Saturday, March 21, 2009

Thesis: Zack Snyder Fetishizes Blood

I waited a little while, but this week my curiosity got the better of me, and I went to see the Watchmen movie. Here's my take on it. It wasn't terrible, but it seemed to miss the point of Moore & Gibbons's comic in a lot of important ways. A lot of the comic's complexity had to be streamlined and flattened out for the film, and although Zack Snyder obviously had time to put a lot of stuff in slow motion—and to extend a number of quick melees into fight-scene set-pieces—many of the subtler parts of the book got sped up so that they didn't have time to register properly. (The revelation and decision on Mars might be the worst example of this.)

There were also things I liked about the movie—Rorschach's death was played remarkably well, for example—but mostly it felt to me overly faithful to the surface properties of the comic while completely missing its soul. I'd compare it to a note-for-note cover of, say, an early Elvis Costello song, played on "updated" instruments and sung by someone who doesn't speak English and is only repeating the sounds of the words phonetically. Maybe all the right sounds are there, but everything about the rhythm of meaning is screwed up.

And then there's the question of blood, which is the reason I've gathered you all here tonight. Moore & Gibbons's Watchmen has some brutal violence in it, especially considering the context of mid-'80s superhero comics it was written in. (Many more violent mainstream superhero comics would eventually emerge, but that hadn't happened so much yet.) And when people are hurt badly in the original Watchmen, they do bleed. But watching Zack Snyder's Watchmen, I got convinced that he thinks the human body is a highly pressurized balloon full of blood and bones. It's an alarmingly gory movie, and many of the bloodiest moments are actually places where Snyder and his screenwriters depart from the text they're otherwise following so faithfully.

For example: Big Figure's tubby henchman never gets removed from in front of Rorschach's cell; he's killed quickly so that he won't suffer when the other henchman cuts through the lock with an acetylene torch. No bloody stumps waved at the camera.

When Dan and Laurie are ambushed by the knot-tops in the alleyway, they fight back brutally—the book certainly gives the idea that the way superheroes survive their tussles is by fighting dirty—and there are probably some broken bones. But click this image to enlarge it, and see if you can find a compound fracture:

When Dr. Manhattan is "fighting crime" at Moloch's gambling den ("Dante's"), we don't see human debris splattered onto women's faces or the ceiling. In fact, I'd always assumed this guy was just getting a face full of nitrogen or something like that.

Similarly, when Dr. Manhattan is winning the Vietnam War for Nixon, we don't see him exploding any people. In fact, the trio of enemies in the foreground (uniformed here; in stereotypical conical hats in the movie) seem to flee in fear pretty successfully:

I'm not sure whether these changes are meant to make Dr. Manhattan seem more distanced from human morality (something that's supposed to happen gradually, not all at once, so placing that change in his past is a problem), or whether they're just meant to make him seem more dangerous, or more of a badass. Given some of the other aspects of the movie, I'm inclined to guess that Snyder's driven here by the cheapest and dumbest motives, but I could be wrong.

Similarly, there's more blood when Rorschach fights people. As a boy, Walter Kovacs bites the cheek of a boy who has been teasing him. (That's fruit juice on young Walter's face.) The cheek never splits open to gush blood.

The man who kidnaped Blaire Roche doesn't exactly get off easier in the book, but his demise seems to require a more cold-blooded detachment or dissociation from Rorschach. It's not a crime of passion. (Killing the dogs might have been.)

(In the movie, Rorschach tells the kidnaper that "dogs get put down" before he swings the cleaver. If anything, Chapter VI figures Rorschach, not the kidnaper, as being like a dog: in the panel right after he bites the other boy, two different speech balloons say he's "like a mad dog." And of course the split dog's head has the same fearful symmetry as a Rorschach blot.)

When Rorschach dispatches Big Figure in the prison bathroom, it's pretty clearly a death by drowning. As he walks out of the bathroom, Laurie tells him they shouldn't "dive head-first into things," and he answers:

Somehow, in Snyder's Watchmen, that turns into a seeping puddle of blood, not toilet water. (I hesitate to speculate how Snyder's Rorschach got that much blood out of Danny Woodburn.)

In these instances, I can really only guess that Snyder just thinks blood spatters are kewl, and that a badass super-vigilante would be even more awesome and extreme if he left a trail of bloody carnage.

