Who Does This?
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
(now, with links!): When I walked out of Watchmen
the first time I saw it--“First We Take Manhattan” still ringing in my ears, and thank you, movie!--I was on a high. They did it
, I was thinking. They filmed “Watchmen.”
On the way home, I started questioning. My most immediate problem--the lack of existentialist detective-story--is addressed in the NRO review
, so I won’t rehash. But when I got home, I started reading reviews of the movie, via Sean Collins’s
incredibly helpful round-ups. EDITED TO ADD LINKS: here
And my emotional trajectory became clear. Every review defending the movie rang a bit hollow to me, even when I agreed with individual points (Sean is totally right about that My Chemical Romance cover!
And yes, I’m saying that out loud!). But almost every criticism of the movie seemed accurate to me. You’ll notice that my review borrowed heavily from those criticisms, EDITED: e.g. the stuff about depiction of violence in the movie vs. the comic here
So I know my NRO review is ultimately pretty negative. But keep in mind that the initial reaction is also real. The review is about the elements I thought it was most important to highlight; but there are important things the movie got right, too.
SILENT RUNNING: If you complain about everything left out of an almost three-hour movie, as I did, I think it’s obvious to ask what on earth you would have cut! So here are my candidates--which include some scenes I really liked.
#1. Cheesecore. So Dan and Laurie have costumed softcore music-video sex--and yes, the “music video” aspect is at least as dumb to me as the “softcore” aspect. I’ve read a few defenses of this scene which argue that it’s intentionally cheesy.
What I want to know is, Why is that a defense? I already know, because of every single other scene between Dan and Laurie already, that they can only connect with one another and be intimate and vulnerable within the disclaimers of their costumes. What does this scene actually add to the movie, besides fifteen minutes (ok, it only felt that long) and Malin Akerman’s nipple? The humor is cheap (Owlship ejaculating fire) and this movie is already very long.
(I’ll also say, while we’re here, that I’m unimpressed by any film-crit arguments which rely on calling one’s interlocutors sex-hating Puritans. This is a charge which neither can be refuted [because it is really about the internal mental states you perceive in/project onto me] nor should be--I shouldn’t have to trot out all the cinematic sex scenes I did appreciate in order for you to give me a hearing about this one.)
There’s an equally music-video, and equally stupid, shot toward the very end, where Dan and Laurie look toward the camera in synch before heading out into the Antarctic wastes. It’s hilarious in a bad way, and makes me wonder what Mozart ever did to superhero directors, that they so persistently abuse his Requiem Mass.
...Actually I think you can differentiate three types of “obvious” shots in this movie. There are the genuinely dumb obvious shots, which make the movie stupider. I’d also add the “Last Supper” shot from the opening credits, literally the only moment of those credits I found anything other than perfect--what is the parallel here? How is Sally Jupiter’s retirement anything like the Last Supper? What is added to the movie by doing this, other than a cheap recognition-of-image gag?
There’s the Apocalypse Now quickie parody scene with Doctor Manhattan and Richard Wagner. I think this is the only “in-between” scene for me, where I get what they were doing with the pop-culture parallel but still found it cheap for reasons I find hard to articulate. ...Possibly the use of the staticky radio playing “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” when Adrian confronts the execs would also fall into this category--I really got a kick out of that, but I accept that it might be a misstep.
And then there’s the awesome, Alan-Moore-ish on-the-nose stuff, like “99 Luftballons” and “All Along the Watchtower” and Silhouette kissing the nurse. Those elements not only fit completely with the comic’s aesthetic--they also added a depth of atmosphere, a pop-realism of place and time, a cultural sensibility. Plus they were fun.
#2. The alley fight. Making Dan and Laurie just as bats crazy as Rorschach is a valid directorial choice. It's a pretty obvious take on the comic’s interrogation of vigilantism. So my real problems with the alley fight are a) if you do the alley fight this way, the prison riot has to be a lot more bloody than it is in the movie; b) I don’t think you can do the alley fight this way and keep the fun dialogue about how Rorschach dropped the masochist pseudo-villain down an elevator shaft, since that joke requires you to believe that he is ultra-bats and they are less-bats; and c) I think if you want to make the “even sweet little Laurie is driven into cruelty because that’s what violent response to crime does to people” you can do it by intensifying the prison riot, so this scene isn’t really necessary if we have to cut things.
#3. The Comedian’s funeral. I liked this scene. But all it actually needs is Moloch and Kovacs--it’s important for Moloch’s character and for the plot, but those moments take up about 1/15 of the actual screentime of this scene. And “Sounds of Silence” isn’t an insightful enough score choice to justify the time it takes.
