Alexandra DuPont, The Smartest Girl In The World, Watches WATCHMEN!!
Published at: March 6, 2009, 1 p.m. CST by hercules
(by Alexandra DuPont)
"The most unpleasant right-wing character is Rorschach. He almost ends up as the hero of the book.... Even if his politics are completely mad, he has this ferocious moral integrity that has made him one of the most popular characters.... and [he] was kind of my take on Steve Ditko. Someone had been interviewing Ditko and said, 'Have you ever heard of this book "Watchmen"?... It's got this character called Rorschach.' And he said, 'Oh, yes, Rorschach -- he's like Mr. A, except he's insane." [laughter]-- Alan Moore, talking about Steve Ditko (and Ditko's Rorschach-inspiring character "Mr. A") in Jonathan Ross' fantastic BBC documentary "In Search of Steve Ditko"
Q. What's the upshot?
You know, after skimming all the reviews of "Watchmen" -- from the embargo-busting blowjobs to the crank-butts rooting for it to fail to Anthony Lane proving, again, that every review he writes is less about cinema and more about the splendor of his insults -- I'm starting to wonder if saying "'Watchmen' was okay" isn't some sort of revolutionary act.
"Watchmen" was ... well, it was okay. It's a surface-skimmer that should have milked more art, philosophy and emotion out of its ideas and characters, especially toward the end. It also has a lot of trouble keeping a steady tone -- some actors go natural, a couple go barn-broad under pounds of bad makeup.
But it starts brilliantly. It does a solid job of distilling a coherent story out of a sprawling book. It's gonzo with detail. It's weird and harsh and visceral and Pop -- and I love that it has an '80s score. At least three of the actors totally bring the pain. And it could have been a lot less adventurous than it is. Hell, I love that a superhero movie just totally turned the crank of a chick with awesome serial-killer-muscle-car-noir tastes like my pal Kim Morgan, even if I didn't like the movie nearly as much as she did.
Anyway. I'm guessing the big-screen "Watchmen" won't endure like the comic. But it's ambitious and problematic in an entertaining way. For many of you, that won't be enough.
In the coming weeks, this flick's going to get parsed to death. (I feel like it's already been pre-parsed to death. Hi.) And it's going to be easy to forget, amid all the audience-splitting and monitor-sputum, just how hard Zack Snyder and his team swung for the back bleachers on this. Snyder basically spent his entire line of Hollywood credit on a dark ending, an epic running time, an R rating, Jackie Earle Haley, alternate-universe 1985 and a swinging blue cod. I'd rather have seen Greengrass' take on this material, frankly -- but there's real heroism and gristle in what Snyder fought to get onscreen. (If you don't believe me, read this.)
That said, for my money the movie has a core problem, and it's this: Zack Snyder is far better at stirring your glands with sex and violence than he is at stirring your brain with nuance and philosophy -- and Moore and Gibbons could stir both, with nothing more than lines on paper. Snyder has a good eye and some serious sack, but I'd argue (unhappily) that he simply wasn't the best director for this gig.
Q. What's the story?
Oh, you know. This feels like a good place to link to a couple of online reading companions to the comic book -- which break down every page with awesomely dense annotations. Here are Doug Atkinson's "Watchmen" annotations. Here's "Watching the Detectives."
Anyway, in case you just came out of a quarter-century coma or something: We're in an alternate-timeline 1985. A bunch of fucked-up second-generation superheroes won Vietnam and kept Nixon in the White House. The Cold War's still on. The superheroes have human frailty mapped onto their standard archetypes -- the Superman character can't help disconnecting from the human race, the Batman character is a fetishist, &tc. There's a murder. It's the iceberg-tip of a conspiracy in which the supervillain (if you can call him that) has a master plan that's a brilliant mind-fuck of a practical joke. Cue loss of easy ideals, injection of shades of grey and dark metaphysics into once-primary-colored superhero genre. I never thought I'd see this in a movie theater, much less find the book on sale at bloody Target.
