Politics 1, Psychology 0

Politics 1, Psychology 0

 

(cross-posted at Cailloux de Cinema)

So (like many of you, I’m sure) I saw Watchmen over the weekend.

I was, on the whole, pleasantly surprised by the adaptation!

The film was decidedly less sophisticated in its psychological engagement with the characters who actually aren’t purely allegorical (i.e. Dan and Laurie). For me, those two characters are the heart of Moore’s book–and Snyder doesn’t handle their story very well. By omitting the coffee serving scene (praised at length in this piece), the film sacrifices the wonderful multivalence of the pair’s sexual reawakening on the owl ship, leaving only the costume-fetish aspect of the supersexual critique intact (whereas the book makes it impossible to disentangle the creepiness of the “power fantasy” from the wide-eyed wonder of altruism as aphrodisiac).

On the other hand–the film’s politics are SO MUCH SMARTER THAN THE BOOK’S! I can’t overstate how pleased I am with Hayter/Tse’s (and Snyder’s?) new ending. Yes, the exploding squid was fun–but it’s a catastrophic failure as a plot device. By converting the now-absent Dr. Manhattan from superhero to Super Ego, Veidt’s plan actually stands a chance of imposing perpetual peace upon the world–and kills America’s sense of a special relationship with “God” with the same stone (whereas the GN’s alien is, at best, a shock treatment that will inevitably wear off). Moreover, the film’s Veidt is leagues beyond Moore and Gibbons’ ranting madman, who, by the end of the book, is absolutely indistinguishable from any other melodrama villain. As played by Goode, Veidt actually seems to feel the cost of his actions, allowing the film to lay bare the calculus of political foundation with a candor that the book (unlike its much-maligned contemporary text, Squadron Supreme) never approaches.

Other good stuff in the film–very quickly: the Dr. Manhattan origin story, the opening montage and Matt Frewer’s Moloch.

It’s definitely worth your time–whether you’ve read the book or not!

good afternoon friends!

Dave

 

16 comments

  1. it’s true–I’ve been seeing a lot of that around, but I have no clue how to account for it… the book’s Ozymandias is a ranting lunatic with a squid bomb

    Dave

  2. Maybe it’s just me — but I *like* squid bombs (they’re the party favor that keeps on giving — nightmares, maybe, but still [grin]…)

  3. oh for sure Andrew–I agree that Gibbons’ armageddon has a far more unsettling quality to it… but the problem is that the plan, as Moore presents it, is supremely unconvincing as a means of achieving the ends that Veidt claims to envision (and so, as a result, we never even GET to the means and ends discussion in the book…) Moore’s Veidt is just a man of ability who “snaps” under pressure (as does the protagonist of the Pirate narrative–and for that reason I was happy to see that Poe-esque tale excised from the film, which sees Veidt VERY differently)

    In Moore/Gibbons, Dan, Laurie and Manhattan let things stand because they don’t see any way to denounce Veidt without making things even worse… in the film, they (and, more important, WE) are actually forced (by the very “soundness” of the revamped plan) to consider whether Veidt did the objectively “right” thing…

    anyway, that’s how I see it!

    Dave

  4. Hmmmm… not sure I can agree with you on the ending of the movie Dave. I mean, it is more politically interesting than the book’s finale (just!), but like you say, Watchmen was never worth reading for the politics.

    To me, the “clean”, bloodless nature of the movie’s finale contrasted a little too harshly with the hyped-up, 300-esque gore of the preceding action sequences, throwing the whole story’s momentum into reverse.

    The comic’s Veidt definitely is “a ranting lunatic with a squid bomb“, but that works in context because I think he’s supposed to look stupid and terrifying at the end of the story. I’ve never felt like his scheme was supposed to be plausible — quite the opposite in fact. I think it’s supposed to look like a desperate, temporary fix that ended a lot of lives, a reality that the opening splash pages of issue #12 just plain won’t let you escape. (Dave Gibbons, you are a hero – never forget it!)

    Like the big blue guy says, “Nothing ever ends”. Or, hey, like the fetish model says in the movie, but whatever.

    Taken this way, the comic is very firmly on the side of the minor, human characters + Dan & Laurie. Its formal intricacies are more than just displays of cleverness – they’re there to generate a sort of ornate, preposterously intricate soap-opera framework in which all of these little lives are connected and all of them matter. It’s an invitation to see the potentially kinder end of Dr Manhattan’s perceptive spectrum, where human life is so damned unlikely that you have to form an interest, even an attachment to it.

