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Tuesday, 10 March 2009

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CF

Thank you for this. I'm trying to grasp and learn from the (inevitable but strikingly numbing) failures of the Watchmen adaptation, and this verbalizes many of my questions.

I don't know that I read Ozymandias' expressions precisely as you do (the more I stare at his face in any panel, the more I see his expressions as just various kinds of affectlessness, a face that moves but doesn't change intent) but the possibility for multiple readings is an obvious requirement of good storytelling so, sorry, Snyder.

I also ground my teeth at the pornographic World Trade Center footage - that blimp shot going *on and on*. It seemed like symbolism but it wasn't; it committed the sin of mindless grave unsubtlety, but then didn't even bother to mean anything.

Speaking of porn: I actually loved the Nite Owl/Silk Spectre sex scene. It was so excessive, and the song placement so ironic, that it achieved high camp - a genuinely Alan Moore-ish move, except that Moore would never treat any kind of *sex* in this way. He is always rather reverent and tender towards his characters fucking, and he takes care to present their fucking with all of its vulnerabilities. The fact that you never feel empathetic towards Dan when he can't perform with Laurie, or for Laurie when she's trying to cheer him up without really understanding that *he* doesn't understand that she's still falling for him (-the theater I was in gave the failed sex the biggest laugh of the night, and, like most of Watchmen's more awkward emotional moments, it *was* dealt with by simply playing it for laughs-) is one of the adaptation's more gratuitous failures.

Ahistoricality

I don't know if it's contrariness, or my natural desire to make sense of things, but I'm going to defend the movie again, despite not having seen it. It seems like the attention to the World Trade Center Towers could be a much subtler reference than you're giving him credit for (though I agree that the continuity errors are bad work): The 9/11 attacks did serve to galvanize public opinion, to unite us -- wasted though it was by the powers that be -- through our horror and fear. And there's the conspiracy theories: the idea that the attacks were staged in order to create leverage for change....

tomemos

Thanks for the comment-link! That's never happened to me before.

I think you're exactly right here, at least about the comic. I haven't seen the movie yet…if "yet" is even applicable. I've waffled back and forth more times than I care to remember. Maybe some people here can yell at me and permanently dissuade me?

tomemos

Oh, but one quibble: I don't know if the panels during the sermon are "moment to moment," because it takes more than a moment for the priest to say all those sentences. In McCloudian terms it might be action to action, but honestly I think it sort of shows the limits of his categorization.

This is why the Millar panel seems so stupid: visually, it's clearly an instant of time (Cap's weight is shifting, so it's impossible for him to hold the pose for long), but verbally it would take at least 45 seconds. Whereas here rain could be falling for minutes, and Veidt's still holding the same pose.

Daniel Wood

Hmmmm... There's a lot to say about this, but I'll save it until I can properly gather my thoughts. In the meantime, though, you piqued my interest with your "Dr. Manhattan as readerly proxy" comment. I know there's probably a good reason why you didn't -- or weren't able -- to elaborate on that, but still, could you at least give a general outline of the logic behind it? It seems to me that Manhattan could really only be a proxy for viewers of the film -- ie. able to see past and future and to judge the significance of the present accordingly, just as viewers in 2009 are seeing "the past" in a film set in 1985 and to judge it accordingly; which is something that Moore's WATCHMEN cannot do, thanks to the contemporaneity of its narrative setting and its publication schedule.

Adam Roberts

"...the fact that Snyder buries the Comedian in Jersey City instead of Weehawkin or Hoboken. (The establishing shot puts the Midtown skyline on the left side of the screen, so we must be looking at Manhattan Island from New Jersey instead of Brooklyn)..."

This is what I call serious attention to detail. On your part, I mean.

Rich Puchalsky

I think "Dr. Manhattan as reader proxy" doesn't sound like that great an idea. My opinion, expressed in a previous comment in one of the recent threads here, is that the younger Nite Owl is the reader proxy. Dr. Manhattan has the problem of near-omnipotence, and his ability to skip backwards and forwards through the storyline doesn't make him a reader proxy -- the reader can't affect the story should he or she choose to. And he's isolated, which readers of Watchmen, being comic book fans, are generally not. Nite Owl seems to me to be more like the reader, who wants to be inspired into thinking that he or she can actually have political relevance, but who really can't.

