Thursday, July 31, 2008

Movies That I Wish Were Not Coming Out

There are lots of movies -- classic, current, in production, hypothetical, and impossible -- that I have no desire to see. (And lots of interesting-looking ones that I look forward to seeing, natch.) But it takes a special something extra not only to not want to see a film, but to actively wish that the film in question didn't exist -- or, since all three seem to be movies in production (at the very least, not yet released), wish that they would somehow derail before their public debut.

Three such have recently crossed my attention: one I knew about, and have been long dreading; the other two are news to me.

The one I am least sure about -- one which I can imagine I might even end up liking -- is Oliver Stone's forthcoming biopic about George W. Bush, "W". Stone is, of course, a leftie, and the description hardly looks like an exoneration. Yet somehow I wish he wasn't doing it. Partly because it seems that the film will, inevitably, make Bush overly sympathetic just by focusing on him (just as it will, even more inevitably, not give full due to the stories of his victims). Even more, it's because I think it will portray Bush's vast clusterfuck of a presidency in a way that trivializes the roots of the scope of its disaster: it seems inevitable that the film will adopt the tempting (but ultimately both false and exculpatory of the true agents) analysis that Bush was simply incompetent, ambitious above his station, or misled by sinister advisers (i.e. Cheney) When, in fact, the roots of the Bush disaster are comparatively little in his (admittedly vast) incompetence and lie far more in the fact that he was a conservative president with a conservative (for 3/4 of his term) and compliant (for all) congress, and thus he implemented conservative policies with a free hand and unquestioning heart. To make Bush a Shakespearean figure, even if a fool, both overstates his personal importance and prepares the grounds for future disaster. (And I fear Stone, given his tendency to see Shakespearean tragic figures in recent Presidents,* will in fact try to play him as a tragic figure -- a Macbeth overcome with "vaulting ambition", an Othello naive in his trust of foul advisers, and a [were any Shakespearean protagonists simply incompetent?].) But above all, I am simply sick of this foul man and hope to think of him after January 20 only in the context of the news about his war-crimes trials and the ongoing revelations about the true depths of his administration's depravity due to congressional hearings and the like.** And I resent Stone for drawing my attention back to Bush, above all in what I suspect will be an (albeit probably only marginally) exculpatory context.

The one that is the most clearly idiotic (to the degree that even Hollywood executives*** should have been able to see it) is the forthcoming sequel to the brilliant film Donnie Darko, "S Darko", about the grown-up adventures of Donnie's little sister Samantha, featuring meteorites and a rabbit.... no, sadly, I am not kidding, although I admit that when I first saw this on Wikipedia I thought (and hoped) that someone was playing a joke on that easily-marked internet institution. But no. Someone really thought that this was a good idea. (And not Richard Kelly, the director of the original film, who might at least have won a hearing if he wished to make such a film.) I presume I don't have to spell out the true stupidity of this idea to anyone who has seen the original film; for the rest of you... go see it, before its existence is polluted by a terrible sequel. It's a great movie, one that bears repeated re-watching, at once a great SF film and a great portrait of daily life in a 1988 suburban family. But the idea of a sequel, at all, is silly; and this idea... well, it's worthy of having been come up with by the Bush administration, put it that way. Anyway, while this has started filming (according to Wikipedia), it seems farthest from the screen of any of the three, so let's hope that something goes wrong and it crashes and burns before ever being finished.

Finally, the one I have been long dreading: the forthcoming film of Watchmen, a graphic novel which I continue to maintain (in the face of a surprising number of detractors given its safely canonical status) is one of the great works of art of the second half of the Twentieth Century, and certainly of the new and exciting medium it helped usher into existence. But Alan Moore has a very bad track record of having filmed versions of his work, which range from the unspeakable to the middling, but which have never yet come close to the genius of his original works: partly because his instincts are so anti-Hollywood, partly because his work is so tied into its medium (both that of comics and his original language) as to be unfilmable. As I wrote a year ago tomorrow, "It can't possibly be any good, and will simply tarnish a great book with whatever dirt rubs off due to its memetic proximity." Unfortunately, in our culture, film versions of books tend to swamp the imagination, inevitably coloring the original works, usually to the detriment of the latter. And this is a book that I hate to see tarnished.

Based on the trailer (warning: visual-imagination pollution at the link), it looks like a lot of the film will be visually close to the graphic novel... although the exceptions are truly horrific (Silk Spectre's costume? And who is that twelve-year-old boy they got to play Ozymandias?) But even if they maintain the basic story and themes of the book - and is thus simply mediocre rather than actively abominable (and the latter still seems like a distinct possibility) I find it practically impossible that the film will be as brilliant as a movie as Watchmen was as a comic. Watchmen was a brilliant use of the medium, expanding it in dozens of ways (and directions). Thus even a good film will necessarily betray the original work. But can the film, from a major studio, really be faithful to the subtle critique of power of the original work (let alone to its characterizations, the beauty of its language, the humor of its pastiches...)? Nah. At best it'll be a film with the subtly of a decent superhero movie like Dark Knight (which I liked, but didn't love): that is, good in comparison to the majority of the recent outings of the genre but hardly on a par with what Watchmen was and is. And at worse? I shudder to think.

Of all the films on this list, Watchmen is the one I suspect I'll end up seeing. But I wish I didn't have the option: I wish I'd never seen the trailer: because I wish that they had continued to fail to make it (as they did, actively, for years). For what it's worth, Alan Moore agrees with me on this -- wishes the film hadn't been made -- and apparently talked Terry Gilliam (the one director one can almost imagine doing justice to it) out of doing it on the (valid) grounds the book was unfilmable.

