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I happened on Tim Hetherington’s tweet dated April 19th in which he stated that he was in besieged Misrata, a town under attack by Qaddafi loyalists. The next day after his tweet he was dead. As absurd as this technology may seem at times or as trite as most of the twitter hive mind is, I think this technology is coming full circle. Words from a man I never knew appeared in my home, and the following day he was dead, reminding me and hopefully hundreds of other people that things–real things, real stories of sacrifice, violence, bloodshed–are happening around the world while I sit in my comfortable chair staring at a computer screen. This point has been driven home in a way that your typical news article could not achieve, and while I’m not heralding the dawn of a twitter revolution or championing it as the greatest tool for change since the printing press, I am intrigued by the level of intimacy it creates at times. It caught me off guard. I feel like I’m writing about Don DeLillo’s “Videotape” here or something, but instead of a desensitization via a repeated video image, I felt a moment of empathy.
The page with the tweet can be found at http://twitter.com/#!/TimHetherington
When I first learned that Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) was slated to be a major motion picture distributed by Universal Studios, I was taken aback. I was always under the impression that SP was a moderately successful comic book franchise, but was sure to never escape the label of a cult classic series. After all, how many people around the world can be expected to identify with a skinny awkward bass player from Toronto, Canada, and his romantic, existential struggles?
It would seem that director Edgar Wright did. Known early on for British comedies such as Spaced (1999-2001) and later for feature films such as Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), it may come as no surprise that O’Malley’s comics resonated with Wright. In short, he’s a geek with a geek’s palette for awkward humor anchored in video game and comic culture references, but how will writer’s Michael Becall and Edgar Wright’s humor translate to the masses, particularly those who won’t pick up on the film’s slew of Zelda references?
To be frank, I have no idea. I’m a geek myself. But I can say that for every joke that may fly over the heads of the less—ahem—“cultured” viewers, we find a slew of keenly paced moments of awkward dramatic humor driven by Michael Cera’s acting as Scott Pilgrim.
When I first learned that Cera was cast as Scott, I was somewhat annoyed. Scott Pilgrim is not Arrested Development’s George Michael, and though he may be awkward, he isn’t inept (not to say that George Michaels ineptness isn’t marvelous in its own way). Scott Pilgrim is awkward, yes, but Scott Pilgrim is also strong in an almost inexplicable way, even before he draws that flaming katana from his chest cavity. Fortunately, Cera taps into the multiple dimensions of his character within the film. Cera captures Scott Pilgrim’s awkwardness, his obliviousness, his selfishness, his charisma, and in the end, his strength and courage.
Likewise, the rest of the casting is stellar. Ellen Wong captures Knives Chau, from Knives’s trusting gaze to her psychotic stalker eye twitch. Mary Elizabeth Winstead imbues her Ramona Flowers with that same blunt, unforgiving, yet warm demeanor.
The only qualm I have with the casting comes from the person I least expected to take issue with: Jason Schwartzman. Playing the part of Gideon Gordon Graves, Schwartzman comes across less as a sinister, wormy, yet hip foil for Scott Pilgrim and more as someone a lot dorkier than Pilgrim himself. He is even laughable at moments during his fight scene with Scott, whereas at no moment did I find myself thinking Cera looked too skinny and nerdy to be doing back flips and hammering enemies with roundhouse kicks.
Another issue that non-nerd viewers may take with the film is the pacing. The dialogue is fast, quippy, and the scene changes are even faster. This is all a part of the films overall aesthetic, and I do feel that it works well in the visual arena; however, some of the more gentle or heartfelt moments are sacrificed for speed or a quick joke. The first bedroom scene with Ramona and Scott comes to mind. In the comics the scene is a moment of emotional fluidity in the chaotic humor of the rest of the comic, whereas the film glosses over the moment relatively fast. It doesn’t ruin the film’s relationship of Scott and Ramona by any means, but I do wish there was a little more time given to a few more key moments of the story, both for non-comic fans and comic fans alike.
Perhaps the best thing going for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is its visual aesthetic. Too often do comic book based films become polarized in their visual translation to the big screen. Either directors forsake almost all comic book influence for realism as seen in the X-Men films, or they literally attempt to make the screen a replica of a comic frame as seen in Sin City or 300. SP straddles the line nicely, retaining a plausible three-dimensional space for much of the film, but dropping it at need to shift into a more comic-centric aesthetic. Hopefully the film will open some doors in this realm and motivate directors to be a bit looser and adventurous in their mixture of comic and film aesthetics.
