On this week’s blog post, I’m going with my most bizarre pairing yet. I’m going to cover two films which I love dearly, but only one of which is considered an all-time classic. The other might be considered a cult classic by many, but otherwise might have been forgotten, even though it was only released a few years ago. Today’s films are:
Victor Fleming – The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Edgar Wright – Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010)
I chose to put these two films together for a simple reason. Both films make heavy use of fantasy, to the point where the audience isn’t sure if they are seeing a real world with fantastic qualities, or a fantasy of the main character.
There’s a lot to talk about in both movies, so let’s get into it.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
This film is about…I mean, I know you know, but it’s a style I have to follow. The film centers on Dorothy, a Kansas farm girl who is transported to the magic land of Oz, where she must travel to meet the Wizard in order to get home. Along the way she meets three companions, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, who all have their own requests for the wizard, and they travel together, trying to avoid the Wicked Witch of the West, the antagonist of the film.
Even if you’ve never seen this movie, you know it. The Wizard of Oz came out in 1939, and was rereleased periodically into theaters, which was a common thing back in the day before home video. Eventually, it became a holiday staple, rerunning on special occasions on network television. It became burned into the public consciousness. But there are lots of terrible things that everyone knows about. The special thing about this film is that it’s both incredibly memorable, and an excellent film.
The film opens in Kansas, in sepia tone. Dorothy is coming home from her day, and her dog Toto has gotten into trouble again at Mrs. Gulch’s. She runs around the farm, trying to tell everyone about her day, but no one will listen to her. Her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry are trying to get chicks out of a broken incubator, and the other farm hands are trying to get their work done.
The film uses actors in this Kansas sequence that will appear later as major characters in Oz. It also does a lot of effective foreshadowing. The farmhands play Dorothy’s companions once she gets to Oz, and each of them makes a reference to the character they’ll play later. And of course the villain Mrs. Gulch plays the Wicked Witch of the West.
In the film, Mrs Gulch is bitten by Toto (or at least claims she is), and gets an order from the Sheriff to have him put down. Not one to miss the opportunity to torture a young girl, she arrives in person to take the dog away. But as she rides away, Toto escapes and returns to Dorothy. Dorothy decides the only logical decision is to run away.
She doesn’t get very far before she runs into Professor Marvel, a traveling showman. She explains what she’s doing, and he invites her in to his cart to put on a fortune teller show. He plays it up as if he sees her Auntie Em sick with worry, convincing Dorothy to return home. Unfortunately, a tornado is coming, and Dorothy doesn’t make it home before it begins bearing down on the farm. Auntie Em, Henry and the farmhands have to get into the cellar before Dorothy is found.
Dorothy returns, and tries to get into the cellar, but the door is secured, and no one can hear her shouts. She runs into the house and a window blows out, striking her and knocking her out. We get to one of the most iconic scenes here, where the home is sucked up into the tornado and Dorothy awakens to see parts of her world flying past the window.
The house finally lands, and Dorothy finds a completely new world.
This film(along with Gone With the Wind), helped convince theaters to invest in the technology to display color, and the way it introduced the color was unlike anything done before. The first 20 minutes of the film sets up the backstory in Kansas, and it’s all in a sepia tone monochrome. It’s not grayscale, like audiences would have been used to, it’s got a slight tint of color. But when Dorothy first enters the land of Oz, she walks from the house that’s still in sepia tone, and then walks into a full color world. There are not cuts, the camera just follows Dorothy into this new world.
The shot is so clever, all done practically in camera. Now, the technology would make it easy to have a character transition from grayscale to color. I could do it on my desktop in a few minutes. But in 1939, they painted the inside of the house in sepia toned colors, and had a body double walk into frame who was wearing a dress also in sepia toned colors, and open the door into the full color world, exiting frame just long enough for Judy Garland to walk through the door in a full color dress.
This sequence creates a hard line between the world of Kansas, and the world of Oz. It makes Kansas seem old and boring, while Oz seems wondrous and exciting. And The Wizard of Oz is a perfect showcase for color film. Every moment in Oz is filled with color, and it’s used to perfection. Think about how many elements of the film are associated with color: the yellow brick road, the ruby slippers, and the Emerald City, these are all essential elements of the film. The film married the plot to it’s use of color.