    Never mind “who watches the watchmen?” – the real question is “who watches? And why?” Thinking about it this way, Dr M’s real idiocy (murdering aside!) is in his inability to comprehend his own roll in observing all those martian landscapes, and to extrapolate the importance of his own feelings beyond his own path in space/time. In fact, come to think of it, this is also why he’s shown killing people so freely at various points in the book and the movie – he’s an intellectual giant and a moral midget (“the morality of my actions escapes me”, etc).

    Anyway, like you said, the Dan/Laurie stuff definitely needed to be expanded in the movie (and you are so, so right about the coffee scene!). Still, the ‘Hallelujah’ sex session aside, the film’s soapy treatment of their interactions didn’t strike me as being too “off”. Soap operas are all about ridiculous attachment, after all, and this is where those characters look “stronger” than their colleagues in the comic – they’re just far more interested in actual, real stuff you know? They seem genuinely fixated on people, animals, and kinky costume funtime, and I can get with all of that! They’re far from perfect, but their dysfunctions seem less psychopathic than, say Rorschach/Jon/Veidt’s to me. Dave Gibbons needs some major props here again, because he sells D&L’s body language in a way that the actors in this film just can’t – this is true across the board, of course, but in the absence of the many minor characters, I feel it most here.

    Which takes me back to the film’s 300-style action – it makes the movie Dan & Laurie look a bit more wantonly brutal than they did in the book, what with all the slow-mo neck stabbing and limb-snapping. Given the kinky nature of their coupling, it ends up seeming like they get off on maiming people, which… maybe there’s a bit of that in the source material, but the movie renders violence as pornography right up until the final massacre, and I find that weirdly unsettling.

    You could probably argue that the ending is bloodless because it’s beyond such fetishised fun, but I don’t know that this makes the movie any better for me. In fact, it might make the sense that the movie is built to support Ozy’s plan seem all the stronger…

    As for the actor who played Ozymandias, I can see how he fits your reading of the film, but I didn’t get much genuine remorse from him… just a toned down, slightly sleazy arrogance. I found that slightly less interesting than the comic Ozy’s mixture of bland charm and idiotically hateful planning, which (again) is reliant on my reading of the ending as an indictment of Veidt’s presumed superiority. Without the blandness, Ozymandias just seems like a creepy saviour, which… I’d agree that this is slightly less boring on a political level, but the comic’s Ozymandias seems to think he’s way smarter and more grown up than he really is. I don’t get that from the movie, and as a result the whole thing ends up seeming a lot more in thrall to our bloody-handed saviours than I’d like it to be.

    All that said, I think I enjoyed the movie, even though I know it was terrible in places. I’ll see it again, if only because I’m infinitely fascinated by things that don’t work in big, pointy ways.

    David Allison

  5. The short version of my previous comment:

    I’m not sure that the ethical question the movie poses is…

    (a) well set up

    or

    (b) more interesting than what I take to be the argument in favour of life that exists in the comic.

    Also: the movie made me miss the pirate comic, probably because it supports my reading! Pesky runtime sapping fight scenes…

  6. absolutely David!

    the film deeply deeply violates the spirit of the book (which is a horror story about human impotence, in all of its forms) in its final reel

    and there’s no question that Gibbons delivered that horror in a powerful way that almost redeems Moore’s (to me) knee-jerk reluctance to confront the realities of political foundation (by making Ozymandias–and the Black Freighter guy–into Poe-style madmen who rip out the world’s eyeball because they can’t face it any more)

    it’s just my good fortune that I always felt that Watchmen’s take on superpolitics paled in comparison to Squadron Supreme’s–and that Snyder appears to have fused the latter’s decisionist ethics onto the body of the book (while jettisoning pretty much all of the psychological complexity of the Moore/Gibbons’ truly human characters)

    Even aesthetically, I think it was the right thing to do, because I don’t think the film could have done the things that the book does to give us the human-eye view of the power struggle that provides the majority of its plot points (although they COULD have taken a little more trouble to complexify the Dan/Laurie sex stuff–and my guess is that Snyder didn’t want to do THAT either… he’s clearly a typical fanboy in that regard)

    ah well–at the very least–the film is providing a lot of fodder for discussion… to me, the two texts work wonderfully in dialogue with each other–Moore/Gibbons give us real people at the mercy of the “Lords of Life”… while Snyder gives us those Lords (idealism, objectivity, “deontological ethics,” cynicism–aka Veidt, Manhattan, Rorschach, Comedian) straight up, and places each of them in collision with themselves…

    Dave

  7. Good stuff David! And damn you for making me write about this film – I fully intended to hold off until the smoke had cleared, but you seem to have sent my brain into action prematurely.

