My reading for the past few days has been Hal Duncan’s Vellum, not a new book, came out in 2005. It was one of my many library finds some months back — I liked the look of the cover and a quick check of the blurbs indicated it would probably be up my alley — so I finally settled in to give a full read this past week.

It’s interesting reading something so very self-consciously state of the art as well as reverent towards its many roots and sources — as much as writers or artists were producing works based on accretion of older myths and legends and more in the past, so too now, though Duncan is one of those artists that works with a newer canon as much as an antique one. In that sense it’s a perfect first novel, because it isn’t merely indebted to its forebears but embraces them and aims to haul itself alongside them not simply by trying to make an impact but by explicit authorial intent. It couldn’t exist before now, and it couldn’t exist without those who had come before — as true a definition of what is ‘new’ as anything.

An oversimplified but accurate enough summary of Vellum would be Neal Stephenson meets Philip Pullman — from the former, technology set against earliest human myths, post-cyberpunk futures and characters, language as virus as means of control, narratives and secret histories concurrently running across time; from the latter, order versus chaos, infinite realities, a final war in or of heaven, actors beyond binaries. There’s plenty of bleedover between the two at many points, making something like Duncan’s work easier to come about, but the synthesis is reasonably strong and individual for all the endless references and reworks. (One of the more delightful — and unsettling — moments of Vellum is the first appearance of Metatron, the Angelic figure from Talmudic tradition who functions as the archoverseer of oppression and cruelty in Pullman’s work; Duncan’s variation on that slant at once acknowledges that reworking and suggests an alternate approach, as does his take on Pullman’s Dust.)

It isn’t just Stephenson and Pullman, though, far from it — off the top of my head, there’s implicit and explicit references to H. P. Lovecraft (more on that later), Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Mervyn Peake, the Wachowski brothers, David Lynch, William Burroughs, China Miéville, Mike Mignola, Clive Barker, many others besides…a now codified collection of artists aiming to capture disruption and alienation within words and images, across a variety of media. At one point in the book I was thinking that Michael Moorcock had to be another sourcepoint and was subsequently amused to see a brief but handy mention of that writer’s own ur-figure amid multiple realities Jerry Cornelius, but it was equally telling to see John Constantine mentioned shortly thereafter as well. Glancing acknowledgements, open tips of the hat, but not just as inspirations — as reclamations, Duncan fitting them into his own story. There’s an entertaining arrogance about that.

With all that as buildup, what is Vellum itself? It’s actually the first of two books — and I’ll be getting around to Ink soonish — but does work as a stand-alone story, at least for me. Duncan is if nothing else one to pull out all possible stops, though, and while there is a linear story at work as an anchor, plus a solid beginning and conclusion, it is as continually unstable collage that the overall read functions, something driving you forward as much as it is sending you down side roads, encouraging you to flip backwards (and almost flip forwards). There are core characters existing under alternate names, alternate identities, archetypal figures, there are retold stories, reworked points of view. Some stories exist in near isolation, others cross boundaries in unusual ways, everything down to the typeface can be and is a signifier. Again, it’s not that this approach is uniquely Duncan’s, but it is showing a remarkable command for the tools and tropes — not bad for a first novel, plenty of woodshedding must have already gone down for that to happen.

Part of the reason why I’ve discussed the antecedents so much is to avoid talking about the plot in too much detail, admittedly — if you’ve already encountered much of that work, you’re good to go, and if you know Stephenson and Pullman in particular you are VERY good to go. It makes me wonder what I would think of it if I didn’t know any of those writers or artists at all, if I came into this story completely cold. I can say that Duncan does have a sense of drive going that builds the more you read it — I’d initially been dabbling in the book chapter by chapter but after enough groundwork had been laid (enough, but by no means all — in fact there’s arguably groundwork being laid up to the final pages) and a sense of urgency started to drive the narrative, it turned quickly into can’t-put-it-down quality. So for that reason alone even if you’re not fully familiar with Duncan’s own sourcepoints, I’d say give it a go and let it begin to build from there — if you just want a good story, you’ve got it, in all its fragments and digressions as well as the main parts.

The shards that splinter throughout the book’s narratives help to keep the ‘genre’ tag hard to apply, as it should be. One core arc casts the story as a World War I-and-after tale of a tragic wartime romance and its aftermath, a tale of a doomed young soldier, the friend who killed him while being in love with the soldier’s sister, the officer who turned the aftermath into a bitter triangle, all against stories of socialist gatherings in Glasgow 1919 through to the Spanish Civil War and after. Another arc — with a connection to that first one, but functioning equally well as a separate story — pushes the Lovecraft fascination to a full exploration and revision of one of his most memorable stories, “The Rats in the Walls,” but in a much different context and scale, backgrounds including the Russian Revolution and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. And further arcs and stories on top of that, a teenage girl searching for her lost brother, mercenaries wanting out of a war they signed up for unknowingly, protohistory inscribed on mind, body and soul, and further along.

Lurking behind it all, the Vellum, the landscape of reality that’s the ‘true’ universe, another reworked trope. I think it was Roger Zelazny‘s Amber books that first introduced me to the concept of the real universe at the heart of the endless variations, back when I was 13, and if there isn’t a study of how this trope evolved over the years, there needs to be (it would have to include how that’s worked out in Marvel/DC continuities, obviously). Duncan’s riff on the idea is introduced fantastically at the start of the book — suffice to say anyone who is a cartographic fiend will be bowled over by the conceit introduced there, and the character who begins the book becomes a key anchor for what follows even as he disappears for long stretches, exploring his own long stretches of space and time.

Two things to note in conclusion, and a negative one first — for all the book’s power and ability, there is something perversely parochial about its range, reflective I think of the overall background of the author and many of his reference points. It’s a largely British-American universe, seen through those lenses — and that’s no sin, but as the global culture as such both stabilizes and mutates, I have a feeling Duncan’s work here will be seen more as a twentieth-century holdover more than starting point for the 21st, just as much as a lot of the general fears and concerns raised in the background of its (mostly) 2017 AD setting are products of the state of the world in 2005, when the novel was published. Again, it’s hardly Duncan’s fault for being born and raised in the UK, learning English as a first language and so forth, but it colors, perhaps more unconsciously than anything else, what’s meant to be a story of universal reach and detail. It should be noted that Duncan’s my age, though — younger writers will, I think, bring much different and wider reference points to bear when they make their contributions to the canon, and will I think ultimately refresh it all the more strongly, something I’ve noticed Duncan has discussed himself as part of a larger, to use his words, ‘generational change’ (more on that shortly).

But to conclude on a positive note — a regular theme from start to finish in the book is gay male love and lust, especially in the face of persecution and worse, and while Duncan doubtless resists the pigeonholing of being called a ‘gay writer,’ his attention to these themes is part of what helps to separate him from the novel’s two key forebears in particular (Pullman’s own nod to these issues does form a strong part of The Amber Spyglass but it is a story to the side at all times, for instance). An almost-totally separate story within the novel explores an alternate history (and biology) version of the Matthew Shepard murder, extending the larger thematic points Duncan makes but also showing how it serves as a vivid, harrowing story on its own.

