Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Juvenile Satires

In the predawn hours of Saturday morning I found myself pacing back and forth in front the living room windows, repeatedly glancing up at the night sky in anticipation of the first deep blue smudges to seep into the rumpled blanket of dark dreary-looking clouds blotting out the stars. During the past few months this had become almost routine but post-op I was hoping it would come to an end and I could get back to an enjoying an uninterrupted night’s sleep. Apparently not all the chemicals raging in my brain had got the memo.

Dressed, I had already made my way up the Broadway to the small 24-hour store, bought a packet of gaspers from the glassy-eyed member of staff propped up behind the counter, and was monotonously working my way through them at an alarming rate. Even when the streetlamps began to wearily blink out it was still far too early to shuffle off to the supermarket and aimlessly wander up and down the virtually deserted aisles looking for food I could actually be bothered to eat rather than be bought, ignored, and left to casually rot in the kitchen.

I flicked on the television and, after having my fill of the news, was wondering whether to fire up the games console and try to expel whatever frustrations and anxieties had woken me after only three hours sleep by furiously carving up the Perfect Dark simulants. In the end I figured the neighbours probably wouldn’t be happy to be woken by ragged bursts of angry gunfire reverberating from the speakers so, running out of options on the best way to kill time, I plumped for watching Watchmen instead.

I had planned on giving the film a miss altogether seeing as the first trailer pretty much failed to impress and most reviews that accompanied its theatrical release were less than favourable. Then at some point simple curiosity leap-frogged over whatever resolve I might have had, if I had been paying attention. Although in my defence it could have been due to a residual effect from the anaesthetic, especially since I went and got myself the R1 “Director’s Cut” with close to a half hour of additional potential suckiness stitched into the narrative.

Perverse as it may seem to get this longer version, I figured that since the extra twenty-odd minutes of material added to Spielberg’s 1941 had helped turn a hapless, unfunny, and far too frantic comedy into an almost decent dark satire, this could possibly be a good thing. So far I couldn’t see it doing the trick for Watchmen. A week or so back, when I first sat down to watch it, after staring glumly at the screen for about forty minutes I switched it off and went for a lie down. In total it took me three goes, over the course of two days, to eventually make it through to the end credits.

Back when I used to read comic books I’d been a fan of Alan Moore’s work, until Promethea sorely tried my patience and I simply shrugged my shoulders and gave up. When the movie adaptations of V For Vendetta and From Hell started to roll in, it became apparent that Moore’s stories, with their cultural preferences and literary pretensions that populated the comic book panels, only really worked on the page. Like the movies based on Michael Crichton’s novels that ended up as nothing more than bog standard thrillers once they were shorn of the scientific mini-lectures that bulked up his prose, without these little details the results were even more hackneyed. I didn’t expect Watchmen to be any different.

When you have such unwieldy source material that has to be reduced to fit a running time that won’t sorely tax the audience’s bladders the big question is how much do you pare the narrative down before it becomes a shadow of its former self? Back at the end of June, Five showed David Lynch’s Dune as their Saturday afternoon movie. Having not seen the film since the UK press screening back in late 1984, nor read the book since the summer I visited my folks in Spain a couple of years before that, I plumped up some pillows against the arm of the sofa and stretched out to get reacquainted with it.

And Christ almighty, what an utter fucking dog’s breakfast that was! Afterwards I dug out my battered old copy of the novel (priced £1.75), with its glaring typo in the first sentence and 40-odd pages of appendices bringing up the rear, and had a flick through to try where the film had gone so desperately wrong. After just a cursory glance through the book it became obvious that reducing Frank Herbert’s rambling prose down to a little over two hours would be a tall order in anyone’s estimation and Lynch was obviously stumped by the abundance of material.

In a less than valiant attempt to condense his tale of political rivalry, religion and ecology, gone were the intricacies of the rivalry between the Atreides and Harkonnen, the political machinations of the Padishah Emperor and the Spacing Guild, and whatever the hell the Bene Gesserit sisterhood were up to. Subtlety has never been Lynch’s strong suit and after simply cherry-picking snatches of dialogue that, out of context, ultimately sounded especially risible, he fell back on his tedious fascinations with organic and industrial decay. The only saving grace was that the man didn’t include the unsavoury vein of misogyny that blights his later work.

