In an excellent essay on romantic comedy, Frank Krutnik writes about the “nervous romances” of the 1970s. These are comedies characterized by their characters’ “wistful nostalgia” for traditional romance, and their simultaneous acknowledgment of the impossibility of these old-fashioned conventions being operable in a changed social climate. Lovers are now very self-conscious about expressing their feelings and worry that they may depend upon clichés for the articulation of these sentiments. Moreover, the institutionalized end result of courtship – i.e., marriage – no longer seems entirely satisfactory, and so the “obstacle race to the altar” is rarely a viable narrative anymore. As Geoff King puts it, narrative resolutions in contemporary romantic comedies frequently “occur in the form of a disavowal of marriage, a version of the marriage vows based on an agreement…to be not married together for the rest of their lives.”
These contemporary romances, then, can be regarded as amplified or exaggerated dramatizations of a very old solipsistic dilemma. Stanley Cavell identifies this dilemma as the problem of acknowledgment. In simple terms, this problem revolves around our inability to know others – to have access to their interiority – with any degree of certainty. At its most nihilistic, this form of solipsism imagines that others exist only for us and because of us. At the very least, it worries that we can never truly know how things might be for others. Cavell uses this term to describe classic screwball comedies, and their scenarios revolving around the renewal of marriage. However, the concept can also be applied to the contemporary solipsistic romance – films in which marriage is an altogether distant consideration for the young lovers within them, and the possibility of remarriage is out of the question entirely.
These nervous romances primarily stem from Woody Allen’s influential comedies, Annie Hall and Manhattan, in which the pursuit of romance is represented as perpetually frustrating and elusive. Such nervousness wends its way throughout some of the most popular comedies of the 1980s as well. While Molly Ringwald’s hunky birthday wish comes true at the end of Sixteen Candles, most of John Hughes’ teens cannily pick at the prospect of “true love” as if it were an overripe pimple to be squeezed. John Cusack relies on a ghetto-blasted rush of Peter Gabriel as a substitute for his precious self-expression in Say Anything. The grownups hardly fare any better: think of Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, too preoccupied by neurotic self-scrutiny to settle easily into mutual romance, in When Harry Met Sally.
In the 1990s, the directors of, My Best Friend’s Wedding and Four Weddings & a Funeral were worried enough about romance to propose friendship as a more viable emotional relationship between a guy and a gal. Chasing Amy also helped by queering up a previously straight genre. Meanwhile, Sleepless in Seattle (with its soundtrack of old-timey standards and references to An Affair to Remember) just wished for a good ol’ kiss to build a dream on again. Shifting into the 2000s, however, Judd Apatow & Co., The Break-Up, and Punch-Drunk Love collectively suggested that modern romance is inherently crazy or simply just a way of avoiding being alone. Indeed, romantic comedy in the 2000s became (yet another) phallocentric genre, with many of the most popular or influential films of the decade focused on the alleged self-centredness of a childish leading male. The nervousness of Allen in the 70s has prompted any number of regressions. Many of these comedies now deal with the crisis of juvenile self-absorption.
Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World seems like an escape route from the
dead end of solipsistic nervousness. It
is the most deliriously rewarding romantic comedy since Adam Sandler’s
brilliant reflexive turn in Punch Drunk
Love, or the tentative fumblings toward mutual renewal in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Edgar Wright revisits and elaborates
upon similar ideas asserted in Shaun of
the Dead – his first superlative feature that had the audacity to suggest
that adult romance might save one from living an unexamined life. I find it
fruitful, then, to consider Scott Pilgrim
as an extremely thoughtful return the problem
of acknowledgment. The film is a romantic comedy that compels its arrested
adolescent to recognize and respond to the difference between himself and an
other. Moreover, it makes the counterintuitive and audacious assertion that new
media technologies might facilitate the amorous traversing of this difference.
