January 24, 2009

If the Keeper of Time Runs Slowly...


So Warner and Fox made up, and Watchmen is back on schedule. Whoopee.

I mean, don't get me wrong. No matter how it turns out, there's no way I'm going to miss a cinematic adaptation of one of my favorite works of fiction. And even when taking a strictly cynical perspective, there was already plenty of reason to be wary, and the discussion had already started with that first preview trailer: the chilling image of a giant blue Adonis laying waste to the Viet Cong with a wave of his hand, recreated in such a way that the expected reaction would be closer to
John Lichman's priceless "director commentary." "HOLY SHIT DID HE JUST BLOW THAT MOTHERFUCKER UP WITH HIS MOTHERFUCKING FINGER?! THAT SHIT IS AWESOME!!!" But it's a trailer, and trailers can be deceiving. It wasn't until I saw the image above--attached to an article announcing that the two rival studios had reached an agreement--that I really began to worry. For those who haven't read Watchmen and don't mind having a minor spoiler tossed their way, this is more than likely the moment when Edward Blake, the Comedian, pulls out his service pistol and kills his pregnant mistress at the end of a victorious Vietnam War. And in this promotional image, it's presented as something dead sexy.

Closer inspection reveals that Blake's fresh facial wound--the catalyst for this moment--is no longer a life-altering disfigurement, a fountain of blood that results in a perpetual sneer at humanity. It's a wartime scar, awesome and admirable without any context necessary. The Comedian has always been a fascinating character because, particularly when seen exclusively in retrospect, it's frightening to consider how amoral figures affect our lives. But ultimately, that's all the Comedian was--a public figure... while Blake was a monstrous coward who used nihilism as an excuse to indulge in his ugliest impulses. With that picture staring me in the face, I'm afraid that Snyder has integrated him into the same culture of cool he offered to Leonidas and his band of chest-pounding Spartans. "YOU SEE THAT BITCH HIT THE GROUND?! FUCK YEAH!!!" That scares me to no end. To be fair, Snyder offered a reasonably accurate depiction of Frank Miller's mania, and he could certainly be aiming for an ironic look at our own admiration of the wrong cinematic icons. But even if that's the case, isn't he already part of the problem? If the trailer's any indication, he's going to go for slow motion during every iconic moment--which, in Watchmen's case, would mean the most violent, catastrophic events--and I'd like to know how it's not going to come across as another testosterone fever dream.

Speaking of which/whom, I hope all of you know by now that The Spirit is fucking awful, because that fact didn't quite crack through my thick head until I dared to see it a second time. It was a decision that I almost immediately regretted. I knew it was jaw-droppingly bad, but the movie stuck in the back of my brain after a Christmas Day showing because it reminded me of my former adulation of the ultra-high-concept: Once Upon a Time in the West appealed to me because it represented the western in its most undiluted form, all of the gritty one-liners and clever setpieces crammed into one three-hour epic. I used to think of Darkman the same way, actually, this movie that screamed its mad, over-the-top intentions to the rafters. Amazing stuff, right? But I got older and realized that while those aspects certainly have merit, they wouldn't have much weight if there was nothing flowing in the undercurrent. I was lucky enough that many of my favorite movies held up to the scrutiny: Once Upon a Time in the West is pretty well defined by a cast of characters trying and failing to escape their predetermined identities; and Darkman is a work of unbelievable insanity, but it's given credence by its immense sadness and almost mocking parody of superhero conventions.

I should have seen it coming, given Walter's
dead-on review, but that melting feeling that crept up on me after The Spirit unspooled was inevitable. It's the final nail in the coffin containing any lingering sense of doubt... the feeling that, as an adult, I was missing the point by tossing these maniacal works through the furnace flames of detailed analysis. That I somehow refused to touch base with my inner child by doing so. Fedoras, superfluous slow motion, blood-red ties, six-shooters and kicking the shit out of Nazis... S'cool and all, but at last we've been exposed to the apotheosis/nadir of that icon worship, and it just dismantles the "awesome for awesome's sake" argument beyond repair. I hope you took the time to read through the comments section of Bill's wonderfully sarcastic Oscar predictions--which were, ultimately, preferable to reality--because "theoldboy" delivered a real gem when he took a stab at Frank Miller's acceptance speech for Best Picture:

"I had no choice but to bring my vision of Rob Rodriguez's vision of my vision of his vision to the screen. Also I'd like to graciously thank whores, and grit, but mostly whores, for making this possible."