One of the most memorable aspects of the film are the songs, of course. We’ve covered musicals before, but I almost never think of this film as in the genre. Of course it is, but there’s something about the way the songs are incorporated into the story that makes it feel different to me. For example, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is so iconic, but it could be removed from the film without damaging the story. Once we get to Oz though, the songs become more essential. The Munchkins for example, sing every line they have. The music moves from the background to the foreground here. We get the sense that music in Oz isn’t an aside, or an afterthought, but just part of the way they communicate.
We get more evidence of this as we meet Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, who all sing along to the same melody to explain their desires. Scarecrow wants a brain, Tin Man wants a heart, and the Cowardly Lion wants courage.
The physicality of these characters is wonderfully realized. Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow moves as if his joints don’t quite work. He’s always slipping, losing control of his knees, and moves very loosely. Jack Haley as the Tin Man begins as statue, unable to move after rusting. He moves stiffly, even as he dances, slowly gaining more mobility. Bert Lahr as the Lion moves smoothly, like a cat might, but also incorporates the cowardly aspect of his character, hiding and cowering.
Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West has one of the best parts in the film. As Mrs. Gulch, the neighbor who wants to kill Toto, we already hate her, but when she appears as the Wicked Witch, with her green skin, we begin to fear her. This is done both through her own acting, but also the acting of the Munchkins, who she menaces. There’s something so alien about the Wicked Witch. Margaret Hamilton gives her this incredible, unique voice that sends chills up your spine. Her physicality is evident as well, always threatening, always aware of everything around her. She seems invincible and horrible.
The film proceeds as everyone remembers, with Dorothy and her companions traveling to the Emerald City, meeting various obstacles along the way: angry trees and a field of poppies that puts them to sleep. When they get to the Emerald City, they meet more obstacles. Once they get in to see the Great and Powerful Oz, he won’t help them until they defeat the Wicked Witch of the West. The team protests, but they don’t really have a choice and head off to face her.
Dorothy is captured on the way, and the team tries to rescue her. Scarecrow is set on fire, and Dorothy tosses water on him, hitting the witch, which turns out to be her one weakness. She melts, and the team returns to the Emerald City.
Once arrived, Oz tells them that he still can’t help, and the companions argue, until Toto manages to reveal the true Wizard, a man standing behind a curtain, working a machine. Once revealed, he explains that the things they want, they already have, but gives them tokens as representations of the things they desire. He gives the Scarecrow a diploma, the Tin Man a watch shaped like a heart (complete with ticking), and the Cowardly Lion a medal for bravery. For Dorothy, he offers to take her home in the hot air balloon that he arrived in, years ago.
Of course, this doesn’t work out. The balloon is released accidentally after Toto runs away from Dorothy. We believe Dorothy might never get home and she is despondent, but then Glenda the Good Witch appears and explains that the Ruby Slippers can take her home, now that she has learned the lesson that home isn’t a place to run away from, it’s a place to be cherished. She says her goodbyes, and clicks her heels, and she’s reawakens in Kansas, surrounded by Auntie Em and Henry, the farm hands, and Professor Marvel, who looks and acts suspiciously like the Wizard of Oz. She tells them all how happy she is to be back, and finishes the film with the iconic line “There’s no place like home.”
Of course, this is one of the best films of all-time. Revolutionary when it premiered, and unforgettable even now. During this viewing of the film, I really paid attention to what information the film gives us about whether Dorothy was literally transported to the magical land of Oz, or if it was all just a dream.
It turns out, the film lays out a lot of evidence that she’s dreaming the entire time. First off, all the main characters in Oz are played by actors we see in Kansas. The farmhands are Dorothy’s companions, Mrs. Gulch is the Witch, and Professor Marvel is the Wizard. She interacts with all of these people just before she goes to Oz.
In addition, there’s a scene when Dorothy is trapped in the Witch’s lair, when a crystal ball activates, and we see Auntie Em calling out to Dorothy, trying to find her. Dorothy reads it as Auntie Em looking for her while she’s trapped in the land of Oz, but it’s also the kind of thing someone would say if they’d just gotten out of a storm cellar and were looking for their niece.
