In Which The Watchmen Causes Me To Rethink Everything....

... but not, I fear, in the way that Zack Snyder intended.

My good friend and j-school pal Shlomo Schwartzberg got me into a pre-screening of Watchmen last night - and I was pretty excited about it. I was, let's be honest, desperate to love this movie. In 1986 when Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' original graphic novel came out, I was at the golden age for enjoying such things - 22. I was one of the lucky 34,100 or so who read the story issue by issue, over the course of about a year. It was a mesmerizing experience. To say I'd never read anything like it before wouldn't be quite right - Dave Sim's Cerebus the Aardvark series was in full bloom, and just as rich and thoughtful an undertaking in its own way as was the Watchmen; Frank Moore had been doing interesting stuff with Daredevil and had just then reworked the Batman story into the Dark Knight Returns. And Kurt Vonnegut was making a good stab at 20th-century existential satire too...

But Time Magazine didn't just include Watchmen in their list of 100 top novels to boost subscriptions with the Comic-Con set. Watchmen was, and is, an immersive and thoughtful dissection of the American superhero myth, a trenchant socio-political critique of North America in the 20th century, and an intricately fractured family saga wrapped up in a science-fiction murder mystery. Reading that month to month at 22 doesn't just affect you - it scars you.

In a good way.

So it was that, fingering my lumpy Watchmen scars nostalgically, I sashayed into my seat at the packed AMC Theatre, and waited to be blown away - exactly as I had been in 1986. Which, I gotta say, more or less happened.

Not in a good way.

You see, the film - at least the first two-thirds of it - is as much as time allows a completely faithful recasting of the graphic novel. Actors are dead ringers for Gibbons' renderings of the characters. Doctor Manhattan glows the right shade of blue. Silk Spectre II has her cheekbones exactly where Gibbons drew them, and both she and Dr. Manhattan look the same naked now as they did in 1986.

Sets and color and lighting - perfectly captures what Gibbons was doing; every shard of the broken glass in the Comedian's apartment is lovingly recreated. The giant glass clockwork on Mars takes flight here, with the same elegiac grace as it did on the page. The dialogue... although Alan Moore wouldn't let himself be credited as has become his custom in adaptations of his work, it is almost all his.

If Snyder had done a rubbing off the Comedian's tombstone, he wouldn't have made a more perfect copy.

Which is, as you might have guessed by now, the problem. Very early in the film, I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that this must be what it's like to hear a novel read by the vocalizing software on a Kindle. It's all there - you can't accuse the robot voice of skipping over the good parts or collapsing the narrative. But that electrically faithful robot monotone... after awhile, you just want to find a pair of specs strong enough to read the book to yourself.

At the end of it, Shlomo opined that the Watchmen might simply not be adaptable to a feature film. This is an obvious thing to say about works that we love - of course the Jerry Lewis / Madeline Kahn adaptation of Vonnegut's Slapstick was doomed to failure - but not so for the graphic novel. Crack the spine on any piece of sequential art, and essentially you're looking at a story-board.

But, as it became clear, you're not. When Rorschach tells his fellow inmates that he's not locked up with them - they're locked up with him in the graphic novel, you the reader are left to pause; think about that line of dialogue; let its implications sink in and savor the low, animal insinuation of it all. It's a raw statement of the vigilante's mad power.

When Jackie Earl Haley - who delivers one of the better performances in the film, incidentally - rasps it out on screen ... it has as much power as a low-rent Clint Eastwood impersonator telling some punk to make his day at a back yard barbecue. It seems parodic.

It's almost as though there's an uncanny valley effect at work; because the media of film and graphic novels are so near one another in narrative language and convention, watching one trying to impersonate the other is as creepy and unsatisfying as watching a latex-covered mannequin robot try to impersonate a pretty Japanese receptionist. By getting almost everything right, everything becomes somehow wrong.

Now the last third of the film, in which Snyder departs from Moore's original story somewhat, does function, I think (with some reservation), as a thematic improvement. Without going into spoiler-y details, the thing that Snyder does seems a lot less arbitrary, and ties into the story's early-established themes more effectively, than does Moore's thing at the end. With that said, Snyder's thing's extremity does knock the story's moral calculus on its ear (if you want to know what I'm talking about - well, this is the one part of this post that might encourage you to shell out for the despite-everything-I've-said-still-worth-a-look movie. No spoilers here).

But the best part of the film is near the beginning, when Snyder sets out the history of costumed heroes in the 20th century in a Ken-Burns-style sequence of sepia-toned tableaux set to Dylan's "Times They Are A-Changin'". They work so well, those tableaux, because they're so still.

When the movie starts moving again, it stops dead.

* * *

Update, March 6: On the other hand, Snyder could have done something like this:

Or this:

Update, March 9:

And if you didn't like my take on the film, have a look at what this U.S.-based conservative film scholar, Debbie Schlussel, had to say. If you don't want GOP spyware all over your computer (not that I'm saying there's any there; I'm just trying to get into the fearmongering spirit of things in that section of of the blogosphere) then here, according to Schlussel, is the one redeeming section of this film that could otherwise only appeal to "a moron and a vapid, indecent human being."

Rorschach's politics.

To quote: "A few lines of dialogue by the character 'Rorschach' deriding "liberals and intellectuals" doesn't excuse the nearly three hours of poison here."

Okay, it's fleeting redemption. But still. This may be the first time that I've read anyone interpret Rorschach's whacked-out right-wing ramblings as a sop to real conservatism; seemed pretty obvious to me that Rorschach's hate-filled views of the world were at best an interesting character flaw, and at worst, a sign of psychosis.

Of course, with the a-tonal shrieks of Rush Limbaugh apparently setting the agenda for conservatives south of the border, maybe we shouldn't be surprised.

Hey, if Rush loses the means or the will - anyone want to second my nomination of Walter Kovaks for nominal head of the GOP?

(thanks to pixelfish for putting me on to the link)