The Subtle Nuances of Exploding into Canadian Coins

More on Scott Pilgrim, pseudo-feminism, and over-explaining the joy out of something cool.

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The internet is dumb, and by all accounts the movie industry is even dumber. When you combine the two, you end up with all the people bemoaning the “lamentable” box office for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and trying to figure out what went wrong. I think it’s a gross overreaction, since this might be the quintessential “long tail” movie. There’s an audience (myself included) that completely loves it and will see it multiple times in the theater, then buy it on Blu-Ray. It’s a drag that there’s so much focus on the opening weekend, since it encourages studios to make disposable movies like The Expendables: completely frictionless product that does exactly what it says in the ads, no more and no less, and will be forgotten by the next box office weekend.

But I don’t want to pick on io9 or Cyriaque Lamar, the author of that article — io9 the only Gawker blog I can still stand to read, and looking for trends in pop culture is what they’re supposed to be doing. Plus, their review of the movie is dead-on correct. What I do want to pick on is one of the posts Lamar gives far too much credit to by calling it an “intriguing essay.” It’s a post by blogger Abigail Nussbaum wondering why she enjoyed the movie despite its “misogyny”; it calls the movie “toxic” and says “there is no defense” for it; and it’s just awful. It also spoils pretty much the entire movie, so I only recommend reading it if you’ve already seen the movie.

The “intriguing essay” is exactly the kind of feminism-via-self-righteous-victimization that would justifiably be ignored except for three things: 1) It oversteps its bounds by so recklessly tossing around the word “misogynistic”, assuming that a woman’s interpretation of a movie as offensive to women automatically becomes an unblockable combo move. 2) As evidenced by my last two blog posts, the topics of feminism and Scott Pilgrim have been most on my mind lately, so I found Nussbaum’s post (and her reactions in the comments) particularly offensive. 3) It gives me an excuse to keep talking about and try to better explain what I liked best about the movie.

What’s best about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is that it doesn’t try to explain everything. Even after all my complaints about box office being irrelevant, it’s interesting — and, if I’m being honest, a little frustrating — that Inception made more money last weekend, because the two movies are almost complete opposites in that regard. Both have dream sequences and fantastic breaks from reality. But Inception goes out of its way to make sure that absolutely no one is left behind. It has to make sure that everyone in the audience knows exactly what is going on at every second, up until the very last moment, when it finally trusts us enough to leave us with a tiny sliver of ambiguity. And it still has a distressing number of people calling it “mind-blowing.” (To be clear: I liked Inception a lot, I just wish it’d been able to relax and let itself get fantastic).

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World starts out by assuming that everyone in the audience has been alive and conscious in the past 30 years, and that we’re all on board. It doesn’t stop every few minutes to ask the audience, “That was a flashback. Did I just blow your mind?” I can only recall two points in the entire movie where any of the characters even acknowledge that anything particularly weird is happening: once, Scott asks “is this really happening?” and later, he asks the perpetually-cursing Julie Powers “how do you do that thing with your mouth?” In anything else, this would be an example of breaking the fourth wall. But this is a movie that has already shattered the fourth wall by the time the Universal logo has stopped playing. It’s not stepping out of the movie, it’s actually pulling the audience back in. It reminds you that all of the visual effects aren’t just cinematic tics layered on top of the story, they’re an integral part of the world these characters are living in.

That distinction is crucial to understanding why the movie works as more than just visuals an in-jokes. It’s what changes the story from an underdeveloped slacker romance that makes a lot of references to videogames and comic books, to a very sincere love story that’s told in the language of videogames and comic books. It’s also why Nussbaum’s arguments fail, and I’ll pick out a few of the most egregious ones:

The fights between Scott and Ramona’s exes are explicitly described as duels in which Ramona is the prize…

Scott Pilgrim is explicitly shown head-butting a guy so hard he explodes into coins. This is not a movie for people who do not understand metaphor.

The seven evil exes are a metaphor for the baggage that Ramona and Scott are bringing to the start of a new relationship. That is hardly a mind-alteringly insightful observation; it’s said explicitly in the trailer. Several commenters — all of them male, Nussbaum is quick to point out — mention that the entire premise of the movie is a metaphor, but she quotes a different line from the trailer as an attempt at counter-argument: “If you want to be with me, you may have to defeat my seven evil exes.” She insists on a literal interpretation of a line in a movie that defies you to take anything literally.

