Neil Kandalgaonkar

hacker, maker of things

What is up with Scott Pilgrim?

Scott Pilgrim is an incredibly entertaining movie – you should all see it – but the premise of the movie is a little bit baffling. While set in something resembling modern-day Toronto, the conflict is entirely surreal. To finally be with the girl of his dreams, Scott Pilgrim has to defeat her seven evil exes with elaborate fight sequences.

Caution: Spoilers!

I have not read the comics. So this analysis is only about the film.

The central conceit of the movie is how characters are established, and conflict is resolved, with video game violence. But this is has precedent. In opera, this is done through song; in film musicals, through song and dance (often a surreal departure from a story that takes place in a more or less realistic world). In some martial arts movies, it’s done through fighting.

But Scott Pilgrim is most similar to the genre of magic realism, where mundane, even humdrum existence, intersects with another dimension of magic or religion. This is not like Harry Potter, where the characters are using magic to fight conflicts at an ever-increasing scale. In magic realism, ordinary lives and ordinary concerns are infused with the supernatural. An example in film would be Like Water for Chocolate, where family cooking can cause love, lust, or sadness, depending on the state of mind of the person cooking.

We might call the world of Scott Pilgrim video game realism.

Magic-realism is usually about recasting real-world issues in a more vivid way. So what’s going on in Scott Pilgrim?

Ramona’s seven evil exes form a league to control her life, and in fact centering their attention on Scott Pilgrim. The premise seems absurd even for a video game. But the film seems to work, at an emotional level, at least for me. I decided that the only way the premise makes sense is that Ramona’s seven evil exes aren’t an external threat. The entire movie happens in Scott Pilgrim’s mind, and it’s more about all the ways that Scott doesn’t feel good enough for Ramona.

Ramona is presented as a precociously mature femme fatale (and yet retaining a core of innocence). Scott Pilgrim is both a little bit geeky, and trapped at an earlier stage of emotional development, to the point where he’s even dating a high school girl. In their first interaction, Ramona says nothing, and after an opening line, Scott says “I’ll go away and leave you alone forever now”.

So if the central issue is Scott’s lack of confidence and self-respect (this is eventually made very explicit in the film) then the seven evil exes represent not real people, but barriers to Scott having that confidence.

Of course, Scott is barely out of his teens, so a lot of these concerns are things that only North American teens worry about!

#1: Matthew Patel. His threat is that he’s exotic, unlike the other kids, just because he has a foreign background. I’ve noticed how Caucasian people in their 20s feel that they are doomed to always be uninteresting due to their white-bread background. (I actually had a girlfriend who said this to me in as many words). Scott seems to be able to defeat him in a fair fight, which shows you how little of a threat this really is.

#2: Lucas Lee He is the apex of popularity and physical prowess, being a skateboarder turned movie star. Of course someone like Scott is going to feel inferior to him. He is defeated through guile, because he’s a slave to his image.

#3: Todd Ingram This is how you know we’re dealing with a movie about teens and young adults, because Todd’s power is veganism. When I think back to what it was like to be that age, it’s true; being a vegan or otherwise adopting some non-mainstream strictures in your life was a way of distinguishing yourself, an easy gateway to being cool in a subculture. Being punk, being goth, all are variants of this. Todd is easily defeated because he’s a bit dim, and his vegan discipline is proved to be inconsistent.

#4 Roxy Richter I think Roxy represents Scott’s anxiety about being sexually inexperienced. First, Roxy shows that Ramona has experimented more widely. But worse, by being female, Roxy knows things that Scott is afraid he will never know. Scott can’t defeat Roxy alone; he needs to give up control and be literally manipulated by Ramona - in other words he has to do what she wants and be highly responsive. Roxy is defeated by orgasm, which (in a less metaphorical scenario) would be Ramona achieving orgasm.

#5 and #6 Katayanagi twins The bizarreness of Ramona dating twins is briefly alluded to, but I think there’s something else going on. Twins are the epitome of close relationships. Ken and Kyle Katayanagi are archetypal evil twins, who can communicate an entire plan in a word, who act as if they have one mind. They control a cybernetic musical machine together. Scott’s band, by contrast, play crude indie rock, and are riven with internal conflicts and self-doubt. I think the conflict here is between circles of friends; Scott feels inferior for not having the right kind of friends, or for not having tight relationships with them. But Scott’s band ultimately prove that their heart and spirit can be united, and this defeats the smooth, soulless unity of the twins.

#7 Gideon Graves This barely needs any analysis; Gideon makes the conflict explicit when he declares “I’m what’s cool, I’m what’s happening”. He has wealth and power, and Scott is just a poor indie rocker. Scott has to defeat him twice, once through superior devotion, and the second through simple self-respect.