Friday, 13 March 2009

Who Watches The Watchmen? And Who Really Still Gives a Damn?

Or -- "Disappointingly clean thoughts from other people's comments sections!"

Ok, so that final Filth essay still needs some work, and I was going to avoid talking about Watchmen -- The Movie! but I seem to have spent a good thousand words publicly thinking about the film already so fuck it.

David Fiore posted a short piece praising two of the more controversial aspects of the Watchmen movie: the casting of Ozymandias and the altered ending.

Here's what I had to say in response:
Hmmmm... not sure I can agree with you on the ending of the movie Dave. I mean, it is more politically interesting than the book's finale (just!), but like you say, Watchmen was never worth reading for the politics.

To me, the "clean", bloodless nature of the movie’s finale contrasted a little too harshly with the hyped-up, 300-esque gore of the preceding action sequences, throwing the whole story's momentum into reverse.

The comic's Veidt definitely is "a ranting lunatic with a squid bomb", but that works in context because I think he's supposed to look stupid and terrifying at the end of the story. I've never felt like his scheme was supposed to be plausible -- quite the opposite in fact. I think it’s supposed to look like a desperate, temporary fix that ended a lot of lives, a reality that the opening splash pages of issue #12 just plain won’t let you escape. (Dave Gibbons, you are a hero – never forget it!)

Like the big blue guy says, “Nothing ever ends”. Or, hey, like the fetish model says in the movie, but whatever.

Taken this way, the comic is very firmly on the side of the minor, human characters + Dan & Laurie. Its formal intricacies are more than just displays of cleverness – they’re there to generate a sort of ornate, preposterously intricate soap-opera framework in which all of these little lives are connected and all of them matter. It’s an invitation to see the potentially kinder end of Dr Manhattan’s perceptive spectrum, where human life is so damned unlikely that you have to form an interest, even an attachment to it.

Never mind “who watches the watchmen?” – the real question is “who watches? And why?” Thinking about it this way, Dr M’s real idiocy (murdering aside!) is in his inability to comprehend his own role in observing all those martian landscapes, and to extrapolate the importance of his feelings beyond his own path in space/time. In fact, come to think of it, this is also why he’s shown killing people so freely at various points in the book and the movie – he’s an intellectual giant but he lacks the basic understanding of other people's perspectives that's necessary to form a moral code (“the morality of my actions escapes me”, etc).

Anyway, like you said, the Dan/Laurie stuff definitely needed to be expanded in the movie (and you are so, so right about the coffee scene!). Still, the ‘Hallelujah’ sex session aside, the film’s soapy treatment of their interactions didn’t strike me as being too “off”. Soap operas are all about ridiculous attachment, after all, and this is where those characters look “stronger” than their colleagues in the comic – they’re just far more interested in actual, real stuff you know? They seem genuinely fixated on people, animals, and kinky costume funtime, and I can get with all of that! They’re far from perfect, but their dysfunctions seem less psychopathic than, say Rorschach/Jon/Veidt’s to me. Dave Gibbons needs some major props here again, because he sells D&L’s body language in a way that the actors in this film just can’t – this is true across the board, of course, but in the absence of the many minor characters, I feel it most here.

Which takes me back to the film’s 300-style action – it makes the movie Dan & Laurie look a bit more wantonly brutal than they did in the book, what with all the slow-mo neck stabbing and limb-snapping. Given the kinky nature of their coupling, it ends up seeming like they get off on maiming people, which… maybe there’s a bit of that in the source material, but the movie renders violence as pornography right up until the final massacre, and I find that weirdly unsettling.

You could probably argue that the ending is bloodless because it’s beyond such fetishised fun, but I don’t know that this makes the movie any better for me. In fact, it might make the sense that the movie is built to support Ozy’s plan seem all the stronger...

As for the actor who played Ozymandias, I can see how he fits your reading of the film, but I didn’t get much genuine remorse from him… just a toned down, slightly sleazy arrogance. I found that slightly less interesting than the comic Ozy’s mixture of bland charm and idiotically hateful planning, which (again) is reliant on my reading of the ending as an indictment of Veidt’s presumed superiority. Without the blandness, Ozymandias just seems like a creepy savior, which… I’d agree that this is slightly less boring on a political level, but the comic’s Ozymandias seems to think he’s way smarter and more grown up than he really is. I don’t get that from the movie, and as a result the whole thing ends up seeming a lot more in thrall to our bloody-handed saviors than I’d like it to be.

All that said, I think I enjoyed the movie, even though I know it was terrible in places. I’ll see it again, if only because I’m infinitely fascinated by things that don’t work in big, pointy ways.
Since I wasn't sure if I'd rambled on enough already, I made sure to re-iterate my points a couple of minutes later:
The short version of my previous comment:

I'm not sure that the ethical question the movie poses is...

