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

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