Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Rendering of Watchmen: "Most of my work was designed to be un-filmable"








"Whenever anybody talks about comics, they usually make a great deal about the similarities between comics and film. And while I'll agree that a comic creator who understands cinematic techniques will probably be a better creator than one who doesn't, I feel that if we only see comics in a relationship to movies, then the best that they will ever be are films that do not move. I found that in the mid-80s preferable to try and concentrate upon those things that ONLY comics could achieve: the way in which a tremendous amount of information could be included visually in every panel; the juxtapositions between what a character was saying and the image that the reader was looking at. So that, in a sense, I guess you could say that most of my work from the 80s on was more designed to be un-filmable. This is what I had to explain to Terry Gilliam when he was originally selected as the director on the touted Watchmen movie that was being discussed at that time."

- Alan Moore in the film, The Mindscape of Alan Moore



Damon Lindelof recently wrote a five page letter to the fans of the graphic masterwork, The Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Evidently, he has been hired by HBO to create a pilot set within the Watchmen world. His intensly personal letter (see pdf) is written in the "quantum style" of Dr. Manhattan / Jonathan Osterman.

"I am two-hundred and twenty-seven million kilometers from the sun. Its light is already ten minutes old. It will not reach Pluto for another two hours. Two hours into my future, I observe meteorites from a glass balcony, thinking about my father. Twelve seconds, into my past, I open my fingers. The photograph is falling. I am watching the stars. Halley's Comet tumbles through the solar system on its great, seventy-six year ellipse. My father admired the sky for its precision. He repaired watches. It's 1945, I sit in a Brooklyn kitchen, fascinated by an arrangement of cogs on black velvet. I am sixteen years old. It is 1985. I am on Mars. I am fifty-six years old. The photograph lies at my feet; falls from my fingers, is in my hand. I am watching the stars, admiring their complex trajectories through space and time. I am trying to give a name to the force that set them in motion." [source]

Watchmen is a work of transcendent art, fully realized within the medium of comics, or "the graphic novel." In the calculus of aesthetics, it approaches perfection. The necessary reductions of film - where visual puns between frames are lost, where the imaginative action inferred in the gutter between two panels is forgotten, where big splash panels are diminished - these adaptations cut away much of what is extraordinary about the work as a supreme instance of content beautifully interwoven with form.

Alan Moore again:

“I find film in its modern form to be quite bullying. It spoon-feeds us, which has the effect of watering down our collective cultural imagination. It is as if we are freshly hatched birds looking up with our mouths open waiting for Hollywood to feed us more regurgitated worms. The ‘Watchmen’ film sounds like more regurgitated worms. I for one am sick of worms." [source]

For years I have read with concern the reports about making a film of Blood Meridian.  McCarthy exploits, explores and expands all of the tropes, tricks and tools of the novel to create a world that has no translation into any other form, especially film. In my estimation, Blood Meridian is un-translatable. The Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Moby Dick are all, at their core, resistant to even "faithful" adaptation.

I am in no way condemning inspiration and authentic response, the creation of new artifacts from the old. But these are not translations or adaptations or sequels. No one considers The Aeneid to be a sequel to the Iliad, or the Divine Comedy to be an adaptation of The Aeneid.

Moore is dead on: as a culture we have become entirely happy and satisfied with watered down "regurgitations."

The question of whether the movie is better than the book makes the same sense as dancing about architecture.

Imagine making a movie of Crane's The Bridge or Eliot's Four Quartets. Who would even think of making such an obscenity? Perhaps, rendering is the more apt term here - as when a dead animal is rendered into more palatable parts.

Chopin's answer also comes to mind. When asked what a particular Nocturne meant, he simply played it again.

Who would ever consider / believe a "translation" of Beethoven's 9th into another mode of expression: poetry, prose, comic, film? There is no translation for music, no abridgment, no bowdlerization, no censoring. There is only diminishment, loss, reduction and error. A child can perform the first notes of Beethoven's 5th. But it is not Beethoven's 5th.

Nabokov, typically cantankerous and contrary, is insighful here regarding translation:

"Three grades of evil can be discerned in the queer world of verbal transmigration. The first, and lesser one, comprises obvious errors due to ignorance or misguided knowledge. This is mere human frailty and thus excusable. The next step to Hell is taken by the translator who intentionally skips words or passages that he does not bother to understand or that might seem obscure or obscene to vaguely imagined readers; he accepts the blank look that his dictionary gives him without any qualms; or subjects scholarship to primness: he is as ready to know less than the author as he is to think he knows better. The third, and worst, degree of turpitude is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public. This is a crime, to be punished by the stocks as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days." [source]

Lindelof clearly honors The Watchmen. His letter is well-written and full of passion. However, in his quantum style, I read the anxiety of a man being paid an enormous sum of money to kill the thing he loves.

God help me for quoting Bono:

It's no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest
It's no secret ambition bites the nails of success
Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief
All kill their inspiration and sing about their grief

I understand, of course, the Lindelof is not attempting to re-tell the canonical Old Testament story of the Watchmen. Rather, he says he wants to explore new possibilities in that world in the same manner as the New Testament extended the possibilities of the Old. It's a clever tactic, as old as Don Quixote. But recall, it was the unauthorized publication of a sequel to the original spurred Cervantes to write Part Two and allow Don Quixote his rightful death.