And of course, when Dorothy returns from Oz, she wakes up safe in her bed, as if she’s been there the whole time.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter if Dorothy was there or just dreamed it, it’s still an amazing movie. But I think it’s interesting to look at scenarios like this, and see what the filmmakers tell us about it.
It’s more interesting to explore the metaphor behind the film. If Dorothy is dreaming, what is motivating her to craft this world? Is it an escape? If it is, it’s quite a difficult world to cast herself in. She’s in constant danger throughout the adventure, and though she has help, her life is often threatened. But I see this as what Dorothy wants. To me, her fantasy here is a metaphor about growing up.
She enters the world, on her own for the first time. She immediately has to begin solving problems. How does she meet people? Is there anyone who can help her? What will she do about the Witch the house landed on? How will she defend herself against the Wicked Witch that appears to avenge her sister?
She ventures out into the world, filled with trepidation, but confident that she’ll find her way. She meets friends and realizes quickly that there is mutual benefit to joining with them. She forms a new family in this new world. I think it’s a common experience for people who have moved to a new city far from their family.
I think whether you’re young or old, it’s natural to imagine how you’ll react to unknown situations in your life. Dorothy has just tried to run away, only to come running home because she fears what has happened to her aunt. In the land of Oz, she also wants to get home, but she must rely on herself, and build her own support system.
This is probably a pretty simplistic reading of the metaphor, but that’s where my head is at right now. Let’s get into the second film.
Scott Pilgrim Vs The World (2010)
This film is about a young Canadian named Scott Pilgrim who meets the girl of his dreams, only to discover that in order to date her, he has to fight her seven evil exes. The film is directed by Edgar Wright, better known for his collaborations with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost with films like Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz among others. This film did not do well when it initially came out, and might not be as well known or treasured as Wright’s other films. Which is a shame, because I think it’s a masterpiece.
The film is based on a graphic novel series, which is heavily influenced by video game culture and references. The film lets us know it’s picking up this thread right away by opening with a Universal logo made out of pixel art and MIDI music. It was so unexpected the first time I saw it, and it really puts you in the right mindset for the film. There’s also a lot of little bits of video game music used as incidental music throughout the film. Keeping with the comic book theme, contextual information is often given in pop-up text boxes, and sounds are generally visualized. For example, in the opening scene, when the doorbell rings we see the words Ding Dong appear in the background. It’s a nice touch, and lays the groundwork for the visual style of the film.
The film opens with Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) telling his bandmates about the high school girl he’s dating, Knives Chau. Stephen Stills, the lead singer/talent, is complimentary, Young Neil, the roadie is impressed, while Kim, the drummer, is horrified. This conversation essentially sets up the interactions between these characters for most of the movie. Kim continually gives Scott a hard time about the decisions he’s making, while Young Neil puts him on a pedestal.
We see the relationship between Scott and Knives early in the film. Knives is played by Ellen Wong. This is her first film and she’s great. She starts with the wide-eyed innocence of a girl with her first boyfriend, and manages to transition into the jilted girlfriend as the film goes on, then finds a happy middle. She goes on a real journey as her character grows up in front of us. I’ve been seeing her pop up more and more lately in different TV shows, and this can only lead to good things.
She clearly idolizes Scott, and can’t believe how lucky she is to have such a talented, mature boyfriend (whether he is or not). Scott, on the other hand, clearly just enjoys being idolized. We learn that he had a bad breakup a year ago, and is still getting over it.
Things get complicated when Scott has a dream about a girl with pink hair, who he later sees in real life, not believing she’s real. He discovers her name is Ramona Flowers and tries to talk to her at a party. We see the difference between her and Knives immediately. When Scott tells a story to Knives about Pac-man, she is fascinated, but when he tells the same story to Ramona, it’s a disaster. Ramona is perpetually unimpressed. Scott is immediately smitten.
Scott Pilgrim is an interesting character. He’s of course the hero, and we’re supposed to root for him, but he’s also kind of a knob. He is completely oblivious to how is decisions affect the people around him, and he’s incredibly selfish. As soon as he meets Ramona and realizes that he can date her, he loses all interest in Knives, but doesn’t have the decency to end things with her promptly, leading to him cheating on her. It’s a pretty heinous act. And the film acknowledges it through a few different characters. Kim, we’ve mentioned, but Scott’s sister Stacy (played by Anna Kendrick) and his roommate Wallace (played by Kieran Culkin) also regularly call him out, but he doesn’t listen.
