Sunday, March 22, 2009

You know, I am not a big fan of the new Killers album...

Specifically, there are two songs on there I think are excellent ("Losing Touch" and "Spaceman"), two songs I think are very good ("This is Your Life" and "Neon Tiger"), one song I think is okay ("Human") and five songs I do not like. But it amuses me that the number one criticism I hear against the album is this:

"What's up with the words in 'Human'. 'Are we human or are we dancer?' What the hell does that mean?!"

Which I translate as:

"Oh my god! A band said something that doesn't make total literal sense!! They're asking me to think abstractly or poetically! This is simply unheard of in pop music. How dare they ask me to take a lyric at something other than face value?"

So obviously I think the above criticism is silly. It's kind of like how some people are so hung up (or "well hung up"?) on Doc Manhattan's junk in Watchmen. It's like, oh my God, there are a million excellent reasons to not like that movie... why are you harping on the one that makes you seem, at the very least, a tad bit homophobic? I mean just think about it for a second... why would Dr. Manhattan wear pants? If you don't want to see his nether regions, just don't look. Look at Malin Ackerman instead.

And back to the Killers lyric: maybe it's stupid, yeah. I'm not really sure if that line is deep or dumb. But hey, at least it's an interesting lyric, right? It grabbed me simply because it was a question that doesn't have an immediately clear answer, and in fact the question itself isn't clear to begin with. And I think that's kind of cool. But I'm a They Might be Giants fan, so you might expect that from me.

I'm willing to bet there's a lot of lyrics in pop music that don't make immediate sense, and I feel like that's the way it should be. What's the harm in having a song pose a bit of a riddle to you, after all? To me it just makes the song worth listening to a little more... it gives you something to think about on future listens, if you are so inclined. It is very telling that many people's idea of criticism is latching onto the most obviously different element of what's in front of them and saying "I don't like it." Wouldn't it be better if we were to embrace that difference? I'd rather say "way to go, Killers, for making a weird chorus in a pop song" than "stupid Killers, write simple lyrics". And I am perplexed that so many other people seemingly do not feel that way.

Monday, March 9, 2009

What if... what if Zack Snyder is a real-life Ozymandias?

I know this is gonna sound crazy, but stay with me here, as I imagine a wild story. In this story, Zack Snyder is a far bigger comic-book fan than almost anybody knows. It's not just that he has great respect for 300 and Watchmen and their ilk... which is clear regardless of what you think of the movies... he actually loves comic books, in a deep meaningful way. They're his favorite things in the world and it saddens his soul to see them culturally and critically marginalized as they so often are.

And so Zack hatched a master plot years and years ago. While it's so deep and byzantine that its entirety is almost incomprehensible, here are the basics: Zack, in making his name through other adaptive projects like Dawn of the Dead and 300, would get himself in a position to film an adaptation what some would call the "Citizen Kane of graphic novels," Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. Zack would know well in advance that many, including Moore himself, think Watchmen "unfilmable." And Zack, secretly, would agree. But publicly, Zack would insist that his movie was a 100% faithful adaptation of the story he loved so.

Now here's the twist: Zack Snyder would purposefully make a Watchmen movie that contained many of the ideas of the original novel but he that presented them in a way that was somewhat garbled and unsatisfying to viewers... at the very least, most viewers would be filled with the notion that they were missing something, that there was something more. Whether or not one liked or hated the Watchmen film, they would recognize that in reading the book they would be treated to a deeper, more fleshed-out version of what they'd just seen on the big screen. Do you get me? People of all types, from comic fans to regular moviegoers piqued by the ideas of the film, would rally behind an idea because of Zack's film.

The end result of Zack's plan, of course, would be that people would insist on buying and reading the original Watchmen graphic novel to fill out the film's story. From there, hopefully, they would be persuaded to move on to other comics... like perhaps Swamp Thing, Planetary, Preacher, Transmetropolitan, or Identity Crisis, just to pick a few random names. All of this would bring about a massive surge in the popularity of graphic novels not just among the traditional comic-shop masses but amidst the public as a whole, and Zack Snyder would finally have achieved his dream: to make comic books culturally acceptable and maybe even cool.

Like I said above... I know it sounds crazy, right? It couldn't possibly be true. You're right, of course. But just think about my story one second longer. What do you think would tell my fictional Zack Snyder that perhaps he'd been successful? What would be his television screens heralding an end to nuclear tension, what would cause him to throw up his arms with childish delight and scream "I DID IT!!!" like Watchmen's Ozymandias?

Well, I bet it would look a little something like this:

(this image is not doctored. It is a screen cap from taken at about 5:00 PM eastern today, Monday March 9).

Well, damn it all, Mr. Snyder. The more I think about it the more I don't like your movie. But I am in total awe of what you have accomplished.

I am not kidding when I say that this is probably the best news I personally have seen in weeks.

Now, who feels like reading some other quality graphic novels?

Friday, March 6, 2009

In case you're wondering what I thought about Watchmen

I did not like it. In fact I thought it kind of sucked. Going by various movie ratings systems, I'd give it one and a half stars, a D, a frustrated frowny face, or one thumb down and one thumb sideways but about to be capitulated by the weight of Watchmen's mediocrity.

(And yes, Virginia, there will be spoilers).

Basically, for people like us (that is, comic book fans), Watchmen is going to be judged two ways: as an adaptation, and as a movie. I'll try to talk a little bit about each.

