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.
Posted by Ian Pugh at 10:50 PM