Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Sunday, March 29, 2009

WATCHMEN Dig My Earth

There's something undeniably--yet deliciously--wrong about all the Dylan and classic rock used in Zach Snyder's WATCHMEN. The music of WOODSTOCK and Z-100 FM is corrupted, harnessed to images of superheroes doing Bad Things. Using Dylan's "Times they are a Changin'" over a montage of aging superheroes dying and drinking is akin to Alex's conditioners using his beloved Ludwig Van played over the atrocity footage in CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Kubrick's film--like WATCHMEN--doesn't give you too many people to root for in this decayed new world, just the weird feeling that everything worth saving about humanity has long been jettisoned, leaving just universal blandness and its underside: wild violent hooliganism. Nothing is clear cut, just bloody, brusied, and muddy, like the black/white morality of DIRTY HARRY was thrown into a blender and doused with CGI and motor-oil.

One of the trailers that played before WATCHMEN was for TERMINATOR: SALVATION and it looks great, the industrial wasteland-scape recalling the outback world of THE ROAD WARRIOR. But all the complicated sun-bleached CGI rubble doesn't add up to much after awhile. While CGI and mega-budgets let today's Hollywood minds create sci fi worlds our 1980 George Miller could never hope to duplicate, I'd still rather watch young pre-nuts Mel Gibson tangle with the dreaded Humongous (shown in WATCHMEN amidst a wall of TV screens) than all the gray day burnt-out cityscapes CGI can muster. No matter how intensely detailed it gets, CGI is always just a step and a jump short of anime' (when Sally Jupiter and the all-CGI Dr. Manhattan have their long dialogues together, it feels as phony as Jar Jar and Liam Neeson talking in PHANTOM MENACE). All MAD MAX 2 needed was a real car and a real gun and your heart was leaping in your throat. But everything is disposable today, so the heart leaps not - just  goes crumbling into pixels: the guns are melting in the rain like Dillinger soaps. Nothing survives at the cineplex for long except for the sexually frustrated howl of young male hormones; Humongous still lives, but reproduced in a post-modern ground zero simulacrum, on TV at the bad guy hideout at the end of the earth. Like all the Dylan and Hendrix, he's there as a cultural touchstone that's been licensed and co-opted, bottled...stacked and canned.

Did you know that if a sex offender comes into the hospital begging to be castrated, they would never do it? Why is this foul sex drive so highly regarded? It's the real culprit here, not greed or ambition or hatred; sexuality curdles everything with its corrupting touch. The whole comic book superhero world is born from this dishonorable discharge, this rape-ening of the world that turns innocent young men into Michael Landon (left) and women into something we never wanted to see them be: sexually voracious sadomasochists.

I'm always thrilled to see my misanthropy shared in a film's subtext; aren't we all full of secret ambivalence about mass destruction? Our world is a vile cesspool, like our friend Rorschach is always writing in his little TAXI DRIVER journal. Hey, we're reading it aren't we? Put the gun down, George, wait til it's time.

While WATCHMEN might be a cult classic in a decade or two, like STARSHIP TROOPERS, I wish they'd gotten a real artist like Alex Grey (left) to step in and bring some art director cohesion, the way HR Giger brought it to ALIEN (1979). As it is the big blue naked man is ridiculously uninteresting, like something between an out-of-focus anatomy book projection on the wall and a gay porn star (replete with effeminate, vaguely smarmy voice)

But I mean seriously, they play Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" in one scene, and I'm all like... again? Are they still reading the same old (2002?) market research report that suggested James Brown's "I Feel Good" be included in every single comedy trailer? And "All Along the Watchtower" for every 1960s montage?

It's a great song, but by now it's beyond cliche. I first noticed the Watchtower issue awhile ago when enduring the trailer for CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR: Phillip Seymour Hoffman pimped out as a congressman slow mo walking through a 1970s disco groove club. The Hendrix plus the glitter signifies the two-decade span, the hazy morass of Vietnam and acid that was 1965-1974, approximately (Sweet Jane). It's all they need. I squirmed in my theater seat in mute horror. Hendrix+Dylan now equaled Tom Hanks. All was lost. And now--relentlessly, murderously--the corporate plowmen continue to unironically, retournement-ally paste the song in everywhere over montages of slow motion Nixonism. Of course I'm sure it's encoded into the Watchman mythos that it's all self-aware Godard-style to its own comic book bloodlust. So why not go all Heavy Metal about it? Black Sabbath or Earth, Wind and Fire? It's a feelin', baby. Just because your budget allows for all these A-list rock classics doesn't mean you have to use them all.

The thing I admire about WATCHMEN is it does explode the mythos of America's Stockholm syndrome (reflected in Silk Spectre's falling for the Comedian after her attempted rape); pointing out we love watching our country get screwed over via slow motion handshakes behind flag country curtains, as "All Along the Watchtower" plays. We're letting them plow our earth and drink our wine, confident that none of them / along the line / know what any of it is worth-- and we cut back and forth to a television with that monk burning himself alive in protest for Vietnam. I've seen that footage being played on 1960s TVs since the 1960s (PERSONA, Bergman's 1966 film, used it first, to my knowledge, and before this I last saw it in I'M NOT THERE. It's become linked to the horrified female gaze via TV).

