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Zack Snyder’s Orgasm Death Gimmick

March 13, 2009

I have always found my view of the genius perceived by others in Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1987) to be obscured by the looming presence of the bleeding obvious.  I respect the form, less so the matter.  Zack Snyder’s  Watchmen (2009) failed to turn this respect into love.  For most of the film I felt the adaptation so submissive and passive that I might as well have stayed at home and read the comic.  However, there are moments of greatness in Watchmen.  Moments that have very little to do with Alan Moore and a lot to do with Zack Snyder.  Moments when Snyder allows himself off the leash, and no… I am not talking about the stupid fight scenes.

In an essay entitled “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (1920), Freud argues that pleasure stems not from stimulation but rather a lack of stimulation.  The lack of stimulation that comes, for example, from taking off shoes that pinch your feet and the moment not of orgasm but the instant of satiation immediately after the orgasm but before post-orgasmic tristesse sets in.  If pleasure is the complete lack of stimulation then it follows logically that death is the ultimate pleasure and that the pursuit of pleasure is somehow also the pursuit of death.  Freud called this drive towards death Thanatos.  No film maker argues the case for the connection between pleasure and death more aggressively than Zack Snyder.

Premier Film Poster

Premier Film Poster

When Snyder’s 2007 adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 (1998) was released it provoked widespread fury and disgust from politicians and critics alike.  Leftist critics queued up to compare 300 to works of fascistic art and Nazi propaganda such as  Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will (1935) and Fritz Hippler’s The Eternal Jew (1940).  Meanwhile others saw it as racist and an attempt to incite war between the West and Iran.

I would argue instead that Snyder taps into the same neural circuitry as fascist art.  300 does not merely glamorise violence, it sexualises it.  From the rippling CGI abdominal muscles and leather shorts of the actors to the ballet of severed limbs, shattered bones, spurting blood and spears endlessly thrusting from groin-level, 300 is a film of such sensorial excess and grotesquely deformed physicality that after a while, as in most works of hardcore pornography, the images simply stop making sense.  Only the dilated pupils of the audience tell the truth about 300.  It is a film that speaks directly to the ancient reptilian parts of the brain.  The parts of the brain active in children but then broken upon the wheels of education and employment in order to fit humanity to the yoke of late stage capitalist democracy.  The parts of the brain that yearn for the gamey taste of human flesh between sharpened teeth or the screaming fury and bleeding scratches of a sexual conquest taken by force.  300 is a film that is so absurdly, incomprehensibly masculine that it reduces the Battle of Thermopylae to a gay psychodrama in which Xerxes – a seven foot tall pouting drag queen in gold lame hot pants and kohl eye make-up – commands a man in a leather posing pouch to kneel before him.  A dance of seduction with a three figure body count.  A love sonnet written in blood, semen and tears.

Snyder’s 300 speaks to a human nature driven by insane blind passions.  Passions all the more powerful and frightening for the fact that we keep them securely locked up.  Passions that surface in moments of intense sexual desire or the revenge fantasies of the mobs who hurl bricks through the windows of suspected paedophiles.  Snyder neither judges nor differentiates between these different passions and urges.  In fact, he sees them as all inter-connected.

Film Poster

Film Poster

The first instance of death-sex juxtaposition comes in Watchmen’s astonishing opening montage.  A series of vignettes from the history of masked vigilantism that easily outclasses anything in the original comic, the montage features the lesbian super-hero Silhouette grabbing a nurse and kissing her, taking the place of the sailor in Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous photograph V-J Day in Times Square.  Seconds later we are transported to the scene of Silhouette’s murder.  She is lying in bed next a a woman.  Both are dead.  “Lesbian Whores” is written on the wall in blood.

VJ Day in Times Square

VJ Day in Times Square

Snyder  also makes the sexual nature of the vigilante lifestyle quite explicit when he depicts The Comedian’s attempted rape of Silk Spectre.  The camera leers at Silk Spectre’s outfit, zooming in on her bustier and suspender belt (noticeably absent from the source material) as The Comedian walks in.  The initial unpleasantries dealt with, the camera treats The Comedian’s attempts to subdue Silk Spectre no differently to his attempts to subdue a criminal.  Fists fly back and forth.  Each connecting punch booms through the cinema’s sound-system.  The Comedian bends the Silk Spectre over the pool table, smashing her face into the felt and unbuckling his belt.  As Hooded Justice drags him away, the expression on Silk Spectre’s face is hard to read but it certainly is not the shame and terror you would expect from a woman who has just barely escaped being raped.  Given that she would later sleep with The Comedian, the suggestion floating in the air is that Silk Spectre regretted the intervention of Hooded Justice.  Seemingly the predictable justification of a rapist, The Comedian’s question as to why she dresses the way she does might be something more profound.  If Silk Spectre wears the uniform then she must understand.  The urge to mete out justice with one’s fists comes from the same violent and transgressive parts of the human condition as the urge to satisfy a passing sexual desire by force.  Sex and death.  Self-defence as foreplay.

Still from Film

Still from Film

These inter-woven thematic strands climax with the extended sex scene involving Laurie and Daniel.  Having failed to get it up earlier in the evening, Daniel wanders downstairs and is found standing naked in front of his array of Nite Owl suits.  Gingerly, the two decide to don their costumes again and head out as they once did.  After rescuing a load of people from a burning building and risking their lives, the pair try a second time and this time it works.  To the strains of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah Rhapsody” a spiked boot caresses a thrusting buttock, a full moon slides down the curve of a back arching with the first groan of penetration.  When the pair come they are joined by the Owl ship Archie who fires ropes of flames into the night sky.  Snyder book-ends the scene with images of death.  It begins with a naked couple kissing before being blown to pieces by a nuclear blast and it ends with the image of a man dying from hideous facial burns.  From the petite mort to the real thing.  Seconds later, a man is having his hands cut off outside Rorschach’s prison cell.