Remember that flashy kung-fu sequence in the prison riot? Well, in the book, Dan and Laurie incapacitate most of the prisoners who are still alive after the riot by turning on the "screechers" in Dan's Owl-ship. These seem to give the prisoners nausea and headaches. So here's the kung-fu fight sequence from the original prison break:

That's some adrenaline-pumping action, isn't it? (Again, I think Snyder is mainly at pains to make his superheroes seem like badasses, instead of like out-of-shape middle-aged people with sharp minds, a bit of preparation, and some martial arts training.)

Oddly, there are a few scenes of blood in Moore and Gibbons's Watchmen that get played less brutally in Snyder's movie version.

One of them is the moment when Adrian Veidt is attacked by a gunman in his corporate offices. In the movie, Snyder's camera lingers over the bullet piercing Veidt's secretary's calf (in the book, she takes the bullet in the chest, and bleeds a lot). This is one of the few moments when his Matrix-style slow motion is justified by the tempo of the scene in the book. But look at how harshly the original Veidt handles his assailant, compared to the movie's quick, balletic strike:

My guess is that Snyder's Veidt doesn't hit as hard because he's never as athletic as the original Veidt. Snyder seems to want Veidt to be merely an effete ultra-rich celebrity, not a match for all comers in hand-to-hand fighting.

In fact, one of the other places where blood disappears in Snyder's adaptation is in Veidt's super-fast dispatching of Nite Owl in their "final battle."

That hurts. And in fact, that's the last moment when Dan tries any sort of attack against Veidt. (Rorschach keeps coming, and Veidt almost absent-mindedly neutralizes him several more times while Dan stands around, pats a cloth against his nose, and talks to Veidt.) In Snyder's vision of Watchmen, Nite Owl isn't pudgy around the middle, and is still able to imagine taking Veidt in a hand-to-hand fight. Moore's Nite Owl knows better than that.

And of course, there's one other scene in which the blood totally disappears.

Snyder shows us a few immolations in the climactic attack on New York, but the only aftermath we really see is architectural. What do you think that says about Snyder, or about his fetishization of blood?


Mike said...

Thanks for a thoughtful post about one of the elements of the Watchmen movie that bothered me the most--and I say that having enjoyed a lot of the movie, to my great surprise.

I was surprised not least because I saw about thirty minutes of 300 in a hotel room last May, and it was god-awful. I also was put off by the first Watchmen trailer, with its slo-mo indulgence and lack of spoken dialogue: two warning signs for a talkie trailer, in my book. My expectations of Snyder's Watchmen were low bordering on hostile.

But a number of things in the movie worked for me, even if I didn't see it as a necessary addition to the comic itself. But one thing I REALLY could have done with less of was precisely the ultra-violence. During the knot-top fight when Laurie (I think it was) broke the gang member's arm into a compound fracture, I was physically repelled, jerking back in my seat and involuntarily shielding my eyes (I think I even said "Good God!").

You see, by this point Snyder's visual fidelity to the comic had been emphasized to SUCH a great extent that I never expected such gross excess beyond the sanction of Gibbons’s art. But you’re right that violence and big bangs are added repeatedly in the film. Two other examples, which I’ve also seen mentioned elsewhere online, are the crushing destruction of Eddie Blake’s apartment (with his nigh superheroic punching through a wall and breaking a stone counter with his FACE) and the Owlship rescue of the residents trapped in the burning apartment building, where the exploding fireball that “threatened” Laurie was the definition of gratuitous.

I can actually imagine a more enjoyable fan-edit of Watchmen (kind of like the version of The Phantom Menace I heard about that relieves that film of Jar-Jar Binks), which would trim the worst of the violent additions (and take Dan out of Rorschach’s final scene, where he never belonged). I admit I am somewhat curious, now, to see just what gets added back into the film in the inevitable director’s cut DVD, but I worry it might be little more than a lot of extra ultra-violence.

As for the fetishization of blood, one of my film-studies colleagues has mentioned a theory of human fluids on film as a real index of what viewers seem to crave in terms of a physical response to what unfolds onscreen: blood in horror movies, tears in dramas (or, well, tear-jerkers), and cum in porn. So if Snyder’s into horror instead of porn (and his first movie would suggest as much), then yeah, blood’s the fluid of choice for his money shots.

Mike said...

Oh, one other thing: you actually CAN see some Viet Cong getten blown up in that large-Doctor Manhattan panel, but they're not in the foreground. Check out the little black silhouettes on the ground near where Doctor Manhattan is pointing.

Mike said...

Oh, one other other thing: the word is not "getten" but "getting" (where did "getten" come from? "Gotten," via the influence of "Manhattan"? Yeesh...).

