Realism isn’t the only accepted way to write a novel, so why are movies so scared to play with form? In novels, you can have your narrator wake up a cockroach; you can have leave entire pages blank, or write in gibberish, or have the writer as a character in his own work. In novels, absolutely anything goes. But if, let’s say, director Edgar Wright makes a movie called Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (which tells a love story in the form of a video game): there’s uproar. No realism! Impossible karate moves! People bursting into showers of coins! “It’s ridiculous,” people cry. But what’s more ridiculous? Making one movie inspired by video game culture, or saying no movie can ever be made this way, because only realism must prevail?
Scott Pilgrim lives in Toronto. He’s in his early twenties, he’s in a band, and he’s dating a high-school girl. The word “career” is foreign to him, much like mortgages and bank accounts. Scott is penniless and carefree. He’s got time to expound on the origins of Pacman, to practice the bass line from his favourite computer game, and generally screw around. One day, he meets Ramona Flowers, a siren with interesting hair. After that, he has to battle her seven evil boyfriends (one of whom is a girl). He battles them video game-style, a bit like Keanu Reeves battling bad guys in The Matrix. There’s not much that’s real about what happens to Scott, but there’s a lot that nostalgic Sega/Nintendo-players will recognise.
The movie opens with an 8-bit representation of the Universal Pictures logo. This is Edgar Wright’s way of setting out his stall. He’s going to borrow liberally from video games, because they are part of every boy’s life (I’m not sure video games are played by every girl). There are many reasons not to do this: video games have no plot, video games have no reality, and video games have a terrible track record when they’re adapted for movies. But the reason to do this is because video games = youth. Denying that – denying that we live in a culture where everyone under forty can identify Super Mario – is like denying pop music in the 60s. There are bands today that make music out of video game sound effects. They do this to piss adults off, and to say, the same way electric guitars once spoke: “I am young. You’re a dinosaur. This is the sound of an asteroid hitting the Earth.”
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World isn’t Zabriskie Point. It doesn’t seek to depict youth in revolt (if I’ve given you that impression). Why would it? What would be true-to-life about that? The truth is, most kids play video games; they hang out, and they listen to music. Scott Pilgrim is a dating comedy set in this milieu; it’s not a drama. Scott’s greatest passion is playing with his band. It’s ironic he’s the hero of this story. You’re not meant to invest your heart in him. You have to be more Canadian about it: be droll, view things askance. You’re meant to have fun watching this movie. Like Scott, you’re going on a date, not marrying for life. Video game culture is frivolous by definition. The movie emulates its source material.
Michael Cera could look droll at his own funeral. He’s like Gene Wilder’s well-adjusted son. In him, knowingness becomes a virtue. He’s an innocent who’s been around. He’s got a hold over women because he doesn’t acknowledge he’s nerdy. One of the real pleasures of the movie is seeing so many girls in Scott’s life. Besides Ramona, there’s Knives Chau (the high-school girl), Kim Pine (Scott’s ex), Envy Adams (Scott’s other ex) and Stacey Pilgrim (Scott’s sister). He’s at ease around women, even if he doesn’t understand them. Even a gay roommate is no obstacle for Scott. In this way, he embodies one of the best qualities of the 21st century cool: he likes everybody. Scott Pilgrim might be droll by nature, but he is never snide.
In Britain (Edgar Wright’s home country) and Canada (home of Scott Pilgrim’s creator, Bryan Lee O’Malley), there’s a certain outlook on life that comes from living in America’s shadow; it isn’t barbed exactly, or resentful, it’s more an outlook that takes pride in being small (and therefore: more human). Self-deprecation is a big part of not being a superpower. In a certain way, the self-consciously ridiculous super hero battles of Scott Pilgrim are a reflection of how hubris is viewed in Canada and the UK. That’s not to say the movie is designed to make an oblique political statement; only that, in a movie where a Canadian bends reality to win an American girl, maybe Canucks and Limeys can best understand why he does so with a smile.