The Protection of the Uninitiated

I don’t have much to add to various reactions to the Watchmen film. To put it simply, I enjoyed it far more than I expected to, especially after I found 300 impossible to enjoy as simple dumb fun because it’s dumbness went beyond being simple.

The one thing I have noticed in reading a lot of Watchmen-knowledgeable reviews and commentaries, though, is the presence in those reviews of significant others who had not read the graphic novel back then or now. These accompanying viewers are reported in many cases, to the considerable surprise of their escorts, to have liked the film. I’ll add to that: my wife, with minimal comic book knowledge and no prior reading of the graphic novel, was actually way more enthusiastic than I was (and I thought it was a pretty decent film).

This reaction makes me mindful of the way that geeks married to or dating or related to non-geeks tend to deal with their cultural obsessions in the presence of those others. Gently? Carefully? The decision to expose a normal to a geek experience is often done tremulously and uncertainly.

The strangest reaction of all, however, is not, “I don’t get it”. It’s, “That was GREAT”, where the positive reaction doesn’t involve an embrace of the total cultural penumbra around the work or experience but just the work itself. (Bob Rehak has a great description of all the talk and viewing and buzz that precedes the arrival of a pop cultural work, calling it the “cometary halo”.)

The reason that’s the most uncomfortable experience at all is that it raises sharp questions about geekery itself. Is this film or show or book great in and of itself? Do you need any metatextual knowledge to like it? Is the metatextual knowledge actually screwing with my ability to enjoy the experience myself? Immediately after the film, I’m fielding questions about Silk Spectre I and Hollis Mason and Mothman and the missing Squid and so on. This is gleeful on one hand, and on the other, how discomforting to know that you don’t need to know any of it to have a great time seeing the film.

Of course, this goes for all cultural criticism in some measure, not just geek popular culture. What’s missed if you read and love a 19th Century novel or a Shakespeare play and that’s the alpha and omega of your experience? Maybe nothing at all: maybe that’s the sign of the greatest hope that a cultural critic could ever have, that someone can come to that culture without having their hands held and yet have questions afterwards that you can step in to answer. But it worries a bit that you’re the one reserved, holding back, fretting about the problem of transmedial adaptation or about whether the change in the ending matters or whether the film’s literalism is a good thing or a bad thing.

On the other hand: geek and non-geek agreement that Malin Akerman did a pretty crappy acting job as Silk Spectre II, while Jackie Earle Haley and Patrick Wilson were damn great as Rorschach and Nite Owl II, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian was also impressive.

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7 Responses to The Protection of the Uninitiated

  1. This is what we geeks and nerds forget: some of this stuff is good literature, and the deep context, while fun, really isn’t necessary. Having the context may make it Great (or, conversely, make it only OK), but it’s not necessary.

    I actually try to make that point about literature: the “high culture” and “classics” mostly exist and are revered not because they appealed to some abstract aestheticism, but because people enjoyed them over and over and over until other artists imitated them and did variations and it became a “classic” by hard-won longevity. Opera and Shakespeare, both overwrought in our imaginations, are great entertainment at a lot of levels without a whole lot of preparation, but we put them on pedestals and it kills them.

    Pete Seeger said, “The worst thing you can do to a song is make it official.” The worst thing you can do to a work of literature is make it a “classic.”

  2. fridaykr says:

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I am a huge fan of the graphic novel.

    Occasionally I find myself justifying the appeal of what I consider genre expanding works like Watchmen or the new Battlestar Galactica (before its recent decline) in conversations with those like my wife who are highly educated but who don’t share these interests.

    Since aesthetic discussions have a tendency to regress towards justifications of personal perference rooted in conceptions of self identity, I try to steer clear of these types of conversations. When I do engage in them, I try to describe a work in terms of what other works in its genre have done before it. In the case of science fiction, sometimes its appropriate to look across genres for these comparisons.

    That brings us to the Watchmen movie. What has been missing in so much of the mainstream reviews of the movie –NYTimes, Washingtonpost, Salon, etc. is this very comparison to other superhero movies, an attempt to situate the film within the conventions those movies, and at least an acknowledgement that this film is in many ways very very different.

    My wife will never see this movie, and even if she did, she probably wouldn’t enjoy it. But she did appreciate Watchmen more when I told her what the graphic novel repesented an attempt to show the superhero–and by extension the genre–as politically suspect, morally flawed, and sexually perverse.

  3. G. Weaire says:

    I won’t be seeing the film for a while, but, if Akerman’s performance is bad, that’s oddly appropriate – the character itself represents the least successful aspect of the source material (at least for me).

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, that’s true: she’s more a plot device than a fully realized character even in the graphic novel. Nite Owl II is really the sympathetic viewpoint character, and he’s handled very well in the same way in the movie. (Rorschach the accidental viewpoint character whose sociopathy is handled so sympathetically that a lot of people just overlooked the extent to which Moore means him to be repellant; that too the film captures pretty well.)

  5. evangoer says:

    It seems that for certain Extremely Smart Persons, the film didn’t capture that point obviously enough.

  6. Bob Rehak says:

    Tim: perceptive post — the issue of geek gate-keeping (or “Who Watches Those Who Watch the Watchmen?”) seems to me one of the interesting aspects of audience sociology emerging around transmedia franchises generally, which hinge on properties that are both unusually complex (requiring quite specific and abstruse reading competencies) and unusually profligate — adaptable and extensible to reach a wide audience. There’s a basic tension and instability there, and I wonder at what point a fault line will emerge between the forces that want to spread the gospel of great geek texts, and those that work to preserve it as a sacred, private reserve.

    As for the “cometary halo,” the problem with the model is that it propagates backwards in time, starting as a diffuse mist of knowledge and anticipation, then slowly converging to a single hard core when the media text itself goes “live.” In its countertemporality it’s like the Devron anomaly in “All Good Things …” — a reference I suspect you’ll get. Geek high five!

  7. AndrewSshi says:

    You know, this particular cultural momnet”–Look comic movies that aren’t just for kids anymore!”–leaves me with an odd sort of feeling. It’s the same as when LotR was big. Here’s something that was for the longest time my own private diversion, an interest whose co-sharers I could count on one hand, and now it’s splashed on a huge screen for everyone. It’s… unheimlich.

    I’m impressed at how Snyder’s pornography of violence meshed so well with Alan Moore’s repulsive nihilism. The end result was a very good movie that still left a really bad taste in my mouth.

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