Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Watching the Watchmen

Carrie (1976, directed by Brian De Palma). I wish my prom had been as much fun as Carrie White's prom.

Oh, more than that, I guess. I love, love, love the circling pan shot around Sissy Spacek and William Katt that starts out elegant then spirals out of control. It's a terrific symbolic shot. I also love how P. J. Soles goes from goofy to psychotic in a much more subtle way than Travolta does. Carrie's mom is a bit more of a caricature here than she is in the book, but it's fun watching Piper Laurie chew the scenery. I'm still of two minds about the very end of the movie, though. On the one hand, it completely annihilates any sympathy the audience might have had for Carrie, because the ending turns her into a monster at last. On the other hand, it's the most cunningly executed cheap shot in movies. I mean, NO ONE walks away from that sequence unaffected. There's some kind of magic there, of a black variety.


I approached the movie version of Watchmen (2009, directed by Zach Snyder) with a fair amount of dread. This is a property that, done badly, has the potential to explode in the face of everyone involved. The filmmakers run a huge risk of appearing ridiculous, not least because the source novel itself will end up with the last laugh, to say nothing of its prickly author. My only real hope was that it wouldn't suck, but I still remember when I realized that the first X-Men film didn't, in fact, suck, and how I started demanding that it be good. The good news is that Watchmen doesn't exactly suck, and part of its awkward presentation might be smoothed over by the forth coming DVD extended cut. The bad news is that, while it hits the major plot points of the story, it misses the depths. It misses the density of metaphor, or, if it retains any of it, it doesn't communicate them because the viewer cannot stop to linger on them. This, too, might work on DVD, but that's an unfortunate qualification for a movie that is so obviously designed to be seen on the biggest available screen. In any event, this gets to the heart of what's missing from the movie. The book presents several levels of meta-narrative, and the movie is only able to pick out the surface narrative. This has a flattening effect.

As a movie, it's not bad, I guess. It's the kind of superhero movie someone like Robert Altman or P. T. Anderson would make--more Anderson than Altman, I think, given the needle-drop soundtrack--in which you have multiple characters with multiple storylines all converging at the end of the movie. It's the superhero equivalent of Nashville. Occasionally, Snyder indulges in his preferred action idiom, which marks the movie as a movie, but he's also added a fanboyish sadism to the action. This is more violent than it needs to be, though I think that might be a hollow complaint given that the end of the movie kills millions of people offscreen (more about this in a bit). I'll say this for Snyder, I much prefer his take on action filmmaking to Paul Greengrass (who was the director of record prior to Snyder). The slow motion might be annoying, but at least the viewer can tell what's going on and can get some sense of the geography of the scene. A Bourne-ish approach would certainly have annoyed me no end.

The performances are generally good, particularly Patrick Wilson and Billy Cruddup. One wishes that the filmmakers had included at least some of the wide swath of "ordinary" characters from the book, because omitting them results in a kind of hermetically sealed narrative that doesn't mean anything except to those within it. This is most evident in the way the movie ends, which presents a serious moral problem. Can the characters live with this? The fact that it all occurs in this bubble, to people in whom we have no vested interest, tends to moot the moral dilemma. Film audiences are used to seeing large scale disasters, so this one is just one more. This is exacerbated by Matthew Goode's performance as Veidt, which seems completely untouched by a shadow of regret. This is a serious failing.

Still and all, there's more of Watchmen on the screen than I ever expected to see. It IS interesting. Whether that's enough to balance the scales is something about which I haven't made up my mind. Plus, this might actually be the closest anyone comes to putting a Thomas Pynchon novel on screen, for whatever that might be worth.

I'm much less conflicted by Brad Bird's 2004 Watchmen knock-off, The Incredibles, which is a pure delight from start to finish. Whether it's the striking design sensibility, the retro spy-film score, or the gleeful and vivid showing-off of Pixar's animation capabilities, this fills every frame with some kind of marvel or some kind of witty take on the reality of having super-powers. I mean, what kind of windscreen does the Flash use to prevent himself from splattering bugs in his path? Where do they get their costumes? Things I picked up on this time: The drinking game Syndrome's lackeys are playing as they watch the news feed from the mayhem; the subtle and satisfied way Elastigirl looks at her ass in the mirror after donning her new supersuit (as if to say, yeah, it still looks good); the very subtle queer subtext derived from the film's superhero closet and the superhero advocate, Gazerbeam. I could take some issue with the film's pseudo-Randian subtext, but it doesn't spoil the fun.

As a side note, Watchmen is not my favorite graphic novel, not even my favorite Alan Moore graphic novel. I much prefer Moore's own From Hell, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, Charles Burns's Black Hole, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's Signal to Noise, Art Spiegelman's Maus, Jaka's Story by Dave Sim, The Death of Speedy by Jaime Hernandez, and probably a couple of dozen others. Actually, I don't have a favorite, so the favorite that I don't have isn't Watchmen


Future fantasy filmmakers might do well to look at Hirokazu Kore-eda's After Life (1998), which is the kind of fantasy that Hollywood used to make in the 1930s, along the lines of Heaven Can Wait, Between Two Worlds, or On Borrowed Time. Unlike those films, this one avoids obvious sentiment by fusing fantasy and documentary together. The premise is simple, the recently dead arrive at a way station to the afterlife where they are told they can take one--and only one--memory into eternity. The staff of the way station help them decide and contrive to film the memories for them. A lot of this film consists of people talking directly at the camera, a la Errol Morris, and the director has mixed in non-actors describing their own real memories with those the filmmakers have created. The film doesn't tell you which is which. The result is a surprisingly affecting meditation on memory, loss, mortality, and life. This is one of my favorite films.

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