Of course, Snyder is not the first creator to bring sex and death together in this way.  In Naked Lunch (1959), William S. Burroughs wrote about what would become known as the ‘orgasm death gimmick’.  A film within a book, the gimmick describes a “blue movie” made by the Great Slashtubitch that departs from standard pornographic fare in order to cycle through a series of more and more shocking and repugnant images including the hanging of one of the scene’s participants :

MARY : “No, let me.”  She locks her hands behind Johnny’s buttocks, puts her forehead against him, smiling into his eyes she moves back, pulling him off the platform into space… His face swells with blood… Mark reaches up with one lithe movement and snaps Johnny’s neck… sound like a stick broken in wet towels.  A shudder runs down Johnny’s body… one foot flutters like a trapped bird… Mark has draped himself over a swing and mimics Johnny’s twitches, closes his eyes and sticks his tongue out… Johnny’s cock springs up and Mary guides it up her cunt, writhing against him in a fluid belly dance, groaning and shrieking with delight… sweat pours down her body, hair hangs over her face in wet strands.  “Cut him down, Mark,” she screams.  Marks reaches over with a sharp knife and cuts the rope, catching Johnny as he falls, easing him onto his back with Mary still impaled and writhing… She bits away Johnny’s lips and nose and sucks out his eyes with a pop… She tears off great hunks of his cheek… Now she lunches on his prick… Mark walks over to her and she looks up from Johnny’s half-eaten genitals, her face covered with blood, eyes phosphorescent… Mark puts his foot on her shoulder and kicks her over on her back… He leaps on her, fucking her insanely… they roll from one end of the room to the other, pinwheel and end-over-end and leap-high in the air like great hooked fish.

“Let me hang you Mark… Let me hang you… Please, Mark, let me hang you!” – Naked Lunch, page 82

In one of his introductions to the book entitled “Deposition : Testimony concerning a Sickness”. Burroughs addressed the issue of the obscenity of this passage and outlines what he was trying to achieve when he wrote it :

“Certain passages in the book that have been called pornographic were written as a tract against Capital Punishment in the manner of Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal. These sections are intended to reveal capital punishment as the obscene, barbaric and disgusting anachronism that it is. As always the lunch is naked. If civilized countries want to return to Druid Hanging Rites in the Sacred Grove or to drink blood with the Aztecs and feed their Gods with blood of human sacrifice, let them see what they actually eat and drink. Let them see what is on the end of that long newspaper spoon.” – Naked Lunch, page 205

Like many Bohemian and Beat authors, Burroughs is writing from what he perceives as a position of epistemic superiority to the mainstream of his culture.  He sees in capital punishment not the principled pragmatism of right, but a much older and darker set of urges.  Urges which once fed Christians to lions and saw Aztecs cut out the still-beating hearts of their prisoners.  The orgasm death gimmick, according to Burroughs, is a more accurate depiction of the true moral calibre of capital punishment; it is all about satisfying those dark and anti-social desires to see your enemies broken and murdered before you for your amusement.  Burroughs depiction of transgressive sexuality is very similar to that of Pier Paolo Passolini in Salo o le 120 Giornate di Sodoma (1976) or Fellini’s Casanova (1976).  Both films are about transgressive sexual behaviour.  In the case of Casanova, Fellini spends the entire film showing his sexual escapades to be empty and mechanistic.  The film chastises Casanova for his lack of sentiment and ends with Casanova trying to hump an automaton before dying lonely and isolated.  Salo is a screed against the use of the human body.  While it features acts of sexual depravity including paedophilia and coprophilia, it is resolutely unsexy.  Deprived of even the merest hint of eroticism, the film seems to attack the growing commercialisation and liberalisation of sex and the desensitisation of the masses not only to matters sexual but to the worst excesses of their own government.

Film Still

Film Still

Therein lies the reason why Snyder is so loathed by critics.

Traditionally, when film makers look into the darker corners of the human condition, they do so with a very clear moral agenda.  Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002) opens with a man being bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher while men masturbate frantically in the background.  It then moves on to an infamously brutal 9 minute scene involving the anal rape and brutalisation of a beautiful woman.  However, the point of the film is to get across a sense of fatalism and to morn the inevitable death and destruction of al beautiful things.  In that sense, the film is a tragedy.  In contrast consider a film such as Robert Clay’s The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael (2005), a story of disaffected youth that ends with scenes of graphic sexual sadism.  However, because Clay’s thematic landscape is an unreadable jungle, the film met with moral outrage from a sizeable chunk of the critical fraternity.

Zack Snyder differs from Burroughs, Noe and Passolini in so far as his depictions of the transgressive, the anti-social and the fetishistic are presented in an entirely sympathetic light.  Not only does Snyder fail to condemn Leonidas or Rorschach, he actually builds films around them that make them look like deeply moral and heroic men.  Snyder’s orgasm death gimmick is not deployed as a form of social criticism, it is deployed in order to pander to audiences with seemingly no higher artistic desire than to entertain and amuse.  Zack Snyder makes films that make us feel good about the absolute worst in us.

Ultimately where you stand on Zack Snyder must flow from what you view as the ultimate function of art.  For centuries the transgressive has been defended with that old medical wives’ tale “if It tastes bad then you know it must be doing you good”.  This line of argument has protected transgressive artists for generations but to my mind it is an unnecessary step backwards.  Artistic transgression is about destabilising the moral status quo.  It is about making people think twice about their principles and what it means to be human.  That act of destabilisation does not require the artist to provide an immediate alternative or a correct vision of what the correct moral order should be.  Snyder panders so efficiently to his audience that he shows them what they are really craving; as in the time Burroughs’ druids and Aztecs, human nature demands blood.  It demands strength.  It demands instant and guilt-less sexual gratification.  It demands that its needs be met and its pleasures indulged.  Snyder reminds us that we are the same humans who constructed Spartan society.  He reminds us that, but for a quirk of history, our streets would now be filled with costumed vigilantes.  By giving audiences precisely what they want, Snyder is showing them what they are and that is arguably more useful than a hundred films appealing to our better natures.