As noted, there’s a second book still to read, but it’s no accident that Vellum itself ends on a story of quiet rather than earth-shattering apocalypse, being the second and (at least here) concluding part of another narrative arc set in a vague edge-of-the-world refugee town for escapees from an unclear disaster. It is in many ways ‘just’ a story of romance, of a narrator unsure of his lover Jack and unsure of himself, and not feeling cognizant of how he will face his moment of reckoning, as it’s literally termed, via the mysterious figure that acts as the town’s protector and judge. How it’s resolved lets the reader end here if one chooses, with a sense that there’s at least one way that things can end well in an infinite universe of struggle, pain and death.

Be interesting to see how Ink turns out when I get around to reading it. Meantime, no surprise at all to find that Duncan’s got a good blog — I recommend his recent post ‘Bukiet on Brooklyn Books’ both as a general response to the writer and issue referred to in the title and as a brief discussion of that ‘generational change’ I noted earlier, specifically on how the ‘literature’/’genre’ war might be finally collapsing as an outworn model of supposed conflict. A while back I noted my dissatisfaction with Michael Chabon’s overextended apologia for liking genre fiction added to the end of the otherwise really enjoyable Gentlemen of the Road. To quote myself a bit at the end, “here’s to hoping that as time continues the perceived need for this kind of explanation dies away, at the least bit by bit and at the most in a heap.” That Duncan is seeing this himself is a damn good sign, so I’ll end by quoting him more fully now:

I suspect there’s a generational change, with a lot of younger writers not simply indifferent but steeped in paraliterature, happy to use the strange (that which breaches mimesis in terms of credibility warp) and the diegetic (that which breaches mimesis by telling rather than representing.) And not just in an ironic way a la postmodernism but with the sincerity you find in magic realism and fabulism.

We’re on our way indeed.

Still recuperating

Happens every year, I go to EMP, have a blast, spend an day to catch up with sleep and all, go home and…still recuperate. (I mean, I’m going to work and all but I’m kinda wiped.)

I’ve received a variety of kind comments about the blogging work for EMP — and a couple of questions! — and I hope I’ve answered many of them. I am still in the process of reviewing my notes and cleaning up some of the technical information (correct spellings, etc.) as well as providing links where appropriate. But I’m already all in for today and I haven’t even completed the Friday notes review yet, so this will take a little time.

In the meantime, then, I encourage you to read Oliver Wang’s excellent summary of his own EMP experience — with plenty of links! — while also noting that the Vince Aletti collection The Disco Files 1973-78 is out now. Pre-ordered my copy a few weeks back, it arrived today and the thing is a total dream from what I can tell.

Okay, starting off EMP posting here tonight…

…but basically I will also be checking to see what kind of live webcasting, if anything, is scheduled as per Carl Wilson’s note to folks with video capability last week. If there is going to be regular live webcasting for most everything I might not be doing this all as heavily as last year, but if the sessions are being recorded for later rebroadcast then I’ll be chiming in as per usual as quickly as possible. The connections in the EMP are notoriously variable, or were last year at least, but as muttered earlier I’ll be doing my work using the WordPress applet on my iPhone so I’ll be able to at least irregularly update whenever I move into a spot with a clearer connection. The keynote tonight shouldn’t be a problem based on last year’s experience.

Not entirely sure if I’ll be taking any photos — didn’t do that last year — but we’ll see. Random Twitter and Facebook updates will doubtless also occur. (UPDATE — speaking of Twitter I’ll probably be using the #popconf hashtag for those updates; Oh! Industry has also suggested the even shorter #emp09)

Hope to see a lot of familiar faces tonight at the opening reception!

A 33 1/3 update — and my proposal in full

The other day the refined shortlist for the next batch of 33 1/3 books was posted on the official blog. One of the choices is a proposal on Radiohead’s Kid A, but alas, it’s not mine — it would have been a treat to see if I could make it all the way to the final round, but you can’t have everything!

Mind you, if you read some of the comments on the blog above, it almost seems like some people think you can. That said, there are two separate issues to unpack a bit. On the one hand, as Maura commented over at Idolator, the final list tends to stick to a “Big Albums And Artists That Stand The Maybe A Bit Rockist-Leaning Test Of Time” model — though let’s face it, my choice of subject matter pretty much fit into that.

On the other hand, though, the sheer amount of lack of grace, conspiracy theories and other bitterness in many of the comments leads me to shake my head a bit. A little perspective here — when I received word I hadn’t made the cut, I was up north visiting my sister, and just a minute before I saw the rejection e-mail, she had just passed on some further word about a dear friend of hers, who I also know, that had been in a terrible car accident through no fault of her own the previous night. While her brain and spine weren’t damaged, this friend was very severely hurt, faces numerous surgeries and will be spending months in recovery.

So when I read the e-mail, of course I was disappointed a bit, but I was mostly thinking about my sis’s friend and the cruel hand fate had dealt her. Even without that weighing on my mind I hope I would have taken the note with equanimity, but as it was I was actually pretty numb. There are more important things in life, after all.

All that said, I figured I might as well share the actual proposal here, as a bit of a curio. It was definitely flattering to have gotten so far with it, and my understanding is that there was some pretty fierce debate over whether to go with this one or the other one. If that proposal makes the final cut then you can be the judge when the book comes out — and hey, for all I know my book might have turned out pretty terribly in the end!

No less than Radiohead’s immediately preceding album – 1997’s OK Computer – 2000’s Kid A, the band’s fourth full-length release, generated both wide attention on appearance and continuing awareness since, especially due to its perceived break from the ‘real’ rock the band had gained fame for in favor of a distinctly different sonic palette based in electronics. What is less remarked upon now is how, somewhere between intent and accident, the album – anticipated and, even more importantly, leaked and released in the year when file-trading via Napster became part of widespread cultural knowledge – represents an intersection of technological trends and opportunities, not one which either the band or its then record label had full control over even as they happily participated in it, that has set the tone for how listeners encounter and consume music. The microcosm of Kid A’s themes about technological absorption and alienation, often expressed in often strikingly romantic and, intriguingly, retrospective rather than futuristic terms and styles, exists within a macrocosm: the unintentional symbolism of album and band arriving in and inaugurating a largely unexpected new world, now since taken as commonplace. It’s a world where the ‘music business’ as previously understood has steadily contracted, and increasingly where, to borrow from Marx, all that is solid has melted into air – or onto YouTube clips, or limited edition vinyl runs, or something else besides.

