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Film in Depth: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

18 Jan

 Living in Babylon: Our Yearning for Home (Pt. 1)

by Jeremy “Jerome” Petersen          

When it comes to conversation on movies, most people appear to prefer immediacy–what are the rumors about movie X, which “it” girl will be in the next “it” film, is this movie I haven’t seen yet worth watching, etc. While such discussion is certainly an enjoyable pursuit, it often comes at the expense of long looks at works of art that highlight important cultural concerns. This piece will be an attempt at doing so, and will hopefully highlight some of things that Hollywood is articulating well when they are not trying to find a movie role that actually fits Nicolas Cage


Taking a look back at some of the film and television that I have watched over the last few months as I have dealt with the usual upheaval and angst that comes with moving to a new place, I have been struck by the ways that many of today’s filmmakers express a sense of rootlessness and alienation. While the notion that very few–if any–people live perfectly contented lives is hardly innovative, the ways that the characters in works like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Mad Men, and Up in the Air work out these concerns sheds some light in new ways on what many Americans yearn for and how we try (mostly ineffectively) to achieve it.

In addressing this topic, I must acknowledge some preconceived notions that will hopefully not cause people to discard any of the conclusions I’ll draw here. As a Christian–and not just in the cultural sense–I view history in light of the Biblical grand narrative of creation in perfection and fall through disobedience. We experience this fall through physical decay, a general feeling of rootlessness, and a continual gap between desire and reality, the sort of “quiet desperation” that Thoreau identified in nineteenth-century Americans. That being said, I wouldn’t write this if I thought that I was twisting in any way the three works I’m highlighting; in fact, part of what initially interested me in this topic is how the Mad Men Season One episode “Babylon” expresses this alienation through the Bible’s Psalm 137.

I’ll argue that the film and television highlight the human response to this sense of rootlessness: to seek situations in which we feel at once intimately connected, cared for (not necessarily in the emotional sense), and released from the struggles of everyday life. For the purposes of this piece, I’ll refer to this collection of longings as the search for transcendent belonging, a sort of sustained, joyful connectedness. Even if people don’t quite know how to express what they are looking for (perhaps referring to it as “home” or “rest”), we all recognize on some level that we are lacking something. Popular music like Daughtry’s “I’m Going Home”–amusingly packaged as a “Christian” song on some stations with nothing more than the addition of uplifting string notes–often expresses this. In Daughtry’s case, the singer’s jubilation at going to “the place where I belong / Where love has always been enough for me” glosses over the fact that, if he is “going” there, he is certainly not there yet.

The recent (and underappreciated) film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and based on the series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, deals more self-consciously with this sort of existential homesickness. The protagonist’s last name implies at the outset his rootlessness–he is on a quest for a nebulous sense of place. The details of the plot bear this out. Pilgrim (Michael Cera), 22, is “between jobs at the moment” and obliviously relies on the generosity and forbearance of his friends (and the occasional quarter from his seventeen-year-old girlfriend) for shelter, food, and arcade money; he lives in an apartment with a homosexual roommate (Kieran Culkin) who, as the initial shot of the apartment’s interior humorously shows, owns everything in the place except for Scott’s clothes and “lame” poster; and Scott spends his time–aside from the band practices in which he is only moderately invested–brushing up on his indie credentials by perusing the clothing racks at Goodwill, flipping through CDs at the music store, and playing games at the arcade.

Scott’s response to his situation is perhaps the most instinctive, as he clumsily seeks a serious romantic relationship with the appropriately off-beat Ramona (who, frankly, has little to recommend her other than her dyed hair and vague dark side). Before Scott’s showdown with Ramona’s seven evil exes,

NOT Ex-Boyfriends

what Scott finds attractive about her is represented by an open door that the pair float towards after their first date. While this is associated in the context of the story with Ramona’s apartment, the door, through which the pair enter to escape a snowstorm, represents what Scott is really searching for–a place filled with both literal and relational warmth. The lyrics of the Beachwood Sparks‘ “By Your Side,” most prominent when Scott and Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) first kiss, reinforce this: “Oh, when you’re cold, I’ll be there / Hold you tight to me.” Scott’s first night in Ramona’s apartment–while involving a cup of tea, a warm blanket, and a half-clothed make-out session–is not completely fulfilling, but the promise of it is enough to motivate Scott to fight the League of Evil Exes. Only after defeating them and earning the Powers of Love and Self-respect is Scott able to reach a mature relationship with Ramona. The rather thinly sketched relational growth between the two is apparent almost exclusively through the images of the couple at Ramona’s door that bracket their romantic arc. In the first of these, Ramona leads Scott through the door as Scott is borne away with the hormonal euphoria of a new relationship; in the second, he and Ramona walk calmly through the door on an equal footing, as Scott has realized after seven duels that relationships are just as much about struggle as ecstasy.