The supporting cast here is amazing. Anna Kendrick delights in torturing Scott, as we see in a scene when Ramona and Knives show up at a Battle of the Bands that Scott’s band Sex Bob-Omb is playing at. She probes carefully for information, trying to get Ramona and Knives to figure out that they both think they’re dating Scott. And Kieran Culkin as Wallace steals absolutely every scene he’s in. He’s the perfect foil for Scott, as he calls him out when he’s wrong, but also obviously genuinely cares about him, cheering him on when he’s going for the things he cares about.
The dialogue in the film is fast and snappy, and there are a lot of visual gags. One of my favorite recurring gags involves a hat that suddenly appears on Scott’s head whenever anyone mentions his hair. In essence, this is a screwball comedy, which we’ve looked at before. The dialogue is fast and snappy, and the situation is completely ridiculous. I had never thought of this as a screwball comedy before, but it’s all right there.
And then there are the fights. Throughout the film, Scott is accosted by Ramona’s 7 Evil Exes. The fights are staged like Hong Kong action film fights, but also each with a personality of their own. The fights use a lot of visual language from video games, anime, and comic books. The first fight with Matthew Patel devolves into a Bollywood number, while the second fight with action movie star Lucas Lee (played by Chris Evans, pre-Captain America) involves his entire stunt team, and Scott managing to trick him into defeating himself. Trickery is also involved in defeating the third ex, Todd(played by Brandon Routh, formerly Superman), who is dating Scott’s ex-girlfriend who is a vegan, and therefore has mystical mind powers.
This fight happens when Scott’s band opens for his ex-girlfriend Envy’s much more successful band: The Clash at Demonhead. This is one of my favorite sequences in the film. We first see Sex Bob-Omb play, which we’ve seen before, but then The Clash at Demonhead comes on, and we see clearly what has been told to us over and over: Sex Bob-Omb is not very good.
Envy Adams (played by Brie Larson), comes on stage and simply rules the room. This is one of Brie Larson’s early roles, before she became a household name, and before this, she had a music career. It’s clear she had her pick of careers, because she’s stunning here as Envy. She plays the breathy bomb shell to perfection, and we totally understand how superior her band is, and why Scott would still be hung up on her.
Edgar Wright was able to stack the supporting cast with actors just on the cusp of fame. Chris Evans, Brie Larson, Aubrey Plaza, Anna Kendrick, and people who might still make big names for themselves like Allison Pill and Ellen Wong. Of course, Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ramona already had pretty good careers before and since this film. Wright clearly has an eye for talent that served him well in this film. The entire cast knocks it out of the park. Like when we discussed screwball comedies previously, casting is of utmost importance in a film like this. If they cast can’t pull off the timing for dialogue like this, the film isn’t going to work.
In the end, after getting through the other evil exes, Scott faces the final ex, Gideon Graves, a major record producer played by Jason Schwartzman, who has managed to entice Ramona back to him, through the use of a microchip he uses to control her. Scott initially fights him for Ramona because he loves her. He gains the power of love, and a special sword, like a video game character. He is easily defeated and killed. But in true video game fashion, he has another life and tries again, this time fighting Gideon not for Ramona’s sake, but for his own. This time he gains the power of self-respect, and manages to defeat Gideon, with the help of Knives and Ramona.
At the end of the film, he has a choice between Knives and Ramona. Ramona tries to leave, but Knives tells Scott to follow after her. “You’ve been fighting for her this whole time”, she tells him. It’s the perfect end to her arc. She has grown up, moving past her desire to have a boyfriend into a more healthy place, of trying to find the right boyfriend, and knowing that Scott isn’t the right person for her. Scott goes to Ramona and the fly off into the unknown together.
This film has a very personal, important significance to me. When it first came out, my cat had become very ill. Over the course of a couple of months, she got sicker and sicker, and I finally had to put her to sleep. In the midst of this, I was trying to do anything I could to distract myself from the choice I would soon have to make. One day right before I made my decision, I went to see this film on opening day, and for a couple of hours, I was able to forget about all my problems and just enjoy myself. I will always treasure that memory. And soon after, the day I finally had to put her to sleep, I went and saw it again with friends. The film really helped me get through one of the toughest times in my life.
