March 13, 2009

Tribulation 99/Watchmen

A few months ago, Sight and Sound ran a feature on dream double bills. How about this one: Craig Baldwin's Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America and Zack Snyder's Watchmen. Both are secret histories of American power and paranoia, dark pop-political satire, but one film (Baldwin's) is made for the approximate cappuccino budget of the other (Snyder's). Or: how many Tribulation 99s could you get for US$120 million?

I'd seen Baldwin's subsequent films -- O No Coronado, Sonic Outlaws and Spectres of the Spectrum (that last title could almost work as an alternate Watchmen title) -- in various film festivals since the early 90s but not his name-making Tribulation 99 until I mail-ordered DVDs of that and Spectres of the Spectrum from Other Cinema in California, partly to prepare for his new, Scientology-inspired Mock Up on Mu. Arguably one of the late 20th century's most important experimental films, Tribulation 99 is a dense 48-minute collage film that tells the secret history of American intervention in Central and South America since World War II via a breathless narrator, craftily-edited found footage from educational films, forgotten B-movies and faded newsreels and through an apocalyptic structure based on sly appropriations from and rewritings of Revelation. As a Situationist-inspired agitator (remembering that it was the SI's central guru Guy Debord who said that "most films only merit being cut up to compose other works"), Baldwin turned Reagan-era supernatural credulity on its head: his story mixes true fact with strictly metaphorical versions of reality -- UFO attacks, aliens hiding inside the hollow Earth, Castro as unkillable being, Noriega as werewolf -- and asks you to discern the difference. The key fact is that most of its true story of assassinations and black ops was, and maybe still is, unknown to most Americans and therefore seems just as unlikely as occult folklore about, say, lizard creatures from another world. In the words of the Senses of Cinema reviewer:
Organised into 99 chapters, each with a terrifying title screaming out in full screen capital letters, the structure of the film invokes both conspiracy theories and biblical texts. And yet a great deal of the narration in Tribulation describes a readily verifiable history of American intervention in Central America from the 1960s through the 1980s. It is mixed in with vampires, voodoo and killer robots, but it is there.
Or, as Baldwin says in his DVD commentary, this "rant" is simply raising the CIA's own tendencies towards "paranoia, fantasy and imagination" to the next level. "It's a narrative that makes fun of narrative", he says. He's breaking up the traditional, journalistic relationship in documentaries between narrative and representation.

Outrage motivated it, Baldwin says -- outrage at Reagan, the Contras, Oliver North. But he wanted to avoid the "dry" leftist discourse of documentaries; he hoped to make a leftist documentary as funny and entertaining as his collection of shonky psychotronic movies. He calls the result a "political fantasy" but you could also call it a black comedy documentary. He was surely ahead of his time: just recently, film scholar David Bordwell, writing about animated documentary (thinking of Waltz with Bashir), found that "even imagery that seems to be wholly fictional -- animated creatures -- can present things that really happen in our world. This mode of filmmaking can bear vibrant witness to things that cameras might not, or could not, or perhaps should not, record on the spot." Put Tribulation 99's images firmly in the "should not" category.

Tribulation 99 is both stranger and more real than Watchmen. If the first is a (largely or generally) true story told in an unbelievable way, then the second is an obvious fiction told with blockbuster realism, and a product of the same kind of outrage in the same era. First, some history:
The ideal viewer — or reviewer, as the case may be — of the Watchmen movie would probably be a mid-’80s college sophomore with a smattering of Nietzsche, an extensive record collection and a comic-book nerd for a roommate.
That's AO Scott in the New York Times and I'd have to say that I'd be close to that ideal viewer. As would many thousands of others. I can remember when this stuff -- Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns especially -- first appeared and made an impact; when people stopped talking about comic books and started talking about graphic novels. I can remember a case being made for the psychological complexity of these Moore and Miller stories, but it wasn't a leap -- it all seemed to be of a piece with the way that the intellectual high ground and the pop-culture low ground were merging and crossing over in the 80s more generally, through publications like The Face. Comic books with serious, maybe pretentious ambitions didn't seem so far from music or fashion writing with serious, maybe pretentious ambitions.

