Scott Pilgrim makes for an interesting switch for Learn From This: not only is it another critically-acclaimed-if-underperforming movie, but it’s also a series of graphic novels from Bryan Lee O’Malley1 about a typical 20-something slacker from Toronto with typical relationship issues.
The ones about how the baggage from one’s past tends to affect your dating future, especially if you have unresolved issues regarding past relationships, the ones about being honest with yourself about who you are and what you want, the ones about how “I’m in love with this girl but her evil exes have banded together to control her love-life so now I have to fight them all to the death,” kind.
Y’know. The usual.
What makes a bit of a challenge is trying to condense 1100 pages of story into a 2-hour movie and then trying to further condense it into a 2000 word article on what my fellow geeky bretheren should take away from it all aside from massive crushes on Ellen Wong, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Brie Larsen and a sudden appreciation for Beck and Metric.
So I’m not going to bother.
Instead, I’ll be focusing on the graphic novel series with it’s rich backstory as well as the movie that brought it to life. Because, frankly, there’s a LOT you can learn from Scott Pilgrim and his precious little life.
You Are Who You Date – It’s said that you can learn a lot about a person by who his or her friends are. You can learn even more by who they are involved with romantically. When we first meet Scott Pilgrim, he’s proudly announcing that – at the age of 23 – he’s dating (if you can call it that) a barely-legal high-school student named Knives Chau. He has next to nothing in common with her aside from a compatible level of immaturity, virtually no physical chemistry…
So why’s he dating her? Well, because his last relationship – a serious, adult relationship – ended badly a year ago. Rather than getting over it and moving on, Scott has actually regressed; he’s gone from dating a mature woman his own age to dating a child because it’s “uncomplicated”. Eventually he moves on to Ramona Flowers who is nothing but complicated… but still can only relate to her on a stunted emotional level.
Ramona, on the other hand, has dated nothing but assholes for the majority of her life, dumping each one for the next cocky pretty-boy who wandered into her field of view. Even when she starts dating Scott – himself a proto-asshole – she can’t quite bring herself to be completely relaxed and honest around him; she always has one foot out the door, looking for the next available exit.
Don’t Date The Ideal – Scott has this issue in spades when it comes to Ramona. He spends most of his relationship with her in (admittedly blissful) ignorance of just about everything but the surface and what he projects onto her. He doesn’t even know how old she is or when her birthday is. Despite being presented with repeated evidence that Ramona is a serial cheater, or that she’s at least partially responsible for the mess that Scott is finding himself in, he can’t quite progress past the idea that she’s the girl of his dreams.
Getting Dumped Doesn’t Make You Special – Look, nobody’s denying that break-ups suck. But past a certain point, dwelling on the pain of a break up goes beyond the tragedy of a relationship ending and starts being about fetishizing the break-up itself. Scott is one example, with his year-long recovery from Envy Adams and his similar BSOD reaction to being dumped by Ramona, but it’s the League of Evil Exes that take the cake. Despite being incredibly successful in their own right (a wealthy producer/weapons engineer, an internationally famous actor/skate-boarder, bassist for an up-and-coming indie band, world-renowned robot engineers) or otherwise powerful (a half-ninja and an Indian mystic), not a single one of them seems to be able to get past the fact that a girl they liked dumped them.
Gideon, in fact, takes the cake in this department. The man keeps every girl who ever dumped him in cryogenic suspension, in hopes that some day he can force them to love him. In the film, he implants mind-control chips. In the books, he literally crawled into Ramona’s head in order to ensure that she would always be hung up on him.
The core of his entire identity is, ultimately, the Guy Who Got Dumped. He can’t even perform sexually any more. At the base of it all is the fact that he doesn’t even care about the women any more – they’re just trophies for him. He treats them like dolls or possessions, keeping them in storage so that they can never, ever leave him again.
Even if he succeeded in capturing Ramona and placing her back under his thumb, he still would never manage to fill the hole inside himself.
Don’t Date A Girl Named “Knives” – Seriously. The universe is powered by irony.
Nobody Likes The Man-Child – Scott lives in a state of perpetual immaturity2. He can’t hold down a job. He’s a perpetual freeloader, living almost entirely on his friend’s largesse and good will. He has next to no idea how the real world works, even in a universe that seems to run on video-game logic as much as anything else. He’s a child in a man’s body, floating through life without any concern (or even comprehension) of the potential consequences of his actions. Even after levelling up in volume 4, he can’t manage basic tasks like “not forgetting his keys”.
You Are Not The Center Of The Universe – Scott Pilgrim and Gideon Graves are self-centered to an absurd degree. Scott can barely acknowledge the people around him when they don’t intersect directly with his own drama. Half of the time, he doesn’t know where his friends work or what’s going on in their lives, no matter how glaringly obvious it is. Kim Pine, his supposed best friend, has entire relationships start and end while Scott is wrapped up in his own precious life. His other best friend comes out of the closet to everybody… and Scott missed it entirely because he was too concerned with his troubles with Ramona. He can barely relate to anyone on a personal level or operate in the real world. The entire universe is – to his mind – arranged to his benefit and if it doesn’t directly affect him, he couldn’t care less. This “It’s All About Me” attitude is what poisons his relationships with his friends and lovers.
