Monday, March 9, 2009

Why "Watchmen" Doesn't Work




I'm going to catch a flack for this opinion, I already know.  My opinion of Zack Snyder has not changed; he is a hack, he is a pseudo-filmmaker contributing little-to-nothing.  I approach my opinions on the film from outside viewpoint.  I purposely did not read the graphic novel before seeing the film, because I'd heard the overt-fidelity is the film's biggest weakness.  I didn't want a graphic novel in my mind, I wanted to judge it as a film.  Sadly, "Watchmen" is not even allowed to be the deep, meditative, deconstructive, or visually arresting film it wants to be.

The biggest *problem* with graphic novel adaptation is that for SOME reason writers and directors think graphic novels are equitable to storyboards.  Some can make the point that comic books are provocative for their slight emulation of cinema, for their dynamic compositions, their "edits," their ability to distill everything into a bounded frame - something completely different from a novel.  The question that comes into my mind is "what can films do that graphic novels can't? What can graphic novels do that films can't?"  It's a crucial question of literary adaptation ("What can novels do...") that gets into a key concept of "media specificity."

Over 100 years, films have developed their own syntax, their own language, and as I watched "Watchmen" I did not feel like the source was being "adapted" into another syntax, but that somehow Snyder believed that there was a feasible connection between the two.  This is a naive belief.  I find a connection to silent cinema close to film's birth, when many early directors and cameramen believed it made more "sense" to "film a play," effectively turning the frame into a proscenium arch where the actors would move about in extended, largely lifeless takes.  The "invention" and elaboration of editing allowed films to grow into a zenith of artistry circa 1925-27, until the invention of sound inevitably made films take a small step back, going back to pointlessly extended edits to accommodate for synch-sound recording.

Okay okay, so what's my point?  My point is that trying to create a graphic-novel-as-film is a largely futile exercise.  "Watchmen" is, in a broad sense of the term, an experimental film, a gigantic attempt to do something visually different.  Like Snyder's previous "300," the visual experiment drowns under its own pandering repetition.  Mostly because slow motion is equated with "comic book frame," and this changing reconfiguration of individual time creates a strange imbalance.  Action scenes move with painful inconsistency, dramatic movements are accentuated through their bizarre slowness, and this stops becoming fluid and starts becoming silly.  It's not cutting edge or thrilling -- it's a dumb technique SEEMINGLY ripped right out of The Matrix.

But where I think The Matrix creates this "graphic" aesthetic by using it in small doses, letting most of the film exist on its own terms and integrating its startling re-framing devices at precise dramatic moments, "Watchmen" does not have a real sense of itself.  Snyder cannot be called a "visionary" if his film always feels like it's at the mercy of Moore and Gibbon's original work.  It's not a transformation so much as a cluttered, suffocating attempt to pander to fans.  In attempting to stuff everything in, the larger picture seems to get compromised.  And if Snyder IS going for a "real" comic book aesthetic, why does he move his camera so much?  The actors and the story become second-hand in favor of this clamoring hope to redefine aesthetic molds, and its pomposity that hurts the film as it lunges into its 2nd hour.

For the first hour of the film is fairly good.  Jackie Earle Haley astounds as Rorshach, Billy Crudup is magnetic as Dr. Manhattan, and the film yanks and pulls around its own boggling chronology, alternating itself as a genre deconstruction act, a conspiracy neo-noir, a meditation on violence and self, and even a study on the dislocation of humanity.  But for some reason, all these tangents remain only tangents.  They are touched on with visuals or fleeting bits of dialogue, but never feel like real sustained undercurrents.  At 163 minutes, "Watchmen" is too bloated for its own good.  Had it reshaped the story, cut back characters, altered its focus, or even trimmed down or excised completely its redundant and poorly choreographed action sequences, it could have emerged as a startling "new" look at this 24 year old novel.  There is nothing gained by staying THIS faithful, and "Watchmen" is a pretty good argument against fidelity to the screen.  Why people judge adaptations based on how much gets left in is beyond me.  Some films have done it very well ("Grapes of Wrath" comes to mind as a brief example), but by and large the adaptations that have been most regarded over time are the ones that realize things must be changed, that film is a different medium with different considerations, and these films have taken "essentials" from their sources and reinvented them, communicated them in different and startling ways, found new ways to create visuals out of words in a transformative dialogue.

But graphic novel adaptation is an increasing problem.  Since the late 80s/early 90s, it's been an evolving trend.  The expressionist exaggerations of "Batman" (1989) are now viewed as a campy alternative to Christopher Nolan's more realistic, intertextual, or maybe "cinematic" "Dark Knight."  The camp recreations of "Dick Tracy" seem silly.  Meanwhile, works like "Road to Perdition" and "A History of Violence" are adapted from graphic novels but breathe with the syntax of the cinema by engaging in the crucial idea of intertexts - looking at their themes, their visuals, their motifs not only through the original source but by a thorough interaction with cinematic genre and convention.

Is this the fate of "Watchmen"?  Is it too suffocating for its own good, or will it be viewed as a step forward in adaptation?  I see it as a step back, a film with compromised vision with a focus so preoccupied with aesthetic recreation that it loses itself as a film.  Just listen to the bizarre soundtrack that Snyder chooses - "The Times They Are a-Changin'", "All Along the Watchtower," "Halleljuah," "Sound of Silence," even an opera by Philip Glass are all used as a "singles sampler," and they all feel ridiculously misused.  Nowhere else do I get a sense of Snyder's inability to address the multiple media tracks of the cinema than here.  He goes for contrapuntal sound and instead creates ham-fisted juxtaposition that betrays his film in favor of a "good soundtrack."

Fans have been vocal since Friday about what a "great job" Snyder did, how it's a "beautiful adaptation" and "extremely faithful."  People not versed in the graphic novel have been left confused, bitter, and apathetic to this supposedly astounding film.  That there is SUCH a divide and that it rests on the spectrum of fan-dom says, to me, that the adaptation ultimately fails.  Pandering to the fans' wishes to see a COMPLETE realization of (almost) every element of "Watchmen" has inevitably created a film that shuts everyone else out.

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