Sunday, March 08, 2009

reflecting on Watchmen

I know that a few folks were looking for my review of the new Watchmen film that's out this weekend. I did arrive with hundreds of others at the theater Thursday night at midnight to catch the movie... unfortunately I'm still not qualified to really review the film.
Watchmen is the first movie that I've ever walked out of.

Before moving on, a little background.
The movie's based on a critically-acclaimed graphic novel by Alan Moore--the same writer responsible for V for Vendetta and several other titles that are well known, at least in the comic book (or, excuse me, graphic novel, sequential story-telling, whatever) world. Watchmen gives us a picture of a very real and very gritty world and the sorts of 'super-heroes' you could expect to find in such a place. Only one of these actually has what we would call superpowers. The rest are more like Batman: just men and women willing to train, put on the suits, and run risks. Yet the heroes of Moore's world aren't the 'boy scout' heroes of popular comics, like Superman or Wonder Woman. Instead they're fraught with personal demons or sociopathic tendencies, and their justice is brutal.
The comic's ultimately--among other things--a commentary on the concept of the super-hero, showing us how frightening this sort of person can really be in their pursuit of... whatever they see as right.
The comic's also definitely for the 'mature readers'; it's full of graphic violence, sex, language, and just disturbing ideas.

I went into the theater with one concern: will this adaptation do the comic, which is arguably a fine piece of literature, justice?

I was convinced within a few minutes that the film adaptation was a bad decision. Visual subtleties in a comic book are blaring on a film screen: it's the difference between frames on a page which each have to say so much and the extended shots and varying angles on a film screen (more on this later). Also, I think the graphic novel was simply too long, and well-developed over that length, to really be captured in a movie, albeit a longer one. (An HBO miniseries or something to that effect would have served better.) So much information hits the viewers in the first few minutes of the film... it's a bit overwhelming.

However, when I left in the middle of the film, I had very different concerns in my head.
If a comic artist's subtleties are wasted in the amplification of a medium like film, imagine what can happen to the intentionally-disturbing violence which the artist depicts? It's extended, slowed-down, more detailed. Sitting in the theater I felt like I was watching a Saw film. The violence was not simply disturbing, it was disgusting.
The same can be said for the sex scenes. At one point I had no word to describe what we were all watching except "pornography."

What is perhaps worst in all of this is the audience reaction. Many of them didn't get that this is designed to be repulsive. I heard cheers after one of the most gruesome 'hero violence' scenes (a gruesome scene that isn't even in the comic, but was added). Rather than understand and fear the disjunct between the ideals of the real world and those of these heroes, the audience sat back and cheered this on as if it were actually heroic.
Most viewers are apparently not fit for a work like Watchmen--the film or the graphic novel.

But why exactly did I leave?
One main reason was the sexual content. I knew that there was more to come, and I understand that the fewer beautiful, naked women I see having sex, the better for my life.
Another huge reason was the violence. I can stomach quite a bit, and I could have stomached more of this, but I simply didn't want to. The over-the-top violence of the comic is the over-bearing violence of the film, and I wanted no more of it.

But there was one more reason.
As I cringed in my seat at the theater, I couldn't get St. Paul's admonition to the Philippians out of my head: "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worth of praise, think about these things."
I found nothing in this film that I want to have in my mind.

I consider myself very generous towards film. I let a great many things go in a movie that I will not accept in life. That's because they are stories and they are supposed to tell us something; and the evils in the stories reflect realities which I would not be ignorant of. I think art is important, and I'm convinced that the Church must recapture text and canvas and melodies and offer True, Good art to the world. I mean Tolkien art, Bach. Art is so powerful.
And I understand the role of the violence and other filth in Watchmen. If you don't, just pay more attention to Blake. It's all there.
But regardless of whatever utility, the content of this film crossed the line. I don't know where that line is, or whether it changes in different contexts--perhaps it does. Either way, it was crossed and left far behind in Watchmen.

As a reviewer, like I said, I'm unqualified to pass judgment on this film, though, of what I saw (most of the movie), there was nothing outstanding.
As a part of the Bride of Christ, I strongly urge you against seeing it. There is plenty of good art to encounter in this world, and there are plenty of better uses for $8.

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