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FULL BLEED 36: WATCHMEN AT THE DINER

If you haven’t figured out that this will be rife with spoilers, then there’s nothing I can do to help you. I can hardly spoil WATCHMEN, but I can spoil the hell out of the adaptation.

I started writing this out whilst at a counter seat at Mel’s Diner on Mission at Fourth Street in San Francisco. This makes for an interesting setting, as Mel’s isn’t really a diner, but wants you to think that it’s a sixties diner somewhere in a mostly imaginary America. WATCHMEN, too, wants you to believe that it’s an imaginary America, one with Coke in little green bottles that gives American Love. Zack Snyder’s WATCHMEN wants desperately to be accurate and succeeds on some levels, but just as often, proves to be tone-deaf to the source material.

Let’s us be clear. WATCHMEN the movie is not WATCHMEN the graphic novel. It won’t deliver the same experience and can’t. I think that Mr. Snyder knows this intimately, but still can’t help himself from trying to do so by attempting to control the flow of time, for instance, much as the reader can do in comics (and as the authors themselves strive to.) By changing panel size and density, the authors can constrict or dilate time, at least they think they can, but there is nothing preventing the reader from jumping ahead or back with more or less speed than perhaps the authors intended. You can’t control how the text (as us lapsed English majors sometimes refer to things like books, comics and movies) will be read. You can try, but you have to let go long enough for the reader to arrange their own conclusions. If you fail to do that then you get simple and on the nose didactism, which doesn’t make for thrilling or inspiring work.

So WATCHMEN won’t be the graphic novel. Get over it. I know that I certainly tried to, but found it nearly impossible to generate any kind of meaningful critical distance between the film and graphic novel. I can literally read WATCHMEN without having the book in front of me, the work has become internalized to that degree. So it’s entirely likely that I can’t ever write a fair review of the movie. So be it.

WATCHMEN, for its faults, does try to engage the story, though it has to abandon nearly all of the “mere human” sub-plots, either truncating them (as in the case of Dr. Malcom Long and Janey Slater, or pruning them out entirely (the newsstand owner and the kid, the locksmith and the cabbie and Malcom’s wife to name a few.) In this, WATCHMEN the film misses that the book itself was just as concerned with the mere cogs in the works as much as it was concerned with the larger gears and the watch’s face, if I can stretch that metaphor to the breaking point. I’m torn, because in order for the movie to be a running time that can support a gigantic budget with the attendant promotional opportunities that affords, you have to decide which plotline you’re going to bring up to the forefront. The choice for the adaptation was clear from the onset: focus on the murder of Eddie Blake and the resulting murder/mystery/conspiracy/tangled web. There was no other choice, but even so, making that choice meant that one of the book’s critical themes would be cut out.

However, doing so did make room for the emotional heart of the novel, that being Jon and Laurie’s (Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre 2’s) conversation on the face of Mars. Keeping that was a surprising move. It’s nearly devoid of action (though there is visual interest with the alien landscape and the crystalline workings of Dr. Manhattan’s clock/palace/temple) and entirely driven by dialogue. It could have failed utterly, and while it read as compressed and perhaps rushed (for me who knows the original all too well), the fact that it was even there pleased me.

As for the rational heart of the book, which for me is Ozymandias’ predicament of having saved the world only to know that he’s damned himself in the process (and likely hasn’t saved anything), that too is retained, although in a compressed fashion. Some of the sting of the scene as portrayed in the graphic novel, where Ozymandias is clearly deferring to Dr. Manhattan’s greater knowledge of the workings of the universe, is simply lost in the filmed version. Instead of a final “Nothing ever ends,” spoken by Dr. Manhattan, we get Silk Spectre repeating it in a second-hand fashion between herself and Nite Owl. That and removing the parable/story of the Black Freighter, the impact of our knowing that Ozymandias has not and can not “win” melts away.

