March 7th, 2009

Zetsubo Sensei

Dreams of Assassination and Creation

Another dream last night--in this one, I'd gone to live with a woman in a gaudy bright yellow and red house. She was never around, so I pretty much had the place to myself, and one day I started noticing scraping sounds and footsteps just outside. This was followed by daily discoveries of small handwritten notes threatening my life. So I started carrying a rifle with a scope whenever I went out, and when one day someone started shooting at me, I shot back at my attacker killed him. Instead of walking up the hill to where the guy's body lay, I ignored it and continued home, figuring the less attention I gave to the incident, the better.

I saw Zack Snyder's adaptation of Watchmen last night. It was almost exactly what I thought it would be, which is not to say I thought it was a bad movie. Even having seen it, I feel curiously unqualified to assess it, mainly because Snyder's style, which most people find beautiful and innovative, seems to me unremarkable at best and distracting at worst. The cinematography, which Roger Ebert praises in his review, seems muddy and lazy to me, at times borrowing directly from the comic, and at other times simply almost completely draining the palette of colour. This is a better adaptation of an Alan Moore comic than any that's come before, primarily because Zack Snyder managed to minimise his presence better than anyone else, but the stylistic decisions he had inevitably to make detracted, for me, substantially from the film.

But surely, you may say, Snyder's technique of speeding up and slowing down the footage at key moments, of focusing on the blood spilling out from the face at the impact of a punch, surely that gave you an impressively visceral impression of the violence.

Before I respond, I ask that you be sure you've seen this;

That's a scene I find very effective. Obviously, Snyder took a lot from it. But he missed something very important, and something rather crucial for Watchmen--the human vulnerability of the fighters. The Raging Bull style is mixed oddly with the fighting style of Matrix and Sin City, the latter film about revelling in continuous, improbable violence, and the former about long, dance-like sequences of flurries of punches. In both cases, we understand the violence as artificial and being conducted between beings who would be superhuman by real world standards.

But things happen in Watchmen that depend on recognition of the characters' truly human vulnerability. So when a scene switches abruptly from patently artificial fighting to what are supposed to be undeniably credible suppressions of the fighters, it feels completely arbitrary. Things don't happen because the story's convinced me they would naturally lead there, but because the script has dictated it. What this means is, something like Rorschach's unmasking, which was gut-wrenching in the comic, just feels like another item of development in the movie, catalogued and noted. Also, the scene of prepubescent Rorschach attacking two teenage boys feels tremendously artificial and merely funny, rather than giving you any real impression of Rorschach's frightening capacity for violence in the real world.

In the comic, yeah, I could sort of imagine the kid taking the two older kids through sheer tenacity and by taking advantages of their limited imaginations. But in the movie, the choreography obviously employs some artificial lift on the kid's sneakers and some complicity from the older boys. However, although Dr. Manhattan is supposed to be the only Watchman with superpowers, even in the comic the other characters are capable of fighting that's virtually unattainable in real life. The difference, perhaps, is in the innocence of the mid-1980s comic that people like that could exist. The audience is too cynical for that now.

I often had the impression that the people sitting around me were seeing an artefact from another world of artistic conceits than they'd never considered before. Maybe that is a good thing.

The other problem with Snyder's style I had was in his compulsion to punch up the emotion in many instances. I think a lot of filmmakers might think that to-day's audiences aren't capable of reacting emotionally to things unless they're very explicitly led to those emotions, which may be a fair point, as, during the rape scene there was inevitably one pleased sounding guy in the audience who said "Yeah", reminding me of the men in the audience who'd vocalised their pleasure during 300's rape scene. I don't think these men are necessarily rapists, or would become rapists. I think it's more likely a case of to-day's rampant, insecure machismo that prevents a lot of young men from sympathising with young women under the fear of being seen as weak. Of course, Snyder's unrealistic style also does nothing to impress viewers with the reality of what's going on onscreen. In addition to this, the punching up of emotion in early scenes of the Comedian probably left quite a few people exhausted, as slow motion and music ask us to care about the major problems of someone we barely know.

One of Alan Moore's objections to the comic being turned into a movie was, "With a comic, you can take as much time as you want in absorbing that background detail, noticing little things that we might have planted there. You can also flip back a few pages relatively easily to see where a certain image connects with a line of dialogue from a few pages ago. But in a film, by the nature of the medium, you're being dragged through it at 24 frames per second."

One could say much the same thing in terms of the contrast between prose and film. One of the tasks of the person adapting a work from comic or prose to film is knowing how to pace it, knowing where to linger, and knowing where the audience wants to process the information quickly. Early in the comic, I don't remember having the intense sympathy for the Comedian that Snyder evidently desired to convey early in the movie, so much of that business was lost on me. I'm not saying a read of Watchmen that sympathises with the Comedian more is wrong, but rather that the book allows us both to experience it either way, while the movie staples it down, in the wrong place from my perspective. Though maybe not from everyone's.

There are a lot of smaller things I didn't like. That the cops didn't shout homophobic slurs at Rorschach while beating him missed the opportunity to ironically contrast Rorschach's own homophobia with the reality that he is at least as much of a deviant in society's eyes--this is a change perhaps resulting from Snyder's more right wing sensibilities that were displayed more prominently in 300. The catastrophe at the end of the movie was changed to only address part of the original content of the comic's ending, losing the more textured manipulation of humanity's horror and perception of perversion. The lack of most of the prose content was one of many aspects that deprived the movie of the comic's scope and also lost the relationship of the heroes' compulsions with the fundamental and natural human perversity of the mechanic wearing the fake breasts. The reaction of general humanity to the Watchmen is almost totally invisible.

The most effective parts of the movie involved Dr. Manhattan. By retaining much of his dialogue, and Billy Crudup's performance, his otherworldliness was perhaps easiest to translate for its strangeness.

There's stuff in the movie that I can see being genuinely elevating for the audience, a real, valuable artistic experience. This is a movie for the people who skip the prose sections of the comic. This is a movie for a larger group of people than the comic's readership, a group with a shorter attention span. With any luck, maybe it'll be the first step in broadening the attention spans of a lot of people.

I didn't like the movie, but Zack Snyder didn't make it for me. He didn't make it for Alan Moore, either, and what should we make now of Alan Moore's desire that this movie should not exist? Perhaps it's reflected in the comic's theme of good things coming from bad things. Whatever affection Moore has for his own work, whatever effort he put into it, these things have been deemed irrelevant by the world, and the world has moved on. Moore has no say in how the things he values are treated, but isn't that just the way? I still reserve the right feel sad about it.

I watched the fourth episode of Battlestar Galactica's fourth season last night. I guess Baltar's Jesus now. Well, it's been building up to it for a while. It's kind of fun. Still no-one's noticed the two dead guys. Callie sure was lucky people noticed she died. Even the president was at her funeral--not too shabby.
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