Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Forest for the Trees: Watchmen

Zack Snyder may as well have filmed his adaptation of the seminal comic book Watchmen in a different language, as the ideas and deep humanism that writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons attempted to convey are unfortunately beyond his grasp as a film maker and artist. Rather, like a teenage groupie playing air-guitar to his favorite rock band, Snyder goes through the motions but robs the work of its essence. His strengths, assuming he has any at all, lie in different areas than crafting a story, working with actors, or conveying thematic ideas. Watchmen is a curious work of adaptation, in all of its attempts to stay true to the arranged sequence of events of the source material, it robs the work of its spirit and, ultimately, its point. Apparently imitation is not the highest form of flattery.

The failings of Watchmen are two-fold; by simply condensing the novel’s plot into a nearly three hour film, it fails to transpose the ideas that made the original work rise above the medium, so it fails as a work of adaptation. By making the material damn-near inaccessible for anyone who hasn’t read the comic, it fails as a stand-alone entity. What we’re left with is a strange exercise in the art of adaptation--- a movie that wasn’t adapted enough. The few changes Snyder makes to the original work are for logistical reasons as opposed to creative reasons, and they still reflect his desire to be as invisible an adapter as possible. The only unique stamp Snyder puts on the picture is that he pumps up the violence to his typical quasi-absurd levels, which actually distorts one of the key themes of the novel. Instead of getting to the heart and soul of the work, he simply transposes the surface across mediums.

Gone is the pulp and camp tonality that Gibbons and Moore established in their novel; rather, like 300, Snyder turns the film into a (mostly) humorless and ultra-serious affair, his unwillingness to differentiate himself from the novel stifling his creative choices. The movie preserves the least interesting thing about the comic book, the McGuffin, and makes the ordered sequence of events its sole emphasis. Its focus lies solely in the moment-to-moment pleasures of trying to solve the central mystery, the exact kind of shallow pleasures that the comic book challenged its readers to move past. In the comic, the McGuffin was the catalyst for its formal deconstruction and rumination on the iconography of comic books, but Snyder believes that’s all there is to it. It isn’t a case like Jackson and his Lord of the Rings films, where the removal of the literature’s thematic subtext gave way to a flawless embodiment of Hollywood genre filmmaking. Snyder isn’t a very competent movie maker.

After a deliriously paced and cleverly constructed opening scene (and a spectacular opening credits sequence), the film segues into being a re-creation of certain panels and certain text that Snyder seems to think are representative of the whole of the work. It plays like a “Best Of” compilation instead of a channeling of a work into a separate medium. The inability to differentiate the film from the source material isn’t because of any particular failing of the film; the movie doesn’t even attempt to be thought of as anything but a literal adaptation of the comic book. For Snyder, condensing Watchmen’s labyrinthine plot into a comprehensible film is the ultimate accomplishment (if nothing else, the film is at least comprehensible.) While it is admirable how many details from the novel are preserved for the screen adaptation, in the end it’s all vacuous posturing.

The only time the film shows a life of its own is in its inspired use of soundtrack. This gives the images a sense of urgency and is an effective way of using film’s relation to music to express ideas, and it’s the only time I got even the vaguest impression that I was actually watching a movie. The opening credits sequence sets Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” to images of the Golden Age era superheroes, and while it seems like an obvious choice at first, it’s an effective way of relating Superhero mythology to folk-lore. Though the soundtrack is mostly well-known standards, these universal pop songs briefly evoke the cheeky post-modernist tone of the novel, and more importantly, the unique capabilities of cinema. When Snyder is forced to edit and time his shots to music, the effect is lyrical; it gives the images a sense of life (what Eisenstein called “synchronization of senses”) that the rest of the movie lacks. I can’t deny that I grinned giddily during one of Snyder’s bombastic pan outs—as the camera pulls back to reveal The Comedian’s trademarked smiley face permanently etched into the topography of Mars, Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower” comes blasting in through the theater’s Dolby Digital speakers, serving as both an effective scene transition and an evocation of the apocalyptic narrative. It’s an image from the comic book--- but unlike most others in the film, it actually feels relevant to the movie as a whole. In these instances, Snyder’s sensibilities as a commercial/music video director are thrust to center stage, and he excels, making the material feel like his own. The only questionable soundtrack choices are a somewhat tacked on (thematically speaking) use of Mozart’s Requiem, as well as a My Chemical Romance cover of Dylan’s “Desolation Row”, which ends the movie on a sour note.

I’m willing to admit that Snyder has a certain movie sense; he understands how images flow into one another, and he uses these effects in clever ways. During action sequences, however, Snyder can’t stay away from his 300-esque antics, relishing in the same violence that Gibbons/Moore sought to deconstruct and ultimately transcend. He turns Rorschach’s childhood tragedy into an opportunistic cheap thrill—slowing down and zooming in to make sure we get a strong visceral sense of the violence— but not analyzing the emotional and psychological repercussions of it. It’s reminiscent of the testosterone-fueled adolescent aggression that made 300 such a deplorable piece of movie-making.

