Sunday, 01 March 2009

Watchmen and the scene of reading (being a response to Anthony Lane's review of Zack Snyder's adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' novel) (Before I begin: Lane casually spoils the film, so do not click on that link if you want a virginal viewing experience.) Anthony Lane would forestall serious criticism of his Watchmen review by characterizing defenders of the genre as "masonically loyal, prickling with a defensiveness and an ardor that not even Wagnerians can match." Anyone who reads a comic not written by Art Spiegelman is a—but why go there? Lane's acknowledgment that Moore wants nothing to do with Zack Snyder's film seems a concession, but in the end he returns to throw a few roundhouses at Moore: Amid these pompous grabs at horror, neither author nor director has much grasp of what genuine, unhyped suffering might be like, or what pity should attend it; they are too busy fussing over the fate of the human race—a sure sign of metaphysical vulgarity—to be bothered with lesser plights. To belabor the obvious: Watchmen is a book of the 1980s. Complaining about its concern with issues like containment, nuclear escalation, and mutually assured destruction would be akin to kvetching about the dowdiness of suburban American life in Far From Heaven—and Lane did not. So why fault Watchmen for being insufficiently universal in its appeal? Why insist that a film based on a graphic novel be of the moment the former is produced instead of the one represented in the latter? Because Lane is an ignorant bigot.* Not that I want to defend Snyder's film. As will become apparent, I think the film will fail because it is fundamentally unfilmable. But for someone who complains about the lack of subtlety in film and novel alike, Lane punts some rather obvious points. Foremost among them, he attributes the flaws of particular characters to the author, as when he chastises Moore: You want to hear Moore’s attempt at urban jeremiad? “This awful city, it screams like an abattoir full of retarded children.” That line from the book may be meant as a punky retread of James Ellroy, but it sounds to me like a writer trying much, much too hard; either way, it makes it directly into the movie, as one of Rorschach’s voice-overs. Why assume that Rorschach's a proxy for Moore here? Why not assume Rorschach's narration is intentionally blinkered and overblown? Consider these panels: Rorschach's statements are—to borrow Lane's characterization of the entire film—grimy with misogyny, but more revealingly, they are also self-evidently delusional. Rorschach numbers himself among the psychologically healthy. Even within the fiction of the novel, Rorschach's narration belongs to "the crank file": Yet Lane would have his readers believe that the self-important and overwrought prose of Rorschach's journal stands as an indictment of Moore. Mistaking the flaws of a character for those of his author is argument Lane would rightly criticize were someone else to forward it. He would also take issue with a critic who denigrated as derivative a film which openly played with generic conventions. For example, were someone to slag Todd Haynes for directing the aforementioned Far From...

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