    I’m a big Squadron Supreme fan too – it’s always struck me as being a far more “intellectual” comic than Watchmen in some ways. SS is a lot more committed to its philosophical ideas than the Moore/Gibbons comic, but it uses the Marvel house style to explore them so it seems a lot less sophisticated at first.

    Moore is very clever in the way he constructs Watchmen, but as ever his smartest move is to identify the strengths of his collaborator – Gibbons is the hero of the book, and it is his perspective that gives an objective sense of weight and importance to even the book’s smallest characters and motifs.

    Compared to these very tactile pleasures, both Watchmen – The Movie! And Squadron Supreme risk seeming a little airy, but you could argue that Snyder uses the current 300/Sin City derived “comic book movie” to stage his ethical play, just like Gruenwald adapted his normal writing style to sneak Squadron’s big questions out there. The problem being (from my POV, obviously!) that Snyder’s current style is both tiresome and not particularly suited to these aims.

    Still – it is interesting to consider the movie as some sort of grotesque Moore/Gruenwald/Miller/Gibbons/Snyder hybrid… it’s the revenge of the 80s, Frankenstein style, and now it WONT STOP ATTACKING MY BRAIN!

    Good times.

    David A

  8. Sorry, meant “political ideas” rather than philosophical ideas in that last post, though there’s room to argue that both ways…

    DA

  9. Also also also (and I will stop commenting now, I promise!) I’d like to make it clear that I’m not annoyed that the movie isn’t “faithful” to the book. If anything, I’d like it to be further from the source, and I’m willing to admit that some of the changes that make me uncomfortable are “interesting” rather than “bad”.

    That said, the slow-mo fights were still boring, and the music choices still made me want to punch my own face off…

  10. no argument from me on that score (or on THE score–aside from the Glass/Manhattan music… and the Dylan accompaniment to the opening montage, which really worked well)

    the slo-mo fights (or, in fact, the fights PERIOD), too, could have been dispensed with entirely–but that was never gonna happen…

    I never saw 300, and I’m unlikely to ever want to see anything directed by Snyder again, but I am grateful to him (or the screenwriters) for diverging from the text in such an interesting way, at the eleventh hour (before that twist, I was far more down on the film–which is, basically, Moore and Gibbons, minus the special talents of Moore and Gibbons)

    The plot change is what makes the film worth seeing, AND worth discussing–and I like your revenge of the eighties thesis a lot David!

    merci!

    Dave

  11. Ah! This is a better place for the thoughts I had last night — great discussion!

    …So what I was going to say is, yes: just as David Golding pointed out (though he confesses he stole it from somewhere — never mind, I’ll attribute it to him anyway, because it’s clever and so is he) that many of the visual effects in Watchmen can’t translate to film because in film they are trite (oh no, Dr. Manhattan has a FLASHBACK! My mind is suddenly BLOWN!), I’ll argue that Veidt’s story doesn’t translate effectively either…because he is a ranting maniac with a squid-bomb, obviously. Everyone else is confronted by the Comedian’s cynical truth-telling and collapses, like a punctured balloon…appropriately. Only Veidt is such a very precocious adolescent that he can’t “grow up” this way — it isn’t idealism, it’s defiance, it’s narcissism using idealism as cover…the morality of his actions doesn’t escape him, he just pretends to have acknowledged them in an effort to escape their inescapable implications. And thus, again as an adolescent, he relies on his genius being vindicated in such a way that it won’t matter anymore…only he (he thinks) can compass the world’s irreducible complexities so brilliantly that he can reduce them anyhow…

    He’s a nutter! And the proof of it is that he did do it thirty-five minutes ago. If only he hadn’t!

    Very hard to see how this could’ve made it into the movie, though, as we’re dealing with movie tropes. Even in 1986, in comics it was already trite to say “oh shit, maybe the Bond villain actually has a valid point of view, maybe he’s actually right“…thus in the comic he is not right, he’s an inadequate loon, and the Comedian was right, and most importantly Dan’s right. In the movie it’s far more palatable to have him be something a bit else, and to have them be — possibly! — not quite so right, if only because it’s never been done before. And, grumble, grumble, it’s probably a misreading that causes that in the first place, rather than anything like my reasoning about it…but anyway I’m perfectly willing to grant that necessity even so, just as I’m perfectly willing to say that I’m one of the many slavish devotees of the book who thought while reading it “wait…isn’t this an old Outer Limits episode? Well, that’s disappointing”. Of course once you see what Gibbons makes of it, it isn’t disappointing. But it’d be a pretty brazen business to have “Architects Of Fear” playing on Sally’s TV in the movie…speaking for myself, I’d be afraid to try it. No doubt there is somebody out there who could’ve brought it off, but it was never going to be in this movie, and for more than just one reason.

