Looking Forward to a “Pilgrim’s” Progress
We should all of us rejoice: That star that has risen in the West signifies the birth of a new cult film. By my estimates, we haven’t witness the birth of one of those since 1998, when “The Big Lebowski” took us out of our element.
Oh, we’ve seen more than our share of cult-film wannabes these past few years. Perhaps we’ve even deluded ourselves into believing that some recent movies — “Kick Ass,” “Sin City” and “Kill Bill 1 & 2,” among others — are actually cult films. But they’re not. In 10 years, there won’t be midnight screenings of “Sin City” (at least, not any that we’re willing to sit through), and there won’t be a cultural substructure of young hipsters dressing themselves as “Kick Ass” characters. Maybe we’ll be subjected to remakes of those films, but they won’t be any more beloved than the originals. They won’t have that cult feel and appeal.
There will, however, be midnight screenings of Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” the terrific film based on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic — a movie which is at this moment sliding slowly down the marquee of your local theater in undeserved ignominy. These future screenings be well attended by thousands and perhaps millions of Kim Pines, Young Neils, Katayanagi Twins, and a veritable army of Knives Chau. There will be conventions devoted to the film and those who love it (called “Pilgrimages,” maybe?), and scores of bands, from stadium-size to scrubby garage, enlivening their sets with raucous covers of “Garbage Truck” and “We Are Sex Bob-Omb.” And a nation of 18-year-olds with chewed-up acoustic guitars and CMYK hair will look back to the year 2010, when first they saw “Scott Pilgrim” on DVD, and they’ll wonder why in the hell people didn’t respond to the film when a sequel was still a possibility.
I think “Scott Pilgrim” is wonderful. But then, I’m its target audience — a lover of cult films like Brian De Palma’s “Phantom of the Paradise,” Allan Arkush’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” and The Monkees’ “Head,” three films that director Edgar Wright deliberately sequenced into “Pilgrim’s” DNA. I also love the 16-bit video games that inspired “Scott Pilgrim’s” visuals and soundtrack, and the million-odd pop culture nuggets — from Daft Punk’s stage show to Sigourney Weaver’s over-the-shoulder three-pointer from “Alien: Resurrection” — that Wright sprinkled liberally throughout the film. That said, I can also understand why “Scott Pilgrim” isn’t raking in the bucks, or why some of my friends have hated it: This is a film that needs to sink in.
Movies are very different now than they were in the mid-1970s, when “Phantom of the Paradise” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” were made. These days, dialogue scenes are déclassé in popcorn films; it’s trendy simply to place your actors in front of a bluscreen, have them make faces of terror or awe or disgust, and let CGI finish the job. There are visual effects aplenty in “Scott Pilgrim” — as there were in “Rocky Horror” and “Phantom,” but of a different kind — but they scarcely hang around long enough for us to become aware of them; we’re too busy enjoying the whipcracks of the dialogue, and shaking our heads in joyous disbelief at the absurdity of the situations. “Avatar” wants you to sit down, shut up and take it in the eyeballs all at once; “Scott Pilgrim” is content to leave a good laugh or a stylish visual in a place where you might miss it. It’s in no hurry; it knows you’ll be back.
Also, much of “Scott Pilgrim” is whimsy, and we’re not as accustomed to the whimsical as we once were. We no longer know how to react when movies burst into song; we jump from surprise to impatience to embarassment. CGI has conditioned us to expect realism, so when movie characters fight we try to rationalize the action, even if those characters are engaged in the most improbable chop-socky imaginable. (Jason Bourne would have been dead halfway through the first movie.) And we are affronted by clever movies, even if those movies aren’t trying to make you feel dim. By the way, “The Last Airbender” has grossed $130 million this year, for which the realm of lowered expectations thanks you.
So, let’s not point fingers at why “Scott Pilgrim” is failing, blame Universal Pictures for a crappy marketing campaign (this film is as close to marketing-proof as any I’ve ever seen), or take any more potshots at Michael Cera (even though heaven knows he still kind of deserves them in the wake of “Youth in Revolt” and “Year One”). Let’s not conjecture what the effect that the film’s low box office will have on Edgar Wright’s career (probably none), or what impact it will have on comic book movies in general (definitely none).
Let us instead look to the future, when “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” is free of comparisons to other current films and free of the whining and finger-pointing that obscures its greatness. Let’s anticipate that day when the film has legions of devoted fans and Universal is raking in millions annually from a film it once wrote down as a failure. Let’s celebrate the birth of a brand new cult classic. “Scott Pilgrim,” this is the first day of the rest of your long, colorful life.