Graphic, Novel: Watchmen, Everlasting Moments, Last House on the Left
By Fernando F. Croce

Haters and fan-boys have been clashing over the merits of Watchmen, though there’s at least one thing eveyone agrees on: The opening tableaux vivant credits are fairly awesome. The ascension and collapse of costumed heroes as a procession of alternate 20th-century American history friezes (the V-J Day smooch, the JFK assassination) set to Bob Dylan’s "The Times They Are A-Changin'" is clever and stirring, true pop filmmaking (not for nothing is Andy Warhol one of the phantoms brought to life). When ol’ Bob sings "don’t criticize what you can’t understand," however, he might be referring to my take on superhero movies. My lack of interest regarding them has been sufficiently documented elsewhere, so I wasn’t looking forward to catching up with the 12-part original graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, regardless of its status as the medium’s deconstructionist magnum opus. (I have little use for constructionist comic books, let alone deconstructionist ones.) Still, if not a convert, I can now at least see what the noise is all about. Under its dense plotting and neo-noir braggadocio, Watchmen the graphic novel taps into direct emotions -- the obligation to stage mothers, the yearning for a problematically idealized superhumanity to smooth out humanity’s wrinkles, the dread that the masked hero might be a deranged vigilante. With less than a year since the turgid The Dark Knight, I was ready to scream if I saw another treatise on the existential dilemmas of guys in rubber costumes. But after reading the Moore-Gibbons original, I was looking forward to the movie adaptation: A filmmaker would have to go out of his way not to get some of this heady stuff up on the screen.

So, the movie. The director, Zack Snyder, is a hollow slicknick whose readiness to sacrifice substance for sensation previously engraved Frank Miller’s idiotic heroics in copper in 300. And yet Watchmen is a far better film. Snyder’s reverence in both stances has been noted. A simple case of superior material, then? Of course, that inspired opening montage could hardly have the same effect on the page, robbed of movement, music, and responsive faces -- the tools of cinema. Trouble is, little of what follows displays a similar sense of inventive interpretation. Mostly, Snyder is content to slavishly reproduce the novel’s panels but not its complexities. Not quite the same as Mozart transposing Bach’s fugues. Anyhoo, the story takes place in a parallel 1985 world that "reeks of fornication and bad consciences": the Nixon regime spans five terms, the pissing match between America and the Soviet Union has set the doomsday clock to five minutes to midnight, and costumed heroism is an illicit art. In the midst of this Cold War hang-wringing is the murder of one of the vintage masked avengers, the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, a sort of beefier Robert Downey, Jr.). Caustic, paranoid renegade Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) smells a conspiracy afoot, though the other ex-crime fighters have other things to worry about: Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) now spends most of his time wiping his Clark Kentish specs, Ozymandias (the David Spade-ish Matthew Goode) is overlooking the latest action-figures line based on his former self, and that gargantuan cobalt Buddha, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), has taken refuge in Mars after breaking up with Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) and getting tired of having to shoulder the troubles of the human race.

That’s just the edge of the labyrinth. There’s also the Comedian’s brutish encounter with Silk Spectre I (Carla Gugino), the Skinemax-worthy affair between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II, and Rorschach’s hell-raising behind bars. Dr. Manhattan’s atomized origins, Nixon in the war room suggesting Bob Hope parachuted into Dr. Strangelove, the idiocy of Have-a-nice-day buttons. "Everything fits in this world, except people." Snyder crams like a maniac, but the results make Lynch’s version of Dune look svelte. Worse, his attempts to add something to the original betray an artistic sensibility summed up with "Whoa, cool!" In the novel, a character describes "The Ride of the Valkyries" as "the saddest I can think of," which is Snyder’s cue to ladle Wagner over a shot of Dr. Manhattan vaporizing Vietcong soldiers. Apocalypse, Meow! Most of the cast is stranded. Crudup is too good an actor to be reduced to a giant azure Valium tablet, while Wilson proves that casting a dullard in the role of a dullard is just dull. (Akerman is easy on the eyes, but I’d hate to have someone as whiny and little-girly as her pleading humanity’s case to a doleful demigod.) The exception is Haley, who, dyed a Johnny Rotten shade of orange, keeps his motor running in even the most earthbound scenes -- a more varied performance than Heath Ledger’s tongue-darting as the Joker, to whom Rorschach has been oddly compared in reviews. Speaking of which, Watchmen is, despite all, a more fluid, less pretentious film than Christopher Nolan's Bat-saga. Both of them are puffed-up juvenilia bound to become cultish fetish objects, and both are interesting only as Exhibit A and Exhibit B in a study of critical and audience reception. As for "superhero deconstruction," just give me Syndrome getting his cape caught in the jet turbine in The Incredibles.

