Dear MC: Dana, you asked for indelible moments, but I hope all of you won’t mind if I expand on that request and talk about two films that subtly changed some of my attitudes about movies and life.
First, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. I was in a rotten mood the first time I saw this movie, so I fixated on the title character, who seriously rubbed me the wrong way (and still does). Scott’s soft-spoken self-deprecation is sly camouflage for a wish-fulfillment fantasy; Scott is the gawky 21st-century teen version of the protagonist in an old Bill Murray or Robin Williams picture— the supposed oddball hero whose ass must be kissed and who is always (by consensus) the coolest and most interesting character in any given room. How do we know Scott is worthy of our attention? Because every other character in the movie talks about and/or reacts to Scott all the time. It’s like the scene in The Simpsons’ “The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show” where Homer gives the show’s producers a list of ways to make viewers love the Poochie character, once of which is “Whenever Poochie’s not onscreen, the other characters should be asking, ‘Where’s Poochie?’”
Then I watched Scott Pilgrim again with my 13-year-old daughter (a film-savvy kid who can’t remember life before the Internet) and felt mildly ashamed for not appreciating director Edgar Wright’s talents as a visual stylist and cultural observer. Wright—now officially three-for-three thanks to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz—is one of the few directors working at the studio level who can tell jokes with shots and construct rebus-like series of images that make arguments or express emotional states. The entire movie is filled with virgin moments—lines, images, and feelings that have no equivalent anywhere else in movies, past or present—and the battle of the bands and Scott’s bass duel with the Vegan are two of the most original action scenes in memory. But here’s what impressed me most: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World could be the first Hollywood studio picture to find a playful visual grammar that expresses how the real and virtual worlds have started to merge in the mind.
The world in Wright’s film is at once actual (real friendships, romance, and heartbreak) and figurative (comic book visuals, video game graphics, pop-up annotations). When Ramona Flowers tells Scott that one of her previous boyfriends punched a hole in the moon for her, and then Wright shows us a little hand-drawn-looking moon with a hole through it, it’s not just a fanciful metaphor; it’s real/unreal, poetry made tangible. Before Scott Pilgrim, whenever I referred to a friend that I made online but hadn’t met in person, I felt sheepish; I’ve even put implied quotes around the word “friend.” Post-Scott Pilgrim, I don’t do that anymore.
Another revelation was Let Me In, Matt Reeves’ remake of the Swedish horror classic Let the Right One In. It validated feelings that began to stir after I saw Werner Herzog’s batty remake of Bad Lieutenant, which re-imagined Abel Ferrara’s souls-in-torment pulp thriller as an existential slapstick comedy. (“Shoot him again! His soul’s still dancing!“) When that project was announced I felt a tremor of disgust: Remake Ferrara’s masterpiece? Are they evil, or just lazy? But the finished work was different from, yet equal to, Ferrara’s. Let Me In is a comparably big surprise—more classically directed than LTROI and less naturalistic but just as sensitive, powerful, and perfectly shaped; an electric remake of an acoustic original.
There are four, maybe five scenes in Reeves’ movie that resonate as deeply as anything in Let the Right One In, and at least one—the caretaker/father/companion character’s final farewell—that’s so piercing I can hardly bear to watch it. (It’s as shattering as the moment in David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly when the transformed hero warns his beloved girlfriend to leave because he might kill her if she stays.) Thanks to Reeves, and Herzog before him—and Breck Eisner’s version of George Romero’s The Crazies, another 2010 horror movie that deserved more acclaim than it got—I’ve stopped dismissing remakes as evidence of studio greed and cultural bankruptcy. The batting average of remakes is no better or worse than the batting average of originals. Musicians cover great pop songs without being condemned in advance. Filmmakers deserve the same privilege.