Watchmen was surely the best of the lot. And now, nearly 25 years on, here's a movie so faithful to the comic that it's close to a exact replica. First thought: this would have been a flat-out masterpiece if it was released in 1989 not 2009, released instead of Tim Burton's Batman, which was the disappointingly inspid film that grew from that talk about psychologically complex, revisionist superhero comics -- owing a lot, as the Chris Nolan films also do, to Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Moore's Batman: The Killing Joke. But in 2009, Watchmen the movie can seem weirdly pointless. Yet it's also provocative, bizarre, serious, original, impeccably made and, 25 years on or not, still manages to push the superhero mythos to the very edge, further than anyone has taken it since and could ever take it (the movie won't kill off the superhero mythos, though, because the entertainment business keeps finding ways to re-charge its exhausted heroes: before this careful Watchmen adaptation, a trailer for a Star Trek prequel that resurrects characters who died before our eyes years ago; they were camp then, but now they're young and heroic again). The Watchmen film is a curiosity, a strange and perfect 80s artefact, with the just right mix of ambition, high seriousness and gloom. File it with other 80s films with the same qualities: Brazil, Blade Runner and Richard Kelly's 80s simulation, Donnie Darko.

As secret history: it still seems like a daring idea to have superheroes working as secret weapons of the US military, as the Comedian and Dr Manhattan do here. Wittiest throwaway: the Comedian is revealed as one of JFK's gunmen, a quick gag with huge implications and a moment that Craig Baldwin could have scripted, while Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changing" runs over an opening montage, civil-rights-era optimism souring into 80s nuclear-dread pessimism, the cold war at its coldest. The song now means the reverse: fear the future, even if that future came and went for us, just as Donnie Darko's apocalyptic 1988 did. Nixon and Kissinger are still running the show, with the president somehow in his fifth term. What kind of heroes for these near-fascistic times? Misanthropes, nihilists, vigilantes, psychopaths, more charismatic and persuasive than the good guys. The Comedian, dead at the start, is the second best character here; the best is surely Rorschach, a masked figure who narrates with Travis Bickle-like loner disgust:
"Rorschach's Journal: October 12th 1985. Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout 'Save us!' And I'll whisper 'no'."
So, different kinds of modes bump up against each other: seedy noir yarns, war stories, mystery cliches, superhero romance, the shifts of geopolitical history. And the original comic was a kind of jigsaw formed loosely from these parts and others (even comics within comics), one where the storyline itself was that much less important than the way it was being told -- yes, even the possible end of the world was a mcguffin. That was a very 80s thing -- you admired the craft, the intellectual skill, the clever pastiche, Moore's comic-book deconstruction. One of the best examples of the latter might be Moore's subversion of the villain's speech set piece -- why would Ozymandias/Veidt reveal his plan to the others only to give them a chance to foil it? But these meta-fictional tricks don't have the same impact in the film and some of the cliches just look like cliches again (worst offender: Laurie's repeated childhood flashbacks). And the film's ending is weirdly unsatisfying.

Still, there's a lot to admire about this. Why do they call it the Citizen Kane of comic books? Partly for its tricks of flashback and perspective, piecing together an inconclusive truth. It was, Iain Thomson wrote in a widely-quoted essay, a book designed to be re-read, although that doesn't necessarily mean it's a film made to be re-watched. The unprepared viewer might expect a triumphant third act -- maybe Dr Manhattan staring down the Soviets in Afghanistan -- but there's only Moore's anarchist, power-critiquing view: his idea that to invest faith in superhero icons was to surrender personal responsibility to, in his words, "the Reagans, Thatchers, and other 'Watchmen' of the world who are supposed to 'rescue' us and perhaps lay waste to the planet in the process". ("Watchmen makes the case," Iain Thomson said, "that if our superhero fantasies were realised, our world would be radically altered and not for the better"). And I guess I also admire the film-makers for making the perverse decision to so carefully, even obsessively duplicate the original comic. At least one of the many directors who came and went since 1987, when the rights were first sold -- Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass, Darren Aronofsky included -- talked of updating the story to the age of Al-Qaeda. More crooks in the White House, more nutters in central Asia: why not? But you would have lost the older, dirtier New York of the comic and you would have run the risk that a much duller vision than Moore's was now shaping the satire. So the ordinary, efficient Zack Snyder might have turned out to be the right choice: in Dawn of the Dead, 300 and now this, he's the director you trust to make careful, commercial copies, with just a little fine-tuning towards crisp, nasty, 21st century video-game violence (the kind of violence we get a lot of here). As in his Dawn remake, you can then take the satire for granted, hoping or knowing that it's seeped in from the original work, so you just enjoy the scenery.

Finally, a quick note on soundtrack choices: I'd agree with AO Scott that we need a moratorium on "Hallelujah" (it's not that I'm not a fan). And "99 Luft Balloons"? Come on. Even "Two Tribes" would have been better. But what did 1985 sound like? From memory, "Nemesis" by Shriekback, "Love like Blood" by Killing Joke. That last one would give you your smattering of Nietzsche as well ...