Sunday, March 08, 2009

Watchmen (spoilers)

I teach my students MacBeth in my ENG201: Writing about Literature class, and I always like to play one movie in every class I teach -- it is a great morale booster and a much needed break in the middle of the term. I have many options with MacBeth, including a stripped down no frills Ian McKellen and Judy Dench on that is two hours and 45 minutes long. I have Throne of Blood, which is a seriously good movie and has a multi-culti advantage. I know Polanski's MacBeth is taken quite seriously, but when I played it I have to admit that I was a little bored, even though I knew better -- something about it felt over-long, over-serious. It lacked a certain punchiness. I teach my students that the study of literature should primarily be fun; my students find Polanski fun primarily because they seem to enjoy the hell out of his person back-story, being interested in all things lurid. (At their age they consider the huge number of horror movies coming out all year round to be just, you know, life, and not a product of a post 9-11 culture). But at the end of the day I always come back to this 2006 Austrailian movie that plays MacBeth as a kind of modern gang war with these guys with machine guns. This version of MacBeth cuts a lot of important scenes out, and the acting is not always great as they play it like a soap opera; a lot of the important lines and speeches, while there, kind of get drowned out in the bombast, and it is shameless -- playing the witches not as ugly hags but as goth school-girls who get sexy topless (as opposed to the gross toplessness of Polanski's). Some of Shakespeare's thematics get lost too -- you can hear them in the speeches, but lines, for example, in which MacBeth says he cannot kill Duncan because the angels will plead for him are too silly in the context of a criminal empire. But I have to admit I enjoy its trashiness: say what you want about the thing but at least it has energy, at least it knows how to have fun. And Shakespeare is Shakespeare and a good part of that greatness is always going to shine through -- especially if you know the source material to help the thing along a little, to fill in the missing bits.

The final fight scene in Polanski's MacBeth looks like this:

Where as the 2006 ends like this

In these two scenes are the difference between the Watchmen movie as it probably should have been and the Watchmen as it is. The Polanski fight scene -- you have to think that that is what Watchmen's movie fight scenes should have looked more like: meat hitting meat, sad men hacking away at each other. Zack Snyder is so attracted to violence he has to add kung fu punch snaps even to the scene of Rorschach attacking the schoolyard bullies AND had to have the kid, a young kid, just relish in the violence while committing it, just as the adult Rorschach will do, which blurs the point about where this monster came from.

Truffaut said that you cannot make an anti-war movie because movies cannot help but make war look exciting. I am wondering if the thing that makes Watchmen unfilmable is the fact that you cannot make superhero violence look anything other than sexy, at least because it requires a massive budget and budget means people who are not going to let you do violence in a depressing way. Rorschach is a character we are supposed to feel sorry for and repulsed by, but the Watchmen movie makes him as exciting as Michael Corlione in the Godfather, who was supposed to be similarly repulsive for following a similar code of ethics. On the page Rorschach looks petty and small. On screen, I wanted to cheer when he said "I'm not locked in here with you! You are all locked in here with me." He was pretty bad ass, and I enjoy badass. Watchmen the comic is not supposed to deliver that particular thrill, but the movie does, and how can I fault a movie for delivering a thrill?

In his New Yorker review Anthony Lane -- who, in a funny remark said that the actress who plays Laurie seemed like she had trouble playing one other person, much less two -- hated the movie and said that people under 25 will love the violence and people over 25 should hate it. In the theater I kept thinking of one of my favorite Quentin Tarantino comments: "people who do not like violence in movies are the same people who do not like dance scenes in movies." What I like about Tarantino as against Lane is that Tarantino -- the iconoclast as against Lanes stuffed shirt -- actually sees a connection between generations, sees how they value the same thing in different forms where Lane can only come up with something that feels like "Those damn kids!" I like dance numbers and aesthetic on screen violence, and as much as reviewers made fun of the Watchmen-fu overall I enjoyed it, even though it was obviously the worst kind of gratuitousness.

