Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Second Coming: Who Watches the Watchmen watch Watchmen?

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer.

The end times are upon us. Have you seen the signs? Whispered omens flit across the internets like sparrows taking flight, spooked by some looming and inscrutable presence. They bespeak a dark hour, drawing ever nearer. The world ends tonight! Or, no it doesn't.

But either way, the Watchmen movie finally touches down. So that's something.

Much is being made of the imminent release of Watchmen. It could be argued that this film packs a larger pop culture cache than any in recent memory, a nerd syzygy of comics canon-meets-slick Hollywood blockbuster-meets 9/11-meets Billy Corgan-Meets Cute. During its time, the comic was a lurching step away from the exact modernism of comicdom towards an ambivalent and hyperstatic place, a clamorous "SOD OFF" to superhero geekdom that, somehow, managed to be canonized faster than Mother Theresa.

For those unaccustomed to the inclinations of such cultural currents, here is a handy barometer: Alan Moore's Watchmen was a bid to produce high art within low art, but was received so well as to become emulated, producing low art that has gained enough momentum to be adapted as boffo action flicks, which everyone knows are low art except the flicks themselves, which insist that they are high art and be taken super seriously.

Every single time a comic book adaption hits the right notes, people are eager to claim that they have finally uncovered that most precious of Rosetta Stones: The code that will finally allows us to craft that perfect pop homunculus, the SUPERHERO MOVIE. And then, like Sysyphus, things reset, so it can be done all over again. And now, here is Watchmen, with its hypernarrative plot lines and quantum mans to present what could be called a unified field theory of sorts.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

As to what it all means is, apparently, up for grabs. We have a Tom Shone review dug up over at Slate, which blasphemously dares to suggest that Watchmen is no Ulysses, and in fact is only pretty okay. (To be more accurate, he seems to argue that Watchmen is Ulysses, but that Ulysses sucks and is lame.)

We have film buffs like Bill Emerson seriously mulling over whether he should re-read the comic before he sees the film, or whether that would render him useless as a critic (because what is the book is better, guys?!)

We have film data sites reporting that Watchman may break records, and that everyone and their kid sister may go and see it or maybe not.
It is a quantum event, you see, Watchmen the Biggest Hit Ever and Watchmen the Historic Flop co-existing in Schrodinger's Box, waiting to collapse into a single movie.

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

Central to all of this is a peculiar fear - that if this Watchmen is not our Watchmen, or THE Watchmen, good, better, best, all Watchmen will suffer. The political Watchmen. The life-changing counter cultural Watchmen. The rollicking good read Watchmen. Our childhoods will suffer, and we will suffer. Such a task does not demand adaption, but transliteration.. best done by Gregorian scriveners in some arcane mountain retreat.

The boomers may have perfected nostalgia for childhood, but Gen X has one-upped them: We never got rid of our childhoods - they're safely tucked away, on eBay and Youtube and Wikipedia, still in mint condition, still in the original packaging. Yes, the only thing that can affect our collective pasts, coagulated together in a Jungian unconscious, is new stuff. Stuff that makes us pause, and say "Huh. Maybe.. maybe it wasn't so rad after all."

Perhaps it doesn't help that Mr. Moore himself is rushing about like a cultist fanatic, eager to spread the word that all that important stuff people drummed up about Watchmen was, in fact, all a dream. He has no plans to see the movie, you see, because it a perversion of his original vision. And if people had any sense at all, they would, of course, see that the message is clear: "Yes, Virginia, there ARE Superheroes. And they're nazi homo psycho punks." He helpfully explains that the sloppy, semi-literate teenage mouth-breather depicted in the book's final frames represents the reader, himself.

Par for the course for Mr. Moore, of course. But all the more reason that people are determined to take this so personally. They said it can't be filmed. They said it could never be adapted. Somehow, some way, they've got to be wrong... right?

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

If you are the sort who gives a tinker's damn about what critics think, then let the record show that at least one critic doesn't know what to think. Roger Ebert, most unflappable of film goers, writes here that he is positively flapped. Not boggled, or baffled, or gobsmacked - these imply speechlessness, which of course Rodge is not - but simply an absence of meaning. He suggest it is good. It may be great. But, by george, he doesn't know why.

Could anything be more ominous? Even seasoned professionals, faced with such a looming horror, can only report that they saw it... and that they will need to see it again before it will begin to make sense.

Fandom has worked its magic on Watchmen for two decades, busy turning it from a book into a vast psychic exercise. And here to ruin it all is this blasted moving-picture, about to turn all the groupthink into so much hot air.

Because the final horror of the ominous doppelganger that looms before us, is that, once Watchmen: The Best Movie Ever and Watchmen: The Worst Movie Ever come crashing together, all that quantum entanglement will be gone. All that will remain will be Watchmen: A Movie, Once. And for many of us, perhaps that can never be enough.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

There is that Warshow axiom, quoted endlessly, about how "A man goes to the movies. The critic must be willing to admit he is a man." Here is it turned on its head. A critic must be willing to admit he is going to a movie. Not a grand-mal-memestorm. Not a repudiation or validation of your entire cultural cache. A movie.

This may be the cure for these fever dreams. Take ten deep breaths. Click your heels together, for good measure. And repeat after me:

It is only a movie.

It is only a movie.

It is only a movie.

Now take a flipping chill pill.

- Rook


  1. "Such a task does not demand adaption, but transliteration.. best done by Gregorian scriveners in some arcane mountain retreat."

    I like to think King and Rook as a two man brotherhood of Gregorian Scriveners. In fact we should maybe get an arcane mountain retreat.

  2. It's funny. In any movie where people need a spiritual awakening, there always seems to be some arcane mountain retreat just totally available. How many of them are there?

    Or is there just one, and you have to book in advance?