The film reverses Jean-Luc Godard’s principle of screen color; in Watchmen, it’s not red, it’s blood. The violence in the film is meant only to titillate and excite, whereas the original work was resoundingly anti-violence and forced you to comprehend the morality (or lack thereof) of masked vigilantism. The most fundamental of these misunderstandings occurs with the character of Rorschach, played on screen by Jackie Earl Haley. In the comic, Rorschach is a broken man whose personal tragedy rendered him unable to function in the world, instead channeling his psychological maladies into a contradictory concept of ‘justice’. The film hijacks this character and transforms him into your average run-of-the-mill badass, relishing in his acts of violence instead of questioning the morality of a person who murders as ‘justice’ to others and penance to himself. This microcosmic aspect of the film indicates where the entirety of it goes wrong.

Ultimately, the film adaptation of Watchmen isn’t as good as it should have been, but it also isn’t as bad as it could have been. It’s a mostly empty shell of a movie that shows a sense of life and personality in fleeting instances, but it’s a compromised vision. While Snyder may think that being as pure as possible to the original work is tantamount to effective adaptation, sanctity to text subverts originality and true expression in Watchmen. It’s so devoid of original thought that it doesn’t even fail on its own terms.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Cinema Overload!

I suppose the feeling of overload is something that everyone can identify with. School, work, life in general is just busy busy busy. Hell, this blog was supposed to be a team effort, but my cohort(s) have abandoned me and have left me flying solo, at least for now. So even the blog, a hobby, has become something that I'm lagging behind on and pushing aside. So now, I've started a diversionary post from the longer piece I've been working on, and blogging is in itself a diversion from lame things like obligations. Fuck that.

The point is (I think) that work can have us feeling overwhelmed, but us movie lovers know of a different kind of overload--- and that is cinematic overload. Admittedly, it's a more pleasurable form of stress than our day-to-day obligations, but it's no less daunting. Especially in our digital world, where film lovers have more access to the medium than ever before. Livin' in the future has its perks. But, again, it's also a daunting task. A friend of mine likened it a banquet which can never be depleted, no matter how much you stuff your face.

There continue to be, and always has been, a finite number of methods with which to view a film. In the olden days, films could only be seen at the theaters. Then television came about. Then home video. Now, cinephiles can watch movies in a multitude of ways; we can watch them through the constantly expanding library of available DVDs, on the computer, or even on a fucking phone.

So, allow me to count the ways that I get exposed to film. First, there's ol' faithful, the movie theaters. Movie theaters have a serious attitude problem. They try to tell me when I can or can't watch something, demanding that I fashion my schedule to THEIR convenience. Un-fuggin'-believable. The nerve of that guy.

Then, of course, there's television broadcasts. Like a movie theater's kid brother, it also demands that you arrange your life around when they're broadcasting something. Though it's attitude is less severe, as television doesn't demand that you make a special trip out of your nice, comfortable home to go see it. Though, with the exception of TCM, watching a movie on television can be a painful experience for movie lovers. Not only do we have to contend with commercials structuring a film like a television show (though it seems some movies are structured with the commercial break in mind!), but more often than not the movie is cropped to fit television's aspect ratio. In addition to that, since television knows how stupid we are it feels the need to not only remind us what channel we're watching, but also what movie we're watching and what inane, vacuous program comes on later (David Bordwell discusses the history of bugs here).

Then, of course, there's home video. This is undoubtedly where the great majority of us see most of the films we watch, which is a bit of a double edged sword. The difference between seeing a good film projected versus on a television is the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing it (to avoid using a more, shall we say, grotesque analogy), but home video has given us unprecedented access to the medium. Whereas in the past, film watchers had to make due with what was out in first-run, second-run, or revival; we're now all in the fortunate position of being able to decide what we watch and when we watch it. Services like Netflix and Blockbuster Online have only made it that much easier. So, if I'm so inclined, I can have a double feature of Bambi and Cannibal Holocaust.

But the concept of home video has been extended in the last few years. Home video was created out of people's desire to have things accessible at their convenience, and now technology is helping to facilitate this. Netflix, at no extra charge, offers an 'instant watch' service whereby DVD quality films can be streamed over the internet. They expanded this concept with a box from Roku, that streams films over the internet directly into your television.

I'm in no way complaining, but all these venues with which to see films can get a little overwhelming! My DVR teeters between 80 and 90 percent full virtually constantly, as I probably have about 35-40 movies recorded off TCM on it at any given time (many of which aren't available on DVD. Have I mentioned how I love these people so?). Between my postage queue and my instant queue on Netflix, I'm waiting on nearly 500 movies (and those are just the movies I've had the time to add). It feels like there's never enough time to catch something in the theater (due to the market being geared more towards home video, some film's literally get a 'blink-and-you-miss-it' theatrical release), and I'm sure we can all relate to the feeling of having a stack of unwatched DVDs. There simply aren't enough hours in the day (nor enough days in a lifetime, but that is much too depressing a thought).

