Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Watchmen (film)

The film Watchmen (2009) does an adequate job of translating the graphic novel to screen. As one would expect, it takes certain liberties with characters and the plot, and it alters the ending of the story, with a result that I think improves on the novel. The film accentuates the noirish elements of the novel, and the result is a kind of film noir for super heroes. (There are clear similarities with the ominous cityscapes and the pessimistic valuations of human nature in The Dark Knight). The film replicates many of the perspectives and visual angles used in individual frames of the novel. An example is the opening scene, which views the aftermath of the Comedian's murder from the perspective of Rorschach, high atop the roof of a building.

There came a point in the novel where the plot became so complex and overwrought that the author had to resort to a contrived device so cumbersome (even in this novel which by its very nature requires suspension of all usual forms of disbelief) that it nearly brought the story to a lumbering halt. The film substitutes another plot device that is also contrived, but it's easier to accept, and more logical.

There's little tension or suspense in this film. The characters are interesting, along with their interrelationships and their investigation of the murder of the costumed vigilante heroes. In ways the most interesting character is Dr. Manhattan, whose bizarre transformation in a scientific experiment gone awry gives him godlike powers but leaves him increasingly unable to identify with other human beings. He is so inhuman, in fact, that he speaks in portentous sentences that would come across as comic if any other character uttered them. He's interesting, but also one of the elements that marks the story as a science fantasy—this is not a novel about super heroes in our world—it's a novel about an alternative world where the one genuine super being interferes in human affairs in a way that the super heroes of DC Comics never did. The super heroes of Watchmen span the entire range of the political spectrum, and the novel raises the large question of whether the allure of super heroes represents a kind of fascism—are the pitiful humans they protect too weak and ignorant to understand what's good for them, to control their own destinies?

The most compelling character in the novel, and the film, is Rorschach, whose unwillingness to compromise costs him.

A number of historical figures appear in the film. Lee Iacocca, for one. Andy Warhol for another. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger make appearances—the actor portraying Nixon is so awkwardly made up that he seems artificial and grotesque. Most of the other actors impersonating historical figures bear a slight enough resemblance to the people they're portraying that the simulation works.

Like the novel, The Watchmen is more about talk than action. The graphic novel is about ideas, and the film follows suit. It's intelligent, engaging in certain ways, lifeless in others. But I much prefer it to the hollowness of any number of recent films that blunder across oft trod and well worn ground.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Vantage Point

The 1963 assassination of President Kennedy became a crucial touchstone date in American history. In a certain sense, it marked the advent of uncertainty as a popular cultural concept. Almost from the beginning, rumors, gossip, myths, and tales circulated about the killing. These gained such prominence that they eclipsed the official Warren Report account. In the early 1970s, a congressional committee conducted its own investigation of the assassination and voted to overturn the single-bullet theory of the Warren report. The Zapruder amateur footage of the killing in itself became a cultural fetish, to be watched with agonizing fascination over and over. The Zapruder footage became a sacred visual text for assassination theorists. It formed a crucial center of Don DeLillo's novel Libra and of Oliver Stone's film JFK (1991), which found virtually everyone but JFK responsible for the president's death. (JFK is a fascinating film about conspiracy and overwrought national paranoia. It convinced me--in spite of itself--that the single-bullet theory must be true).

Vantage Point (2008) at first seems to promise another variation on multiple point of view fascination with catastrophic public events. It suggests the television series 24 in its reliance on fast-paced, tightly edited scenes focused on real-time action, intrigue, and political mayhem. It also reminded me of a number of films that deconstruct conventional narrative time sequences as a way not only of telling a story but also of commenting on the very nature of narrative, of cause and effects, of reality. Think of the enormously entertaining Run Lola Run (1998) and of Timeline (2003) and many others.

Vantage Point pretends to be such a film. But in the end it is just another political thriller that uses disjunctive narrative strategies to camouflage a poorly conceived plot and stock characters. The film is set in a fictional Spanish city where Western leaders are meeting in a summit where they plan to present a united front against terrorism. The President of the United States is there, under heavy security, and when he steps up to the podium to speak, he is shot and crumples to the floor. Chaos, explosions, and chaos ensue. The film repeats this scene five or six times, each time from a different perspective, each time providing a slightly different slice of information, each time allowing the viewer to understand more of the story and the roles of various characters in the event. Some characters who at first seem unimportant turn out to be important; others who seem to be nominal bystanders turn out to be villains.

This is not a film about the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. As the different versions of the event play themselves out, we do not challenged with contradictory accounts that prevent us from realizing what really happened. Instead, they add up to a complete story. The contending narratives do not cancel one another out. They add up to a conventional, mundane picture of a not-too-complex puzzle.

Forrest Whittaker is one of the only standouts in the film, and he is largely at a loss. With his large slovenly body and his distinctive facial features, he looks like a real human being rather than a slick Hollywood actor in a half-baked suspense thriller. He plays a tourist who for some reason has come to Spain to escape his collapsed marriage. He carries an HD video camera and obsessively films everything happening around him, to a point where he seems almost unreasonably intrusive. His camera becomes one of the main ways in which the film shows the action—as if it is not enough to tell the story from different characters' viewpoints, but as if it's somehow validating to have the ubiquitous video camera involved, the film's own convenient Zapruder home video.

Dennis Quaid is briefly interesting as a secret service agent back on his first assignment after taking a bullet for the president in an assassination attempt a year earlier. Has he lost his cool? Does he still have what it takes? Wasn't there a Clint Eastwood film—In the Line of Fire (1993) with a similar plot?

To ensure our attention, Vantage Point inserts a cute lost child into the equation. Will she find her mother? Will she be killed by a careening vehicle? Stay tuned!