Q. What's good?
1. Snyder and his team have done a fairly confident job of boiling down most of the book's plot and images into a movie story without seeming to kiss the book's ass, if that makes any sense. They knew what to throw away, what to change, and why, at least until the very end. I do wish we had (except in fleeting shots) the newsagent and the kid reading the pirate comic and especially the long, patient chapter in which studying Walter Kovacs destroys the prison psychiatrist's smug bourgeois home life (though perhaps the director's cut will restore some of that). The dense texture created by the comic's Russian-novel cast of thousands is a big part of the book's appeal for me. But I didn't really miss it while I was being carried along in the theater -- I was too busy being impressed that Snyder had preserved so much of the book's nasty freak-show core. The burning-building rescue is still the only actual act of genuine heroism performed by any of these "superheroes"; the rest of the time, they're still -- miraculously, in this risk-averse Hollywood age -- a bunch of deviants gleefully performing assorted acts of genocide between bouts of angst and coitus.
(If anyone sat next to a parent who took their kids to this thinking it's just another capes-and-tights movie, please tell your story in TalkBack; I can't imagine it was pretty, and maybe it was hilarious.)
2. In a development that will surprise absolutely no one, Snyder is especially good at translating the iconic images from the comic (except for the opening of Chapter 12 -- see below), especially if those iconic images are gory. The long pullback from the smiley-face button to Blake's broken penthouse window? It's here. Rorschach's final blood-and-guts snow angel? Almost as lovingly shot as a compound fracture during one bold cross-cut sequence.
3. Good Lord, the first 20 or 30 minutes are just insanely, audaciously great. (I even loved little details like the way the studio credits snapped hard against a solid yellow color field; it felt old-school, and kind of set a tone of departure like the stylized MGM logo did in "2001." But I may be reaching there.) The opening murder scene in Eddie Blake's penthouse is beautifully choreographed -- I guess the cool kids are tired of his choreography style one whole movie later, but I personally love the way Snyder deliberately lingers in slo-mo over an action beat like a kid lingering over a comic-book panel. And by setting the whole scene to Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable," Snyder lends the murder of The Comedian a shocking amount of world-weary sadness, even when the Comedian is lobbing kitchen utensils. If CHUD can bring up "The Godfather," I'm just going to go ahead and bring up Hitchcock (but only for this scene).
4. And then the movie segues into one of the best opening-credits sequences I've seen in years -- a series of densely packed, semi-still images that cram in Easter eggs from the graphic novel and pop culture while surveying the rise, fall and corruption of the costumed adventurer over a few decades, all set to Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'." The movie's never quite this good again, but still.
5. Patrick Wilson keeps a little of the paunch and all of the impotence as a naturalistic Dan Drieberg, Billy Crudup's spooky voice work (mostly) carries you through the uncanny valley of the all-CG Dr. Manhattan, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan actually creates a perverse sort of empathy for homicidal sex-offender black-ops jackass Eddie Blake. But know my meaning when I write that Jackie Earle Haley is to Rorschach as Mickey Rourke was to Marv. It's one of those wonderful collisions of actor and part where God seemingly set a man's atoms in motion so he could tumble through life and land in front of this camera in this costume. Drew touched on something essential in his early review: Haley was a child star with an expressive, weird face (I love him as the least-troubled Cutter in "Breaking Away"), but he ended up driving a limo for a while there while L.A. was kicking his ass -- and his years in the real world made him weathered and interesting in a way no personal trainer can fake. Haley absolutely nails every "Hrm" out of Rorschach's mouth, he acts through a mask so well you forget he's wearing one, and when he takes it off and stares down assorted psychiatrists and gang bosses, there's a coiled fury there that's absolutely riveting. He's every bit as good as you've heard he is, especially when he's disdainfully sneering as he takes the actual Rorschach ink-blot test. And he's so tiny, there are a couple of scenes where he almost looks like his own Rorschach maquette, so that's kind of cool.
6. I've heard people bagging on the obviousness of the pop songs in this movie -- but the ersatz-period score by Tyler Bates strikes me as pretty damned swell. At its best, it hits a nice '80s Carpenter/Vangelis groove; you can practically hear the "Blade Runner" temp score when Rorschach is zipping by grappling hook to the Comedian's penthouse.
Q. What's not-so-good?
1. Malin Akerman isn't so much lousy as Laurie Jupiter -- she just utterly fails to make an impression. On the page, Laurie always struck me as being what I'd call "Karen Allen feisty" -- you could see how she was the sort of fiery woman who would attract powerful men despite her '80s-coke-queen exterior. Akerman kind of stops at '80s coke queen. Mainly, the culprit is her thin American accent -- it has that same shallow, party-girl flatness that drones from the larynx of every cast member of "The Hills."