This book will look at these issues through two lenses – my experiences as a fan and a necessarily brief but broader consideration of the artistic and technological histories that produced Kid A as unstable artifact. A partial role model here is Timothy White’s The Nearest Faraway Place, his study of the Beach Boys that also was a study of the creation of ‘Southern California’ as a psychogeographical landscape, covering everything from how and why people moved to the area from other parts of the United States and elsewhere to the interlocking evolution of youth culture as the Los Angeles area grew over the years, how the Beach Boys were shaped by greater forces as much as they seemed to shape them. I strongly believe that Kid A and the admittedly vast subject of ‘music and the Net’ can be similarly, fruitfully twinned – how one band, one album, and one listener fit into a wider whole, a product and reflection of time and place.

Here is a brief ‘rough draft’ sample of the kind of tone and content I am aiming for in the book:

“For the longest time my copy of this album was a slowly rotting CDR that I burned from the mp3s that circulated when it first leaked to the Net. It has all the odd little glitches that cropped up in the rip of “Optimistic,” spikes and stutters that aren’t ‘glitch’ in musical terms, but actual mistakes, clips and interference. It wasn’t the official version of Kid A, with artwork and UPC codes and copyright warnings, it wasn’t even my version since these glitches were shared with a lot of other people out there, from whoever had created the original rip. When that person made that rip, a personal stamp had been placed on it, an unintended remix via the mechanics of the copy made or the computer used to create the rip, or maybe even simply the tray the CDR rested in. If vinyl crackles and radio has static, then this kind of error is the legacy of the CD in part, the thing that seems to make it real, even as the action of ripping the album created something else entirely, the formless sound file, the theoretically unchangeable artifact that is never fixed in place.”

The outline:

INTRODUCTION – A USER IN 2000: The framing stories for the book consist of two separate incidents where I engaged with Radiohead via the computer – where the computer wasn’t incidental but essential, where the existence of the technology of the Net and personal computing and everything that went into that had to come first. The introductory story discusses the day I purchased tickets for the band’s Los Angeles Hollywood Bowl concert for the short American Kid A tour – this was done, not by standing in line outside ticket outlets or a box office or trying to call on the phone, but by patiently waiting in front of a computer on a recently installed cable internet network, accessing a vendor’s website. The goal here is to show how something so mundane is in fact remarkable, unusual – to remind all of us now what it was like then, before it was mundane.

SINKING INTO THE NETWORK: Rather than starting with Radiohead or Kid A, the book proper begins by discussing the evolution of personal computing and the Net with an eye on music – not so much musical creation as electronic discussion and sharing between companies, programmers and users, in the seventies and beyond. Where and what were the initial flashpoints, and what decisions in retrospect had the greatest impact down the line? Some representative examples include: the evolution of Usenet discussion groups and mailing lists on bands and styles, the use of the CD-ROM as a standard data format in personal computers, the development of the mp3 format and its adoption as a widespread standard for sharing music, the creation of the World Wide Web, the debut of the Internet Underground Musical Archive in 1993 as the first formal site for bands to share and sell their work online, the haphazard recognition of the music industry on dealing with the Internet in general and the increasing commercial interest in higher-end and faster Internet service for home users. Potential interview subjects – computer/Internet historians, record company employees, radio station employees, music press writers.

RADIOHEAD – JUST ANOTHER UK POSTPUNK/PROG/ELECTRONIC BAND?: This chapter reviews the position of Radiohead as a simultaneously new and familiar band throughout the 1990s. There’s a well worn pathway the group followed in its initial fame – its appeal to Anglophiles and college radio in America, its love/hate relationship with the music press, the ‘breaking’ of America and a one-hit wonder tag, gained with the success of “Creep.” As time passed and their work became more overtly complex, the tone of discussion shifted towards the gravely serious, with OK Computer’s critical and commercial success being a key turning point, even as the band’s humor arguably became more overt and direct while their disenchantment with a perceived role as musical standard-bearers became equally notable. Meanwhile, the band’s increasing interest in electronic music – both in earlier 20th century experiments and in then-contemporary popular efforts, most notably the putative genre of ‘intelligent dance music’ or IDM – became clearer over time, pushing the perceived identity of Radiohead as a ‘rock’ band to increasing extremes. Potential interview subjects – band members and associates, webmasters of long-running fan sites, mailing list moderators, music press members.

TOWARDS A NEW MILLENNIUM: Radiohead established a website early on in its career – who were the prime movers in the band and its associates behind this move, and what were their goals and expectations? How quickly did their fans find them and each other online, and what communities did they build, and with what tools? When the sessions for what became Kid A and, later, Amnesiac progressed, the band used their site and the fan networks associated with it to preview material online, inviting fans to tune in and catch what they could – and clearly expecting they would be there. But who were these fans, with what technology and Internet connections in the late nineties would they use to listen in? As the sessions moved towards completion, the wider world saw the rise of Napster, the popularity of mp3s and the widespread knowledge of file-sharing. High-profile leaks had already occurred for bands like Metallica, Oasis and the Cure – how did Radiohead and EMI react to all this as the release date approached? Was there any overall clear approach or was it improvised? Potential interview subjects – band members and associates, webmasters of long-running fan sites, mailing list moderators, music press members, EMI employees, computer/Internet historians, music press writers.

KID A’S LIVES – Kid A’s songs were formally introduced to Radiohead’s fans via an initial European tour, with performances recorded and almost immediately shared online, to widespread interest. A month before its formal release, Kid A then appeared as a leaked document, a bare presentation of imageless files, even as elaborate limited editions of the album were announced, in both vinyl and CD formats, while formal single and video releases were eschewed in favor of Internet-targeted advertising which began appearing in the form of embedded sound clips and video files. The debate over the sound of the album and Radiohead’s choices for performance and arrangements was immediate – had they sold out, turned their back on rock, made a huge artistic mistake? What, then, was – and is – Kid A? A studio creation, a collection of songs, a concept album, an encapsulation of music and technology in and of itself and as reflected via mp3 sharing, the sharing of live tracks, the on-the-spot tracking. Was it ‘just’ an album in the end? Potential interview subjects – band members and associates, webmasters of long-running fan sites, mailing list moderators, music press members, EMI employees, computer/Internet historians, music press writers.

KID A LIVE(S): Following the leaking of the files, Kid A debuted at the top of the charts in the US and the UK upon release, as well as in many other countries. The band brought the now-familiar songs to America and Canada for a brief three-date tour which was also the end of Kid A’s promotional cycle, including a high-profile Saturday Night Live appearance with two songs that were not singles, even promotionally, and the previously mentioned Hollywood Bowl show, which will be discussed in detail. That would seem to be the ‘end’ of Kid A but what is its afterlife as a ‘classic’ album, or more? There’s the question of musical impact – the many bands and albums that followed where the combination of musical and thematic influences, especially in terms of the freer use of electronics, will be discussed. There’s the continuing popularity of the album among the fans, how certain songs have become established favorites in concert, how the ‘unfamiliar’ and seemingly shocking became ‘normal.’ Finally, there is the now-established model for how we generally encounter music – not street dates, but leak dates and more recently formal digital releases, where the physical product has been increasingly overtaken by the ephemeral, a situation highlighted (not prompted, it should be clear) by the fact that within months of Kid A’s release, Apple introduced the iPod. Potential interview subjects – band members and associates, webmasters of long-running fan sites, mailing list moderators, music press members, EMI employees, computer/Internet historians, music press writers.

