Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Tyranny of Do-Gooders

Bleak. Hilarious. Kinky. Violent. Atheistic. Flawed. Unsettling. All of these adjectives describe Watchmen, the latest comic book opus to be transferred to the cinema. But this film does not possess a multiplex sensibility; it is deformed, hideous, and brilliant. It is art-house/grind-house superhero-noir holding a mirror to the black heart of humanity. I saw it on Sunday with my teenage children, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around it.

I have read a series of negative reviews that have been accurate enough in their criticisms (this character was superficial or that performance was wooden or some artistic choice was derivative), but I also feel like they have missed the forest for the trees. This film is relentless and uncompromising and doesn't really care what you think.

Rorschach, the film's chief protagonist, is like Frank Booth and Travis Bickle rolled together into superhero form. Jackie Earle Haley's performance as Rorschach is so pure it could shatter glass, and make the audience laugh out loud and shiver in fear simultaneously. It is a testament to the effectiveness of the film that the two most loathsome characters, Rorschach and the Comedian, are unnervingly sympathetic.

Having seen 300, the director's previous work, I went into this film prepared for something flat and hackneyed and overlong. I came out speechless - I thought Watchmen was great. Have a look at it and let me know your thoughts. Unlike the film, I do care. *:-)


J G-W said...

I agree, Watchmen is Frank Miller's best, hands down.

But I have an issue with Miller. He's a proto-Fascist. Everything he does is about how the Liberal Nanny State has turned society into a cesspool of crime and sexual degeneracy, and how the only salvation is tough-minded heroes who won't recoil from the massacre of innocents in order to purify society.

This is true of 300, Sin City, and this latest work... As well as his entire comic book oeuvre.

Knight of Nothing said...

I might agree with you about Frank Miller, except... Watchmen was written by Alan Moore! Moore brings to the table a very different set of values and perspective than Miller (I might add that he brings 'maturity' and 'intelligence', but that would be telling).

Though you may not know Moore's name, you certainly know Moore's work from V For Vendetta, From Hell, and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, as well as numerous other comics. Maybe that sheds a different light on the film for you. Interestingly, Moore dislikes all of the movies that have been based upon his graphic novels. He even had his name removed from Watchmen. He's an eccentric. As an aside, he actually looks like Rasputin crossed with a crazy version of the unibomber.

Be that as it may, Moore's work as a whole is quite repulsed by fascism. And though Rorschach is a sympathetic character, it is unclear whether the author thinks so. I think the graphic novel and the film both do a good job of saying, "this is what you people call a 'superhero'," and to Moore, that isn't a pretty thing.

"What happened to the American Dream?" indeed.

J G-W said...

Interesting... I actually know Alan Moore and like his work a lot. I own comic books in which he's had a hand (just as I own some Frank Miller comic books as well). Until you mentioned it (and I looked it up), I did not know he was the creator of the Watchmen comics. (I actually had never heard of Watchmen until I saw the movie.)

The reason I liked Watchmen better than the other Frank Miller offerings is because I found the characters so intriguing. I didn't actually find Rorschach and the Comedian sympathetic -- the Comedian, for me, was the least sympathetic character of the film. Taking pleasure is massacring Vietnamese, murdering his pregnant Vietnamese mistress for pressing (rightful!) demands on him, and brutally raping a friend... The guy was a monster, not a hero. So I found it difficult to credit his views on "the American Dream" (or Frank Miller's views on the American Dream spoken through his lips?). Sure, who didn't love the line, "It came true. You're lookin' at it"? But for me it would have had more impact coming from someone who actually exemplified decency. (Just as I don't credit much anything George W. Bush had to say about the American Dream either.)

It's a fascinating film in that none of these "heroes" are actually heroic in the classic sense. They are mentally unstable sadists (the Comedian, Rorschach), devoid of compassion (Dr. Manhattan), crass and power hungry (Ozymandias), or the naive dupes of other, less scrupulous characters (Night Owl, Silk Spectre). I admit, I liked that it was not a typical superhero film, and like you, I did find it fascinating.

Maybe what turned me off a bit, though, was the relentless antipathy toward "ordinary people" or "society" or whatever you want to call it, which is manifested in the very typical Millerian trope of society as crime-ridden, sexually degenerate, and essentially not worth saving. The typical Frank Miller hero is someone who saves the unworthy cusses, not out of compassion, but because he is a hero and that's what heroes do. It's a short step from there to embracing the notion that only violence can purge the body politic of its ills, and only a strongman who has a stomach for blood can do the job for us. I'd argue that whatever Alan Moore's enlightening influence on the film, those tropes were still there in abundance...

As you know I loved V for Vendetta, which presented a completely different view of society. In that film, ordinary people were basically decent but afraid. The "V" antihero was heroic because he inspired ordinary people to believe in themselves and to learn to make sacrifices in the struggle against totalitarianism. Like night and day in comparison with Watchmen.