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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.