I'm not saying the footage isn't fascinating, just that it's embedded in WATCHMEN so deep the post-modern overuse angle is lost in the morass, just as all the other symbolic-historical tchotchkes in this film, from the overused smiley face button on up to the Egyptian artifacts, all trying to archly point in several directions at once and so end up like the Scarecrow on the Mount: "Of course you could go both ways!" America the violent, the beautiful, the beautifully violent; the Leni Riefenstahl by way of Roger Waters violent, italics and ironic quote symbols fall from the sky like rain on our ever-staining Rorschach blots. The feeling you get is that Zach Snyder has gone the reverse direction of the way Paul Verhoeven interpreted Robert Heinlein's STARSHIP TROOPERS. Where Verhoeven exploded out in dry-docked self awareness, Snyder loses his arch via over-reliance on hokey touchstones, the way a Tom Hanks Movie would. With Snyder, self-reflexivity and political satire are absorbed as dogma, the way biblical metaphor becomes cold hard fact in the minds of the congregation.

Just how conscious was the fascism in TROOPERS we do not know, but it's a great look forward and a refracted glimmer of what could be a very real truth about our culture. Fascism is able to encompass its own fun house satirical reflection, i.e. it survives its own satirization, even thrives on it: hipster irony begets ironic fascism begets "the new sincerity" and onwards into neo-Puritanism, and that's why it works in dealing with grey aliens as well as hormonal suburban teen alienation-- the ticket and annual double-size issue buying kind. Irony learns to be as twisted as how a teen sees himself in the mirror. If we distort your reflection enough to get you to think you're ugly, maybe you will buy more skin products. It's worth the gamble that you won't go all Columbine on us. (though we secretly hope you do; a senseless killing sells papers!)

"It's because I'm ugly that I do ugly things," is how Boris Karloff put it in THE RAVEN (1933). But you just looked ugly, to yourself, like the pot calling the pot in the mirror black, and not even realizing its white the whole time. Celebrate the times, come on! Sincerity is the new insincerity but please please please! Leave Jimi out of this. The dead will soon return and when they eat my brains and drink my wine, I want Hendrix to be someplace far away and safe, drifting on a sea of forgotten teardrops / on a lifeboat / sailing ho-o-ome.

Even original WATCHMEN creator Alan Moore knows the Yanks aren't ALL violent sociopaths; too bad he forgot to tell Snyder. The maniacal rage of the Spartans in 300 had a definite heroic purpose; the rage of The Watchmen eats itself, like a clock swallowing its own tail. Snyder stands there getting all the details right, hoping--we presume--that the meaning will come.

Maybe it will; WATCHMEN is surely the APOCALYPSE NOW of its decade. It will take many viewings to truly "get" all the details and even more viewings than that to determine whether or not this warrior's journey to the heart of darkness actually goes anywhere, or just blows a lot of thing up, hoping you wont see how fat Brando got in all the smoke. I've sen APOCALYPSE over 30 times and I still can't tell.

P.S. I turn you also to Kim Morgan's uncompromising and refreshing take on the film here.

3 comments:

  1. Dylan's The Times They Are a Changin', All Along the Watchtower, and Desolation Row are all referenced in the original graphic novel. So whether you were thrilled or annoyed by their inclusion in WATCHMEN:THE MOVIE, you can put the blame on Moore.

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  2. I would never blame Moore. A) he's a real hippy (as SWAMP THING and his magic fruit amply proves) and b)Watchmen came out long before even the problem with "I Feel Good" not to mention "All along the watchtower."

    BUT Snyder could have a) opted for the Dylan version of Watchtower, or b) played in a more ironic context. c)Snyder's NO hippy.

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  3. Loved this piece, as usual. Amid the carnage of your prose (I mean that in a good way) you hit on something I've been thinking about: how postmodernism is more a dead end then ever...you say that Snyder couldn't really get the self-referential irony across, but I think it's a matter of postmodern everything's-just-a-signifier-let's-swap-signifieds anarchy having completely flamed out, much less the potent malaise of Watchtower being filtered away by constant overuse. What you call "New Sincerity" may be a good thing if it means approaching the world at face value (or what feels to the spectator/creator like face value, which is essentially the same thing) instead of putting everything in quotation marks and turning films into elaborate exercises in dead-end half-hearted symbolism (hey it's the monk burning, that signifies Vietnam folks, let's bypass the more immediate fact of a live person being consumed by flames, let's facilitate our own desensitization woohoo!). I'd love to see a return to modernism which is probably not possible exactly, but could we all just casually take that "post" and chuck it out the window. It's just presumed that we have to look at everything from an ironic distance, without remembering what originally made an image or a song or an idea potent - that overfamiliarity breeds indifference and the interplay of dislocated signs is all that remains. But why? If we will ourselves past this complacent attitude, or better yet just start ignoring the contemporary cultural ethos (already fading in the light of Obama & reality-inducing economic pains) - tune out the crap - perhaps we can return to the garden. But since Eden is ostensibly un-obtainable (and represents a possible return to blissful naivite, instead of greater wisdom) how about another metaphor: what's so absorbing about the shadows, after all - let's all leave Plato's cave.

    On the count of three...

    Not sure exactly where this tirade came from (perhaps from sitting in Mass with the family for an hour on Easter Sunday after a year of not going to church...)

    By the way, I've tackled that 10 characters meme (expanding it in the process). I didn't tag anyone, but you should definitely jump into the fray.

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