2. Matthew Goode has a similar but much-less-severe problem as Ozymandias -- which really surprised me, given the charisma bomb Goode dropped as the scumbag charmer manipulating Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "The Lookout." He and Snyder decided to go Full Glam Bowie with Ozymandias, which is an interesting choice -- except that they remove the intellectual passion and the sense of a heavy crown that courses through the character in the book.
The Matthew Goode problem can be summed up with a single example, actually: In the book, after Veidt pulls off his scheme, he gets a final scene alone with Jon. All his megalomaniacal smartest-man-on-earth defenses drop, and he plainly asks Jon if he did the right thing. Jon says "Nothing ever ends" and leaves Veidt alone, Veidt's back and head turned uncomfortably, the architect of mankind's future haunted by shadows, ghosts, and the eternal threat of failure. It's a great, chilling panel of comics -- a real tragic-horror moment. It's also completely absent from the movie. Instead, we just zoom away from Veidt through a hole in Karnak's ceiling along with the rest of cast and leave him in Antarctica, never knowing exactly how troubled he is by his deeds. (In fact, if memory serves, Laurie gets the "Nothing ever ends" line.)
3. Frankly -- and having been a teenager in the '80s, this is really weird to write -- "Watchmen"'s Cold War setting feels oddly ... quaint. If you were sentient when "The Day After" first aired on ABC, you'll remember how unbearably terrifying nuclear proliferation was at its MAD peak; "Watchmen" the comic caught that wave of dread with remarkable precision. The movie? Not so much. A larger sense of dread is probably the biggest casualty of stripping a bunch of the book's regular-guy supporting characters out of the screenplay -- the film drops all those wonderful textural scenes of characters talking helplessly about how the world is going to hell as they try to get through their suddenly meaningless days.
4. It also doesn't help that the film's scapegoat of irrational nuclear doom, President Richard Nixon in his fourth term, is played by Robert Wisden doing a funny voice in big-nose makeup that makes him look like a cross between a "Spitting Image" puppet and a Bob Hope caricature. Also unhelpful: Most of his scenes take place on the War Room set from "Dr. Strangelove." Wacky! Subtle! (I'm also told by a fellow moviegoer that Dr. Manhattan's apartment is basically laid out like the glowing hotel room from "2001," BTW.)
5. Speaking of bad makeup: Carla Gugino is terrific as young Sally Jupiter; she effortlessly looks, acts and talks like the sort of woman you'd spontaneously start painting on a plane. She is absolutely horrible as Sally Jupiter doing a funny old-person voice in a bad wig and a rubbery chicken-neck appliqué, sipping cocktails with the ferocity of a Douglas Sirk supporting character. My pornographer pal T.K. (who liked the film; more from him below) summed it up perfectly: "Carla Gugino in old-age makeup looks like Lea Thompson in 'Back to the Future II.'" (Note to all actors forever: If you play a character at two different ages, use the same voice throughout. Did "Godfather III" teach us nothing?)
6. Sort of semi-related. There was one mid-film scene where Dan and Laurie were having dinner in a restaurant and I suddenly for about a minute became acutely aware that I was watching people on a set in costumes, much as one might get that sense while watching a B-picture shot in the '40s. I have no idea why.
7. Also, I'm afraid I must be counted among those who disliked the changes in the final act, though it didn't completely cripple the movie for me. As you probably know by now, Adrian Veidt no longer teleports a genetically engineered, Lovecraftian alien monster/psychic nightmare-bomb into New York City, leaving the entire planet thinking it must unite against a threat from outer space. Instead, Veidt sets off tidy, body-disintegrating explosions replicating Dr. Manhattan's powers in cities across the globe, leaving the entire planet thinking it must unite against a threat from the recently departed Jon Osterman.
I already know the arguments in favor of this change: It ties Veidt's plan more directly to the other characters; the "squid" would look stupid; it brings destruction to the whole planet instead of New York; it makes the parallels to 9/11 less blatant; yadda yadda yadda. If that makes the filmmakers feel better, fine. But allow me to retort. First off, the "alien threat" didn't have to be a giant squid; it could have been something more abstract, or even some kind of massive bombardment from deep space. Second, putting the blame on an American citizen turned into a weapon by an American laboratory accident -- superhero gone mad or no -- ultimately puts the blame for everything on America, period. Veidt's plan is meaningless unless the threat is completely external and all terrestrial villains are off the suspect list. I can't fathom how Snyder and David Hayter talked themselves around this simple fact.
