From the Archives: Scott Pilgrim, Detention, and the Dawn of Kinetic Cinema

From the Archives: Scott Pilgrim, Detention, and the Dawn of Kinetic Cinema

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally published at Cinema76

In 2010, Edgar Wright unleashed Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to mostly positive reviews. Based on the faux-manga series of the same name, Scott Pilgrim was the comic book movie that wasn’t. It features a career best performance from Michael Cera, a supporting cast of talented young darlings, and an original soundtrack of neo-garage rock that puts “Scotty Doesn’t Know” to the shame it deserves. Yes, you heard me correctly: Euro Trip is garbage. Scott Pilgrim, however, is as far from garbage as it comes, and I submit that if we fast forward another ten years or so, people will be regarding it as a seminal film in regards to the way movies are presented. In 2012, Joseph Kahn unleashed Detention into the world to mostly negative reviews. Kahn, directing from a script that he wrote, created a kind of punk rock Scott Pilgrim. With an equally talented cast of young, fresh faces, including Josh Hutcherson (better known as Pizza-or-something from The Hunger Games), Detention somehow never received a wide release (or even any press, for that matter). This is upsetting, because I feel that Detention should be held to the same regard as Scott Pilgrim, even if it isn’t currently poised to make as big a cinematic impact.

So what is it about these two films that make them so stylistically similar? So cinematically important? Both are at the forefront of a new filmic style I like to call ‘Kinetic Cinema.’ If one were inclined to put an artsy fartsy spin on it, it could be called ‘The Cinema of Motion.’ A little much, I agree, but taken literally, it is a spot-on description. Of course, all cinema, with the exception of maybe La Jetée, is about motion. That’s why they’re called movies. What makes these two films so particularly kinetic is their ability to stuff the frame full of information and flash without sacrificing the clarity of the story — moreover, using said flash to bolster the story.

Both Scott Pilgrim and Detention take place in hyper-stylized worlds, the former occurring in a live-action video game, the latter in what seems like a hormonal teenager’s MTV-inspired day dreams. When a story exists in such an intense fantasy world, the filmmaker has two options. Option A is to use some form of exposition to explain the rules and regulations of the universe. Option B is to trust the viewer to infer the boundaries of the film’s reality using context. The problem with option A is that it violates a cardinal rule of filmic story telling: show, don’t tell. Whereas some cleverly disguised dialogue or a background newscast with the volume cranked can indeed help a filmmaker build his/her world, it usually comes off as clunky. Option B, on the other hand, automatically makes the world feel a little more real, a little more lived-in. By allowing the audience to do a portion of the heavy lifting, they become a part of the world rather than just witnesses. Both Wright and Kahn seem to have faith in their audience, something that the blockbuster waved bye-bye to long ago. This is a grand pleasantry. It’s nice to feel respected.

So yes, a strong script is key, as it is for every movie. Certainly a cast who “gets what you’re going for” can make a filmmaker’s task that much easier, as well, but what makes Scott Pilgrim so influential (and hopefully Detention if you chuckleheads give it a shot) is what happens in post. In the case of Scott Pilgrim there are visual and auditory bells and whistles attached to every shot. When Scott makes a particularly mature decision, he ‘levels-up’, complete with on-screen score bonuses and theme music. When Scott and his roommate are having a pithy dialogue, their conversational beats are punctuated by the Seinfeld theme and bursts of canned laughter. In perhaps my favorite gag of the movie, Scott’s roommate answers the door to a potentially uncomfortable guest, and in the background we see Scott (well, a very obvious stunt double for Scott) go diving out of the window. At no point does this overtly physical gag delay the story, and taken in context, it says so much more about Scott’s character than having him say “If it’s so and so, I’m not home.'”

Similarly, Detention crams excessive information on each an every frame but, as I said before, does so in a more brash, punk rock fashion. As characters talk to one another, and sometimes directly to the audience, in-frame animations and graphics function as a PowerPoint presentation of what they are discussing. Sure, this is a cheater’s mix of show and tell, but it works with the story because this is how these characters view themselves — as the spokesperson for their lifestyles. As the story unfolds, more sci-fi elements are incorporated, and any information we need to roll with the (truly) crazy narrative is presented on screen with all of the hormonal intensity of doodles scrawled in the margins of a high schooler’s notebook. It adds a relatable truthfulness to the story despite being patently fantastical. It reminded me of the energy of youth. Energy that I promised myself I wouldn’t forget, but then totally did when life happened. No other movie has ever produced this effect in me, and I love Detention for it.

Kinetic Cinema, in a nutshell, is what exists in the space between movies and music videos; the space between animation and live-action; the space between the genre-blending of Tarantino and the bat-shit insanity of Hausu, where everything — visuals, soundtrack, acting, scene construction, and post production are cranked to excess, but the final package maintains the narrative sensibility of even the most straight-forward films. It’s Airplane by way of Crank. It’s Synechdoche, New York by way of Kung Fu Hustle. Kinetic Cinema feels alive, without feeling gregarious. It feels cocky without being aggressive. Most of all, it feels like real life, even though it can only be a movie.

Go watch Scott Pilgrim again. Go check out Detention for the first time (like it or not, it merits multiple views. It’s currently streaming on Netflix — You have no excuse!). If the cinematic landscape is as awesome as I wish it to be, Kinetic Cinema will take hold (this year’s wonderful Wetlands is proof that it has already), and Edgar Wright and Joseph Kahn will be recognized as it’s progenitors.

Know of any other movies that could be branded as Kinetic Cinema? Let me know in the comments! Let’s discuss.

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