Thursday, 28 April 2011

Simon Turner - Scott Pilgrim vs Readerly Conservatism

So, my recent activities - watching movies, reading books, drinking too much coffee and staying up late thinking about all the movies I've watched, books I've read and coffe I've drunk - have led me to the following ill-considered thoughts.  Bear with me, minions, there is method to my madness. 

It occurs to me that as a species, people are more capable of accepting visual and aural extremism than we are capable of stomaching their literary equivalent.  Take the internet (yes, I know it's an intangible concatenation of information, and so therefore can't be 'taken' anywhere: I meant 'take' in its figurative, idiomatic sense, dur): it is, to all intents and purposes, an immense - even infinite - interactive modernist collage of words, music, film, competing discourses and languages meeting and clashing and intersecting minute by minute, second by second, continually evolving into new forms and modes . . . and we're fine with this.  We use it on a daily basis without our heads exploding, and so far the world hasn't come to an end.  Which I think is quite an exciting fact.  Yet we still think Ulysses is difficult, and complain of the breadth of reference in the Cantos.  And if you thought Gertrude Stein or Kurt Schwitters pushed language into new and startling dimensions of quasi-meaning, then you've never tried reading the comments thread on any political story on any newspaper's website, let alone checked your spam folder lately.

Mainstream cinema, too, is crammed with visual and narrative ideas that would send many otherwise sensible people screaming for the Carpathian hills if they stumbled across comparable tehniques in the printed medium.  The sheer density of narrative and editorial technique in Christopher Nolan's Inception, for example, is truly dizzying, even upon subsequent viewings: we're given worlds within worlds, dreams within dreams, a brilliant extrapolation in visual terms of the literary device of the unreliable narrator (which fact makes Inception something of an unofficial sequel to Nolan's own Memento), and, to cap it all, the whole movie operates as a self-deconstructing allegory for the processes of film-making.  That it manages to be riduculously involving and exciting as well, leaving most of the Hollywood competition in the dust, is just icing on an exceptionally well-made, multi-tiered cake.       

Which brings me on to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Edgar Wright's movie adaptation of Bryan Lee O'Malley's much-admired indie comic book (hence the photo up there at the top of the post, and my oh-so-clever title).  Scott Pilgrim isn't quite in the same league as Inception, but then it's a smaller scale movie with an indie heart, and is trying to achieve something very different.  What both Nolan and Wright share, though, is a sense of the narrative possiblities of film, and both have an almost instinctive sense of how to go about achieving this.  Nolan's method - and I think we can call it a method, as he's an established film-maker now - is to inject seemingly low-brow material (superhero adaptations, sci-fi blockbusters, noir thrillers) with a degree of seriousness not normally associated with the genres in question, so that The Dark Knight ends up resembling The French Connection or Heat far more than its Joel Schumacher-helmed predecessors; whilst Inception is what The Bourne Identity would have looked like if, instead of beng a taut political thriller, the movie had consisted of Matt Damon in an unfurnished room reading French philosophy, whilst a tiny ant-mounted camera zoomed in through his ear and began to scan the strange beguiling landscape of his mind.  

Wright, meanwhile, and this relates to my post earlier in the week, energises the language of cinema by injecting it with narrative devices from other media.  The comic-book elements in the film (sounds appearing as words; the screen being broken up into frames; swooshes and lines to represent movement) are understandable, given that it's an adaptation of a comic, though these provide a dynamic visual energy which is extremely arresting.  What's more noteworthy, though, is that Scott Pilgrim's narrative impetus is provided by videogames to an unprecedented extent.  Videogames have, until recently, been viewed - wrongly, in my opinion - as the unruly cousin of other screen-based media, best not mentioned in polite company by the more serious narrative forms of tv and cinema.  Execrable adaptations of beloved games - Bob Hoskins in Super Mario Bros. springs to mind - haven't helped, and nor has the sometimes (but not always) rushed and perfunctory quality of movie tie-in games.  But I think the tide is turning, and Scott Pilgrim is evidence of this: an intelligent, narratively forward-looking movie that employs videogames, not parodically, but simply as another tool in the film-maker's kitbag.  Wright's use of the visual and story-telling language of videogames in Scott Pilgrim feels like a big deal precisely because he doesn't make a big deal of it.  Does that make sense?   It does to me, though that's rarely an accurate guide.        

So where does that leave poetry?  Really, if I'm being honest with myself, in exaclty the same place it was before I began this post.  It would be churlsih, of course, to suggest that poetry and literature more generally ought to follow in the footsteps of cinema to re-energise its forms and techniques, but one can take examples from other media without slavishly aping their methods.  I'd like to read something that excites me in the same way as the best of cinema can, and often does, without coming freighted with the seriousness and academicism that weighs down a lot (but not all: and it's just an opinion, mind) of experimental and linguistically-innovative work that I've read.  Maybe I'm lapsing into a second adolesence, but it would really Kick-Ass (sorry) if a poet or novelist would do something that got to me to the same extent as Wright and Nolan's work.  The other alternative - and this is only conjecture, a kind of modest proposal if you will - is that the written word is really on its way out, we're just whistling in the dark.   The future is cinema, videogames and comic books, and we're only just learning to swim with the tide. 

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