42 Comments
  1. March 16, 2009 9:37 am

    An excellent piece speculating upon the primal instincts that underpin civilisation. It reminds me of Freud’s suggestion regarding the First World War, that the ensuing carnage indicated less how far mankind had fallen, rather how little it had risen in the first place. Indeed, it is a subject that the popular philosopher John Gray has returned to repeatedly this past decade. When one considers the current economic freefall, and the tribal tensions that intensify world politics, the argument feels ever more solid. It’s unsurprisng then mainstream cinema is providing an ever more outlet for these deep anxieties about losing control over civilisation and destiny, be it Watchmen, 300 or The Dark Knight, to name a few.

    Anyway, great piece and I shall link to this it from my own Blog in the hope further readers find it.

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  2. March 16, 2009 10:31 am

    Thank you :-)

    I seem to remember that Gray has written quite a bit about Conrad and Straw Dogs so you can see why he might like these kinds of themes.

    I think the idea of humanity as a barely controlled collection of savages has lost some of its popularity because it’s a largely pre-scientific view. I don’t know of any psychologists who look at humanity in these terms. The closest there is to that kind of view is the ides that there is no self. It doesn’t predispose us to violence or savagery but it does suggest that the image we have of ourselves is utterly false.

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  3. March 16, 2009 12:25 pm

    It’s obviously not a popular suggestion but there are Scientists exploring the territory. New Scientist published this article ‘So You Think Humans Are Unqiue’ in 2008 which contended the distinctions between humans and animals are even harder to distinguish than previously imagined, as demonstrated by research conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Certainly food for thought….

    “THERE was a time when we thought humans were special in so many ways. Now we know better. We are not the only species that feels emotions, empathises with others or abides by a moral code. Neither are we the only ones with personalities, cultures and the ability to design and use tools. Yet we have steadfastly clung to the notion that one attribute, at least, makes us unique: we alone have the capacity for language.
    Alas, it turns out we are not so special in this respect either.”

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19826571.700-so-you-think-humans-are-unique.html

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  4. March 16, 2009 1:16 pm

    Boorman’s Excalibur does this too, and just as egregiously.

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  5. March 16, 2009 1:40 pm

    Richard — That is an interesting link. Thanks.

    Adam — Ooooh… you’re right. I haven’t watched that in ages. I was also thinking about Cronenberg’s History of Violence and Eastern Promises but I think he only does one side of the equation. He sexualises the violence as a means of making it clear to the audience that they’re voyeurs but he doesn’t make the case that supra-legal violence is motivated by sex.

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  6. March 16, 2009 4:54 pm

    In ‘History…’ Cronenberg certainly makes a link between sex and violence but you’re right, only to consider the consequences of one upon the other, not the primary motivations. However, ‘Eastern Promises’ does blur the boundaries between violence and sex if you consider the displacement of Cassell’s homoerotic lust for Vigo – I’m thinking of the nasty scene in the brothel when he forces him to screw a girl and then watches, the way he physically imposes himself on Vigo in playfights in the Cellar, aggressively embracing him. The culmination of this violent sexual tension that runs through the first half of the film is the orgasm of violence in the later bath scene, a bloody naked romp if ever there was one.

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  7. March 16, 2009 5:31 pm

    I certainly think that Cronenberg is going through a sex-and-violence phase at the moment. But I think he does do something quite different to Snyder. Agreed on the violent displacement activities though.

    History of Violence is one of the few films to genuinely shock me simply because I wasn’t prepared for the brutality of the violence and the intimacy of the sex. I have a lasting memory (I don’t know if it’s genuine) of the sex scene where she opens her thighs and you can see the indentation between the thigh muscles at the top of her inside leg. It’s not even a ‘naughty’ area because her crotch was covered but it amazed me as an incredibly intimate a part of the body to show it was. Even more intimate than porn which shoots the genitalia in a very specific way and tends to shy away from sagging muscles and adipose tissue.

    It amazed me that he’d found a way to make cinematic sex seem shocking. Not by being explicit but by being intimate. I think that sex scene must have been far more uncomfortable to film than even the most graphic of porn scenes.

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  8. Patrick H permalink
    March 17, 2009 11:13 am

    Great stuff, Jonathon. I think you give Snyder too much credit – I don’t think he has a coherent message, I think he’s deeply and immured in the phenomenon you discuss here. Watchmen looked like it was trying to be big and serious like the comic, but it kept getting distracted by the delicious crunch of breaking bones. I think that’s why critics hate him – he’s not really in control of his material.

    (I enjoyed his Dawn of the Dead, though.)

    P

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  9. March 17, 2009 3:15 pm

    Hi Patrick :-)

    I think that a coherent set of themes are starting to emerge from his work. 300 and Watchmen do both sexualise violence and suggest links between violence and sex but whether or not that is intentional or the by-product of a war and nipples-obsessed manchild putting what he thinks is ‘cool’ into a film is a moot point really.

    I don’t suppose he does think in this way about what goes into his films but I don’t think that precludes his films having a coherent set of themes and images.

    As for being in control of his material *shrug* I think that’s a matter where the screen speaks for itself.

    I seem to remember his Dawn of the Dead remake having a god deal more sex in it than the original with its immaculate conception and candle-lit suppers.

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  10. March 18, 2009 1:38 pm

    Surely the difference between Cronenberg and Snyder is that Cronenberg is thinking this through and achieving his results quite intentionally, I’m not persuaded the same is true of Snyder.

