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by Bill Gibron

2 Mar 2009

It is bound to be the biggest issue debated come Friday. It will be far more contentious than how big the box office will be, Dr. Manhattan’s constant state of obvious “endowment”, or the removal of several subtexts. No, what fanboys and freshman to the entire Watchmen experience will surely be hair-splitting over the ending Zack Snyder and his screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have come up with for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic graphic novel. It will definitely be the focus of more than one review, and will perhaps turn some potentially favorable notices in strangled, sour pans. One thing’s for sure - of all the things the filmmakers could fiddle with, the Squid is clearly a comic book - sorry, graphic novel - sacred cow.

For those who want to go into the entire Watchmen experience unaffected by spoilers, this may be your point of literary departure. It is impossible to discuss this element of the book and film without giving away the major plot points in both. Again, you have been warned. For its main story thread, Watchmen revolves around a group of masked vigilantes, once active, now banned by the US government. As tensions between America and the Soviets escalate, the world is pushed to the point of nuclear annihilation. Only the superhero Dr. Manhattan - the only member of the group with any true power - can stop the slaughter. But according to paranoid crimefighter Rorschach, there is a conspiracy to stop anyone from saving the day. One by one, the masked avengers are killed, compromised, and framed for crimes they did not commit.

In the end, it turns out that (SPOILER ALERT - LAST WARNING) Adrian Veidt (also known as Ozymandias), desperate to mimic his hero Alexander the Great, has orchestrated a massive hoax to “scare” the nations of the world into working together toward peace. In the case of Alan Moore’s novel, the event in question is the arrival of a huge alien squid who terrorizes and destroys most of New York City. The character known as the Comedian is killed because he stumbles upon the plan. Rorschach is set up as a murderer because he insists upon investigating the man’s death. Even Dr. Manhattan is condemned as being the cause of cancer in many of his former associates. The allegations make him leave Earth, thereby guaranteeing Adrian minimal interference with his plan. The mock invasion does occur, and he is proven right. America and the Soviets vow to help each other, while the remaining heroes decide to keep quite about what happened.

For Snyder’s take on the material, the entire finale has been reconfigured. Instead of a giant squid, Dr. Manhattan’s matter transforming power is harnessed by Adrian and turned into a nuclear-style weapon. He detonates several of these “devices” around the world - not just in New York but LA, Moscow, and Hong Kong (among others). Naturally, everyone understands that Manhattan is the only “source” of this immense force, and in true Dark Knight style, our muscular blue champion decides to play the threat and take the fall “for the better of mankind”. He will let the powers that be worry that he, not each other, will be the final destruction of mankind. Again, everyone agrees to keep Adrian’s secret, and toward the end, we see the philanthropic side of the man coming out once again as his mega-conglomerate is show redeveloping the huge crater in the middle of the Big Apple. 

If you had never read the graphic novel, the change wouldn’t bother you at all. The entire subtext in Snyder’s Watchmen (and with Moore more or less, come to think of it), is nuclear annihilation. The comic came out during the chilliest part of the Cold War, right as Reagan was confronting the USSR about their unprecedented build up of arms. Everywhere, especially in Europe, proliferation was condemned, and the concept that we might actually end some disagreement with a barrage of A-bombs was part of our foreign policy. So Moore was taking a timely stance when he delivered Watchmen. The actual Doomsday Clock was actually pushing toward that ominous hour of Midnight. Snyder has simply stepped in and expanded upon it (to wonderful effect, one might add).

But what about those of you loyal to Moore’s original vision? What about the millions of devoted readers who see the squid as the ultimate “outside force”, a threat much greater because of its otherworldly - and unexplainable - nature. Why turn Dr. Manhattan into something malevolent when he’s more philosophical than evil? Well, it seems clear that Snyder was influenced by two factors - one editorial and one contemporaneous. Watchmen the movie could not possibly capture all the aspects of Moore’s dense and detailed narrative. Some elements had to be sacrificed. One of the key facets not found in Snyder’s version is the horror themed comic Tales of the Black Freighter. The story of a shipwrecked sailor and his blood-drenched journey home is important for two reasons. First, it parallels Adrian’s own insane ideas about sacrifice, and, two, it is drawn by a fictional artist, now gone missing, who is later tied to the squid attack.

Clearly, without any of the Black Freighter material in the film - even at two hours and forty minutes, Snyder still couldn’t work it in - the artist/squid material would seem unusual. One moment, the world is worried about mutually assured destruction. The next, a big sea creature is killing innocent New Yorkers. Even in the graphic novel, it takes several pages of exposition before we “get” Adrian’s idea. In the movie, this is not necessary. Nuclear war is so omnipresent and important to the narrative that when the Dr. Manhattan device goes off, producing the same result, the devastation draws an immediate and sheepish response from world leaders. Besides, with the limited effectiveness of such films as Godzilla and Cloverfield, would a visualized monster really work?