A brilliant summation, really, because where's the basis in reality that's supposed to make the grit and the
whoreswhoreswhores hit so close to home? The Dark Knight Returns was supposed to have originated from Miller's bitter realization that he would grow older than his boyhood hero, "perpetually twenty-nine," and eventually be lost to the sands of time. So what the hell happened? Here's a dude who has immersed himself so thoroughly in his fantasy world that he has managed to deny the full weight of aging and violence and crime--now he keeps a death grip on the Goddamn Batman because everyone berates him for it. Okay, you want to pay tribute to film noir; deep shadows and gritty dialogue are a good start--do you have anything else?

The layers of homage and imitation just keep building until you have no idea where anything originates. Sex, love and death lose all meaning as angular, monochrome action figures beat, maim and perforate each other without consequence. When Sam Jackson dresses up like Himmler to interrogate and torture his quarry, is there any relationship to the unspeakable acts that made the Nazis such popular villains, both during and long after the war? I think it was Thomas Pynchon who said that science fiction was difficult to take seriously as a legitimate form of literature because there were so many ways to circumvent death... cloning, time travel and delusions of immortality. Now that there are sizable audiences and brilliant writers who are forging a symbiotic understanding of the various fantasy genres, that's been steadily changing over the last few decades. These entertainments are proving to us that they can shed some light on the mysteries of how and why we live and die--but guys like Miller certainly don't make that quest any easier by crawling into their impenetrable shells of self-satisfaction at any cost.

I guess my point is that nobody saw The Spirit, but--to preempt the soon-to-be-ubiquitous headline in entertainment journalism--everyone will watch Watchmen, and the price of escapism is getting higher every day. When and where, precisely, does a desire to inhabit a "pure" world of art detach itself from reality completely? Only Charlie Kaufman knows for sure. I just hope that, even without Hollis Mason's memoir or Sally Jupiter's scrapbook, Snyder won't lose sight of the moral obligation that Moore and Gibbons explored with no small amount of fear and doubt.

32 comments:

Berandor said...

I am fucking scared of "Watchmen". As I just read in the New Yorker, trailers lie (who knew, right?). So the choice moments might not amount to much in the full movie, maybe (hopefully) it's not all in slow motion (fucking "Hero") – and it does look fine.

So I'm hoping against hope, because Zack Snyder... 300 is one of the worst big budget movies I've seen in recent years, and that one looked just fine, too.

So here's hoping that the trailer, the stills all make it out to be a cool superhero movie, and then it turns around and says, "You find that shot cool and sexy, punk? He's shooting a pregnant woman, asshole."

Trashcan said...

Snyder nailed the look of Watchmen, but his fetish for slow-motion and preference for melodrama that runs screaming, naked, and ashamed into camp significantly undermine the project. Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen plays – remarkably enough for a story about an end-of-the-world plot – in a remarkably low-key fashion. Snyder can’t film the drinking of a cup of coffee without recourse to gee-whiz cinematic flourishes, much less present a blue god atomizing fleeing peasant soldiers in a matter- of-fact way. I can’t help but think that all this attention to detail masks an inability on Snyder’s part to grasp that the book was deliberately underplayed: or perhaps he’s the kind of enthusiast who exaggerates a story in the re-telling in a mistaken attempt to elevate the source material’s appeal. Either way, I’ve almost comvinced myself that the first trailer was an excellent music video featuring images from a book I love, rather than a preview of an adaptation I’ll loathe.

Arlvy said...

I am terrified that Snyder is making heroes out of The Comedian and Rorschach characters from the comic book. Snyder's right wing macho worship syncs perfectly with that of The Comedian. Rorschach is going to be deified by the majority of people who go to watch the film just like he's deified by a great many people who read the comic and felt their particular "righteous" anger and violent tendencies were justified by Rorschach's pathology.

Jonathan said...

I'd missed reading The Watchmen until just recently, and I was thrilled to find that it's one of those rare literary works that actually lives up in full to the hefty reputation that precedes it.

So I certainly share the concern expressed here-- I hadn't seen that image of The Comedian-- and will add this bit of fuel to that fire.

Taking one of the key character beats-- one that was quite effectively under-played but no less loaded in its images or its implications because of that-- and "filling in the blanks" in order to boast about an R-rating being deserved? It doesn't augur well.

If the trailer's any indication, he's going to go for slow motion during every iconic moment--which, in Watchmen's case, would mean the most violent, catastrophic events--and I'd like to know how it's not going to come across as another testosterone fever dream.

All signs point to "Yes" at this point, it seems.

Berandor said...

Well, to me, Rorschach *is* the hero of the story. He's a fucked-up maniac, a right-wing righteous asshole, but he is still the only one who refuses to play ball (even though that's also driven by his black-and-white thinking).

Arlvy said...

Berandor, I know what you mean but he's specifically the anti-hero rather than an out and out Hero. Rorschach will be swooned over as the next Jack Bauer.

Berandor said...