So it’s no surprise I love this film for reasons that go far beyond the quality of the film, but in addition, I see it as an important film. Wright is able to marry the styles of several different forms of media, and it all works together. He combines film language with video games, anime, and comic book language. Each of these adds something important to the film, and makes it entirely unique.
The fantasy world that we see, like in The Wizard of Oz, is again, a metaphor. This time it’s a metaphor for the difficulty of relationships. Scott meets a great woman, and instead of getting the immediate happy ending, he realizes that building a relationship is a lot of hard work, and everyone has baggage. Ramona has clear baggage in the form of her 7 Evil Exes, but Scott also has baggage. His former girlfriend Envy that he’s clearly still dealing with, and Knives, who he got together with because it was easy and made him feel good, but who he neglects. He might not be mature enough to deal with a real relationship at the start of the film. By the end, he’s in a better place and ready to try again. We see this in the final fight, when he returns to fight for his own sake. He apologizes to his band and Kim in particular, who he has hurt. He is growing up, and begins to realize how his actions affect other people. When he earns the power of self-respect, it’s a sign that he has to take care of his own issues before he can be there fully for another person.
Ramona as well, with her 7 Evil Exes defeated behind her, is ready to start fresh as well. In the final fight, she is able to release herself from Gideon’s literal mind control, which is another metaphor for being able to let go of an easy, but ultimately unhealthy relationship.
I can see why the film might not be popular. It moves fast, and is structured in an unexpected way. Scott can also come off as unlikable, along with a lot of the characters, and that might turn someone against the film. But for me, this is Edgar Wright’s best film, and an all-time classic.
The Double Feature
I started by saying this was an odd pairing, and it still is, for sure. But I think it works when you look at it from the right perspective. I went into it looking at how the films used their fantasy world as a metaphor. For Scott Pilgrim vs The World, it’s very clear. For The Wizard of Oz, it’s a bit less clear. That one could use a lot more research from me, but I have to post this sometime.
Films in essence are all metaphor, whether we can see it or not. Every artist that produces a work like this is drawing from things in their own life, things we likely can’t see. They take these experiences, and channel them into the work. If they’re able to translate that effectively into a common human experience, then the film will likely be successful. If the experiences are too narrow, or too specific, audiences might have a hard time relating. Even more challenging is that people change over time. There are certain films that were incredibly important to me when I was younger that mean something totally different to me now. Almost Famous is a good example for me. I watch the movie again every 3-5 years, and each time, the message of the film changes. I’m sure I will cover it eventually and explore those changing meanings.
For me, both of these films are all-time classics, and both subvert convention in order to tell their story in a unique and memorable way. The Wizard of Oz with it’s transition from grayscale to color, among other things, and Scott Pilgrim vs The World with it’s stylistic choices. Edgar Wright has said that Scott Pilgrim is staged like a musical, except that when characters would normally break into song, they fight instead. This draws another parallel between Oz and Pilgrim.
I’m pretty pleased with how these films worked together. It was really enjoyable to revisit both of these films back to back. And once I finished Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, I ended up watching it again before writing this post. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of that one.
My class has begun. It’s all been planned out for a month or so, so there won’t be too many surprises. I just have to show up and execute. I have an AI this summer, which is a huge help. I can focus on teaching and let my AI do the heavy lifting on the administrative aspects of running a class.
My allergies have started to get better, but I’m still having some off days. I planned my class assuming that breathing would not be a given, but so far it hasn’t been too bad. I think I have a good group of students and I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with.
So now we have to look to next week’s set of films. I wanted to get back to films I hadn’t seen before. It’s actually kind of challenging to write about films that I know really well, because I come in with too many preconceived ideas about what to look for. Watching films I’ve never seen before changes that dynamic, and so I pulled a couple off my shelf that I’ve never gotten around to. Next week’s films are:
Charles Vidor – Gilda (1946)
Jules Dassin – Night and the City (1950)
Both of these are noir films, but Gilda is also a Hollywood classic, featuring Rita Hayworth in one of the best entrances in film history. Should be a good time.
See you then.