CONCLUSION – A USER IN 2008: Mirroring the introduction as noted, this will discuss the day I watched Radiohead’s free broadcast of a Santa Barbara show at the conclusion of its In Rainbows tour in late August 2008 via my computer. It was the same desk and same chair I used back in 2000, the same computer monitor, but a different computer, sound system and Internet connection, something that was a ‘new’ mundane much like the experience of watching a web broadcast in general. Kid A songs were played along with plenty of other tracks, it was just part and parcel of the experience, as was the fact I was copying the broadcast onto my computer and the fact that clips appeared on YouTube almost immediately via other users. Kid A itself and everything about it was seemingly ancient history now, a time before iPods and iTunes and BitTorrents and questions about DRM and more besides – but how far away is it, as historical marker and as artistic creation? If, as the band claimed at the time of release, ‘Kid A’ him or herself was supposed to be the first cloned human baby, are we all now Kid As in a new century, replicating our experiences in a seemingly futile – and unnecessary? – search for what is ‘real’?

Watchmen — Post 5

Continued from here.

I thought this post would be longer than it will turn out to be, frankly. Part of me is tempted to set it aside and come back to it tomorrow when I’m feeling a little less cranky and slightly under the weather. At the same time, part of me wants to be done with talking about it for now — just to move on to other things and other thoughts. That being the case, this will be more of an abbreviated discussion of what I’ve been dancing around the whole time — namely, why I think Watchmen, for its flaws, some unavoidable, some all too consciously adding, is still worth seeing, is still something of note.

If you believe Geoff Boucher at the LA Times, who has been a major supporter of the film for months now, then this statement is of interest:

I think there’s a good chance that, like “Fight Club,” this movie will echo in pop culture for quite a while and become a landmark moment that will take on different contours when viewed in hindsight.

This is the point on which a lot of the positive criticism and discussion has been hinging — that’s all somehow a bold, dramatic, out of character step that’s been done by the Hollywood machine, something that ‘shouldn’t’ve’ been made that was, that questions expectations and so forth. It’s not mine though — frankly, I honestly don’t care about that aspect beyond doubting its applicability and relevance (and I was never much moved by Fight Club either). Any number of ‘bold artistic moves’ or the like have been hailed in all sorts of fields by all sorts of commentators with all kinds of vested interests — set that aside: does the film entertain and intrigue, at base? And does this film reach beyond its multitudinous drawbacks to do that?

I’d say it does, for three reasons:

First, it’s a slick piece of product. Which sounds dismissive but for all that there’s plenty about Snyder as a director that I clearly don’t like, he can put together a film with a team that knows what it’s doing on a variety of standpoints, production design, cinematography, costuming, special effects. If the film ultimately looks different from Dave Gibbons’ work in terms of color palette that is understandable in terms of both Gibbons’ own retrospective intent and in terms of current audience expectation — had Snyder gone the Gibbons route we would have ended up with something close to Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy to a large extent (reworking the Ozymandias costume alone was a life-saving move).

Second, aside from some notable goofs like the Richard Nixon performance, the casting for the major roles ranged from the serviceable to the stellar, and notably there’s been very little consensus over who the best actors were throughout. I’d like to think this is because there was enough of a range of performances that everyone found someone different to hold on to or to focus on throughout the film, and the variety of responses from friends and others has intrigued me. Even Malin Akerman’s performance as Laurie, which really bothered others and which I felt was there at best, has some strong defenders.

Perhaps unsurprisingly my two favorites were the two most grotesque characters in a broad sense, the faceless Rorschach and the godlike Dr. Manhattan. I realized in retrospect that what surprised me about both was that the voices used by their respective actors, Jackie Earle Haley and Billy Crudup, weren’t what I was expecting or necessarily hoping for at all, though what it was I was expecting was a bit unclear to myself. Yet both performances swiftly established themselves as crucial to the film and as perfectly suited for the narrative as performed and prevented, Rorschach’s quick, immediate snarl, Dr. Manhattan’s detached serenity. I’d go so far as to say that Crudup and his special effects team produced a collaboration that is the first real rival to Andy Serkis and Weta’s interpretation of Gollum for The Lord of the Rings, the slow float of particles in the air around Dr. Manhattan as key to his character as Crudup’s observational approach vocally.

Finally, most importantly, that changed ending — which wasn’t changed so much as, in the grand scheme of things, improved. The stunning “What in the WORLD?…” shock of seeing the looming mock-alien figure created by Ozymandias in the book, a psychedelic horror half Peter Max, half Lovecraft might be missing, but in reducing and simplifying the story on the one hand — the entire superstructure of the missing artists, the young psychic, Karnak’s Tibetan servants all reduced down to a team of earnest nuclear scientists assisting Ozymandias and unwittingly going to their deaths — and tying it in more fully to the larger scenario as created — Ozymandias’s dream to fully remove superheroes from the scene, above all else Dr. Manhattan, and to force unity and a stand-down among all the powers on earth on the brink of nuclear destruction — the film creates a more logical, more persuasive mechanism for Ozymandias to achieve his goals. If multiple cities, multiple millions, are destroyed worldwide, and if they are done so not by an unknown random force but by an all-too-well known figure who, for all anyone knows, might still strike again, then the fear and terror of the book’s population of the planet becomes all that much more so for the movie’s. It may not be faithful but it is not faithless to the larger themes — in fact, it is arguably an essential crystallization.

But perhaps it should be in keeping with my larger concerns about the film that even that final scene in Karnak eventually disappoints too, on different levels — the bloody end of Rorschach is as in the book, uncompromising maniacal morality against detached ‘what is best’ judgment, but to have Night Owl fall to his knees in an all too cliched spasm of agony, right down to the “NOOOOOOOO!,” was a headslapper. From there, the scene played out in ways that left me a little dizzy, especially in comparison to the equivalent moments in the comic but even on their own — Dr. Manhattan’s last kiss and beaming up, the music cue of Mozart’s Requiem Mass as Laurie and Dan leave Karnak…if the big change could be forgiven, in fact should be praised, these small changes made the end less than what it should have been, more of a sudden return-to-type I found hard to swallow.

Nonetheless, a bold move on the part of the filmmakers, that bigger change. It doesn’t necessarily forgive a lot of sins but it does ameliorate and counteract them, and in combination with ending just on the right note of uncertainty as the comic does, Rorschach’s journal perhaps to be shortly chosen for wider exposure, perhaps not, even the annoying ‘if only we were the Clash’ version of Dylan’s “Desolation Row” by My Chemical Romance was tolerable.