Watchmen is centered around humans and their obvious flaws and frailty that to offer up some kind of creature feature deus ex machina dilutes that idea. Not that Moore didn’t deliver a devastating finale for his book. Far from it. In fact, on the page, in simple static imagery, the squid works wonderfully. It has the effect and scope the story needs. But since the medium of film infers a great deal of ‘dimension’ to any story, making the squid real would mean offering it up for scrutiny - and that’s not necessarily the best thing for a complicated story’s denouement. Now, we get the destruction without dissecting the source. The payoff is still the same, and in many ways, the aftermath is more powerful, more realistic. As a result, it keeps Watchmen centered in a universe of people.

Still, there will be quibbling. Some will state that Snyder sucker punched Moore by sticking so closely to the source only to “jump ship” toward the end. They will then extrapolate still more fuel for the author’s “I hate adaptations” fire. Purists will simply balk out of allegiance, while those new to the film will wonder what all the hubbub is about. In the end, squid or no squid, Watchmen works because of its underlying themes and symbols. There is more to it than some alien entity. Still, many won’t be able to see the catastrophe for the calamari - and that’s sad indeed.

by Rob Horning

2 Mar 2009

The Atlantic’s new business site (which it annoyingly calls a “channel”) recently posted an interesting but fairly cryptic article by anthropologist Grant McCracken, looking at potential shifts in consumer behavior in the downturn. He outlines several possibilities in relation to a concept he doesn’t really explain here, the “Diderot effect.” Diderot, an 18th-century intellectual, wrote an essay about being given a fancy dressing gown, which made everything else he owned feel shabby to him. Thus, he explains in the essay, he needed to replace the rest of his stuff to maintain consistency among his belongings at the new level of their perceived status. The assumption is that we instinctively strive for that uniformity in our possessions—that we want to communicate a coherent portrait of our cultural capital by having a collection of things whose meaning is readily legible to others and that don’t embody too many internal contradictions. Pushing it further, we may pursue this consistency to convey a coherent sense of our identity to ourselves—we don’t know who we really are until we see ourselves reflected back to ourselves in a cogent group of possessions.

I’m a bit skeptical about this internal urge to consistency; it’s possible that this tendency is encouraged by advertising and marketing efforts to promote what a coherent set of belongings should be, promulgating associations between objects to establish a society-wide understanding of what makes for the standard-issue set at various status levels. In other words, mass media advertising and the content it supports encourage the establishment of “lifestyles,” the logical extension of what Diderot was writing about as a personal idiosyncrasy.

The coalescence of lifestyles may have the laudatory effect of elevating what makes for a subsistence level of consumption in our collective understanding—it couples irrefutable necessities like food and shelter together with more nebulous goods—education, media—that allow people a minimal sense of social belonging. But while this minimum standard has improved in absolute terms over the days of starvation wages, recently it hasn’t improved in relative terms. Income inequality has increased; barriers to social mobility have hardened. That suggests, in turn, that the distinctive goods that we use to make those class barriers known have become more visible and more inaccessible, notwithstanding the supposed democratization of luxury. That widely touted pre-crash trend demonstrated how an improvement in “real” standards can nevertheless leave social class in place. Democratized luxuries are just evident knock-offs, declassé goods that mark the inferiority of their owners to those higher in the hierarchy. The hypocritical cant about “democracy” that’s evoked is a perfect example of ideological inversion—Orwellian Newspeak.

But what happens now, with the recession leveling off all consumption? If consumption was the proimary way of policing class borders, does the fact that there will be less of it imply that those barriers have become more permeable? That more of us can pass as a member of a higher status group through clever and thrifty purchases? Will some other manner of social display more widely available come to signify status?

McCracken’s post doesn’t exactly deal with that question, but it gets at the microfoundations of status consumption. He offers several different possibilities for what will happen to consumption in the wake of the recession. First, everyone could scale back, leaving the existing hierarchy in place, only a lower level. Then with recovery, it will merely ramp back up. Alternatively, certain items of distinction will become more valuable and more cherished, and sacrifices will be made to hold on to the ability to purchase these specific exceptions.So rather than social class being signaled by a collection of goods, it will temporarily come to be signaled by one expensive good.

