Saw the movie version of Watchmen tonight.
There’s no particular reason to dislike the movie more than the comic book. There’s just every reason to dislike both. Watchmen, the graphic novel, is lauded for its literary devices, and for its supposedly mature obsessions with violence, and moral decay, and humanity’s ugliness, and the limits of heroism…. All of which is to say that the man behind it, Alan Moore, realized early on that the novelty of making a self-consciously artistic comic book meant that he had a low bar to clear in order to be feted. I can think of few failings more tiring and lame in any kind of writing than the artistry that keeps hitting you over the head with the fact that its artistry. People talk about the complexity and depth of the storytelling. All I can see is symbols shouting “This! Is! A! Symbol!” and metaphors screaming “This! Is! A! Metaphor!” and in general a man saying, again and again, “I’m making art here, people.”
If this sort of ham handedness and lack of subtlety took place in a regular novel, people would laugh. As it happens in a comic book, it winds up on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest novels of the past century. See, that’s the sad calculus for so many writers of comic books. They decry the lack of respect that the graphic novel format receives, but they trade again and again on the lack of critical subtlety or rigor that surrounds comics. They are operating under a set of massively lowered expectations. People have a natural distrust of art that scratches at depth by acting like the truth of man is just relentless negativity; if there isn’t a little love and a little humor and a little bit of not taking yourself seriously, we tend to reject it. But comics just don’t have that critical community, I guess. I mean people know Lars von Treir is full of shit. So that kind of rejection is possible.
And that’s the thinking behind all of the ultra-violence, cruelty and despair that makes the book such a trudge. The idea is that violence must be profound, that cruelty must be artistic, that reflexively assuming the worst in man-kind has to be a demonstration of uncompromising honesty. So a book, or a movie, is crammed with children putting their cigarettes out on someone’s eye, or dogs getting their heads split open, or superheroes breaking wrists and stabbing necks and torturing, or pederasts chopping little girls into pieces and feeding them to their dogs. And, somewhere, Andrew O’Hehir gurgles.
I fear that these kinds of moral arguments about art– the kind that Anthony Lane makes so well– tend to blend together, and people think they are just a matter of saying “I’m offended!” Well, I guess I am offended in the way that people mean when they say that, but that’s entirely beside the point. What’s not beside the point is the insult in thinking that the same crass manipulations can be made again and again and achieve the desired effects.
In other words, I don’t think that Watchmen is an artistic failure because it features, say, a woman who falls in love with her attempted rapist. At least, not in the way that people tend to assume in this post-PC age. I’m not saying “that’s offensive, so it’s bad art.” It’s offensive because it’s bad art, because Moore assumes that putting rape in a comic book makes him an auteur, because he is not nearly craftsman enough to utilize the tools of delicacy and restraint, so he turns (again and again) to the preloaded, lazy man’s tools of cruelty and sexual violence. It’s not because it’s offensive, though it is. It’s not because of my incredulity, in simple plot terms, at the idea of a woman falling in love with her rapist, though I find the idea less believable than the absurd hokum of the villain’s grand plot. (Or is it the hero’s grand plot? You see, people– complexity!) No, what makes me really despise that little invocation of rape and humiliation is how endlessly cute Alan Moore imagines himself to be, how assured he is that he is being brooding and complex and provocative, when he is merely another man who has discovered the enduring power of sexual panic. That’s what makes it despicable. What makes it tragic is that so many people applaud him for doing it.
The only real moment where the movie actually made me sigh in a way that the comic didn’t was when I realized, unbelievingly, that “The Sounds of Silence” was playing without apparent irony at the funeral of the Comedian. That song made an iconic appearance in another movie, an older movie, The Graduate. That movie is far from perfect. But it’s the kind that would have a hard time beinh made now, a movie that actually has the courage to be about real human beings; a movie that have a hard time being taken seriously now, because it lacks any artistic violence, and in fact any violence at all. I can’t imagine what moviemakers and critics would do these days if you couldn’t make a movie with (artistic! balletic! profound!) violence. Every movie that is critically lauded, it seems, needs to be about a remorseless oilman or a remorseless assasin or a remorseless serial killer or some other unstoppable misanthrope who demonstrates, in piling violence on top of violence, that this is a Serious Film. And you can shoot in a minimalist style, or a maximalist style, you can have a single handicam take a five-minute shot, or you can do an effects-drench whip cam deal, and you can punch it up with incredible sound effects and a racing score, or you can really get arty and have no score at all. One way or another, though, you’ve made art. A movie about sleeping with an older woman, feeling disconnected from life and falling in love… well, I won’t say it couldn’t get made, or get lauded. But to really clean up, come awards season? Wouldn’t stand a chance.
A lot of my friends and people I respect, some of my best friends, really love Watchmen, the comic, and enjoyed the movie. There’s no accounting for taste. And I could be wrong here. So I don’t want to seem uncharitable to the people who enjoy the story.
But sometimes, people ask: why do bad movies get made? Why does bad art get made? This is why bad art gets made: it gets made because too many smart and discriminating people fall for such obvious, ugly lies as Watchmen. A movie like Batman and Robin doesn’t threaten anyone, it doesn’t lead to more bad movies. A movie that open and unapologetic about its awfulness doesn’t get aped and written into the canon. It’s movies like Watchmen, and books like Watchmen, that stick the knife in long after they come out. Because they prove that cynical con men like Alan Moore can make the same ugly feints towards profundity and art that have been made again and again, and be rewarded for it.