So I can sense why some outright love the film — there is something unusual in seeing this story presented, less in the way of backslapping for ‘boldness’ and more in the sense that sometimes nuance and hesitation really is the best way to end. In that, the filmmakers followed the book — and the book, however altered and compromised in other ways for this film, is a striking, unnerving and inventive story on its own. If the filmmakers didn’t have to put in the heavy labor to come up with the story, they did, at least, ensure that its lingering questions could still linger.

With that, I’ll just end with a clip of what’s already been making the rounds but deserves another view:

I admit, I wish they’d come up with a full fake episode.

Watchmen — Post 4

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.

Watchmen — Post 3

Continued from here.

As the days continue and more and more people see the film, the expected breakdown of opinion continues as well — lots of love, lots of hate, lots of ambivalence, with the third category being where I still firmly sit. The most amusing piece I saw today came from Patton Oswalt, who, intentionally or not, seems to capture what is the pro-camp in extremis, essentially saying what the far more ambivalent Matt Maxwell also did the other day — ‘it’s not the comic and you can’t expect it to be the comic’ — but adding what seems to be a further belligerence along the lines of ‘why can’t you people appreciate what you’ve got, jeez!’

I sympathize to an extent, I’ve felt similar about many other adaptations. But only so far, because there’s a feedback loop already settling in that basically insists that Snyder and crew haven’t compromised, have shown incredible ambition, and so forth, and that this alone is reason to praise sight unseen (which, as Oswalt hilariously notes, is literally the case with him — he wrote and posted his thoughts having not yet seen the film). But if there’s no room for nuance, no room for questions or unsureness or outright detestation of certain elements even while thinking the film is worth seeing, then we might as well all go home. If Watchmen‘s reception ends up being totally divided between love and hate, then I think it’s actually a greater failure than if it was universally hated.

My fifth and final post on Wednesday will be where I actually talk about what I love about the film, and while it’s worth seeing despite all my caveats. But I can’t ignore those caveats and, importantly, they’re not simply a matter of translating over the three overriding flaws of Lynch’s Dune that I discussed in detail yesterday. However, those are the starting points, and those points are, in the end, somewhat unavoidable, no matter the adaptation and no matter the adapter.


Each of the three adaptive flaws of Dune apply to Watchmen, though not necessarily in the same sense or scale. They hobble Watchmen, at best providing plenty of problematic moments, at worst providing a poor substitution for equivalent dialogue or scenes in the book that ends up making the movie less interesting than it could have been. I’ll repeat again here — just because they hobble Dune badly as well doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the film. But they can’t be handwaved there, and they can’t be handwaved here.

The first flaw — massive frontloading providing reasonably exhaustive detail results in a rushed, crushed and heavily changed second half — is not as completely disorienting as in Dune. It helps that it’s a familiar enough setting that the world of Watchmen presents, similar yet different, with immediately recognizable elements. The necessary expository detail falls less on the world of Watchmen than it does on those characters whose stories are exposed and/or detailed, and the unavoidably episodic nature of the original work did at least provide room for each of the major characters to have ‘their say’ — even the Comedian gets this via the funeral flashbacks. Meanwhile, the sequence that I’ve noticed has come in for a fair amount of complaint as slowing both original story and movie down — Dr. Manhattan’s removal to Mars, first on his own and then with Laurie — contains what I think are some of the best moments in both versions, with Billy Crudup’s serene voice jumping through the chaos of simultaneous time. How his story is summarized and presented is an example of fine adaptive skill.

But the rush of the second half loses this balance, in a way that left me initially uneasy, then cold. Two sequences in particular stood out — the revelation of Laurie’s true parenthood, a moment of admittedly high melodrama that I think missed a step in only including the first meeting between Laurie and the Comedian rather than the angry second, something I think is important given the extremely unsatisfying final resolution of that arc at the very end of the movie — more on that in due course, but this was a shortchanging that put too pat a conclusion on one of the most wrenching parts of the entire story.

Meantime, a more problematic — though admittedly probably more insoluble — dilemma came with Ozymandias. The absolutely entrancing portrayal of his backstory and perversely attractive sociopathic megalomania via his extended monologue to his servants in the original could never have been filmed as it stood — it really would have slowed the film down to a crazy degree. The substitute scene touches on this in shorthand, leaving the burden to be carried by the fight scene in Karnak between him, Rorschach and Night Owl, where as in the original Ozymandias almost diffidently explains his decisions in between thumping people.

And yet it just didn’t work. Strange to say, but the fact that I knew where he was coming from and what he was doing and why, rather than filling in the lacunae that the film version inevitably created, left me feeling distanced towards Ozymandias as filmed. And for all that I’m talking about adaptive flaws here, to repeat: the character in the film simply hadn’t earned his moment for me to feel a full connection, the simultaneous attraction and horror that Ozymandias represents. Without it, a major element of the conclusion disappears.

Was something possible? If the reactions of others who hadn’t read the book and enjoyed the film are any indication, it was not only possible but was there in full force. I cannot predict how I would react in their shoes, yet the fact remains that where I felt the connections to other characters in the film as clearly as I did in the book, the compression of time and mechanics in the film compromised Laurie’s story and wrecked Ozymandias’s. It’s deeply regrettable.

The second flaw — the perhaps inevitable problem of translating things to the film medium that read well but shouldn’t’ve been carried over — is, as noted, near inevitable. Hammering on examples could go on forever, really, and I’m not interested in a cataloging. But what made me first think of Dune while seeing Watchmen, as it turned out, was a device that is simply essential in the book but which far too quickly caused me to laugh to myself, and not because of intentional humor — Rorschach’s journals.

It should be noted that I think Rorschach’s own writing is something that within the first page of the book is sent up as a red flare to readers that an unreliable narrator is being dealt with, or at least one that has a worldview that may make intrinsic internal sense but which is removed from that of most readers. There is, I think, humor to be found even in the grimness of what he writes.

Yet despite the fact that I think Jackie Earle Haley’s portrayal of Rorschach is one of the acting highlights of the film, and despite the fact that the journal simply could not be removed or dropped without completely undercutting the absolute conclusion of the film, hearing him narrate the journal against the various visual sequences, just as in the book, somehow first called to mind Kyle Maclachlan’s whisperings and random looks.

Then, more damagingly, I couldn’t hear him actually say “Rorschach’s journal” plus the appropriate date or time without thinking of an even more familiar figure from TV four decades back starting out each episode going “Captain’s log…”

Meanwhile, the final adaptive flaw — obsessive microfocus, diffuse macrofocus — is actually the one that Watchmen overcomes the most thanks to the most successful element of the adaptation, the changed mechanism of Ozymandias’s conspiracy. This deserves all the praise it gets and I’ll talk more about it in the final entry, but in ways it makes Watchmen even more frustrating — it got a lot of detail just so, it got a core element of making it work as a self-contained film right, but in between there’s a lot of things that took me out of the film far too quickly, too jarringly.

