Wednesday, March 11, 2009

In an Alternate Reality

Today’s Tarot topic is Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen. No, seriously... this will connect back to the central subject of pre-Gébelin. Sort of. Eventually. But first we need some background, which is an opportunity to talk about a cool book and a cool film.

Overview of Watchmen

The main story takes place in 1985, and a classic Dreaded Outcome (in this case, World War III) is imminent. Tensions between the two superpowers have reached the breaking point and people feel that a nuclear holocaust is only days away. Things are not happening randomly, however, as a classic Evil Genius figure is shaping events according to a plan, following many years of preparation. The culmination of this plan involves a sci-fi teleportation device and the Kraken-like monster he built to take over the world. The titular Watchmen constitute a league of costumed heroes, outlawed since 1977, and one of them ultimately prevents the nuclear war.

The main story begins with the brutal murder of the Comedian, one of the Watchmen who is killed by the Evil Genius because he had learned of the plan. The story then follows the remaining members as they investigate his killing and try to prevent the seemingly inevitable war. Along the way we are introduced to the characters and their world in detail. After the climax in which WWIII is prevented, it appears than an age of world peace will finally arrive. A closing scene depicts an epilogue in which two of our heroes, the essentially decent Nite Owl and the lovely Silk Spectre, appear ready for their Happily Ever After. (She takes him home to meet mom—how sweet—and they’re talking about having kids.) The final scene suggests that the journal of Rorschach, another member of the Watchmen, may be published; published or not, his paranoid and misanthropic ravings would ultimately be dismissed.

All of the above sounds boringly conventional, but Moore’s characters, plot, and the narrative techniques are used in challenging ways. For example, although it is not an unusual twist for the chief "bad guy" to be one of ostensible "good guys", it is amazing to discover that his goal is also to prevent the Dreaded Outcome, and an even greater eye-opener is that his plan works perfectly, that he will in fact take over the world after killing millions using “sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads!”... I mean, using a giant psychic squid and a transporter machine. Regardless of the mad-scientist details, the climax is a terrorist attack on New York (written long before 9/11/01) which succeeds in frightening the world into a cooperative frame of mind so that the "bad guy" wins. Dr. Evil (tellingly named Ozymandias) takes over the world! Each element of Watchmen is sufficiently complex that the reader isn't quite sure whether preventing WWIII and bringing about world peace is such a great thing.

An Unfilmable Book

Just as the plot is twisted, the characters are all more or less perverse distortions of archetypal expectations. Both parts of the story, plot and characters, are art-house mutants rather than blockbuster bourgeois. The techniques of presenting these nasty elements are themselves complex, and most of them don’t translate well to a motion picture. Hence the "unfilmable" label famously applied to Watchmen. An interesting variety of such techniques is employed, each of which is technically doable in a film but all of which have a forced feel to them in that medium.

For example, there are countless textual and pictorial cross-references, sometimes several in a single panel. Such meaningful "Easter eggs" can certainly be planted in movies, (and fanboys will search them out on the DVD release), but they are almost always overlooked by the movie audience. In the graphic novel each panel can be appreciated fully, at leisure, before moving to the next. As another example, multiple past and present story lines are braided together. A single panel may have an image from one story and text from another while the next panel reverses the text and image sources. This is trivial to do and easy to follow in the graphic novel format, but it would quickly become an irritating gimmick onscreen. There is a separate work, a fictional graphic novel within Watchmen, a pirate story called Tales of the Black Freighter, which is also interwoven with the other stories. A single panel may have text or image from Tales along with text or image from one or two of the other story lines. Then there are the inserts at the end of each issue/chapter. These include chapters from one character's autobiography, an article on the history of comics in this alternate world, one character's psychiatric file, items from another character's scrapbook, an article written by yet another character, and so on. Such inserts can be used in a movie, as when Captain Willard reads Colonel Kurtz's dossier while traveling up-river. As with all these techniques, however, this cannot be used over and over throughout a movie the way it is used effectively, without distraction, in the graphic novel.

One of the most striking examples of the complexity of the book which was not even attempted in the movie is the Tales of the Black Freighter. There is no apparent way to include it which would be watchable, so it was cut out in its entirety. This meant that the mad scientist’s monster, a version of the Kraken, became oddly out of place. The bizarre creature was a wonderful part of the book, both for emphasizing the insanity and monstrous character of the Evil Genius Ozymandias and for the Kraken's appropriateness to a supernatural pirate story. It was the ultimate example of the interconnectedness of the different story-telling approaches and of Moore’s dramatic assault on expectations -- it was the right monster, but it appeared in the wrong story line. The movie smartly left out both the pirate tale and the Kraken-like monster. This not only made the movie much more doable, but also a bit less absurdest. (Taking out giant monsters tends to do that.)

