Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

I think it was in July or August of 1987 that yer actual Keith Telly Topping first encountered Watchmen. This blogger can't claim - unlike some of his 'cooler' friends - to have been there since issue one of the comic was published. (Sod all of this 'graphic novel' nonsense, that's a term used solely by Middle Class Gruniad-reading tossers who are too embarrassed to say they read comics.) But I did get with the programme somewhere around issue six or seven and quickly caught up. Keith Telly Topping says that from the outset of this review to try and convey the fact that, in his head at least, he has had a Watchmen movie (his own Watchmen movie, which isn't, necessarily, Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore's Watchmen movie or anybody elses come to that) running for over twenty years. I would have quite liked to see Terry Gilliam's Watchmen movie in the late 1980s, I think many people would, but that never happened for a variety of reasons. 'Unfilmable' Terry eventually considered. 'It would make the greatest twelve-part TV series in the history of the medium ... but you'd need a budget bigger than Gone With The Wind for every episode.' Neither did several other brave-but-futile attempts to take a massively complex (and, already visual) text and translate it into a film. Like many fans, I thought that I'd never see the day when any movie adaptation of Watchmen would appear ... Or that, even if one did, it was always likely to be a savage and cruel disappointment. Because, these things - by and large - always are. Which brings us, twenty two years on, to Zack Snyder's Watchmen movie which I've just seen. (I needed two pee-breaks during it, incidentally - my bladder is, quite clearly, trying to tell me something very pointed about the ageing process.)

Well, I didn't hate it, let's put it that way. Various friends who had seen the movie gave me previews which ranged from 'it was more-or-less the film that I had in my head' to 'what a very odd experience, but it was quite rewarding if you stuck with it' to 'that was a turgid near three hour mess during which my bum fell asleep. Twice.' A colleague at work, as familiar with the source text as I, noted that he felt 'it was all the best bits of the comic strung together without any plot.' Having watched the thing, I do kind-of see what he's getting at. I would hate to have watched that if I hadn't known the story backwards already. But, the fact that I did made the experience of watching it a very curious one. I think a part of me actually wanted to hate it. It started off as a simple intellectual exercise - watching the thing chiefly to see which bits of such an outrageously convoluted plot were they going to leave out. All of the 1940s/Minutemen stuff, surely? When Sam Hamm wrote the initial movie script based on Watchmen in the late eighties, by all accounts that was the first thing to go. But no, that was present and correct. Not, perhaps, as front-and-centre as in the early chapters of the comic (a lot - and I mean a hell of a lot - of information is dumped into the audience's lap in the form of a beautifully constructed title-sequence montage using Bob Dylan's 'The Times They Are A-Changing' as its soundtrack). But the Eddie Blake/Sally Jupiter back-story was all there, as was Hollis and his relationship with Daniel (my own favourite character). Would it look like the comic? Yes, amazingly, it did. All primal colours and sepia tones. The darkness - particularly in the opening sequence as The Comedian gets his just deserts - is effective and not overpowering as it often is in big-budget movies.

In terms of other plot elements to go, the Tales From the Black Freighter was always likely to be jettisoned (s'cuse the nautical pun) since it was, chiefly, a narrative device that kept the comic grounded in its own sense of medium (a comic book within a comic book). And, that also seemed to have had a knock-on effect which required a change to the much-celebrated 'fake alien invasion' denouement - meaning that another method of destroying New York needed to be found so that Ozymandias could 'save the world.' What we got in its place, actually, made a lot of sense; it was a less high concept idea than Alan Moore's original but, in some ways, it was far more fitting to the Cold War logic at the movie's core. Giving the whole world a nuclear bogeyman to be scared of in the shape of Doctor Manhatten to replace Nixon and his Soviet counterpart. The murder of Hollis Mason also didn't make the final movie (although I understand it was shot as, indeed, was all the pirate stuff). They, along with other deleted plot-strands, are likely to be found in the Director's Cut, scheduled for July release, and which is supposed to be over three hours long. (The finished movie as it stands is two hours, forty eight minutes.) This suggests it will be, to all intents and purposes, a different movie to the one we actually got. Not, necessarily, a better one, though.

But, anyway, let's stick to the released version for the moment. For all of Alan Moore's reservations it was nice to see that the majority of his, now famous, dialogue survived in tact. Most of the classic lines are there - 'The world's smartest man poses no more threat to me than does its smartest termite.' 'Never compromise. Not even in the face of Armageddon.' 'What sort of cancer?' 'You know the sort that you get better from? Well, not that sort.' 'It doesn't take a genius to see the world has problems.' 'No, but it takes a room full of morons to think they're smart enough for them to handle.' And, of course, everybody's favourite Ozymandias line 'Do it? Do you think I'm some comic book villain, Daniel? That I would tell you my plan if there was the remotest chance you could stop me. I did it thirty five minutes ago!' Yer a right grumpy sod, Alan, but at least they're mostly saying your words just the way you wrote 'em! The performances themselves range from the 'looks dead right, sort-of sounds right, but...' (Malin Akerman as a spunky but rather vulnerable Laurie Jupiter), to an 'almost, but not quite there' Ozymandias (Matthew Goode's dry, caustic but curiously cold Adrian Veidt), to the 'My God, I never thought in a million years they'd manage to pull THAT off' (Billy Crudup's serene Doctor Manhatten and, especially, Jackie Earle Haley's grave and world-weary Rorschach) to the performance that, for me anyway, runs away with the movie, Patrick Wilson as a crushed and beautifully nuanced Night Owl.