I should preface this by saying that there’s no one through line on the examples that come to mind — there are various, and they function in different ways. Further, the absence of a detail should not be taken as a sign of lacking wider focus — for instance, while the exclusion of the running Tales of the Black Freighter sequence and the characters of the newsstand operator and the comic fan is unfortunate on the one hand, it’s also completely understandable on the other.

Still, consider these two examples, one a question of screenwriting and editing, the other of directorial intent, both I think reflective of a film that can’t quite decide what it is trying to be:

First, the character of Hollis Mason is briefly introduced in the sequence, as in the book, where he and Dan Dreiberg chat over a beer and reminisce. It’s nicely done and on a detail level it works very well, but his absence from the rest of the film made me retrospectively wonder why he should be included at all. It’s already been said that his story arc will be kept in with the extended DVD version and I’m admittedly fine with this since such similar work helped radically improve the too-brusque story of Faramir in The Two Towers, for instance.

Consider, though, a complete removal of Hollis from the theatrical film — in otherwards, we first encounter Dreiberg as he returns to his house, finding to his surprise it’s been broken into. We don’t know who this man is at all, and neither do we know why Rorschach would be there in his kitchen. The scene could then play as it does, and with a bit of careful editing, possibly an extra line or two as needed, could build up to that moment where Dreiberg, Rorschach’s dismissive “You quit” ringing in his ears, slumps down to sit, his costume (already revealed and shown during the credit sequence of the film) hanging in its case. The question such a shortened scene would raise would still be answered, Dreiberg’s role still clearly identified, in a way that lets the visuals do the job.

This is of course the luxury of Monday-morning quarterbacking, of seeing the film and thinking back on it and going “Well you know…” rather than thinking of it at the time. At the time I watched the scene there was no way of knowing whether Hollis would be in the film any more or not. Yet it seems in retrospect that his scene feels more fanservicey than necessary, something that, if removed, could theoretically free up time elsewhere for other detail, for instance — and given that the filmmakers did eventually prove to be bold in the big change, one wonders why the hesitation in the smaller scale at points. Include Hollis’s sequences in full in the DVD if one likes, but why the half-hearted inclusion in the theatrical?

When it comes to intent, meanwhile, I think the first truly “Okay, wait a minute” moment I had with the film came with the capture of Rorschach. As written, and as filmed, it’s actually a marvel of compact storytelling — Rorschach’s insane self-beration and survival instinct in overdrive, his refusal to back down against all odds, an illustration of his autonomous nature at its angriest and most destructive. In both versions he breaks out through a window with a snarl and crashes to the ground.

In the comic, the fall pretty well knocks the wind out of him and he’s then quickly overcome, leading to the climactic moment of his being unmasked. In the film, though, he springs to his feet and, in a sequence that almost feels comical, proceeds to take down one cop after another in an action sequence that’s certainly pure post-Hong Kong (and its many derivations in America and elsewhere) in impact. He’s then overcome and the sequence concludes as in the book.

I knew it felt wrong when I watched it, at least to me. However, it wasn’t because Rorschach fought back, therefore not being ‘just like the book’ — in fact, it wasn’t until I reread the sequence the following day that I realized he didn’t really fight back at all, aside from struggling violently against the police who were already subduing him. The fact that the film Rorschach would fight back fiercely seemed perfectly keeping in character. Yet his crisp moves, his take-em-down-one-at-a-time approach, all that, however swiftly done, felt wrong on a wider level. This wasn’t ‘Rorschach’ as I understood him at this point in the film — instead, he suddenly transformed into a ‘superhero’ and then back again to just being a regular guy.

I can see an argument for this in the film’s logic — Rorschach (and to a different level Night Owl and other figures) have to be to some extent or another superhuman to truly be superheroes in the context of Watchmen as filmed, especially given the final confrontation in Karnak. I’m not entirely on board with this argument but even so, I understand it. Something does not quite gel, though, in this sporadic, sudden there-and-gone burst of power — it’s maybe not so much a lack of focus as a refocusing that raises more questions than answers.

It took me out of the flow of the film, and it was just one moment of many.


I fully realize that in the course of these posts it seems like all I’ve done is dump on Watchmen, explicitly or implicitly. So to reiterate, in my final post I’ll talk more fully about what I enjoy — or even just appreciated — about the film, and the reason why it’s compelling enough to watch at least once.

But before that, having put the Dune parallels to bed, I’ll talk more about those decisions and choices that were Snyder’s alone to make as a director and overall guiding light of the film version. I have never seen a Snyder film before this one, I should note, so this is not relying on comparisons to 300 or whatever. I will see Watchmen again, but I have no desire to ever see another Snyder film in the future now. In fact, I have an overwhelming sense of active, complete avoidance — I’m not interested in seeing Watchmen again because of him, I’m interested in seeing it again in spite of him.

More on that tomorrow.

Watchmen — Post 2

Continued from here.

As this weekend has continued and more and more people actually see Watchmen, the reactions have not been surprising. People near me at the midnight showing were audibly disappointed, others very impressed. Some friends report going with friends or s.o.’s who knew nothing of the original comic and really enjoyed it; others talk about silent and audibly disappointed audiences, often split along gender lines. A mix, a match.

One of my favorite reviews so far has been that by my friend Matt Maxwell, a sharp culture maven in general and a comics person by interest and trade. He’s well aware of the necessary differences between comics and other media and as a result his own take on Watchmen is required reading. To quote a key part:

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 didacticism, 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.

With that in mind, a further consideration of Dune and Watchmen.


The section I’ve quoted by Matt could be written by someone who saw Dune back in 1984, allowing for certain necessary adjustments given the differences in source material. The bedeviling nature of the ‘proper’ adaptation in the cinematic age, following on from the equivalent between print and theater (and followed in turn by radio, television, etc.) is too vast a subject for me to address easily off the top of my head. But its increasing visibility as a key factor in the making of certain films is the result of numerous trends — widening literacy in general, alternative canonical construction, organized subcultures, self-reinforcing fanaticism. By the time Dune was made, all these factors were in place and well-developed; by the time Watchmen was made, they had been extended to the nth degree. The difference is in fact only one of degree in the end.

Alternative examples can be cited — in fact, there’s an obvious one that should be addressed — Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. There are plenty of arguments out there against the films and against the films as adaptations, but it cannot be denied that the films were still massive successes on both a commercial and critical level. A key reason for this is something that Jackson and his collaborators constantly emphasized throughout the production and release of the films — that they were always referring back to the original book when possible but that they were ultimately not simply trying to film the book as written, and that they were not going to try and do that.