Gideon is actually worse in many ways. He roams through the series marking his territory like an incontinent dog. He literally puts his mark on everything he owns and treats people like living dolls rather than people. In the movie, he implants Ramona with a chip, while in the comic, he puts fragments of himself into Ramona’s unconscious mind. The only reason why he doesn’t go all the way and actually brands people with his logo seems to be because it would ruin the collector value.
There’s More Than One Side To the Story – We all indulge in a certain amount of mental editing when it comes to our lives; nothing is ever quite as we remember it being. Part of this is just a function of how memory works; the human memory is notoriously unreliable and prone to being overwritten with fantasies and expectations rather than being a perfect recording of actual events. Part of this is because we all like to think that we’re the heros of our own stories and would rather prefer not to remember the parts that make us look bad. Scott is a prime example of this; while yes there is some manipulation of his memory by Gideon, Scott has spent most of his life in denial of what he’s really like.
After five volumes of seeing Scott as the put-upon hero of this romance we realize that, well… Scott’s kind of an asshole. He beat the shit out of Kim Pine’s weedy, nerdy boyfriend because he wanted to date her. He moved away without even telling his girlfriend, leaving it to her best friend to break the news to her. Envy didn’t dump his ass out of the blue, Scott picked a fight that ended up being the final straw in an already strained relationship.
Own Your Mistakes – While Scott indulges in selective memories, Ramona on the other hand refuses to take responsibility for the fact that all of her relationships have failed. For that matter, she doesn’t take any responsibility for her situation with her Evil Exes.
In fact, she’s actually rather hypocritical about the whole situation. Ramona cheated on just about everybody she ever dated, including two-timing twins… and yet when she has even the slightest suspicion that Scott is having an affair with Lisa, she nearly blows her top. When she finds out that he was dating Knives at the same time he was dating her, she throws Scott out. Never mind the fact that they were presumably not exclusive at the time. Never mind the fact that he was cheating on Knives, not her. Doesn’t matter. She treats Scott as though he were the worst person in the world… without stopping to think that not only is this not anything she hadn’t done herself, but that she’s done far worse.
Which actually leads us to the next topic:
You Can’t Run Away Forever – Scott and Ramona are alike in that neither of them can really face what they’ve done. Scott bundles up all of his guilt and negative memories and crams them away in hopes that he can forget them and be able to live with himself.
Ramona on the other hand, ends every relationship the same way: she runs away as far as she can, as fast as she can. She always has to be the one who leaves – without saying goodbye, if at all possible – because she’s ultimately afraid of being hurt… or facing the consequences of her actions. She’s so afraid of being the one who gets left that she bails at the first sign of complications. She can never be in any relationship without keeping one foot out the door.
Ultimately, neither of them are ever really able to escape from themselves, nor are they ever happy for very long. Both of them work so hard at hiding from themselves and their fears that they take it to absurd levels; Scott has the memory of a goldfish while Ramona disappears whenever she’s at risk of actually letting her guard down.
It’s only when they confront the consequences of their actions – whether it’s Scott facing down Nega-Scott or Ramona finally coming back after running away that they can manage to move on to a real relationship.
The Past Should Be Prologue – Holding on to the past is a recurring theme in Scott Pilgrim. The film and the books are practically dripping in nostalgia, with references to the 8-bit and 16-bit era of video games, 70s and 80s music, comics and pop-culture. The past is also what is holding the characters back from moving on with their lives. While the past should be what lead us to our present, the cast of Scott Pilgrim lives in theirs and seems unable to move on. Scott – and the League of Evil Exes – let themselves be defined by a past that they can’t let go of; Scott goes into a coma whenever Envy’s name is mentioned while the League is so bitter about their break-ups with Ramona that they are trying to control her love-life out of revenge.
Meanwhile Ramona is desperately running from a past that seems to keep catching up with her, literally in some cases, and refusing to give up other parts of her past no matter how much pain it causes her. For a character who fears getting stuck, she spends a great deal of time clinging to anything that keeps her from moving forward.
While yes, she can’t quite give up on Gideon because of his mind-control, it’s representative of that one ex that you just can’t quite get over. These fragments of their past bury themselves deep and begin to fester, infecting our future relationships with other people until we’re willing to stop and take the – often painful – time to excise them.
As tempting as it can be to wallow in the past – especially when the past represents a less complicated, happier time – holding on to the past only retards our ability to live in the present or to make progress towards our future.
No matter how sweet – or painful – the past is, sometimes the best thing you can do is just let go and let the current take you.