As an adaptation, one can look at how the film follows either the letter and the spirit of the book. It's obvious that the Watchmen film doesn't do too hot in the "letter" department; it is not really close at all to being a perfectly-copied transcription from comic to screen. Curiously people involved in the creation of the film keep insisting it is--why?? It would be pretty impossible, in the feature film format, to translate every detail of Alan Moore's tome, and I didn't expect the movie to... I'm just flummoxed that so many people are saying how faithful the film is when it really isn't. Certainly some scenes are truly right out of the book and often times these are pretty cool; mostly I loved Rorshach's scenes, especially the early ones, which seemed to treat the Watchmen comic as a shooting script. That was nice to see. But as the film progresses, scenes begin to deviate more and more wildly from the source material.

However, that is not necessarily a criticism of the movie so much as a remark on its press. I have always believed that what's really important in an adaptation is how accurately it captures the spirit of the original work. When it comes to the Watchmen movie, I'm not sure I'm ready to comment on this point yet. Seeing it last night I was fairly certain the movie missed a lot of important elements of the comic, but thinking it over a little... I don't know. I was trying to think about the thematic implications, for instance, of the fact that Dr. Manhattan is the enemy Ozymandias turns the world against instead of some manufactured space-alien threat. And I think that works. What it does, in my opinion, is neatly emphasizes the otherness of Dr. Manhattan in a way the book didn't yet in a way that is still keeping with the feel of the book. Similarly last night I was pretty convinced that the movie didn't understand Dan Drieberg--in the book the dude is pretty much a sad sack apologetic loser with a costume fetish, whereas the movie seemed to make him out to be more of a regular Joe caught up in a crazy world. But the more I think about his scenes I think it's possible that his schlubiness is just played subtlely and is not absent. At the very least, the movie preserves his costume fetish quite clearly. I really don't like Dan's outburst against Adrian at the end... that seems out of character... but I would need to see the movie again to really get a grasp on this character. So I'm gonna leave the "spirit" question open for now.

Where I think this film fails, then, is not as an adaptation but as a movie itself. And my key argument here can be summed up in one word: "pointless." But let me go back to all the press about Watchmen for a minute. I can't tell you the number of times I have heard the phrase: "Watchmen the movie will do for comic book movies what Watchmen the comic did for comics."

It is here, my friends, that the movie fails.

You see, Watchmen the comic came at a time when superhero comics needed a swift kick in the ass. It brought levels of realism to a medium that few had ever taken seriously before--be it political, scientific (kind of) or emotional. Watchmen did better than make a comic-book universe ala Marvel or DC ... it made a world, a world that seemed incredibly real, with characters so well developed and situations so complex we might as well have been hearing about them on the nightly news. Simultaneously the book also achieved a new standard for comic storytelling as art by crafting an impossibly dense, symbolism-laden literary narrative that put graphic novels on the same grounds as their prose brethren. This is what Watchmen did for comics... it, along with Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Art Spiegelman's Maus (all three in 1986), forced people to see comics as a valid and powerful art form.

And then we have Watchmen the movie, a movie which purports to do the same thing to comic-book movies (and it's important to note that it is doing this of its own accord, not because it is an adaptation of a story that also did this... that's why I'm talking about it down in this section). And the problem is that the context for this movie's release has kind of doomed it already. Watchmen the movie tries, like the comic, to give us a world that asks "what if superheroes were real?". In doing so it shows us a terrible world, horrific images of violence, and soul-crushing hopelessness... it shows us more of these, in fact, than the comic originally did. And one might assume from how Zack Snyder talks (he has said as much, in fact) that his goal here is to get us to think about superheroes and their films a little harder than we have been... instead of Alan Moore's "what would a good superhero comic really look like?" we're to ask "what would a good superhero movie really look like?"

Unfortunately for Zack Snyder, we know what a good superhero movie really looks like. In fact we know what a superhero masterpiece looks like. It's called The Dark Knight. It has all the psychological/emotional realism and character depth that the Watchmen comic has, and an excellent story to back it up. It is not only, in my opinion, the best of the comic book movies but it is also a fantastic movie in its own right. It is also, incidentally, better than Watchmen by leaps and bounds.

See, my primary thoughts during the Watchmen film were: "this is really violent" and "this is long and boring." The violence I see as Mr. Snyder trying to wake us up from our superhero malaise like Moore did in 1986. But, dude, that happened last summer. In fact if superhero movies have a "1986" it would pretty clearly be "2008"--besides Dark Knight there was Iron Man, which was completely different in tone from the Batman film but also a fine flick that showed more lighthearted superhero adventure movies could also be done quite well. Of course there were awful comic book movies too, but, hey, it's not like every comic that came out in 1986 was worth reading.

As for the "long and boring" part... I realize that for me this is the real sin of the Watchmen movie: I did not enjoy watching it. That could be and probably is a comment on me, but it also, I think, reflects on the movie. There is not that much fun to be had here. Dark Knight, although two and a half hours long, was a wild ride that you didn't want to be over. Watchmen, although only about 15 minutes longer, felt like much worse.

I think that works hand-in-hand with its pointlessness. At no time did I feel like the Watchmen movie needed to be made. Fans of the comic probably did not get the fun of seeing a beloved work adapted in a satisfactory fashion, and more importantly, I feel like casual comic-book-moviegoers will be hit with a sense of redundancy, because Watchmen the movie does nothing to inject life into the superhero movie genre that Dark Knight and others did not already do better and more entertainingly.

I guess the true lesson of the Watchmen movie is this: even after 2008, superhero movies can still be strikingly mundane.