March 02, 2009

Whose Side Is Time On?

I assume Bill was planning an official Watchmen talkbalk, but I thought it was important to have one a few days before the film is released. Right now, if you haven't given up on the project, you're probably at your maximum level of anticipation. This is the most interesting of all possible Hollywood adaptations, because its source isn't even a little bit stupid and yet contains the kinds of scenes that scream blockbuster while having a structure that many consider unfilmable. If there's any time to vent spleen about what you need in a Watchmen adaptation, or even better, what you think you need before you know exactly what you're going to get, this is the best of all possible times.

In order to do this properly, we must make liberal use of spoilers, but to be cautious, I won't use any in this initial post. The eye notices the strangest things by accident. And yes, Bill, I still haven't seen a Watchmen trailer, but I have seen one commercial.

In the past few days, I've been reading a bunch of Alan Moore interviews online. A Wired piece, recently linked to by IMDb, was particularly interesting. Already skeptical of the idea that artists are the most qualified to understand their own art, I couldn't get past Moore's mantra that Watchmen is unfilmable, or even the more esoteric view that its meta-comic construction makes cinematic adaptation pointless. Joss Whedon even said, "It's a comic book about pop culture as viewed through a comic book, so I didn't see the point of making a movie." Well, ok, but Bram Stoker's Dracula was basically the Blair Witch of its day--horror by way of primary document. But would it have made sense to criticize adaptations of Dracula for not following the structure? Is the world of the fiction interesting without the structure, without the theory? In the case of Dracula, and of course in Watchmen, I'd say it is. And why the hell can't a movie be about pop culture as viewed through a comic book? It's certainly less obvious than just making another movie about pop culture as viewed through a movie.

Let's say for now that it's filmable. I mean, fuck, it's coming out Friday. So what are the obstacles in adapting Watchmen as a Hollywood picture? Effects, structure, and tone.

Twenty years ago, the effects would have been a pain in the ass, but these days, if you have enough money to throw at the problem you can do pretty much anything you want. You still can make stupid decisions, but I don't doubt that Dr. Manhattan will be very, very blue.

Twenty years ago, the structure wouldn't have been as much of a problem, but these days, if you have enough money to throw at the effects, you aren't allowed to play with the structure. I don't care if the little excerpts and documents at the end of the Watchmen books were originally intended to be there. There was a time when I would rather have seen an Under the Hood feature than a Watchmen feature. In fact, imagine a movie about the Minutemen that ends with the correction, "God exists and he's American." Still, the flashbacks are so carefully planned in the books that you have to intentionally screw them up, so there's even hope--up to a point--for structure.

The tone is tricky, though, because it shifts based on the point of view--sometimes grim, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes just sad. Snyder's completely capable of failing to find the right tone. He even said about his next film, "I wanted to make an action movie that's just, like, crazy and sexy and dark and just cool. I don't want any rules, and I don't want any pedigree. I just want to go crazy and shoot some shots that make me remember why movies are badass." That's right, the Watchmen director fondly remembers his younger days, when making movies was significantly more badass--unlike Watchmen, which is really, once you get down to it, not badass. So it's safe to say that I'm nearly afraid on a Brett Ratner level. But at the end of the same interview, Snyder says, "The thing is, you can get crucified on the same cross that you worship." I don't think Ratner would care about getting crucified.

As likely as it might be to screw up effects, structure, or tone, they're not the real problem. It seems banal, but the real reason to think Watchmen is unfilmable is simply length. In other words, it's the same reason it's hard to film any novel--density. Hollywood doesn't want a movie to be more than 160 minutes, because well, Gone with the Wind came out a long time ago, or because Godfather 2 was boring, or because Titanic will never make any money, or something. With 600 minutes to work with, there are some novels you still couldn't adapt perfectly. Who, deep down, really thinks Peter Jackson made all the right decisions about the pacing and tone of The Lord of the Rings? The really sad part is that you could make a definitive Watchmen in four hours or so, but we won't have that option.

