Thursday, March 05, 2009

Watchmen & Visual Irony

We finally get to see that really short Watchmen movie this weekend!

Woo hoo! Hehehe

I had thought about writing a number of different articles on the Watchmen but there’s very little I could add to the discussion about the superb graphic novel that isn’t already explored
here as well as the Podcasts I referenced earlier. You can also catch quite a list of other great links at IFC’s Watchmen Round One and Round Two.

Let me say, there are many rewards for screenwriters by listening to the
Watchmen Podcasts, and I’ll tell you why. These guys go through each issue panel-by-panel discussing not only the story but all of the visual details as well. This really could help you to not only develop your own visual vocabulary but also think more in terms of visual storytelling, which was all quite inspiring for me at least.

For example, I loved the many, many transitions between scenes. I loved the many visual metaphors at play in the narrative, like outside of Hollis’ place where there was always that sign for the “closed” mechanics shop who can “fix ‘em” and “obsolete models a specialty!” Or like when (in Chapter III, page 9) Laurie was talking to Dan in his kitchen about how people have become (to Dr. Manhattan) just “shadows in the fog,” while visually her face is blurred by the steam from the kettle. Or how, later in the chapter from page 12-15, Dr. Manhattan is verbally “attacked” by the press during a talk show while Laurie and Dan are physically attacked in an alley by thugs. And I loved how, on page 15, you have government guys escorting Dr. Manhattan out of the studio while the press swarm around them and one government guy says, “C’mon, the mob’s getting aroused,” and then they cut to Dan and Laurie aroused and looking at each other after the fight. And then the government guy says later, “Gentlemen, I think it safest not to pursue this line of thinking,” and they cut to Dan and Laurie turning away from each other to avoid hooking up. And I also loved the first few pages of Chapter VIII, which opened with Sally and Hollis having a phone conversation but you don’t see their faces. You look at the memorabilia in both of their apartments from days gone by when they were both members of the Minutemen as they speak about days gone by over the phone. The knick-knacks are sentimental just as their conversation is sentimental about the old days and how they’ve changed. And then the panels reveal how they’ve changed in ways that they aren’t saying over the phone, Hollis with his cigarettes and alcohol, and Sally with her vitamins. Hollis mentions a tight budget and Sally responds about how they’re all feeling “the pinch nowadays” and all the while she’s getting a professional manicure done. Hehehe

And some of you might be thinking, “Has MM lost his mind? Those are visual flourishes that the director should figure out. I just have to write the story.” Wrong. Screenwriters are filmmakers, too. It isn’t enough to “write a story.” You have to render that story cinematically.

More on that topic

But there’s one aspect I would like to discuss – visual irony.

Nobody ever says this but contradictions are where it’s at in drama. In a story, you typically have two opposing forces, a protagonist vs. an antagonist, and they generally contradict each other in terms of goals and tactics and philosophy. Drama is born from contradicting motives, words, and actions. Of course, finding drama through contradictions between characters can also be used to great effect in love stories. Opposites attract, right? Not only that, contradictions within the characters themselves is how you create
depth, that is, a character can have contradictory sides to his/her nature. For example, there was Hamlet, who was both spiritual and blasphemous, loving and sadistic, courageous and cowardly, cautious and impulsive, proud and self-pitying, witty and sad, weary and dynamic, lucid and confused, and sane and mad. There can be layers of contradictions between what a character says and what a character really thinks. Exploiting a character’s contradictions is also a way to craft inner conflicts. You have two opposing needs in a character that eventually puts that person in a difficult position where he or she has to make a choice.

But there’s a whole other level of contradictions in the way that you tell your story – Visual Ironies. It’s that contrast between two things you see on the screen or it’s a contrast between words and images. And when it comes to the Watchmen visual contrasts is what makes so much of the imagery interesting, all of which begins with the blood-splattered smiley face. The smiley face pin on its own gives off very fun, happy vibes. Add a splotch of blood on the button, and you have a more layered, twisted, perversion of meaning. I loved what Dr. Spiros Xenos wrote in his essay on
Reading Space in Watchmen:

Tracing the smiley face symbol in its various manifestations reveals the manner in which minor and occasional details accumulate and add pressure on the paranoia/determinism axis of the text. Watchmen begins with a close-up of the smiley badge lying in the gutter, the smear of blood crossing the right eye in the manner of a clock hand approaching 12 o’ clock. Rorschach’s diary entry notes his apprehension of the city’s “true face”. It is clear Rorschach is not referring to the badge at this point, but it is equally clear that we, the omniscient reader, recognise the proximity of the two levels of narration, that is, the ‘face’ of the city as smeared with blood, and Rorschach’s unconscious registration of the badge as pertinent symbol. Moore refers to this double-tracking as a

sort of “under-language” at work ... that is neither the “visuals” nor the “verbals,” but a unique effect caused by a combination of the two. A picture can be set against text ironically, or it can be used to support the text, or it can be completely disjointed from the text - which forces the reader into looking at the scene in a new way.... the reader has the ability to stop and linger over one particular “frame” and work out all of the meaning in that frame or panel...

Lewis refers to the overlay of text and image in Watchmen as “harmonic counterpoint”, which aptly registers the effect of the quotation of visual symbols throughout the text. In his account the smiley badge represents repression, blocked vision and denial. The smear over the right eye symbolises willful blindness and denial...

I totally agree. At the same time, it could also represent a false facade, the happy image that masks the hidden, sinister motives underneath. That’s visual irony. That’s the combination of two contradictory images, in this case, blood and a smiley face, to create something layered and complex and unique. It’s a detail that adds weight to the story.

I also discovered this fabulous essay by Dr. Biljana Scott from the Centre for Linguistics and Philology at the University of Oxford. It’s called
PICTURING IRONY: the subversive power of photography. He talked about a variety of different forms of visual irony, but for the sake of this discussion, I’d like to break it down into two categories: 1) Word-based visual irony and 2) Image-based visual irony.


I love this. This is where there is a contradiction between what is being said and what we are seeing. What’s the value of this technique? It’s a way of making statements about characters, about relationships, and about society without having to verbalize what’s happening. And the first script that comes to my mind when talking about word-based visual irony is
Kubrick’s Napoleon. I say this not because it’s the greatest script ever, but because I studied it so intensely and admired many techniques in the script. So often in his story, Stanley would try to exploit what we were seeing vs. what we were hearing…

We see the happy wedding of Napoleon and Josephine while we hear in voice over Josephine reveal her true feelings of lukewarm indifference to Napoleon. In a later sequence between Napoleon and Josephine, we hear Napoleon’s endless love for Josephine, but we see the painful reality of their marriage in the form of Josephine’s torrid affair. During the Italian campaign, we hear the Narrator tell us about all the glories and victories of Napoleon while we see French troops pillage small Italian towns and take away food and livestock from poor farmers. We hear Josephine read her statement declaring how she feels pleasure giving Napoleon “the greatest proof of attachment and devotedness that was ever given on earth,” that is, a divorce, but yet, we also see her sobbing uncontrollably.

In Watchmen, you had, as I mentioned earlier, Sally pretending to Hollis over the phone that she’s feeling the “pinch” as everyone else is, but visually, we know that’s not the case for her. She’s getting her toes professionally manicured. In the last few pages of the first Chapter, you had Dan and Laurie telling each other everything’s fine in their lives and acting like they don’t care for each other, although we see that they are in a romantic setting and leaning in to each other. I loved how, in Chapter III page 2, we would hear Sally say, “Life goes on, honey. Life goes on,” while we look at Rorschach holding a sign that says, “The End is Nigh.” Or when we hear Sally say, “In the end, you just wash your hands of it,” but we’re looking at Rorschach’s hands holding the sign and the ink from his “The End is Nigh” words have run down to his hands. He will not wash his hands of this.

Dr. Scott’s article had some interesting examples, too. Consider this image by Margaret Bourke-White:

This was taken during the 1930’s, has a big billboard that “
depicts a white American family of four, well dressed and smiling happily as they drive along in a new car. The strap-line at the top of the poster reads: ‘World’s Highest Standard of Living’, and the text on the ad reads: ‘There’s no way like the American way’. Beneath the billboard stands a breadline of cold and ragged looking black Americans, queuing for handouts. The contrast between the way of life projected by the billboard, and the actual conditions endured by the poor people standing in its very shadow could not be more literal: whereas the idealised Americans are healthy wealthy and white, the actual Americans in this photograph are underfed, impoverished and black. Bourke-White’s photograph offers a clear illustration of a contradiction between what is said and what is shown, of the discrepancy between the expectations set up by the advertisement and… reality.