    I enjoyed the Dawn of the Dead remake, and 300 (I haven’t yet seen Watchmen), but for me Snyder is a geek director. A fan, who has some talent for visualisation and who is in a position to make movies. That’s not knocking him, three successful films is nothing to sniff at, but I don’t think he’s a considered or reflective director. Links between sex and death are in his work because he finds sex and violence cool, not because he is drawing a deeper metaphor.

    In History of Violence Cronenberg talks about issues of the impact of the past, not only in Vigo’s own past literally returning to him and his old personality swallowing his new one, but also in his son once contaminated by knowledge of the past beginning to recapitulate it. In Eastern Promises, Richard is spot on about the way in which Cassell sublimates desire into violence, and the film also looks closely at the glamour and appeal of violence and it’s brutal simplicity.

    Both films are carefully thought through, considered, reflective. The sex and the violence in them all serves a serious purpose.

    In the Dawn of the Dead remake it’s there because it’s entertaining, it’s that simple. The key scene in that film is early on, as the nurse is being pursued by her boyfriend zombie, who as he chases her car running flat out sees a neighbour standing confused and without hesitation peels off to take her down. The camera pans back and we see fires in the distance, and realise this is happening everywhere. It’s not a thoughtful scene, it isn’t making some wider comment, but it is a very good one and it does capture the essence of the end of the world. But that is all it seeks to capture, it depicts what it shows, it doesn’t seek to explore something wider than that which it shows.

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  11. March 18, 2009 1:43 pm

    Forgot to say, although I agree that transgressive art destabilises, I’m not sure Snyder does that to his own audiences.

    Rather, I would say he panders, he shows them their own brutality, their innate and underlying savagery, but the result is not that the audience says “is this who we are?” but that it says “wow, that was awesome”.

    Snyder doesn’t challenge our underlying savagery, he celebrates it. His films work because they are made without reservation, because he glories in that savagery and because he does not think about it he sees nothing troubling in it.

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  12. March 18, 2009 2:01 pm

    Hi Max :-)

    Authorial intent is something I’m growing more and more disenfranchised with as a basis for critical evaluation. I think it’s fair to talk about “Zack Snyder” as a critical unit and point out similarities between his films but I think discussions of what he did or did not intend only muddy the waters.

    So I’m happy to agree that what I’m seeing in Snyder is placed there partly by me :-)

    If you want to have a discussion about who I think is the smarter director then Cronenberg gets my vote every time but I think that despite being a fanboy-pandering alpha geek towel-snapping imbecile, Snyder’s films do have a set of coherent themes about them. they’re not as deeply thought through as they would have been in a film by another director but they’re nonetheless there.

    I think your point about the audience not being in the least bit destabilised by the sex and violence is a bit more problematic for me. I wasn’t particularly shocked by Salo as I was prepared for it but nonetheless I’d call it a transgressive film. Similarly, while the core audience for 300 was not offended, many critics clearly were… so I’m wary of defining transgression purely in terms of audience reaction. The values of 300 are clearly hugely at odds with those of mainstream culture and as a result I think that’s enough to make them challenging.

    I completely agree about Snyder celebrating rather than criticising human savagery but to me this is a matter of politics not of intellectual substance. Where Pasolini and Fellini railed against emotionless sex and loads of films criticise humanity’s propensity for violence and savagery, Snyder’s films are happy to celebrate it in the same way as Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will.

    I think that difference of political stance also makes Snyder’s films transgressive. Politically distasteful, but transgressive none the less.

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  13. March 18, 2009 3:07 pm

    If we leave aside authorial intent, can we still speak to studio intent?

    Critics are not the intended audience of a Zack Snyder film, that is not the demographic to which they appeal. Put another way, critics are not his audience, they simply watch because that is their job.

    The destabilisation then is occurring only with those who wouldn’t have watched but for that being their job. Those who chose to watch, who actively wanted to, I don’t think were destabilised.

    Seneca loathed the gladiatorial games, as did many of Rome’s intellectuals, but that did not make the games transgressive.

    I’d also query whether, in the recent political climate, themes such as the dangers of political compromise, the irreducible savagery of humanity which civilisation barely keeps in check or the necessity of force as a means of addressing the other are transgressive concepts. I’d argue that they are in fact mainstream US political concepts, essentially recent US Republican thought, and that Snyder’s 300 in part appalled critics precisely because it was a reflection of then apparently mainstream US values which those critics tend not to share.

    Which takes me dangerously close to Fox TV liberal elite type comments, but there you go. I’m not persuaded yet that Snyder is a transgressive director, rather I see him as an outlet for a certain political perspective which is in fact fairly mainstream. The critics’ horror is not the fear of transgression, it is the fear of the mob revealed. The mob, as ever, are untroubled by their own reflection and in fact rather like it. To a critic, it is an indictment, to the mob, applause.

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  14. March 18, 2009 3:17 pm

    Leaving intent out of the above post entirely, I would rephrase the first para to say that those who choose to watch these films are not offended by them, those who are offended are those who would not by choice watch them, I’m not sure a work can be transgressive when its audience is reassured by the work rather than challenged.

    I would not consider The Triumph of the Will transgressive either. It disturbs us, but it did not disturb those who chose to watch it for purposes other than academic ones, it reassured them.

    The line between reassurance and transgression may be an issue not of authorial intent, but of audience intent.

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  15. March 18, 2009 4:09 pm

    Nobody makes films for the critical audience, but I think that there are definitely ‘films for critics’ (as Kevin Smith once put it), I think these are films whose true beauty only becomes apparent once you start to read stuff into them that might not have been placed there intentionally by the director or anyone involved in the production.

    For example,

    http://www.videovista.net/reviews/july08/alonewh.html

    If you listen to the director’s comments, the film is intended as this nasty, reactionary little exploitation film about the perils of technology. However, I watched the film and saw it as a comment upon the fact that there’s an incredibly fine line between stalking someone and trying to find out something about them and then pandering to what you think their desires might be in order to get close to them (which to a greater or lesser extent is something everyone does).

