How high can the escalation go? Watchmen is just another step on the stairs, one or two above The Dark Knight, nothing to get worked up about one way or the other. Adapted from “the most celebrated graphic novel of all time” (the escalation commences, even if the kudo is roughly akin to “the most celebrated reality-TV show” or “most celebrated MMA fighter”), it runs almost two hours and three-quarters, though “runs” really isn’t the word. The violence intermittently, but not relentlessly, reaches levels of post-Romero horror-film gore. (Zack Snyder, the director, came to fame with his remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.) The population of superheroes, without an exact head count, seems to exceed that of the X-Men. And the fashionable “darkness” of the genre deepens all the way to a purgative holocaust of Biblical dimensions. For literal brinkmanship, the Doomsday Clock that monitors U.S.-Soviet relations starts out at five minutes to midnight. If Dr. Manhattan, a computer-generated eyeless bald naked blue man, can’t solve the energy crisis before both hands strike twelve, nuclear annihilation is a certainty.
The date, if you’re questioning the use of the obsolete “Soviet,” is the mid-Eighties, but that can’t let us breathe any easier as we approach the apocalypse. We are in an alternative universe here, lavishly established via a behind-the-credits montage of revised history post-WWII, complete with a restaging of the JFK assassination and a fingering of the second shooter on the grassy knoll, all to the tune of Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” They are not just a-changin’, they have been a-changed. Nixon is now in his fifth term in office (a bad imitation of him in a Halloween rubber nose), and the Cold War was never hotter. An elite class of costumed superheroes, in spite of their enlistment to help win the Vietnam War, has since been forced into retirement by Presidential edict, much as in The Incredibles, only deadly serious. One of these retirees, known as The Comedian and (if my eyes didn’t deceive me) unmasked as the grassy-knoll shooter, is knocked off in a long-drawn-out, slow-motion-happy pre-credits sequence, capped with the cliché (and slo-mo standard) of a catapult through a plate-glass window. A fellow retiree named Rorschach, wearing over his face an unventilated stocking besmirched with animated shape-shifting inkblots, immediately smells a serial-murder plot against all superheroes and undertakes a private investigation, sharing his musings in a parody of hard-boiled first-person narration (“The night reeks of fornication and bad consciences”) as well as in the raspiest and corniest tough-guy voice this side of Michael Wincott (the voice, to be exact, of Jackie Earle Haley).
The unapologetic savagery of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), as revealed in flashback, and the inhuman detachment of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), for reasons also revealed in flashback, might have been relatively interesting among the general run of comic-book superheroes. But all these, and other, flashbacks — all these biographical backstories — have the chief effect of dissipating any tension in the countdown to doomsday. (And the initial manifestation of the bald naked blue man, result of a run-of-the-mill laboratory mishap, has the effect of an unwanted laugh: “John,” his grieving fiancée addresses the floating apparition in the lunchroom, “is that you?”) The present-tense romance between the nerdy bespectacled Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) and the slinky Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), second-generation superheroes, has a similar effect of dissipation. It’s quite a holiday from impending doom when the two of them climb into their mothballed costumes for old times’ sake, fire up the bug-eyed flying machine, zero in on the occupants of a burning building to rescue, and then make naked passionate love to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” (Another unwanted laugh.) Nor does the independent murder investigation assert its relevance in a timely manner. It may not be, to devotees of the graphic novel or repeat viewers of the movie, that the multi-strand narrative weave is completely incomprehensible. But it assuredly is not completely clear — not a clean narrative line, not a limpid exposition, not a steady countdown. As a piece of storytelling, it’s a complete botch. Back tracks and tangents, though they have their uses, don’t suit doomsday. And the climactic battle of indestructibles, a cliché no matter how extraordinarily talkative the combatants, adds instant boredom to the brewing boredom.
In a very different universe resides Cherry Blossoms, a modest, quiet, contemplative, bittersweet tale of the loss of a life partner and the living-on of the departed one (however briefly) in the surviving one. The partners are a cozy old Bavarian couple, a stick-in-the-mud husband chained to routine and resistant to change, and his self-repressed Japanophile wife whose abandoned aspirations as a Butoh dancer are commemorated in a photo flipbook, and who now keeps from her husband the grim news that he is terminally ill, and prods him diplomatically to visit their unappreciative children. (Since one of the children lives in Tokyo, the resemblance to Ozu’s Tokyo Story cannot be coincidental.) Director Doris Dörrie, who most recently made the documentary on the Zen chef, How to Cook Your Life, here carries further her interest in things Buddhist: the cherry blossoms of the title are said to be “the most beautiful symbol of impermanence,” but the ephemeral mayfly, if not physically more beautiful, is more poetic. And her attention to the peripheral life around her central characters — the mosaic of life, the connectedness of life, the man on the street, the cat, the insect — widens the view to a truly spiritual perspective. The digital film, I can only imagine, ought to retain its rich color in digital projection at the Ken Cinema. If a thing’s not shot on film, better not to show it on film.
And here’s a final reminder that the San Diego Latino Film Festival gets going today, Thursday the 12th, at the UltraStar Mission Valley. Neil Kendricks, the film curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, has let me know that he has a short film, Beholder, in the Cine Mujer and Frontera Filmmakers programs. I noticed all by myself that local journalist (and former festival publicist) Laura Castaneda has a documentary feature on the San Diego wildfires of 2007, El Aliento de Diablo, or The Devil’s Breath. And Kim Jorgensen, the founder and ex-president of Landmark Theatres, makes his directing debut with the fiction film Emilio. The more I look at the schedule, the more I feel up to my eyeballs.
David Elliott, mum on movies since his dismissal as critic at the Union-Tribune just over a year ago, is set to reconvene court on March 18 at a fledgling online journal beneath the banner of San Diego News Network. You may renew acquaintance at www.sdnn.com.
The Coen brothers’ half-minute TV spot in opposition to the coal industry, viewable at www.thisisreality.org, is not essential viewing. Even for Coen-brother completists.