Continued from here.
In a sign of how the media works in weird ways sometimes, one of the stories I’ve stumbled across today is this piece via the LA Times wherein Patrick Goldstein takes everyone else reporting on Watchmen‘s box office to task, with the notable exception of a story in, but of course, the LA Times. Goldstein prefaces this by saying “I’ve had my beefs with my own newspaper’s box-office coverage over the years,” though, so that means everything’s honest and hunky-dory now. Yeah. Indeed. Doubtless.
Last night a friend texted me to talk about how much she loved the film — she hadn’t read the original and her only source of complaint was Malin Akerman, who portrays Laurie/Silk Spectre. I’ve actually read some favorable comment for her but I’m not surprised she’s not getting highly rated by most. Still, it was good to hear my friend’s opinion, and I know some other folks planning to see it later this week as well.
Tomorrow I’m finally going to wrap up what for me has turned into a bit too long of a project, honestly — this was going to just be one post on Saturday, but since I wasn’t able to resolve it before I had to run elsewhere, I figured I’d just complete it the following day. Perhaps inevitably, the more I think about the film the more I think about illustrative examples and things to consider, so that it’s turned into a five-part mini-essay isn’t a surprise to me. Still, other things to do and write about and think about and etc.
And as mentioned yesterday, tomorrow will be all about why the film is worth seeing, why I’ll see it again, for all my doubts and disappointments and problems. But having thrashed most of the problems of adaptation in general to death, it’s now time to talk about the adapter, or at least the director who filmed the reworked adaptation of David Hayter’s script. Zack Snyder, I think, will remain the eternal stumbling block.
As I mentioned yesterday, I come to Snyder as a director from a position of general ignorance. Of his two major films previous to this, a remake of Dawn of the Dead and the adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300, I only know the ads campaigns and general discussion, especially in the case of the latter, plus a brief clip here or there. I’m not moved to investigate further.
A bit of background — as I said in this very early post of mine here:
I don’t follow directors much, I follow actors very little, I’m not a hyper genre obsessive…something has to somehow intrigue me enough to get me to make the effort. Something….And yet most of the time it’s not there, and I can’t really describe a negative very well.
So Snyder as a director hasn’t really done anything to warrant my particular interest, and I can’t entirely say that what I’ll complain about here is something that’s just specific to the film or is a hallmark of his work in general, though I can guess here and there. Still, the advantage of having read Watchmen already here is that it’s pretty clear at many points what he either added to a scene or approved of as an addition which might have appeared in either Hayter’s original script or the final co-written script with Alex Tse.
Not all of these additions or changes are bad — to (briefly) re-invoke Dune, what David Lynch brought to the film in terms of his own stamp was often striking, and Snyder and his team clearly have a good technical eye. I’ll speak more about that in tomorrow’s final post. At other points, though, there’s again ambivalency or spot-on choices slamming up against head-shaking “Wait, why?” decisions.
A good example would be the use of musical cues. Drawing on Moore’s own use of song lyrics and other epigraphs throughout the course of the original comic, there are some really striking examples throughout the movie. For instance, in the original the approach of Rorschach and Night Owl to Karnak is ‘soundtracked’ by a quote from Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” — for the movie, Snyder specifically chooses Hendrix’s frenetic interpretation, a ratcheting-up of intensity that suits both scene and film very well. Other standalone choices, like Nena’s Cold War New Wave hit “99 Luftballons,” also succeed as both contextual commentary and just by sounding good.
On the flipside, though, are some extremely dubious decisions. Over on ILE there’s been a bit of discussion over the (to me) eye-rolling choice of “The Ride of the Valkyries” playing over the scene where Dr. Manhattan destroys Viet Cong soldiers while helicopters follow in his wake. That this is a reference to a similar usage in Apocalypse Now is patent, that it is necessary or somehow required I reject. More indefensible in an even worse “Do you SEE?” mode, though, would be the version of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” that plays under the scene where Veidt confronts various titans of industry. Frankly Real Genius used that song more effectively, and that was almost twenty-three years back.
But this is a case where the choices are hit and miss — you can’t please everyone, obviously, and I’ll allow for that. Similarly the two things I’m about to talk about can’t please everyone either but unlike the musical choices or similar sometimes-successful-sometimes-not decisions Snyder makes, I flat out dislike — often completely hate — these two things that Snyder relies on throughout the film. In doing so he puts a stamp on it that compounded with the earlier problems I’ve discussed results in the hard-to-love film that this is.