This was retrospectively the key for the films succeeding as they did. Jackson enjoyed the books but was not steeped in them; he is an admitted fanboy about many things but he is not a chapter-and-verse quoter of Tolkien’s writings. He sees himself as a filmmaker first and foremost, and his goal was to create entertaining films. The results speak for themselves, and by finding core plotlines to focus on and ways to create a version of the story that was ultimately consistent within the interpretation of that story cinematically — something that made self-contained sense even where it did not match with the written text — he was able to concentrate on making film versions that worked as films. It’s not Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings but it should not be taken as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and to complain otherwise is to miss the point.

Strange to say, perhaps, but the point I’ve just made about self-contained consistency actually provides the high point of Snyder’s changes to Watchmen, but more on that later, because ultimately it’s an isolated example. Turning back to David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune, there are three choices made which resulted in the film being hobbled as it did — there may not have been exact solutions for these problems, or Lynch might not have been allowed to find his own solutions for them in the scope of the production given the pressures from de Laurentis and others.

First, massive frontloading providing reasonably exhaustive detail results in a rushed, crushed and heavily changed second half — while the ‘Secret Report Within the Guild’ actually provides a sharp way to swiftly introduce the core planets and powers in the story, along with putting both the Guild and the Emperor in the mix at the start instead of only fully emerging as actors at the end as in the book, after that things start to turn a bit leisurely. In ways this reflects the equally leisurely pace of Frank Herbert’s work — he luxuriates in detail, and in doing so allows the story to develop into something more than white knights versus black. Sequences like the book’s banquet scene almost function as individual short stories, power plays where morality is secondary or used as a function for other means. New characters are introduced constantly throughout the story, other power bases, other actors in the larger story, and even when the disaster falls upon the Atreides family, it takes many pages and scenes to fully account for.

On film, though, the translation of this leisurely pace means that we do get a lot of this initial backstory in the final theatrical edit — some further scenes were filmed but were ultimately left out, yet even so there’s quite a lot of material presented, despite understandable telescoping of dialogue and sequences. The net result, though, is that by the time the movie is half over, it’s only just reached the conclusion of the first third of the book — and from there on in, things have to speed up rapidly. In doing so, much about the larger contexts of the story’s scope — nearly everything to do with the Harkonnens, for instance — as well as much of the internal philosophizing and stress of many of the key characters is completely lost. A good amount of this was done in the script to start with but the final edit makes everything absolutely brutally quick and contextless — Paul almost becomes the leader of the Fremen by default as a result, and that’s just the first of many things that go by the wayside. A couple of honestly striking scenes aside — most notably, not least because it differs from the book, when Paul drinks the Water of Life, portrayed on screen vividly with sandworms towering over his prone figure — the ending of Dune is basically a portrayal of vengeance against the bad guys, with an extended battle sequence getting the most overall detail. Whether or not less time easing into the story in the first half would have solved these problems is impossible to say, but it would have allowed more to happen in the second half to give the film and its story greater heft within the same running time.

Second, the perhaps inevitable problem of translating things to the film medium that read well but shouldn’t’ve been carried over — with Dune, sometimes this is down to dialogue, with familiar lines awkwardly used and deployed (the sheer shock and joy that Gurney Halleck and Paul feel when they reencounter each other in combat turns into Patrick Stewart awkwardly barking “You young pup!” twice — it’s exactly what he says in the book at that stage, but it sounds pretty goofy). But more telling is the use of monologue — in Dune, internal monologues are absolutely key to the story. Herbert dwells inside his characters’ heads to a massive degree, as they think, consider, build up to decisions, review the past, ponder a next move, philosophize, wonder what will happen next, or, perhaps most importantly, regard with increasing unease what the inevitable result of their actions will mean. The epic sweep of the story carries a reader, especially the first time through; the internal considerations of the characters grounds it in turn.

Translating this kind of approach to an audio-visual medium like film is the world’s biggest mountain to climb — I’m not sure myself if I’ve ever seen something like it actually carried out successfully. But since, as noted, so much of what happens in the book has to be placed in that context — without at least some acknowledgment of it, a large amount of the characters’ actions would be incomprehensible — Lynch’s solution was to try and replicate that with endless shots of characters walking, staring off into space, carrying out physical actions without saying a word, all while often-whispered voiceovers delivered sometimes crucial information (at other points, just illustrative).

It’s not an unfair way to literalize the parallel sequences in the book — if anything, it’s a perfect description of how we ourselves think in our heads as we silently carry out actions, walking down the street while talking to ourselves or whatever. But it’s pretty unengaging in terms of film, and by stripping down so much of said internal monologues to quick line quotes, they become less extended struggles and more unanswered questions and glib, often strictly plot-driven bon mots. In this case, maybe there was simply no solution that could be found.

The third problem I’ve already mentioned in my consideration of both previous problems, but needs to be brought out to the full — obsessive microfocus, diffuse macrofocus. Fanservice is the more common term, not a favorite of mine, but it applies — it’s the idea that certain things MUST be kept in order to keep the fans happy, because that way it really is the book on screen. The problem of course is one of measure — a completely reworked story and film that bears no resemblance at all to the source text deprives filmmakers of a core audience eager to spread approval (or disapproval) by word of mouth, but a completely faithfully accurate story and film that ties into the source text is absolutely unfilmable. Different media, different expectations — it can’t happen, it won’t happen. Therefore, how to split the difference?

There are multiple possibilities, but if the difference is split by making sure certain things are just right no matter what while not attending to the key point of making a good, stand-on-its-own film, then there’s a failure. It can be minor, it can be catastrophic, but it’s a failure. As such, Dune fails — lumbering, stop-start, trapped into certain scenes that it can’t escape from that end up looking sometimes faintly ridiculous, sometimes heavily ridiculous, dedicated to making sure that someone says the line “A million deaths are not enough for Yueh!” even though that was only in the original book as a quote from a children’s song in a chapter’s epigraph, it misses the forest for the trees near-completely. What matter if the stillsuits look awesome when the actors act anonymous in them? Lynch’s eye for the grotesque is what allows him to put his own stamp on the story at its best — the heart-plugs the Harkonnens wear are absolutely disturbing, for instance — but those individual touches were not enough to make the film fully connect.

And yet, as I’ve said and will repeat, I do enjoy Dune. I don’t love it for its flaws, instead I appreciate it for its attempt, I often admire some of its overreaches just as much as I reject other moments. When at its technical best it looks marvelous — only David Lean, at least among Anglo-American filmmakers, has captured what the feeling of a mythically empty desert is like — and it can be looked back on with the knowledge of the compromises that were made due to the time, the audience, the way it had to be delivered to a wider population that had ever heard of the book. The film turned out to be a smash success in Europe and was a major hit on video; it’s not that there wasn’t interest and appreciation in it from the start, acceptance of — or overlooking — of its manifest flaws.