But is it possible that the new, scaled-back levels will prove “sticky”? McCracken writes,

Displeasure, as we move to a lower level of consumption, might for some consumers eventually lose its sting and turn to comfort too. Or not. The question is whether we might habituate to a lower level of spending.  I think this can only happen if some of the deeper cultural drivers of the consumer culture fall silent.  These would include competitive spending. (This is largely dead among some Millenials.)  It would also include the wish to stay in fashion or in touch with the curve.  (Here too some young consumers are turning their backs on fashion, especially the branded, mainstream variety.)  There are positive forces: the wish to go green, to “save the planet,” this has been the great staple of elementary school education and it is now on the verge of being installed in our culture as orthodoxy.  (This is no doubt as it should be.)  This is where we really have to do our anthropology: what are the cultural drivers that might intervene here and lock consumption habits into place.

I’m pretty skeptical that there are any such cultural drivers—capitalism relies too much on competition for its dynamism for anything to override those sorts of pressures.

by PopMatters Staff

2 Mar 2009

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Turtles Can Fly. That’s a sad fucking movie.

2. The fictional character most like you?
Tyler Durden from Fight Club.

3. The greatest album, ever?
Fugazi’s 13 Songs. Nobody has ever done anything like this record, or like this band.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars, I mean, have you seen Trekkies?

5. Your ideal brain food?
A good book in a small mom and pop cafe sipping on a hot chocolate…

by Jason Gross

2 Mar 2009

Though Slate is (in)famous for their whole contrary ‘tude, scribe-maven Jack Shafer is pretty astute about the beat that he covers.  In a recent column where he tried to tackle the problem that’s driving the news industry nuts (‘how do you get online users to pay for content?’), as he looked for some answers, citing some places that had good models for it.  One of them was Apple, who’s now the numero uno music retailer.  I took issue with using that as an example that the news trade could follow and had this e-mail conversation with him.

JG: “Interesting column but you leave out a few things about Apple.  Jobs and company make their real money off of selling iPods and not the music, where they get razor-thin profits after the record companies take out their cut.  The iPods are the important component because they’re a sleek, sexy device that has status, which is why the Zune couldn’t beat it out, even if they were making a superior product.  If an enterprising publication wanted to follow that model, they’d have to come up with their own hot digital toy that captivates consumers and that might not be the most productive use of their time right now.”

JS: “How much do you think they’ve made off the 6 billion tunes they’ve sold through the store?”

JG: “I’ve seen pie-charts which detail how much goes to labels, publishers and Apple (which say that Apple gets the short end) but doing a quick search, this is what I came up with :http://forums.appleinsider.com/showthread.php?threadid=73926

JS: “I’ll take 10 percent of $6 billion any time. That seems like a great profit!”

JG: “Right but the point isn’t the amount but the percentage.  Newspapers can’t hope to get that kind of total profit and thus, they’d get pretty skimpy money from a similar model, assuming that it would work for them.”

JS: “10 percent is an excellent margin for just selling something somebody else manufactured. Grocery stores get like 1 percent of sales.”

JG: “There’s this too from Business Week: ‘But the iTunes metaphor cannot be extended to news. Music fans have long paid for small chunks of artists’ work­think singles or ringtones. There is no such analogue for news or print products. And for over 10 years companies that have tried to set up online micropayment services for content sites have gone bust.’”

Later, I also found this column by the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz who sounded like he agreed with me that iTunes isn’t a good model for newspapers, even if former Time editor Walter Isaacson seemed to think so:

“People keep songs for a lifetime; news stories are ephemeral. And why would readers pay anything for, say, a Los Angeles Times piece on Hollywood when they can read Tinseltown news on Yahoo, Google, AOL, Huffington Post, Drudge and a thousand other Web sites? (Yes, most of these sites recycle and pontificate on the original reporting done by newspapers, but that distinction is lost on many folks.)”

So who’s right?  Shafer and Isaacson or Kurtz/Business Week?

by John Bohannon

2 Mar 2009

I’m about 100% positive that I’m not the only sucker out there for some vintage psychedelia. Radio Moscow is the type of down-home bred band we all imagine. You know, the no name town (Story City, Iowa), the direct influences (Peter Green, Nuggets compilations, really any psychedelic guitar god), and the boy prodigy (insert Parker Griggs). But make no mistake, these boys are the real deal, and the proof is coming on their upcoming album, Brain Cycles, releasing April 14th.

Having the backing of the Black Keys and Alive records, the band has recently been able to find themselves in a perfect position to stone minds all around the country and have a little fun in the process. But hear, hear! Don’t come into this with a nasty attitude against psychedelic music, because if you do, then a band like Radio Moscow will never be for you. But if you want to sit back and let the wah-wahs and blues-driven guitar solos blow your mind, do yourself a favor, and check out the new single “Broke Down”.

Radio Moscow
“Broke Down” [MP3]

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