Monday, April 4, 2011

These kids nowadays sure do like them comic books.

If you don't know why this is funny, you're probably not going to enjoy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010). Obviously, films have been based on comic books since at least the late 1930's (comic books were only invented in the mid-30s; before then, movies were based on newspaper comics like "Li'l Abner" and "Dagwood.") And films have borne the video game influence since at least the first Tron, back during the Reagan administration. But Scott Pilgrim, based on a series of graphic novels about characters who are avid gamers, makes a substantial attempt to incorporate game-style storytelling into the narrative flow of the film. It's not just the sound or energy lines shooting out of Scott's band when they play, or the "Pow" and "Bif" words floating out of the punches -- heck, we had that on the Batman TV show back in 1966. It's the actual use of the ideas of scores and levels embedded in the scenes that feels innovative. Here's the scene in which what had seemed like another alternate indie-romance-comedy with Michael Cera begins to spin out into something quite different.

And they've dropped the tired old joke of the wimpy hero getting the stuffing knocked out of him (which might be why Kick-Ass eventually ran out of gas for all the fun along the way). Moreover, while this set-up -- hero must defeat seven villains sequentially -- sounds limited and formulaic, the screenplay has the good sense to continue working it out in different ways.

But one's reaction to the film is going to depend on one's feelings about its references. I'm not keen on film references to contemporary culture. Robin Williams' self-congratulatory riffs make Aladdin really dated today (William F. Buckley wasn't even hip back then). But Scott Pilgrim is built entirely on sharing a specific private language with its intended audience, and a lot of the criticism online is about it having too much DDR and not enough Halo. The movie keeps saying, "We know movies are for old people, but really, we're one of you -- we're game-playing, comic-book reading kids, too!" And given the professed artificiality in the story-telling; or at least the adoption of more stylized narrative conventions than even film uses, the question is raised, can one be made to care for a character, who is literally a flat image on a page, or a cluster of pixels?

But just as Brecht and Orson Welles and other experimenters in meta- style have proven, a character who is self-aware about his fate and communicates that awareness with the audience can be sympathetic nonetheless. Here, the film has it both ways: it calls attention to the conventions of story-telling and character development, yet lets you feel the triumph inherent in the situation (I'm thinking specifically of what happens at 0:07 of this clip):

It's possible that this is all a narrative dead-end, but I have to admit that in this case, the ride was a great deal of fun.

RED (2010) represents a more straightforward and traditional adaptation of the graphic novel, discarding the conventions which are unique to that form in favor of those shared by comics AND movies. It is pretty much a straight-down-the-middle action comedy of the type that star Willis and free-lance lunatic Mel Gibson used to crank out in the 80s, except that the protagonists have crept into their 60s and the action is pumped up to what used to be called "cartoonish" levels, except here "cartoonish" goes up past 11 to a 13. Most people don't think you need a rocket launcher to dispose of a single human being about 30 or 40 feet away from you. And it turns out not to be a good idea.

Evidently, the source graphic novel was darker and grimmer than this and the producer peddled that idea for a few years before deciding to turn it into a romp. The result is a creative boomerang, medium-wise. Film introduces multiple angles, low key lighting, rapid changes of scene, terse dialogue. Comic books follow suit, but in bright primary colors, especially in the Silver Age. Neo-noir becomes popular with films like Body Heat and L.A. Confidential and comics respond with The Black Knight and Sin City; those products are adapted to film with mixed commercial and aesthetic results. Neo-noir graphic novel RED is unsuccessfully peddled for adaptation, it is eventually transformed into a movie-movie, with no real influence from either the source graphic novel or the comic book as a medium. The principal influence on the film RED is the desire to sell more popcorn.

It does have fun with the archetypes that the cast brings with them. Here is Queen Elizabeth Helen Mirren slipping off the pumps and slipping on the work shoes:

And in a misguided attempt to make the film resemble human life, Bruce Willis is given a love interest half his age (take that Demi!) played by the usually enticing Mary Louise Parker, who in this film seems to think she might win an award if her character exhibits enough brain damage, so as to completely lack common sense. Hence some phony campy byplay with Mary and Helen exchanging girl talk between automated rounds:

Would that they had not tried.

Both films are very fine weekend-evening rentals, both are light as a feather, but the contrast between them in subject matter, style and the seriousness or non-seriousness of life, death and love illustrates a generational split much larger than what kind of comic books people like.

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