Even outside of Scott’s self-absorbed point of view, the film’s treatment of its female characters leaves much to be desired. Ramona is a near-blank whose attraction to Scott never really makes sense.

There’s no going “outside of Scott’s self-absorbed point of view,” as that’s the entire movie. The movie assumes that audience will understand the concept of an unreliable narrator, even in a movie without explicit first-person narration.

And this is a story told from Scott Pilgrim’s — not Edgar Wright’s, and presumably not Brian Lee O’Malley’s — viewpoint. Your first clue: the title of the movie. Your second clue: the little title card that pops up saying “Scott Pilgrim Rating: Awesome.” The third clue: everything else. It’s a story told from the viewpoint of a self-absorbed slacker who relates everything to videogames. (Again, this stuff is pretty much all self-evident; I’m not exactly venturing into Cahiers du Cinema territory here).

Ramona is a near-blank because Scott doesn’t understand her. It’s not a case of the movie excising so much of the comic, either — I’ve gotten through four volumes now, and it’s only at the end of the fourth that she progresses past “mysterious.” (Seriously, her character introduction is “Age: Unknown. Is still relatively mysterious.”) She has more lines of dialogue in the comic than in the movie, but it’s mostly the kind of early-20s slacker babble that fills up space in real conversation. And hey, there’s even a line from the comic that’s used in the movie to that effect: “I know you play mysterious and aloof to avoid getting hurt.”

That’s not to say Ramona remains a cipher for the entire movie. We (meaning Scott) get flashes of insight into her character, what she used to be like, all the way from childhood up to right before she came to Canada. It happens six times, in fact. Almost as if these battles against the seven evil exes were a representation of Scott finding out more about Ramona as a person, instead of just as an object of desire or a prize to be won in a videogame. I only wish there were some word to describe when something is used to represent something else without explicitly saying you’re making a comparison….

Finally, Ramona’s behavior in the film’s last act is inexplicably out of character, and turns out to be the result of mind-control, a condition whose significance the film all but ignores and which is resolved with no fanfare whatsoever.

Here, I don’t know whether to be annoyed or sad. I like to think that all of us have been through at least one experience of being so completely, inexplicably infatuated with someone that we do things against our own better judgement. If not, I’d hope at least that the concept isn’t so alien to us that we can’t relate to it. And I’d especially hope that we don’t need to elevate a simile to a metaphor, and explain that being attracted to someone who’s bad for you is only like having a mind control chip implanted in the back of your neck.

The other stuff potentially spoils the end of the movie — it’s not a particularly plot-heavy story, so revealing the ending won’t ruin the movie by any stretch. But the very end is well done, and I was glad I didn’t know what was going to happen. So read on at your own risk.

Scott defeats Gideon by, as the film puts it, gaining the power of self-esteem (which is represented by a sword), but it’s not as if a tendency to be self-abnegating or retiring was ever this kid’s problem–if anything he’s overconfident, taking it for granted that his selfishness and failures as a boyfriend will be shrugged off and forgiven […] more like the standard Hollywood template of what character growth at the end of a summer blockbuster should look like than anything relating to who Scott actually is.

First off, as a commenter mentions, it’s self-respect in the movie, which is a subtle but pretty important difference. But that’s still the least wrong thing about that passage.

The first thing anybody should be aware of when trying to interpret Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is that Scott Pilgrim is kind of a dick. He’s whiny, lazy, self-absorbed, and sees the whole world as out to get him. Nussbaum seems to grasp this on some level later on when she says “Scott isn’t a manchild; he’s just a child.” What she either doesn’t get or refuses to accept is that this is the story of a man-child becoming a man.

You could point out that this idea gets more play in the comics, but it’s hardly under-developed in the movie. I believe every character in the movie calls him an asshole at least once. It’s repeatedly shown how he is carried through life instead of making his way, and the movie includes the comic’s line: “If your life had a face, I would punch it.” His overconfidence isn’t a sign of self-respect, but the opposite. He’s overconfident because he’s never had to do anything real, anything that he values.