And in this era, I think that's a mistake. How many people do you know who watched an entire season of a television show in one sitting? I know someone who watched the first episode of 24 on television and then watched the next 23 in one sitting. I also know someone who downloaded the first 11 Watchmen Motion Comics and watched them in one sitting. I did.

What do I need to see in the Watchmen movie? I need a Rorschach who seems crazy because of calm determination and not because he's a badass. I need some time spent understanding the three eras of heroes. I need Dr. Manhattan trying to mindfuck us on Mars right in the middle of a murder mystery. I need to know that Tales of the Black Freighter will fit in properly to an extended version, even if it doesn't make it into this one. I need Nite Owl to be impotent and then cured right after the ramp of his ship fucks a window. I need the ending to feel less rushed than it does in the book.

What do you need?


Dan said...

Y'know, I'm still of the opinion that the comic is the comic, and this adaptation is allowed to make a few changes and concessions so it can be profitable and appeal to a wider demographic. I love Watchmen, but I couldn't sit through a 4 hour 100% faithful movie. It wouldn't work, especially from a business perspective. A mini-series, perhaps, but not a movie. I want a 2-3 hour movie that does justice to the core themes and ideas of the book, but is ultimately its own beast. I don't mind that the squid isn't in there (as, to be honest, I found the squid incredibly silly in the book.)

I know there are diehard fans who can wax lyrical about why the squid should be in the finale, but I like David Hayter's thoughts about why he ditched it. And I think a film could improve in plenty of other areas, too. Am I the only one who thinks the Black Freighter stuff is unnecessary? Wise choice to make that a separate project to be inserted into a Director's Cut.

From what I've heard, Watchmen the movie is a very good adaptation and I'm looking forward to seeing it. Whatever its quality, the comic will always be there. And I have vague hope Alan Moore will watch it one day and begrudgingly admit it's not too bad. But chances are he'll rip it to shreds, as he seems to believe comics are THE artistic medium -- ironically, for reasons that make regular prose superior. Can someone turn Watchmen into a novel next time?

Patrick said...

I want Rorschach to not be made a rocking badass hero; as a matter of fact, I want none of them to be rocking badass heroes, exactly.

And I don't want every (fight) scene to devolve into the kind of slo-mo badassery you've seen a hundred times before.

I want a smidgen of sophistication – I realize this is a blockbuster movie, so dumbing down is inevitable, but keep it somewhat intelligent.

And I really, really don't care about the Black Freighter, so good riddance.

Shrug said...

I want the Teaser videos that suggest awkward slathering of BADASS HURRR in the action extensions (i.e. Night Owl and Silk Specter in the prison) to be a clever piece of misdirection.

But none of this matters to me now that I've heard Malick's next will feature dinosaurs.

Dan said...

Having been lucky enough to sneak into an early press screening last week, I feel compelled to add to the current 'maximum level of anticipation' by chiming in and offering my two cents during this very short period of time for which I can pretend to be an authority.

My own initial sense of excitement at seeing the long-anticipated project finally getting a green light last year with this particular cast in place was soon overshadowed by that sense of dreadful foreboding that was continuously fueled by the words 'from the visionary director of 300.' By the time the second trailer appeared, all slo-mo recreations of iconic panels accompanied by pretentious alt-rock, a deep sense of cynicism set in. By the time I actually got to see the thing last week, I had already condemned the film publicly on more than a few occasions, and went in convinced of the fact that my four-word review would be something along the lines of Kurtz's final words in Apocalypse Now.

The first fifteen minutes or so of the film seemed to confirm my worst suspicions: a slo-mo/fast-mo fight in the Comedian's apartment, an slo-mo run-through of Watchmen's alternate post-WWII history, again in slo-mo, and then the rote recreation of the famous opening camera pull-back from the button to the roof.

But as the narrative started to develop and characters were introduced, the film began to pull me in: Rorschach's status as 'hero' proved to be neither more nor less problematic than in the book, Dan Dreiberg is made more appealing without sacrificing his general dorkiness thanks to a nuanced performance by the brilliantly-cast Patrick Wilson, and Dr. Manhattan is one of those 'exactly as I had imagined him'-adaptations in every aspect. What's more: the attention to detail, which I had expected to have an embalming effect, actually brings new and interesting moments to the text, not the least of which is the 'new' ending, which I find actually improves in some ways on the original.