Ultimately, it was the closest that one could get to the story at the time, a frustrating, imperfect effort that was still watched then and now. This, many are now starting to agree, is also the clear case with Watchmen.

As before, I’ve run out of time to continue at this point, so a third post will follow, possibly a fourth. Hopefully all this time spent on these framing points vis-a-vis Dune will help clarify my Watchmen observations — otherwise I might as well be doing what I’m talking about in my first problem observed here, an overloaded first half!

Watchmen — Post 1

The best way I’ve found to think about the movie adaptation of Watchmen, I’ve found, is in the context of something that appeared a couple of years before it was first published.

In late 1984 I was excited as heck, thirteen years old and awaiting the Christmas season with more than the usual interest. A couple of years beforehand I’d first read something that had enthralled and intrigued me, and I’d reread it a few times since, along with its then available sequels. I’d learned about how it had a huge reputation among aficionados, and certainly to my mind I couldn’t imagine a life without knowing about it, one had to know about it, surely.

And a movie version was coming out! I knew about the director’s previous project though I was too young to see it, perhaps — the ads were memorable, its own reputation strong. The publicity machine had long since kicked into full gear, spinoffs and tie-ins were filling various bookstores and toy stores. I still have the ‘making of’ book somewhere around — not a bad effort, actually, if inevitably colored and slanted towards a happy-face presentation rather than all the details that went into the production, and of course it had been written and prepared before anyone knew the fate of the movie. No matter, I lapped it up.

My mom dropped me off at the local mall-theater that was showing the movie — it wasn’t her thing, in fact I was the only member of the family who cared at all about it — and I took a seat on what would have been a Saturday afternoon showing. The theater wasn’t empty but it was definitely underpopulated, I’d say a quarter-full — and given this was opening weekend, that might have been a bit of a sign as to the film’s eventual fate. I’d read a review or two already that were mixed at best — I seem to remember Roger Ebert on TV being pretty dismissive — but David Ansen in Newsweek devoted a lot of space to it and found it flawed but compelling, and for some time to come that review what quoted prominently in the film’s advertising, probably because there were so few other good reviews out there.

But none of that mattered. I just knew that something really, really cool surely was about to happen, and I knew that they would be telling the film version of the story I enjoyed very much — and surely with all appropriate fidelity, all the details, surely. I settled into my seat, popcorn or something similar to hand I’m sure, waited for the lights to go down and saw Virginia Madsen fade in on the screen, talking to all of us.

And I proceeded to watch Dune.


As I think and rethink again about Watchmen, I should preface where I go first by noting that, in fact, I don’t hate David Lynch’s take on Dune at all. Far from it — I ended up taping both the original theatrical cut off TV and, when it was later released, the reedited, extended version done for syndicated TV, something Lynch did not control and which he invoked the Alan Smithee pseudonym for, and which was noticeably different in how the music cues were handled and in the rather sternly anonymous narration provided by someone in place of Madsen’s own. Yet that version did include many scenes from the book not in the theatrical cut and it was worth it just to see that — even if, in a later context, it’s wonderfully strange to realize that Jean-Luc Picard (or if you prefer Professor Xavier) could rock out on a baliset.

But the lesson of Dune for me was one of realizing the value of dampening expectations based on knowing something in advance. Actually I’d already learned this lesson once already that year with the release of 2010, having long since previously enjoyed 2001 in movie form and read and reread Arthur C. Clarke’s book sequel to the Stanley Kubrick collaboration. But Dune sticks more in the memory on this front, partially due to the eventual reputation of its director, partially because Dune was pitched ‘wide,’ as it were, to a mainstream audience. (It’s not that 2010 wasn’t, I’m sure, but, legendarily, The Terminator came out around the same time and James Cameron’s work pretty much crushed that anemic sequel from Peter Hyams to the point where I can’t even remember seeing a commercial for it.)

But that ultimately is another discussion — Dune is a fabled ‘if only’ still, something that Lynch himself has often regarded as an aberration (at a lecture he presented at UCI a few years back, he was introduced as the director of numerous films, all mentioned by name except one — prompting a question and comment by an audience member later professing an honest love for the film, in turn causing applause and which Lynch acknowledged with good grace). It was of course a massive big budget project, a Dino de Laurentis production with all that implied — and when one considers how perfectly he’d backed a landmark genre entry three previously, John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian, it makes Dune‘s failure, if not per se surprising, further evidence that his touch was ultimately sporadic when it came to such things.

Again, though, Dune is not something I think flat out sucks, and that’s the case, as mentioned, with many others. Instead, it’s something with a lot of flaws that still contains much of interest, but those flaws can make it sometimes hard to love. It’s a product of its time, it represents a combination of inspired patchwork and flawed execution, a tension between trying to do right by the original material and trying to make it function in a cinematic context. There’s a lot worse out there but I can’t rank it as a true favorite.

Which brings me to Watchmen, and you can probably guess where I’m going with all this.


The comparisons to Dune started for me towards the end of Watchmen, but that was because only then could I get a better sense of perspective on the whole film. I actually saw it in its opening midnight showing — it wasn’t something I was planning on going to, but friend Tom, who I’d turned on to the original book shortly after the first trailer came out last year, was going to be away all that weekend and suggested we go for the midnight showing instead. No problem with that, done that plenty of times in recent years so why not again? IMAX was sold out but one of the spillover theaters was good to go when he checked and so we found ourselves among a pretty packed crowd — that much was different from my first Dune experience, at least.

Without restating my introduction to this piece, though, you can sense the parallels otherwise, something that only suddenly crystallized upon viewing. Talking about Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original work in great detail is not something I want or really need to do at this point — like Frank Herbert’s novel, by the time Watchmen appeared on screen an entire generation had grown up with it, canonized and acknowledged and referenced and studied and more besides, seen as a ‘mature’ variation of the form by those who would never want to read or study anything else in the form.

I’ve found myself running out of time today to talk more about this — I am off to a long-planned party shortly — but tomorrow I’ll hopefully have more to say about the comparisons to be drawn between the two films, and my impressions in general about Watchmen as a film. But I will leave for now with the advice I’ve been giving people — see it as a matinee showing instead of full price. But you should still see it.

Some happy news to pass on about Carl Wilson

It already made the rounds that the other night at a certain big awards ceremony James Franco mentioned reading Carl’s excellent entry in the 33 1/3 series on Celine Dion. Well, somebody noticed somewhere because Carl just updated his Facebook status about fifteen minutes back:

Carl Wilson is almost scared to say it aloud, but Carl’s friends might want to watch the Colbert Report on Wed, March 4.

Amazing! And well deserved, of course. 🙂 His excellent blog Zoilus is always worth checking out.

(A slight bit of shameless piggybacking on my part to note something I keep forgetting to mention — my own proposal for the series has made the shortlist, but that is of course no guarantee at all of making the final cut. Very flattering to have made it this far, though!)