I can understand why a person might complain that the movie ruins the comic book as the violence for example, just goes against one of the key points of the original but I think in getting unprecedented numbers of people to read the comic, the movie gave back what it took in this respect, so I am not moved to take issue on this point. I feel more comfortable getting behind the idea that the Troy movie just kind of ruined the poem more than the idea that Snyder ruined Watchmen -- I see my students reading Watchmen, as they did not read the Illiad.

I enjoyed the hell out of the Watchmen movie in the same way I like the Australian MacBeth. It is a fun movie. It is fun to watch the comic up on a big screen being enjoyed by a big audience. The thing is quite well paced: Dark Knight felt like it too forever to get to the 2 hour and 40 minute mark because it was all one pace: DANGER! Watchmen slowed down between fights for moments of human interaction and the 2 hours and 40 minutes went by much faster. Those "human moments" need a comment. Slate took Watchmen to task for getting rid of all the regular joes like the newsstand guy and his customer, which Slate rightly saw as the point of the comic book. But I thought the story between Dan and Laurie was effecting enough that I felt like this story had a human center even if that poor girl was not the best actress in the world. (She was shockingly good looking, and, since I have no problem being called shallow, I will say that it made her bad acting easier to take). The scene at the end of the movie, in which the boy at the newsstand grabs the newsvendor as they die, is a little more complex to judge. The moment is of course not earned at all and I doubt it will be earned even in the director's extended cut, or in the Tales of the Black Freighter animated straight to DVD. But I could not help but use my knowledge of the comic book to flesh out the moment, and make it work.

Some random observations. The opening credits have been justly praised. I also liked the decision to have Dr. Manhattan go pants-less -- he is inhuman so why would he wear clothes except to pander to the masses. It is the kind of detail I would have expected to get screwed up in the movie -- it seems an obvious place for a test screening objection -- but they just went out and did it. The music for the sex scene was deeply weird, and bothered the hell out of me, and the actor playing Dan ran over one of the key lines in the comic where Dan decides to break Rorschach out of prison (Brad pointed this out to me). I did not like the actor who played Adrienne -- he was just deeply annoying, and totally failed to sell the idea that he was the smartest guy in the world. He seemed like someone in high school who thinks they are gay trying out a gay style they will not stick with. The guy who played Rorschach was surprisingly good and I found Dan surprisingly sympathetic -- name one movie at this expense level that features impotence as anything other than a comedy moment. The music must have been amazingly expensive, as my friend Alex pointed out. Many of the choices were a little obvious. The ending with the journal was unearned. The replacement of the monster at the end bothered me not at all.

At the end of the day I had more fun watching this than Dark Knight, because it was paced better: I would give Dark Knight a C+ and this a B. It is a mess and I would hardly hold it up as an example of great filmmaking; but to deny I had fun would just be dishonest, even if it makes me look foolish. I would recommend it to people only on this superficial level; as an intellectual thing, as a hunt to re-experience the craft and thematics of the book, avoid it I think.

There is a larger conversation to have here maybe, about how my values have changed in the last ten years. Ten years ago, when I wrote the Watchmen chapter of my superhero book that most people tell me is the best part of it Harold Bloom was the book I used to understanding a lot of my aesthetic experience. That has not entirely gone away but I find Robert McKee near me too, and a much more superficial attitude in which I look to see first if I am having any fun, and get into the thematics later if at all. Lane would call me immature -- he would put me in with the idiots under 25 who enjoy the aesthetics of fascist violence, something that is sticking with me as I just turned 30, and what could be more irresponsible than my being a little forgiving of the bad acting because I thought the bad actress was so good looking (Tim Callahan hated her wig; I loved it). Professional reviewers know how to have a more distanced impartial attitude, but I am not a professional reviewer and am not sure I want to aim for that kind of thing.


Gordon Harries said...

I haven't seen Watchmen (and, honestly, am unsure as to whether I want to.)but the problem with The Dark Knight was that it was like watching a very earnest student's dissertation.

scott91777 said...

Laurie's wig didn't bother me... Adrian's though... seriously, it looked like he was wearing a piece... these were 'TV movie' bad wigs.

Gene Phillips said...

