Watchmen: The Opening Credits

I’m only about eight months late with this post, but 1) it’s a new blog and 2) I am teaching Watchmen right now and it’s on my mind.

Warning: this is a LONG post and somewhat rambling. I plan on saving the tightened version for the book.

That said, I have to say that I was somewhat disappointed with Watchmen the film. Although I don’t know what I would cut, it was far too long. It was great to look at, but after a while the special effects were too much. In the end, it was about as good as I can imagine it being, but something was still lacking, probably the characters’ backstories. What was missing was their past interactions, or something. Whatever it was, I found their interactions somewhat unbelievable; I could not understand, base don the film, why they reacted to each other the way they did. The book provides the context for those interactions. Also, there is something very strange about seeing such well-drawn (forgive me) characters suddenly move in a different medium. The film looks so much like the novel that it’s too-close and becomes an adventure through the uncanny valley. Nevertheless, I am big fan of the novel and a fan of the film, but I think I was always going to be disappointed by the latter considering my feelings about the former.

However, I cannot understand the lack of regard the film received from mainstream critics, who, as critics, one would expect to have some understanding of the film and what it does. Consider A.O. Scott’s review for the NYTs. Scott begins by lamenting the length of the film, and notes that having Cr. Manhattan’s powers might make watching the film more endurable: “Also, an enhanced temporal perspective would make it possible to watch “Watchmen” not in 2009 but back in 1985, when the story takes place, and when the movie might have made at least a little more sense.” Scott continues to argue that the film has as its audience a man who as in college when the book came out, into Nietzsche and New Wave/synth pop. Writes Scott, “Somewhat remarkably, Mr. Snyder’s film freezes its frame of reference in the 1980s, preserving the dank, downcast, revanchist spirit of the original and adding a few period-specific grace notes of its own [. . .]”. His conclusion with regard to the film’s historical moment vis-a-vis that of the novel: “As it is, the film is more curiosity than provocation, an artifact of a faded world brought to zombie half-life by the cinematic technology of the present.”

Scott continues from there to note that the film’s opening credit sequence “seems to acknowledge the project’s anachronistic, nostalgic orientation.” And while Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin'” no doubt signals nostalgia for many, the sequence cannot understood to be pure nostalgia, or at least not the nostalgia Scott imagines: that of aging hippies for a past when the world was till full of possibilities. After all, are any of us pining for the days of Dr. Manhattan? Or the original Minutemen? Can we be nostalgic for a past that never happened? Of course, we might argue that all nostalgia takes as its object a past that never happened, that nostalgia operates in the gap between the way things were and the way we wish things had been. However, any nostalgia invoked in the Watchmen credits fails in that respect and instead posits itself as a sort of longing-for-a-better-version-a-past-that-never-happened-and-went-bad-anyway. That is, the film (much like the novel) is about undermining the facile and juvenile wish for a past full of superheroes who would have stopped the Kennedy assassination, the Cold War, etc. What Moore/Gibbons and now Snyder know, and thereby represent, is that such superheroes would either fail to stop the disasters of the mid-20th century, create new ones they would not be able to solve, or, as it turns out, both. So while the novel and film withhold from us our fantasy, it offers perhaps the opportunity for a meta-nostalgia in which we might have the “real” superhero past, the past we were promised in previous superhero comics. We want a better version of this fiction. I think that the film’s politics operate here.

In any case, I will have more to say about nostalgia below, and here wish to deal with Scott’s second term: “anachronistic.” I would argue, aside from being the best thing in the film by far, the opening credit sequence, when read in the context of the film, is a profound and sober statement about how we came to be where we are.

Even before its release, Watchmen had a complex relationship with its soundtrack. The trailer for the film featured Smashing Pumpkins’ “The Beginning is the End is the Beginning,” originally written for and released on the soundtrack for Batman and Robin (arguably the worst big-budget superhero film of all time; maybe one of the worst films of all time, period). The trailer:

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more about “Dailymotion – Watchmen – Trailer – un…“, posted with vodpod

With the inclusion of “The Beginning is the End is the Beginning” here, the connections between Watchmen and the Dark Knight become even more complex than they already were. Rorschach (vigilantism, psychosis from a traumatic childhood), Night Owl (technology), and Ozymandias (wealth, athleticism) all share certain characteristics with Bruce Wayne/Batman. The tone of the novel is close to that of certain Batman texts, and one of the most significant, if non-canonical, of those texts was published at almost exactly the same moment as Watchmen: The Dark Knight Returns. With the trailer, Watchmen is tied to the worst of the Batman franchise, as if to both acknowledge it and to overcome it. Of course, that the trailer was first seen running before The Dark Knight is somewhat comical, as that film would go on to become one of the highest grossing films of all time, on the strength of perhaps being the best superhero film ever made (and, as an aside, proof that Hollywood can make money on franchises that don’t suck).

