Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Under the Hood

Watchmen (1986 - 87)

Malin Akerman is Silk Spectre II.

THE seminal text of the comic book medium, Watchmen - written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons - reflects contemporary anxieties, deconstructs the concept of the superhero, and is a masterpiece of power, corruption and human frailty. The story takes place in an alternate 1980s United States, where the country is edging to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Closely mirroring modern society, the main point of divergence is the presence of outlawed costumed vigilantes. Moore intended the characters of Watchmen to be ambivalent, a set of people who - although dressed as "four-colour heroes," would be poignant and touching in the real world. The crime fighters have complex psychological profiles: beneath his ever-changing mask, Rorschach is a sociopath loner, the gadget-dependent Nite Owl is impotent, and Dr Manhattan - the only character who genuinely possesses superpowers - is a blue demi-God who appreciates humanity only on a subatomic scale.

The description of Watchmen as "grim and gritty" is greatly overused; after all, even at the start of the 60s, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby tried to create more tangible characters. What Watchmen did do was to create a whole new way in which comic books could tell a story through dense layers of symmetrical reference and inter-linking companion pieces. Utilising the nine-panel grid which echo both EC and the feverish layouts of Steve Ditko, each page gains a sense of control and, as Gibbons states, "authority." The story offers a simultaneous world view, exploring new possibilities on how we perceive interaction in an increasing ambiguous, "rudderless world." The irony is that this work - which aimed to break the stranglehold of the superhero genre in American comics - actually lead to the market leaders forcing their own mainstays through epic scenarios (DC's Kingdom Come, Marvel's Earth X et al).

Alan Moore shows how reality can be deadlier than Kryptonite.

Zack Snyder’s fan boy film version WATCHMEN is awash with retro production design and lifted dialogue, with no expense spared to visualise every frame. Yet it is ultimately undone by its own reverence; there is simply no room to breathe, making the film bloated and unfocused. For all its considerable visual accoutrements, this is a release that still finds the need for voiceover monologues, and a long-winded villain declamation similar to so many B-movies. The one major alteration to the graphic novel (dropping the Space Squid as a means to unite the world against the nuclear threat in favour of blaming Dr Manhattan) actually improves upon the comic's weakest idea, and there is also a priceless image where the final transformation of Rorschach is a blot on the Antarctic snow.

But the main problem is Snyder himself. His "visionary" signature style is of a music video aesthetic, with little room for depth or momentum. His inability to manage dialogue forces scenes to be reduced to self-conscious zooms - into close-ups for crowd-pleasing one-liners - which only really work with Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley). The violent scenes also suffer from Snyder's fixation on speed shifts so spuriously used in his 300, turning the action into lethargic, over stylised set pieces. Comic book frames are not film storyboards; instead they capture characters in frozen fragments of time, where the reader can absorb and reflect - Snyder’s habit of interrupting action with slo-mo emphasises this. Watchmen is about power and violence: its questionable efficacy in solving global problems, and the animalistic thrill of crushing human beings. With the film luxuriating snapping bones, it is here that the gulf between comic and film becomes clear; the difference between purpose and glorification.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

If it Bleeds, It Leads

The Horror of Media Violence

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE has an abstract view of violence, creating an unreal loss of authenticity: even the rape scene has no feeling.

ON May 29th 2009 at Norwich Crown Court, a woman and two men were convicted of murdering a teenager who was tied to a tree, doused in petrol, and then burned alive in an alleged re-enactment of a scene from the spoof horror SEVERANCE. Literally fanning the flames to this horrid affair was a tangled love triangle, yet prosecutors and the media continue to blame film rather than society's increasing inability to deal with everyday emotion. Censorship cannot destroy an ideal; as Carl Sagan once said, "where we have strong emotions, we're liable to fool ourselves."

In 1991, the press blamed CHILD’S PLAY 3, released the same year, for having inspired the killing of two-year-old Jamie Bulger in Liverpool. Some papers claimed that the two boy murderers had viewed the film only days prior to their attack; others went so far as to draw conclusions to which scenes inspired particular acts of torture. Neither of the two minors had seen the movie, nor did the police investigation find any evidence that could have encouraged such a crime. In fact, Inspector Ray Simpson stated that "…If you are going to link this murder to a film, you might as well link it to The Railway Children". Yet many people remain certain it was the cause. In reality, the two boys are now walking around as free young men, with new identities, and being carefully looked after by the taxpayer.

Claudie Blakley shortly to become toast at the hands of the Flamethrower Killer in Christopher Smith’s playful horror, SEVERANCE.

The human brain reacts to certain stimulations, i.e. the neurosis caused by THE EXORCIST's blend of quiet passages and grating sound. Likewise, it seems that the films which leave the most powerful impressions on the unbalanced are those which depict a sudden outbreak of random violence. Most brutality is frenzied and not dependant on any particular time, place or circumstance; rather it is an unpredictable, elemental urge. Robert Sartin - a twenty-three-year-old Civil Servant - shot seventeen people and killed one person in Whitley Bay in 1989 because he was following instructions given to him by the killer in John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN. Sartin was found unfit even to stand trial by virtue of mental illness, and yet the crime was still described as being caused by Carpenter's cult classic (HALLOWEEN, in particular, is considered to have a harmful effect on the unstable for its sudden slathings set in a familiar, suburban setting ("death has come to your little town."))

The debate if motion pictures can create real-life violence has been so tediously overworked as to be virtually redundant. Any attempt to blame art for human behaviour quickly falls down when one considers that The Bible has inspired more acts of bloodshed than any other piece of literature, but is still remains openly revered. Film - like all art - should provoke and inspire, but cinema has been singled out because it is arguably the most influential of all the arts, and is certainly the form of choice for the younger generation from which most killers are drawn.

Copycat violence and death threats lead Stanley Kubrick to pull A CLOCKWORK ORANGE from circulation in Britain, though it continued to play freely around the world.

It is amusing how the media can assimilate their cause. The press has always found a way to categorise society ills through money-making propaganda and sensationalism - from the birth of tabloid journalism creating Jack the Ripper, to the Video Nasty phenomenon of the early 1980s. The media now have a much more fertile ground to breed their fear. If we fear, we can continue to consume and be made to do anything. Disturbing images of violent crime dominate news broadcasting, and as news competes with other media for audiences, many producers have come to rely on the maxim "If it bleeds, it leads."

Stanley Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE contains images that transcend the actual viewing experience. It functions on an almost operatic level; the director is pushing the boundaries for a hook that hits you somewhere between the heart and the head. Beginning with the hypnotic stare of Alex (Malcolm McDowell) straight to camera, the charming but appalling thug welcomes the viewer at an almost intimate level. Indeed, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE spoke to the people of 1970s Britain in a profound way, bringing an almost demonic portrayal of the day's civil unrests, Miner's Strikes, three-day weeks and blackouts. Reports of street gangs carrying out violence inspired by Kubrick's film was obviously welcomed with open arms by the press, but violence is a rite of passage for man, a pack mentality that rules in times of breakdown, in which sexual tensions are also sharpened. Despite the director's comments to the contrary, the film is a forecast - and we are edging closer to the abyss.