The one thing that I’ll concede was more clearly handled in the comics than in the movie: Scott’s relationship with Envy Adams. It’s understandable why it was cut short, because it would’ve been devastating for the movie’s pacing, but the scenes in the movie don’t make it as explicitly obvious why “the power of self-respect” is what Scott needs more than “the power of love.” And according to the comments, it’s called “the power of understanding” in the book, but changing it to “self-respect” is infinitely more insightful. In the book, it’s pounded home a lot more that the break-up with Envy Adams was completely devastating for Scott, and what a huge contrast there was between the brash version you see at the beginning of the story and the pathetic version his friends have had to deal with for the past year.

Soon after her crisis of conscience that she might possibly be a “Bad Feminist” is when Nussbaum claims that Scott’s a child, not a man-child. Her justification for claiming this is that Scott is basically asexual, and his pursuit of Ramona (and Knives) is emotional instead of sexual objectification. And I hate to spoil the party, but there is a lot more to being a man than wanting to have sex with a woman. And — this is scandalous, but bear with me — there’s even more to being a man than being able to understand a woman’s needs.

Scott breezes past the guards and eventually defeats Gideon and wins over Ramona, but not with the power of love. He gets killed, as a matter of fact. And in these crazy new “videogames” that all the kids are into these days, an extra life gives you the chance to go back and redo things the right way. That’s not just a superficial reference, either: it’s an explicit acknowledgement of the very thing Nussbaum claims the movie just shrugs off. The “standard Hollywood template” says that if you just love someone enough, or you try hard enough, you can “win.” That’s exactly the kind of simplistic, childish overconfidence that Scott’s had up to that point.

Apologizing to Knives Chau was necessary for him to “win,” but calling that “understanding” would have even more simplistic and offensive than saying “love” is enough. (I haven’t read the final volume of the comics yet, so I don’t know how O’Malley handled it. I’m just saying it would’ve been completely wrong for the events as presented in the movie). Scott was hopelessly in love with Envy Adams, but the break-up left him devastated. Knives Chau was his rebound. He wanted a childish relationship instead of having to deal with a grown-up one, and he liked her because she propped up his ego so much. If he just “understood” how Knives felt and apologized, that’s fine for her, but it doesn’t address the root of the problem: he needed someone else to make him feel better about himself. Calling that “understanding” just flips the man’s role from objectifier-of-women to satisfier-of-women.

What Scott really needed was the power of genuine self-respect, so he can finally function as an adult instead of needing to be continually reminded that he’s awesome. Once he had that, he could acknowledge that he was a jerk to Knives and apologize to her. He could acknowledge that Young Neil was a better bass player. He defeated Gideon by doing what Gideon couldn’t: acknowledging that Ramona wasn’t just a prize to be won to make himself feel better. And he could finally start a genuinely adult relationship with Ramona because he could understand his own baggage from past relationships.

In the original comics, I’m told, there is a character called nega-Scott who forces Scott to face up to his self-serving recollections of his past relationships, and to the hurt he’s caused the women in his life, which is more like the kind of growth this character needs, but in the film nega-Scott is done away with with an (admittedly quite funny) gag.

It’s more than just a funny gag; it’s a funny gag that reinforces all the character development of the scenes before and after it. Anything the movie could’ve accomplished by showing the battle was already accomplished by showing Scott earning his self-respect. Instead of having him destroy all the bad aspects of himself and declare “I can date you now that I am a good person,” it’s a lot more interesting to have him reach genuine self-realization. It’s a lot more mature to be able to say, “Hey, turns out I’m not that bad a guy. I just need to stop over-compensating and start treating people as people instead of how they relate to me.”

More importantly: a surprise boss-fight against Nega-Scott is exactly the kind of trite and predictable climax that’s endemic to videogames and to the “standard Hollywood blockbuster template.” This is a movie directed at an audience so familiar with the way movies and videogames work, it’s become part of our language. It had an apartment scene that began with the theme from Seinfeld and was overlaid with a laugh track — an explicit acknowledgement that the movie, like the audience, is so self-aware it’s mocking its own self-awareness. Usually, that can just deteriorate into a black hole of irony from which nothing real can escape. But the Nega-Scott gag spins that into sincerity: the reason the gag works is because it deflates the audience’s expectations, and the reason the final scene works is because it leaves us not knowing what to expect. The movie’s acknowledged that here is where it’s stopped being a videogame or a movie (or a sitcom), and it’s showing you something genuine. Scott and Ramona have broken through their guardedness and overconfidence, their surface affectations, and all the self-doubt from previous relationships, and can walk through the star doorway into subspace as genuine adults.

