Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Be Still My Graphic Novel

The art of (movie) adaptation is by no means simple; those who love a novel often complain that something inherent to the written work is lost in the creation of its visual counterpart. Watchmen (1986-87) is no exception. This is the work of which Terry Gilliam has (as you will well know if you've read any review of Watchmen (2008) to date) famously referred to as 'unfilmable'. Gilliam is amongst a string of directors who have become associated with the work's difficult and awkward transition from epic read to epic visual experience. Reception of the film has revealed a rather obvious and by no means unexpected division of opinion between those who have read the graphic novel and those who have not. Whilst I am not interested in comparing the movie and the graphic novel - for I find this line of interrogation to be unproductive and uninteresting for what it offers is both obvious and superfluous, and though I do not wish to insinuate that those who have read the graphic novel 'get it' and those who haven't simply 'don't', what I would like to explore here is the idea that there is something significant, something worth discovering in the graphic novel, that we might think of as a means of access to the underlying 'meaning' (for wont of a better word) of the text. I suggest that this 'something' is actually an inherently dissociative quality. And furthermore, that this particular quality is exclusive to the graphic novel because it is born out of stillness and fragmentation; the fluidity and experiential nature of moving-images being designed to suture the viewer in. This is, at least as far as I am concerned, what makes Alan Moore's laboured work worthy, and fascinatingly so, of both critical attention and popular adaptation.

Kim Newman's review (Sight & Sound, May 2008) offers an oppositional viewpoint to mine, stating that, "Overall the epic-length film is as remote, disinterested and unapproachable as Dr Manhattan...Whereas the comic tried hard to grapple with the lives of particular, fallible, ordinary folks, Snyder can't get interested in them...It's almost an achievement to make a film in which the audience finds itself not caring about the survival of mankind." I want to acknowledge Newman's sentiments because a) I have enormous respect for both S&S and Newman himself, and b) because I think there is an interesting irony in this statement. An achievement it certainly is to communicate an extreme apathetic response, in place of an emotional one, to the survival of mankind. But it is fact in this pursuit where Moore succeeds and Snyder fails. Moreover, there is more to Dr Manhattan than remote, disinterested, unapproachability; for certainly science too is at times ambiguous and subject to complex contradiction, but a finer discussion of quantum physics aside, Dr Manhattan is the pinnacle of the text's groups- Minutemen and Watchmen alike, he is also the fans' favourite, and to some extent a central point of identification for the reader/viewer. Dr Manhattan operates as such in a number of ways for he embodies qualities both human and Other; 1) he was once human (Jonathan Osterman) and resembles human form, 2) his behaviour is human; he is in a romantic co-habitive relationship (sure it doesn't work out, but loads of humans encounter this problem) he has a job, and he lives in a house (etc. - essentially, he is subject to the inanity of the average human existence), 3) as Other he represents an impartiality to converse and conflicting human emotions & subjective opinions, and 4) he is a stand-in for Fate, something with which Moore seems to be extremely interested in (Fate plays a key role in both Watchmen and V For Vendetta, although I will not say much more on that here). Moreover, Dr Manhattan, or Jon as he is referred to by the humans he most frequently interacts with, is likely to be the character who most accurately conveys authorial intention, indicatively so because of points 3 & 4. The irony therefore in Newman's comments is that Snyder would have in fact been doing Moore a justice had he been able to achieve the conveyance of such dissociative apathy for the constant and continual destructive nature of the human race, something the overall tone of the graphic novel communicates. But the reason the graphic novel is able to achieve this is precisely because it slows things down unto stillness. It shows the alternate future as fractured and dismal, but also suggests it as a prophetic possibility, explicated carefully through the use of still and fragmented imagery, and stilted dialogue. The film's converse fluid movement and experiential involvement necessarily draw the viewer in to its temporal pace (whether or not they appreciate this is irrelevant), bringing them into alignment with assumptions and judgements that essentially remove much of the ambiguity offered in the segmented frames of the graphic novel.

To say that Watchmen is a humanist text is true, but it is also a text about the flaws and fractured state of humanity. Certainly the popularity of Watchmen is founded upon the faults, or at least the 'human' qualities, of its characters; these 'superheroes' - Dr Manhattan aside - have no superhuman powers. For the most part, and Dr Manhattan is included here, they act upon their own moral codes, they make mistakes, they are at times devastatingly mortal, they aren't loved unconditionally or universally by their public or the establishment. They are liminal characters who occupy liminal spaces, somewhere between humanity and its destruction. Even the supposedly 'good' and 'bad' characters are ambiguous; their individual actions are often unethical, but their avocation for the preservation of mankind is valiant and moral in its intent. So when the most remarkable character, Dr Manhattan, is seemingly indifferent to the survival of the human race you have to consider that Moore probably intended to communicate some emotive affect to this end. Considering Moore's other works such as V for Vendetta (1982-85) it is likely that the man himself is disillusioned with humanity and so communicating apathetic response is probably an intentional provocation on his part. However, what remains is this: Dr Manhattan eventually comes round, convinced the specificity of each human life is a scientific miracle. That he is convinced is hopeful for those who are cheering for humanity, that he is convinced by a scientific revelation rather than by a person with whom he was intimate- i.e. Laurie, further confirms the notion that the overall tone intended in the text is dissociative.

Finally, there are numerous examples of stillness through the form of Watchmen that mirror the content of its story and its characterisations therein. These include but are not limited to; 1) the seriality of the text, a periodical of twelve individual installments that are in themselves quite contained, 2) the subtle inference and allusion at the end of each chapter through quotation, often of a popular song lyric or prolific writer which function as a summation of each chapters' narrative tone, in cinematic adaptation this is achieved by actually playing the song as part of the non-diegetic soundtrack, often over a montage of images - the effect is more blatant and integrative than it is still and fragmented, 3) the comic within the graphic novel- Tales of the Black Freighter, which acts as a metaphorical mirroring of the predominant narrative actions within the text, 4) the interview segments etc. that appear at the end of each chapter, again these reflect upon events within the text and yet also stand alone as extra-diegetic information, but in moving-image work any extra-diegetic information can only be communicated through visual integration, and must be done at a pace which is in keeping with that of the film's temporal structure. Consequently, this denies certain resonances achieved through stillness.

The referential and even self-reflexive nature of the text is often lost in the fluid movement of visual imagery and the at times excessively stimulative nature of the mise-en-scène. One still frame from Watchmen that has really stayed with me backgrounds signage for a cinema that is showing the work of Andrei Tarkovsky. It is this knowing reference by Moore that acts as a clear semiotic indicative for the importance of temporal stillness in this particular text. It is not then that Watchmen as a text, as a brand, and as a story is 'unfilmable' as Gilliam once suggested, rather that its tone and its quality are such that they cannot be captured by live-action moving image work. It is not a question of aesthetics or scriptwriting, but a question of tonality, something difficult to film and also, it would seem, to discuss.

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