17 March 2009

Thoughts On: Watchmen

We saw Watchmen on the weekend. It was like I expected, a curiosity. It's a film of loving detail and effort, but it's also rather anal and lifeless. Watchmen's "poetry" was more or less confined to how it existed as a comic book. Without any knowing re-interpretation of it as a film (and no such effort is made), the end result is, predictably, a pinned butterfly of a film. I've used this phrase before to describe what director Zack Snyder did with his film version of Frank Miller's fascistic and dangerously retarded 300, and it applies again here. He's seemingly incapable or uninterested in anything but image, sound, and cool moments.

I've owned a copy of the Watchmen collected comic books since the early nineties. I've read the whole thing through maybe a couple of times. There are a few reasons I never fully connected with it. One was Dave Gibbon's artwork, which is formal, almost clinical. His detailing is without peer, and his compositions are flawless, but there's a cerebral stiffness to his action, a distance. In fact, the movie's visceral violence seemed to disconnect it from the source material. The same violence in on display in Gibbons' work, but it never registers on the same level that it does now as make-up soaked, Foley-enhanced cinematic gore.

In some instances, Zack Snyder seemed especially clueless as to exactly what levels this movie was and wasn't playing. None of the dialogue is ever delivered with irony, though the settings and situations cry out for it. At other times, performances lag into lazy pantomime.

Much is being written and said about the lavish and repeated display of Dr. Manhattan's swinging blue meat throughout the movie. Ehh. I was more disturbed by a fairly graphic sex scene midway through the proceedings. It's given a far lengthier treatment on film than it was in the pages of the comic book, and for no discernable reason. Snyder is either egotistical enough to believe he can crack an heretofore unconsidered cinematic conumdrum (getting an audience to identify with and not feel creeped out by graphic superhero sex) or else it was pornographic spectacle.

Or maybe he just wanted to see Malin Ackerman's adorable boobs. But that can't be it. They're already on display in The Heartbreak Kid.

I would love to report what the wife thought of the movie, since Watchmen readers everywhere have been wondering how well a three hour movie could impart the massive story to the uninitiated, but, well, the wife doesn't know what she thought. I suspect it just rolled off her back, which is about what you'd expect.

Hollywood films are unreservedly slavish to archetype and Watchmen the comic was all about deconstructing archetypes. Now Hollywood has seen its share of revisionism and revisionists, and it has dragged its fantasies into harsh daylight before (such efforts can even make great films, like Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, which did to PrivateDetective Phillip Marlowe what Watchman the comic did to men in tights) but Hollywood only does this when the vogue of a genre has long since vanished. If you REALLY wanted to make a Watchmen type movie, and simulate what the comic did, superheroes aren't the way to go. As film fodder, they're still on fertile ground economically and yet shaky ground popularly.

Instead, think of worn out action heroes. Imagine a movie about James Bond, Indiana Jones and John McClain in which Bond was an alcoholic woman-beater, Jones was a greedy grave robber, and McClain a minority-beating pig with a nightstick. If such a movie were made, and enhanced with Altman or Kubrick style layering, it would be a Hollywood film equivalent of what Watchmen accomplished.

On many levels, that degree of demolition is just not possible in a major release today. Certainly not one from so straight-forward and (cerebrally) unsophisticated a director. For Snyder, the only audience expectations and conceits that can be excelled or subverted are audio-visual ones. I'll admit, he knows the hell out of his medium. I'm not entirely convinced he knows what it's for.