Sunday, March 22, 2009

Watchmen (2009)

I was not in that group of comic book readers blown away by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen in 1986. In fact, by the time I was reading comics and watching movies critically, the bitter, reflective mode of the book had already permeated the superhero ethos, and its revolutionary aspects had been re-integrated into the texts it rebelled against. Even the animated Batman of the early 90's, my own foundational text in this genre, wouldn't have existed without this attitude, even if on the surface it was the stuff of Saturday mornings. When I finally read it a few months ago, it seemed more shocking in its use of pink and bright green than its philosophy, and I suspected the impact had been diluted by everything that had come after, along with my own visual preferences.

I was not, however, prepared for the travesty director Zack Snyder made of it that I saw last night.

However ridiculous (and racist, and homophobic) I found Snyder's 300, most of what I objected to in the film was present in Frank Miller's comic. I didn't like how it looked, either, but shiny computer graphics and faster-than-the-eye-can-see fight sequence editing are something I live with nearly every time I see a modern Hollywood film, and I just sound more curmudgeonly and bitter every year. Watchmen had that, too, and I was prepared. What I was not prepared for was the sheer disconnectedness of the text and the presentation, which impressed itself upon me within minutes.

Is it a spoiler to say that the Zapruder film recreation nestled in the credits was one of the most tasteless things I have ever witnessed, JFK's assassination writ large upon an IMAX screen for the cheapest of shots at one of the main characters? The scene was presented with no more nor less fanfare than the recreation of the famous WWII photo of the sailor kissing the nurse, substituting Silhouette for the sailor (who we can see heading off another direction in the background). What's most astonishing to me is not so much the audacity of the decision as the filmmakers' apparent inability to see the difference between the two appropriations. Both have the same gleeful, detail-oriented “because we can” attitude about them, and even if our emotions are meant to be manipulated in slightly different directions, the intent of both is clearly to titillate.

This lack of thought permeates the entire film, from the soundtrack to the fight sequences. For a film that's about recreating a beloved comic in painstaking detail (when convenient or showy), it's astonishingly unaware of what the comic is about. One would hope, in other words, that the makers of a movie about the depravity of modern society would take some care not to directly contribute to same. Instead, we are simultaneously lectured about standing by and letting violence happen and shown endless slow-motion frames of compound fractures rendered in loving, hyper-real, computer-generated detail. It's pornography, and it's exactly the sort of thing Rorschach would be combating. I'm hardly holding him up as an example to be followed, and neither am I condemning pornography. But they don't belong together, and what is more, I cannot sense the tiniest bit of intelligence behind the decisions that went into the making of this film. There's a fine line between demonstrating your point and subverting it, but Snyder doesn't seem to even admit it exists, let alone have the ability to walk it.

The argument can (and will) be made that Watchmen is just entertainment, and maybe that's a whole different essay. This isn't about violence in the media, however, but rather the direct subversion of a film's text by its presentation. Unless this is done intentionally, it just seems like bad filmmaking. Certainly the soundtrack plays like My First Mixtape, with no comprehension either that anyone has heard of Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan before or that just because a song is cool, it may not be appropriate for any given scene. This is minor compared to my other complaint, of course, but anyone who thinks that Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah” is appropriate for the awkward sex it's set to is just not thinking. And all of this together weakens the impact the film ought to have. Watchmen should be entertaining, true. There should be violence and sex. But it shouldn't work against the idea that there is a moral contradictions inherent in the very activity of masked vigilantism.

There were things I liked about the film, but most of those were in the comic, too. I find the characters of Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan very compelling, and they were realized well enough by their actors (though I object to the fakey Batman voice of Rorschach—why would he have to disguise his voice if no one knows who he is?--and the bad computer rendering of many of Manhattan's facial expressions). Everyone on screen was, at the very least, very game. The one music cue I enjoyed was a Muzak version of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” at an opportune moment, because it was both subtle and ridiculous. But the voyeuristic glee with which the violence was carried out worked against my enjoyment of the movie—call me a fuddy duddy, but I'd have appreciated it more if I could have sensed some condemnation behind, say, the graphic incineration of Vietnamese soldiers instead of an empty “look what we can do.” I do not get the sense that we're supposed to be horrified. Everything is so shiny, and at the same time so removed, that in the end I don't see how the film (with the help of others which have come before) can help but put us in some approximation of Dr. Manhattan's position: unable to relate to these figures as anything but effects, and only theoretically able to appreciate human life as we see it on screen.

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