Along with these associations, the song (which was one of a pair of matched tracks Smashing Pumpkins contributed to the Batman & Robin soundtrack, the other being “The End is the Beginning is the End”) speaks on its own through its pondering beat, somber chords, and brooding lyrics (incidentally, both Smashing Pumpkins’ songs point to a mood that Batman & Robin cannot achieve and in may respects surpass the film they should support). (One of the most interesting shots in the trailer is of the flag being snapped over the Comedian’s grace. It’s timed so perfectly with the beat of the song that I wonder if the visual was altered in any way for the purposes of the match. That would mean the film was edited for the purpose of its trailer.) Consider the first verse:

Send a heartbeat to
The void that cries through you
Relive the pictures that have come to pass
For now we stand alone
The world is lost and blown
And we are flesh and blood disintegrate
With no more to hate

Is it bright where you are
And have the people changed
Does it make you happy you’re so strange
And in your darkest hour
My old secrets laid
We can watch the world devoured in its pain

On one hand, these lyrics are generic to the point of being applicable to any moody film, and particularly a moody superhero film, and thus establish certain generic conventions. On the other hand, the call to “relive pictures that have come to pass” clearly works with Watchmen, a film that is, again, about a certain kind of nostalgia and makes heavy use, following the book, of photography as a theme.

And note that the book is NOT about the same nostalgia as the film. That is, while the book is about how 1985 came to be the present, the film is about how that year came to be the past, a past which itself has inflected the film’s present. This last point is somewhat buried in the film, and I will elaborate on this point below. For now, suffice it to say that both texts are concerned with the mid-80s, the Cold War, etc, but where one approaches those issue as present and therefore important, the other situates them historically as influences on a subsequent present.

Thus when we are presented with the opening credit sequence, we should not immediately read its use of Dylan as an attempt to recall a past that was full of promise. In fact, “The Times They Are a-Changin'” itself has a history that denies such a reading. Written in September/October 1963, it has been hailed as a protest song. However, even as Dylan sang it to signal revolution, forces counter to such ends were already at work. Dylan opened a concert with the song on 23 November 1963, the day after Kennedy was assassinated (an event portrayed, in a re-imagined form, in the credit sequence), which occurred about a month after he recorded the song. Dylan, as told to his biographer Anthony Scaduto:

I thought, ‘Wow, how can I open with that song? I’ll get rocks thrown at me.’ But I had to sing it, my whole concert takes off from there. I know I had no understanding of anything. Something had just gone haywire in the country and they were applauding the song. And I couldn’t understand why they were clapping, or why I wrote the song. I couldn’t understand anything. For me, it was just insane.

Any nostalgia connected to the song is confused at best. While I am not surprised that such an emotion is connected to Dylan–after all it seems every “special” episode of The Wonder Years ended with a Dylan song, and one even used this one IIRC–history always undercuts the longing we feel for the past when we recall that the past was never so homogeneous as we would like it to have been.

The novel, which is steeped in Dylan references, does not explicitly reference this song as a song. Of course, the first chapter ends with a quotation from Dylan’s “Desolation Row”: “At midnight all the agents, and the superhuman crew/Go out and round up everyone that knows more than they do.” Chapter X ends with the following lines from Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”: “Outside in the distance, a wild cat did growl/Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.” Each of these songs interact with the novel’s text and imagery in complex ways, and each appears in the film as cover songs: the Hendrix version of “Watchtower” and My Chemical Romance’s version of “Desolation Row,” which is played over the closing credits (with great significance, I might add).

No, the only reference to “The Times They are A-Changin'” in the text comes at the very end of the, at the conclusion of the final of the inter-chapters, at the end of chapter XI. There we find an interview with Adrian Veidt followed immediately by an ad for Nostalgia by Veidt, the cologne that Rorschach wears, the cologne advertised during Laurie and Dan’s failed attempt at sex, the cologne which Laurie accidentally brings to Mars, whose bottle shatters on the Martian landscape. the tagline for this advertisement: “The times, they are a’changin”, rendered in a futuristic font. This ad seems to justify a nostalgia for the past in the face of an uncertain future, a nostalgia shared by all of the texts main characters in one fashion of another. This ad reminds us that 1) the times may change for the better or for the worse and 2) not everyone longs for the same past: in the novel both conservative and liberal characters long for different things in the past, different points at which their ideal worlds were possible.