(a) well set up


(b) more interesting than what I take to be the argument in favour of life that exists in the comic.

Also: the movie made me miss the pirate comic, probably because it supports my reading! Pesky runtime sapping fight scenes...
This prompted David Fiore to rejoin the discussion and clarify his argument with grand style:
absolutely David!

the film deeply deeply violates the spirit of the book (which is a horror story about human impotence, in all of its forms) in its final reel

and there's no question that Gibbons delivered that horror in a powerful way that almost redeems Moore's (to me) knee-jerk reluctance to confront the realities of political foundation (by making Ozymandias--and the Black Freighter guy--into Poe-style madmen who rip out the world's eyeball because they can't face it any more)

it's just my good fortune that I always felt that Watchmen's take on superpolitics paled in comparison to Squadron Supreme's--and that Snyder appears to have fused the latter's decisionist ethics onto the body of the book (while jettisoning pretty much all of the psychological complexity of the Moore/Gibbons' truly human characters)

Even aesthetically, I think it was the right thing to do, because I don't think the film could have done the things that the book does to give us the human-eye view of the power struggle that provides the majority of its plot points (although they COULD have taken a little more trouble to complexify the Dan/Laurie sex stuff--and my guess is that Snyder didn't want to do THAT either... he's clearly a typical fanboy in that regard)

ah well--at the very least--the film is providing a lot of fodder for discussion... to me, the two texts work wonderfully in dialogue with each other--Moore/Gibbons give us real people at the mercy of the "Lords of Life"... while Snyder gives us those Lords (idealism, objectivity, "deontological ethics," cynicism--aka Veidt, Manhattan, Rorschach, Comedian) straight up, and places each of them in collision with themselves...
Realising that I was already in too deep to pretend I had nothing to say, I opened my mouth and let the words tumble out:
Damn you for making me write about this film - I fully intended to hold off until the smoke had cleared, but you seem to have sent my brain into action prematurely.

I'm a big Squadron Supreme fan too – it's always struck me as being a far more "intellectual" comic than Watchmen in some ways. At the very least, SS is a lot more committed to its political ideas than the Moore/Gibbons comic, but it uses the Marvel house style to explore them so it seems a lot less sophisticated at first.

Moore is very clever in the way he constructs Watchmen, but as ever his smartest move is to identify the strengths of his collaborator – Gibbons is the hero of the book, and it is his perspective (rather than Dr Manhattan's) that gives an objective sense of weight and importance to even the book’s smallest characters and motifs.

Compared to these very tactile pleasures, both Watchmen – The Movie! and Squadron Supreme risk seeming a little airy, but you could argue that Snyder uses the current 300/Sin City derived “comic book movie” to stage his ethical play, just like Gruenwald adapted his normal writing style to sneak Squadron’s big questions out there. The problem being (from my POV, obviously!) that Snyder’s current style is both tiresome and not particularly suited to these aims.

Still – it is interesting to consider the movie as some sort of grotesque Moore/Gruenwald/Miller/Gibbons/Snyder hybrid… it’s the revenge of the 80s, Frankenstein style, and now it WONT STOP ATTACKING MY BRAIN!

Good times.
And I'm spent, or at least I'm done making chicken kievs with bullshit where the chicken should be...

Lest anyone think I'm a moaning fanboy, let it be known that there are far less faithful versions of the movie that would have been way more exciting to me.

Also: David Hayter is a turd.


mondo said...

Yes! Preview thoughts!
Always love to hear thy opinions on the Moore-to-screen transitions.
I'm taking it mainly as a rendering of Dave Gibbon's world than the telling of Alan Moore's tale...although I can never get the words out so stick to the predominantly hormone-led ramblings!

In other news, the amount of primary school age children talking along the lines of
"that film wi' the guy wi' the mask, it aw goes funny when somebody punches him! He's mental - ma brother says he kills a dog then burns this guy's face off!" while grabbing one of the film publications, is beginning to alarm me.

David said...

Jesus, I can just see the headlines now:

"Beware the Rorschach Children of East Kilbride!"

Keep yr baked beans safe, Lynne, and keep your pets even safer!

I believe that raving Dave Gibbons is doing a signing in Borders Buchanan Street tomorrow. Well, that's what the guy in the chippy told me anyway...

Will be in touch to try to arrange some form of meeting next week.

David Golding said...

I've commented on your comments over at David Fiore's blog, if you still feel like talking about Watchmen...

David said...

Thanks for that, David -- my brain seems to be resistant to clear expression at the moment, but I will say that you present a very compelling reading of the movie.

I'm hoping to see Watchmen again soon, and when I do I'll keep your thoughts in mind -- my take on how the violence plays out are almost the opposite of yours, but I'll try to find the humanity in the broken bones and the Dave Gibbons beneath the 'Hallelujah'!