Watching People Watch the Watchmen

I enjoyed the Watchmen film more than I thought i would, seeing it with friends who'd never read the book but were able to respond to the larger themes. But ye gods, keep the general audience away from this thing that we love. Our local theater felt compelled to print out a sign warning customers that this is not a "superhero" film like they're used to, and I've already had students complain after the fact that they didn't understand the story or were disturbed by the content. I'll show you "school improvement" as soon as you outlaw parents-- who are these people that take an underage child to see the R-rated Watchmen? Probably the same parents that complain (never to my face) about my PG-13 World History class.

Harlan Ellison used to talk about "the fan sneer", that peculiar expression on a connoisseur's face when everyone on the subway starts reading The Lord of the Rings, or drinking an obscure wine that you discovered, or quoting from a cult film. On the one hand you're pleased that something of value has found a wide audience; on the other hand, when the mob jumps into the pool, they inevitably start pissing in it. Now everyone can plop down a few bucks to see the film version of Alan Moore's The Watchmen, including those who can't read or don't read, which sadly includes the director.
I thought the performances were perfect, and visually it's a panel-for-panel recreation of Dave Gibbons art-- Hollywood's problem is that set designers and special effects artists have outpaced its writers and directors by twenty years, giving us gorgeous films without souls. Jackie Earle Haley is a wonderful Rorschach, despite the cuts made in his part and Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg is a revelation in an emotionally complex but less showy, and therefore more complicated role to play. This could have been Adam West as Batman, and instead Wilson's humanity, contrasted with John Osterman's perfection, has us rooting for Dan all the way. Malin Ackerman has been unjustly criticized as eye-candy-- Sally and Laurie Jupiter represent the pin-up girl archetype, just as Rorsharch is the paranoid (Batman or the Shadow without funds), Adrian the genius, Eddie the murderous "patriot", John the Superman and Dan the high tech millionaire adventurer. It's not Ackerman's fault that Laurie Jupiter's emotional development was cut down to the one big scene when she puts together the circumstances of her birth. In the novel, Laurie figures it out for herself; in the movie, she can't do it without magical help from Osterman.
Visually gorgeous, and the actors put their hearts into it. But the director, Zach Snyder, is tone-deaf. The publicity mill keeps calling him a "visionary genius", but even Snyder knows the visions were piggybacked on someone else's hard work.

The problem is that whenever the director deviates from Moore and Gibbon's text, his additions are immature and gross. Snyder represents that part of Hollywood that panders to 15 year old misanthropes. He has no aesthetic common sense.
Snyder's Nixon wears a caricature nose. He rewrites jokes and blows the punchline. Violence in the film is drawn out from a panel or two to splatterporn in loving slow motion. Instead of Sally Jupiter scrabbling on the floor in ugly desperation to escape her rapist, Carla Gugino is bent aesthetically over a pool table, attempted rape as a Helmut Newton fashion spread. Snyder's film of 300, for all its fascist silliness, homoeroticism made palatable to an American audience, had a few genuinely beautiful images, but all of them based on Frank Miller and Lynn Varley's drawings-- and Snyder added a rape scene to that.
When it comes to Rorschach's murder of the pedophile, the text has Rorschach handcuffing the villain and then setting the place on fire; we've already had our dose of horror by contemplating the off panel death of the victim. In the film, we're treated to Rorschach whacking at a prop head of the criminal with a meat cleaver. I've come to expect this from Hollywood, something to make the Roman mobs squeal "ew, gross!", but it's as obtrusive, gross and laughable as the cock-blocking voice singing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" during Dan and Laurie's sex scene. "Was offered Swedish love and French love-- but not American love. American love; like Coke in green glass bottles. They dont make it anymore."
Snyder's lip-licking violence, including two, count 'em, two slo-mo kung fu scenes for Laurie and Dan, leave no room for things like Rorschach's soliloquy as he watches the pedophile's factory burn: "Stood in firelight, sweltering. Bloodstain on chest like map of violent new continent. Felt cleansed. Felt dark planet turn under my feet and knew what cats know that makes them scream like babies in night. Looked at sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us. Streets stank of fire. The void breathed hard on my heart, turning it's illusions to ice, shattering them. Was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world. Was Rorschach. Does that answer your questions, Doctor?"