Of course, Scott Pilgrim, like most coming-of-age films, prefers a neat conclusion to the rootlessness of youth in the form of a consummated relationship rather than dealing with the messiness of adulthood. What Scott fails to see–and that the more philosophically complex (if less visually stimulating) Mad Men and Up in the Air do–is that what he thinks will bring his life comfort, meaning, and a sense of place will lead to its own problems and ultimately be much less satisfying than he believes. In the next part of this essay (hopefully coming sometime in the next week), I’ll look at some of the ways that Don Draper and Ryan Bingham try to cope with these concerns as established adults.



28 Dec

Guest Review Written by: Jeremy “Jerome” Petersen

True Grit

Rated: PG-13

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Haitee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin

Director: Joel and Ethan Coen

Like most parents of small children, my wife and I take whatever opportunity we get to leave our child in the care of their grandparents and enjoy some time without the cloying sounds of Veggie Tales Christmas in the background. Two nights ago, to take a break from both our child and the bedlam of a house with ten people in it, we went to go see True Grit in the comfort of one of the most luxurious theater experiences around: VIP (21 and over) seating at the Muvico Village 12 in Fredericksburg, VA. (Quick side note: The only reason I was seeing this movie at all was because it was one of only two movies–the other being the unappealing Little Fockers–that had VIP seating available. My wife and I were planning on seeing Black Swan (see Chris and Pac’s “Take Two” review here), but since Muvico moved it from the VIP screens in favor of newer–if not necessarily better–material, my wife insisted that we go see the Coen Brothers’ remake of the John Wayne classic despite the fact that she is an avowed Western hater.) Overall, while the movie itself–though solid–felt somewhat unfulfilling, the combination of True Grit’s sharp dialogue, memorable characters,  understated score, and lack of talkative small children made for an enjoyable evening.

To get this out of the way at the outset, I have not seen the 1969 original (dir. Henry Hathaway) that won John Wayne his only Oscar as Best Actor. Despite that, my view of this remake is influenced heavily by my impressions of John Wayne from other classics like Stagecoach and The Searchers (which I have yet to get Chris to watch).

True Grit tells the story of the sharp-tongued girl Mattie Ross (Haitee Steinfeld) who hires the alcoholic U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down her father’s killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and bring him to justice. As the title suggests, the movie is more about the two main characters than about the plot itself. In fact, the plot by the end is rather subsidiary to Rooster’s redemption and the bond formed between Mattie and Rooster. The main strength of the film–as one would hope in a character-driven film–is the characters. Despite the presence of Oscar-winner Bridges, who seems to play an 1880s version of Dude Lebowski at points, Haitee Steinfeld dominates the screen from the outset until just before the end with her portrayal of Mattie. Rarely at a loss for words, Mattie virtually always has the verbal upper hand, engaging in stinging repartee with every character who stands in the way of her goal of settling her father’s affairs and avenging his death. That Steinfeld–who does not look a day over her character’s fourteen years–is able to so convincingly play a rather unrealistic character is deserving of the Best Supporting Actress nomination buzz she has been receiving. Mattie and Cogburn are assisted in their search for Chaney by the rather foppish Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). Given that most Westerns venerate LaBoeuf’s outfit and Texans in general, that the Ranger is the butt of most of the film’s jokes for his Texas origins is one of the more comical elements of the film. Bridges is adequate in filling Wayne’s impossibly large shoes as Rooster Cogburn. While I don’t think anyone else around could have played the part any better (unless maybe Sean Connery could come out of retirement and learn a passable Western accent), Cogburn, until the very end of the film, comes across as somewhat cartoonish, amusing dialogue notwithstanding. Bridges may be able to deliver quips well, but he cannot bring the same presence and gravity to the film that Wayne provides.

In terms of the construction of the film, the cinematography seems rather understated, and the camera–with the exception of a shootout in the Indian territory and Cogburn’s redemptive sequence–does not insist on itself to the viewer. While landscapes are often a character of sorts in Westerns, the Coens employ very few of the long and very long establishing shots used to show off the unforgiving landscape in most Westerns and even in their recent Western No Country for Old Men. The score, composed by Carter Burwell, is the only element of the film from which I felt a distinct, though gentle, artistic insistence. Consisting of simple piano and string variations on the venerable hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” the music imbues the film with an undeniable sense of nostalgia, comparable to the effect of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on Ken Burns’s Baseball documentary. The moving nostalgic tilt both softens and complicates some of the film’s more violent scenes.

