The Art of Artistic Restraint

Like many comic book fans, Peter and Neil were excited to go see the movie version of the Watchmen. Even though the movie was rated R, Peter and I didn’t have any great reservations about Neil seeing it. He’s read the graphic novel three times already, and he’s seen artistic nudity and violence in the art museums I like to take him to.

Unfortunately, as Peter reported, the creators behind the movie opted more for “graphic” than “artistic.” As a result, a movie that could have been just a bit edgy for a sophisticated 11-year-old turned out to be somewhat traumatic. Personally, I think I’ll be opting out of seeing it now too. Peter introduced me to the Watchmen when I first met him, and I would thoroughly agree that it’s a literary work, not just pop culture. But I don’t like having to see violence and splattering blood especially when the same thing can be implied to the same effect. This is why I have not seenĀ  (and probably never will see) Saving Private Ryan, and why I don’t enjoy Stephen King novels. These are still valid works of art, but they’re too graphic for me. It’s also why I don’t work as an emergency medical technician or serve on the front lines of a military campaign. I can’t deny that humans have to suffer in the face of violence, and I can’t guarantee I’ll never see it, but as long as I have the luxury of avoiding it, I’d like to do so.

So while the creators of Watchmen decided that the artistic vision is served best with vivid, detailed violence and sexuality which would have gotten the movie an X or NR rating just 20 years ago, I have to question the aesthetics that assume the average movie goer is too jaded for any subtlety whatsoever. The graphic novel had violence, but it was artistic: for instance, a raised hatchet, which is all I needed to know to understand something really, really bad happened. It wasn’t 3 pages of hacking and chopping and screaming, with bones and brains flying hither and yon.

Would the movie have been that much less artistically satisfying with quick cut-aways of implied violence and fewer full-body views of the naked Dr. Manhattan, and more above-the-waist shots?

It all takes me back to the complaint I had a few years ago: movies just are not being made in the G- to PG-rated range. Those which are, are often superb, and do phenomenally well at the box office. While I agree some books and stories couldn’t be faithfully rendered in a PG version, there are too many which could, but which are instead pumped and tarted up in order to be more “adult.”

To wit: a few days later, we had a family movie night with an old movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It was sophisticated and funny, smart enough to entertain Peter and me, but also sweet and amusing enough for Neil and Kelly to enjoy. It’s held up remarkably well for a 20+ year old movie. You don’t need blood splatter, explicit sex, and profanity to make a good movie with broad appeal. And I wish more movie makers would agree with me, because then I’d have more movies I could enjoy without having to man myself up and become so jaded I can’t appreciate anything that isn’t shoved straight into my psyche.

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