Hearing the Watchmen

This is the second in a series of articles that will explore the musicality of film and how a deeper understanding of film music might grant us insight into the spiritual dimensions of both film and filmgoing.  Part 1 on the marimbas of American Beauty can be read here.

For more thoughts on the spiritual and theological significance of music in film, check out Kutter’s book, Scoring Transcendence: Contemporary Film Music as Religious Experience.

Craig Detweiler is a filmmaker, theologian, and cultural commentator who, as he suggests in his book Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century, is concerned with finding hints of the sacred amidst the apparent “darkness” of the cinema, but as he states in his review of Zach Snyder’s Watchmen, “I have long advocated finding the sacred amidst the profane. But I’ve never been a fan of the obvious amidst the mundane.”

Needless to say, Detweiler’s review of the cinematic adaptation of the highly acclaimed graphic novel is decidedly negative. His primary contention is that Watchmen fails to contextualize the subversive spirit of the graphic novel. It offers no imaginative insight or originality. Rather, through its gritty yet clichéd descent into the depths of individual and societal depravity, it simply offers cynicism to a culture that is “steeped in so much angst and anger, [it is] almost post-cynicism.”  

I find Detweiler’s insights into this film quite helpful. However, as a way of considering the integral (although flawed) role that music plays in this film, I want to focus on his most biting criticism: Watchmen is boring.

For Detweiler, the film’s music (by which he means the film’s popular music) exemplifies a distinctive lack of dramatic appeal. He queries, “Could Watchmen’s soundtrack have been any more obvious and on the nose?” In other words, rather than investing the film with an additional meaning that might have contributed to Watchmen’s subversive aesthetic, the music functions redundantly, commenting on each scene in a straightforward and “obvious” manner.

Reflecting further on the film’s use of popular music, Detweiler states, “What was Snyder’s worst musical offense? [It was ] incorporating Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ during an airborne sex (not love) scene between Nite Wing and Silk Spectre. She keeps (only) her black leather boots on to satisfy the director’s kink quotient.” According to Detweiler, Watchmen’s music, perhaps more than any other filmic element, encapsulates the film’s general lack of creativity and, thus, the disingenuous nihilism with which it concludes.

Yet, what about the music’s “obviousness” causes Detweiler to offer such a pointed critique of the film? Why is it that Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” causes him to construe the scene it accompanies as a depiction of “sex” rather than “love,” a directorial fetish rather than an aesthetic expression? Is it simply that the songs are now clichéd or that film music is always ineffective when performing a commentative function? Are there other forces at work that we might speak of in order to understand his reaction to the film’s music? Ultimately, I want to affirm both Detweiler’s critique and his frustration with the film, but to fully support his conclusion, we need a better understanding of how music is functioning in this film.

Watchmen begins with a prologue that features the brutal slaying of the Comedian (GRAPHIC):

As a part of the film’s formal frame, the music we hear in this prologue not only helps to establish the film’s mood, but it also orients the audience toward the basic themes that the film will explore. Significantly, though, the music we first hear in Watchmen is diegetic. That is, its “source” is located within the characters’ narrative world. As the Comedian and his assassin first engage with one another, we not only hear Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable,” but we are made aware of its source within the diegesis; it issues from the Comedian’s television.

To use a technical term, this music forms an “anempathetic” relationship with the images. In other words, it works to suggest that the larger world in which these characters live is indifferent to the violence and murder we see. In spite of the disconcerting action taking place within the film’s frame, this mechanically reproduced music continues on unabated, seemingly unaware of the chaos in its midst. In an unsettling way, this use of music also points to the cosmic indifference of the world. Thus, the prologue not only establishes the radical indifference of the universe that characterizes the remainder of the film, but it also orients the audience toward the god-forsakenness of the film’s dark and cynical world.

As this sequence makes clear, in a godless world of indifference, if there is to be any meaning or significance amidst the chaos of life, it must come through immanent means – through our sordid, dissolute, physical world.

Interestingly, though, “Unforgettable” does not remain diegetic. In the course of the Comedian’s altercation, the television from which the song emanates is inadvertently shot. However, even though its source is destroyed, we continue to hear the song, only with a gradual increase in volume. By moving from diegetic, “source” music, to the non-diegetic realm, this music now places the indifference on the side of the narrator. That is, it shifts from the “real” world of the characters and their concerns (i.e. the diegetic), to a world that is distinctly “other” (i.e. the non-diegetic).

This movement across the diegetic border effectively establishes the manner in which popular music will be used throughout the rest of the film. Yet, what eventually strikes the audience as redundant and, as Detweiler suggests, what makes this usage of popular music so “obvious,” is that it is now called upon to provide superfluous commentary that emanates from an ostensibly transcendent location. It no longer serves as the mark of a godless and indifferent world; it is, rather, the mark of “transcendence” forcefully injected into the “immanent.”

From a place wholly detached from the film’s space and time, we are told that the Comedian will be “unforgettable,” that his funeral will be overflowing with the “sounds of silence,” and that our response to human sexuality should be a resounding “hallelujah.” In a somewhat ironic turn, this (apparently) transcendent perspective runs counter to and is the complete opposite of the godforsaken indifference with which the film begins. In this sense, the film and the music therein are both confused and confusing regarding transcendence, its possibility, and its significance.

Consequently, rather than investing the images with transcendent meaning, the music’s shift into a non-diegetic realm actually precludes the possibility of discovering this transcendence. For, as the film’s music firmly locates meaning in a realm that is one step removed from the diegesis, it concomitantly removes meaning from the concrete world of violence, death, and sexuality.

By the time we reach the sex (not love) scene between Silk Spectre and Nite Owl, we are readily aware of the music’s heavy-handed attempts to supply the scene with a meaning that transcends the filmic structure. The sequence itself is located in the clouds, far above the grime of the diegetic world. Yet, what the images tout as a transcendent celebration of human physicality is in fact undermined by the music’s distinct lack of faith in the physical realm. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” rings out, not as a response to the characters’ deep-lived experience of sexuality, but as an alien intrusion into an otherwise sensuous world. 

By analyzing the film in terms of its music, we are granted access to a range of meanings that are not apparent at first glance. But when we pay attention to the various ways that music functions in the film, it quickly becomes evident that Watchmen divests the physical world of its own intrinsic meaning, thereby offering us a simple depiction of two copulating bodies. In this sense, Detweiler is correct – it is nothing more than a sex scene.

Kutter Callaway is the Director of Church Relations and an Affiliate Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. His theological musings are often focused on contemporary culture. His book, Scoring Transcendence: Contemporary Film Music as Religious Experience, on the theological significance of music in film, is due out in January of 2013 through Baylor University Press. He also contributed to Halos and Avatars (2010), the first book on theology and video games, and Don’t Stop Believin’ (2012), a dictionary of religion and popular culture.