Anthony Lane’s review of Watchmen has its share of those wonderful damn-I-wish-I-had-written-that sentences that Lane specializes in: “There is Dan (Patrick Wilson), better known as Nite Owl, who keeps his old superhero outfit, rubbery and sharp-eared, locked away in his basement, presumably for fear of being sued for plagiarism by Bruce Wayne.” Better: “Last and hugest is Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who is buff, buck naked, and blue, like a porn star left overnight in a meat locker.” Damn, I wish. . . .
But there’s also this serious point:
You want to see Rorschach swing a meat cleaver repeatedly into the skull of a pedophile, and two dogs wrestle over the leg bone of his young victim? Go ahead. You want to see the attempted rape of a superwoman, her bright latex costume cast aside and her head banged against the baize of a pool table? The assault is there in Moore’s book, one panel of which homes in on the blood that leaps from her punched mouth, but the pool table is Snyder’s own embroidery. You want to hear Moore’s attempt at urban jeremiad? “This awful city, it screams like an abattoir full of retarded children.” That line from the book may be meant as a punky retread of James Ellroy, but it sounds to me like a writer trying much, much too hard; either way, it makes it directly into the movie, as one of Rorschach’s voice-overs. (And still the adaptation won’t be slavish enough for some.) Amid these pompous grabs at horror, neither author nor director has much grasp of what genuine, unhyped suffering might be like, or what pity should attend it; they are too busy fussing over the fate of the human race — a sure sign of metaphysical vulgarity — to be bothered with lesser plights.
Lane has been concerned for some time about the difficult relationship between the portrayal of violence and the depiction of suffering. Here he is four years ago writing about Sin City:
Nothing is easier than to tumble under the spell of its savage comedy—Marv driving along with the door open, say, holding another guy down so that his head is roughly sanded by the road, or Jackie Boy continuing to chatter with his throat cut. We have, it is clear, reached the lively dead end of a process that was initiated by a fretful Martin Scorsese and inflamed, with less embarrassed glee, by Tarantino: the process of knowing everything about violence and nothing about suffering.
What I like about Lane’s approach to this vital question is that it’s unencumbered by the need to make global pronouncements, universal sweeps through the whole territory of cinema. His worry has gathered over years, movie by movie, review by review. And that makes it more worthy of our attention. If indeed we moviegoers are learning to know “everything about violence and nothing about suffering,” into what human situation are we maneuvering ourselves?