Understanding Watchmen

The Trans-Atlantis blog doesn’t pride itself on timeliness. The Watchmen movie is no longer the cinematic event of the moment. The movie’s been debated to death, chewed over, the hype has been sucked out and all that’s left is a gory twitching corpse of low expectations. What better time to see it!? Was I disappointed? No. Was it good? Not really. I’m not sure that I can give an objective opinion. I mostly agree with Zak Sally’s assessment and I think that Isaac Cates is onto something‚Ķ I think the film will have it’s greatest impact on the academic world of media studies. Zack Snyder’s slavish adaptation of the comic-book turns the two Watchmen versions into the perfect study-guides. The story is essentially the same so the student can focus on the unique properties of each medium. Take Marshall McLuhan’s ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ media theories. The hot high definition film can now be studied side by side with the cool low definition comic-book. Watchmen the movie is the perfect example of film as a hot medium. Since the film can never approach the comic-book’s narrative complexity, it compensates with visual overload. Every texture, grain of dust, shard of glass, spark of energy, drop of blood and rain, is visible and rendered in loving hyper-real detail. Each frame is crammed with detail in an attempt to get as much of the comic on film as possible. Dr. Manhattan’s nauseating avatar (CGI has a long way to go before it ascends from the Uncanny Valley) represents the film’s high definition aesthetic. Nothing is left to the imagination. Watchmen the comic-book takes full advantage of the cool nature of comics. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons chose to tell the story mostly through a tight nine-panel grid. Each panel by itself doesn’t contain much detail. It’s too small for that. The complexity of the story unfolds though repetition, juxtapositions, foreshadowing, etc. It’s up to the reader to stitch the whole thing together; to fill in the gaps‚Ķ etc. I suspect that both the movie and the comic-book will very quickly become ubiquitous in college syllabi around the world.

6 Replies to “Understanding Watchmen”

  1. I think film can be a pretty complex narrative medium; Zack Snyder’s just not interested in making his movies narratively or artistically complex. (You’re right on, though, that he likes to make them visually complex, or at least cluttered.) There are things a smart filmmaker could do that are formally dense and interesting like Moore & Gibbons’s manipulations of the nine-panel grid, but Snyder is 100% not the director to do that.
    I’d also argue that Gibbons gets those panels to contain just about as much detail as a cartooned panel can ‚Äî Watchmen is a very dense book ‚Äî but that’s not a degree of detail in service of verisimilitude or “high definition,” but rather in service of information overload. That means the comic takes longer to read than its dialogue. One of Snyder’s problems in the movie version is that he has to reduce the amount of “reading time” by a factor of three or four. (Of course, if he were so short on time, he could have taken out some of the slow-motion shots…)

  2. Well, I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to set off one medium against the other. Films can be narratively complex. In fact, I would argue that Watchmen the movie is complex. (Or at least complicated. In fact I wonder what kind of viewing experience people who haven’t read the comic-book have. I think it’d be hard to follow.) But in this narrow comparison, Watchmen to Watchmen (even adding the Black Freighter DVD – which I haven’t seen), it’s interesting to see what is lost in translation. And that’s the point, no matter how long you make the movie you’re going to lose something. The mechanical nature of the medium (you follow the story at the pace of the machine, etc.) makes it difficult to produce something beyond a certain time frame. Not only because it would be expensive, but because humans can only sit for so long in a movie theater. (But, I can see an interesting version of Watchmen on TV as multi-season hour long series of episodes…) So of course Snyder had to reduce ‘reading time’. But, even if he took out all of the slow motion shots (which are integral to his aesthetic) and made the most narratively efficient film, he would still have lost a TON of material.
    As to Gibbons’ detailed panels. Yes! I agree with you. But, texturally they’re austere when compared to a film frame. That’s the only point I was trying to make. It’s a medium to medium comparison.

  3. Well, it sounds like we’re totally in agreement. You’re really right about the movie’s textural density (nowhere more obvious than in the CGI Dr. Manhattan), though I’d say that Snyder’s clutter (narrative or visual) doesn’t necessarily equate to complexity — or at least not storytelling complexity, or intellectual complexity…
    The other aspect of the machine-driven temporality of film, of course, is that it’s impossible (in the theater) to pause, or to linger over moments that require extra thought. Snyder doesn’t seem to be interested in thought, really (his reading of the book seems really shallow to me), but even if he were, he’d be unable to leave things unspoken in quite the way that Moore can in the book. That’s bound to be why Dr. Manhattan announces Laurie’s father’s identity, for example…

  4. I haven’t seen the film, largely because I like the book too much and I think the film would just be annoying for me (and I’d be annoying to people I’d be seeing it with). One question of those who have: Does the repeated blood-stained smiley face motif show up everywhere, as in the comic? That always seemed like the sort of thing that you couldn’t really put in a film (or a novel) very well, because to draw attention to it by panning, or slowing down, etc, would be placing too much emphasis on it.

  5. The smiley was was there. A lot! Sometimes just in the background, and sometimes hovering mid-air rotating in high definition bullet time with blood ever so slowly oozing on the surface… Actually the smiley face call outs didn’t bother me as much as scenes that were pulled directly from the comic. Snyder’s camera often lingered on those shots nonsensically, mainly to show everyone that, “what you see is a direct quote from the comic-book. Isn’t that cool?” Viewers who hadn’t seen the comic probably scratched their heads.

  6. I didn’t see so many smiley-face-motif images as in the comic, but I wasn’t watching for them. There is a new motif, of fluids dripping off of the Comedian’s chin in slow-mo. Tears, blood, etc. Not sure what to make of that, except that Zack Snyder likes the “money shot.”

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