    If you watch the film with my reading in mind, it’s a superbly uncomfortable piece of social criticism.

    Which is the correct reading of the film? neither I suspect. Death of the Author and all that. Those elements are present in the text but the director did not put them there intentionally.

    I think that 300 is another example of a ‘film for critics’ in that it becomes something wonderful if you set aside the intended meaning and interpret it differently (as a gay psychodrama and deconstruction of the homo-erotic elements present in all action films).

    As for 300’s politics, I think you’re cherry picking. Yes 300 included the suggestion that sometimes wars are necessary and that they require sacrifice and that you can’t compromise with evil people. But it also contained a lot of other stuff. For example, all the stuff about Spartan culture… the killing of the weak children, the fact that the entire society was composed of professional soldiers and the fact that the battle of Thermopylae validated the existence of all of the Spartans who died. They existed in order to fight and fight they did.

    I don’t think many of those aspects of classical Greek culture would pass muster on Fox News and that’s without dealing with the sexual stuff.

    The suggestion that all humans are born killers and that there is a degree of sexual satisfaction to be gained from killing is not a mainstream view in our culture, ergo to make a film that makes that case and celebrates that aspect of human nature is deeply transgressive.

    I don’t think a film needs to be shocking to its audience in order to be transgressive. Particularly when most of that audience do not pick up on that idea while watching the film.

    If you buy into the idea that 300 is a deconstruction of the action genre then this places it is similar territory to Haneke’s funny games, which essentially scolded the audience for watching a film in which people get murdered. Funny Games is a transgressive film…

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  16. March 18, 2009 5:53 pm

    Really? I’ve not seen Funny Games, but my impression was that it was trying a bit too hard to be transgressive to really succeed in being so.

    Now Hidden, that’s transgressive.

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  17. March 18, 2009 6:02 pm

    Hmmm… I’d say that if Funny Games has a flaw it’s that it’s overly preachy. It made me want to say that while I was complicit in watching violence, Haneke was the bloke who put the violence up on the screen anyway.

    I think that claiming that the audience for violent films is somehow immoral is quite transgressive. Especially coming from someone who has made incredibly violent and brutal films. Have you seen The Piano Teacher? all that stuff about the woman fantasising about licking her student’s anus while he punches her in the stomach.

    Hidden is a deeply strange film. When it came out a lot of French critics wrote that it was about the white middle class’s tolerance for racism but I’m not actually convinced that that is what the film is about. I think there’s something stranger and psychological going on but it’s been ages since I’ve seen it.

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  18. March 19, 2009 10:34 am

    I’ve not seen The Piano Teacher, I think I mentally conflated it with The Piano, which rather put me off.

    Hidden has a lot going on in it, certainly more than one strand, and certainly more than the white middle class’s tolerance for racism. I think that would be a pat interpretation, which would reduce the film’s considerable power.

    For a start, it talks about the way events can be hidden and so forgotten, the incidents in the 1960s with the Algerian protestors being pushed in the Seine (with some dying), being hidden from collective French memory. Too though, the protagonist has hidden events in his own life, and in hiding them forgotten them, but the past in his case at least comes back (or is brought back, but by whom?)

    I think there’s a lot to be said about Hidden, more than I have time for right now, but there’s no simple (or single) narrative to it. The film is in part quite oblique, the ending shot itself raises more questions than I think what has preceded is capable of answering, so leaving the viewer in a state of uncertainty as to what exactly has happened.

    That’s the other thing with hidden pasts, even if they come to light, are we now seeing the wholes story? Are other interpretations possible? It’s a very unsettling film, strange as you say, I don’t think it’s possible to watch it while paying attention and not be left with considerable doubt about exactly what you have watched when it finishes, which is in part why I rate it rather highly.

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  19. Patrick H permalink
    March 19, 2009 11:45 am

    I don’t think one needs to mind read Zack to see incoherence and lack of thematic focus in Watchmen. It’s nigh impossible to watch without reference to the source material and the huge publicity campaign that dwelt on his desire to recreate the comic, but even so I think we can judge it by what’s on screen.

    While we are mind reading, though, I think he absolutely IS trying to make films for the critics – that’s why Watchmen is so full of dull, portentous worthy crap. Just by choosing Watchmen, isn’t he saying “Look at me! I’m being serious here!” I suspect that’s another reason why it seems pulled in so many conflicting directions.

    P

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  20. March 19, 2009 11:52 am

    Very interesting thoughts upon Haneke, who I have great respect for as a director, even if his purity of intention sometimes causes him to criticise Hollywoood in a ludicrously puritanical and Euro-centric way.

    I would agree regarding the fragmentary nature of reality he expresses in ‘Hidden’ which undermines easy answers. As with the sinister tapes sent to Auteil’s house, the film constantly insists the viewer look again, look closer, listen a little harder – hence the deeply ambiguous ending that pretty much opens up the film to comparsion with a moebius strip (which is oddly how Lynch sees ‘Lost Highway’ from which Haneke surely adapated the motif of videotapes turning up and throwing new light on both the present and the past). This theme of ‘looking again’ is a reoccurring one in Haneke’s work, if we consider ‘Benny’s Video’ and “71 Fragmentsof a Chronology of Chance”, but it is also there in ‘Funny Games’ in which the protagonists repeatedly invite the audience to look at their actions, acknowledging not just the aformentioned complicity regarding violence, but also the role of the camera making these scenes possible. Indeed, the role of the camera is permanently present in Haneke’s films, as both mechanism and protagonist. That he refuses to track or zoom in ‘Hidden’ simply underlines how it defines our experience. Personally, I found ‘Funny Games’ deeply annoying (it smacked of film school in the worst sense) as I adhere to the old adage that ‘Character is Action’ – when charcaters are reduced to archetypes as in ‘FG’s’ the film becomes a lecture not an experience.