Which is not to say that it's a perfect film, or even, as many will surely start proclaiming shortly, the 'best graphic novel adaptation of all time.' I'm still not a fan of Snyder's 'hyper-kinetic' action sequences, and much of the film's appropriately ambiguous stance on superheroes is inevitably overshadowed by its abundant eye candy.

But the biggest surprise was that it seems to have been made by a team of people who don't just love the book, but who actually seem to understand it, and have managed to translate some of the elements that are most 'adaptable' to another medium with surprising skill. In that sense, it is rather similar to Snyder's version of Dawn of the Dead: another adaptation of a sanctified older text that proved to be much better than expected, and which actually adds interesting new elements to the original.

I must add that my overwhelmingly positive response to the film is no doubt partially the result of my dismal expectations - guess I'll have to see it again next week to offer a definitive opinion... ;)

Arlvy said...

I need the Comedian to be an evil misogyist who the Audience depise not love. I need Rorschach to be a sad old man not Jack Bauer in a mask. I need the Silk Spectre I/II segemtns to look at the sexualised image of female heroes and I'd like to see a giant Squid psychically rape New York. I think I might get one out five.

Alex Jackson said...

Been looking for an occasion to make this comment, but a while back I asked the question, "Which DVDs have you seen that actually improve upon the theatrical experience? So much so that you haven't really seen the film until you see it on DVD". After I asked this somebody actually picked up on and discussed the question on a scholarly film blog in terms that I think I barely understood.

But anyway, I suspect that the DVD release of Watchmen is going to be much more faithful to the novel than the theatrically released films are. It was my understanding that the Black Freighter segments were NOT going to be put into the context of the film but were going to be free-floating extras. If not the Black Freighter comics, than at least the newscasts or the Behind the Hood segment would be best translated into free-floating extras. And you know, if you are seeing the film in the theater you are not getting this material which the author deemed essential enough to remain in the finished product.

In a very fundamental way, DVD is a different animal than film and one much closer to the graphic novel. You can skip to any place you want on a DVD and can examine a frame as closely and as long as you want. And it's really not as much a communal experience. You watch and absorb it in private. DVD is, or at least has the potential to be, a more cerebral and less sensual medium than film.

Which seems to make it a better place for Watchmen.

Perhaps it's inevitable for Comedian and Rorshach to be romanticized when they're projected onto a giant screen in front of a theater full of spectators.

Patrick said...

Is the motion comic the full graphic novel? I never heard of that before.

Arlvy said...

"Perhaps it's inevitable for Comedian and Rorshach to be romanticized when they're projected onto a giant screen in front of a theater full of spectators."

I think it probably is but then perhaps that is why Moore thinks Watchmen is unfilmable. Sure, there's an amount of idolising in the book but it's completely undercut by the story and deconstruction of the Superhero myth. The potency of film makes that much more difficult I suppose.

Patrick said...

Thanks for bringing the motion comics to my attention. These are great! They really allow me to approach the "real movie" with less anxiousness. I'm actually looking forward to thursday now.

Jefferson said...

Ha! Nice tweak to the mainsite logo.

When the sewers scab over all the rats and vermin will drown.

Bill C said...

Glad you like it, Jefferson. We try to do that for every geek happening; I think my personal fave was the DARK KNIGHT one.

Received word on WATCHMEN from Ian: "It's a trainwreck." I believe Walter's hashing something out on it as we speak.

Kyle Puetz said...

Here's what Kyle Smith of the New York Post had to say:

Director Zack Snyder's cerebral, scintillating follow-up to "300" seems, to even a weary filmgoer's eye, as fresh and magnificent in sound and vision as "2001" must have seemed in 1968, yet in its eagerness to argue with itself, it resembles "A Clockwork Orange."

I'm not anticipating as strong a reaction, at least on the positive side of the spectrum, when I get around to seeing it.

Patrick said...