Consider this one:

This is “
Elliott Erwitt’s Versailles, 1975, which shows part of a gallery with gilt frames on the wall. In one frame we see a classical portrait of a nobleman, next to it the large frame contains what appears to be a small slip of paper. Three people stand in front of this frame gazing intently at the paper. Nobody is looking at the pictures. The image is ironical because it flouts our expectations that people go to art galleries in order to look at the pictures which are there (rather than to read the notices informing them as to why a picture is no longer there). It may even be that the adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ comes to mind, providing the target of echoic mention which the visual evidence then undermines. The most striking difference between these two renderings of a similar topic is that Kruger uses words and uses them ‘in your face’ whereas Elliott eschews words and depends on implication exclusively. Kruger’s irony is earnest, possibly even aggressive; Elliott’s is irreverent and amusing.

Here’s one that needs no explanation:

Or this one, escalators going up to a fitness center!


This is where you have two contradictory elements without words. In Watchmen we have the blood-splattered smiley face.

Dr. Scott’s article had this photo:

A broken bicycle that’s obviously been run over lies on a marked bicycle path, which indicates to us that it’s obviously not as safe as the bicycle symbol on the street would have you believe.

I remember writing about Banksy who would take an image like a famous Monet painting and throw in a splash of contemporary reality:

Or he would take something ugly like the wall between Palestine and Israel and try to add something pretty/hopeful to it.

Let me end on this last photo. Is it condemning or hopeful?


Anonymous said...

Every time I read your stuff, I learn something great, or something I was doing unconsciously becomes conscious and "formalized." There's a story I've been working on that involves a character who is desperately poor. I'm showing it in the screenplay by using visual irony. I'm glad to know it has a name. ;)

Catman Scratches said...

Where can I get those broccoli fries?

Harvey Jerkwater said...

The visual irony of the blood-splotch on the happy face serves double-duty as an encapsulation of the core theme of Watchmen as well: the intrusion of complex humanity onto and over theory. The splotch pattern recurs throughout the story when "messy humanity" intrudes upon someone's pure theoretical framework of life (e.g., the Comedian's murder, Laurie and Jon on Mars, when the Comedian's face is cut in Vietnam, when the Big Event hits the Big City, and in many other places).

Symbolizing the entire story in one iconic, unforgettable, visually ironic image. Neat trick.

Unknown said...

I'm a big proponent of visual irony (especially image vs word). I've incorporated that into my last few scripts and it's worked really well. First heard about this in MM's Napoleon series a couple years ago

crossword said...

Loved this article, MM. The best one yet.

Mystery Man said...

Thanks, guys, for the very kind words.

Harvey - LOVED your thoughts. Thank you for that.

For the sake of my own reference, I'm going to post the links to the individual podcasts, because as they do podcasts on other it'll be difficult to find the podcasts I referenced. Hope you're well.

Issue 1

Issue 2

Issue 3

Issue 4

Issue 5

Issue 6

Issue 7

Issue 8

Issue 9

Issue 10

Issue 11a

Issue 11b

Issue 12a

Issue 12b

Anonymous said...

Another awesome post, thank you.

One minor point, "Biljana" is a woman's name. :)

Mystery Man said...

Really? DAMMIT.


Anonymous said...

There are some layers to the Bourke-White photo that you didn't touch on that I think require note. There is not only a contrast in the photo, but direct corollary. Consider:

1) Both sets of people are in a line. The blacks are in single-file (thereby waiting), in enfilade (a vulnerable position). tangential to the camera, casting irritated, sidelong glances directly at us, as if to say, "what are you looking at?" The white family is in line abreast, moving together, in equal time, looking towards us, but past us.

2) The white family is larger than, and above, the blacks in line.

3) The white family looks past the blacks and over them, as if they aren't there, smiling at a future that's rapidly approaching.

And, perhaps most daming...

4) The white family is DRIVING A GIANT CAR which is poised to plow directly over the line of impoverished blacks on its way to some happy event.

The corollary is clear. Not only is there a contrast between the two sets of people, there is a direct, causal relationship: the whites high standard of living is mounted upon the suffering of the poor minority beneath them.

You couldn't plan a shot with this much irony and pathos!

Mystery Man said...

Anon - Those are superb comments. I love it! Thank you!


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