    That said, regarding the idea of complicity re violence. One viewpoint might be that yes, Western Capitalist Democracy enables such a relationship. To quote Alain Badiou:

    “Our democracy is not perfect. But it’s better than the bloody dictatorships. Capitalism is unjust. But it’s not criminal like Stalinism. We let millions of Africans die of AIDS, but we don’t make racist nationalist declarations like Milosevic. We kill Iraqis with our airplanes, but we don’t cut their throats with machetes like they do in Rwanda, etc.”

    It is perhaps this relationship Haneke is looking to explore and of course than can be no end or conclusion. Personally, though this viewpoint presupposes that the capacity for violence is nurtured and enhanced by a political system. My instinct is this isn’t the case, that though Badiou and Haneke are identifying a truth about how said system functions, it cannot be causal. That ‘violence’ exists in all systems surely underlines that. The sad reality is the human is born with both a capacity for violence, as well as a capacity for survival and no political system will ever iron these tensions out, though some do better than others. Finally, then art once again becomes a dumping ground for the anxieties caused by these tensions, in the simple hope we can – as Badiou points out – go on living shackled with less guilt.

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  21. March 19, 2009 1:15 pm

    Max —

    I think I need to rewatch Hidden. The only thing I remember about it in any critical detail is that fact that the videos were always shot from impossible positions; places where there could be no camera.

    One could be tempted to read this as an acknowledgment that the film’s accusation of its central character is not from any particular perspective; is he being accused over race? class? being an ineffectual intellectual? When I first saw the film I was gripped by the sense that he was being accused in general and that eventually he cracked and all of this quasi-racist stuff came tumbling out… but it could have been anything else.

    As you say it’s about hidden guilt and papered-over memories.

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  22. March 19, 2009 1:22 pm

    Patrick —

    I think if there’s dull, portentous and worthy stuff on the screen, it’s because the comic is full of dull, portentous and worthy stuff.

    One point raised elsewhere in discussion of the film that hit home for me is that the comic is in some ways incredibly provincial. Its big idea is the suggestion that masked vigilantes might not be morally whiter than white and that relying on them to fix the wrongs in the world might be a bad idea. But no society DOES used masked vigilantes. The streets of London are not filled with caped crusaders acting out their sado-masochistic fantasies by getting criminals to beat them up. He’s ignoring real social problems (especially at the time the comic was written) and is taking aim at the intellectual politics of super hero comics as a genre.

    I think Watchmen is a more ambitious film than 300. 300 has an incredibly simplistic narrative and cardboard characters. Watchmen is astonishingly dense. I don’t think it’s fair to see Snyder’s fanboyish ambition as an attempt to court critical favour.

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  23. March 19, 2009 1:31 pm

    Richard —

    I think that’s a very nice summary of Haneke. I think you’re right that the camera is always ‘in the shot’ whenever he makes a film. I think any reading of Haneke needs to take on board his media obsession. I think the fact that Auteuil plays a TV intelectual rather than a writer is part of the puzzle that is Hidden.

    I’d draw different conclusions to you from the Badiou. It’s interesting to see that he thinks killing Iraqis with planes is somehow better than hacking people’s feet off with machetes. In what way is it better? Well, sitting in a plane at 35,000 feet and pressing a button is certainly better for the killer than hacking someone’s feet off in the street. It’s easier, less psychologically damaging.

    The key difference is that in the case of the fighter pilot, the experience is mediated. It is dehumanised. He’s not killing people, he’s pressing a button. That’s basically the point made by Benny’s Game (which I remember finding nowhere near as good as 71 Fragments).

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  24. March 19, 2009 1:50 pm

    Watchmen is a comic about comics, it’s as you say a commentary on the superhero genre, I’m not sure it’s quite fair to criticise it therefore for a lack of real world social commentary because that was never within its scope. It’s addressing a fantasy, and questioning whether that fantasy truly is desirable. It’s not questioning reality, that’s V for Vendetta (which works well as a comic, less well as a social critique).

    Put another way, yes, he is aiming at the intellectual politics of super hero comics as a genre, but that’s the whole point pretty much. I think to judge its success, we need to look to how effectively it achieves that goal, that it fails to achieve other perhaps worthier goals is I think a red herring.

    Which makes the film a film of a comic which was itself about comics which most people seeing the film will not have read. That makes it as a cultural artefact curiously divorced from its intellectual soil, that which gave birth to it is hidden from most of the audience. The context of the film is very different to the context that the comic had, which suggests to me a transliteration of comic to screen could actually result in a work which would be interpreted by much of its audience very differently although the same elements were present.

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  25. March 19, 2009 4:04 pm

    But I think that the scope of Moore’s ideas are important to properly evaluating it as a work of art. Watchmen has attained the status of a holy icon for geek culture. It’s living proof that comics and geek culture needn’t be childish or stupid. If Watchmen is rubbish then an entire medium goes down in flames and much of the intellectual pretense of geek culture goes with it. If Watchmen is rubbish then what is something genuinely terrible like say Gen13?

    I think its a symptom of ghetto mentality if we start apologising for Watchmen’s provincialism by saying that it was intended to be provincial. Gen13 aims no higher than to have pictures of half-naked ladies… does that mean that Gen13 is art?

    I do agree with you about Watchmen being completely disconnected from its time and context. The Watchmen film emerged into a post-Watchmen world. The Dark Knight addressed many of the ideas expressed in Watchmen in a more cerebral and interesting way because it was clearly a post-Watchmen creation. A shot-for-shot remake of Watchmen feels like a step backwards in terms of the intellectual politics of cinematic super heroes.

    In order to have a similar impact to its comic, a film version of Watchmen would have to be completely different. It would need to address the fact that psychology and angst in super hero characterisation is usually a fig leaf for fighting but its message about the dangers of individualism still stands.