Unfortunately, Hollywood refuses to allow any character (or imaginative world) a rightful death, digging them up again like Webster's wolves, no final rest when they can continue to feed and make money off of the corpse.

Call for the robin-red-breast and the wren,
Since o'er shady groves they hover,
And with leaves and flow'rs do cover
The friendless bodies of unburied men.
Call unto his funeral dole
The ant, the field-mouse and the mole,
To rear him hillocks that shall keep him warm,
And (when gay tombs are robbed) sustain no harm,
But keep the wolf far thence, that's foe to men,
For with his nails he'll dig them up again.
Let holy Church receive him duly,
Since he paid the church-tithes truly.

- John Webster



Tuesday, April 10, 2018

A Conversation with Shelton Walsmith: "Somehow the question keeps the torch lit."


Shelton Walsmith



SC: Again, I'm always in for the more restrained color palette. The Mytho-poetic imagery. I've been reading Book 6 of the Aeneid, the journey of Aeneas into the underworld in search of his father. Just before he died, Seamus Heaney made a translation. Upon finally finding the shade of his father, Aeneas attempts to embrace him:

"Let me take your hand, my father, 

O let me, and do not
Hold back from my embrace.

And as he spoke he wept. 

Three times he tried to reach arms round that neck.

Three times the form, reached for in vain, escaped

Like a breeze between his hands, a dream on wings."


Shelton Walsmith

Shelton Walsmith


SW: I like the pitch of the emotion in that writing. I recently saw Teagle in the play Is God Is? Most of the performance is in a claustrophobic shallow set with a windowed wall close to the front of the stage. Towards the end, Teagle pushes the wall backward and it falls with a crash at a 45 degree angle. He then climbs it to have a showdown with a daughter who's come to kill him. The 4th wall of theater transgressed.

SC: I've been listening to Lee Morgan's Cornbread. It's pure Sunday morning to me.

SW: He managed to infuse those recordings with with joie de vivre.

SC: Overflowing exuberance.

SW: I can turn my frown upside down by simply playing Sidewinder record. Same thing with Django Reinhardt.



Shelton Walsmith


SW: Couldn't find any Lee Morgan at the studio but looking I rediscovered a great by Lee Konitz titled Another Shade of Blue.

SC: I'll check it out. I've always admired how prolific jazz musicians are. Hundreds of albums. The live improvisation and "real presence" of the music being antithetical to closeted perfectionism and hermetic solipsism. 


Shelton Walsmith


SW: Here here. A lot of stuff in the heyday pre-1963 is praying - a very clear transcription of presence. Did you read Giacometti discussing the pursuit of presence? He was all about exposing the ghost and making it playback - recording the playing as it lives -  as you mention. The records of Segovia, Glenn Gould or Kronos Quartet are performance/recorded like jazz live. 

It's been a blessing to take on this bather exhibition. Like you saying, I'm Back! to yourself at the Bellingham library. While I'm drawing studiously daily, I feel most at home. Going through tons of moleskins looking for precedent is a also reminder how much energy and looking and recording I've devoted to drawing. It's an instrument of human thought sounding or touching. It's a lot of rehearsing for painting but it also remains strong as an end to the means.

SC: Not to remark upon a trivial example, but perhaps appropriate for its lack of pretension, I am increasingly aware of how unconsciously practiced and accomplished am I for this work. As if some Mr Miyagi from the Karate Kid has had me painting the fence or waxing the car for years, honing skills I was unaware I possessed. Over 20 years meditation upon a theme, writing poems, songs, prose, creating graphics until is all second nature, like riding a bike. I no longer think about writing: it is an unconscious vehicle to transport me to my destination. I'm pretty happy when I realize this anew. Look ma! No hands!

SW: Exactly.


Shelton Walsmith

Shelton Walsmith

Shelton Walsmith


SC: The immediate provisionality of the sketchbook, the "showing of the work", is always fascinating. Seeing how the sausage is made. Or perfume.


Shelton Walsmith


SC: Sweet.


Shelton Walsmith

Shelton Walsmith

SC: Something in the natural, but muted eroticism of the bathers. Not nude, but just there. The idea of the Venus de Milo in a bikini. It's interesting.

SW: There's something to how open the kimono is...revealing the right amount hiding the best parts. I want to tap into an endless summer atmosphere wherein ghosts are represented as passersby in rivers and lakes and surf. You're always younger when you're swimming and younger is always past. It's a proverbial fish bowl looked on by Prospero. 

SC: Nicely put. Re: Eliot:

Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom 
Of snow, a bloom more sudden 
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading, 
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable Zero summer?


Shelton Walsmith

Shelton Walsmith


SW: I've continued to study Mark Tansey for his monochromatic mastery and disjointed narrative send offs on sentiment, nostalgia, redacted history and painting about painting. See his "Action paintings"1 and 2. Making grayscale or monochromatic fiction emerges, it's not true to life in it's reduction to tonal over coloristic. My inquiry into how to make it more artificial than lifelike launches a type of Once upon a time...