Dr. Manhattan actually seems more likely an authorial proxy. He can change any part of the story that he wants to change. He can create life, as he mentions he might do at the end. But his main interest in the story is a matter of form and shape. He can't change it because that would eliminate its form. It has to play out as it's started.

Sandman #6, as ever, seems critical. Naive authors want to tell happy stories; experienced ones know that they have to do bad things to their characters.


Jake

Great post, Scott! I still have to find time to see this movie, but I think you are correct.

J.S. Nelson

I liked it, given that I accepted going in that a lot wouldn't translate, and I was interested in how it would be handled. I did think it had a really strange target audience because I think people who hadn't read the comic would be thrown off by all the shifts in tone and theme, and people who had read the comic closely would be put off by underlying themes that didn't make it through the translation process, so apparently the audience was to be composed of people who had read the comic but only in a somewhat shallow way?

I noticed the twin towers thing too, and I came up with a long shot explanation, although it makes me cringe. There's a sizable group of people who believe that 9/11 was manufactured by the US government as a justification for putting certain policies in effect and invading certain countries for what certain people believed was the common good. It doesn't take that much of a leap of the imagination to draw a parallel between that and Ozy's plan.
I think there are three ways you could see this:
1) An endorsement of some form of 9/11 conspiracy theory.
2) A fake endorsement designed to open up a possible reading by conspiracy theorists (I can't quite parse the motivations for doing such a thing, but I can imagine that there are several possibilities.)
3) A way to sneak the "conspiracy theory" theme into the subtext of the movie. I have a feeling more New Frontiersman scenes were shot than made it into the movie, and so maybe this supported a conspiracy theory theme that got essentially edited out in the final cut.

Anyway, that's just a shot in the dark.

Ahistoricality

I don't think the Twin Towers/9/11 reference has to be to the conspiracy theory, though the resonance certainly could be there. The way in which attacks from outside create a sense of unity and purpose is at the core of the plan: we band together when there is an external enemy; we did so in the wake of 9/11 and Pearl Harbor; Ozmyandius's plan depends on us doing the same after his "event."

To assume that the reference is necessarily to the "Truther" version is, I think, overreading the situation.

SEK

CF, the faces are slightly, but I think significantly, different. Here's a composite of the third and fourth panels with the fourth at 25 percent opacity. Here's another with the fourth at 75 percent. The squint in the third panel becomes baggy eyes in the fourth; the tightly drawn lips in the third panel point down in the fourth panel, &c. But, as you note, Snyder noticed none of this, so we can't even discuss whether his interpretation differed from mine because he didn't realize there was anything to be interpreted.

Tomemos:

I don't know if the panels during the sermon are "moment to moment," because it takes more than a moment for the priest to say all those sentences. In McCloudian terms it might be action to action, but honestly I think it sort of shows the limits of his categorization.

That's not a quibble, that's the rub! Whereas most comic writers try to transition via discreet McCloudian units, the better ones always tinker at the margins. Let me dig up my pop quizzes from earlier in the corner. I deliberately chose panels that qualify as either/or moment-to-moment or action-to-action, action-to-action or scene-to-scene, &c. The scene ones are particularly ambiguous, challenging the definition of what constitutes a "scene." For example, when panel #1 shows Batman jumping out a window and panel #2 shows him fighting thugs outside, has the scene changed? Is this action (jumping) to action (fighting)? Even McCloud's own definition of action-to-action (Making Comics 16) shifts from one scene to another. I'll scan that later and go into a little more detail.

Needless to say, from the classroom perspective, if they can argue their case using McCloud's definitions they pass the quiz.

Daniel:

In the meantime, though, you piqued my interest with your "Dr. Manhattan as readerly proxy" comment. I know there's probably a good reason why you didn't -- or weren't able -- to elaborate on that, but still, could you at least give a general outline of the logic behind it?

I've been trying! But you won't have to wait long: I'm pretty much convinced myself to post what I have tonight, because I'm not going to make much headway without really bearing down on it, and I'm not going to have time to do that until after the quarter. That said, Rich's comments point to what's stumped me.