The first, I gather, is something he’s known for — which wouldn’t be an issue if it wasn’t known in general, namely slo-mo action sequences. As a technical development, it’s a bit like anything else — once out of the bottle, you can’t put it back in, and it’s not like I can wish it away. However I’ve never been fond of it as a general rule, though I admit I’m not completely able to articulate why. I don’t know if it’s some atavistic annoyance or simply me being the age I am, viewing films as I do via a certain perspective and with a certain set of expectations. To give you an idea how I tired I am of it, when at the beginning of Hellboy II where the evil warrior is practicing and there’s a shot of his spear slicing through a drop of water in that style — well, it didn’t kill the scene for me, but I’d like it a lot better without it.
One of the more consistent arguments for Watchmen, which I think I mentioned earlier in this series, is the supposition that it’s meant to be a metacommentary on comic book films in the same way that the original book was a metacommentary on comic book stereotypes and levels of expectation in turn. If so, then it’s understandable why such action sequences, while not limited to comic book films at all, would appear in Watchmen — you can see them all over the place this past decade and it’ll probably continue for a while to come. I gather Snyder used the technique constantly in 300 and my friend Dan mentioned how he didn’t mind it there and, for similar reasons, doesn’t mind it here.
But I admit, I do — it’s wearying and I think serves as a crutch more than anything else, and while Moore and Gibbons were as interested in having their cake and eating it too when they created the comic book, as I’ll argue in more detail later, I don’t think Snyder pulls it off with the same careful elan. I thought at one point as the film started that I’d make an idle count of how many slo-mo action shots there were going to be in the film, but gave up when I realized that there were a slew in the opening sequence alone. At a certain point, the explanation that this is parody or satire or commentary or some other form of response doesn’t gel for me in this or in similar cases — I just end up feeling like this is all that a director has to bring to the table, or that he or she couldn’t direct a film without this or without another technique to hand.
So much for that. But there’s a grimmer element used throughout which I like even less, in fact which leaves me less cold than angry — and, I’ve realized, is probably the biggest example of…I hesitate to say ‘hypocrisy,’ but judge for yourself when I reach the conclusion of my point.
That element is the gore, the bloodiness, the general increase in lovingly filmed violence. I have never been much of a fan of this in films — there are exceptions, where the sheer Grand Guignol laughs of it all works as intended. Early Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi, there are plenty of others. But it’s not something I’m interested in seeking out, and as a genre-as-such, gore in any context tends to leave me flat, disgusted, cold. I don’t feel a need to apologize for it either — it’s just there.
A comparative example — one of the most frightening films I’ve ever seen, still, is the Ray Milland classic The Uninvited (still not available in the US on DVD for some godforsaken reason — if you haven’t seen it, get to it immediately). It is a classic Hollywood production from the black & white studio days, there’s not the slightest hint of blood throughout, there’s no gore-drenched monstrosities, but the movie has never failed to send cold chills down my spine, up my neck, at its most intense, and it does so through suggestion, sound, visuals, often no dialogue at all.
The comparison may be unfair — Watchmen is not a supernatural thriller or horror film except in a very broad sense — but I hope to show what works for me as a counterpart to what does not. In the original comic book, certainly there’s gore to be had — the brutal assault scene on the first Silk Spectre, the deaths of various figures in the prison where Rorschach is held, and so forth. The mediation of comic art, especially intentionally backward-in-time referencing art like Gibbons in this instance, might be the reason why I’m not as unsettled than something on film, something theoretically real.
But nearly every scene with gore in it is not merely made more vivid for having been filmed, but is almost always changed to be more grotesque, more destructive — less something that I can stand, that I want to deal with. In the attempted assassination of Veidt in the book, a secretary is bloodily gunned down with a single shot to the chest — in the movie equivalent, limbs are shattered, skulls blown open. When Rorschach discovers the place where a little girl was butchered in the book, the cuts on the cutting board tell the grim tale — in the movie, the blood and matter clots the board. When a prisoner dies in the book because he’s blocking the way into Rorschach’s cell, his throat is cut — when he dies in the film, his arms are literally sawn through. And so forth.
Perhaps most obnoxiously to my mind is the conclusion of the scene referred to where Rorschach discovers the fate of the little girl, the moment where he becomes Rorschach as he describes it. In the book, he kills the murderer’s dogs with cleaver blows to the head — one of the book’s most shocking, vivid images — terrifies the murderer by flinging the dogs through his window, overpowers him and handcuffs him to a radiator, then proceeds to douse him and his surroundings with gasoline. The murderer pleads for mercy, for help, but Rorschach pitilessly offers him a choice — burn, or use the hacksaw he provides the murderer to cut himself loose…though it will take too long to cut through the handcuffs, so he will have to cut something else instead. The murderer reacts with utter disbelief and horror, Rorschach sets the place alight, then (as he describes it) watches the place burn for an hour, turning it all over in his mind.
