Monday, March 10, 2014

Never Compromise. Even in the Face of Good Taste, Never Compromise

First thing's first, I should explain why the Oscars post I had mentioned before hadn't happened.
This came down to two major factors:
First, timing. It just didn't pan out for this year.
The second, and more pressing, was realizing I had not seen several of the prominently nominated films, and couldn't do so in a short period of time. As such, I felt my weighing in on these matters wouldn't be a particularly fair ruling.
That said, the awards themselves I was mostly satisfied with. The ceremony got kind of tedious at points, and there are a couple of wins I found a little iffy, but overall I was pleased - particularly with the Best Picture win.

Now then, on to the main point of this article.

There's been something of a small storm brewing on the internet over the past week. The funny thing is that the storm is over an item that's been out there and easily accessible for years now (the document in question, I first read years ago.)

To roll the timeline back accordingly, this storm started brewing recently care of an interview with producer Joel Silver. In the interview (courtesy of ComingSoon,) Silver discussed several of his projects before they decided to bring up the unfilmed Terry Gilliam adaptation of Watchmen. Silver, when asked, assured he felt it would be a much better movie than the later version helmed by Zack Snyder, who he argued came at it too slavishly (a comment I'll also be discussing here, but one thing at a time.) The full extent of this movie has remained something of a mystery over the years - though Silver points to it using an early draft (which you can find with a Google search fairly easily) by Sam Hamm (perhaps better known to comic fans for his work on Tim Burton's Batman.) The draft in question is... rather problematic. It takes a LOT of liberties with the material, particularly with the ending - which, as its presented, suggests Hamm became bored with the comic mid-way into chapter 11 and decided to turn to LSD for inspiration. It's a rather overtly meta finale, and I don't imagine it would have gone over particularly well.

Despite the fact that Silver concludes by saying he thought Snyder's version was fine, it seems that Snyder was still stung by the comments. Given he sees Watchmen as his best work (and the web suddenly feels even less guilty than it already did about savaging Sucker Punch) he decided to respond in an interview with The Huffington Post. The interview contains comments that are best described on the web as 'shots fired.' Most notably, his assertion that he made Watchmen to, and I quote "save it from the Terry Gilliams of the world."

Zack...Zack, you may want to rethink that statement. You're already on some pretty thin ice in the nerd community for...just about everything you've done so far with Man of Steel 2. Taking on a fan favorite like Terry Gilliam right now is like jumping up and down on said ice in cleats while singing the Heat Miser song (...this last part wouldn't really affect much, but it'd certainly emphasize the 'What in the everloving Hell are you doing?' factor by a considerable margin.)

With the debate having flown through and the dust settling (for now), I inevitably felt the need to get some two cents tossed into the hat.

The weird thing was, as I thought about this more - and slept on this half-completed writeup - the more I found I wasn't that annoyed with Snyder in this equation.

Sure, his interviews give the sense of a man who's fairly full of himself. And to be perfectly frank, I think he never quite got Watchmen as a story (I'll explain below). At the same time, the more I looked at this drama, I found my ire being aimed at a mix of producer Joel Silver and the internet and media for taking the man at his word.

Before I go on, I will ask - does anyone readily have any source that says that Terry Gilliam expressly intended to use the Sam Hamm draft of Watchmen as his shooting script, beyond what Silver said?

Because I've been looking, and what I've seen has so far been to the opposite effect. On a bit more digging, the consensus is that Gilliam was actually NOT happy with Hamm's draft of the movie, and had been working on doing a rewrite to bring it more in line with the original comic when the project fell through. If someone can provide evidence otherwise, then fine, I'll accept it. As it is though, nowhere have I seen any word that Gilliam was okay with this ending beyond the statement of Joel Silver.

Joel, to be perfectly and completely honest with you. I have a hard time accepting your word on this. Ironically, because the last time you said anything about an Alan Moore production, it turned out to be a, if I may be so blunt, steaming load (as evidenced here.) In fact, memory serves, THAT little distortion of the truth turned into the final straw that lead to Moore finally just completely washing his hands of all adaptations of his work and even going so far as to tell them to give what would have been his cut of the movie to the artist he worked on the comic with instead.
So you see where I'm coming from here, Joel? You have a history of having put words in other people's mouths before. So seeing Snyder now taking shots at Gilliam because of a seemingly less than accurate thing you said REALLY doesn't look good for you here.

Further, both the media and the web are really letting me down here. For every person I've found who has pointed out that the story actually seems to have been contrary to what Silver is claiming (some even offering sources, including one citation from the book The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made that included information on the adaptation) there has been no fewer than five taking the man at his word. Which shouldn't bug me as much as it does, because sadly we live in an age where this is all too common (as anyone with any experience using social media can attest to) but one would think at least one of the news sites would do the research to clarify the statement. The clarification has instead come from commenters after the fact.

