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Having watched Watchmen

(and yes, I am well aware that playing on "Who watches the Watchmen" is much too overused these days, but what to do...)

Yesterday, Tor and I went with some friends to see the long awaited adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. And there is much to say. Let me cover the general before I head into what could be perceived as spoiler territory (as I will have to discuss the ending, obviously) -- it being understood, of course, that you should not even think about seeing this film without reading the book first (here is exhibit A on the need to read the book first. You don't want to end up like Roger Ebert).

The film was pretty. It looked just right. I was expecting this of course. When the film is based on a graphic novel, the visual is already shared. You do not end up with horrible decisions like casting Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn simply because you know what a person is supposed to look like. Dr Manhattan was just the right shade of blue; the Comedian was perfectly gruffy (I don't think that is a word, but if it was one, it would adequately describe the Comedian); Dan Dreiberg looked so right it was almost spooky; and Rorschach ... oh my, I believe "perfect" is the word. The only one who did not look the part, oddly, was Matthew Goode as Ozymandias/Veidt. He was much too skinny, looking entirely out of place a lot of the time. One of our friends commented that he looked like a little boy playing dress-up, which is not what you want when you are going for the costumed hero look. Or wearing a purple jacket. Either way. He did look crazy, though. Not as crazy as Rorschach, of course, but crazy in a somewhat haunted way, which may be why they gave him the part. Tor liked him. But then again, Tor liked everyone.

While the visual was spot on most of the time, I noticed that we all reacted to sounds more than usual. It seems quite clear to me that when you adapt a normal book, people will react to visual variations, but when the visual is provided, imagination turns to other aspects -- this time sounds, apparently. More specifically, the voice of Doctor Manhattan. We all (except Tor, obviously) took issue with it. And I know what happened: they were trying to make him emotionless, but because of the softness of the voice, it just ended up being bland. If this had happened to Rorschach, I would have been upset. Thankfully, Rorschach was always perfect. As it is, I can live with the Dr Manhattan/Laurie scenes lacking interest. But I did miss a good voice in the final bit (I'll get back to that).

Another sound note was the extensive use of easily recognised, iconic music. I thought it was brilliant, but one of my friends found it distracting. He described it as misplaced, saying that it felt like someone had just pushed play whenever someone stopped talking. That may be true, but for me this was just as it should be. The recognisable use of pop culture is important to the original story, and Watchmen with a bland, specially written score would be sad (although there was of course bits of that as well). It had to be like this. You had to go "oooh, that is the Cohen original of `Hallelujah'!" during the sex scene.

Speaking of. While I have no issue with nudity, or sex scenes for that matter, and I am the first to admit that the novel itself is explicit -- there did seem to be a comparatively greater amount of time dedicated to the occasional sex compared to the number of panels on the same in the book.

Being a purist, I should of course note that a number of things are missing. Most obviously, perhaps, the pirate book storyline is gone without a trace. I had expected this, and while it was important as a counterpoint story in the book, I find the movie worked without it. Note token objection to anything being removed, of course, but I understand (without condoning or condemning). The text pieces (newspaper clippings, Mason's autobiography) were also going to be hard to integrate, and while there are traces, most of that is gone, too. As are several of the smaller stories (newspaper vendor, lesbian couple, psychologist and his wife) which had the crucial function of giving us people rather than statistics, thereby showing us the real impact of the choice (yes, I am being cryptic about the ending). But I am not going to complain. I understand. It is a different medium. &c ad. inf..

What I did miss, though, was Rorschach's reaction to the Keene Act. I would have liked to see that. But only because I like it. Rorschach. Forgive me for a moment while I do the obligatory fawning. If I have ever seen perfect casting, this was it. Rorschach, as I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, appeals to me in ways he really shouldn't. Not just as a psychologically intriguing character, but as a hero in his whole anti-heroishness. He isn't supposed to be heroic, but there is something about the black and white uncompromising style (coupled with good dress sense) that goes straight to my heart. Oddly even when it is (perhaps purposefully) placed on completely the wrong end of the political spectrum. There were so many ways this could go horribly wrong. But it didn't. Rorschach with mask is easy to do. Face-less Rorschach in prison wasn't going to be. But it turned out perfect. And that is all I am going to say about that at the moment. This is about the movie, after all.

* * * * * * * ***SPOILERS*** * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * ***SPOILERS*** * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * ***SPOILERS*** * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * ***SPOILERS*** * * * * * * *

The ending. I was waiting for it. I knew it was coming. I had seen signs and portents. They were going to change it. And they did. Because they are idiots. Sell-out conformists. I don't like it.