It is hands down one of the book’s most intense moments, an ‘origin’ scene of the most extreme sort. That it is changed in the movie script is noticeable, but not necessarily a problem — there, after handcuffing the murderer and extracting his confession, Rorschach (in a very good acting moment by Jackie Earle Haley, especially considering it’s all done under the mask) wrestles with the alternate taunts of the murderer to finish him off and the murderer’s tearful pleas for help from his sickness. Rorschach finally snaps and kills the murderer directly via the same cleaver used to kill the dogs.
Different and, in keeping with the strange sense of priorities of the film on adaptation, seemingly unnecessary — why keep camera shots exactly in line with certain panels so vividly if alterations like this are being made? But it still works in a more direct resolution to the same situation — yet what does not work for me is the brutal series of shots directly portraying Rorschach chopping into the murderer’s skull. This isn’t done by implication or even just off-camera, which I actually could have dealt with — this was all on-screen.
At a deep-rooted level, this is a choice I could not stand. It’s why I don’t like horror-porn or torture-porn or whatever one wants to call it — I’m not about to be moralistic on the point, I’m not going to say it can’t be filmed or shown. But Snyder is who put the final stamp on keeping this altered sequence in and having it shown the way it was. Frankly, I despise him for it. On that level, I cannot be moved.
I’ll conclude on this subject, though, with a key reversal in what I’ve been talking about so far, where the gore and blood of the original, where present, is either intensified or, as in the scene just described, fully added. In one essential, Snyder in fact totally reverses this — and does so in a way that, again, I can’t quite call hypocritical per se, or cowardly or something else again. But I have to approach it that way, because I think it’s a massive failure on his part above and beyond those points I’ve already outlined.
In the book, the success of Veidt’s act of mass murder via the false alien invader is shown in the opening pages of the final chapter in a wordless, absolutely wrenching 360 degree pan around the city corner where so much of the secondary action of the story takes place, as characters meet, argue, talk, worry and more. It opens with the image of blood pouring down a clock face, and as the pages continue, there is nothing but wreckage and bodies, endless bodies, contorted and bloodied and brutalized. Nearly every figure of what seems like thousands of people, including all those secondary characters we’ve grown to know over the course of the book, is shown in extreme pain, shock and degredation, blood and other fluids spilling out all around them, from them. They slump against walls, against each other, jaws agape, eyes staring sightlessly. Veidt’s actions are bluntly, wordlessly portrayed — thousands, and as it turns out, millions of people are now dead.
In the movie, the alternate resolution of Veidt’s plot — which I do think makes more sense for both the movie and the general story than the book version — does not give us this. It does give us the comparative destruction of the center of Manhattan, and we do see the shredding and vaporizing of a number of people as a result of the reactor’s explosion. We do see Dr. Manhattan and Laurie at the scene of the tragedy, confronting a vast crater left by the explosion, the knowledge that, certainly, many thousands or millions people are now dead in turn.
But there’s no blood, no sightless eyes, no wrenched bodies. There’s no nuclear burn victims, there’s no melting skin, there’s no lungs burned dry, no horrors of the atomic age shown. None. It’s the most bloody, horrifying scene in the book, and following the logic of the film, one would have expected Snyder to, shall we say, outdo himself.
Doubtless there are many possible responses or explanations, beyond the simple ones of budget, say. The point could be the brutally antiseptic clincality of the attack, in the same way that, for instance, Veidt almost daintily removes the scientists in his employment after he kills them via the same mechanism that soon shreds Dr. Manhattan once more. The point could be, given the argument that this Watchmen is supposed to speak to a newer generation’s expectations and experiences, that in the same way that 9/11’s impact on the majority of the world was seen at a visual remove, that it was the destruction of the buildings and machines more than the people and the horrors visited upon them that was seen, that it was all in the implication. Or it could be as simple as the thought that, having built up the expectation that things were going to be worse for each comparative scene that the most unexpected thing to do would be to pull back instead.
Perhaps, and perhaps it’s something else, or a combination, or more or less. That’s why I’m not sure whether to call this change hypocritical, or to call it cowardly (in the sense of lacking the courage of convictions — if Snyder’s all about the blood, then why not continue the upward arc?), or even to call it a flaw. But the question remains, and it colors the scene and, in the end, the movie, and my own thoughts on Snyder. Those thoughts are, no matter what else, not positive.
Yet I’ll see the film again. It is a striking, compelling film, flawed and dragged down and compromised as it is, layered as it further is with the techniques and choices of a director that I reject. It IS worth seeing in the theater, even if, as I say, a matinee is the best level of payment for it rather than full admission.
More on that in my final thoughts tomorrow.