There was lots of stuff that made me smile; the Apocalypse Now pastiche, the gorgeous design for Archie, the cunning use of much of the comic's iconography (particularly at the Comedian's funeral), the entire Big Feature subplot (albeit, minus the amusing dialogue from the comic between Laurie and Daniel about the problems of going to the lavatory in your latex costume!), the use of 'All Along The Watchtower' on the soundtrack towards the climax (which sent a little fanboy buzz right down my spin as soon as it started). There were some elements that didn't, quite, work as well as one would have liked, of course. This is a movie, after all. The Martian interlude always left me a bit 'meh' even in the comic - although it's a key to understanding Doctor Manhatten's psychology. Here, it felt like pure padding. Beautiful, but empty, rather like the hollow mini-world that Jon creates for Laurie. Similarly, there was something about the climax (despite it being an almost shot-for-shot reworking of Dave Gibbons' artwork) that felt rushed. I think it was Adrian's sudden appearance at the top of the stairs in a flashcut after he has, apparently, atomised Doctor Manhatten which jarred the mostly. But, those were mere stylistic fragments of a much more important whole. Yer actual Keith Telly Topping comes, dear blog readers, to report something of a minor miracle has taken place (you know, those things that Jon tells Laurie never happen but then is forced to re-assess that conclusion later on). They've pulled it off. I'm not quite sure how but they took a text that was - most informed opinions felt - unfilmable and made something of it which was not only watchable but, actually, pretty good. Less 'drinking a toast to absent friends, instead of these comedians' more 'Oh, how the ghost of you clings.' Def Con 1. Smiley faces all round, I think.

2 comments:

Korv said...

"Tales From the Black Freighter was always likely to be jettisoned (s'cuse the nautical pun) since it was, chiefly, a narrative device that kept the comic grounded"

I agree insofar as you obviously can't have a comic within a comic in a film. But I think it's the other way round. I think Snyder always intended to replace the 'squid' as he feels the spirit of the ending is Ozy putting the other Watchmen into moral checkmate, rather than the specific details of that. Changing the ending in this way, it seems to me anyway, makes the whole of the Black Freighter stuff irrelevant since it's related to the squid via Max Shea. I don't feel the Black Freighter is purely there to 'ground the comic in it's own medium' - it has considerable thematic resonance too.

"And, of course, everybody's favourite Ozymandias line "Do it? Do you think I'm some comic book villain, Daniel? "

Actually there's a change in that line, but the change doesn't make any sense within the Watchmen universe. In the comic, Ozy says 'Do it? I'm not an RKO (IE movie) villain', which gets changed to 'not a comic-book villain'. Ha ha, very funny, a kind of 'Fearful Symmetry'; like taking a post-modern joke and making it even more so for those who remember the original line. But i think it would have had a far weirder, funnier, postmodern effect if they kept the line intact (maybe without the RKO reference). In the Watchmen universe, 'comic book villain' wouldn't make any sense as superhero comics are a very minor, probably forgotten, element of popular culture. Have him say 'I'm not a movie villain' and it not only makes the joke even more immediate than it is in the comic, it also reinforces the moral of watchmen, which is that there are no heros and villains.

"the use of 'All Along The Watchtower' on the soundtrack towards the climax ('two riders were approaching')"

But again, by removing the hover-pods that Nite Owl and Rorschach use to approach Ozy's base and having them simply walk the short distance from the crashed Archie, the whole point of including that quote fails to resonate. Imagine that sequence from the movie as if Snyder had kept them literally as 'two riders' and that sequence becomes so much more effective. As it is, while Hendrix's singing 'two riders were approaching', what he means is 'two pedestrians were approaching'. I actually cringed at this point.

I think the major thing missing from the film is the non-vigilante perspective. The sequence which begins with 'You wanna know about Rorschach?', a sequence Snyder says was one he just HAD to get in the film, isn't anywhere near as powerful without understanding just how much the liberal psychiatrist has invested in trying to understand and 'cure' Walter Kovacs, how much of his personal life he has sacrificed for an aim Rorschach points out is impossible - Kovacs died that night, and only Rorschach remains. And all the street-level perspective of events is missing.

Personally I'd rather have seen Synder tackle Millers 'The Dark Knight returns', a movie i know he would like to see happen, as i think he would have done a better job.

That said, i enjoyed the film but there will only ever be one Watchmen, natch. Not that i think it's even Moore's best work.

Keith Topping said...

Excellent.

Discussion continues in The Other Place!

K