5 thoughts on “The Subtle Nuances of Exploding into Canadian Coins”

  1. Perfectly put!

    I’ve had a hard time explaining (even to myself) why I enjoyed this movie so much, considering how reliably a “slacker hero” is a turnoff to me. I think you touch on a lot of its strengths in your last couple posts.

  2. You mention:

    “it’s called ‘the power of understanding’ in the book, but changing it to ‘self-respect’ is infinitely more insightful.”

    In defense of the original, there’s good reason for it to be called “understanding” in the comic. Scott has a VERY different arc in the comics and the circumstances in which he gains the final upgrade is quite different as well. Without spoiling too much, Scott’s ability to empathize with others–and with one person in particular–is instrumental to the climax of the story. I won’t spoil it beyond that, but I think “understanding” is perfect for the comic and “self respect” is perfect for the movie. Perhaps you’ll agree when you get there.

    Also, I think you’re being unduly harsh on Nussbaum. I love the movie and I think some of her points are way off, but I think she also raises some interesting issues. The movie is slightly problematic, I just don’t think it’s as problematic as she insists.

  3. @Tom Dickinson:
    Fair enough on the book vs. movie difference; I can see how it’d work for the comic’s story, even though I still think it would’ve been too shallow for the movie. Plus, it lets the Nega-Scott stuff remain a gag instead of having to be dragged out into a too-obvious metaphor.

    And I have been very harsh on Nussbaum’s article, because it’s filled with the kind of self-righteous indignation that’s one of my biggest pet peeves. She keeps calling it “toxic” and “misogynist” — bear in mind she actually says there’s no defense for the misogyny in the movie — and takes that as a given. That’s not a discussion, and that’s not even real feminism.

    I’m not just defending a movie that I liked, after all, she liked it, too. I don’t think there are any interesting issues raised; I think the article takes a surface-level interpretation and rails against it. And that’s not just annoying, but problematic. If artists can’t trust their audiences to gauge their work on the whole of what it’s saying, instead of just going off against what it says on its surface, then we’ll just keep seeing shallow works of art. And if you can’t tell the story of a misogynist immature jerk finding redemption without being accused of misogyny yourself, we’ll keep seeing shallow depictions of women and relationships. It’s a little like standing outside an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and calling everybody a drunk.

  4. Actually, the Nega-Scott aspect also seems to be you jumping to conclusions. As Tom Dickinson already mentioned, the entirety of the 6th volume – the climax, and everything leading up to it – is substantially different from the events of the film, and the role Nega-Scott plays is not such an obvious one.

    You said:

    Instead of having him destroy all the bad aspects of himself and declare “I can date you now that I am a good person,” it’s a lot more interesting to have him reach genuine self-realization. It’s a lot more mature to be able to say, “Hey, turns out I’m not that bad a guy. I just need to stop over-compensating and start treating people as people instead of how they relate to me.”

    While I don’t intend to spoil you, the solution to the dilemma is not like what you proposed, and the book makes a point of saying that simply beating down your bad side in a metaphoric boss fight is NOT the way to go.

    And the point is that the movie could have gone the same route, without succumbing to the cheap cliché you feared it would be.

    That aside, I immensely enjoyed reading your article. I don’t really have anything to say beyond that, since I generally agree with your views as well, both of the movie and the articles surrounding it.

  5. I loved reading your smart views on that movie that I loved. I wasn’t thinking that much about the whole story but thought it was excellent entertainment (in the best meaning possible). Now I know I just saw myself in it loving the struggles of a man-child in a visually stunning way.

    What makes me wonder about women wondering about its anti-feminism is why they ignore the perspective of a man writing about a mans problem. There is, in my point of view, a lack for sensitivity in many woman with a cultural studies background.

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