After the revelation of Ozymandias’ plot and the heroes’ defeat at his hands, the viewers are still given silent, though heroic defiance instead of the gut-wrenching knowledge that superheroes are indeed useless and outmoded and childish, the feeling which Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons infuse the last pages with. Sure, the heroes lost, but they’re not unbowed (okay, well, Rorschach gets exploded in a pretty messy fashion; more on that later.)

The real problem is that the filmed WATCHMEN isn’t about the failures of superheroes, but becomes a film in which the heroes simply lose. Instead of Dan and Laurie being all but cowed in the face of Ozymandias’ crazed plan to unite humanity, you know that they’re just saving something up for when the dam breaks and Rorschach’s journal gets aired. Granted, in the book, it’s made clear that they’re preparing to continue costumed adventuring, but the movie seems to direct that this is in refusal to accept Ozymandias’ vision of a world beyond schoolyard heroics.

WATCHMEN the film is very much interested in being a superhero film. That’s made explicit at the opening, where Eddie Blake heroically fights back against Ozymandias, crunching cinderblock walls and masonry countertops and tables, both inflicting and taking punishment that would have landed an ordinary ecce homo in the hospital immediately. That’s repeated with Dan and Laurie fighting off the street thugs in full-bone-crunching and choreographed glory. Again, you’re expected to do this in a motion picture. Moore and Gibbons could get away with hinting at it, coming back to flashes of it, which isn’t going to work as well in a non-comic presentation. As an aside, comics do interwoven narrative storylines better than any other medium, even novels, to my mind. That’s a tough hill to climb.

Perhaps to the unread, the over-the-top action scenes make the heroes defeat at the end more crushing, and we all should keep in mind that I am not the target audience for the film. Nor is the average WATCHMEN fan or average comic reader. You make a movie just for them and you’re lucky to make a modest budget back. Again, without condemnation or condoning, I say this. If you can’t accept that adaptation requires changing, then stay the hell away and don’t complain about it.

Tonally, the movie missed the above point about superheroes, but it also missed the point with some of the characters, Rorschach in particular. It’s clear that Rorschach does not represent any kind of viewpoint that Alan Moore subscribes to (though you could argue that about all the characters, but Rorschach is unrepentantly so.) Even so, in the novel, Moore makes clear that Rorschach is a psychopath who lives an unseemly life and is not a role model. Yet he also embodies the superheroic concept of refusal to surrender and to take a stand on an issue, even to the death.

The film version of WATCHMEN reduces that to simple psychosis, and accentuates that point with gratuitous violence that stands out like an eyeball stuck on the end of a fork at a five-star restaurant. Rorschach as a child tears a bite of flesh off of a tormentor’s face. Rorschach as a superhero repeatedly hacks a meat cleaver into a killer’s head. He sadistically intones “Your hands, my pleasure” while breaking the thumbs of a convict reaching into Rorschach’s prison cell. Now, to be clear, these things all happen in the graphic novel. Kinda. Rorschach kills the murderous kidnapper by fire, and when setting up the convict for a messy and painful end, he says “Your hands, my perspective,” which is a telling line, reflecting his view that the he’s not locked up with the prisoners on Riker’s, but that they’re locked up with him (which did get a cheer out of the audience.)

All these added, or should I say, subtracted from the character. None of it needed to be added. Rorschach was plenty ambivalent in the original presentation, being both a creep and stronger than everyone else at the end of the book. So instead of a final stand against Ozymandias’ plan and unblinking in the face of death at the hands of the most powerful being on the planet, Rorschach/Kovacs is just a psycho, too crazy to back down when he should, if not for anything but self-preservation.

And while we’re on the subject of violence, there’s plenty of it. Broken elbows protrude from flesh, thugs are exploded into sticky gibbets of flesh and blood and bone that cling to walls and bystanders, grease-showered convicts melt and steam while gurgling, hatchets bite into craniums, beatings ensue, arms are sliced off with rotary saws and attendant fountains of blood erupt. None of which was needed. All of which could have been done with less, not more. But I’ve always beaten that drum, unless of course the violence itself is the point as in the zombie flicks of my youth. Seeing John Osterman get messily disintegrated, twice, was essential in the graphic novel, so I won’t argue that. The other stuff, less so, it seemed. But those are tonal choices that I just didn’t agree with.

