Monday, December 31, 2012

Watchmen - Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

Who reads Watchmen

Undoubtedly many people do.  If, for some reason, you have not heard of Watchmen, it is likely that you hang around with non-artist types, or other assorted individuals that do not find value in the graphic novel medium.  And if you have been denied exposure to this book, it is unlikely that you will ever read it.  And if you never read this book, you will have just avoided one of the most creative works of art of the 20th century. 

That may sound like undue praise, but the cover to the book goes further (“One of Time’s 100 best novels”). 
Watchmen’s two-decade legacy was tested by its film adaption in 2009.  I saw that film in 2010 before I had read the book.  At the time, I felt that the film was overlong, but that certain moments in the film exhibited striking originality—most especially, in the sequence that tells the origin story of Dr. Manhattan.  But on the whole, the movie cannot do justice to the book.  It is not a bad movie.  Zack Snyder probably did about as good a job adapting the book into a 162 minute spectacle as practicable.  Originally, Terry Gilliam was attached to the project, but later dropped out, deciding that the book would be better filmed as a five hour miniseries.  I am easily tempted to agree with that conclusion. 

The two major criticisms I can make of the film are the performances and—an accusation that no doubt holds true for all novels turned into films—the great parts that got left out.  It is not that any of the actors are bad, but Watchmen is a very strange work of art in its tone.  Sometimes, the book is just flat-out hilarious.  There are moments where the cynicism is so severe that the humor branches out into territory seldom ventured.  Moreover, the characters do not always take themselves so seriously.  At the end of the day they realize they are all somewhat antisocial recluses who like to put on costumes and run around and catch bad guys.  The movie could lead the viewer to believe that they take themselves totally seriously, and this would be a huge misinterpretation.  

To be sure, this book contains scenes and moments of unmistakable genius, sheer creativity, and true profundity.  The movie attempts to engage the viewer in some of those moments that only the reader will be able to fully appreciate, but in so doing, almost all of the humor and “radicalism” of the book are lost in a morass self-proclaimed greatness.  And while most of the major scenes (along with the best scenes) are contained in the film, the small details that make Watchmen such a treasure of a book must inevitably be left out in any film version.  The most glaring omission from the film is the exposition of the Tales of the Black Freighter comic book.  While honestly I felt that this was the weakest element of the book—indeed the most striking case of the peripheral niceties overshadowing the exciting main story—this is likely a literary trope that is practically impossible to film without losing a viewer’s interest or deeply unsettling their expectations.  Tales of the Black Freighter will be addressed later but the failure to account for it is the biggest “gap” between the movie and film.  Also missing are the literary interludes and fictional documents between chapters, which, conversely, contain some of the greatest moments in the book.
The plot deserves little comment but should be briefly noted: the Comedian (a.k.a. Eddie Blake) has been murdered.  Rorschach (a.k.a. would-be-a-spoiler) investigates, starting October 12, 1985.  He goes to Nite Owl (a.k.a. Daniel Dreiberg), Dr. Manhattan (a.k.a. Jon Osterman), Sally Jupiter (a.k.a. Laurie Juspeczyk), and Ozymandias (a.k.a. Adrian Veidt) to inform them of the killing and to warn them that they may be next.  

The plot of the book is very straightforward, but immaculately paced.  Each of the characters' back stories emerge in a complex interwoven narrative, supplanted by the interludes between chapters.  It is complex in that Nite Owl and Sally Jupiter were members of the Minutemen (along with the Comedian, and other costumed vigilantes such as Hooded Justice, the Silk Spectre, Captain Metropolis, Mothman) who "passed their titles" onto a younger admirer and a daughter, respectively.  The book is, arguably, just as much about the Minutemen as it is the Watchmen.  The plot is essentially a search for the person behind the killing, and the meaning of it.  Later, Moloch, the "arch-nemesis" of the Watchmen (or Minutemen), who is now an elderly man dying of cancer, tells Rorschach that the Comedian came into his bedroom one night, apparently drunk and babbling on about some kind of island.  Later, the author of Tales of the Black Freighter goes missing, and this is where that narrative strand is finally tied together.

And this is essentially the genius of the book.  Everything is perfectly connected together.  Moore peppers a variety of cultural references into the book so that it all becomes a disturbing mirror of reality--an "alternative" 1985.  One of the two dueling newspapers reporting on the cataclysmic events that befall the world is called Nova Express, and the influence of William S. Burroughs is apparent.  He is even directly referenced at one point (I am sure of it, though I cannot find it--one of the problems with quoting passages from a graphic novel).  Regardless, I have to say that Moore succeeds with the "cut-up" method in a way that I never was able to fully appreciate in Burroughs.  In his books, the narratives fall prey to the weird nonsensical prose--but here, where the narrative strands are disconnected, they are artfully re-assembled in such a way that perhaps you cannot call it a "cut-up" anymore.  

In any case, the writing is excellent.  For example, Rorschach's "voice" is indelible, and his journal entries are always a pleasure:

"October 16th, 1985: 42nd Street: Women's breasts draped across every billboard, every display, littering the sidewalk.  Was offered Swedish and French love...but not American love.  American love; like Coke in green glass bottles.  They don't make it anymore.  Thought about Moloch's story on way to cemetery.  Could all be lies.  Could all be part of revenge scheme, planned during his decade behind bars.  But if true, then what?  Puzzling reference to an island.  Also to Dr. Manhattan.  Might he be at risk on some way?  So many questions.  Never mind.  Answers soon.  Nothing in insoluble.  Nothing is hopeless.  Not while there's life."  (Chapter II, 25)

Or take a newspaper "interlude" that is dated September 1976:

"PROBE: There was Ursula Zandt, the Silhouette...
SALLY: Uh-huh.  Well, sooner or later, okay, that's going to come up, so let me deal with that...First off, I didn't like her as a person.  I mean, she was not an easy person to get along with.  But, when the papers got hold of it, her being a--what is it--a gay woman they say nowadays, when that happened, I thought it was wrong.  I mean, Laurence, who was my first husband, he got everybody to thew her out of the group to minimize the P.R. damage, but...I mean, I voted along with everybody else, but....well, it wasn't fair.  It wasn't honest.  I mean, she wasn't the only gay person in the Minutemen.  Some professions, I don't know, they attract a certain type....
PROBE: Who else was gay?
SALLY: I'm not naming anybody.  It was a couple of the guys, and they're both dead now.  One died recently.  I'm not saying who it was, I'm just saying that we all knew, and we knew she wasn't the only one, and we slung her out just the same.  When she got murdered like that...I mean, I never really liked her.  Ursula.  Was that her real name?  I didn't know that.  I didn't like her, but...throwing her out.  We shouldn't have done that.  I feel bad about that."  (Chapter IX, 22)

I have made all of the glowing comments I possibly can about this book and will not exhort myself any further because they likely fall on deaf ears: as I said, if you have not already read this book, you will probably never read it.  I came late to the party.  But if you have seen it in your pseudo-artist friend's bookshelves and have had your curiosity piqued, I highly recommend you follow that urge.                   

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