To give its prospective audience a fighting chance of understanding just what the fuck was going on, Dune had been prefaced with a remarkably artless and clunky prologue. Pelting viewers with a rapid succession of facts on the rival parties, the Fremen and the prescient spice Melange found on the desert planet Arrakis, it was like a furious last-minute cramming session for an exam nobody wanted to take. Using such a leaden device, especially in the case of 2007’s The Golden Compass, suggests that when it comes to the more fantastical material the filmmakers are simply unwilling to believe that a wider audience, unfamiliar with the source material, has the ability to accept the basic premise and then fill in any blanks for themselves as the film goes along.

In its favour Watchmen took a different tack by using an extended title sequence to introduce its own shewed version of history to establish the story’s setting. Unfortunately the set-up was delivered with such panache that the rest of the film failed to match up to it. That opening section worked so well because it was based primarily on an interpretation of the supplementary texts from the back of the earlier issues of the comic while everything that followed lacked that singular freedom.

Even though great swathes of unnecessary material that was supposed to make Watchmen “unfilmable” had been mercifully hacked out, director Zack Snyder’s obvious reverence to the comic book soon became apparent as Dave Gibbons’ beautifully rendered panels were slavishly replicated through the camera lens. After a while this nerdish devotion of his started getting in the way of driving the plot forwards. Without these distractions, the film could have been a lot leaner. And the appalling bouts of slow motion, which are apparently this idiot’s trademark, didn’t help.

Reading Watchmen when it first came out in the late 1980s, it soon became apparent that Moore was using the story to conduct a living autopsy on comic book heroes by suggesting that costumed crime-fighters are little more than an unruly bunch of sociopaths, psychopaths and misguided do-gooders. Even Doctor Manhattan, the one character actually imbued with super powers has his own issues, gradually distancing himself from humanity. The rest, meanwhile, are nothing more than vigilantes hiding their dysfunctions behind their fancy dress.

While Synder makes a big deal that the middle-aged Nite Owl’s inability to get it up can only be cured by getting back into costume – and congratulations have to be in order for anyone who can sustain an erection while Leonard Cohen, officially the world’s most miserable bastard, warbles on – it seemed strange that he didn’t push The Comedian to become the extreme fascist he appeared in print. Yes, he still attempts to rape the first Silk Spectre, roasts PLAF soldiers and murders his pregnant South Vietnamese girlfriend, but the defining description of the character had to be:

With so much of Doctor Manhattan’s dry commentary bogging down the second act it seemed strange that this one pertinent observation had been omitted, especially when it would have been far preferable to the burst of the Walkürenritt leitmotif that rather crassly accompanies the Vietnam battle sequence.

Adding so much graphic violence to the graphic novel’s contents, it seemed odd that Laurie Juspeczyk’s smoking habit should be so thoroughly erased, especially when the point of her activating the Owlship’s flamethrower was because she thought it was the cigarette lighter. Apparently even in the fucked up world of Watchmen shooting a woman’s fingers off and hacking someone’s head open with a meat cleaver is permissible yet sparking up is an absolute no-no.

Still, the movie wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the utterly fetid film version of Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, where, once the various literary characters were assembled on screen, the plot promptly fell to pieces. Neither was it as retched as Robert Rodriguez’s utterly gormless and monotone take on Sin City that was so reverential to Frank Miller’s original comic book series that it simply transferred the material to the screen rather than translating it. While the hard-boiled utterances spouted by Miller’s boorish characters might have been fun to read, as dialogue it sounded completely ridiculous.

For all its failings Watchmen did have a couple of nice touches. The puff of smoke witnessed on the grassy knoll turned out to have come from The Comedian’s cigar, and when Adrian Veidt gathers the costumed crimefighters together as a team Rorschach dismisses the union as a publicity stunt, saying he’s “not in it for the ink”. Though those two instances helped me endure the movie in one sitting, in the end I couldn’t quite see what the point of the film was.

At least Dune came to a close with a happy ending of sorts. As the rain inexplicably fell on the plains of Arrakis and little Alia faced the camera and lisped, “For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!”, I was shaken out of my stupor and was doubled over with laughter. When Watchmen juddered to an end I looked at the time and realised I could have been at the supermarket twenty minutes ago.


At 4:33 pm, Blogger Steve Lorimer said...

I always think it's the curse of the film adaptor to utterly miss the salient points of the original book/comic

I wholeheartedly agree with your take on the David Lynch version of Dune. It's an utter shambles, incredibly miscast (Apart from Francesca Annis, Phwoar) and missing all the important points that make the book what it is.