I’d also note that the second coupling between Dan and Laurie, or I should say Nite Owl 2 and Silk Spectre 2, slipped over from “cool and sexy” to “ridiculous” in pretty short order. Yes, I know, the point was that Dan couldn’t get it just being Dan with Laurie (a point which the movie played as Dan being quick on the draw, not incapable of getting it up for a mere mortal) and that Snyder thought that the viewers needed to know that Nite Owl could go all the way to orgasm with Silk Spectre. It just could have been handled a lot more elegantly. But sex scenes in “serious” movies are often problematic. C’est la vie.

This leads to the various traversals of the uncanny valley in WATCHMEN, or at least the ones I noted. The Nixon makeup looked fine televised, when you’re seeing a screen inside the movie, but when you’re seeing him au chair as it were (yes, I know more than a little French, I too went to college) his face flattened and rubberized. Kissinger not so much. Though this goes to the insertion of other real-world celebrities of the time, John McLaughlin and Lee Iacocca spring right to mind.

They were simply bad ideas. Instead of rooting this in a fictional world, I’m immediately drawn back into “oh, that’s right, we’re in a fictional world that wants to convince us of its real-worldness.” We get to jump back and forth over the uncanny valley, hooray. Perhaps in text or with the separation of the comics page, these ideas would work, but the execution of film left a lot to be desired.

As did the soundtrack, by and large. “Sound of Silence” comes on when we’re supposed to be sad and troubled at the Comedian’s funeral. “The Times, They Are ‘a-Changin’” play over the opening montage. This montage, while an interesting idea in terms of showing various pop culture vignettes and how they might be changed by the presence of the Watchmen in our world, came across as lazy, letting the music do the emotional heavy lifting. Having “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” play in Ozymandias’ office as he dresses down the Captains of Assembled Industry was cringe-inducing (as was the use of “Boogie Man” over the Keene Act Riots with Nite Owl and Comedian cracking skulls; yes there was a double meaning with boogie/boogey, but still, grating. However, Philip Glass and the Hendrix cover of “All Along the Watchtower”? Fitting and stirring. But still, given the 80s fetishism of the sets and costuming, perhaps stretching a bit would have taken things further.

Ozymandias felt like he was handled inexpertly. There was never any sense of human warmth or genuine emotion on his part. He was always cold, calculating, impersonal, and really could ONLY be the villain of the piece. The book countered this appearance with the text pieces and subtext that was left out of the film. But of course, I could be saying all this because I just happen to know how the damn thing is going to end and knew it all along.

Ultimately it’s difficult for me to render a final judgment on WATCHMEN. At this point, I can’t disengage it as a work on its own, can’t unpack it from my expectations based on the original. There were things that I enjoyed, but ultimately, those were surface considerations, by and large (aside from the conversation on Mars). WATCHMEN the graphic novel succeeded as a result of a parts/sum relationship that the movie can’t really bring itself to. Maybe the extended cut will answer some of my concerns in that regard (though there’s plenty that can’t be fixed by simply adding more minutes.) There were beautiful evocations of an America that never was (ironic in that Moore and Gibbons largely had to play off their perceptions of what that would look like) in the historical pieces. There were moments that I was able to lose myself in the fictional world, but they were moments. And often I found myself knocked back into a critical distance by the addition of very contemporary green versus oil economy chatter or understanding that the original ending of the graphic novel has largely been obviated by the real world. It is engaging and frustrating, but WATCHMEN isn’t boring, that much can be said.

I am very, very curious as to how it plays to an audience not me, not comics, not the comics internet. I can largely guess that gamut, but what people with few expectations have, that will make for some genuine surprises.

Matt Maxwell

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