Saturday, March 07, 2009

who's watching the watchmen?

Apparently, at a one o'clock Saturday matinee on opening weekend (here in Windsor, Ontario), only me and fifty-or-so other movie-goers. It's a smaller number than I would have anticipated given the intensity with which fans of the graphic novel cherish this material. Watchmen, the book, may have something of a cult following, but in terms of niche markets, it's one that is considerably large and unwaveringly loyal.

Though I understand its significance, I am not as endeared to Alan Moore's masterpiece as some of my fellow comic book junkies, and I have often been the recipient of heaping amounts of flack as a result. Still, morbid curiosity overwhelms me when a property as notoriously unfilmable as Watchmen sees the light of the projector, and the power of cinema compelled me to grab a seat in the theater as soon as time would allow. Inasmuch as I dislike Watchmen (again, the book), I was equally concerned for its fans; I felt certain that a film adaptation of such a complex work would almost certainly disappoint in terms of their rabid expectations. It may sound absurd, but I wanted the movie to be good enough to appease Watchmen's devoted audience.

And I think it is. For me, however, the cinematic adaptation is, in some ways, faithful to a fault. I have read the graphic novel several times now, always with a sense of laborious effort, and many of the issues that I consider problematic with the book emerge in the film, as well. With its dense mythology, both in terms of the origins and legacies of the costumed heroes and the sophisticated politics of the alternate historical world they inhabit, Watchmen might very well be the only comic that begs out for a supplemental Cole's Notes companion (that's Cliff's Notes, for you Staties). Even with a generous running time of 163 minutes, the film struggles to accommodate the sheer volume of exposition that Moore's story contains; in spite of the richness of its themes, the movie, like the graphic novel, is often burdened by sluggish pacing.

The film is a bit more efficient than its printed counterpart in summarizing the way that Watchmen's historical time-line diverges from our own. Of course, a reviewer must exercise even greater economy, so here goes: A naked blue man who can manipulate matter and energy intervenes in the Vietnam war, enabling the U.S. to win. Subsequently, President Nixon's popularity skyrockets and laws are altered to allow re-election for a third term in office. The Soviets, who don't much like that the United States has a nuclear man under contract, continue to stockpile munitions, and by the mid 1980's, distopian Cold War paranoia has reached new heights. Now, I know that a society disillusioned with government and living in fear of seemingly imminent nuclear war is not really a foreign concept to contemporary audiences, but having seen so many blank reactions from the crowd to numerous Cold War references in Indy and the Crystal Skulls, I suspect that the film will prove to be as inaccessible to many viewers as the book is to me.

Having said that, I admire the nuanced details that director Zack Snyder employs as a means of illustrating his/Moore's/artist Dave Gibbons' hyperbolic vision of this alternate era. For instance, living caricatures of prominent figures-- Henry Kissinger, Pat Buchanan, John McLaughlin, Truman Capote, Fidel Castro, Annie Leibovitz, David Bowie, Eleanor Clift, Ted Koppel, and so on-- litter the scenery, contributing not only to the overall design of the film, but greatly to the politically rebellious sensibility of Watchmen's narrative. This device, however, operates on the assumption that audiences will perceive such details.

The film's stunning production design is probably its most significant saving grace. While the dull color palette and stiff panel layout of the comic tend to compete with, well, everything else in the room for my eyes' attention, the movie is visually dynamic and intricately textured, and it remains captivating even when the plot lacks similar energy. The main through-line of Watchmen, you see-- The murder of costumed vigilante The Comedian prompts several of his fellow exiled crime fighters to investigate who-dunnit, why, and whether or not they might be next-- is of secondary importance to the characters' personal/philosophical struggles and paralyzing memories, and certainly to the material's explicit moral critiques. In essence, this revisionist superhero tale is quite poignant thematically, but Alan Moore's writing style tends to be cumbersome, and when transposed directly to dialogue, sounds clunky and stilted.

So it seems that most of the elements that fashioned my antagonistic attitude toward the book have prevented me from engaging with the screen adaptation of Watchmen to a notably greater degree. Still, I have revisited this story on a number of occasions, and each time I do, I experience highly charged intellectual and emotional reactions that make me wonder if something isn't resonating after all. I'll never admit to that, of course. I have a reputation to maintain as the sole Windsorite to denounce Watchmen, not as one of the few who showed up to see it.

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