    Having said which…no coffee on Archie? Little dialogue changes? These strike me as towering failures of vision, not little incidental adjustments, and I expect to hate the hell out of whatever replaces them. What I’m getting from all these discussions is that the humane element of Watchmen’s been left pretty well right out, and that’s beyond a shame if true…alas, poor Laurie! My Laurie, that is…

    Still, no one who’s knowledgeable about the source material has said that my Jon is missing, and that’s a very important inducement to see the thing, for me — Watchmen the comic managed to do what a million short stories about physicists with rotten marriages and a million million plays about Heisenberg never have, which is successfully enlist the quantum-mechanical worldview in a literary project, without screwing up what it is along the way. I don’t expect the movie to have such a powerful cosmological accent as the book, but at least no one has said it isn’t there at all…which is good, because there must be something more to it than just the murder and the plot and Rorschach being nuts, for me to be at all interested in it. It shocks the hell out of me, in fact, that this seems so unimportant to so many bloggers (present company excluded, natch), just as though they never saw any true value in it! Astounding. I mean I’m all for different readings, but I never expected to be the only one who cared about that…!

    Doesn’t quite matter; I know the movie can’t do what the book did, can’t do it, when it comes to Time. As faithful as it could possibly be, no movie could ever replicate the seedbed of motif and synchronicity that Gibbons supplies on the page — no viewer could ever see it, even if it was somehow there anyway. I know that going in. So something must replace it, at least a little…you guys argue very convincingly that politics replaces it, so I’ll be looking for that…if I can have a way to enjoy it that replaces the way I enjoyed the book, that way’s probably got to lie in the juxtaposition of book with film, since the film likely can’t touch the book for exploring symmetries…

    Ooooh, need more coffee. This new Daylight Savings Time gives me terrible jet-lag, it really does…

    Anyway, cheers! Do continue!

    Plok

  12. We could start a group for Davids who love Squadron Supreme. I too liked what the film did the story’s politics. I think that is the truest adaptation of Moore by arguing with him—or at least arguing with his bad mood of ’87; perhaps the movie’s Veidt is a Watchmen version of Promethea? On the other hand, the sex scene, for me, is the only true adaptation of Gibbons, bringing gravity and physical human frailty into the picture.

    I’m not sure the violence is pornographic. It seems the natural consequence of pitting movie heroes against real people. Rather than fetishising, I think it identifies the heroes with the antagonists of horror films. I would say the sex and violence (elided in other superhero movies) is the humane element of the film. The superhero fights are all comparitively bloodless affairs, and perhaps Veidt’s holocaust fits into this schema. He is attacking the “evils that best” humanity, not humanity itself. Showing squid devastation on the big screen could never be mistaken for pornography, it could only be vile, and stop people thinking. Maybe.

    higs, Dave

  13. I love the Davids-for-Squadron-Supreme group plan Dave!

    Pillock–the world wants to know whether you found your Dr. Manhattan on the screen!

    Motime–why in god’s name are you cutting comments off the screen?

  14. Just in the middle of a re-read, actually, so I won’t be seeing the movie until I’ve finished…am trying to get some certain thoughts down on paper about it. But then once I’ve done that, I’ll be seeing the movie, and then returning to the thoughts. Still no word from the blogosphere at large about whether Jon Osterman makes it to the screen relatively intact, which I take to be a reasonably hopeful sign!

    Will let you know.

    Plok

  15. Man, I’d love to interact meaningfully with David Golding’s thoughts on this film, but my brain seems to be resistant to clear expression at the moment. I will say this, David — you present a very compelling reading of the movie!

    I’m hoping to see Watchmen again soon, and when I do I’ll keep these thoughts in mind — my take on how the violence plays out are almost the opposite of yours (David Golding’s), but I’ll try to find the humanity in the broken bones and the Dave Gibbons beneath the ‘Hallelujah’.

    Also, the Davids-for-Squadron-Supreme group idea has just about made my day, thanks!

    David Allison

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