Incredibly, Wright is able to articulate this idea in a work entirely populated by cartoonish abstractions. Translating Brian Lee O’Malley’s schematics so cannily, Wright provides a delirious cavalcade of one-dimensional models of masculinity and femininity. Indeed the entire hipster gamut is on colourful display here, and these gleeful primaries bring the romantic concerns of the past decade into sharp relief. Michael Cera finally clues into what the rest of us have known since Arrested Development: his nebbish heartthrob is actually a total asshole. Accordingly, Cera shies away from the comics’ relatively sympathetic treatment of their titular hero. He reveals Scott as a young man who can’t make the effort to be interested in experiences outside his own interests and therefore can’t be bothered to acknowledge others’ desires & feelings. The screenplays’ terrific idiom of assertions, aphorisms and inarticulation conveys this solipsism brilliantly. Scott’s apathy prevents him from even finishing Matthew Patel’s emailed challenge to a duel. “This is… borrrring. Deleeeeete!” In fact, Scott tends to flinch at the prospect of recognizing others’ desires: he literally chokes on Knives Chau’s perfumed proclamation of love.
Even more bracing is the film’s unsparing treatment of the romantic comedy’s token breakup scene. Here, Scott doesn’t agonize over how his lack of regard for Knives has hurt her, but rather he squirms over the memory of being compelled to perform an unpleasant task. And one wipe edit later, he’s giddy at the prospect of moving on to that obscure object of his desire, Ramona Flowers.
So, how does this self-regarding man-child overcome the problems of acknowledgment and authentic self-expression? Through graphic pop culture iconography, which Wright uses to represent the emotional lives of the protagonists. This tactic joyously demonstrates how our feelings are mediated by the technological and popular products that we (or at least those of us of a certain age demographic and/or Toronto scenesters) consume.
To that end, the film improves on an idea from a previous Michael Cera film: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. The focus there was on NYC kewl kids finding the Most Excellent Ever music to articulate their mutual attraction. Here, as in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Wright delights in a ceaseless barrage of densely layered allusions (e.g., every band in the film must be named after an NES game, parody an indie subgenre, and have their music composed by a Pitchfork-endorsed musician). And yet, such intertexuality is all in the name of a neo-romantic sincerity. The “wistful nostalgia” is technologized, which is why the film’s style pays homage to the videogame logics of (relatively) old new media: sequences rendered with 16-bit graphics, multiple shout-outs to SNES and Sega Genesis gaming experiences, the Universal Studios theme downgraded to a MIDI recording, etc. Levelling, bonuses, combos, 1Ups, and life bars are all brilliantly analogized as game mechanics that help their players mature and find love.
Scott’s experiences are dramatized via an almost non-stop overlay of animated captions and sound effects, in an excellent remediation of manga and anime conventions. Fight scenes feature split-screened close-ups of furrowed eyebrows, speed-lined backgrounds, and ridiculously paced accelerating montages. Reaction shots reveal emotions that change in less than a blink of an eye. Nearly every moment is filtered through Scott’s one-direction consciousness. Because he’s constantly in a hurry to attend to the things that he finds interesting, the editing often skitters along as if it were Chapter Searching. Not only is the camera nearly constantly moving, Wright shows a preference for close-ups, and so the film conveys Scott’s perpetual state of distraction and his tendency to wilfully ignore his surroundings.
Therefore the intensity and simplicity of Scott’s feelings is a product of his lack of real-world romantic experience. Only able to cite one occasion of heartbreak, he elevates Ramona’s extensive amorous involvements with a variety of people to an Epic level of Epic Epicness: the League of Seven Evil Exes no less. Little wonder that Ramona is so aloof to Scott’s puppyish adoration. After a final Big Boss Battle, Scott discovers that genuine feelings and desires are accompanied by obligations to others. His subsequent forthrightness of expression and acknowledgement seems to signal an overcoming of the anxieties generated by contemporary nervous romances. Will the Girl of His Dreams (and others like her) have the patience to be conveyed in the terms provided by new media representations?