Not one news site has tried to check into this, simply taking this man - who I must again point out has outright lied to the press before - at face value.

I could probably go on about the overall sloppiness of this in length, but that feels like it's better kept as a write-up for another time.

So for now, I'll just leave this point at this - Joel, you've pissed off one creator, and indirectly kicked off a beef with another. In the future, it's probably best if you don't speak for other people's intentions unless you're willing to back them with some source.

Now as for Snyder...oooooh boy...
Well, I have a couple of points to say with regards to Snyder's part in all of this.

The first is with regards to the arguments, by both Snyder and Silver, that Snyder's version of Watchmen is overly faithful to the book. not a statement I'm sure I can entirely agree with. It certainly puts itself through a number of hoops to capture the visual style, and I will at least give it points for that.

Likewise, the story matches many of the beats in the book, even taking some of its soundtrack cues from the references in the comics (though inexplicably trading out 'You're My Thrill' for Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah', and giving us one of the most inadvertently comical sex scenes this side of Caligula.) The problem is, the faithfulness is really only in the superficial sense - which is particularly problematic given the book in question. When you look at the reasons that Watchmen was and is still considered the iconic story it is, the visual style, while on the list, is a relatively low component. Instead, it's the story's 'shades of grey' exploration of the true nature of the comic book superhero and its almost 'designed by a mad man' level of arrangement and layout (the chapter 'Fearful Symmetry' remains one of the prime examples of this attention to detail.) It's a very dense, very detailed, and very well designed story that lead many to believe the work unfilmable for years.

Snyder, for his part, makes a decent go of it, and he recaptures the visuals perfectly, but he ultimately seems to miss out on a lot of the heart of the story. It's not just the ending (though I do have to say, if you think the ending debate is just a matter of squid vs Dr. Manhattan, you've missed the point) it's that the whole movie loses a LOT of the careful details and layout that made the story so unique. Rereading it last year, I was actually struck by the fact that several sequences in it would translate quite well to film (scenes like the detectives examining Blake's apartment, with cuts to the fight as they examine the room, or Dan and Laurie's getting into a street fight intercut with Dr. Manhattan's press conference are the kind of moments that could be an editor's wet dream.) Many of those scenes in Snyder's movie lose the impact they had in print - ironically, if he had been as 'slavishly faithful' as Silver asserts and Snyder stands by, these scenes would carry much more memorably, since they'd keep the, if you'll excuse the phrasing, 'like clockwork' editing that hits each beat with a surprising sense of timing. As it is, his version plays the scenes in summary, but doesn't really seem to get the feeling behind them.

Of course, more damning than composition, he seems to miss the point of the story when it comes to how he handles Moore and Gibbons's free-wheeling moral compass.
Yes, he TECHNICALLY keeps the moral dilemma in the movie, but the movie still takes a side.

Things like how Ozymandias is depicted: his uniform and Karnak are dark and cold, and Matthew Goode plays him with a downright frosty detachment that flies pretty far past the good-natured condescension that he views his colleagues with in the original material. For a character who is supposed to be seen as an extreme criticism of the superhero way of handling things, he's turned into more of a straight-up villain. On the other side of the coin, we have how the film depicts Rorschach (who, I have to admit, I think Jackie Earl Haley does a pretty good job with.) Where Veidt comes across as more openly evil, which is something no one is really supposed to give off in this narrative except MAYBE The Comedian, Rorschach has several of his harder edges softened -with much of his reputation for torture and murder left on the cutting room floor. In particular, the kidnapping story, an event which is supposed to symbolize the character's complete crossing to the point of no return is severely muted, going from a protracted torture and murder to a simple act of angry homicide, complete with a faux-Batman one liner that was never in the original text. It actually feels a bit harder to believe Rorschach's psychiatrist in the movie could be as disturbed as he is in the original (for those who haven't read the book, here's a hint: watch the ending of the original Mad Max.)

