Monday, August 23, 2010

Scott Pilgrim suffering continues

I think I've read more essays and editorials about the box office failure of Scott Pilgrim than anything not Twilight or Batman related.
The abject sorrow, the sheer suffering of those internet critics who truly believed that the film represented a major stepping stone in the evolution of modern cinema is just palpable online these days. Today's contribution to the growing weepy literature on the subject is from Slashfilm, specifically Adam Quigley. Not only is his in-depth consideration of how America could embrace The Expendables but reject Scott Pilgrim very well written and obviously well considered, it's actually quite thought provoking. It's also mostly wrong.

He has 3 main thrusts to his idea:

1.) Pilgrim failed because Cera is effeminate - As he says: "If this is indeed the case, the takeaway here is simple: The men of today are gay; long live the six packs and mullets of yesterday."

2.) Pilgrim failed because they marketed it wrong - Essentially, "For those not familiar with the graphic novels, the trailers reeked of trying-too-hard desperation, putting people off almost immediately. The studio didn’t so much sell the movie as they did spend a ton of money informing moviegoers what not to see."

3.) Pilgrim tried to cover too much pop culture - Again, from Quigley: "The respective box office success and failure could also be due to the differing methods used by each film to pay heed to their cultural heritage."

Ultimately leading him to this conclusion: "America has spoken: Trashy ’80s action like The Expendables? Yay. Trashy ’70s exploitation like Piranha 3D? Nay. Smart, original and visually arresting genre-benders like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? F**k off, hipster."

Again, it's a well-written essay, and you should read it. Now remember, I liked Scott Pilgrim to a large degree. I mean, you're talking to a guy who put Shaun of the Dead on the decade's best films list, owns "Spaced," has a closet full of comics, and used to work at a video game store. I loved the film, okay? I want to see it again. But I'm now going to realistically tell you what's happening here, and I want you to be okay with it.

Let's take the fallacy of his arguments one at a time:

1.) It's not that Cera is effeminate. You can't exactly convince me that Zack Effron is butch or that Robert Pattinson is going to star in the remake of Over the Top. It's that Cera is not a movie star and although I like the crap out of him as a person, he's not particularly talented in that he has exactly one method of performance and we've seen it about a dozen times. His casting was so "on the nose," so specific that we already knew what we were going to see before we saw it. He was easily the worst part of the movie, and at no point did I feel particularly endeared to him. When you're talking box office, it is in no way that people looked at a poster of Cera and said "honey, we ain't seein' that gay dude fight kung fu." It's more that he doesn't have the draw that says "I have to go see the new Michael Cera movie." What I'm saying is two-fold: (1) The part of the blame that falls on the casting is the price you pay for hiring someone who isn't a big draw and isn't exceptional enough to rise above not being a big draw. (2) There's nothing wrong with acknowledging that big-time movie stars open big-time numbers at the box office. Convince yourself that Inception would have hit $250 million if the lead was Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

2.) They didn't market it wrong at all. They actually gave a fairly representative view of what was in the movie. I love this argument, which essentially holds that the studio failed because they didn't lie to the general public. Honestly, the adverts were pretty spot-on, right? If you went to see the film that was being advertised, you didn't walk out saying "I thought there would be more dialogue." The premise here is the most flawed one of all: That people would have been interested in the content of the film if the studio had told them the content was different. I mean, maybe. Sure, if they cut a preview where it was all love and no fighting, maybe some more young girls get interested only to be furious when watching it. Be honest with yourselves, they made commercials that represented their product, you can't exactly be pissed about that.

3.) The final argument is that Pilgrim covered too much of modern culture, whereas The Expendables just focused on one part of it. This really isn't much of an explanation of the box office, but it does reveal the one element nobody wants to talk about in defending Pilgrim. The real problem, the true underlying issue is this: The movie was made by, about, and for a very specific group of people. If you fall into the group who was born in this era of video games and comic books, of indie music and flea-market apparel, of text messaging and gay roommates, then you felt it was "epic" because it spoke directly to you. But if you didn't, if your cultural touchstones were even slightly older, just barely nicking the video game generation, embracing more grunge than indie rock, slightly before the advent of all these references, you probably weren't 100% stoked to go see it. Hell, even the film itself seems to loathe some of the hipsters who were sitting in the audience behind me super stoked to see the film. I think the graphic novels and, to a only slightly lesser degree, the movie are wickedly smart, but it is a fine line they're walking between mocking their target audience and embracing them.

I mean, did you really think that older folks (and I mean people over 40 here), were going to embrace the hyper-kinetic, video-game style presented here by young people they no longer associate with? No matter how it was marketed? Did you think that younger people, those tweens out there, were going to relate to the older references of video games they never even heard of or played or issues involving self-awareness that they have yet to possess themselves? This was a movie that had a window into a very friendly demographic (the 17-35 year old demo), but was ONLY going to work within that demo. You know who wants to see The Expendables? Everyone from my dad who likes explosions to the high school kid who likes explosions.

And here's the final two truths: (1) The failure stings because it's being felt by online personalities more as a personal rejection than anything and (2) many of those same people would have hated it and turned against it if it did catch on. I love so many people who fall into the demo I'm talking about here, but they do feel like it was something they loved that got rejected, a feeling I'm betting most have had before. But on the flip side, we all know the people who backlash against everything in the mainstream and only support the bands, the movies, the books that nobody has heard of before and many of them fall into the demo for this movie. They wouldn't have wanted it to be popular, they want to bitch about how it should have been.

Okay, so that's my two cents. Again, this is coming from someone who really loved the movie. I just get it is all. I get why everything went the way it did, and I'm neither surprised nor hurt by it. I got to see a movie I liked that appealed to me. It didn't appeal to others. That's just fine. They will make more movies for specialized audiences in the future, this wasn't going to issue in some golden age of cinema, and everything's going to be just fine. Cheer up.

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