-Edgar Wright’s genius for capturing the struggles of twenty somethings continues to amaze after ten years.
For Scott Pilgrim age means a lot. The story takes place at a moment in the characters’ lives when just five years can feel like a lifetime. The difference between 18 and 23 might as well be the distance from here to the next galaxy.
In the movie Scott gets grief for dating a high school senior. He’s twenty-two. The oldest person in Scott’s circle is twenty-five. A couple of the villains, bad guy interlopers that must be dispatched, are maybe in their thirties. Scott Pilgrim lives in a world as clean scrubbed of older adults as Charlie Brown’s is of anyone over ten.
All that to say, for the existential concerns of the characters in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, age is very important, years carry weight. 17 is not 18, 21 is not 22 and 25 is all “grown up.”
So when I say that ten years has passed since the release of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World don’t imagine a now thirty-two year old Scott looking back and realizing that ten years means less than he’d hoped. Imagine the Scott of the movie trying to picture ten years, “…like, in my mind’s eye or whatever,” seeing himself at twelve and dropping onto his knees in his desolated imagination just before Ramona roller blades by and says, “Suck it up Pilgrim, thirty-two is adult, not old.”
To which he might say, “What’s the difference?” because if the world on screen is any indication he might never have met an adult and might honestly not know. And if my recollection of that age is any reference (I am thirty-eight as I write this) that liminal space between youth and adulthood is exactly as disorienting as it seems in the film.
Five years has just hit like an earth shattering comet and you don’t see yourself in anyone on either side of that divide. The over-twenty-fives intimidate you and you really get on their nerves. You can’t communicate with the under-twenties…having to explain everything as they see it for the first time. Time is moving fast and you wonder, is every five year interval going to scramble my circuits this bad?
Well…no. But when you're twenty-two you don’t know that.
Director and co-writer Edgar Wright has shown himself to be THE auteur of that borderland between youth and adulthood. It has been snapshotted by other filmmakers, particularly within the French New Wave, but no one else to my knowledge has hit their stride and camped out in that narrow space quite so comfortably.
Not that he hasn’t made any movies about adults. Hot Fuzz springs to mind as a film set entirely around and among people who’ve crossed over into adult life. But he has found more ways than nearly anyone to represent and explore that special and uncertain limbo that often comes between high school diploma and first mortgage payment (or child birth, or first real job, or marriage...pick your own mile marker).
Wright is particularly able to isolate that ennui and turn it into drama, action, and laughs. The drama and laughs will be familiar to anyone who was ever in their twenties with a group of friends, trading in long nights and romantic mistakes. It’s the skillful interweaving of screen-ready action that makes his movies better than reality and him a proper movie genius.
On his television show Spaced he turned the brightness up on the comic absurdity of early adulthood until wanky artist friends, paintball games, having a pet, or going to a club all became sweeping cinematic tableau.
In Shaun of the Dead he personified the passage from disoriented twenty-something dead-ender to self possessed adult as a life or death struggle against literal monsters. And then, given the ripe source material of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic, which came seemingly ready made for Wright’s talents and pet concerns, he made the ultimate pop-corn extravaganza of early adult ennui with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
It’s easy to idealize or look down on this stretch of life between youth and adulthood. Make the characters too disaffected and bored and they cross the line into uninteresting and annoying. Make them too clever and they just become idealized mouth pieces for what you wish you’d said.I am struggling with the impulse to give examples, which I will resist. I can however pull two films off the top of my head that just about nail this age range in a similar way to Wright’s work. I know there are others but these are the two I have seen and said out loud to myself as I watched, “This is like Scott Pilgrim without the fight scenes!”
It’s a testament to the film that if you theoretically remove the fight scenes from Scott Pilgrim you have funny, authentic and affecting characters in a relatable story. I suppose that is what grounds the film and keeps it from floating away into inconsequence after scenes like a grudge match with an ex who can teleport in puffs of smoke and is vanquished by triggering an over-the-clothes orgasm so powerful she burst into gold coins.
The first film that I randomly realized was Pilgrim-sans-punching was Masculin Feminine by Jean Luc Godard. It’s set in Paris of the mid sixties. Rock and Roll and sexual liberation, not quite to the point of full riots and revolution. The tension between French identity and American culture in the film stands as a good parallel for the struggle to be grown up and young all at once.
Like Pilgrim there is a side plot involving musical aspirations. There are overlapping relationships and awkward conversations about ambition, meaning and love. The conversations go on for much longer in this film than in Scott Pilgrim. Yet the energy and intensity of adult concerns in the flush of youth is allowed in both films to be uncomfortable and ungainly.
Recall the scene with Scott botching his Pac Man story to Ramona and compare it to the cloak room flirtation early in Godard’s film where the male lead, Paul, fumbles and persists so obtusely that the camera refuses to look at him. Our eyes remain in close up on the cool elegant Madeline who becomes more alluring the longer she remains untouched by Paul’s off camera advances. Both scenes represent abject romantic failure and both are just the opening salvo as the young men are undaunted by incompetence in the face of sexual desire.
The second film that I think nails this ephemeral state of being is People on a Sunday from 1930. It is a German silent film that is legendary for having been undertaken by a who’s who of future German expats that would dominate the Hollywood system after fleeing Germany on the cusp of WWII.
Brothers Robert and Curt Sidomak, Edward G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder: If you’ve ever spent a lazy Saturday or two watching just whatever comes up on Turner Classic Movies then I’d bet you’ve encountered those names. In 1930 they were all young, under 30, starting out in the movie business and put this film together for little money on a tight schedule proudly proclaiming it to be a “movie without actors.”
It follows a group of young friends as they go to a beach for a Sunday outing. It lingers on the details of their relationships and personalities. It swings wide for documentary montages of people in pre-war Berlin basking in the fun of a lazy inconsequential Sunday. In the retrospect of ninety years the film takes on a resonance that elevates it past good film to great art. Its graceful story telling becomes a frame work on which hangs a snapshot of lost innocence, lost places, lost persons.
At its core, what people would have seen when it was released, is a lithe and unpretentious treatment of the giddy energy, callow self interest, and spats of mellow drama that come with being young.
The stronger comparison for this film is with Spaced rather than specifically with Scott Pilgrim. The types and patterns are all here and carry over into Pilgrim but the direct comparison I would make is with the dance club episode from the first season of Spaced. The plot arc of both that episode and this film are roughly, friends make plans to go out. They go out and have light drama and a lot of fun. The End.
Taken together these examples lead me back to Scott Pilgrim vs the World, a film I have revisited with obsessive regularity for the last ten years for its easy humor, its well constructed and satisfying action but most of all for its clear and direct presentation of a messy time of life: a mess while your living it, hard to articulate afterward but seemingly second nature to one of our best filmmakers.