And, since I already touched on it, let's discuss that ending. Now, again, when people discuss the ending, the discussion usually becomes 'squid vs Manhattan.' While this is a factor, the problem is, that's not the big issue with the ending. The big thing about how Watchmen ends is less how Veidt succeeds, but that he succeeds. More important is how everyone responds to it, including Veidt himself. Remember, the big theme of the story, and where its title comes from, is the idea of who patrols superheroes and keeps them in line. In the end, there is no answer, as the two genuine superhumans in the story are both proven to be above the justice or morality of the average human (e.g. Dan, Laurie, and Rorschach.) One of these applies the classic 'superhero' logic on a global scale, essentially using his abilities to force the world to play nice. The other realizes the squabblings of normal humans no longer apply to him and leaves on his own. Of the three 'normal' people, two accept that they never really did accomplish much in costumes and return to the private sector, while Rorschach, unable to reconcile his own black and white morality with the actual way of the world, chooses death. When his time comes to die, the scene in question is meant to seem like the last act of a genuinely broken person who can no longer function in the world, and in the end, he dies alone and forgotten - a mere steaming smear on the snow. The movie then undermines this in Dreiburg's reaction: turning one man's tragic inability to function in the world into an act with a source of blame. The death galvanizes Dreiburg into lashing out at Veidt, and giving him a set of parting words that seem to be more for the benefit of the audience than any actual effect in the movie - even in the film to this point, Veidt views Dreiburg as little more than an angry child, so there really doesn't feel any point to rewriting for Dreiburg to have this tirade. By comparison, the conversation Veidt has with Dr. Manhattan, a scene the movie cuts, had considerably more weight - thanks in no small part to the fact it was coming from someone that Veidt considered an equal, who could further instill that sense of doubt in him. Further, this scene helps dispel a bit of the ability to see Veidt as a villain. In the movie, he views his act of mass murder with an almost clinical detachment. He says he weeps for everyone, but the way Goode plays it, it feels like lip service from a sociopath. In the comic, we see his genuine regret as well as his lingering doubts that further cast doubt on the ideas of who's right and wrong in the finale.

This is only a brief note and I could keep going. Really, the big problem with the ending is that, like it or not, it essentially tells you there IS still a right side in the matter, even if it's ultimately powerless - a notion that seems to run counter to the entire spirit of the book.

Those are just some examples, and I could keep going. Point is, yes, the movie is faithful in some regards, but it's nowhere near as slavish as it seems to be.
In general, I find myself classifying the Watchmen movie along the same lines as Tom Hooper's Les Miserables adaptation. It has some things it does well, but at its core, it's hindered by an ultimately limited director who doesn't really do the material in question the justice that its reputation deserves.
Which brings me to my final point, regarding Snyder's implications about Gilliam.

Here's the thing - Gilliam is a man who's paid his dues. Over the years, he's developed a very distinct cinematic voice and put his name to any number of movies, both critically acclaimed and fan loved. The man helped helm the Monty Python films to great success, he gave us one of the best pieces of dystopian cinema to date in Brazil, a movie he had to fight the studios tooth and nail to make, and he currently is one of the only directors who can be said to have helmed a successful Hunter S. Thompson movie.

By comparison, Snyder's career has been rather rocky. He started out strong with a well received remake of Dawn of the Dead, and kept up the hype with 300. After that, however, Watchmen only performed decently - especially given the profits had to be split due to the rights conflict that preceded its release - and Sucker Punch flat out bombed. Even with his comeback on Man of Steel, he's being met with a lot of mixed reception, and his movie making several 'worst of 2013' lists.

Snyder, there's no nice way to say it. By comparison, you're still just getting started. You haven't really played the game enough to be able to fling dirt and Gilliam and have it actually stick. I'm not gonna say you never will be (Editor's note: He won't), but you've got a LOT of growth as a filmmaker to do before you can call a man with his voice and drive out.

Also, with regards to one other comments in the interview, I don't think time would have helped Watchmen. Snyder asserts that 2009 was, in his words, "sort of the height of the snarky Internet fanboy - like, when he had his biggest strength." He figures THIS is the reason Watchmen never became a comic movie watershed on the order of Marvel's The Avengers or The Dark Knight. If anything, coming out post-Avengers might have actually hurt it, given how Marvel has caused everyone to step up their game in terms of comic book movies. It certainly seems like his own efforts are being prodded by DC's desperate drive to match the Marvel money train.
Further, I don't see how he figures the field really changed from before and after the Avengers. He argues comic culture is more established, but at the time Watchmen came out, the world had already seen the successes of Sam Raimi's Spider-man trilogy, Iron Man, and the first two Nolan Batman movies. I hate to break it to ya, Zack, but the culture was already there. Also, suggesting the 'snark' has gone down any only tells me you don't check the web that often. If anything, the internet has savaged your later movies far more than it did Watchmen.

...I'm gonna stop myself before I dissect the whole interview, cause like his movie, it has a lot that could be dug into and explored.
In conclusion, the two things I've taken from this incident:
1) Zack Snyder may want to dial back his ego a bit.
2) Joel Silver REALLY needs to stop speaking for other people. It doesn't go well.
Okay. Sorry about that guys. We'll be back to the reviews next time.

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