Watchmen and Found

March 6, 2008

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Earlier today, Zack Snyder, director of the upcoming Watchmen adaptation, released photos of the aforementioned men. While part of me wants to get really excited, most of me is simply sick to my stomach. It’s no secret that the Saladeers are none too fond of Snyder’s 300; indeed, D. med Butwithawhimper’s post is the number one google hit for “300 worst movie ever.” As the picture of Rorschach demonstrates, The Watchmen photos exhibit the same faithfulness to the source material as Snyder’s 300: the look of the film is basically the same as the comic, if a little darker in color. Still, the visual look isn’t everything. As I’ve argued before, imitation of a visual style is not a particularly successful way of creating art. From another side, Benjamin argues in “The Task of the Translator” that the key in translation is not to translate word for word, but to find the essential (and here I mean relating to essence) translation, the one that best corresponds to the broader meaning of the piece. Snyder’s 300 is an interesting proof for Benjamin’s theory, as Benjamin discussed languages rather than media. Still, it’s safe to say that part of the reason 300 was so poor was its fidelity to the literal level of the source rather than its broader meaning. This is a mistake that Snyder seems to be making with Watchmen. His Comedian looks like the Comedian, yet the film version visually resembles the Punisher rather than the more nuanced ironic Comedian of the comic.

And speaking of Benjamin…I’ve managed to find some weird stuff in books recently. I discovered a letter about Hebrew grammar between people using Latin aliases, and I found a grocery list that I wrote last year in the Widener Library Copy of the Baer edition of Shebet Yehuda. I still haven’t bought half of those things. But my best recent find came from a text by Walter Benjamin. I’d somehow managed to read every essay in Illuminations except for “The Image of Proust,” and decided to correct that mistake. Lo and behold, this great quote about Proust, viz:

“Proust was most resourceful in creating complications. Once, late at night, he dropped in on Princess Clermont-Tonnerre and made his staying dependent on someone bringing him his medicine from his house. He sent a valet for it, giving him a lengthy description of the neighborhood and of the house. Finally he said: “You cannot miss it. It is the only window on the Boulevard Haussmann in which there still is a light burning!” Everything but the house number! Anyone who has tried to get the address of a brothel in a strange city and has received the most long-winded directions, everything but the name of the street and the house number, will understand what is meant here and what the connection is with Proust’s love of ceremony…”

If only all literary theorists explained textual nuances with stories about trying to find brothels.

After reading Dash’s post about the work of Cory Archangel, I also found myself puzzling about whether it can legitimately be called “art.”  Given that a precise definition of “art” has eluded scholars for generations, I won’t attempt to provide one here (which is in contravention of Yesterday’s Salad principle #422, “always strive for hyperbole”). However, I will instead provide a number of perennially popular definitions (fulfilling Yesterday’s Salad principle #423, always take both sides), and see if it succeeds by any of those criteria.  For the sake of argument, my criteria are as follows: Does the piece imitate life? Did its construction require skill? Is it novel? Does the piece convey a particular meaning or message?  And if not, can a variety of meanings be found in it?

At first glance, the piece does not imitate life. No matter how fervently Mario may jump across the screen, he remains a mere collection of poorly juxtaposed pixels. Nor is inspiration to be found in the intermittent messages that Archangel provides throughout the piece: if these are supposed to be part of Mario’s inner monologue, the effect is less than successful.  However, if the piece means to imitate the drug- and videogame-addled dream life of your average, early-twenties video game player, Archangel might be on to something with the collision of techn0-style beats and non-sensical gameplay.

Far more clear is the question of skill.  Did this piece require skill to create? To paraphrase Spivak in Yiddish translation, “no.” As previously noted, the modification of video games is hardly a new practice, utilized by both hacker and hobbyist alike. The Nintendo Entertainment System, by dint of its age, has been comprehensively hacked, ripped, and retrofitted by more than one generation of gamers, and such instructions are widely available around the web.  So too, the prevalence of machinima available on the web, wherein avid gamers create films from the gameplay of various games (whether it is altered or not) should dismiss any claim that Archangel’s work may have toward freshness.

The idea that Archangel is offering a critique of our generation’s current reliance on technology, as a source both of entertainment and a sense of meaning, is perhaps the most reasonable conclusion that one may draw from this and his other works.  Perhaps his most famous work is a performance piece in which he deleted his Friendster account in front of an audience.  According to accounts of the piece, the audience was shocked and stupefied.  While this might puzzle some less ‘net-addicted readers, there was a point in time where Friendster was akin to Facebook (almost).

If Archangel’s work is to stand as criticism, it is tepid at best.  As mentioned before, it is neither unique nor skillful, and what remains after these criticisms are taken into account is far from a trenchant critique.  And what basis is there for variant readings of the work? Given the extensive foregrounding that Archangel’s works have received, from high praise in the press, to major New York exhibition space, such a reading has yet to be given voice.

While the question of video games as art (rather than as a mixed-media for art) is a much larger question, perhaps a much more artful subversion of Super Mario Brothers can be found in “The Lost Levels,” the official sequel to the first Mario Bros. title which never saw the light of day in America during the heyday of the NES.  The Lost Levels was a virtual bizarro-world Mario game, which took the player’s knowledge of the original to deliberately make it challenging for the player.  Hidden boxes were moved, seemingly safe jumps were confounded by invisible boxes, 1ups became poisonous (as wild mushrooms ought to be), and the end-level flag began to actively run away from the player.  In fact, the better one’s knowledge and skill with the original, the *harder* the game became.  So while Archangel might put on a nifty light show with Mario, or laugh at our increasing dependence on the web for our social lives, it takes a real insider to really create jazz with the paradigm.