But let’s consider the sequence itself.

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more about “Dailymotion – Watchmen – opening cred…“, posted with vodpod

EDIT: Okay, so the credit sequence is always on again, off again. Copyright, etc. So, if you haven’t seen it, try Google or, while it lasts, here.

The credit sequence is divided into 22 vignettes in roughly chronological order, each dealing with some aspect of the history of superheroes in the Watchmen universe as it intertwines with US political history and popular culture. In order, here they are:

  1. Night Owl I is photographed while stopping a mugging and perhaps inadvertently stops the origin of Batman (note the family in the background and the poster for the opera)
  2. Silk Spectre I is photographed while holding a newspaper whose headline is a reference to Silk Spectre
  3. The Comedian, in Minutemen-era garb, is photographed while stopping a robbery
  4. Original Minutemen group photo
  5. Silk Spectre’s image on the side of a WWII-era bomber, perhaps the Enola Gay under an alt-history name; the first shot that doe snot include a specific instance of medial inscription, although SS’s pin-up pose on the bomber makes reference to a medium that has close thematic ties to superhero comics
  6. Shot begins with a newspaper headline announcing Japanese surrender at conclusion of WWII; pull pack until Silhouette comes into view; she is photographed when she grabs a nurse and kisses her in a reference to this famous shot of a sailor kissing a nurse after coming home from the war
  7. Dollar Bill, killed while trying to stop a bank robbery, is photographed with his cape stuck in a revolving door (this is the shot in which things begin to go wrong, perhaps because of the conclusion of the war which provided clearly defined enemies and not the shadows the Cold War would provide and Dr. Manhattan is supposed to solve; perhaps because of the reference in the previous shot to homosexuality, which causes a nostalgic reaction for the good old days)
  8. Sally Jupiter, with the Minutemen, is photographed at her retirement in an arrangement that invokes the Last Supper (continuing the theme of decline implied in the previous shot or shots)
  9. Mothman is photographed while being taken into custody for mental illness
  10. Silhouette and her lover are found murdered in bed; they are photographed via a forensic camera
  11. Young Walter Kovacs and men waiting to visit his prostitute mother; first reference to the younger generation of masked crusaders; no reference to photography here, but there shot does include a newspaper that mentions that the Russians have the A-Bomb
  12. JFK and Dr. Manhattan photographed while shaking hands
  13. Kennedy assassination; no visible media device in shot, but the shot itself closely matches the Zapruder sequence (see it here), except for the very end, when the camera continues to pan right to the Comedian, armed with a rifle and cigar, ducking through a fence on the grassy knoll (the Comedian jokes about his involvement in the assassination in the novel and Laurie speculates about why he and Nixon were in Dallas that day)
  14. Young Laurie (Silk Spectre II) sees her mother and stepfather arguing (it turns about the Comedian–Laurie’s real father); the camera pans to the left to reveal a television with an image of Thích Quảng Đức’s self immolation; on top of the television is Laurie’s snowglobe, which will play a major role in the book (but not the film) when she travels to Mars to convince Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan to save the world; this shot is out of chronological order, as the televised event took place about six months before Kennedy’s assassination
  15. Two criminals are left for the police to find, tied to a fire hydrant; the police discover Rorschach’s calling card at the scene; no visible media
  16. Fighter jets fly over what appears to be Cuba, with Castro looking on; camera cranes to reveal missiles; if this is a reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the shot is misplaced in the timeline (of course, the superheroes alter the timeline, so there might be a point here)
  17. a hippie-type woman places a flower in the barrel of a soldier’s rifle, in what must be an intentionally imperfect re-creation of this famous photograph; no media present, although this shot does recreate a photograph; that the person with the flower here is a woman rather than a man, and that the guns fire, perhaps represent the fact that our timeline and the film’s become increasingly out of sync as the presence of superheroes in the world increases in duration and effect
  18. Andy Warhol is photographed while he shows off his silkscreened image of Night Owl (done in the manner of the famous Monroe images); the issue of how superheroes are represented here is interesting, and they would no doubt enter into popular culture and art circles in such a fashion; however, I am not sure Warhol would do Night Owl II; I’m not sure who he would do, but this choice seems an odd one
  19. Moon landing; Dr. Manhattan is mirrored in Armstrong’s visor; no media here, although there is a reference to an urban legend (“Good luck Mr. Gorsky.”), in what might be another attempt to demonstrate the difference between two timelines: ours and the films; the difference here is small, but the book itself is obsessed with such small differences
  20. Ozymandias is photographed in front of Studio 54; he shakes hands with Mick Jagger and David Bowie (the latter in Ziggy Stardust garb) and stands in front of the Village People; this shot must come between 1977 (the year Studio 54 opened) and 1985 (the year the film takes place; Studio 54 closed in 1986) and thus represents something of a jump in time from the last shot, which takes place in 1969 (the year of the moon landing, unless this event is altered in the film’s timeline); question: was Bowie still doing Ziggy Stardust in 1976 or later? regardless, Ozymandias retires from being an active superhero in 1975, which fits with the representation here
  21. The Crimebusters (known in the film as the Watchmen) are photographed in the same manner as the Minutemen were; of course, in the novel this picture is never taken, as the Crimebusters did not even last for a whole meeting, much less pose for a picture. and, of course, that one meeting took place in 1966, meaning that this picture and its placement are apocryphal on numerous levels; I would argue that its existence here serves as a bookend for the other one, as a means to make clear the manner in which the film seeks to provide context for itself; more on that below
  22. The final shot of the sequence begins with a television; the tv shows that Nixon has won a third term, meaning that the shot takes place in 1976; the camera pulls back to reveal rioting and the storefront in which the tv appears is graffitied with the “Who Watches the Watchmen?” slogan; this slogan is widely used during the events that lead to the Keene Act, and also place the shot in late 1976

