Warning: The following piece contains significant SPOILERS for the film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.
Something unexpected happens during the penultimate climax of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The hero, Scott Pilgrim, dies – stabbed in the back (and through the heart) with a katana-sword by his arch-nemesis Gideon Graves while distracted mid-battle by an argument between his former and would-be girlfriends.
Dying heroes are no stranger to movies, or to fiction for that matter, so Scott’s death isn’t in itself unusual. Neither is the fact, particularly in the world of film, that “death” isn’t precisely permanent. As his body slumps lifelessly to the floor of Gideon’s dance-club/throne-room (it’s that kind of movie), Scott “wakes up” in some variation of the Hereafter to receive a dressing-down from a mirage of his lady love as to the poor life decisions that led him to this end, but also to receive a second chance at getting things right.
Again, all this has precedent. Whole spiritual belief-systems have been built around the notion of re-incarnation after death, and the conjoined histories of myth and fiction have long traded in tales of heroes who die literal or metaphoric deaths only to be reborn with greater knowledge and power. Hercules “dies” but is reborn an Olympian God. Ebenezer Scrooge wakes from a dream of his own death as a man determined to change his ways. George Bailey of It’s A Wonderful Life is taken – at the moment of his own near-suicide – to a nightmarish alternate universe that restores his sense of worth and purpose.
No, it’s not rising from his own ashes like a skinny Canadian phoenix that makes Scott Pilgrim’s awakening noteworthy – it’s the manner in which he does it. Short version: Pilgrim‘s day-to-day universe runs, sans comment, on the rules and logic of a videogame, and earlier in the film Scott had earned an Extra Life. Thusly, as he mopes about self-realization doing him little good in Limbo, the aforementioned prize (1-Up, in the film’s studiously pre-PlayStation parlance) flickers onto the screen and Scott begins this level of his life again – this time avoiding the physical and emotional missteps that cost him before.
Chances are, since you’re reading this on The Escapist, the logic of the situation makes sense. Not necessarily the appearance of a Pilgrim-ized equivalent to the Green Mushroom in the “real” world, mind you, but its use as a new gloss on the death/lesson/rebirth cycle requires no explanation: He blew it, he had “another guy,” he did it right on the next try. It’s a small moment – a cute joke and the ultimate literalism of the film’s Life-As-Nintendo metaphor. But big movements are made from small moments, and it’s very possible that in this instance, Scott Pilgrim has done something to change the way we tell stories on film.
Am I suggesting a future where every film will be playing by arcade rules? Certainly not – it’s doubtful that the next Fast & The Furious sequel will end with Vin Diesel driving through a translucent question-mark and taking out the bad guy with a Blue Shell, and Renee Zellwegger’s next impossible choice between interchangeably-handsome leading men will probably not come down to which one can assemble the arbitrarily-scattered pieces of The Triforce, however more entertaining that might be.
No, what I’m talking about is the available repertoire of narrative devices, and whether or not Scott Pilgrim‘s 1-Up shorthand for literal/symbolic rebirth will wind up among them. Is this the beginning of gamer iconography becoming as much a part of the pop lexicon as cartoon and comic book elements?
Here’s a quick experiment: Go watch almost any live-action, narrative movie or TV program for a few minutes, and no matter what it is you are almost guaranteed to see the following play out: A shot (or several) of the exterior of a location (building, house, whatever) followed by a cut (read: change of shots) to an interior location where, well, where some plot is going to happen, usually.
Go do it, I’ll wait.
Okay. Now, ask yourself: Where was that interior scene located? “Inside the exterior we saw before, duh!” Yes? Of course. But now, ask yourself this: How do you know that? Did the camera pull in through a window? Did it follow a character from outside to inside without changing shots? Was there a subtitle indicating “interior” and “exterior?” 99% of the time, probably not. So how did you know? Really, those two shots could have nothing to do with one another – that room could easily be somewhere else. In fact, given the way movies/TV are made, it probably is somewhere else. But in your mind, watching the story play out, that room must be inside whatever outside was shown before it. You just know it.