    It would have been nice to see Dr. Manhattan towering over the ruined streets of Tehran.

    If anything I think Watchmen serves as a reminder of how much better films like Spiderman 2 and Dark Knight were for their willingness to step away from the source material.

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  26. Patrick H permalink
    March 19, 2009 4:07 pm

    Quite so, Max. There was some talk of the idea that it would do for super-hero movies what the comic did for super-hero comics. It didn’t do that at all, it didn’t even attempt to do that as far as I could tell. In terms of super-hero movies it was very conventional. It quite poorly with the bits that aren’t about supers or cracking heads – Dr Manhattan’s idiosyncratic perceptions of time, eg, are lost entirely in the movie, and the passage of time has rendered the Cold War analogy entirely moot.

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  27. Patrick H permalink
    March 19, 2009 4:09 pm

    Ah, cross-posted. I don’t think Watchmen is rubbish, but it’s scope is limited by genre.

    That’s the way genres work though, right?

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  28. March 19, 2009 4:11 pm

    People are saying that its lack of box office success is down to its refusal to conform to the standard template of super hero films.

    Evidently those horrid slow-mo leg-breakings might have created a false impression…

    In truth, I don’t think you could make a film that would have the same impact on super hero films as Watchmen had on super hero comics. No studio would take on a $200 million project pitched as “we’re going to point out how shallow and morally questionable most super hero films are”. The closest we’re likely to get to that is Dark Knight’s suggestion that Batman made everything worse by upsetting the city’s criminal ecosphere.

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  29. March 19, 2009 4:14 pm

    Hmm… I’m not sure. I think that works of genre can address wider themes. To a certain extent there’ll always be an element of genre politics as people pick up old ideas and move them on but you can certainly pick more worthy targets than the obviously fascistic output of the major US comic labels.

    …but then again, I am a product of a post-Watchmen world. Before Watchmen came out were people really unaware of how dubious comics were?

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  30. Patrick H permalink
    March 19, 2009 4:16 pm

    “Before Watchmen came out were people really unaware of how dubious comics were?”

    Superduperman and Dr Frederic Wetham say no!

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  31. Patrick H permalink
    March 19, 2009 4:19 pm

    My gut instinct on box office is that being an 18 cert has really hurt it. Hulk, Iron Man, Spider-Man etc made a huge amount through kids.

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  32. Patrick H permalink
    March 19, 2009 4:20 pm

    …WeRtham, I mean. Sigh!

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  33. Patrick H permalink
    March 19, 2009 4:35 pm

    While I’m in a bit of rambly mood, I think the Watchmen comic was more than a moral commentary on supers – they fuck you up your mum and dad but getting murdered outside the cinema by the guy that becomes the Joker, eg.

    It also synthesised the history of the genre into a “real” history. This is something of a Moore signature, of course, taking all that creaky, disjointed wierdness and turning it into something that makes “sense” (sometimes). When I read Watchmen now (and I read it early in the year as part of my Mandatory Geek Preparations) it’s this that leaps out at me far more powerfully than the oooooh Rorschach’s fucked up aspect. Possibly this due to the comics I’ve read since and the way Watchmen’s been internalised by mainstream industry. I see much less righteous anger and much more affection in it these days.

    I think one of the reasons that the movie could not work as Watchmen-for-supers-movies is that they lack this long history to draw on. What is there really? Donner’s Superman, does-whatever-a-sider-can era Spidey and Lou Ferrigno? It’s weak sauce compared to the huge amount of comics material.

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  34. Patrick H permalink
    March 19, 2009 4:36 pm

    “they fuck you up your mum and dad but getting murdered outside the cinema by the guy that becomes the Joker, eg.”

    … BY getting murdered etc…

    Double sigh!

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  35. March 19, 2009 6:29 pm

    I grant Watchmen is a geek icon and all that, but I don’t feel bound by that, or indeed geek culture, much of which seems to be borne of a needless desire for self-justification, borne in turn I suspect from a fear that those who look down on it may be right after all and it may really be childish. As far as I’m concerned, Watchmen’s a good comic, better than Dark Knight but not as good as Criminal say or Transmetropolitan.

    I feel no particular need to justify comics, if they come up at work (as they do occasionally) I have no issue mentioning that I read comics (and I don’t say graphic novels, often a sign of someone uncomfortable with the medium). So if Watchmen is rubbish, which I don’t think it is, that doesn’t for me damage the medium at all. I agree though, others may be less sanguine on the point. That though I think has more to do with their self-esteem issues, than anything in the medium.

    At risk of being iconoclastic, to be honest I think Moore is a bit overrated these days, but that’s a tangent.

    I don’t see it though as apologising for Watchmen to say it is only about provincial issues, I see that more as criticising it in terms of its appleyness and not its lack of citrusy flavour. Its provincialism doesn’t prevent it being (or being assessed as) art, it just prevents it being great art. I see Watchmen as a great genre piece, but not as a piece that surpasses its genre. If we can criticise Watchmen for its lack of social comment, why not Toy Story or the Mona Lisa? They are not art that speaks to the wider world, and nor is Watchmen.

    Thankfully, I’m unfamiliar with Gen13. To take something I am familiar with though, I love the Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu stories. Now, they can be assessed as art, indeed they are art, but they’re provincial art which can rightly be heavily criticised on a great many fronts. They’re racist, the characterisation is weak, the writing not that spectacular, but still I have a fondness for them. The mistake of geek culture is to try to defend one category of things by appealing to the standards of another category of things. It would be foolish to defend Fu Manchu as great literary fiction, but I feel perfectly happy defending it as good pulp fiction.

