Scott Pilgrim vs. Manhattan

by September 13th, 2010 - Culture » Film and TV » Society »

I’ve seen Woody Allen‘s Manhattan about a dozen times since I first watched it two years ago. At about the fifth viewing I began to have a dread about watching this damn film again, every time the opening montage began, but this feeling usually subsided by the time Ike Davis said that bit about courage:

“If the four of us are walking home over the bridge and a person was drowning, would we have the nerve… Would one of us have the nerve to dive into the icy water and save them? It’s a key question. I, of course, can’t swim. So I never have to face it.”

I’ve now grown to love both George Gershwin and the montage and feel absolutely no trepidation watching it again. If I go to see some new, enjoyable Michael Cera flick which reminds me of it, I can come home, rewatch it and know I’ll have an enjoyable hour and a half. I guess that’s what makes it my favorite movie.

Edgar Wright’s new (old) film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World reminds me, in a lot of superficial ways and a lot of deep ways – you can decide for yourself which are what – of Manhattan. Scott Pilgrim is dating a seventeen year old after a bad break up, teaching her about The Smiths, or whatever, as Woody Allen’s Ike Davis teaches high schooler Tracy about Rita Hayworth films. Knives Chau thinks Scott is just the coolest; in reference to her first boyfriends, Tracy says to Ike, “Well, they were really immature boys. I mean, they were nothing like you.”

Eventually these mature boys – boy and middle-aged man – “transition” from their rebound jail-baiting relationships to ones with older (Ike: “…not as old as I am…but in the same general ballpark as me.”), neurotic women. In Scott Pilgrim, Ramona’s neuroses and baggage are represented by her seven evil exes, who comprise The League of Evil Exes. In Manhattan, Mary is just “fucked up,” as she puts it. It is also implied that her insecurities are exacerbated by her employment of a comically bad psychoanalyst. And here the differences in the similarities become important.

Both Mary and Ramona eventually go back to their exes. Both heroes had been fighting through the women’s neuroses for a big chunk of the films, but after they break up Woody Allen’s character gives up while Michael Cera keeps fighting—even if only for his own self-respect. You’d think it was just a case of one being an action film and the other a romantic dramedy, but I don’t think that’s the case.

In Manhattan the main discourse, the primary prism through which the characters cast themselves, is Art. Mary is characterized by her pretentious attitude toward great artists. There are three scenes taking place at an art museum. Ike quits his job writing television to write a novel. When he has come to the end of his wits towards the end of the movie, Ike makes a list of things worth living for which includes the Jupiter Symphony, Louie Armstrong, Swedish movies (Bergman, natch), and Flaubert… And most importantly, the enterprise of psychoanalysis with which Allen is so obsessed is the practice of person as text, literature.

That the “art” (indie rock and video games) in Scott Pilgrim’s life allow Scott to solve his women problems like some two-fisted Freud rather than to distract himself from his existential problems – the function of any art to Woody Allen – is indicative of how these non-passive discourses have the power to change reality. Writing about Scott Pilgrim on his New Yorker blog, Richard Brody says:

Wright is presenting a generation of teens and young adults whose sensibility—whose understanding of their own behavior and inner life—is derived from graphic novels and video games… My teen-aged daughters and their friends have a much more competitive sense of life than we (late boomers) ever did; they and their friends are tested, literally and figuratively, more intensively and more constantly than we were, in school, at home, and among friends.

He’s right, but the things he goes on to discuss (social media, a lack of privacy) are true more for his daughter’s friends than for Scott Pilgrim and gang. Scott Pilgrim is describing the preceding generation – “a micro-world—soon to get much bigger”.

Conspicuously absent from the film, if you’re talking about youth culture at all, is the internet. The film’s hero doesn’t know how email works and his band tries to get onto a record label by competing in a battle of the bands. These days the more likely route for future indie darlings would be to get picked up by one taste-making blog or another. The film is “dated” in a weird way; the protagonists are much younger than the film’s prime audience (Bryan Lee O’Malley, the author of the original graphic novels, is 31).

It’s probably the case that the internet is the dominant discourse among the youths today (as it was art in Manhattan, video games in Scott Pilgrim). As I write this I sit in a terminal at Laguardia airport waiting for a Delta flight — having missed an earlier one. This morning I thought I was booked on Midwest. Somehow, when I was booking my flight online, I signed up for weekly spam called Midwest Best Care Weekly. In the last few weeks I’ve read and deleted five of the emails and at one point I became convinced that I was to travel on Midwest (and that they cared about me). If you can resist this, resist reading this as anecdotal evidence that I am an idiot, you might say that the internet changed my reality. And it’s changing lots of other things in more subtle and more sinister ways than a comedic movie could probably depict. If we follow the line from art to video games (I’m taking a Ebert-ian view of games, for simplicity’s sake) to the internet and general connectedness, the trend seems to be away from art towards something much more artificial. Psychoanalysis and that way of seeing yourself, on the other hand, for all its phallo-centrism, was at least based on people as art as people.  Is there a dramatic film in the video game culture; in the internet culture? What happens when life gets so that it can’t be art anymore?

If anything, this is the argument people should use whenever saying something like:

“Internet leads to illiteracy—whencefore the future great American novels?”

Maybe there just won’t be any great novels or films. Perhaps for a couple generations – until we figure it out how to make art of these lives — a couple generations will go undocumented. Which is just as well, perhaps, as we’ll have detritus enough to show for our times.