Isaac said...

Still, that panel makes him like a walking avatar of napalm and agent orange, not a personally cruel Shiva or Jehovah. They're getting burned by the fire he starts, not individually blown to smithereens.

Mike said...

Well, I might want to quibble a bit about that: you can see what appear to be fragments of tree flying off at unlikely angles for merely burned-up branches, and at least one of the silhouettes (on the far right) is being flung into the air; so even if he personally isn't being blown up, there is some concussive force very near him.

However, that's just a quibble. My more important comment is to agree with your general point about Snyder's treatment of Doctor Manhattan the "crimefighter" by adding that the way the blood splatters all over the women in the club is of course a translation into gore terms of the facial cumshot beloved of pornographers. (Which perhaps you were delicately refraining from spelling out so bluntly, in which case I apologize for coarsening the discourse on the blog.)

Bully said...

Excellent post; well thought-out and detailed with panels that are the proof of the pudding.

Mmmm, pudding.

Tom K said...

Hey this is a great analysis! I think that it's worth noting that Zack Snyder is a horror director trapped in a super hero movie. His production company is named 'Cruel and Unusual Films' after all. I wonder if part of the adaptation wanted to use horror elements to 'mature' the film... the way the comic 'matured' super-heroes?? It clear that Snyder fetishizes blood, but I think the places where (as you point out) he toned down the blood are much more interesting. Why does he tone those scenes down? Does he secretly agree with Veidt's solution to the war? By de-horror-fying the ending does he make Veidt's crime less appalling? Maybe that's one reason he needed to include a 'noooo' shouting Nite Owl to Rorschach's death scene? Otherwise we wouldn't feel as bad...? Anyway, I think you're onto something interesting...

Tom K said...

Crap that was a badly written comment. "part of the adaptation wanted to use" should read "the reason the adaptation used" ... ugh

Isaac said...

I guess I've convinced myself that there are three reasons Snyder toned down the blood and brutality in those scenes I quote last:

1. He wanted to make Nite Owl a tougher, more potent, more Batmannish (Batmacho?) superhero, so he kept Veidt from rendering him inert with a salad-bowl lid. That's consistent with a lot of the other alterations around Nite Owl.

2. He wanted Veidt to seem more effete, less macho. I'm not sure why, though I've read a lot of people who suggest that Snyder's a bit of a homophobe, and his characterization of Veidt does seem to play up Rorschach's offhand remark about Veidt's possible homosexuality. Personally, I think making Veidt a little androgynous in a David Bowie way works well, but I don't think that should make him any less fearsome in a fight.

3. Complicated problems with showing scenes of mass slaughter in Manhattan. Watchmen's ending really relies on a pre-9/11 mindset, in part for its shock and in part for the reader's willingness to imagine that the fear of future devastating attacks would usher in a new utopia. (From our moment in the present, we know that the new regime powered by such fear isn't one of hope for the future, but consolidated power in the executive branch, extended fearmongering, civil rights abuses, and so forth.) For the purposes of the plot's resolution, if for nothing else, Snyder can't afford to shock us out of the mid-'80s mental framework by reminding us of 9/11.

Also, the carnage that looked garish and expressionistic in the comic would inevitably wind up looking like a real mass grave in the movie, and I think even Snyder might not have wanted to go there.

Peter Knox said...

Well said. With the movie fresh in my mind after a recent DVD viewing, I do say you are accurate in all of your comparisons here, with the biggest changes centering around these instances of blood on/off (like in Mortal Kombat game mode settings).

Synder did seem to play up every chance he got to utilize gore/blood for shock/spectacle factor. I believe he wanted this movie to be thought of a really truly brutal and R Rated. He's coming off Frank Miller projects, with A LOT of excess blood. Every scene here seems like an excuse to sensationalize the action - what any director would do in a 'super hero movie' with limited action.

But it diverts from the source materials in a distracting way to people, like us, that care (and that he seemingly tried making the rest of the movie for). A small concession to the crowd easily wowed by lots of blood.

I mean, 'Big Figure' didn't have close to that much blood in his entire body.

Duy Tano said...

"mostly it felt to me overly faithful to the surface properties of the comic while completely missing its soul. I'd compare it to a note-for-note cover of, say, an early Elvis Costello song, played on "updated" instruments and sung by someone who doesn't speak English and is only repeating the sounds of the words phonetically. Maybe all the right sounds are there, but everything about the rhythm of meaning is screwed up."

I wish I saw this post a year ago, because this is exactly how I felt.