Text and context: a film review


The following is taken from http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/mar/08/watchmen-review-philip-french.

It does not matter whether or not you are familiar with this film, or the graphic novel on which it is based. The point is to show you here an example of a simple and popular form of literary analysis – the critique.

French does here try to evaluate the film in the simplest possible terms – that is, to tell the reader whether or not it is any good. (You may argue that his actual opinion is ambiguous.) But he goes beyond this. For a start, he explains his reasons; he tries to say more than just whether he subjectively liked or disliked the movie, but why he did so. He also shows himself to be – and thus makes the reader – aware of the context of the movie, particularly the iconic status of the source material, the original graphic novel by Moore and Gibbons.

This ability to understand not only the message of a text but the context, the environment which gave rise to the text and which thus gives it a ‘why’, is what really distinguishes the higher degrees of literacy from basic literacy. French is a professional critic of long standing, and thus erudite and effective at his job, but we should not feel intimidated: we are all capable of this at some level, even if we are not always up to speed with all the cultural references in the way that French is here.

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Watchmen (Cert 18)Poster from the movie 'Watchmen'

[Poster © Warner Bros 2009.]

In France and Japan the bande dessinée and the “manga” have long been taken seriously. But in the English-speaking world, where they’re known as “comic strips” (or even worse, as “the funnies”), they’ve traditionally been looked down upon as fit only for children, and in the 1950s were the subject of censorious discussion in the House of Commons and the Senate and subjected to legal restraints.

As the stately Mark Van Doren says in Quiz Show about the fixing of the TV show Twenty-One in 1957: “Cheating on a quiz show. That’s like plagiarising a comic strip.” Well, we take both rather more seriously nowadays. Ping-pong changed its status on becoming table tennis, and comics took a big leap forward when book shops gave them special shelf-space as “graphic novels”. The high-water mark to date has been the appearance of the graphic novel Watchmen in Time magazine’s list of the 100 best novels in English since 1923, and its eccentric 55-year-old author Alan Moore has become the most exotic thing to happen to his native Northampton since Errol Flynn spent a season with the Northampton Repertory Company 76 years ago.

This is the fourth of Moore’s books to be filmed, the others being From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta. The first was very good, the second a dud, the third elegant but empty, though he has more-or-less dissociated himself from all of them. Watchmen, directed by Zack Snyder, who celebrated Sparta in the risible 300, is a faithful labour of love. Beautifully illustrated by the British artist David Gibbons, the book was brought out in 12 monthly sections in 1986 and 1987 by DC Comics, the leading New York publishers whose stable includes Batman and Superman. It’s an astonishing work that interweaves a colourful pictorial narrative with various prose pieces (the autobiography of one of its characters, an adventure yarn, newspaper reports and official documents), and it owes much to Fritz Lang’s German expressionist movies (via the work of such American comic book pioneers as Bob Kane and Will Eisner), as well as to visionary authors like Thomas Pynchon, William Burroughs, JG Ballard and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

The central conceit is that in 1986 the United States had emerged triumphant from Vietnam, and Watergate never happened. Nixon is still in the White House with Kissinger at his side. But the Cold War is heating up and a nuclear holocaust looms. America’s trump card is Doctor Manhattan, a superhuman whose powers come (as they often do in sci-fi) from exposure to an accident at a nuclear research lab. He’s the only surviving member of the Minutemen, a team of superheroes (though only he has superpowers), who have served the nation during the second world war and its aftermath and were succeeded by a younger group, the Watchmen, as in Juvenal’s Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who watches the watchmen?) The other masked avengers – Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Rorschach, Ozymandias, the Comedian – have been driven into retirement by an ungrateful public. But then the Comedian is murdered in his high-rise apartment in a dangerously run-down New York, and Doctor Manhattan, his authority deliberately eroded, disappears from this world into self-imposed exile. Sinister forces are at work and the Watchmen are needed once more.

This is a heady brew of noir thriller, alternative history, paranoid fantasy and conspiracy theory that plays around with our ideas of what a superhero should be. Batman and Superman descend from the Scarlet Pimpernel, the dual-identity hero that Baroness Orczy created in 1903, to which was added the vigilante tradition of the American frontier and the sense of impotence induced by the Depression. Moore’s brilliant idea was to go back to ancient Greek mythology where the gods and their attendants, while mainstays of the universe, frequently used their superpowers for selfish, arbitrary and cruel reasons. So the superheroes of Watchmen are flawed human beings, three of them deeply so, and we often find them repugnant.

The movie is a bleak, adult entertainment that opens with a witty montage tracing the history of the Watchmen over some 40 years, including a tableau based on Leonardo’s The Last Supper and a dark Dealey Plaza joke. Nixon and Kissinger are shown in a version of the Washington War Room from Dr Strangelove. As a narrative, however, it too often goes down cul-de-sacs to look at the back-stories and never quite interweaves its various strands. The violence and gloom resemble The Dark Knight, and there’s little doubt that the current cycle of Batman pictures was influenced by the Watchmen book. Yet the two most violent figures – the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who resembles the Joker, and Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a low-life out of Dick Tracy – are by some way the most compelling. The Comedian is a laughing racist and rapist, who molests and violates a female superhero and in Vietnam kills his discarded native lover in cold blood. Rorschach covers his head with a flour bag, a constantly changing black-and-white pattern on which reflects his changing emotions like a series of cards in a Rorschach test. His speech is a snarling, rightwing commentary on the decadence of the modern world, his mission to be a cleansing moral agent. He’s clearly based on Mickey Spillane’s private eye Mike Hammer, and he’s even more menacing when his mask is removed. Sent to jail to receive his punishment from criminals he’s sent down, Rorschach turns the tables on them, telling them he’s not been locked up with them, they’ve been locked up with him. They’re what we vividly remember from Watchmen, not the apocalyptic moments. Ultimately this ambitious film falls so far short of greatness that the gap isn’t worth measuring.

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