Richard Harter’s World
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April 2009

Watchman – the movie

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

I do. Juvenal’s famous query is often translated as “Who watches the watchmen?” I have seen the movie twice; I would see it many more times if it were not for the inconveniences of central South Dakota. In my authoritative and completely unbiased opinion it is one of the few very great movies. You might well disagree but you would be wrong.

I have put it this way; there is no way that anyone would have conceived of making a movie like this if it were not for the book. And the book is unique, a work of genius. Watchmen has an intensity and complexity that is rare in movies – the average Hollywood movie has the philosophic depth of a shallow puddle of water. What passes for profundity in Hollywood is emotional superficiality coated with wonderful pictures. Why this is so is a good question. At a guess it is because it is all too easy for the celebrated to confuse celebrity with wisdom. If your life is built around creating convincing and satisfying illusions, depth is lost in the gloss, and the counterfeit cannot be distinguished from the real.

So much for the cheap sneer. No movie review is complete without it.

There is no real point in my writing a critical review of either the movie or the graphic novel – others have done it at greater length and depth than I ever could. Instead I will content myself with disconnected observations.

One of the questions that the movie presents to the reviewer is what to makes of a narrative in which there is no well defined protagonist. Robert Heinlein once listed a few basic plots. I don’t recall what they were but these will do instead:

  • Man against nature
  • Man against himself
  • The little tailor
  • The man who learned better
  • Boy gets girl
I dare say my readers could produce a few more basic plots. Still, that little list covers a large share of literature. One thing that is quite noticeable in that list (other than the sexism) is that all but the last has but a single protagonist. That is the default; most books have a single protagonist or else a pair of protagonists in a love story. Even then, one of the pair often dominates the narrative.

Why is this? One reason, the most obvious, is that the reader/viewer has somebody to identify with, someone whose eyes we see through. A second reason, also obvious, is that narratives with well defined protagonists are easier to construct and easier to tell. Writers being mischievous folk, are wont to play with the possibilities of narrative. Thus one can have first person and third person viewpoints. (Second person is reserved for tour de forces.) Viewpoints come with various degrees of omniscience. One way to achieve a narrative with multiple protagonists is to interleave several narratives, each with its own protagonist.

In the nature of things movies have simpler narratives than books. The reason is simple; there is less room for narrative. It may take hours to read a book or even days. There are books that cannot be properly read even within the span of a life time. I know of two personally – one is Finnegans Wake, the other is not. A movie, however, must be completed within a short period of time – most run less than three hours, many less than two. Moreover, a scene that occupies a paragraph in a book will take precious minutes in a movie.

So, most movies have a handful of characters with a leading man and a leading lady. The Oscars honor that reality. Watchman is not such a movie. There is one principal female character who is a leading lady by default. There are several male characters, none of whom is really a leading man (unless you are into large blue phalluses.) We don’t identify with the characters – at least I hope not. I have a horrid image of a small boy saying, “I want to be like Rorschach when I grow up.”

So who or what is the protagonist? We have choices. One way to think of the book and the movie is to think of it as a murder mystery with Rorschach as the detective. He discovers who murdered the Comedian and brings him to justice, albeit posthumously. Another, one that I prefer, is that the story is an instance of a plot not on our list, a quite popular plot: Something really bad happens. The protagonist is the unfolding disaster itself. In this case, the disaster are the Watchmen themselves, as they try to save us from ourselves.

Someone, somewhere, observed that all comic book heroes and villains have a line that they will not cross – except Rorschach. Rorschach is like the Jon Brunner’s Traveler in Black – he has but a single nature. One of the defining moments occurs at the end in the following exchange:

Nite Owl: Rorschach, wait! Where are you going? This is too big to be hard-assed about! We have to compromise …

Rorschach: No, not even in the face of armageddon. Never compromise.

When Rorschach is captured and sent to prison, there are a lot of prisoners who are out to get him. He warns them, “None of you understand. I’m not locked up in here with you. You’re locked up in here with me.”

The question presents itself: Are there people like Rorschach out there? Indeed, what does it mean to be “like Rorschack”. It is easy enough to say that he is a psychopath. Still, your ordinary psychopath is into personal gratification rather than moral absolutism. Most people into moral absolutism are human on the side.

Q: What was his crime?
A: He dispensed justice.
R: Horrors. There is no punishment severe enough for such a crime.

In the movie there are two scenes where Laurie and Dan wipe out entire mobs who are attacking them. I was reminded of the time in Drakon when Gwen first appears in our world; she arrives in the middle of a drug deal.

Gwen landed, letting her weight drive her down into a crouch, then came erect. Poised. Began the movements of a dance taught her long when she was first trained for war.

The Human-Killing Dance.

Laurie and Dan did the dance; it wasn’t the killing dance, merely the disabling dance. In our world we have dancing with the stars; in theirs, dancing with the superheroes.

“Laurie, I’m 65. Every day the future looks a little bit darker. But the past, even the grimy parts of it … well it just keeps getting brighter all the time.” — Sally Jupiter

One of the things that we are left to speculate about is whether the great lie becomes undone. Rorschach’s journal gets published by a little right wing newspaper. The journal ends before Rorschach and Nite Owl learn the truth about what Veidt is up to. Perhaps what happens is that the big lie never gets exposed, but the conspiracy theories swirling around the journal do the same job. Nothing ever ends, after all.

Not even this review….

This page was last updated April 4, 2009.

Richard Harter’s World
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April 2009