Tuesday, August 24, 2010

WFJ Book Club # 5: Scott Pilgrim

I don't remember when I first noticed Scott Pilgrim in the comic book section of the book store, peering out at me with his oddly-proportioned eyes.  Somewhere in my head, I was aware that it was critically acclaimed, moderately popular, and artistically significant, labels which are generally good predictors of things that I will find to be awesome.  But lacking any testimonials from friends, actually reading it barely even crossed my mind.

That is, until Edgar Wright descended on Comic-Con with his enormous banners, and flooded all the internets and televisions with the unbelievably excellent trailers for his big-budget film adaptation.  The combined attraction of the movie's imminent release, as well as the release of the sixth and final volume of the comic book, proved too strong for me to resist, so I resolved to sample the source material and take the measure of Scott and his creator, Mr. Bryan Lee O'Malley.

What followed were several weeks of obsessive delving into a fantastical land of romance, rivalry, and rock n' roll, the Pilgrim-verse.  Or as it is more commonly known, Canada.

There's far too much plot for a simple synopsis, but I'll try my best in any case.  Twenty three-year-old Scott is on a quest to earn the love of one Ramona Flowers, a mysterious young woman from the mysterious land known as the United States, who possesses the crazy Sci-Fi ability to travel through a sub-space highway that just happens to pass through Scott's brain.  Standing in his way are her Seven Evil Exes, who in addition to being bitter and self-righteous about having been dumped by Ramona, also have super powers and a burning desire to destroy any one who wants to date her.  Scott must defeat each Ex in mortal kombat (emphasis on the "k") to make the world safe for his new love, all while trying to come to terms with his own old flames: the lead singer of a successful art-rock band, the drummer of Scott's own (unsuccessful) band, and a hyperactive seventeen-year-old named Knives.  Knives.

Scott Pilgrim is such a candy-coated pleasure to read that it takes a certain amount of reflection to get at its real merits.  The easiest thing would be to latch onto its central gimmick: Scott lives the life of a video game hero, his successes and failures measured in experience points, his skills and talents dependent largely on context and moxie. He may live in a terrible apartment, play bass in a terrible band, and show astonishingly terrible judgment (dating a seventeen-year-old girl is essentially par for this guy's course), but his exuberance and general indestructibility make his life seem enviably exciting.  It is also thoroughly hilarious, combining a wide range of references with a slacker sensibility and a good deal of old-fashioned cartoon slapstick.

The next obvious step, of course, would be to point out that Scott's video game existence is a metaphor for his development and maturation as an adult.  Scott plays games so much that he frequently dreams about them, but his gradual assumption of responsibilities and self-awareness doesn't diminish the relevance of games in his life.  The concepts of stats, leveling up, and achievements are integral to his understanding of life, the universe, and everything; and if it's occasionally an over-simplification, he can always expand his perspective by advancing to the next level.

I'm going to take it even further, however, because what struck me hardest after all those pages was the incredible level of subtext.  Apart from Watchmen, there is more to read between the lines of this series than just about any comic I've ever read (and I'll grant I haven't read as many as I should).  Scott's video game life exists side-by-side with a world that is as real as fiction gets, often within the same panels.  Most of what the reader sees is casually implied to all be (more or less) in Scott's head, but there isn't any reliable divider between his imagination and real life.  The book's world is full of outrageous and seemingly one-dimensional characters, but their actions and feelings become deeper and more human when viewed and considered outside of Scott's point of view.  Scott's efforts to reconcile his perspective of the people in his life with their living, breathing existences is a major focus of the last third of the series, but the contradiction is strongly apparent much earlier on.

Even more interesting are the efforts of Scott and Ramona to accept themselves, as events conspire to tear down the facades they use to hide their true selves.  Ramona in particular enters the series as a complete enigma (even her age is initially unknown), but reveals a complex personality over time, one defined as much by jealousy, caprice, and antisocial secrecy as it is by affection.  Scott, for his part, uses a superficial personality to mask his pathological determination to avoid facing up to his faults and mistakes; he's smarter than he looks (which isn't saying much, considering some of his ideas about Italy), and it hurts.  Ramona and Scott are both ultimately exposed as hypocrites on the run from their pasts, but also as a couple hopelessly in love with each other, and one another's best chance at a fresh start.

So the books are outstanding, a deadly combination of humor, romance, and adventure.  The movie is, unsurprisingly, an inferior adaptation, limited by the conventions of the medium as well as the volume of material.  Visually it is a masterful representation of O'Malley's artwork, as well as a the best example to date of the use of effects from video games and comic books in cinema.  It's amazing to look at, and it moves very fast (which is probably enough to put off some older viewers), so that every scene is packed with unpredictable energy.  The script is mostly very good as well, though it suffers near the end: Ramona's fifth and sixth Evil Exes are barely developed at all, and her behavior with regard to the seventh is both widely divergent from the original plot and has the effect of making her character appear more unlikeable.  A more faithful script would have made for a longer and more satisfying movie for the fans, but probably a less watchable one for everyone else, with too many big climactic battles in too short a time frame.

As a general rule, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (which is the title of the movie, and also the title of Volume 2 of the series, which is kind of weird) captures the really fun parts of the books perfectly, with fantastic comedic acting from the whole cast (yes, even Michael Cera) and a delightful sense of immersion into Scott's mental world of classic Nintendo games and three-chord garage rock.  It tends to either dispense, condense, or simplify the deeper elements of subtext from the source material, leaving behind a fantastically entertaining movie with just a little something missing, that something that holds it back from real greatness.

One of the best elements of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is its soundtrack, a kaleidoscope of musical styles that embraces indie rock, punk, and classic rock in varying degrees.  Older tunes share the program with a score by Nigel Godrich, and new songs composed by Beck, Broken Social Scene, and Metric (and often "performed" by the fictional bands in the movie).  These songs are not merely background noise, but an integral part of the film's world, where music drives the plot as often as games and romantic melodrama.  A particular high point is "Black Sheep," a song by Metric and performed in the movie by the Clash at Demonhead, a group led by Scott's ex-girlfriend, Envy Adams.  Scott's realization that Envy's new boyfriend and bass player is one of Ramona's ex-boyfriends is a classic moment, and Envy's triumphant performance is a real window into the minds of everyone involved; just the sort of thing the movie could have done with more of.

As I type this, Scott Pilgrim is pulling a highly respectable 81% on Rotten Tomatoes, and audience enthusiasm is reportedly high.  Unfortunately, the audience is also exceedingly small, as its pitiful box office earnings show.  America has once again let me down, preferring to waste its money to watch Sylvester Stallone blow shit up, or Julia Roberts eat Indian food, while letting poor Scott bomb on stage like some kind of chump.  Take it from me, everybody: Scott Pilgrim may be obscure, off-beat, and unconventional, but it is exactly the sort of story that deserves to be discovered and treasured out of obscurity.  Go see it.  Better yet, read the books and then go see it.  And then buy the DVD.  Or maybe just the books; reading them is the surest way to find the franchise's appeal.

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