Both were the kinds of movies I theoretically like: they combined overt attempts to ask the Big Questions with copious amounts of violence and sex. Usually, these are the kinds of manly art movies that make me feel big, and help me get through another week--going to the dog park, selling paintings of European cities, making creepy drawings of Sonic and Batman and Robin. However, this time, both movies left me feeling unsatisfied; cold; big, maybe, but also impotent.
The Watchmen movie reimagined cartoon characters through the mature medium of film.
First, Watchmen. This was a conservative period piece, of the sort that I have criticized before. Except, instead of a historical period, it was Alan Moore's comic book of the same name that was informatively yet entertainingly condensed and reproduced for us on the big screen.
Entire pages of the comic (but not the whole thing) were lovingly recreated with real actors and props--clearly a much more adult, real, and interesting way to tell a story than with little drawings you have to squint at. The filmed set-pieces were interspersed with slow-motion action scenes where every punch and crack of bone was amplified on powerful theater speakers. What is more, the technology of being able to show moving images and music simultaneously allowed me to know, via musical cues, when the plot arrived at an emotionally significant moment. These factors really brought Alan Moore's stodgy old comic book to life. NOT!
I don't see any reason to make a "visually gorgeous" period-piece type movie about a comic book. With a historical period, it makes sense. We don't really care about what happened; we just want to know whether or not T.S. Eliot/Queen Elizabeth/Philip II were hot and what their sex life was like. But a comic book is already designed to entertain. What's more, it is already a visual medium, suited to showing characters' hotness, sexuality, and tendency to violence.
Compared to the comic book, the Watchmen movie was sort of stripped down and didn't really offer anything new (with the exception of the admittedly superior opening montage showing the history of masked crimefighters in America); by itself, Watchmen was a not-that-good and somewhat hard-to-follow high-minded action movie.
For some reason, people tend to prefer live action and actors to two-dimensional animation, without thinking about what that means. Photographic reality--like real life--is inherently overwhelming and slightly depressing. It is overwhelming and slightly depressing because we can't directly control what a photograph looks like (we can only use indirect tricks like cropping, changing the light, choosing what to focus on, etc), much like we can't ever have full control of our lives. When we look at a photograph or at live-action footage we don't immediately see an authorial hand, and that makes us slightly uncomfortable, even as it reassures us that what we're seeing is "real."
Think about it: art photographs are either really stark to emphasize their "realism," or they try to look like paintings; live-action movies either deliberately look brutally realistic (e.g. French New Wave), or the actors are to some extent made up to look like cartoons of people.
In short, if you're going to make a live-action movie out of a comic book, be conscious of what you're doing. If you want the story to include that depressing effect of being weighed down by reality, use live action. If you want the story to unfold more in the weightless manner of a dream, use 2-d animation. If you want the characters to look like terrifying automatons, occupying that "uncanny valley" between human and machine, use 3-d animation.
Part of the reason I had high hopes for the Watchmen movie was because I heard Nite Owl's costume was deliberately made to look sort of stupid, the way comic book movie heros' costumes always look sort of stupid, to reflect what a bold and absurd and sympathetic move it is to put on a costume and try to throw off the sometimes-crippling and sometimes-boring ambiguity of reality and make yourself into a cartoon (one of the themes of the comic). Thus, I thought that maybe choosing to film Watchmen was someone's deliberate artistic decision, and not just (or not exclusively) a cynical attempt to cash in on a comic book's popularity.
Alas, again, except for the opening sequence, Watchmen--when it wasn't just carefully showing filmed pages from the comic--was basically a typical movie with actors and explosions and swelling music and even an unappealing, protracted sex scene that reminded me of 70s porn and made me cover my eyes with my hand.
The secret of desire is to suggest, not to show with sloppy literalism.
Then I left the theater and it was five o'clock. There were some cars in the parking lot. I saw a man and a woman kissing, and a dog. I went to my friend's house to play a board game about princesses, and a word game. Then we all watched ZARDOZ.
Like Watchmen, ZARDOZ was a fantasy/action film with ideas behind it. Sean Connery, already famous by that point, played a barbarian who wore an unfortunate outfit consisting only of tight red underwear and some kind of red bullet belt. This noble barbarian was a worshiper of the god ZARDOZ, a giant fake flying stone head voiced by a Shakespearian ham. The head tells his tribe to kill and that "the gun is good, the penis is evil." That is a philosophy I can get behind, but Sean Connery, a figure straight out of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, must, after a certain point, question his god.
He jumps inside the giant flying stone head and discovers that the "god" is a sham. ZARDOZ is an invention that is used to manipulate Sean Connery and the other barbarians, by a decadent society of communist utopians who have discovered immortality. We know that they're decadent because women seem to have a dominant role in the society, and the men are even dressed like the women (except slightly less skimpily). The men are also emasculated in another way--they are impotent because immortality has made them so bored.
The "art" of this society consists of mutual meditation, which lets anyone be an artist. Women have developed the ability to commune with one another other and make each other experience the thrilling emotion of self-surrender simply by waving their hands. Nobody has to go through the trouble of making actual works of art anymore. Although this society has access to all the art of the past (like Greek statues and stuff), everyone is bored with it because everyone is immortal and can already get everything easily--including the emotional payoff that used to come from art.
This seemingly utopian society is, in fact, an anti-utopia. It is in decline. It takes a red-blooded barbarian to show this society that the penis is not evil--that, in fact, it is the key to their salvation, and the real source of all the world's great art (sorry, feminists). The movie ends with Sean Connery restoring things to their natural order and taking the head female scientist for his wife.
Will this end up happening to our own society, if we keep producing bloodless remakes of superior graphic novels? Will we end up raped by a barbarian in tight red pants? Three stars (both movies).
Posted by xerxes on Thu, 19 Mar 2009 18:56:01 -0400 -- permanent link