I just came back from the film. I enjoyed it, but I don't know how someone unfamiliar with the comic will do. I think Snyder kept much more intact than I would have expected, especially thematically.

I didn't mind the lack of a kraken, only the heroes leaving Adrian Veidt full of spite.

However, I do think Snyder fucks the pacing up royally. His constant use of slow motion, even in scenes of people talking, and a generally "elegiac" editing gives the movie (get it, it "moves") a more glacial pace, and showstoppers don't really stop the show.

At the screening I was in, people guffawed in the beginning and reacted harshly to the rape scene, and the climactic ending seemed to leave them cold – just one more special effect. Naturally, we knew almost none of the people there, only the prison shrink. Who cares?

I did not like how they changed Rorschach's birth, but I'd be hard pressed to think of other changes (except for the Veidt ending, see above) that I did not either approve of or at least understand. I'd rather say they should have changed more and made it more their own, but then we might have gotten a "300". So I guess count my blessings.

Also, I wonder: does the US version also have Manhattan's penis on constant display, Silk Spectres naked breasts, a lesbian porn movie on Veidt's screen and an actual pornographic drawing in the Tijuana bible? In Germany, we have that (the film is 16 and above), as well as broken arms splattering blood, sawed-off arms and hacked skulls.

What we don't have is someone (aside from the comedian) smoking. Fancy that.

Patrick said...

Afterthought: (yeah, it's German, but when I've got something online before you guys, I gotta shill it :-) )

Bill C said...

FWIW, Ebert just gave it four stars.

Alex Jackson said...

Pans from Armond White, David Edelstein, and J. Hoberman however. Also Anthony Lane, but who gives a shit about him?

Love how Ebert's review shows him encountering the material for the very first time and actually discussing the ideas in the film. However the film turns out, this is going to be one of my favorite reviews.

Dan said...

68% on Rotten Tomatoes last time I checked -- although many of the "bad" reviews don't *totally* pan it. They mostly seem to have issues with pacing, or feel it was TOO reverant to the source material at times, with an underwhelming climax to cap a 2.5 hour runtime.

Promisingly, none of the bad reviews sway me into believing this is a dud. Not sure if there's a correlation with bad reviews coming from people who don't know the comic. Are the fan positive reviews suffering from Phantom Menace syndrome? Can't wait to see it for myself! And Ebert's four-star review has me very hopeful - particularly because he's not someone who knows the book.

Bill C said...

Just a heads-up that Walt's review has gone live -

Patrick said...

it occurs to me that Watchmen is a movie made by Dr. Manhattan; it should've been made by Rorschach.

Great quote! I liked the movie less than Ebert and more than Walter, it seems, but from reading Walter's review I suspect that I might have taken part of that enjoyment from the comic, i.e. that whatever the movie referenced, I took the depth of meaning from knowing the comic. I don't know, I can't watch the film as if I didn't know the graphic novel.

I still think, however, that more of Moore survives than I would have thought, and seeing that the film is designed as a blockbuster, that was unlikely.

Good point about it being unfilmable because film subverts the point, renders them into idols unless you design the film itself to be appalling. On that note, see also "Saturday Morning Watchmen": here.

Maybe the two stars is all right, after all. Even so, I'd say without Snyders stupid camera tricks it might be the best you can do (until Rorschach comes along and does it right).

The thing is, even though I enjoyed the film, I have no desire to really watch it again.

Walter_Chaw said...

Didn't Ebert give Phantom Menace four-stars?

The thing is, even though I enjoyed the film, I have no desire to really watch it again.

I think that's an interesting point. I want to see the opening credit sequence again - but would, soon after, sneak into Coraline or something.

Patrick said...

Yes, the opening montage, also known as the only time the music didn't just scream "obvious choice made by a reality TV producer", really took me into the film. That was a fine piece of work. If possible, I might look for a torrent of just that introduction.

Anonymous said...

Fuck, Walter's review is fantastic. It nails everything I feel about this film. The film is soulless and the review is definitive.

Shrug said...

To me, Watchmen seems pretty well summarized by the addition of Dan impotently wailing on an unresponsive Ozymandias to no particular end.