All Along the Watchmentower
This is not a review of Watchmen. I had a fine time with the movie, and the subject of whether justice was done to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “unfilmable” graphic novel is being discussed at length just about everywhere else.
The thing that drove me crazy, though, was the use of music in the movie.
It’s not that “Watchmen” director Zack Snyder (or his music supervisor) picked bad songs to underscore certain scenes in the movie. It’s more that those choices hit the screen with the obviousness of a jackboot to the face. Not wrong choices, but easy choices. Lazy choices.
Warning: Possible Spoilers!
–Costumed Hero History montage: “The Times They Are A Changin’.” Yes, they are, we see that. Check.
–The Comedian’s Funeral? “Sounds of Silence.” hello darkness my old friend…yeah, a sad song from the sixties that’s associated with death. Check. (Side note: I betcha the Comedian wasn’t a Simon and Garfunkel fan)
–Ozymandias? “Everybody Wants to Rule The World.” Um, check.
–Long shot of Rorschach and Nite-Owl trudging through the snow to confront the bad guy in his lair? two riders were approaching and the wind began to howl… Hendrix’ “All Along the Watchtower,” hey wow, the lyric tells us what’s happening on screen…check.
To a certain extent it’s what we call “See and Say,” where the music so directly reflects what’s on screen it’s painful. Sort of like the “Literal versions” of 80’s music videos that are floating around.
One wonders why Snyder didn’t go all the way and stick “Bad To The Bone” under Rorschach’s entrance.
Now of course, as the astute reader will point out, “All Along the Watchtower” is used in the graphic novel, over the same sequence. Is it possible that in its lyric-only form in the book, stripped of the familiar Hendrix lead guitar and vocal, the reference is considerably less cringe-inducing (more of a hint than a bombardment, as a friend of mine put it)? Or is this just a lazy choice we can pin on Moore and Gibbons rather than Snyder?
(Though I will admit that, despite my dislike of the song placement, I thought that matching the guitar gliss in the middle of the solo with Archimedes cresting the cliff was a pretty genius move.)
Here’s another thought about the music. From a certain point of view, many of those songs should not have existed. Snyder seems to want to evoke an era by using music from that era, but that’s not what he ends up doing. Instead, he evokes an era in one universe by using music from the same calendar years in another universe. It’s shorthand for the audience but it’s slightly dishonest.
The world of Watchmen diverges substantially from our world when the costumed heroes appear, and then becomes almost completely unrecognizable when Dr. Manhattan shows up, and everything in the art direction and dialog reflects that. And the pop music of the 60s, 70s, 80s would too. With a different situation in Viet Nam and a totally different government response to domestic protests, rock would not have been what it was. Look at the scene where the hippy girl puts the flower in the National Guardsman’s rifle…and then he blows her away. Fantastic scene, very powerfully evocative, but do you think in a world where that happens CSNY would have written “Ohio?” Probably not, because if that was the response to protests in 1967 (the Washington Star photo that inspired this sequence was taken on October 21, 1967 at a protest march on the Pentagon), protests would be all done with by 1970, when the Kent State shootings happened. Also, dissident musicians may well have been rounded up and imprisoned in that world. So extrapolate from that, CSNY goes away, Creedence never writes “Fortunate Son,” they lock up or disappear Lennon, the Stones, Simon & Garfunkel, Country Joe and the Fish, and on and on, eradicating a healthy chunk of late 60s/early 70s music. And all the people those bands inspired…by the mid-80s you can bet “99 Luftbalons” or Tears For Fears wouldn’t be anywhere to be found; popular music in the world of Watchmen would be substantially different. So, many of the music choices violate the logic of the world that’s been created.
We talk about this in film and theatre: creating a believable world. Once you’ve created an alternate world or timeline, you shouldn’t break the rules of that world or timeline by introducing things that didn’t happen there. It breaks the contract you’ve made with your audience.
Or does it? Where’s the line between being bound to the logic of a created universe and giving the audience a signifier by which they can readily identify a setting, regardless of whether that signifier makes sense in context?