Thursday, February 10, 2005

Irma Vep and Watchmen: The Movie

A couple of days ago, I watched the movie, Irma Vep. It's a French movie, with Maggie Cheung, who speaks in English, directed by Oliver Assayas, who also did the movie Demonlover. Demonlover was a really good movie, but one that never quite fulfilled all of its potential. Irma Vep is an even better film. It's about Maggie Cheung, who plays herself. She goes to France to work on a remake of Les Vampires, a 1915 serial, with an eccentric director.

One of the things that made me want to see the movie was the fact that I saw the original Les Vampires last year in my intro film course. I can't say it was riveting, but for the time, it was pretty good, and this film does an interesting job of capturing a lot of what that film was about.

I'm also a big fan of Maggie Cheung and this was one of her best performances. For the first time, I got to see her in an English speaking role, and she was great. If I was a big director, I would definitely use her in a movie over here, there's absolutely no reason not to. The scene where she puts on the catsuit and sneaks around the hotel was great.

The movie is almost stereotypically French in its rather verite style, bizarre messing with film at the ending, and constant self reflexivity. Having Jean Leaud play the director clearly positions this film as a throwback to the French New Wave. Leaud played the lead in one of the first prominent New Wave films, Truffaut's The 400 Blows. I love this art film style, especially because this film doesn't take realism as a cue to create ugly visuals. The whole burglary sequence is great visually, particularly when she winds up on the roof at the end.

The dialogue felt very real, like a lot of it was improvised. Maggie Cheung's performance reminded me a lot of Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise/Sunset, and you got the feeling that this charater was really who she was. Her relationship with Zoe had a lot of great moments, and was the anchor of the film. Even though the film has sort of an open ending, the rave scene does a really subtle job of wrapping up the relationship beween Zoe and Maggie in a way that feels final.

What else is up? I've got six hours of work in the lab today, which means some good money, but also a lot of time here on the computer.

One piece of news I've come across is this. It's the site for the Watchmen movie. Now, Watchmen is one of the my two favorite comics, and is one of my favorite stories in general. This was the book that got me into comics.

Back in the year 2000, I saw the X-Men movie, and I loved it, loved it enough to want to check out some comics. So, I bought this book called Essential X-Men, which had the first 25 or so issues of Chris Claremont's run. Chris basically created the X-Men as we know them, and his stories hold up to this day. There's some goofy captions, but the basic plots still work. So, I realy liked those, and in my travels online, I heard of this book called Watchmen, which was supposedly the best comic ever made.

So, I got it out of the library and read it, and it just blew my mind. I had never imagined a work could be so complex and perfectly constructed. I remember reading issue 12 and being completely overwhelmed by what had happened. It's very rare that a story hits you like that, the last issue of The Invisibles and the last episode of Twin Peaks are the only other things I can think of as comprable. I just sat there in awe of what had happened, and I went back and began to piece together the connections. The second read was possibly even more rewarding than the first, as all the pirate story and all the backups began to come together in my mind, and I understood exactly what Moore was doing with the book, he had created a multi-layered, endlessly variable perfect diamond of a narrative.

From there, I went on to read many more comics, in search of another Watchmen, and I eventually found a book that even eclipsed it, The Invisibles, but Watchmen is the book that got me into comics, and completely redefined for me the storytelling potential of the medium.

So, now a movie of it is coming out. While I myself would love to try and make one, I feel like creating a Watchmen movie is almost a futile act, because so much of the work's power is in the fact that it uses the medium of comics better than any other work in the medium. While the big trend now is towards making what are basically paper films, which just ape cinematic conventions, Watchmen uses storytelling devices that couldn't work in any other medium. The pirate comic substory. the Rorshach diary entries, even the meta-critical view of superhero costumes, none of this could be done in any other medium. Frequently the best works are the ones that take advantage of the unique properties of the medium. One of the reasons I love Magnolia so much is because it uses all the storytelling tools of cinema. If you tried to do it as a book, it just wouldn't be the same, the basic story would still be strong, but so much of the power of the work is exclusively rooted in the way it uses cinematic conventions.

So, in attempting to translate Watchmen to the screen, I feel like you're inevitably going to lose something. It's such a huge work, and if you start cutting out pieces of it, you lose what makes it so great. Let's say you lose the Bernards street life chunk of the book, then the ending loses almost all its power. While the images of masses dead in issue 12 are harrowing, the most emotionally affecting moment of the book for me is the last few panels of issue 11, when we see the older Bernard trying to shelter the younger Bernard from the blast. These are people we know and have hung out with for a while, and seeing Bernard die, as opposed to a more abstract crowd of extras, makes the moral question at the end of the book a lot tougher to answer. Even if it may have prevented a nuclear war, was it worth it to lose Bernard, Dr. Malcolm and Joey? I feel like the movie is inevitably going to lose that streeet level part of the story, and that's really unfortunate.

Also, Watchmen, while a brilliant work on the whole, is also a work made of a lot of smaller stories. It's structured to take advantage of issue/chapter format, and that doesn't always translate well to film. I don't know if the filmmakers will be able to spend the time necessary to do the Dr. Manhattan on Mars issue, where he reflects on what it means to be outside time. That's crucial to the character, and the similar issues for Rorshach and Laurie are equally important. If you lose these issues, and the street people, the book begins to look a lot more like a conventional superhero whodunit, one that will still work, but it won't capture the full greatness of the comic. You can't fit Watchmen in two hours, even three is stretching it.

Also, the issue of costumes is so huge in the book, but I'm not sure if it can translate in the film. Particularly with Dan, his costume is pretty ridiculous, but the ridiculousness is a huge element of the character, and I don't know if you can show it on film without the absurdity of the costume overwhelming the point they're trying to make. Similarly, it's probably not a good idea to have a protagonist of your film be a giant naked blue man, and presenting Dr. Manhattan is clearly going to be a challenge to the filmmakers.

But, I am happy the movie is getting made. It's such a great story, and there's potential to make an equally great film. However, I just hope they don't approach it as an action movie, it should be more of a character piece, that incidentally has action. Either way, I'll be there in 2006 when the film opens, I don't think it could be any worse than LXG.

Related Posts
My Favorite Actresses (1/17/2005)
Clean (6/28/2005)
Watchmen: The Perfect Diamond of Comics (12/8/2005)

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