In ancient Athens, the citizens practiced Ostracism, voting certain citizens "off the island" (to mix the historical and the recent), which meant their 10-year banishment from the city. As a free speech absolutist, I would never recommend, nor support, any equivalent for works of art. But I wish that the only restraints that freedom can tolerate -- self-restraint, reasoned criticism, and wisdom -- had worked in all three of these cases. And -- despite the odds against it, at least in some of these cases -- I wish all of them quick disappearances from the box office, and a quick passing from public memory.

* I remember Stone saying in interviews that he saw Nixon as a Shakespearean figure, undone by his own character; and he clearly saw JFK's assassination as a tragedy for the country. Interestingly, in doing those two Sixties presidents, he has failed to portray the one president in modern times whose life actually holds good material for a Shakespearean-style tragedy, Lyndon Johnson (probably because seeing the tragedy is precluded by his "JFK's death destroyed everything" worldview).

** Hey, we've all got our fantasies...

*** Assuming, that is, that they are as stupid and venal as they are so often portrayed as being in the movies... a fact for which the existence of S. Darko gives a certain amount of evidence.


Michael A. Burstein said...

While I tend to agree with you about how much Watchmen depends upon the comic medium to tell the story best, I admit that I am looking forward to and really hoping for the film.

And the fact that interest in the film is causing sales of the collection to skyrocket is, in my opinion, a good thing.

Anonymous said...

Stephen, I'm 100% with you on "Donnie Darko," which is one of my very favorite films of all time, to the bewilderment of a lot of my friends. It's not everybody's sort of movie. I don't know what the hell they're thinking with the sequel, although I'm glad to learn Richard Kelly isn't involved. Curious: do you have an opinion on the original vs. director's cut? (Course you do!)

Haven't read Watchmen yet but was thinking about doing so before the movie comes out, so I can judge that in an informed sort of way. And I don't care how "W" turns out, nothing is going to get me to see that.

Anonymous said...

I am too cynical to be much more than amused at Alan Moore's recitutude, but Grant Morrison had some comments that depart from the usual:

"In the face of how incredible this stuff looks, (I saw the jaw-dropping trailer sequence as well as various other scenes) it seems a real shame that Alan Moore has artfully painted himself into the fundamentalist corner from which he now shakes a Goth-be-ringed fist at the world; stubborn, intractable, railing against his own personal Phantom Menace, across his own counter-culturally-approved lines in the sand.

"In any other world, he’d have every right to be astonished and delighted by what these young filmmakers have done with his and Dave Gibbons’ work. His enquiring mind would surely be intrigued, if nothing else, by the strange, luminous soil in which his thought-cuttings have been recultivated as breathing, moving things.

"In fact, the crystalline, kaleidoscopic, hi-def hyper-reality he imagined is right here, onscreen. The eye-blistering, infinite depth-of-field detailing that CGI allows in every shot might almost have been created with WATCHMEN’s miniature, contained, and semantically-dense world in mind. Moore has a lot to be grateful for and a nice big smiley face might be appropriate.

" ‘Watchmen’, the movie, is startling to look at and I guarantee open mouths and a standing ovation when the previews play at the San Diego Comic-Con next week.

"It’s pretty obvious the supermen don’t need comics anymore; with ‘Watchmen’ and ‘The Dark Knight‘ (a brace of titles to conjure with), we’re looking at the true beginnings of the New Age of Superheroes, reborn, where they belong, on the silver screen, into light."

Stephen said...

Michael: I understand where you're coming from, but obviously don't share your view -- I suspect we'll just have to agree to disagree on this. Basically, I can't imagine that the film won't be a debasement of the book, and that saddens me. Obviously I'm glad if people are, in fact, buying the book in greater numbers (I hadn't heard that), but I would rather it plug along on its own.

Anonymous: Grant Morrison has, I think, some sort of beef or rivalry with Moore -- it's been teased in his comics a few times -- so he's hardly an unbiased source here. But setting that aside, I'll simply say I disagree with him, and (more or less) agree with Moore, and leave it at that. (I think Moore's a bit extreme about matters, but I fundamentally agree that I wish the film wasn't being made.)

Matthias: I don't know whether to be flattered or disconcerted about the notion that I of course have an opinion about the director's cut -- the former, I guess, since if I were the latter I'd have to root out my personality by the roots; it's too deep. But the fact is I don't have an opinion, since despite multiple viewings of the film I've only ever seen the director's cut. (I was a latecomer to the film, obviously.) I've heard the original gives less away, to the point of literal unparsability lacking stuff on the web site... Speaking abstractly, I like hard-to-interpret art, but I am dubious about the idea of art that requires extra-artistic sources like web sites (unless that's telegraphed pretty clearly up front). But again, I haven't seen the original. Given how much I like the version I have seen, I should netflix it one of these days; but haven't yet. (What do you think: is it worth going back and seeing the original after multiple viewings of the director's cut?)

Oh, and I strongly encourage reading Watchmen before seeing the film -- or in any case: it's a great book (although a bit of its shock value is probably lost due to its influence in the culture: some of what was new then isn't unique anymore). But it's still terrific. My analysis of the first page is here, just to whet your appetite.

Thanks for reading, all.


Stephen said...

PS: But thanks for citing & linking to Morrison's comments, anonymous: always interesting to hear another perspective.