Well, that wouldn't be good. I don't want to hear Fox News lauding torture as something both Bauer and Rorschach would do. Urgh.

Arlvy said...

Only if the film is a big hit though, otherwise it will happen with Aintitcool talkbackers and probably no-one else.

Berandor said...

So... "Paul Blart" is on its way to 100 million? Is January really that bleak or is that thing actually good?

Rick said...

"Paul Blart" was heavily advertised throughout the NFL playoffs (just about every commercial break). I think that is why it is doing so well.

Rachel Andelman said...

OT:

Alex, your review of Boy Interrupted is often incoherent. My questions:

How can a film be sentiment-free yet register as an act of defiance?

How can the subject lack control over his actions yet be worthy of spite? Somehow you were convinced that his desire to die was hard-wired, while his desire to vanish was weaselly. Is an automaton ever a coward?

How can you declare Evan's suicide unavoidable if-- as you imply-- his was set off by thoughts springing from that temporary state, adolescence? By that reasoning, anything that has the potential to postpone it (medication, treatment) should also have the potential to stop it.

The limits mental illness sets on free will is obviously fascinating. But the ambiguity and non-static nature of those limits is sort of one point. Another point is that mental illness is itself ambiguous. Is throwing oneself out of a window more a sign of mental illness than a smoking habit, which millions of teenagers start every day? Is always wanting to commit suicide more a sign of mental illness than loving someone who always wants to commit suicide? Exactly how in sync are our ideas of mental health and rationality? Where exactly does one map itself upon the other?

A film tackling these ideas is not immune to criticism. It is potentially a litmus test for one's skill as a critic.

theoldboy said...

Thanks for the mad props, Ian. Always happy to snark all over something.

What keeps me from despairing over his tediously slick style and his dearth of restraint and what seems to be only a superficial understanding of the material he's adapting, Snyder has the capacity, evidenced by a couple sequences in Dawn of the Dead, to really pop one of AJ's oft-mocked filmic boners. A lot of Schoonmaker juice is flowing in DotD's opening sequences. And I've heard that what complete footage has been screened of Watchmen is a lot more patient than the trailers. Mostly what I'm worried about now are the ending and the acting. I think, tentatively, that the way they've changed the ending is a mistake and makes Dr.Manhattan's storyline problematic, though I can't yet put my finger on how, and what acting I've seen seems too affected and self-consciously comicbooky. The Japanese trailer also makes the scenes with Richard Nixon look really awful. Not only does the guy only barely resemble Nixon, he's apparently been given some really lame villainish dialogue to growl.

theoldboy said...

Also, I'm kind of wishing Paul Greengrass had gotten to make it, with the creative control that Snyder has had. That kind of aesthetic, albeit perhaps a little more restrained than Bourne-ballistic, would have been far more appropriate to the material than one that screams "HOLY SHIT GRAPHIC NOVEL" in every frame, even if that kind of jagged semirealism might have compromised the symbolic intricacy of the book.

Alex Jackson said...

Great questions Rachel. I failed the litmus test and I'm a shitty critic. Not trying to be sarcastically self-depreciating or anything like that, you delivered a good blow and I failed the readers. This Sundance thing, man, I feel like I have really completely lost my shit.

The contradictions you bring up cannot be resolved, but I should have been more cognizant in recognizing them. I guess I did have a good start, but I needed to incubate more. I really bit off a big fuckin' chunk taking on the free will argument.

Jesus....

I think I can offer this as a preliminary supplement.

Yes, Evan's behavior cannot be both predetermined and then be called weaselly. The advantage of believing in predetermination is that it can absolve his parents of their anger toward Evan and the feeling that there was something they could have done to prevent it. The disadvantage is simply that it is so hard to conceptualize not having control over your behavior.

Great question about where our ideas about mental illness sync up with our ideas of rationality. In Evan's suicide note, he makes a list of reasons to commit suicide and then reasons not to do it. He had the same number, but the reasons to commit suicide trumped it. It was definitely a rational decision, but we intuitively code it as a mentally ill decision meaning irrational.

Thanks for the substantive discussion. Will try to do better next time.

Jared said...

Ian you are officially my favorite reviewer of all time. "The Card Cheat" is literally my favorite song ever.

Walter_Chaw said...

Love the post, love Rachel as ombudsman. Worried about Watchmen; just finished Babylon A.D.. That's it.

Berandor said...

It is with hesitation, but I think I must defend Alex here (to a point).

I like his point about the boy's hard wiring for suicide AND the point about weaseling out of consequences. Because the hard wiring might have been hacked by a greater regard for consequences, and certainly wanting to be forgotten might be a way to allow the hard wiring to succeed.

