott must fight and defeat seven of Ramona's former sweethearts, a super-powered "League of Evil Exes" organized by record producer/final boss Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman). It's supposed to be a coming-of-age story as told within the context of an arcade game, but it can only make one statement to that end: fifteen years ago, you were much younger than you are now, and you played video games that were much less sophisticated than they are now. Struggling to articulate the synchronicity between youthful immaturity and pixilated graphics, Scott Pilgrim defaults to hipster detachment--so endlessly amused by its central metaphor (the difficulties of life and romance re-imagined as a linear, Capcom-esque fighting tournament) that it doesn't care to explore what that metaphor means for this new generation or its hopes and desires.
The popular joke around the Internet is that most gamer-geek humor revolves around one tired concept--"video games are not like real life"--and Scott Pilgrim rehashes that tired concept with stunning fidelity. It really, really wants you to see it as ridiculous and absurd: time and again, we are reminded that people do not actually burst into coins after they've been defeated in a fight; that people do not actually "level up" after they've learned an important life lesson; that Michael Cera probably cannot leap twenty feet in the air and perform "64-hit combos." The problem is that this is all weightless navel-gazing--the movie doesn't see anything worth examining in these aesthetic signifiers beyond simple recognition. (Worse still is when it simply lists off a series of pop culture icons: Scott's band, Sex Bob-Omb, features two musicians named after members of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and they sing a song that may or may not be called "Launchpad McQuack." Taken from the graphic novel, you say? That doesn't make it any less jarring.) Even Sin City--the epitome of style-as-substance and Scott Pilgrim's closest antecedent--amplified popular noir elements (guns, dames, monochrome) to emphasize the relevant themes (sex, machismo, heartbreak). So when can we discuss video games as elaborate, dream-like fantasies? Or, say, as the only appropriate outlet for a number of colorful, larger-than-life personalities? Never, as far as Scott Pilgrim is concerned. Want to know why Roger Ebert gives video games such a hard time? It's because of juvenile, masturbatory fan-crap like this--lauding the medium not for its aesthetic/thematic content, but for the popular conventions. It's only "fun" in the sense that you can name the game from which a specific sound effect originates.
That's precisely what Wright tried so hard to avoid with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz--in those films, he was always interested in figuring out why zombie/action flicks affected us so deeply. Scott Pilgrim merely congratulates its target audience for playing video games and being all meta about it, and, even worse, those congratulations come at the cost of any human element. You'll notice I have yet to mention that Scott has a few ex-girlfriends of his own (teenaged naïf Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) and Envy Adams (Brie Larson))--but that's because Scott Pilgrim isn't really about anyone or anything, except the feeling that you're part of some exclusive club. This movie is a rebel without a cause in the truest sense of the phrase: a vague collection of culture-fed images, so desperate to draw a line between "them" and "us" that it has no idea what enemy it's supposed to be fighting. * (out of four)

August 12, 2010

My Baby Shot Me Down

I sometimes wonder if the firearm would have such a key position in American iconography if Hollywood hadn't kept it there. Sure, we've got the right to own them, but would we want them so badly if, after the settling of the last frontier/slaughter of the last rebellious Indian, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood hadn't convinced us they were an integral part of the national machismo?

The action figure, collaborators Steven Santos, Aaron Aradillas and Matt Zoller Seitz contend, turns to the gun in three stages. Their video essay "Lock & Load" explores these three stages, then ends with a bang. No dry-firing here, and no dud rounds either.