Central to the appeal of the book is its subversive nature. This is a super/masked hero book that problematises the concept. It takes the conventions and plays around with them, turning them upside down and inside out to figure out what they will do in response. It rejects the clear cut lines, the pretty, clean finishedness of convention. This is why Watchmen is Literature. Let me explain.

Take the heroes. The idea of dressing up in costumes in order to fight crime is deprived of its naturalness -- and infused with the obvious kink that has always been lurking in the shadows. It is placed in the category of slight perversion (depending on how you charge the word). Of course, that is not necessarily condemned in Moore's narrative. Minority sexuality is seen throughout the book, both represented among the "token people" whose histories we are given before everyone dies, and in the hero group (where Hooded Justice/Captain Metropolis are an item, and where the Silhouette is killed after her exclusion from the group when she is revealed to be a lesbian). But the inclusion of a sexual component in the motivation for dressing up to fight crime muddies the formerly clear cut motivation of having an alter ego in order to protect yourself and your loved ones from reprisals. Another alternative motivation, of course, is found in the first silk spectre, whose motives are apparently financial. And here is yet another problematisation of the genre, in the guise of the sexualised female hero. Anyone who has ever looked at Wonder Woman has thought it. They don't seem to wear any clothes. But back to my point.

If you take a closer look at Moore's characters (I hesitate to say "heroes"), the subversion becomes yet more apparent. Doctor Manhattan: "Superman is real, and he is American", as the man says -- but unlike Superman, Jon has an actual impact on the world. And unlike Superman, he takes the consequences of his difference, becoming alienated from humanity. Rorschach: not mildly disturbed, like some imaginings of Bruce Wayne, Rorschach has probably tipped over. Dreiberg, I think it is, describes him as a sociopath, and there is little doubt that he is severely damaged (where Batman is eccentric) (hence, probably, his bad political choices -- derived from a father figure created by his own mind). The Comedian: he was never a good guy. Already a would-be rapist in the early days, he straddles the seemingly opposite poles of hero and villain, being a cynic, but not quite cynic enough. And finally, of course, Ozymandias/Veidt: superheroes, according to convention, are not supposed to change the world. They react to the villains who do. But his motives are good, possibly even right. I vote villain, of course, but I don't do it easily. The lack of the clear-cut is part of what makes the story intriguing.

The recurrent blood stained smiley face is obviously the epitome of such subversions, taking the innocent symbol and turning it sinister, both in its connection to the Comedian, and as the beginning of the revelation of Veidt's plot.

So. Having established the importance of subversion, let me return to my original point: the ending. Comic book geeks tend to take issue with the ending to Watchmen. The squid is too messy, too gooey, not neat enough. It does to evil plots what the sexuality of masked heroes does to the masked hero: it turns it into something bodily, at which point the geek's mind recoils. It is not neat enough. It is too composite and weird. And so the movie treats us to the ultimate neat comic book ending: Veidt mimics Dr Manhattan's power, pretending he killed all those people, uniting the world against him as the common enemy. In short: it misses the point.

* * * * * * * ***SPOILERS END*** * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * ***SPOILERS END*** * * * * * * *

In conclusion: it is a good film. You should see it. When you have read the book. I will end up buying it, probably seeing it again several times. I liked it. Parts of it were amazing. Parts of it were less so. It felt somewhat flat at times, and for the first time in my life, I think I understand what the people arguing that you cannot translate from one medium to another mean. I was not carried away by most of this film because I sat there recognising the panels of the book. But since I like recognising the panels, that made me happy. But that does not change the fact that the script writer was wrong to do what he did.


Further reading:
http://watchmenanalysis.blogspot.com/
http://homepages.ius.edu/KELZY/research/who-watches-the-watchmen.html
http://www.capnwacky.com/rj/watchmen/chapter1.html

Pretty Pictures
Official site

Comments

Tor,  09.03.09 16:35

As previously mentioned, I liked it quite a lot. I'm not ecstatic, but there was nothing to dislike.

Also, when I read the book I sort of didn't get the whole squid-thing, so I'm perfectly fine with the new ending, which is a little more comprehensible and logical, or something. I am of course aware that this makes me one of the geeks Camilla warned us about. But then, was the film made for litterature students, or geeks? Or was it even made for geeks, or for people who haven't even read the book?

Camilla,  09.03.09 16:48

If you want literary, I can do the whole unfinished-thing.

Are,  09.03.09 17:48

Here be spoilers...

I liked it. I think I enjoyed it more than I would have, if I read the novel first. It'll be interesting to see how enjoyable I find the novel, having seen the movie.