Unfortunately, the "visionary" director (if visionary means "hack") also scrapped the book's defective transporter device, instead having Ozymandias invent a source of limitless free energy. This effectively changed the Mad Scientist character into a Heroic Benefactor, with an archetypal Great Boon for mankind. Apparently the director felt that the original storyline was, in fact, too dark to be made into a movie. The ostensible boon in the original work was preventing WWIII, which was neatly and completely offset by Ozymandias' fantastically horrific terrorist attack and the suggestion that he that he would then create a totalitarian "utopia". In this way the director abrogated the ugly impact of the original ending and, even worse, he awkwardly left traces of the old, botching both in the process.

It Might Have Been

The characters in Watchmen are grubby and complicated, the events are unpleasantly realistic in some ways, and well-known reality is used as a backdrop in many places. This gives it a kind of verisimilitude, a truthiness, a feeling we can relate to reality. (Assuming that we’re cynical bastards -- it’s a ugly story in which the crazy/bad guy prevails, and that might be a good thing!) However, even though many historical facts and events are referenced in the book and a semblance of reality is manufactured, probably no one is going to confuse the 80s of Watchmen with the actual 1980s. That would be insane. But maybe it’s a "coded" telling of certain secret truths. Maybe if we just eliminate a few of the obvious fantasy elements and obvious historical fiction, the rest of the story may represent -- either directly or as a kind of allegory -- things that really happened but which were suppressed. Maybe we can figure out what parts are true, and what parts are a valid allegory, and... maybe we can fix it... I mean, you can’t prove that a government agent, maybe even one called the “Comedian”, wasn't on the grassy knoll! Anything you can’t prove to be false is a “possibility”.

How fucking stupid would that be?!

That approach would be just as insane as mistaking the entire graphic novel for history. Watchmen is fiction. If someone wants to know the history of the 1980s, they don't start with a fictional work and try to keep as much of the fiction as possible. And yet, that is precisely the historical project that has occupied Tarot enthusiasts for over a quarter of a century. These folks begin with 18th and, mainly, 19th-century fiction about Tarot history, and attempt to rationalize as much of it as possible. For example, because the fiction said that Tarot was based on the Hebrew alphabet and Kabbalah, no opportunity is spared to invent new interpretations of historical Tarot and Christian Kabbalah. Things never imagined by the inventors of the fiction are now cooked up, such as the trumps being a Hebrew abecedarium. (Whisky-Tango-Foxtrot?) This shameless bullshit is treated as "historical research" by Tarot enthusiasts, who take their recycled fiction quite seriously. As another example, because the traditional fiction said that Tarot was invented for fortune-telling, every early reference to Tarot, or example of fortune-telling, or even an unrelated depiction of cardplay, is taken out of context and distorted until it appears to support the fiction. Again, new fictions are created from the old.

This approach is no more "historical" than it would be to start studying the 1980s by rationalizing Watchmen. That may seem to be a harsh comparison, but factually absurd tales, such as the Egyptian origins myth, and even fictions which were acknowledged as such by their original creators are still recycled as if they were legitimate historical theories. As an example of the former, in November of 2007 one of the most prominent Tarot authors, Mary Greer, led a tour group to Egypt. In promoting that tour she published an essay which is now available on a variety of Internet sites. The presentation culminated by introducing the well-known fraud perpetrated by Michael Poe, giving no indication that Poe’s fiction had been debunked years ago by Robert V. O’Neill and others. Poe’s hoax was itself based on earlier fictions going back to the origins of occult Tarot in the 1780s, but this too was not mentioned. Fictions that were originally presented as fiction continue to be treated as serious historical theses. Antoine Court de Gébelin’s own admitted imaginings, Tarot as a geographical game, have been recycled by a 21st-century writer with nothing better to offer. Arthur Waite’s Albigensian fiction, created and presented explicitly as an example of appealing pseudohistory, remains popular today in several variations. This sort of thing would be obvious lunacy in any other context, and yet is treated as historical research and analysis by Tarot enthusiasts.

Here is the Wired Magazine story on the "unfilmable" Watchmen movie.

No comments:

Post a Comment