I don't believe we have free will in the traditional sense, but that doesn't mean there is a course plotted for us at our birth and no way to deviate from it. Maybe today, medicine and therapy only postponed the inevitable for fifteen years; maybe someday soon, it is able to postpone it until one's natural death.

The question would be whether that was a good thing. For the boy, suicide might have truly been the way to go, and postponing that without really changing the hard wiring would make him miserable and nothing more. For the parents, however, things are different, and indeed, the boy probably did not want to cause grief, hence wanting to be forgotten, but that is not a realistic hope – he just tried to weasel out of it. No matter how inevitable the suicide may have been.

Of course, since it was Alex' review, I would probably loathe the movie (we just seem to have opposite opinions on most everything), but this is how I read it.

Bemis said...

Interesting to see FFC assembling its own team of rivals.

Rick said...

I was always under the impression that Alex is prone to contradicting himself, due to his stream of consciousness(and lengthy)-style of writing. I understand these were more clear-cut examples of contradictions (being edited highlights these cases?), but generally isn't Alex allowed a pass because of his style? He seems to be more raw than calculated, and can throw a lot of different and/or conflicting ideas out there, as opposed to someone who may be over-analytical of their writing, in fear of not looking good? With Alex, one-hundred percent of the time the purpose of his reviews seem to focus more around the love of movies than around self-consciously proving his skills. I thought this is what Alex brought to the table, and what separated him from everyone else. I love his often "incoherent" but undeniably passionate writing, and I think coaching may be pointless. I assume most of everyone here contradicts themselves with their own actions anyways (there is only so much you can back up when being perfect in theory), if not in their writing.

Rick said...

And by the way, I recall many blogs ago that certain people claimed to not have come from money (possibly offended due to a sterotype being so accurate). How does one become so razor-sharp and percise in criticism of criticism, outside-looking-in rational thought on personal subjects (seemingly so detached from the subject they could never be mentally ill themselves, they have such a firm grasp on philosophy, psychology, life they have been granted full immunity), when they have all of their time taken away by jobs, bills, people to support, daily struggles, etc.?

Rick said...

Actually, it's not worth it. I'm just riffraff, who am I to try to hang?

Rachel Andelman said...

Because the hard wiring might have been hacked by a greater regard for consequences, and certainly wanting to be forgotten might be a way to allow the hard wiring to succeed.

My point was that his desire to be forgotten might have also been part of his hard wiring.

Fact is, judgments are cheap. Call the kid's actions weaselly. All right, I ask: to what end? His ignoble death means there is an urge to pin some sort of blame on him. But the parents cannot be ignored: their actions, their mental maps. Otherwise, it's just another story about righteous suffering, with which the audience inevitably relates, and by that fact learns nothing.

Bill C said...

Apropos of nothing, QUARANTINE is pretty kick-ass. The first 10 minutes are genius, the soundmix should've been Oscar-nommed (along with CLOVERFIELD's, but QUARANTINE's has more verisimilitude), and the last 5 minutes are up there with BLAIR WITCH in terms of scary/depressing.

It's a fairly straightforward remake of [REC], but...erm, I think it might actually be better. Bryant's gonna be covering the disc in full soon.

Ian Pugh said...

Ugh.

And thanks, Jared. Big fan of London Calling.

Jefferson said...

Ian: That's gross, but have you heard about the video game?

jer fairall said...

I don't understand anyone who doesn't think that London Calling is the greatest rock album of all time.

Anonymous said...

Just saw Downfall last night. So-so movie but Bruno Ganz was brillant and I think I am in love with Alexandra Maria Lara. I have moved Youth Without Youth to the top of my Netflix queue.

DaveA said...

OK, after Bill's praise I went to see Quarantine, since I'm a sucker for sound design. Didn't see [REC], but found it almost to be a remake of Cloverfield, in the sense that it follows the same style and structure.

Anyway, sound-mix is indeed pretty tense, almost audacious. The choppers roaring in the speakers for half of the running time are a bit much, but it surely adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the movie.

Bill C said...

The part I found really effective was the ride in the firetruck: the blaring horns, the motor, the tires scraping the pavement, the clang-clang of the equipment, the way the passengers actually had to shout (that's a pet peeve in movies, when people speaking normally can be heard above the din of a nightclub or a busy street). Just really attentive stuff. And of course the last five minutes is a tour de force of the heebie-jeebies.

DJR said...

I've disagreed with many of the views expressed around here as of late (TDK?), but I have to say that I recently caught up with Paranoid Park, and I can't believe how this confused mediocrity has been so praised by most of the critical community. I noticed that both Walter and Bill have taken shots at it, so I wish there had been a review. How about it boys?

Bill C said...

Well the moment's obviously passed for a theatrical review, and we never got a screener of the DVD, but it just might get covered in the upcoming Annual.

Anonymous said...

!

Annual?