The presence of cameras in most of the shots indicates the films’ concern with technologies of representation and mediation. Thus this sequence largely focuses on older media such as photography, tv, and newsprint. Of course, these technologies are themselves mediated by contemporary CGI and other special effects (effects for which Snyder is noted). The earliest shots in the sequence represent almost static figures, who are held still even as bullets fly through special effects. As such a current technology makes possible a photographic effect: these are people almost arrested in motion at a time when motion was becoming the norm. Later shots include increasing amounts of motion. Likewise, earlier shots are colored in sepia tones.

As a whole the sequence illustrates the rise and fall of the superhero. Of course, their decline is foretold in their rise: they were never all that super (Dollar Bill worked for a bank; no one seems to know what Silhouette did; Silk Spectre I was in it for the fame). In the end, they do not stop bad things from happening and introduce such complexity into the world (they are somehow legal vigilantes, a paradox the law cannot stand, much less the people; this is a whole different post), that they must be abolished. They thus become nothing but images of themselves, as in Warhol and then Ozymandias’ association with Studio 54, known for playing shallow music to shallow people (disco can be seen as the end of the 60s in a certain respect).

This rise and fall demonstrates the futility of the type of nostalgia Veidt sells, the nostalgia the film and the novel take as their object of critique. The times will always change, and no technology, no longing, no fantasy can make the times stop changing. Nor can these things make times change the way we would like them to change.

This point is finally made clear in the film’s closing credits, which role under the chords of My Chemical Romance’s version of “Desolation Row.” Dylan recorded his version of the song in 1965, after the Kennedy assassination “broke the back of the American century” (thanks Don DeLillo). The cryptic if not occult lyrics of the song explicitly convey a complexity that many listeners of “The Times They Are A’Changin” chose (and choose) to ignore, a complexity that could no longer be ignored given all that had happened since fall 1963.

For the cover version, My Chemical Romance reproduces the song’s first two verses as well as the one near the end from which the quote at the end of Chapter I comes: “At midnight all the agents, and the superhuman crew/Go out and round up everyone that knows more than they do.” In the Dylan version, these agents seem to be connected to some form of oppression, as are the superheroes of Watchmen by 1985 (no matter what they started out as being or wanting to be). But by the time we get to 2009, whatever critique this song once had is lost in the posturing of the pseudo-punk.

The video for the song shows the band in concert (it seems as if Pale Horse is the opening act), standing in front of a Rorschach inkblot. When the concert sells out, rioting ensues and the band and its fans are rounded up and carted off. They run afoul of the man.

However, My Chemical Romance is hardly some organically grown punk band. They share far more in common with The Backstreet Boys than they do with The Ramones (and of course, the Sex Pistols themselves might be the first organized boyband). Whatever snarl they possess is immediately undercut by the fact that this video is part of a multimilliion dollar operation, by the fact of MTV (which afforded us such bands even if it won’t play their videos anymore). They are very much a part of the media systems the man owns, that the man has in many ways become. As such, the end of the film does not invite the viewer to contemplate the past, whether nostalgically or otherwise. What it asks us to think about is the ways in which the past half-century has led to this present moment.