And the reason you “just know” is because “exterior-shot + interior shot = same place” is a narrative device of motion picture language you’ve been conditioned – probably since you were old enough to form ideas, unless you’re over 130 years old – to simply accept as part of the medium’s shorthand for visual storytelling. And it’s hardly the only one: “It’s hazy, that means this is a dream.” How do you know? You just know.
The earliest films took place in one location, and they were silent, so any scenic change could be spelled out, literally. As technology and narrative got more complex, more and more narrative devices were developed to help better communicate onscreen action to the audience; often, they were imported from other sources. In the mid-20th century, when comic strips were at a high point, movies frequently borrowed the concept of panels with split-screen compositions. Audiences of the time, readily familiar with daily newspaper strips, picked it up naturally. In the ’60s and ’70s, comic books came roaring back to the mainstream, and split-screen came roaring back to the movies. The Three Stooges abused one another with violence that would shock censors today – but borrowing the exaggerated sound-effects of animated cartoons saved them by effectively communicating to the audience: “It’s okay, they’re bouncing back just like Bugs and Goofy do.”
In other cases, it’s been much more direct. In Annie Hall, – aka “the other ultra-influential classic from 1977” – writer/director/star Woody Allen broke narrative conventions in a manner usually reserved for zany comedy in the context of an adult comedy about a doomed relationship between his Alvy Singer and Diane Keaton’s “Annie” of the title. Characters turn away from the scene to address the audience directly, wander into and out of each others’ dreams and memories, disengage from the physical bodies to comment on events, etc. In the film’s most-famous “WTF?” moment, Alvy is stuck in line listening to a know-it-all spout misinformation about philosopher Marshall McLuhan. The two argue, both of them asking for the audience to back them up, but Alvy finally wins by reaching off-screen – into what some of us would now call “Hammerspace” – and producing McLuhan himself! “You know nothing of my work!,” declares McLuhan.
At the time, this was all revolutionary stuff – though the film was both popular and well-received enough to win that year’s Academy Award for Best Picture. Plenty of critics and plenty more audiences couldn’t quite figure what Allen, a onetime stand-up comedian previously known for light screwball comedies, was up to. But a certain generation and echelon of folks who’d come up marinating in the same pop-culture brew of classic movies, foreign films, high philosophy and low comedy as Allen got the language of the piece, making it allowable and eventually desirable for other filmmakers to use the same type of devices. Today, what was then the cutting-edge/highbrow Annie Hall style of comedy-narrative is so culturally ingrained that it forms the bedrock of shows like Family Guy – which hardly anyone considers either highbrow or revolutionary.
On a long enough timeline, Annie Hall and Scott Pilgrim look very much of a kind, and not only because they’re both stories of socially-awkward nerds living in not-quite-reality and negotiating relationships with difficult, free-spirited women. Diane Keaton, as Annie, was the Subject Zero for a character type now commonly known as the “Manic Pixie Dream-Girl” – a type that Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s “Ramona Flowers” is intended as both an example of and a commentary on in Pilgrim. Will they mirror each other’s impact the way they mirror each other’s subtext? Woody-produces-McLuhan, Scott-gets-a-life, same-difference?
Maybe, maybe not. After Annie Hall, it was okay to use fourth wall breaking (read: talking to the audience) as a narrative device to move the story along, and to yank physical punchlines in from the sidelines. A year after Scott Pilgrim, will more youth-targeted comedies be borrowing the shorthand of games and manga to pump up the story or rebrand tired metaphors? No one can say for sure. But it’s very possible that one day, some of us will be watching some character or another unremarkably 1-Up his way into metaphoric reincarnation in this or that movie and be able to recall, fleetingly, the days when that was a bold new idea, and how at the time few people noticed how quickly everything changed.
Note: Fans of Scott Pilgrim or of similarly-themed movies in general? Yes, this means you should go watch Annie Hall. Yes, even if you’ve decided you don’t like Woody Allen movies. It’s the ur-text of modern male-P.O.V. romantic comedies.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.