*

I hate to succumb to the cliché of automatically dismissing F/X spectacle for human drama, but, yeah, watch Everlasting Moments instead. The title and theme ("The gift of seeing") make this Swedish production sound like a Kodak ad, yet this Jan Troell film is both sepia-toned and tough-minded. Its scenes from a marriage are set in the early 1900s, the heroine (Maria Heiskanen) is a Finnish immigrant with a large brood and a boozy, womanizing, at times abusive longshoreman (Mikael Persbrandt) for a husband. Life is dismal, but she finds a creative outlet when, encouraged by a kindly studio owner (Jesper Christensen, last seen manhandled by Daniel Craig’s James Bond), she takes an interest in photography. Her pictures help her sort out her identity, connecting art to life and to death -- when she photographs a girl in a coffin, the snapshot becomes an image of beauty and a captured memory ("I’ve never seen her more beautiful," the dead child’s mother says). Troell has always been overshadowed by fellow Scandinavian auteur Ingmar Bergman, just as the tender, humane Italian filmmaker Ermanno Olmi was never as chic as Fellini or Antonioni. Here as in his 1970s masterpieces The Emigrants and The New Land, Troell displays a tactile feeling for open-air splendor and emotional intimacy that feel far closer to Swedish silent master Victor Sjöström than to the claustrophobic Bergman. Some critics have written the film off as mere Oscar-bait, but the humanism of Everlasting Moments is crystalline, a pure line drawn between seeing and feeling. A telling shot has Christensen documenting a historical event, and tilting his hand-cranked camera from the "Nordic Kings" on the balcony to focus instead on Heiskanen’s face in the crowd. To Troell, people matter.

*

There’s certainly no shortage of horror stories out there, though, to judge from the unending wave of fright-flick remakes, you’d think all of them have already been told. If little else, such reboots make for intriguing comparisons with its predecessors, and that goes double for the new The Last House on the Left. The 1972 Wes Craven original re-imagined Bergman’s The Virgin Spring as a post-Manson family bludgeon, scraping off suspense and other technical niceties in favor of undiluted barbarism -- with I Spit on Your Grave and Cannibal Holocaust, it constitutes a sort of Guernica-like mural of terminal grindhouse horror. The new version, directed by Dennis Iliadis, is then not just a remake of a remake, but a degradation of a (purposeful) degradation. The story is still the same: Two teenage girls (Sarah Paxton, Martha MacIsaac) are captured, tortured and raped by a bunch of degenerates (led by Garret Dillahunt) who end up unwittingly spending the night at the home of one of the girls’ parents (Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter). Like the Craven film, it cranks the trauma level to where it belongs, and then cranks it up some more. Unlike the Craven film, there’s little of the audience implication that made these visions of violated innocence and draining retribution so troubling. "You crazy fucks," Dillahunt screams at the bourgeois couple inflamed with bloodlust, yet there’s no sense of the contaminating brutality that Bergman and Craven explored -- the gore at the end isn’t the blood in our collective hands, but a gooey stinger for the audience to cheer at.

Reviewed March 16, 2009

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