...That’s all I can think of. After that, I can only suggest, helplessly, perhaps an intermission?
AN ANGEL WITH A FLAMING SWORD--AND AN INKBLOT MASK
: Barbara Nicolosi at Church of the Masses
really hated this movie, and walked out. In her comments box, she explained that the scene where she decided she couldn’t take it anymore and shouldn’t have to was the moment when Rorschach discovers the child-killer’s dogs tugging at a little girl’s shattered leg.
Let me try to explain why this isn’t my reaction to that scene--and why I think the Watchmen
story, in comics or on film, really needs that moment.
First, I am not arguing that Barbara’s reaction is wrong. If you can't film Watchmen
without that scene, maybe it's just unfilmable. I am pretty well convinced that Barbara is aware of the scope of human evil, you know? I see her point that the scene could be viewed as what she’s sometimes called “assaultive” of the audience--rubbing our noses in it, a kind of sadomasochist experience in which wallowing in gore is confused with real repentance, real existential questioning and horror, or some other lasting shift in the audience’s soul.
Also, for me, the most horrifying moment in that scene is Rorschach’s discovery of the girl’s bloodied underwear. The specificity of that moment--the bunching of the elastic waistband--that’s basically unbearable. I’m not sure I can explain why that moment hits me so much harder than the gore, but even now, I can picture the scene with the dogs and view it clinically in the mind’s eye, whereas the underwear still makes my throat clench. I don’t argue that this response is “better,” and I get why it might make you more skeptical of my defense of the dog scene--maybe I just don’t get why this scene is assaultive because I respond more strongly to other kinds of horror.
But here’s why I think the dogs are important. The dogs show that the killer has corrupted every element
of his world. He has not solely destroyed the life of an innocent child; that would be more than bad enough. But he’s also taken (presumably) “innocent,” amoral animals--the natural world--and turned them into horrific weapons. He has broken the natural world.
This makes his corruption more thorough. His ability to distort and destroy now extends not just to his immediate victim but to every element of our world. (Cf. my Inside Catholic piece on torture
I hope you guys see how this horrific transformation of the natural world a) resonates with my take on Watchmen
the comic, and b) resonates with me as a Catholic, a person who believes that human sin is what turned our world against us. When we fell we pulled the whole world down on top of us; and this perspective engages directly with the comic’s anguished question of whether the world’s chaos hides some real pattern, some real meaning, or whether all apparent patterns are simply the projections of the devastatingly violent human will.
SO LONG MOM, I’M OFF TO DROP THE BOMB: Completely random notes.
• Actually, Laurie is “Laurie Juspeczyk” for approximately .23 seconds in the movie: That’s the name shown when she looks at her own hand through Nite Owl II’s goggles.
• Although the acting and dialogue are both subpar, every moment Laurie and Doctor Manhattan were on Mars I found myself thinking, “This is the kind of movie I thought people would watch in the future.” Like, when you see Soylent Green, or Logan’s Run--aren’t those colors and shapes and humanity-as-alien images what you thought the characters would watch at the movies?
• Related: I thought about opening my NRO review with the line, “Zack Snyder has made the very best movie of 1986.” I decided that was unnecessarily snarky; but the point does remain that the sensibility of this movie is intensely ‘80s. It’s a movie from the decade that brought you Liquid Sky and “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables,” Jim Bakker and “Land of Confusion” and Gran Fury.
• Does that make Watchmen irrelevant now? Its justice-vs.-peace, or law vs. necessity, plots might be Toons for Our Torturing Times; but the Cold War context is so heavy that even those elements feel really remote from contemporary discourse. (This isn’t helped by the Nixon caricature. In the comic, I seem to recall Nixon being oddly restrained--am I misremembering? You could possibly push that even further to get a Nixon-as-Obama, someone who accepts the horrific context into which he has been elected while still trying to extend peaceful gestures and avoid nuclear war. The movie chose the opposite path, and failed even to make it funny--any Nixon-related humor exists solely in the Strangelove references--so I found all those scenes painfully dated, even though I’d been absolutely thrilled when I heard we’d get lots of Nixon in this. I want the politics, you guys. I just don’t want the politics to be dumb.)
• Anyway, I think Watchmen’s existential and theological themes make it the kind of thing that never goes out of style--who now recalls the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, when reading Dante? But yeah, Snyder didn’t exactly make the argument for Watchmen’s relevance.
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