While there is much to like about the parts of the film, the sum of the movie is somewhat lacking. Oddly, despite the 110-minute running time, the film felt like it could have used another 10-15 minutes before the climax to make the transition between Cogburn’s lowest point and his redemption feel less abrupt. Perhaps this sense comes from the large amount of time that the Coens took to establish Mattie and, to a lesser extent, Rooster’s character before the primary action of the film.

Rooster Cogburn before redemption.


With the exception of the opening sequences with Mattie and Rooster, many of the following scenes–while enjoyable–feel somewhat underdeveloped as a whole. While the Coen Brothers are famous for films with the sort of (often literally) messy endings that make the viewers, like J.K. Simmons’ CIA character in the Coens’ Burn After Reading, ask, “What’d we learn, Palmer?” (to which the only appropriate reply can be “I don’t know, sir”),  the underdevelopment of the plot and the film’s ambivalent ending feels somewhat less organic than in some of the Coens’ other films (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men to name a few).

Much of the early reaction to news of True Grit’s production (including this blog in this August post), before anyone really saw it, was that the film, attempting to remake a classic and an iconic actor’s part in it, was unnecessary. However, the Coens clearly feel otherwise, and the reason for it may be in the nostalgia they feel for what Wayne represents. Joan Didion refers to Wayne in her essay “John Wayne: A Love Song” as a “mold” into which was poured “the inarticulate longings of a nation wondering at just what pass the trail had been lost.” The insistent score, evoking the hymn’s praise for everlastingly strong arms, yearns for this sort of classic American anti-hero–thoroughly flawed but ultimately dependable and ruthless in his defense of those he holds dear–that Wayne played in much of his later career. If the Coens see the inescapably violent world of No Country for Old Men as an accurate depiction of modern America, perhaps they see men like Rooster Cogburn as the only way in these times to achieve justice and security for those not strong enough to get if for themselves. After all, Mattie, for all of her pluck and wit, would not be able to survive her mission without Rooster’s intervention.

Ultimately, while this movie is not among the top five films of the year or the Coens’ career, it is well worth watching, if for nothing more than the memorable characters and faint, poignant echoes of John Wayne’s greatness.

  • Characters: A-
  • Cinematography: B
  • Directing: B+
  • Plot: B
  • Performances: A-

Mad Men Season Four Wrapup

20 Oct

As some of you know from reading my article 3 Tv Shows I Can’t Get Enough Of Watching, Mad Men is one of my favorite shows on television. The character driven storyline, beautiful production, and superb acting have garnered many deserved Emmy Awards and its complexities and subtleties are far beyond my limited, satirical writing capabilities. So, to do justice to the greatness that is this show, I am turning over the pen to a higher scholar, my brother, Jerome (or if you want to use his Christian name, Jeremiah….or Jeremy).

Jerome Petersen


Written by: Jeremy Petersen

Before I launch into this piece, a brief note on its scope. There is a great deal that I could write about here from the season finale of Mad Men. Aside from the major event of the episode, Don’s engagement, Betty attempts to get a fresh start with her family in a new town, continuing a pattern of somewhat misguided–if not unwarranted–behavior that began with her divorce from Don; viewers get proof validating the theories of many that Joan never aborted her baby; the ad agency makes important strides towards recovery; and Peggy and Joan’s conversation regarding Don’s engagement reintroduce the concerns of women in the workplace. However, as Don is the central character and his engagement the dominant storyline in this episode, I will focus primarily on him and his engagement here.

 This season of AMC’s Mad Men opened with the intriguing question “Who is Donald Draper?” Throughout the season, Don (Jon Hamm) has been at points vulnerable and introspective–particularly in the brilliant episode “The Suitcase”–and at others pitiable and discomfiting, such as his disastrous liaison with his previous secretary Allison and his bender after receiving the Clio award. Sunday’s episode, “Tomorrowland,”  reintroduces the confident Don Draper, but not in a way that sweeps aside the complicating revelations regarding Don’s character.

 The final episode of this season does not so much reveal new facets of Don’s character as review more explicitly what we have learned and look at what Don chooses to do with what he has learned. We see clearly his rededication to his children (though he never interacts with his youngest son, Gene); we see his impulsiveness–previously apparent in his full-page anti-tobacco manifesto and his departure from Sterling-Cooper at the end of last season–in his proposal to Megan (Jessica Paré), his latest secretary, after a brief heady trip to California; we see that Don is still uncomfortable with who he is. Earlier in the season, Don reflected on his nature, worked to blunt some of his (self-)destructive tendencies, and agonized over how to deal with his past life as Dick Whitman; in this episode Don’s choice to unceremoniously jettison the perceptive psychologist Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono) in favor of Megan exemplifies his choice of  ease and immediate pleasure over authenticity and a clear conscience.

