Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Watching Watchmen: How unfilmable novels become unwatchable films. (This beast began as the post I promised last week. Now that I've played hooky all my points about the uniqueness of Watchmen's narrative mode seem more salient in light of their absence from the film. So I decided to fold my review into the half-composed post. But for the record I still never get around to discussing my larger theory of Manhattan as readerly proxy.) Some books teach you how to read them: Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow, JR, and Infinite Jest spring first to mind. From a purely formal perspective Watchmen belongs in their company. It does to the conventions of comic narrative what Joyce did to realism, Pynchon did to pulp, Gaddis did to dialogue and Foster Wallace did to sentiment. All the techniques discussed in the following had been used in comics before—there is nothing new under the oxen of the sun—but never in the service of creating a new breed of reader. Consider the following sequence of panels from the funeral of the Comedian: The first three panels transition moment-to-moment. Such transitions slow down the action by forcing the reader to observe actions divided into their constiuent parts. They typically depict a realization on the part of the character which the author wants the reader to linger over (for example) or a demonstration of how fast or powerful someone is. But the "action" that Moore slices into its constiuent parts consists of "listening while standing still." For a hack like Mark Millar the amount of dialogue squeezed into the slow zoom of those panels would stretch credulity. But Moore is no Millar. (How better to compel readers to pay attention to a face than four consecutive panels that zoom in on it?) Moore wants the reader to focus his attention on the expression Ozymandias wears and the pat content of the eulogy. The payoff of the latter is dialogue-driven and immediate; the former, however, pays off in a way only comics can. When the moment-to-moment transitions give way to the scene-to-scene transitions in the third and fourth panels the change in Ozymandias's expression is as subtle as it is important: As the scene moves from the present to the past the vacant expression Ozymandias wears in the third panel gives way to weariness in the fourth. Pay attention to the eyes: somehow neither the mask nor the adhesive with which he glued it to his face can hide the bags beneath his eyes in the fourth panel. The moment observed by the steely eyes in the third panel brims with resignation and despair . . . and yet those eyes reveal nothing but cold resolve. Whatever flashback the reader witnesses will involve some sort of transformation from the man in the fourth panel into the man in third. Ozymandias later confirms this suspicion: That meeting catalyzed Ozymandias. It changed him into the man who could do what he eventually did. While serving witness to the burial of a brutal man, Ozymandias remembers the moment he realized his...
Does Dr. Manhattan act as a figure of the reader in Alan Moore's Watchmen? (This post picks up right here. Turn that double em-dash into a colon and forget you read the rest . . . but for continuity's sake I will rewind one sentence.) Unless you happen to be Dr. Manhattan: For brevity and bandwidth I'll skip the move into this flashback and focus on the one out of it. In the left panel you have Dr. Manhattan in Vietnam. The fireworks behind him celebrate V.V.N. The body before him carried the child of the man in the coffin on the right until said man shot it in the chest [thanks JPRS] and turned that woman into a body. Note that unlike the panels discussed earlier the expression on Manhattan's face doesn't change. What has happened has already happened and he cannot change it without changing what has already happened. Make no mistake: he can change it. He can prevent the Comedian from shooting a pregnant woman in the chest. He even tells the Comedian not to do it: But as the Comedian does it anyway . . . then complains because Manhattan didn't turn the bullet into water. The conventional reading of the novel stipulates something importantly philosophical is behind Manhattan's reluctance or refusal to act here. I think the answer is much more mundane: unlike Ozymandias, who experiences in memory the emotions he felt in the moment, the unmoored-in-time Manhattan feels nothing not because he has abdicated moral authority before the throne of universal indifference, but because for all his power within the novel he merely functions as a figure of reader. (To answer Rich's creepily accurate pre-emptive criticism, I would say that Manhattan doing nothing with his power trumps its potential.) In the narrative present he amounts to little more than a M.A.D. weapon that maybe leaks carcinogens. The conceit that he can be anywhere at anytime structures the fourth issue of Watchmen and calls into question whether Manhattan's flashbacks are actually flashbacks. More constantly forces us to consider the status of what we see. Take these panels from the first issue: What is the relationship between the central and flanking panels? Are we getting the detective's mental reconstruction of the struggle based on the evidence at the scene? Is Moore juxtaposing the actual struggle with the detective's reconstruction of it? What about these panels from the sixth issue: Does the narrative jump to the perspective of a dying Kitty Genovese there? Is that Rorschach's reconstruction of the last thing she ever saw? Point being: throughout the novel Moore exploits the then-to-fore unexamined conventions of comic transitions. He literalizes the oldest of the old standbys—the scene-to-scene transition—by granting Manhattan the power to teleport from one scene to another. These characters have been transported from one scene to another via this transition the whole book to no ill effect. But when Manhattan transitions them from a studio to a parking lot or New York to Los Angeles, their stomachs bark and they vomit uncontrollably. What the reader painlessly accomplishes—what you, dear...

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