So how do we prioritize? Is it even something we consciously think about? What we watch, and when we watch it, seems to be precipitated by circumstance as much as anything. Case in point: as I sat down to start this post the other day, I got caught up in Jules Dassin's Brute Force on TCM. I was familiar with the name but had never seen one of his films before, and immediately found myself turning away from and ignoring the computer all together, completely riveted by the film. I had turned on TCM because I knew Budd Boetticher's Ride Lonesome was going to be broadcast, and I wanted to catch that one again. But Brute Force was not on my immediate radar (though I see Film Forum in Manhattan has an upcoming Jules Dassin tribute, which I'll try to catch some of), but it kind of chose me, and I'm all the more enriched because of it. I guess it's something you just have to take as it comes.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Real Good Pal of Mine: Coraline

Imagination lives 240 times a second, in three dimensions, in Henry Selick’s Coraline. Selick’s film goes deeper with the theme’s presented in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, as well as consolidating the technique of everyone through Jan Svankmajer, The Brothers Quay, Tim Burton, Steven Spielberg and Wes Anderson (how’s that for a diverse group of influences?). Coraline is a remarkable film because it acknowledges that visual expression and thematic richness go hand in hand; the content and the form are inseparable. Coraline expands perception of our world by way of alternate ones; “Give us our eyes, and our souls will be free”, Coraline understands art’s power as a unifier and a vital part of the human experience.

Like Alice in Wonderland, and its infinite riffs in pop culture, Coraline concerns a young girl’s quest to escape her dreary existence through the most effective means, fantasy. However, Coraline doesn’t fatuously accept the concept of utopia as the answer to psychological transgression. Whereas Del Toro’s literal minded allegory Pan’s Labyrinth amounted merely to shallow wish-fulfillment, Coraline analyzes the psychological implications of a utopian fantasy world; the Orwellian dangers inherent in a society so blatantly manufactured. Coraline dares to ask profound questions on the nature of existence while simultaneously connecting these existential queries with childhood, the only time in life when this sense of mystery could come off as palpable as it does.

And in terms of of connecting with that central mystery of childhood, Coraline does it as effectively as anything in the filmography of Steven Spielberg. The brilliant, subtle use of 3D invites the observer to become a partner in a kind of cinematic dance, and the visual 'cues' highlight the psychological state of our main character. Her evolution from self absorbed, whiny child to enlightened, rational young adult is flawlessly conveyed by the film's visual language. In the beginning of the film she finds nothing excitable about her ho-hum existence, and thus the world is painted in grays and muted colors. Her first descent into the alternate world is so visually extravagant and colorfully eye-popping that it's literally overpowering--- however, the subversive creepiness of the other world is highlighted immediately, and slowly builds with each passing descent. By the end, the language has been inverted; the fantasy world is a nightmare, and suddenly you find yourself yearning for the real world, where (comparatively speaking) things make sense. Sure, you can't go play in the mud and eat cookies for dinner, but at least your mom doesn't turn into a giant spider and try to sew buttons into your eye socket.

Whether Coraline’s ‘other’ world is real or otherwise isn’t a central issue of the film, as it was with Pan’s Labyrinth; rather, in Coraline these two seemingly separate but concurrent universes are two sides of the same coin, opposing polarities of the id. Coraline charts the emotional growth of its titular character, and her rejection (and conquering) of her utopian dystopia is a reflection of the strong sense of moral values that the film conveys, as well as the high price it puts on individuality. She has the option of living in a world where her wants and needs are catered to, all she has to do is give up her eyes--- her windows to the world, the eyes through which she has garnered her unique perspective. Coraline, both the character and the film, puts a strong emphasis on the eyes being the key to our souls, the catalyst for understanding and illumination. The film's constant allusions to classic works of art (from The Birth of Venus to Starry Night) brilliantly underscore this point.

In addition to its artful recapitulation of traditional storytelling technique, Coraline displays what is easily the most effective use of the 3D process yet. Rather than having objects being thrown into the screen for the audience to relish in the simple pleasures of having shit thrown at them, Coraline’s use of 3D is never distracting or gimmicky; it effectively highlights the visual transcendence of the fantasy world, and the more morose nature of the real world. It is unquestionably the most inventive use of the process yet, an ingrained part of the way the story is told instead of an extraneous device to make the unappealing seem more appealing. Rather than tacking on the technique for a contrived sense of excitement, Coraline’s visual invention opens up its thematic expression.

Coraline avoids placating and cuts to a core emotional truth of childhood; the world we inhabit may not be perfect, but at least it’s real. Through the hardships experienced in the fantasy world, Coraline learns to appreciate and understand that while the world is not something that is going to cater to one's desires at every passing moment, it still beats the fraudulence of a manufactured society where individuality is suffocated. The film's brilliant final sequence highlights the maturity and new found appreciation of life Coraline experiences. After illustrating how nightmarish our dreams can be, the real world suddenly feels a lot more beautiful, warts and all.