8. That said, again, the change wasn't a deal-breaker for me; I was already on the narrative train by the time it happened. In fact, I was far more upset that Snyder skipped over the most potent, horrifying sequence in the book -- six staggering splash pages (constituting a single 360-degree camera pan, I think) of open-eyed corpses sprawled around a New York city intersection in the aftermath of Veidt's button-push. You know, the part where we see and feel the consequences of Veidt's actions. In the film, rather than picking among the bodies, Jon and Laurie stand over a giant, surprisingly tidy rubble-hole in New York City and chat for a few seconds, then teleport away. Given Snyder's knack for adding goopy violence everywhere else, I'm a little stunned at the exclusion.
9. But then, that sort of sums up the problem with the final act: It zips just a little too efficiently through its most horrible revelations. There's a hard-to-pin-down sense during the film's last half (especially during the sequences on Mars and in Antarctica) of Snyder putting the camera and the actors in more or less the right place, having them say most of the right words, and yet, for some alchemical reason, not really wringing a ton of emotion or profundity out of the moment.
I do have to say that this problem may be one of my having read and loved the book -- which left me watching the movie with a sort of comparison subroutine running in my head the whole time. (I certainly won't be alone in this.) But I wasn't having this problem much during that first half -- and I really think that speaks to the strengths and weakness of Zack Snyder as the director of this project. As talented as he is, he's not the ideal man for the job, because the ideal "Watchmen" director has to have a head, a heart, and a set of balls. When Snyder is staging hard-boiled sex and violence, dealing out abuse, playing with special effects and music, creating iconic images, and dwelling on the primal concerns of manly-men, he's terrific. When he's asked to stretch a little and depict politics, a nuanced conversation, a family argument, a woman's neuroses, or some sort of quantum or philosophical truth, he either goes a little too broad or stands back a little too far. It's a variation on the problem in the less-ambitious "300," where the movie leaked air whenever it left the Spartan army to hang out in the Senate.
I would love nothing more than to be completely turned around on this by a four-hour director's cut of the movie.
Q. What did your fellow screening attendees have to say afterward?
"R.P.," console-gaming engineer: "Before seeing 'Watchmen,' I didn't think there was any way I could be apathetic about the film -- that, because of how important the book is to me, I'd inevitably walk out with a strong feeling one way or another. But as the My Chemical Romance kicked in and the end credits rolled, I just felt ... ambivalent. Not underwhelmed or disappointed or angry, but not satisfied or impressed, either -- just a 'Yep, that was mostly kinda "Watchmen," alright. So, where to for drinks?'"
"P.H.," telemarketer: "Snyder mostly got the point, I think. Except for when he had The Owlship jizz hot fire all over New York to finish the goofiest Leonard Cohen video ever."
"R.H.," lesbian filmmaker, agreeing with P.H.: "It felt like the entire audience was consciously holding back their laughter during the abominable sex scene. I think Snyder has some sort of a grudge against Leonard Cohen, and decided to ruin 'Hallelujah' for everyone, forever.
"Malin Akerman looked great in her supersuit, but her entire performance consisted of her obvious pleasure at having actually memorized her lines, and nothing else. Jackie Earle Haley -- single best thing about the movie. He elevated it, repeatedly, to where it ought to have been, and usually wasn't. Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Carla Gugino also brought more to the table than Snyder was asking from his actors, and it showed.
"The breaking-Rorschach-out-of-jail sequence in the prison? Ooooooh: Someone saw 'Oldboy.' Could the use of 'All Along the Watchtower' have been any more painfully on-the-nose? It was like a musical sledgehammer of obviousness. I miss the squid monster."
"E.C.," ambassador: "That was like eating a chocolate-cinnamon Flan with a hint of Oaxacan cheese, or spending the night with a really skilled high-class escort. The passion is undeniable. The flavor is magnificent. Your senses are titillated. And you’re left wanting, and you feel slightly guilty."