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  36. March 19, 2009 6:36 pm

    I agree that you couldn’t make a big budget movie which explicitly subverted the superhero genre, it just doesn’t sound commercial. To return to my earlier comments, blockbusters are about reassurance, not destabilisation. Audiences like to be reassured, though oddly they sometimes enjoy films more which destabilise them and sometimes resent films that try to reassure. That paradox is why Hollywood struggles to get a consistent winning formula, but I digress.

    On another note, works of genre can certainly address wider themes, the comic DMZ and the tv series Battlestar Galactica both seek to speak seriously about the war in Iraq, in both cases in my view with mixed results. Still, they try, and in doing so show plainly that genre can easily speak beyond its ghetto when it wishes to.

    And on yet another note, I think Patrick’s dead on that the 18 certificate will be hurting it badly.

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  37. March 20, 2009 12:33 pm

    Patrick — I think that cinematic supers have a much longer history than that (what about the old black and white cliff hangers they used to show on BBC2? what about Green Hornet?) but even taking your point, I don’t see why you’d have to ring fence off cinematic supers from comic supers. The current generation of ‘ever so dark and gritty and grown up’ supers blockbusters have their roots in the works of Frank Miller. Miller was influenced by other stuff. I don’t see why a cinematic Watchmen couldn’t acknowledge the true genre history of supers films?

    Max — As you know, I really don’t rate Transmet at all. I’ve read most of it and it has never struck me as more than silly harmless fun. It’s a bit like having the career of Hunter S. Thompson explained to you by someone who is drunk and who has never read his books. I think I probably prefer V for Vendetta to Watchmen even if V for Vendetta features precisely the kind of messianic individualism that Watchmen lambasts as fascistic.

    You may be right about Watchmen’s appleyness but I am currently getting more and more annoyed with unambitious genre and Watchmen’s provincialism is a prime example of that kind of thing. Having said that, one of the few comics I like unreservedly is Red Son of Krypton and that’s incredibly parochial as it simply fucks about a bit with the Superman mythos.

    I wasn’t suggesting that you needed to justify comics, but people do. And when they do, they do so in terms of Watchmen.

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  38. March 20, 2009 2:17 pm

    In terms of ambition in comics, I think you have to go to the indie boys, and even there I don’t think it’s that ambitious. It doesn’t seem so far that ambitious a medium.

    Joe Sacco’s reportage possibly, the Bluesman trilogy deals in issues of history and race though more at the level of telling a good story than the level of thoughtful critique, I’m struggling here to be honest. Criminal tries to reinvent another genre in comic form, which is somewhat ambitious, but it’s ambitious within the medium rather than ambitious with the medium.

    Genres can often be very inward looking, sf is I think often prone to this and fantasy vastly so. One reason I’ve moved over to crime for the bulk of my genre reading is that much of that genre consciously engages with issues of justice, society, the role of the individual, race, gender and other meaty topics. In terms of genre, crime I think is the only one that regularly engages with the real world (and of course I ignore the vast bulk of crime, there’s a subgenre of “cosy crime”, which it’s fair to say is not as a rule ambitious in its scope).

    And crime’s only ambitious in the books, in film it does nothing of the kind by and large. Tv crime can be ambitious, tv sf occasionally so, tv fantasy perhaps thankfully doesn’t exist much but when it does (Merlin say) it’s woefully unambitious for all it can be fun.

    But I drift off topic…

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  39. Patrick H permalink
    March 20, 2009 2:55 pm

    “Patrick — I think that cinematic supers have a much longer history than that (what about the old black and white cliff hangers they used to show on BBC2? what about Green Hornet?) but even taking your point, I don’t see why you’d have to ring fence off cinematic supers from comic supers. The current generation of ‘ever so dark and gritty and grown up’ supers blockbusters have their roots in the works of Frank Miller. Miller was influenced by other stuff. I don’t see why a cinematic Watchmen couldn’t acknowledge the true genre history of supers films?”

    Eh, sure, but there’s just not the same wealth of material. You could do it, but it’d be harder and probably less dense, is all.

    In terms of genre, I think the act of writing genre deliberately (for writers who write in a deliberate way!) narrows the scope. In the classic Star Trek way you can talk about racism by going to the planet where they’re all half balck and half white and not have to address – say – inter-tribal rivalries in colonial Africa. Watchmen addresses real-world issues (the Cold War, moral absolutism, eg), but it does so in a way that isolates them from various real world concerns. It turns up the contrast – it’s probably a form of sature, actually, although I see satire everywhere these days!

    Realist fiction generally has a narrower scope, because it needs to address the complexities of the real world.

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  40. Patrick H permalink
    March 20, 2009 2:57 pm

    “Sature”? I mean satire, but pronounced in an Inspector Closeau accent.

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  41. Patrick H permalink
    March 20, 2009 2:59 pm

    “Realist fiction generally has a narrower scope, because it needs to address the complexities of the real world.”

    No being able to edit these things is a real pain! Probably I should say something like “deeper focus” here.

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  42. March 28, 2009 12:17 am

    “Not only does Snyder fail to condemn Leonidas or Rorschach, he actually builds films around them that make them look like deeply moral and heroic men. Snyder’s orgasm death gimmick is not deployed as a form of social criticism, it is deployed in order to pander to audiences with seemingly no higher artistic desire than to entertain and amuse. Zack Snyder makes films that make us feel good about the absolute worst in us.”

    …this is true of 300 but not The Watchmen. Rorshach is very clearly a flawed character. As were the other characters in this film.

    The main characters were different ways of trying to deal with the realization that mankind is hopeless. The movie is an exploration of the problems which arise from these different attempts to deal with this issue. So then you have The Comedian committing rape and shooting a pregnant lady. Dr. Manhattan moving to Mars and going on about how there’s no difference between life and death. And Rorshach the moral absolutist running off to tell the truth at the end although it may kill billions.

    Two different movies. It is possible to make art one time that is solely entertaining and then another that tries to add in a more intellectual message.

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