Friday, March 6, 2009

I Still Suspect That Zack Snyder Is A Fascist

Well, Watchmen is out. On Tuesday, R.A. and I went to see Coraline (two-thumbs way up. Witches in Ashland, OR. Another addition, along with Twin Peaks and the X-Files, to our budding film-theory thesis, "Crazy Shit Happens in Oregon.") There was an advance screening of Watchmen that night, and the line of pimpled, pasty young men was already reaching the front door two hours before the movie started. This should be big.

However, I still can't shake this nagging feeling that I'm not going to like the film half as much as I like the trailer. Watchmen is currently getting mixed reviews, from a glowing, in-awe lovefest from Roger Ebert to a snarky, "those kids these days" nagfest from A.O. Scott of the NY Times.

Unfortunately, Blackwell Publishing ("Blaa-a-ck-Welll!" says my editor as he shakes his fist at the heavens) published Watchmen and Philosophy. I still might buy it. The story has a million interesting philosophical angles to it. One, though, that I find very intriguing is its take on America's collective trauma over the 60's. A trauma that, I think, persists to this day. (And is conveniently able to be referred to by the signifier "the 60's.")

For example, A.O. Scott gives the following exposition: "Mr. Moore and Mr. Gibbons confected a dour alternative chronology of cold-war America, defined by victory in Vietnam, an endless Nixon presidency, nuclear brinkmanship and pervasive social rot." Gary Thompson of the Philadelphia Daily News, in what I thought was a rather weirdly hateful review*, says, "The Watchmen are a collection of costumed crime fighters first co-opted by the government (they help Nixon win a third term) then outlawed as the right wing consolidates power." Andrew O'Hehir of - who, I'm beginning to realize, is coming from the left and loved the movie - says, "He [Dr. Manhattan] is being used by the United States government as a one-man missile defense system, while President Richard Nixon (who's beginning his fifth term in 1985) edges ever closer to launching a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union." Joe Morgenstern of the GOP-friendly Wall Street Journal thought that Watchmen was "inelegant" and "suffocating." He also didn't fail to mention that "That setting is amusing, up to a point. A Cyrano-nosed Richard Nixon is serving a fifth term in the White House."

Now, it's been a couple of months since I last read the book, but I don't recall Nixon being all that front or center in the plot. Yes, the main crisis of the story revolves around a nuclear showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union, and yes, Nixon's ugly mug is ever-present in the background. But I don't ever remember him speaking, and hardly ever being even mentioned by any of the actual characters. As a character, Richard M. Nixon is more or less inconsequential to Watchmen.

And yet, as a symbol, Nixon is all-important.

This has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I'm reading Nixonland, by Richard Perlstein, right now.

But what amazes me is that all of these movie reviewers - in fact, all of the reviews that I have read so far - kind of casually mention the fact that Nixon is still president in Watchmen. I think that that thought terrifies them. If "The Sixties" is America's code-word for our collective sense of loss of innocence (Kennedy), violence against ourselves (rioting), and moral doubt (Vietnam), then "Nixon" is the sign of the repression of these experiences. He was the self-identified voice of the Silent Majority; literally, he spoke for us so that we would not be burdenend with speaking for ourselves. (dictatus) And, or so Perlstein seems to be arguing and I think I agree with him, America kind of needed this silence, this turning away from The Sixties (which also involved turning away from the flipside of their violence, the striving towards the Great Society). After all, repression, too, has a purpose - continued functioning within-the-world.

But the scary thought - the scary thought that drives Watchmen - is the thought of that repression never ending, of Nixon just being elected again and again and again and again and again and again. If this were the case, then nothing of any substance could ever be said about The Sixties.** And that, I think, is a lot of what Watchmen is about: The endless, traumatic repetition of historical and political events that we cannot grasp and yet that we ourselves are the producers of. And if we cannot find a way to process these events, then our only other option may end up being collective self-annihilation.

Post-Script: Of course, we Americans brilliantly followed up Richard Nixon with Ronald Reagan just six years later. Christopher Orr of The New Republic, the seventh reviewer I have read tonight and the first to not use the word "Nixon," says that the story of Watchmen "was an awful lot more subversive 20 years ago than it is today." Maybe he has a point. Maybe Alan Moore was saying that the America of 1985 might as well still have Nixon as its president given how well it was handling itself and its problems. On the other hand, I think that the fact that everyone else who has written about this film has felt compelled to mention Nixon's name points to the power his image still has over us. I think that "Nixon" - and, by extension, Watchmen - still has the power of fear over us because it reminds us that we have yet to cope with The Sixties, or to solve many of the issues that were at their core.

A spectre is haunting America - the spectre of Nixon.

Him and his sweaty, jowly face.***

* In addition to calling the movie "sour" and "soulless," he bravely puts his foot down: "This is the comic-book adaptation to see, if: you want to see one "superhero" sexually assault another, punching her brutally in the face not once but three times (I can think of better ways to use Carla Gugino)." Way to disapprove of rape while simultaneously objectivfying the woman getting raped. Dude.

**Don't get me wrong; a lot was said during the Nixon Administration about The Sixties. Whether or not any of it was or could have been meaningful is a different story.

*** Of course, this reading means that Barack Obama is the catharsis for all of this trauma, because he came of age after the Sixties and isn't burdened by any of that doubt or guilt. Hurray! Problem solved! (Dusting off hands in self-congratulatory manner.)

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