I did find parts of it a bit over-the-top - which they were meant to be, of course, and probably had to be to keep in line with the comic. But, as with Kill Bill 2, being over-the-top on purpose doesn't necessarily mean that going over-the-top will be OK with me. The at times extreme violence will likely put me off watching it again.

The ending was unsatisfying, in that it was unjust, which I think makes the movie feel more interesting and authentic. I liked how Rorschach was totally uncompromising, and the consequences of that. I would have liked to see the villain die, though. Painfully.

Maybe in the sequel?

Camilla,  09.03.09 19:32

If they make a sequel I will get violent.

Eivind,  09.03.09 23:10

I think I agree with you. Who saw that one coming? :p

Kjellove,  10.03.09 14:00

I wouldn't mind ending up like Roger Ebert. To quote a FAQ for a movie on the same level of seriousness (Twilight): ‘Movies and books are two different mediums and have different requirements.’ An adaptation is not just a wankfest for fans of the novel. According to the Ulleland principles, Stanley Kubrick should never have made a single movie.

Camilla,  10.03.09 14:10

You do not compare Watchmen to Twilight; or if you do, you automatically get -50 taste and I, certainly, will never take you seriously again. But you don't care about that.

Ebert is a silly man because his take on the characters and the plot is off the wall and indicates that he either did not really pay attention or completely failed to realise what was going on. Reading the book would have helped with that.

Kjellove,  10.03.09 18:32

Superheroes are to be taken more seriously than vampires?

(Shush, stop telling me not to bait the troll.)

Camilla,  10.03.09 18:40

I believe you are the one trolling at the moment.

And to answer your question: superheroes are not, intrinsicly, more worthwhile than vampires. But I believe there is a distinct difference in quality between Watchmen and Twilight.

Camilla,  11.03.09 14:59

Another take on it which I mostly agree with.

Jørgen,  11.03.09 18:38

Roger Ebert should lay off the fatty foods.

Tor,  13.03.09 00:06

Superheroes are not to be taken more seriously than vampires.

However, Watchmen is not simply a Superhero film. It has complex characters and an intriguing story, and a quite surprising ending which leaves us with an extremely interesting ethical dilemma. The graphic novel Watchmen has also, as far as I know, recieved considerably more praise from critics than the cliché-filled three-volume novel Twilight. I would argue that the film Whatchmen is to be taken more seriuosly than Twilight by several orders of magnitude. I admit, however, that I have neither seen nor read Twilight, but if someone seriously feels that Twilight and Watchmen are on the same level and actually provides proper arguments for their view, I am willing to see it.

Also, who is this Ebert character? From his review of Watchmen it certainly seems like he is not in the habit of paying attention while watching films. Let me quote and ridicule selected parts of his review:

Now the murder of the enigmatic vigilante the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has brought the Watchmen together again. Who might be the next to die?


This is simply wrong. The murder did not bring the Watchmen together again.

Never mind the details; what matters is that he (Dr. Manhattan) possibly exists at a quantum level, at which particles seem exempt from the usual limitations of space and time. If it seems unlikely that quantum materials could assemble into a tangible physical body, not to worry. Everything is made of quantum particles, after all. There’s a lot we don’t know about them, including how they constitute Dr. Manhattan, so the movie is vague about his precise reality.


The first bit here is, to quote Pauli, not even wrong. It's just meaningless gibberish. And the exact nature of Dr. Manhattans existence and powers is, as I see it, irrelevant to the story.

There are more things to pick on in this review, but I am tired and I need to bake a cake for lunch tomorrow (it is Friday, after all). However he says that he plans to see the film again, and that he will have more to say at that point. I'm holding my breath in anticipation.

And finally, may I point out that the word "trolling", commonly used in Internet fora to describe the activity of posting inflammatory comments without any real content just to provoke responses, is actually derived from the fishing-technique "trolling" and has little to do with trolls.
Camilla likes this

Kjellove,  13.03.09 10:13

That would be 'trawling'.

Tor,  13.03.09 10:21

Nope. Trawling is also a fishing-technique, but so is trolling. In Norwegian it's called å fiske me line.

Kjellove,  13.03.09 11:51

On the other hand, 'trolling' and terms like 'don't feed/bait the troll' have been in use for at least fifteen years; and you know what we call an obsession with etymological usage of words.

Tor,  13.03.09 12:04

Yes. We call it coolness, and it's generally admired in most circles.
Camilla likes this

Kjellove,  13.03.09 13:13

Perhaps within your mental circle-jerk.

Camilla,  13.03.09 13:59

The point, Kjelling, is not that "don't feed the troll" isn't an expression which is frequently used: it is. What the etymological origin of the term does is show what it entails (certainly in this context). Your comment, which I take to have had the intended meaning that I was trolling, was entirely misplaced.