I did think that Sin City was a good attempt at bringing a comic book to screen. A far more credible effort at bringing Frank Miller to a cinema audience than any of the Post-Dark Knight Batman films, but again, I do take your point about Sin City's shortcomings.

Then we come to Watchmen, along with V for Vendetta and League of extraordinary Gentlemen. I genuinely belive that film makers just don't get where Alan Moore is coming from. The problem I think is that he is very much a writer of his time. That being the case, visiting the stories much later in the context of making a film, just really doesn't have the same resonance.
I was speaking to a friend earlier today and he was telling me he was trying to get his 15 year old son into reading John le Carre, circa "Tinker Tailor" vintage. I had to point out that as much as I love any Le Carre book with George Smiley in it, the Berlin wall is no longer there, and a 15 year old isn't going to understand how important an element it is in Le Carre's stories, bearing in mind it was demolished before he was born.

Alan Moore suffers from the same problem as a story teller. Film makers retell his stories out of context and out of time, which invariably leads to piss poor films

Sorry for ranting on like that. Just thought you'd like to know that there are others out there that are just as critical of these films as you are

At 9:31 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


Yeah, Francesca Annis...... Mmmmmmm.

Having not seen the television miniseries of Dune that turned up some years after the movie, I don’t know how they went about weaving the various threads of intrigue together but they couldn’t have done worse.

One problem was because Lynch couldn’t put together decent dialogues that would push the plot forward he kept filling the movie with tiresome sodding voiceover monologues. Mentioned in a post a couple of years back, interior monologues was one of the main problems I had with Sin City:

Ultimately the material was too faithful, and far too reverential. Rather than an adaptation of the comic books, it was more of a direct translation. Which meant that it just didn’t work off the page and on the screen. In The Customer Is Always Right – a three-page story purloined from The Babe Wore Red and Other Stories – “The silencer makes a whisper of the gunshot” may be poetic on the page, but utterly redundant voiced on screen. It ultimately had me screaming, “For the love of God, will somebody please just speak to somebody else!”

In Watchmen, the very essence of the plot had already been used in an episode of The Outer Limits, hence the reference toward the end of the movie. In the final issue of the comic book Moore even name checks the actual episode: The Architects of Fear. So what made the book was the sly deconstruction of the superhero genre and the canny use of symbols and graphics.

What also killed the film was the pacing. There are far too many instances of “visionary director” Zack Snyder lingering too long on his recreations of Dave Gibbons’ wonderfully illustrated panels rather than getting on with it. “Visionary director.” Really? Did they not mean “gormless twat”?! Still, to give the idiot his due, Watchmen was better than V for Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, both of which relied so much on historical and literal references that without them the movie adaptations stumbled and fell and never got up.

I’ve been listening to Radio 4’s dramatisations of le Carré’s George Smiley stories. The Looking Glass War is next in line, coming next month, with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy turning up in November/December and the final two parts of the Karla Trilogy scheduled for early next year. They really have been fantastic adaptations but, especially with July’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, it did need an understanding of not just the political climate of the Cold War but the Wall as both a physical object and a potent symbol of the Iron Curtain. For anyone born either just before or after 1989 it certainly wouldn’t mean as much.

As well as John le Carré’s spy novels, I really liked Len Deighton’s “Unnamed Hero”/Harry Palmer novels and the various Bernard Samson trilogies. The covered an especially intriguing slice of recent history. I hope the young lad does take an interest in them.

At 9:17 am, Blogger Steve Lorimer said...

Len Deighton did come up in my conversation on Le Carre, as I recommended the three Samson trilogies as a more accessable way into cold war spy stories. They're really very good indeed. The Ipcress file is one of my favourite examples of the genre.

I thought the Radio 4 adaptation of "The spy who came in from the cold" was execellent

Agreed on Zach Snyders lingering cinematography, to much focus on the visual, not enough on the narrative.

Just finishing on Francesca Annis, I was fortunate enough to sit next to her at a performance of Julius Caesar at the Barbican a few years ago. A genuinely stunningly beautiful woman up close!

At 12:37 am, Blogger Good Dog said...

And surely a good spy novel, even if it seems like it’s from a completely different era, stands head and shoulders above the bloody wizards and vampire stories “the kids” are reading these days.

“Just finishing on Francesca Annis..” is a phrase that... you know, let’s not even go there. Nonetheless stunning, the one time I saw her in passing, I was amazed at how short she was.


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