Only part of that speech survives. Snyder makes the climax of the story unrecognizable, and judging from my friends reaction, incomprehensible. After washing our face in gore, he wimps out and cuts Laurie's horrified reaction to New York streets filled with corpses, mass murder for the greater good. Instead we're looking at a big computer generated hole. I've no problem with filmmakers editing a work, but shouldn't they follow an artistic Hippocratic oath, and first do no harm?
This isn't a fanboy's plaint-- hell, I'd cut Hamlet or Macbeth for length-- but why are so many people who rise to this level in Hollywood-- the task of presenting a cultural touchstone to a mass audience-- have to be so tone-deaf?


Johnny Danger said...

I have kind of been waiting for your comments on this before I see it. That and it's fucking Egypt, so it is an all day goddamn affair (getting to the theater, finding that it was there, but no longer. Finding another theater. Maybe calling, if there's a phone number... You get the idea). I don't want to waste my time.

What had (has) me worried is precisely your concern. Subtract, fine. Fine. Add? Add to a fucking masterpiece? That is like adding a little more nose to the Mona Lisa (and no, I don't mean this in a "Jews control Hollywood" sort of way. It's 2009 for Christ's sake. But if that is what you thought, well fuck you then, and maybe I did mean it that way. Live with it).

The rule should be: never add. Ever. Anything at all. Ever.

Unfortunately, the film will also be edited (censored) for content here. This means that the (mind-numbingly fucktarded) censors will leave in all the added cheese and take out anything that makes us think. So, basically, there is no way for me to see this film in Egypt and enjoy it, aside from getting plastered beforehand so that I might remember fewer details the next day.

Thanks for the review. Cheers.

PS - The "word verification" thingo was "goutch." I like this new word just about as much as I like George Carlin's (may God rest his immortal soul) name for a feminine hygiene spray: "scrunt."


Jef said...

This is all true. And in no portion of the film was Snyder's tone-deafness apparent than in the film's soundtrack. At least in the rest of the film, someone who had never read the books could think, "Wow, this looks amazing! He IS a visionary!" But, of course, he was merely providing an immature recycling of Moore and Gibbons' visuals. The evidence still remains in the soundtrack, however. There's no excuse for this amount of recycling from within the same medium. "Flight of the Valkyries" in the Vietnam scene says it all. Snyder officially has no ideas of his own, except those of "15 year old misanthropes" as you put it. "Add gore! Add slow motion! Style!" I am almost ashamed to have enjoyed the remake of "Dawn of the Dead," but I credit that entirely to screenwriter James Gunn, who is awesome, not Snyder.

CSECooney said...

I'd be one of your friends who had never read the book. I saw it with a few people who were familiar (and one very much more than just "familiar" as you seem to be) with the content. I was entertained -- on overload -- pleased, non-sneering... Except for the roles of the women. All two and a half of them. So sick of there being only two and a half women. In spandex. With more sex than dialogue.

I've heard Patrick Wilson called bland, but I thought his subtlety and excruciating awkwardness and idealism remarkable. But I've seen him in several other things, and knew his merits; I was keen to him. Jackie Earle Haley I'd only ever seen in Little Children. He did not disappoint. He was beautiful and horrid. I wish there had been a female character who was as beautiful and horrid.

If anyone was a bit bland, it was perhaps Ozymandias. Besides, his accent was all over the place. I wasn't sure if it was a foreign actor trying to do American, or an American trying to do foreign. Dialect grew stronger during emotional upheavals, leaving me unsure whether it was choice or lack of control.

Visually splendid... But then I like an ostentatious cheese from time to time.

I kept thinking, Oh, look! That's just like the cover art on some 1930's Sci Fi novel!

Very happily, I might add.

Thanks for this review, too, Michael -- it's always nice to hear what the experts have to articulate.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Hey, Mike. I enjoyed WATCHMEN. But then, I enjoyed THE SPIRIT. I expected to hate THE SPIRIT, knew how badly it conformed to the original Will Eisner version, but I did enjoy it more than I thought. Ando so I figured the same with WATCHMEN, knowing I'd be going with someone who has never read the graphic novel. I was frustrated in many places, but I'm just cynical about every film adaptation these days. I wish I had seen 300, as I wasn't aware of it being Zack Snyder. There are many subtleties the film couldn't portray as the book did, but they blew it on the actors. Ozymandias might as well have been MacCauley Culkin, and wasn't Dan Drieberg supposed to be slightly overweight, something I hardly saw in the film. I wish we could have seen the Segways Moore invented in 1985 when Nite-Owl and Rorshach were in the Antarctic.

So, when I say I enjoyed WATCHMEN, its not saying much. Christ, imagine if Frank Miller had gotten his hand on it.