Even though I thought Zack Snyder approached violence with less of a rapier wit than a meatcleaver mentality, I felt WATCHMEN's violence had its moments too, particularly in the scene where Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are just cutting a swath through a horde of prisoners.

I'm amazed that this movie is getting bad press over violence. It's not that exceptional in today's market by any means.

Mikey said...

In his largely positive review in The Guardian Peter Bradshaw described Watchmen as "deranged". That is such a good adjective, it actually made me interested in seeing The Watchmen movie.

finsof72 said...

From the standpoint of someone who didn't read (still hasn't read) the graphic novel or even know it existed before the trailers for the movie started popping up, I saw a really average movie that felt like a bunch of the most random superheroes packed into a 3-hour ride. I didn't hate it, I didn't like it, but at the same time, I get the feeling that it will appeal to its fans, and in that I applaud it. Most adaptations do their best to appeal to the mainstream, but Watchmen seems to me like a movie truly made for its fans.

But like I mentioned, I didn't read the graphic novel, so I could be dead wrong.

Also, if there is a silver lining, its Rorschach. The more I think about it, the more I really like the character.

scott91777 said...

I would have to give Watchmen an 'A' for effort but a C+ in excecution, It's almost as thought they were so caught up in being 'faithful' that they forgot little things like casting people who could actually act. You're right in that Dan and Laurie would be a satisfactory 'human' center for the story if the two of them weren't so... bleh! This wouldn't be as bad if there weren't crucial scenes that hinged on an actor's performance; like when Laurie learns who her father is. Yes, she is hot and I totally enjoyed the sex scene but this scene, she blew.

Also, the whole reason the Watchmen comic looked like a comic was because it WAS a comic... Watchmen the movie should have looked like Dark Knight (which, by the way Geoff, I initially gave a 'B' but would now most likely give an 'A-' after watching it a few more times)

Ultimately, it's exactly what I feared would happen in the movie, we got the story but we lost all of the subtlety and nuance of the comic. What's worse is that this is supposed to be 'The Greatest Graphic Novel of All Time' and a lot of people are going to see the movie and think "So, that's it?... I mean it was 'ok' but that's the best one?" Which just makes it that much more difficult for those of us who have been defending the artform to make our case....

hcduvall said...

I think it kind of fascinates me that Zack Snyder is obviously steeped in the comic--the Lutheran Reformation text of superheros as Frank Santoro recently nailed it in describing it--and still makes the mistakes of the 90's grim and gritty comics, taking the wrong notes from it, as well as his own proclivities to pretty, pretty slo-mo violence.

Actually, as visual fidelity is his virtue as a filmmaker, it's almost as if the successes in the movie in its human moments were by accident, since the panels were his template, and his directing. I mostly didn't mind that it gave everything a sheen of unreality, the color saturation, and all that, Watchmen is so dated on purpose as a comic in its relation to past pulps and everything else that I took that unreality look to be soemthing that connected the movie to all that, even if the baby Roscharch looked like he had cgi freckles--but that too feels like an accident, or just my preference to interpret it so.

But it's such a visual reading that when Snyder doesn't follow do the source to T it's weird. That ending was so bloodless, no? The mess of those cities should be in (and is, in the comic), Dr. Manhattan is a messy guy when killing people. It's Dark Knight ending again, the notion of the noble lie, but at least Watchmen (the comic) showed the carnage of a city destroyed and why that means the cost may still not have been worth it. It's a moment of weakness to not be graphic when it might've actually counted.

Jon Brown said...

I am not sure I understand that Tarintino quote about violence and dancing. It sounds to me like a non-sequiter. It seems like he is saying that violence is just harmless aesthetic visual pleasure, just like elaborate dance scenes, but that isn't exactly true. There is plenty of psychological evidence of the tangible harm caused by media violence, so I don't see how it makes sense to make that comparision.

That being said, I think Watchmen failed the most where it devieated from the comic. Adriene was too arrogant and pampered from the start. You could tell he was a villian. He was supposed to play it cool, laid back, modest, etc. The justification for his plot was less credible in the film, especially why everyone else remained silent.

The excessive violence was unecessary.

Rorshach's origin was handled poorly.