Certainly the most discussed aspect of this episode will be Don’s unanticipated and impetuous decision to marry his secretary. Admittedly, both I and my wife were shocked when he pulled out Anna’s engagement ring (I even floated the ridiculous theory that the scene was a Lost-esque flash-forward, and that it only set the scene for a Season Five that showed how Don got to that point); however, Don’s choice–if not necessarily his timing–makes sense in light of his current relationship with Dr. Miller and his previous marriage to Betty (January Jones). Dr. Miller is in essence too good for Don. She is smart, principled, and encouraging–she tries to help Don be a better man. Executive producer Matt Weiner left numerous clues that their relationship would not last. Aside from the fact that much of their relationship revolved around business, that Don slept with Megan during an uncertain point in his time with Dr.Miller, and that, like Betty, Faye is blonde (virtually all of Don’s long-term extramarital partners have dark hair), Dr. Miller plays the mother to Don’s wounded child, an imbalance exemplified in the opening scene of the episode when Dr. Miller makes sure that Don gets up for his flight. A man like Don who finds satisfaction in being in charge could never be in that position for long.

Viewers likely legitimately ask what Don sees in Megan aside from her youth and physical beauty. Most of the answers center around the way that she makes Don feel (at least according to him). While Dr. Miller encouraged Don to challenge himself, Megan is content with who Don is now, that he has, as she says, “a good heart and…[is] always trying to be better.” Similarly, Don does not have to challenge Megan as he did Betty. Megan, as she showed earlier in the season when handling Sally, is comfortable with Don’s children (unlike Faye or Betty). When Megan calmly responds to a milkshake spilled as a result of a sibling spat, Don at first appears befuddled, and then amused that she doesn’t explode as Betty certainly would. She gives him the opportunity to feel in charge, as the scene where Don proposes reverses the relationship dynamics of the opening scene. Despite the differences in age and position, the camera attempts to give the viewer a sense of relationship balance in the shot the morning following their first liaison in the California hotel, showing from a vertical view a pair of lovers facing each other in near-perfect symmetry.

 That near-perfection is ultimately what is rather off-putting about Don’s choice to both viewers and more critical characters like Peggy and Joan. He has neatly avoided having to deal with his past for the sake of immediate comfort. This is certainly different,

And as Veronica from Better off Ted would say, "By different, I mean better."

than his other one-night stands and immature relationships earlier in the season that Don attempts to numb himself with, but Don’s statement that Megan makes him happy shows that he is not being particularly circumspect about his motives. In an earlier season, Don made a point of calling Roger Sterling “a fool” for a marriage to a secretary for purportedly similar reasons. The closing scene of the season makes clear that Don has still not found peace: His eyes are wide open while Megan sleeps, and the closing shot of the darkened window subtly reinforces the motif of entrapment and tension present for Don throughout the series.

Not surprisingly, Faye has the most perceptive comment regarding Don’s character in light of his engagement. As Don breaks up with her over the phone, Faye exclaims that she hopes Megan knows he “only like[s] the beginnings of things.” This comment provides a link between the ending of this season and the last, as Don’s push to break with Sterling-Cooper led to a heady euphoria similar to that caused by his engagement. While initially exhilarating, the new agency that came from that decision has thus far led to its share of unanticipated business and personal headaches that Don has struggled to deal with. His engagement–in some ways an answer to his problems at the agency–and future marriage will almost be more complicated than Don imagines at this point. Since Don, through his Gatsbian self-razing and reinvention, is representative of the American character, Don’s choice and Faye’s analysis of it have clear implications (the extent of which are another topic) that apply to the contemporary American mindset, both individually and collectively.

Like the end of last season, viewers are left with an optimistic uncertainty regarding the future of Don and his agency. Don is getting engaged, but those around him–and viewers as well, most likely–are ambivalent or even cynical about his motives and prospects. There is light at the end of the tunnel for the agency through the acquisition of the Topaz pantyhose account and encouraging interactions with the American Cancer Society, but the minimal immediate benefits from the work hardly fill the void left by Lucky Strike. As Mad Men proceeds into late 1965 and beyond, the subversive undercurrent commonly associated with the 1960s and the Vietnam War, both previously only hinted at, will likely take center stage for many of the characters. Whether the semblance of domestic comfort and stability that Don has grasped at through his engagement will enable him to weather the coming cultural and personal storms remains to be seen.