Rich:

Dr. Manhattan has the problem of near-omnipotence, and his ability to skip backwards and forwards through the storyline doesn't make him a reader proxy -- the reader can't affect the story should he or she choose to [. . . ] Dr. Manhattan actually seems more likely an authorial proxy.

This is the block I hit with my argument. I don't think it's right, that is, I think I've overcome it, but we'll have to wait until I muster the courage to hit "Post" on that puppy.

I did think it had a really strange target audience

As did I. I mean, I think Snyder believed I was his target audience, but in truth, had I not spent the past two quarters teaching the visual rhetoric of film and funny books, and had one of those funny books not been Watchmen, I likely would've waited for the DVD. As it stands, I'm hypnotized by the film because I've damn near memorized the book at this point---only not like a fanboy would, but like a scholar would. I'm currently very familiar with the technical details of what makes comic and film narratives work, so seeing them mashed together on the big screen is a bracing intellectual exercise.

Also, I do think the Twin Towers has more to do with Ozymandias than Truthers, but you can never tell these days.

SEK

This is what I call serious attention to detail. On your part, I mean.

All in a day's work. (Plus, having lived in New Jersey and spent many weekends in Brooklyn from the ages of 1-3 and again from 6-11, anytime I went into the city---as Manhattan is called---I oriented myself via the Twin Towers and the Midtown skyline.)

smadin

I was rereading this chapter the other day (and I think the change in Veidt's expression is clearer on paper than on the screen), and it struck me that of the three mourner flashbacks — Veidt, Manhattan, Dreiberg — all use the same shot-matching transition in and out, except when we enter Dreiberg's flashback. In that case, we go from a close view of his face at the funeral to a view of him and the Comedian in the owlship, from the perspective of one of the rioters. And while the shot-matching transition takes us out of Dreiberg's flashback, unlike Veidt and Manhattan we're not focused on his face — all we see of him is his gloved hand in the foreground.

I can't claim to know what to make of this, though.

SEK

I thought about that, Scott, and the best I could come up with is that it's Moore's way to draw a distinction between Dan and the Comedian. Dan's sympathetic to the protester's complaints, so we see the Comedian not through Dan's judging eyes, but via the fearful and angry eyes of an anonymous rioter. I haven't worked that all the way through yet---I'm in my office, Watchmen is at home---but I'll take a look at those panels again and try to make some sense of them.

smadin

That definitely seems like a plausible interpretation, Scott, thanks.
Thinking about this a bit more, perhaps it also indicates something about how Dreiberg sees himself, in contrast to how Veidt and Manhattan see themselves: even in his own flashback, he's not the central figure.

www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=767919777

You have some valid points here, which have facilitated a lively discussion, which is great. Some good stuff here.


But despite the title of your post, none of them have to do with the difficulty of translating comics to film.


Your complaints (justified, in my opinion) center mostly on Snyder's lack of filmmaking prowess. You don't like his WTC towers, you don't like his translation of the funeral scene, but you haven't proved, or even really addressed that the source material is untranslatable. Instead you say he "punted," he's literal, and shot the sex scenes wrong. You've only proven that Snyder's bad at making movies, which is really shooting fish in a barrel.


The title of your post is "How unfilmable novels become unwatchable films." There are many excellent, excellent examples of formal elements in Watchmen that would be difficult to translate to film. Briefly, here are just a few softballs you missed during your Snyder-bashing:


The interwoven Black Freighter, newsclippings, and novel excerpts. Very hard to incorporate into a film. Would be like trying to film House of Leaves.


The formal pacing of the 13 issue format. Each issue had its own rhythm, climax, and resolution. Very difficult to create 13 arcs within the feature film structure. Maybe a television mini-series.


The impact of page layout. Take a spread like this, that occurs at the physical center of Chapter V. A beautiful tableau, meant to absorbed in its entirety, like a Renaissance mural. I don't care if you're Spielberg or Snyder, you're going to have a tough time with that one.


Also, the Millar comment is just silly. The guy's been nominated twice for an Eisner, and has done an amazing job rebooting the Avengers. And throwing in a random throwaway panel from The Ultimates the prove your point is unfair. Everybody, even Gibbons, crams wordy dialog into panels. Here's just one Watchmen example, there are others.


James T

Millar is a stunningly poor writer; winning (or being "nominated twice for") a Nobel Prize wouldn't change that.

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