Thursday, March 12, 2009

'Watchmen' Re-visited

Fig.1: The Point of the Film

Imagine a world in which a human being developed god-like powers and put them to military use. War might soon be a thing of the past - although a lot of people might die to prove it. Imagine this world also tolerating people who dress up in costumes to avenge crime, before, as worlds often do, turning its back on these vigilantes in search of another scapegoat on whom to project its hunger for violence. Imagine a world in which some people actually thought about the consequences of these things.

This is the world of ‘Watchmen’, one of the most serious and elegant graphic novels ever written. This is not the world of ‘Watchmen’, one of the most talked about movies ever made.

In the moral universe of the novel, co-created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons as a meditation on power at the height of the Cold War, Richard Nixon is, in 1985, the apparently permanent President, celebrity and industry have struck a devil’s bargain with politics and militarism, the streets run dark red with the aftermath of the shattering of community bonds, and vigilantism is an inevitable outworking of society’s sickness. The costumed avengers, as they call themselves, have been banned from their activities, Nixon having made masks illegal (which gives you a sense of the knowing ironic tone of the book); most of them have retired, happy to be left alone, but quietly grieving a previous life so exciting that it can’t be compared to what they have now.

One of them is the god-like being – Dr Manhattan – who is introduced to the world with the headline: ‘The Superman exists and he is American’ (Later a colleague clarifies the intent, revising his statement thus: ‘God exists, and he is American’. He offers words of comfort to anyone who feels terrified by such a sentiment, saying that their fear is merely an indication that they haven’t lost their minds entirely.) This telegraphs the heart of the book: when power is treated as right rather than privilege, when violence is assumed to be the path to peace, when people define themselves primarily as nations rather than a global community, and when sexuality is wrapped up with force, you get perpetual war.

The book is utterly fascinating, bleak, and serious.

The film gets the second part right. It’s bleak. Bleak as hell. And I mean that as literally as I can. In the moral universe of the ‘Watchmen’ movie all reflective thought is banished in favor of an astonishing visual setup – one of the most stunning-look films ever made turns out to be also one of the biggest missed opportunities. Is violence inherent to human nature? Do people always default to selfishness? Does fame depend on the exploitation of others? In what sense does the love of money lead inexorably to the destruction of community? These, and many other questions are left quietly alone; allowing the movie to indulge its (admittedly talented) director’s taste for showcase thuggery. You’ve never seen blood flow like you do in this movie.

In spite of some good casting alongside the quite brilliant photography and art direction, the film is a far cry from the somber philosophical text on which it’s based. Moore has said that, among other things, he wanted to explore what ‘a Batman-type, driven, vengeance-fuelled psychopath would be like in the real world’. Clearly the authorial intent was to ask serious questions about how we allow violence to be done in our name. Yet the film presents this ‘Batman-type’ character in such a manner that at the first screening I saw, when he carried out an horrific act of violence, the audience applauded. I don’t think the film-makers were being ironic. When the story in the novel climaxes with a ‘kill a few to save a lot’ ending, we may be supposed to wonder if there might just be a better way to bring peace than to commit genocide. But the film doesn’t have enough heart to make us care about the future of humanity. It’s a color photocopy of the source novel – a clone without a soul. ‘Watchmen’ (the novel) aims to tell the truth about violence; but the film wants us to be excited by it. In a world with vengeance-fuelled superheroes running the show, people would be afraid to be afraid; but ‘Watchmen’ the movie made me feel afraid for how we often tell the story of human beings to each other these days. The book mourns how we so often see violence as a positive path. But the film celebrates it.

Fig.2: The Point of the Book

Monday, March 09, 2009

A Response to New Violence in Northern Ireland

UPDATE 10.45pm: It's been reported that a police officer has been shot dead in Craigavon. Whether this is connected to the murders in Antrim is unclear. But I feel even more strongly about everything I wrote earlier today. There has never been any justification for the use of violence to achieve political ends in Northern Ireland; and for at least the last decade there has been no intellectual logic to even pretending such justification.

