Monday, April 6, 2009
The following column is reprinted from the April issue of Providence Monthly.
EYES WIDE OPEN
By Scott Duhamel
In the simplest of pop culture mutations comic strips begat comic books that begat graphic novels, the current high-art form of the genre. It seems that graphic novels have also become a sort of holy grail for movie-makers—the next best thing to a cinematic blueprint that comes along with a hugely potential built-in fan base, as evidenced by just a few of fairly recent movie projects based on The Road to Perdition, 300, Sin City, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V for Vendetta, A History of Violence, From Hell, Persepolis, and the long awaited, recently released Rosetta stone, Watchmen.
Way back, some 35-40 years ago, in the splendid dawn of my pop-culture obsessed teenage years, I was a comic book maven (largely a Marvel comics fan), and we so-very-refined comic readers used to squeal aloud at the purely cinematic parade of colorized images and movie-like to-and-fro plotting of our favorite titles, nodding to each other in total groovy understanding that wacky Italian director Federico Fellini (a certified artiste) was rumored to be soon undertaking a go at one of the major superhero characters, all the while simultaneously bemoaning the fact that Hollywood just couldn’t seem to get a comic-into-movie feature done right, or even done at all.
It wasn’t until Richard Donner crafted Superman in 1978, with the perfectly cast Christopher Reeves, that a comic book film received a true seal of approval, from fanboys, critics, and audiences, although in retrospect, the movie itself seems a rather well-executed but hollow joyride. Of course, dozens of comic book films have since sprung forth, some out and out duds, some cult fave raves, and more than a few pure box office boffo. Strangely enough, when turned into a commercial movie, the graphic novel, a seemingly more refined pop art form, brings with it a few inherent drawbacks. Most graphic novels (Watchmen being a truly preeminent example) self-consciously display their own cinematic and filmic qualities, more often than not sublimely declaring themselves as a sort of print-driven movie, with artist and writers foisting themselves unto their readership as meta-screenwriters and directors, hipster filmmakers charting their oh-so-original visions, which of course (uh-huh) are steeped in the elements and mythologies of comics and movies past.
I’m purty sure heat-seeking director/adapter Zack Snyder, of mucho 300 fame and fortune, was more than aware of the popcult bear-trap he was sprinting into, and of the equally full-barrel x-ray scrutiny that would be directed by all-of-those-who-know-inside-their-hearts-that-Watchmen-created by Alan Moore and David Gibbons-was-the-greatest-graphic novel-evuuuhh, as they examined every pre-release artifact from casting to screenwriters to trailers. After all, that just part of the landscape, Snyder’s Watchmen, is (catch your collective breath you keepers of the graphic flame) scrupulously adherent to its origins, containing many frame-by-frame re-creations, and at moments it achieves a spellbinding visual opulence and an undeniable filmmaking proficiency. Alas, that does not add up to a great, or even special movie. Snyder (as he did with the extremely-to me-off-putting 300) doesn’t seem to have the overall vision or narrative skills to get past the razzle-dazzle of his Day-Glo-meets-noir imagery.
Set in 1985, during Richard Nixon’s fifth term (get it?), when costumed crime fighters or “Masks”, have been banned since 1977 from doing their street-fighting thang, the movie begins to play out as a twisted private dick tale, complete with hardboiled/existential voiceover. The movie’s narrator is Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley), a tweaking mini psychopath with a bandage-covered face on which inky blotches change and reshape themselves, who discovers the murder of a fellow costumed vigilante and makes the rounds to check in with the other existing decked-out and checked-out crime busters, including Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a naked and blue 200 foot omnipotent guy with the properly proportioned appendage swinging in the wind, Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman, whose so-called acting may make audiences pine for the comeback of Pia Zadora), all bust and legs squeezed into a Vampirella-splashed-with-crayons costume. All the gravely dysfunctional superheroes come with a portentous back-story, and the move whips through each of them as it weighs down just about every bit of its overwrought and largely incoherent 161 minutes.
Moore and Gibbons’ original graphic novel offered all of this material and more, yet on the flat page it seemed larger, sharper, and multi-layered, a dexterously crafted universe brimming with narrative and thematic density, and, yes, a razor-like satirical subtext. The movie, as written by David Hayter and Alex Tse, and virtually conducted by Snyder, seems largely sensational, whipped up and curdled, filled with collegiate connections to the usual conspiracies and governmental big brotherhood, yet another piece of virtuoso dystopian pie. It’s also disturbingly lurid, and resoundingly vulgar, almost a big budget version of the pummel-till-you-crack slice-and-dice revenge assaults that serve as the appetizer, main course, and tart desserts for those never ending parade of horror porn movies.
Ironically, the movie opens with a streamlined opening credit sequence, encapsulating the story from the forties to the eighties, set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, with the presence of many masked interlopers easily charging up the fast-moving imagery as we careen through some familiar cultural and political signposts of modern day America. The rub, and what a rub-a-dub-dub, is that the exceedingly facile and cinematically exquisite opening is probably the only moment of the film that Maestro Snyder was free to go for a little self-invention, which means that deep inside his hollow popcorn heart and demolition derby head may indeed lie the soul of a true filmmaker. Watchmen just ain’t the place you are gonna find it.