17 March 2009

Musings on Watchmen, the Film


This entry will possibly be a bit desultory. Nonetheless, I feel the need to get some thoughts on having seen Watchmen into words, into some measure of coherence. Powerful art can do this to a person.

First off, I admit that I have not read the graphic novel. Thus, I went into the film not knowing the story, not carrying any preconceptions or prejudices about what I wanted the film to do nor not to do. (Apparently, there’s some debate about the film’s ending, which is different from the graphic novel’s.) It simply looked like a great, very intriguing film; I’m always up for the latest comic book film adaptation (at least, good film adaptations); and I enjoyed Zack Snyder’s 300 quite a lot, so I wanted to see what he would do with an even bigger canvas. Then I read Roger Ebert’s 4-star review, and I knew I was seeing this film no matter what.

At the conclusion of his review, Ebert writes, “I’m not sure I understood all the nuances and implications, but I am sure I had a powerful experience. … it’s going to inspire fevered analysis. I don’t want to see it again for that reason, however, but mostly just to have the experience again.” This basically sums up my reaction to Watchmen, though of course there’s more to it. Film, I think, can give one an “experience” like no other art -- visual, aural, physical, intellectual, aesthetic. Bruno Bettelheim has written, “the art of the moving picture is the only art truly of our time, whether it is in the form of film or television.” As much as I love literature, film does something unique in its bringing together of so many technologies to tell stories, to give us an “experience.”

Near the end of Watchmen, I was struck by the sort of power the story was reaching for … really, the power of myth, legend, the power of an allegory that seeks nothing less than to make a bold and profound statement about our current world. Afterward, I also got to thinking about how that statement achieves its boldness and profundity in a way possible only with film.

Snyder uses every ounce of the medium of film to tell this story. Narrative structure, camera angles, types of shots, editing, sound, music, CGI, dialogue, sets, props, and more: all of it works here on both grand and minute scales, the film revealing its attention to detail in every aspect. The film is fascinating to look at; it is utterly visually absorbing.

Yet none of that would be enough on its own without a wholly captivating and challenging story. Certainly, the great comic books/graphic novels operate at the level of myth and allegory -- the keys are the characters and the story. Let alone the intriguing alternate Earth of 1985 with Nixon in his third term as President and the Cold War in full swing, the characters and their situations, conflicts, motivations, relationships, fears, hopes, egos, morality constitute the true foundation, the skeleton and nerves and organs and muscles, of Watchmen. These characters, from The Comedian to Laurie Jupiter to Rorschach to Adrian Veidt to Dr. Manhattan, are complex, vulnerable, searching for purpose, fallible, inspiring. Individually and together, they encapsulate the range of the human condition. They are us … only, yes, they are superheroes. They are archetypes.

For my money, the most fascinating character is Rorschach. Jackie Earle Haley plays Rorschach with such intensity, such conviction, such nuanced emotion, such pain and heaviness. Rorschach is the moral centre: the most violent and brutal of the Watchmen, but also the most completely committed to saving the world and humanity, to being a superhero -- a punk, counter-cultural, Marxist, deconstructionist social critic and malcontent, but with a fierce sense of right and wrong that finally drags the rest of the Watchmen back into action and leads to his own end (kicking and screaming at why it must be so). I’m tempted to say that Jackie Earle Haley’s performance at least matches Heath Ledger’s in The Dark Knight, though Ledger certainly is more central to and prominent in his film. Yet Haley is stunning to watch, to hear. He makes Rorschach embody the grit, darkness, violence, and degradation of his world, but also the nearly insane necessity of believing in right and wrong, in humanity, in fighting evil at all costs. I hope Haley at a minimum snags nominations for his role come awards season in 2010.
(I also found myself mesmerized by Billy Crudup’s performance as Dr. Manhattan, who is in a way the foil of Rorschach in his emotional and even ideological detachment from the world. Crudup makes Dr. Manhattan … understandable, sympathetic, and at the same time alien in his motivations and desires.)
There’s much more I could write, perhaps: such as how the film is incredibly timely for our world of economic and political crisis, a world in which we’re searching for heroes, moral certitude, hope, a sense of wonder. Yet I’ll leave further musings to another time.

Like Ebert, I had my experience, and I want to have it again (preferably on IMAX once more -- the film must be seen on IMAX). Then I’ll buy the DVD/Blu-Ray when it comes out and watch it again. In the meantime, I’m heading to the bookstore to get the graphic novel ….

Here are some links to other Watchmen reviews in the SF&F blogosphere (more to be added as I find them):

SF Site (by Rick Norwood)
SF Signal (by Peter Tzinski)

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