On Saturday night, two young soldiers preparing to go to Afghanistan were murdered in Antrim, Northern Ireland. Four other people, including two men delivering pizzas, were injured. The people who carried out the attack — members of a group that split from the mainstream IRA in the late 1990s — claim they were doing so to bring about a free Ireland. They make the callous claim that the pizza delivery guys were collaborating with what they consider to be the British occupation forces in Ireland.

It’s hard to know what to say in response, but let’s begin with a reminder of the political context.

In short, from 1997 onwards, after 30 years of civil conflict in which our society saw illegal paramilitary groups and British security forces engage, nearly 4,000 people were killed, 43,000 physically injured: we negotiated with each other.

The vast majority of Irish people, North and South, voted in a free referendum over 10 years ago to endorse the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. The government of the Irish Republic supports this agreement. So does the government of the U.K. And the European Parliament. And the U.S. government. And the United Nations.

The agreement required serious and substantial compromise from each community; it was hard-won, and some of the costs of the agreement are still difficult to bear. It has brought about the release of all prisoners held for politically-motivated offenses; the reform of the police to the extent where a (U.S.) oversight commissioner pronounced it one of the most progressive police services in the world; the enactment of some of the most radical and humane equality and human rights legislation anywhere on the planet; and a power-sharing executive government whose very modus operandi includes neither Protestant/unionist nor Catholic/nationalist representatives from vetoing the other side.

Every community in Northern Ireland has had to compromise, and every community has gained. Our past is a broken one; we’re trying to fix it. The people who murdered the soldiers and seriously injured PIZZA DELIVERY GUYS on Saturday are motivated by a mixture of historical falsehood and the human tendency to blood lust, along with whatever personal stories may have forced them into thinking that violence is an acceptable path. They are wrong. And anyone who tries to justify this kind of act betrays the best of what it means to be Irish. I am left with feelings of deep offense alongside the sorrow I feel for the loved ones of those who have died, been wounded, and the rest of the people of my home, Northern Ireland, whose traumatic memories of the past have now been re-stirred. Including my own.

But angry rhetoric is not what we need right now. We need to assert something vital: that being northern Irish, or Irish, or simply human is never to be just ‘one thing.’ I am from Belfast, but you cannot easily put me in a political or religious box. Within the past two generations I have family ties to people from just about the widest demographic background possible in 20th century Ireland. Protestant. Catholic. Irish. British. Pro-state. Anti-state. Political. Apolitical. Bereaved. Suffering. Peacemaking. To those who would return to violence as a method for political action, I say: If you want to remove the British, you’d have to kill half of me. On the other hand, if you want to hurt the Irish, take the other half. If we’re honest, we may all find that our backgrounds grant us more in common with our supposed enemies than we usually think.

I am close to people who lived to see their loved ones murdered. The killing was done by Irish ‘rebels’ who believed they were trying to start a revolution, and by pro-British ‘loyalists’ telling themselves that they were trying to stop one. That’s over now. Or it’s supposed to be.

The people who killed two young men and shot four others on Saturday night may think they’re trying to get the revolution started again. They’re wrong. The revolution has already come. It came when our political representatives decided to forgo the right to revenge and negotiate a settlement in which nobody wins (except everybody) and nobody loses (except everybody). Because of this revolution, we can each have a stake in the future of our society; and the past can be addressed through nonviolent, non-punitive means. It has cost us a great deal. There can be no one who is totally satisfied with every aspect of the Northern Ireland peace process – I’ll gladly tell you what bothers me about it if you ask. But complaint, and much less revenge, won’t serve us – even as we are outraged at the weekend’s horror. For the larger truth is that while it has always been true that there has never been any justification for the use of violence for political ends in Ireland and Northern Ireland, today, and for at least the last decade, there can be no way of even pretending such a justification exists.