And what the fuck was up with the "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO" that Dan yelled when Rorshach died?

Kyle said...

His dialogue after that was even worse. The sentences "You haven't idealized humanity, you've deformed it. That's the real [possibly the word "practical" here] joke," don't mean what he thinks they mean. Even substituting 'perfected' and 'perverted,' while making the sentences mean something, still yields clunky dialogue. Which I suppose would fit with the rest (the new dialogue is slightly clunkier).

Streebo said...

I loved the Watchmen. I love the fact that it seemed to relish in it's pulpy origins instead of trying to make everything overly slick as in Dark Knight. I loved the bad wigs and the bad costumes on the Minutemen. I relished in the gratuitous violence and sex and thought the film was paced as well as a Watchmen adaptation could be paced. One thing to keep in mind when taking shots at Zack Snyder - is that he was the only director that could bring Watchmen to the screen. Terry Gilliam tried to get Watchmen going for years and he couldn't do it. It's like Welles and Coppolla in their quests to bring Heart of Darkness to the screen. We can nit pick about the things that were changed, left out, or interpreted in a manner different from our own readings - but in the end this was as good as it could have been.

Jason said...

Enjoyable review, Geoff. I think maybe it was a mistake to get a bunch of folks together for my birthday and go see "Watchmen." I was the only one in the group who was really familiar with the book, and half my group knew nothing about it. I think if I had watched it alone, I could've enjoyed it in the way you did, and kind of had a ball with the silliness of the kung-fu fights and outre musical choices.

Instead, I found myself reacting more like Scott talks about. I was wringing my hands over the fact that after the movie I'd have to be saying, "No no, there is sex and violence in the comic book, but it doesn't have close-up zoom ins of arms busting in half and gratuitous shots of Laurie wearing nothing but thigh-high boots..."

I found myself really embarrassed at being such a huge fan of "Watchmen," because I could just feel my friends judging the silliness of how it came across on screen.

I think I might go see it again by myself and see if that makes me able to relax and just enjoy it a bit more.

I also agree with Scott that most of the actors kind of sucked. I think this is more to do with Snyder than the casting ... I have the impression that Snyder just kind of set up shots and started filming, and didn't give any thought to niggling details like emotional values and character arcs. Just "stand in front of this green screen in the same poses that Gibbons drew and say these lines, please."

Still, I thought Crudup was a fantastic Dr. Manhattan, and my friends seemed to like Rorschach a lot. (Geoff, I had the opposite reaction. I think Rorschach is much more thrilling/chilling in the comic. On the page, "I'm not locked up in here with me, you're locked up in here with me" always gives me chills. On screen, it seemed kind of thin and shrill. (I heard one of my friends say to another, mockingly, "Well, THAT's a subtle distinction..." Maybe I just need less scathingly judgmental friends ...)

On an aesthetic level, I had always suspected that a film of Watchmen wouldn't work because it would seem too episodic, not just in terms of story but in terms of the symbolism and imagery. In a comic, you can have fire be the dominant image for one episode and it still works. But to have fire suddenly be this central metaphor during the segment of the film going from 2:17 to 2:39 or whatever ... it just strikes me as odd. Same with the setting of the film suddenly expanding from New York to freakin' Mars, 45 minutes in.

And Mars kind of comes out of nowhere in the comic book too, but ... this is where the matter-of-fact aspect of the book really helps. Dr. Manhattan goes to Mars as easy as we'd cross the street, and that is part of the point. And Dave Gibbons' simple, evenly paced panels taking us to Mars makes it seem so natural. When Snyder adds his big blue explosions and his giant, wide-screen shot of Mars and a swell of overly wrought music, it's too much. The whole point was that another planet to us is just taking a step to Dr. Manhattan, but with all the bombast it's just like, "WTF? Now we're on Mars?" It really makes you feel like this film is just all over the place. Not a textbook example of Aristotelian unity by any means (and I can't imagine Roger McKee approving either). -- Sidebar -- on the other hand, a good friend of mine, actually LIKED the episodic nature. She suggested it's what made the time fly by, the fact that it was almost like watching individual episodes of a series back-to-back-to-back (which in the DVD age is something that is more and more of a common thing to do). So maybe I'm totally off on that one.

