Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Watching the Watchmen, pt. 3

This movie has a bit of Barthelme in it.  Throughout Watchmen, Snyder directly appropriates sound and images from popular memory: the moon landing, the Zapruder film, Dr. Strangelove's war room, Ridley Scott's perfume commercial, Apocalypse Now's potent mixture of Wagner and Vietnam.  Even the scenes that are not in direct homage to earlier sources are made to look like found objects: we see police footage of Rorschach; Adrian Veidt poses for photographs with Annie Leibovitz; Nixon speechifies, live, before the post-apocalypse damage is even tallied.  And when characters break, that happens iconically, publicly, too: Moth Man's institutionalization, replete with flashbulbs; Dr. Manhattan's prime-time freakout.  Televisions are everywhere in this movie, just as print matter (books, newspapers, comics) turned up page and page again in the graphic novel.  The Comedian, minutes from death, flips channels, adjusts the volume; protesters throw explosives through the window of an electronics store glowing with illuminated screens; we hear about Rorschach's arrest and Mason's death from the nightly news; at the film's close, Veidt brandishes "another ultimate weapon": his remote control.  Snyder has adopted the book's technique of collage, but tailored his allusions to work in moving pictures rather than static ones.  The result isn't just that, as he modestly and somewhat repetitiously states on the director commentary, "it looks cool," but that, like the graphic novel, the world of Watchmen the film is an explicitly postmodern world, inhabited by postmodern characters who are aware of their actions not just qua action but as public symbol, metaphor, myth.

The most postmodern stroke of all in the film's ultimate cut, though, is the one that does directly reference comic books: the Black Freighter subplot.  Even after seeing the theatrical cut of the film and reading the graphic novel, I had doubts about the possibility of integrating this story into the film -- though I saw the thematic connections, I wasn't sure what it would really add.  The ultimate cut proved me definitively wrong.  The Black Freighter sequences, executed in vivid (and often disgusting) 2-D animation, aren't just a visual triumph.  If in the book this captain's sordid tale ran parallel to the main story, serving to provide mainly a meta-textual commentary on the nature of comic books themselves, in the movie it becomes something less cerebral: a kind of David Lynchian opening into of the city's troubled mind.  In one scene, the camera zooms on a single panel of the comic -- slowly the waves begin to lap, and we are transported.  Yet the animation, bracketed by a primarily live action film, serves as a constant reminder that the story we're viewing is the creation of someone, that it's the product of a particular psychology and perspective.  And while the graphic novel told us who drew Black Freighter and why, creating a larger context in which the comic functioned as society's mirror, the movie allows us to access the comic's grisly seascape only through the more junior of the two Bernards, whose response to it is nuanced, perplexed, and largely internal.  If Veidt's creation -- a united world -- is meant to be that public and impersonal thing, the greatest good for the greatest number, the Black Freighter is the perfect counterpoint: private, handmade, self-contained, the product of neurosis and obsession, and without a materially positive effect on anyone, yet somehow viscerally true.  It's apt that we see the obliteration of this comic, and this reader, in Veidt's nuclear blast: in destroying the city, he hasn't just wrecked one real world, but the millions of tiny imagined ones carried around in people's heads.

I could spend some time pointing out what's wrong with this film -- the unintentionally hilarious sex scene, Malin Akerman's wobbly performance (she sure is cute though), the dialogue's sometimes clunky exposition.  But none of that interests me nearly as much as the picture's sweeping ambition, and its great success on the whole in realizing it.  The Village Voice once famously said reviewing Mason & Dixon was like "reviewing the Atlantic Ocean"; I'd have to say the same thing about Watchmen.  It's dark, and deep, and sometimes very cold, but it merits a lot of exploring.


Eric Taxier said...

I wonder what you make of the line that drew some laughs in the theater, when Nite Owl asks the Comedian during the police riots, "what happened to the American dream?" ("It came true. You're lookin' at it," replies the Comedian, in front of an American flag.)

Why the almost absurd ironic remove here? I bought the postmodern references (like the Vietnam/Wagner/Coppola "joke"), but abstract thematic exposition in dialog seems different. The dialog isn't a cultural signifier or a "found object," yet the scene plays out (complete with swelling music) like it's advertising itself.

I honestly don't know, but my best guess is that those lines stamp the flashback into the viewer's mind as a Comedian icon -- an entire scene portraying the character as an idea (like an extended version of the Comedian's smiley-face "badge").

The Chawmonger said...

I think you hit the nail on the head when you say, "Those lines stamp the flashback into the viewer's mind as a Comedian icon -- an entire scene portraying the character as an idea (like an extended version of the Comedian's smiley-face 'badge')." Snyder is in the business of making icons here -- he even talks on the director's commentary about how he went out of his way to put the characters in superhero "poses," like when Rorschach is perched on the windowsill of the Comedian's apartment. In the scene you mentioned, the characters are adopting "poses" in the dialogue too -- it isn't subtle or realistic, but I'd argue it is in keeping with the choices he's making elsewhere in the film.

(As a side note, can I go on and on about how much I love the fact Rorschach calls the smiley face a "badge," like a sheriff's, as opposed to what it is: a novelty button you could buy in any card shop? There's something so endearingly childlike about Rorschach, even if he has killed a man with a meat cleaver to the forehead.)