Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Who Watches the Watchmen?

I still don't know whether I'll see Watchmen in a theatre. A friend pressed the original book on me back in the mid-90s when it first appeared, and I didn't think much of it. In retrospect I'm not sure I even read the whole thing. I'm not a snob about comics -- I grew up reading them, and was a big childhood fan of Superman, Green Lantern, the Flash; but being the sissy I was, I also liked Little Lulu, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Disney comics, Archie and his spinoffs, and Classics Illustrated -- the Promiscuous Reader even then. But I didn't make the DC-to-Marvel transition that many comics readers -- boys at least -- made in the 60s. Marvel comics never have worked for me. I welcomed the rise of underground comics, and later the much-hyped "serious" works like Maus. So why didn't I like Watchmen? Probably because the idea of flawed, conflicted superheroes had already been done by Marvel, and Watchmen had nothing to add to it that I could see. I did like V for Vendetta, though, quite a lot. Call me a comics reader, not a fan.

So I didn't share the interest that news about a Watchmen movie aroused in many. (After all, many people also got excited about the news of a Transformers movie, expressing exactly the same reservations that They would ruin a great work of art that had shaped the fans' lives from childhood.) When it became clear that the movie would be released, I checked out the book from the library and read it again. This time I liked it rather better, but still thought it was mediocre.

One bit of data caught my attention in the rising hype, though: the question of Dr. Manhattan's penis. For those who don't know, Dr. Manhattan is a character in Watchmen who was transformed by a nuclear accident into a brilliant blue muscleman -- a sort of amalgam of Dr. Solar, Mr. Spock, and the Smurfs. Since he is pure intellect, increasingly alienated from human concerns, he generally doesn't bother wearing clothes. So the filmmakers had to decide whether they'd be True To The Book in this detail. To their credit, I guess, they chose fidelity to the text.

In my local Borders I found a new coffeetable book, Watchmen: the art of the film by Peter Aperlo. Browsing through it, I noticed that except for one photo, all the pictures of Dr. Manhattan showed him wearing superhero briefs, in a color matching his total blueness. (A similar posing strap has been added to this trailer, which makes sense for something aimed at a general audience; but why such bowdlerization in an expensive book ($40 list) that isn't aimed at children?

After Watchmen was released last weekend, I began reading reports of young males in theaters reacting with fits of giggling to the sight of Billy Crudup's (reportedly CGI-enhanced) blue penis. Of course that's just to be expected. It surprised me a bit more when a reviewer complained: "Speaking of distractions, it was difficult to ignore Doctor Manhattan's big blue penis, dangling like a participle with no tomorrow." So did several commenters to that review. "Three hours of staring at a blue man's penis bouncing all around was not what i was less than thrilling for me," wrote one, less than fully coherently. Another agreed: "Why is there a big blue dong throughout this movie......not cool. Besides the fact that I had to stare at some dudes pecker for however long the movie wasn't all that great. Deff NOT as action packed as I would have expected/wanted." In this context, "action packed" probably means "More violence, dewd!" But from what I hear, the film is pretty violent already.

[P.S. After seeing the film, I can report that Dr. Manhattan's penis is onscreen for only a few minutes out of more than two hours' runtime. So where did these people get "a big blue dong throughout this movie" and "three hours of staring at a blue man's penis"? Out of their personal neuroses, I guess.]

I happened to be at the Cinematical site to look for an article there that I'd stumbled on some months ago, about gender differences in reactions to frontal male nudity in films. The consensus was that males are more uncomfortable seeing male nudity in films, and the reactions were interesting.
The sight of naked men [on a TV screen] sent my male cousin running for the other room, gagging -- whereas his sister shrugged off the bare flesh and set to work trying to block the stuff. And I'm now realizing all that throat clearing and awkward squirming I heard around me during Eastern Promises wasn't because Viggo Mortensen's back was being sliced open (which is what made me wince) -- it was because his manly bits were visible.
"Gagging"? What does that cousin do when he takes a shower, or pees? Does he avoid looking at himself? (I've read that in the good old days, Catholic girls in convent schools had to wear a garment when bathing, lest they see their own bodies.) A couple of male commenters opined on the general ugliness and "grossness" of male genitals, including their own. Another wrote, "Actually, I heard about a brain scan study done that said that male brain has similar reactions (in terms of brain activity) to being exposed to gay pornography as it does to seeing someone's own parents having sex." Someone else asked how the (probably apocryphal) researchers had obtained pictures of the subjects' parents having sex to show to them, but 1) again, the subject under discussion was primarily male nudity in commercial entertainment, like Forgetting Sarah Marshall; and 2) who does this guy think watches "gay pornogaphy," if not males, with "male brains"?

Granted, seeing something on a screen is not the same as seeing it in real life, but the males who commented on this article tended to mix up the two: one spoke of seeing his roommate naked from the shower by accident, for example, which was "awkward", though he allowed that "I think it'd be awkward if I walked in on anybody (other than a girlfriend/wife in my situation) naked in person." Yes, but a roommate? This reminds me that American men generally seem to have become more shy about being seen naked by other men, in locker rooms and communal showers, than they were when I was growing up. It's as if in America, nudity has become all about, and only about, sex. But now that I think of it, I guess it has.

Of course, this is partly an American hangup, since movies made in Europe have long been much more casual about showing the penis, and not necessarily just for sexiness. Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, for example, made in 1973 as a miniseries for Swedish TV, showed a dumpy, middle-aged Erland Josephson undressing for bed. Once I became aware of this, I noticed how carefully male actors in Hollywood films are positioned, when shown naked from the rear or side, to ensure that there's no hint of penis.

Hmmmm. Maybe I will go to see Watchmen in a theatre, just to observe other people's reactions to Doctor Manhattan's blue weenie.