In fact, this song, which comes at the end of a film that began with an actual Dylan song, neatly summarizes my argument (if I have in fact made one). It is a 60s protest song performed in the style of a 1970s movement (punk) that rejected the pacifism of the 60s. The song is part of a film about the 1980s and is performed by a band for the 00s only made possible by a band from the 90s (Nirvana) which opened the doors of MTV to a new punk that quickly devolved into crass commercialism (Blink 182 anyone?). The wax and wane of history and the (im)possibility of protest and resistance are thus neatly encapsulated in this one moment, or perhaps in the two songs that bookend the film.

Dylan, whose own song intimated as much, leads not to a future Dylan, not to future resistance to “agents” and “superhuman” crews, but rather to their embodiment. While there have at times been moments of resistance, these moments themselves have become increasingly easy to appropriate by power as they only manifest through the channels power provides. The times are always changing, and they now always change the same way.

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5 Responses to “Watchmen: The Opening Credits”

  1. […] evening redness « Watchmen: The Opening Credits […]

  2. Very good insight. Just allow me to leave a few words on the following poitns you wrote about:

    5. That b-29 is definitely the Enola Gay in alternate reality, because you can see a nuclear mushroom growing over a city right behind him.
    6. Notice the sailor appears in the background, but he arrives too late to kiss the nurse.
    13. The Comedian takes two puffs on his cigar, releasing two clouds of smoke. Witnesses on the JFK assassination stated clouds of smoke were visible behind that fence when the shots occurred.
    16. It never snowed in Cuba, not even in Castro’s time! That is not Cuba, it’s the Kremlin.
    17. Most likely the portrayed photo is this none other than this one http://notasaocafe.files.wordpress.com/2007/06/kasmir1.jpg . I had the notion this scene means the hippies and particularly the pacifist movement were smothered at birth by the hardline government policies and the shortness of the Vietnam War, which lasted two months thanks to Dr. Manhattan. Being so short, the war never fuelled the pacifist movement as it did in our reality.
    18. Notice Truman Capote right on Warhol’s side.
    You are right, there are events out of chronological order, but it also emplies Dr. Manhattan’s way of viewing reality. As to the allusion to photographs and other media, it reminds me of a phrase of Manhattan’s during the novel and mentioned in the film: ‘all we see of stars are their old photos’.

  3. Hey… great blog, I am definitely gonna come here for more.
    No worries about being late in posting a blog on the Watchmen, I am currently working on my post about Schindler’s List (!) – now THAT I call backlog.
    Very interesting insights, I seriously subscribe to your 60s-70s-90s argument. This was a very good read, thank you.
    The only bone I’d pick with you is about calling the shots of the opening credits vignettes… The way I read this sequence (and subsequently the film in general), I think the proper name is tableaux vivants… the suspended-animation or still-picture quality of it, along with the orchestration of famous scenes (most notably the Last Supper, but also the Times Square V-day kiss, the JFK assassination, etc.), in that they explicitly evoke and allude to well known “pictures” – all of these spell out tableaux vivants.
    Besides the splitting hairs about terminology, acknowledging this sequence to be a late modern exercise in tableaux opens the door to broader schemes of interpretation of the film in general – I ain’t got my argument fully polished yet, but notions of agalma, narcissicm, medial inscription as a call onto the Big Other are sure to figure in my reading of the film.
    Anyways, Watchmen is the next on my list; once I post my blog, I’ll drop a quick heads-up here as well, see what you think of my take on this movie.

    • Pedro,

      Yes, the Cuba thing is an obvious mistake. Thanks for pointing it out. I was so focused on the missiles that I missed the other cues in the shot. My problem with it it as Soviet Russia is that it’s so vague. The Cuban Missile Crisis would have been interesting.

      SZS,

      I have no problem with calling the shots something else. As you say, if you call them x over calling them y you can open up different fields of inquiry. Two things though: 1) my own critical interests don’t really include psychoanalysis, so I myself would steer away from your terms (because I am interested in other questions, not because your questions are without merit) and 2) I don’t know that every shot in the sequence does interact with another image. That is, while we have images of (for example) the Enola Gay, that shot within the sequence does not refer to any of them in particular.. In any case, I will be intersted to seee what you write.

  4. […] If you are into Watchmen, also see my post on the film’s opening credits here. […]

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