I am kind of figuring out what I think of this movie as I'm writing, but ... yeah, I don't mind gratuitousness, but in "Watchmen," whose big thing was to making the extraordinary seem ordinary -- and in so doing, make it suddenly feel new and strange and alien -- Snyder's gratuitous film style (the music, the shots that linger over these CGI'd vistas, the porny sex and the kung fu) actually makes things seem less interesting. More viscerally exciting, perhaps, but ultimately less strange and exotic.

hcduvall said...

I'm definitely in the camp of Snyder kind of doesn't get it, all this Watchmen talk here and elsewhere has improved my opinion of the comic, which I think had kind of stagnated in my mind as one of the holy relics of comics, but I had forgotten why. Which is why I want to ditto Streebo and Geoff's point, that getting this thing on screen was in itself a massive undertaking.

I have twinge that anyone else with the very same screenplay would've changed the tone, played the same scene elsewhere might've been closer to satisfy all comers. Paul Greengrass used to be attached, along with Darren Aronofsky, but Zack Snyder had the pull and clout and passion to get it made, and there it is.

Thivai Abhor said...

Watchmen, so far, is the worst film I have seen this year. A huge disappointment. Nothing like turning a critique of the false worship of heroes (and obviously meant for us to link it to media/historic construction of real-world leaders as super heroic--thus the graphic novels constant deconstruction of this process across many narrative forms) into a fetishized worship of super heroes as mindless entertainment. Even the psychopathic Rorshach and Comedian in the final scenes are designed to evoke sympathy.

Björninn said...

I don't know that it's great, but I think I'm overly relieved it didn't suck.

And also the fact that the title is Watchmen and not The Watchmen. Was that ever a real concern? I don't know. But that would have been a dealbreaker, right there.

jennifer said...

the spirit of watchman felt to me the spirit of its creator & its collaborator... i even kinda loved its awkward moments as they felt an extension of the creators ideas.and i see people on MY subway line reading Watchman...
secondarily, on the whole macbeth theme.
my mother just sent me in the mail a newsweek article about obama & wpa... orson welles' all black performance of macbeth was funded by the wpa...
macbeth is fucking everywhere!!!

scott91777 said...

Ok, I just watched it a second time and, without the burden of expectation, enjoyed it a lot more... I'm willing to give it a solid 'B' now. There's still stuff that didn't work but, when one considers all the ways it could have been fucked up, its pretty good.

Stephen said...

Thanks for the review, Geoff. Interesting as always. For me it totally ratified my decision not to see the film: I simply care too much about that book to see it degraded (I know you liked it, and probably wouldn't use that word for it, but that's the word I would use based on your description) that way.

It does pain me that millions of people will think of Watchmen as something cheesy and silly... which the book isn't... and which (and this is the part that really kills me) will be true even for those who read the book after seeing the movie (most of them, anyway) since after seeing a film of a book its almost impossible not to have it permanently color one's reading of it.

Ah well. Same thing happened with the Lord of the Rings, another book I care about. I wish that big-budget movie makers would keep their hands of my personal cannon.

Incidentally, vis-a-vis Macbeth: I don't teach literature, I teach history. But for me, I would personally try as hard as I could to show two film versions, so we could talk about interpretation and so forth. You must have thought about doing this; I assume it's a time/budget/practicalities constraint?


Geoff Klock said...

SF -- I agree that the film does degrade the book. The problem is it is also pretty fun in a superficial way.

I can only play one version of MacBeth but I do have a lesson where we watch clips from 14 different macbeth movies and interpretations, including Vivaldi and Throne of Blood, so they see clips off all kinds of versions.

scott91777 said...

Personally, I enjoy the Lord of the Rings movies more than I did the books.

Stephen said...

Scott, did you see the movies first or read the books first?

James said...

I cannot say to myself that "I loved Polanski's Macbeth" and I wish I could tell you why. Perhaps a portion of it is the time frame, the use of old English (always difficult for me to comprehend) or just the lack of excitement that I have for "Macbeth" in general.

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