By grouping them as diptychs or triptychs the additional frame or filmic cell reels another engine of narrative movement


Shelton Walsmith

Shelton Walsmith

SC: Those are excellent. The Muybridge filmic nostalgia.

SW: Like the Disney analogue animation m.o. endless drawings, same but different, not just feeling innocence but also and reanimated call and response btw having it and losing it. Reality vs. recollection. Someone remembered so often their face gets warn off until the memory is grasping as featureless ghosts receding.


Shelton Walsmith


SW: The sexual highlight reel too often revisited goes from lucid real time play by play recollection to blippy gif like compression. Instead of the short film you had now the memory 3 or 4 vignettes flipbooking then it's one long exposure compressed into a single image then  that photograph becomes worn and loses detail to wear and attrition...


Shelton Walsmith

Shelton Walsmith

SC: You are exactly right. Film offers an all too easy metaphor for memory that, while evocative, is not accurate. I think people born in the age of film and now smart phones will think of memory as a message aligned with those mediums: a slow motion panning shot of a walk to the altar, soundtracked with a favorite song, close up on the face, or, far worse, their lives as a series of posed/ not posed filter / no filter selfies. The creative and interpretively demanding windows opened by a work of art with its constantly shifting meanings and aporia are traded for these more compressed representations of the experience - the plastic souvenir remembered instead of the experience itself. The capacities of memory are vast and energized by immersion to the most profound depths. Borges said one of the most signal moments in the development of Western culture was when Aeschylus introduced a second actor onto the stage. No longer a single singer or priest addressing the crowd directly, but a re-presentation of reality, as two actors magically create a dramatic universe we view as non-participatory spectators. No wonder the earliest memory systems were memory theaters. Internal private stages where we each enact our own myths. Something Freud "discovered" as a unexplored country within. 

SW: Isn't interesting that in the first chapter of photography that a negative image needed to be born before it's positive inverse could document the latent image?

A lot of those glass plates that documented Civil War death were destroyed or repurposed as greenhouse windows. It was best forgotten and the photos were a terrible reminder. That reminds me of the Van Gogh scholar researching his haunts and homes discovering a former landlord was using one his paintings traded for rent as the door to her henhouse. The real fate of most pictures rather than d'Orsay, Sotheby's or Hong Kong penthouses.

SC: There is something philosophically and aesthetically beautiful about those images. The eternal question: what is art good for? What does it do? For some, it's a good window, something with which to build a door. Keiffer's monumental leaden books come to mind. But so do the pyramids. And Guernica. 

SW: The use of art or the use of the art encounter is best from the cheap seats in a theatre watching a play. No one's fooling anybody from there and the necessary suspension of disbelief is transferrable into poetry, music and the plastic arts if one needs to ask the question, to what end? Or what use is it?  Suspension of functional practicality. Why take soot or blood and make a handprint or drawing of a bison on the cave wall? To what end? Somehow the question keeps the torch lit. Imaging or reimagining or projecting of mere shadows of the real thing ignites inquiries into the substance of sight and the weight of remembering. Mona Lisa looks at us looking at her and a cycle of wonder loops.

SC: Beautiful. Could my epitaph: 

"To what end? Somehow the question keeps the torch lit. Imaging or reimagining or projecting of mere shadows of the real thing ignites inquiries into the substance of sight and the weight of remembering."

SW: Often progress in art is retrospective like turning your back to the mirror and panning your sightlines back over your shoulder at the view you walking away. Michaelangelo is looking at the ancients and literally thinking, to beat these are guys 

...to beat these guys I need to see  grandeur and monumentality as they saw/projected it. 

Kiefer progressed art by seeing/deposing Nazi hegemony in favor of a pre third Reich Mother Germany. All thru backward visioning. The PreRaphaelite painters pushed into magic realism by genre hopping backward.

SC: Consonant with Borges idea that a writer's awareness of his precursors not only informs his present work, but alters our conception of the past. History is a lie of the mind and as fluid as any story. Thus, he says we now know Homer's Odyssey as coming AFTER Joyce's Ulysses. He cites Whistler's answer to the question of how long it took him to paint one of his nocturnes. Whistler answered, all of my life. "With the same rigor he could have said all the centuries that preceded that moment when he painted were necessary."


Shelton Walsmith


SW: When you answer To what end?  With a political message in visuart at least those aforementioned suspensions become flattened and rigid and to an known end. Political art smells like a doctor's office.

SC: The etymological sense of porno graphia - writing about prostitutes, those who allow themselves to be bought and used for other's purposes. Most of our current culture is pornography to me, more insidious because it tries so desperately to pretend as if it is not. 


Shelton Walsmith


SW: Yeah, we're a mess.

SC: 
Well, I went to the doctor
I said, "I'm feeling kind of rough"
He said, "I'll break it to you, son"
"Let me break it to you, son"
Your shit's fucked up."
I said, "my shit's fucked up?"
Well, I don't see how-"
He said, "The shit that used to work-
It won't work now." - Warren Zevon