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.