Monday, March 09, 2009

A Stronger Loving World

I don't know if Watchmen is a very good movie or not -- and I'm not likely to find out until next fall when it comes out on DVD -- but I did read the comic way back in 1987 and again last summer in preparation for the movie. It's good, and if you're so inclined, you should read it. That being said, it seems to me that the media and marketing blitz surrounding the release of the movie can only do harm. The endless explaining of the who and what and when of the Watchmen, it's creation, story, and major characters does nothing to enlighten the masses. Alan Moore's great gift as a writer is to create the aura of structure and rational meaning in what is in fact a very messy, punky, angry, nihilistic, and necessarily problematic work of art. The point of the reviews on the other hand is not to engage in these themes but to domesticate the book and make it more easily digestible to a mass audience all in the name of selling tickets.

Here's Tom Shone in Slate:
Watchmen was unquestionably a landmark work, a masterpiece, even. Before Moore came along, comic books were not generally in the habit of quoting Nietzsche, or scrambling their time schemes, or berating their heroes for their crypto-fascist politics, or their readers for reading them. It was Moore's slightly self-negating triumph to have allowed it to do so. But did the comic book have to "grow up"? The last time I looked, the only ones reading Ulysses and quoting Nietzsche were teenagers. No adult has time for aesthetic "difficulty" or "self-consciousness." Life is too short. Frankly, we'd much rather be watching The Incredibles.
I'm not sure what James Joyce and Nietzsche did to deserve this sort of treatment, but I'm personally offended by the anti-intellectualism of the closing sentences, especially when paired with an unquestioned hostility toward the Gen-X teenagers who made up the bulk of the comic's original audience, and who undoubtedly today have the greatest emotional investment in the success or failure of the film.

And so, here's A.O. Scott in The New York Times:
I’m not sure that this hypothetical young man — not to be confused with the middle-aged, 21st-century moviegoer he most likely grew into, whose old copy of “Watchmen” lies in a box somewhere alongside a dog-eared Penguin Classics edition of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” — would necessarily say that Mr. Snyder’s “Watchmen” is a good movie. I wouldn’t, though it is certainly better than the same director’s “300.” But it’s possible to imagine that our imaginary student would at least have found some food for thought in Mr. Snyder’s grandiose, meticulously art-directed vision of blood, cruelty and metaphysical dread.
Again with the implied immaturity of anyone caught reading Nietzsche (and for the record both my old Watchmen and my dog-eared Penguin Classics are on the library shelf and not in a box somewhere). But things get worse:
The infliction of pain is rendered in intimate and precise aural and visual detail, from the noise of cracking bones and the gushers of blood and saliva to the splattery deconstruction of entire bodies. But brutality is not merely part of Mr. Snyder’s repertory of effects; it is more like a cause, a principle, an ideology. And his commitment to violence brings into relief the shallow nihilism that has always lurked beneath the intellectual pretensions of “Watchmen.” The only action that makes sense in this world — the only sure basis for ethics or politics, the only expression of love or loyalty or conviction — is killing. And the dramatic conflict revealed, at long last, in the film’s climactic arguments is between a wholesale, idealistic approach to mass death and one that is more cynical and individualistic.

This idea is sickening but also, finally, unpersuasive, because it is rooted in a view of human behavior that is fundamentally immature, self-pitying and sentimental. Perhaps there is some pleasure to be found in regressing into this belligerent, adolescent state of mind. But maybe it’s better to grow up.

I won't defend the violence of the movie, but in the novel violence is always unpleasant and a source of lasting physical and psychological wounds. More importantly, Alan Moore was trying to highlight the reactionary politics implicit in the super-hero archetype: it's fascistic tendency to aestheticize violence in the name of Reagan-era jingoistic neo-conservative politics. On every page the adolescent comic book tropes turn on themselves. The heroes are not heroic. They are damaged and out of their depth, struggling to connect with the larger world around them. The story is not so much about saving the world as it is about gaining awareness of what all those immature, self-pitying and sentimental impulses can lead to.

It was never Watchmen, or its initial audience that needed to grow up, it was the mass culture that accepted the apocalyptic status quo of the cold war and embraced the home-spun nonsense of Ronald Reagan's presidential persona that needed a swift kick (one alas, that it did not receive until the failed second term of G.W. Bush). The world was a broken place in 1987 and the reaction to Watchmen as something adolescent and not worth bothering with is just part of sweeping the dangers of art under the rug. The message to the audience is not to warn them against a loud, empty-headed blockbuster entertainment, but rather to warn them against the possibility that they might have to deal with the ugliness of history and angry ideas.

There's no room for Art in the so-called grown-up world. Commerce trumps poetry every time. The worst thing you could possibly do with a movie like Watchmen, is, you know, take it seriously.