"T.K.," pornographer: "I'm a huge fan of the comic, but if you can pull yourself away from the source material long enough to look at the flick from a purely cinematic point of view, you'll see that the movie serves as a pretty profoundly fucked-up meditation on not only superheroes, but also on the people who dig superheroes. This is all subtext in the 'Watchmen' comic, but it wasn't until I saw all of these characters on the big screen that I realized that each of the heroes is crippled by an archetypal personality flaw endemic to a lot of comic book fans: the well-meaning but outta-shape/impotent Nite Owl, the too-smart-for-his-own-good Ozymandias, the rage-filled Rorschach and the all-knowing-but-tragically-disconnected-from-humanity pile of protons that is Doc Manhattan. It wouldn't be too hard to see these same characters stuck together in high school, unable to get dates or get along with anyone else while the Silk Spectre II bumps uglies with the school's quarterback.
"As much as people were flipping the fuck out about 'The Dark Knight' last year, that movie didn't feature heroes who hack people apart with butcher's knives, shoot pregnant women or drown midgets in a toilet. This stuff may seem to be old hat since we've all read it years ago (well, maybe not the butcher-knives part), but this is a startling new ground for silver-screen heroes to tread, especially since no one is particularly punished for all the brutality they've dished out by the times the credits roll, which is also a kind of rarity. Sure, 'Watchmen' may just be a lumbering, stilted Frankenstein of a movie, but it's a Frankenstein powerful enough to rip your head off when you aren't looking, man.
"My only other comment would be that if the producers of 'Watchmen' don't see fit to make a poster out of the film's version of the [lesbianic] VJ Day kiss, then they've gotta be out of their fucking minds.
"(Oh, and that when you go to see the movie this weekend, you won't be watching Jackie Earl Haley -- Jackie Earl Haley will be watching you.)"
"V.Q.," policy analyst: "My anti-'Watchmen' screed goes something like this: 'Watchmen' is a book that begs you to take its ideas seriously. And when you do, what you find is quite ugly.
"Moore hates heroes. Why he got into this line of work is something of a mystery. It's like someone who hates nature getting a gig with National Geographic. This hatred comes across on every page of Watchmen. He hates the heroes who gave up on heroism, painting them as impotent losers. He hates the heroes who kept fighting, making them into psychopaths and worse. But most of all, he hates the superhero, who he insists must be a vaguely-doltish uber-mensch. And more than anything else, in Moore's mind, heroes mean fascism.
"(Moore hates heroes so much that when he wrote Batman, he made the Joker out to be an innocent who was created by the Dark Knight.)
"So 'Watchmen' has all the Moore-hero themes: Governments are fascist; governments which are run by Republicans are really fascist; heroes who try to save the world are fascistic villains; heroes who try to stop the heroes trying to save the world are fascist thugs; etc. etc. etc. Orwell wrote that the term 'fascist' had become so overused that it had simply come to mean 'some one or thing I don't like.' But with Moore it's even worse: When he uses it, it doesn't really mean anything.
"I would argue that Moore's brand of dystopian misanthropy is wrong-headed and sophomoric and belied by 5,000 years of messy, imperfect, but ultimately glorious human history. But let's leave that aside for the moment: Watchmen's brand of dystopian misanthropy has been specifically refuted by events. It's one thing to worry about the evil U.S. policies of containment and mutually-assured destruction in 1986. It's one thing to paint a particular political party as being unconstitutionally obsessed with the possession of power and recklessly in pursuit of nuclear confrontation with an enemy who probably wasn't so bad.
"But as it turns out, that entire worldview was vitiated by events. In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended. Reagan's strategic policy decisions vis-a-vis the Soviet Union were completely vindicated. MAD proved to be an effective deterrent. The conflict between the East and West was settled without a shot being fired. And, perhaps most importantly, the Truman/Kennedy/Reagan view of communism as an insidious ideology which led to violent, repressive authoritarianism was borne out.
"So Moore was wrong. His fears were wrong. His warnings were wrong. His fundamental view of the world was wrong. And 'Watchmen,' in particular, is left as a bizarre cultural artifact. A pretentious piece of commentary masquerading as philosophy."
Oh, my. DuPont here. If I had to sum it up: Occasionally it's stunning. Occasionally it's not, and unfortunately, a lot of the "not" happens toward the end, leaving my passions a little less stirred than I'd like. (It made this review surprisingly tough to write, actually. Nothing's harder to describe than warm sauce.) But the stunning stuff means the art ledger still sort of balances out to "okay." I have no idea where that leaves us. I'll probably see it again.
Warmest, Alexandra DuPont.