In his recent review of Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Roger Ebert compares the film to “a sideshow version of [Gilliam’s] own life, with him playing the role of the pitchman who lures you into his fantasies.” Ebert justifies such a comparison between Gilliam’s work and a sideshow by claiming that they “may seem extravagant and overheated, all smoke and mirrors.” Such commentary soon takes an odd backhand complimentary tone, for he states that such cinematic flashiness “is, after all, in [Gilliam’s films’] very nature.” He concludes by stating, “My problem with Gilliam’s films is that they lack a discernible storyline,” and, “The best approach is to sit there and let it happen to you; see it in the moment and not with long-term memory.”
Now Mr. Ebert will have to forgive me for the audacious claim that I am about to make, but it seems that he has entirely missed the point of what I see as one of Gilliam’s greatest works to date. I think that the first mistake viewers such as Mr. Ebert make when attending a Terry Gilliam showing is that they expect escapist fantasy and visual opulence on par with The Adventures of Baron Von Munchausen. They expect a film one can enjoy and then forget; however, long time fans of Mr. Gilliam’s work should know better than to ascribe such constraints to his projects. First, Gilliam is not an escapist film maker. Brazil reveals, in all its grotesque images of torture and social satire, a theme with which Gilliam wrestles in Parnassus: an extreme revulsion of regressive escapism.
Parnassus is not a whimsical fairy tail. Satire within the film operates on multiple levels. At the core of the film remains the issue of the institutionalization of charity and a culture of deification of youth/body images/celebrities. Tony’s character takes the large lady to a river within the mirror in which he shows her images of James Dean and Princess Diana who remain “forever young” in death in order to coerce her into making the “right” decision. As the narrative later reveals, at the heart of Tony’s dreams and desires is a celebrity status achieved through manipulation of charity institutions. His ever changing face within the mirror may be the outcome of Heath Ledger’s untimely death, but it nonetheless ties directly to Tony’s obsession with fame and the creation of a celebrity identity by way of press. All of the faces used are leading celebrities in our culture, are they not? It is no mistake then that the newspaper writing about Tony is called “The Mirror,” and his character has a rabidly narcissistic streak.
Gilliam does not stop with social satire, rather he uses his tongue and cheek humor to critique escapist myth making. The Edenic image of Valentina naked under an apple tree in Tony’s reconstruction of the Imaginarium calls into question traditional mythic culture. She shares the stage with an overweight “lady” which Tony plays off of to con his viewers into being “reborn” in a more beautiful fashion. Also on stage is Percy dressed as a black poor-kid, a costume which allows Tony to find who he will take into the mirror first, as the woman chosen wished to “adopt that poor black child.” The catharsis upper-class white individuals draw from their obsessively “charitable” efforts thus comes under fire.
Valentina’s Eve image shares the stage with various other satirical images, so it is not radical to claim that Valentina’s representation of Eve is a satire as well. Although Tony claims to make the Imaginarium more modern, the same mythic female image is retained. How is Eve a modern image? The choice is an intentional attempt to critique the persistence of an overly dogmatic understanding of what a female should be. As the film concludes, The Devil is seen giving an apple to some nuns, perpetuating a regressive myth of the sin stained female juxtaposed with the virginal female. Valentina is not allowed to be free until the end of the film when she may live her own life outside of the rules of her father’s stories. Just as within the mirror, where one is simply presented with choices to make and not coerced into them, Valentina remains free to live her own life. Life is, after all, the ultimate story, is it not? That which Dr. Parnassus claims is essential to the well being of the universe?
I have presented this interpretation of the film in an effort to reveal the various levels of satire operating within Parnassus. You may not agree with every point I have made, but to simply cast aside Gilliam’s newest masterpiece as a muddled narrative will not do. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is a complex web-work of social exploration, and a virtuoso performance in satire on the level of Brazil. Not all critics agree with Mr. Ebert’s review, but it seems that many individuals often misunderstand Gilliam’s texts. With Parnassus, he has delivered. I strongly suggest you do not allow this film to fall by the wayside.