DeZ Vylenz’s feature-length documentary about the life and work of writer Alan Moore was made in 2003 but not released until 2008. The delay might be easily explained as that of an independent production’s typical struggle for funding, but it’s hard not to guess the timing of this particular film’s lavish release as a deluxe double-disc DVD may have something to do with Moore’s currently elevated profile. The long-awaited theatrical adaptation of Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal graphic novel Watchmen finally hits theaters on March 6 2009, after almost 2 decades of fits and starts in Hollywood limbo.
The Mindscape of Alan Moore is essentially an extended sit-down interview with Moore, intercut with evocative imagery evoking Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance. It moves too quickly to focus on any one aspect of Moore’s long career, and it’s possible to glean more insight into the man just by reading one or two interviews. But it’s apparent that Vylenz’s true interest lies less in Moore’s comics work than in his practice of magic. More on that later.
Let’s be frank; Alan Moore is a weird cat. As more than one person has described him, he’s a truly great writer that has chosen to work in “The Gutter” (as it amuses Neil Gaiman to call it): comics. Which is to oversimplify; some of his other work includes several performance art pieces and the stunning prose novel Voice of the Fire. All this has left Moore a cult figure, underestimated even by many fans. He is probably one of comics’ best-known names, but while his friend Gaiman frequently tours the globe like a rock star, he’s happy to stay at home in Northhampton. Like Stanley Kubrick, he has an unfair reputation as a kind of eccentric recluse, but reportedly the actual truth is that he is a warm and friendly person who simply wishes to enjoy life in his home town and practice his art.
Moore began writing comics in the 1980s Reagan/Thatcher Cold War era, which informed the paranoid and apocalyptic air of V for Vendetta and Watchmen. One particular fictional nightmare of Moore’s that he perversely enjoys to point out is V For Vendetta’s accurate prediction that CCTV surveillance would blanket England by the late 1990s. But further on the topic of political oppression, Moore affirms that while conspiracy theories are everywhere you look (the act of looking creates them, one might say), in fact there are no conspiracies. If the world is rudderless and chaotic, conspiracy theories are mere comforts.
Against his intentions, his dark take on the superhero and science fiction genres was radically influential in the wrong way. Fans and creators who didn’t grasp the deeper themes behind Watchmen forever steered comics into grim and gritty stupidity, mimicking the superfluous sex and violence without the subtext and literary merit that Moore snuck in the back door. On its simplest level, Watchmen could be described as what the world would be like if there actually were such a thing as superheroes. The answer being: totally different and yet exactly the same. But looking deeper, Watchmen is actually about the danger of those that presume to the power to change the world. It’s impossible to read Watchmen now, two decades after its creation, and not to compare the book’s true villain (whom it would be a cruel spoiler for me to name here) with George W. Bush’s misadventures in the Middle East. Bush and Watchmen’s villain both manufactured wars with the presumptive belief that they were destined to save the world.
Moore believes that while a knowledge and appreciation of how cinema works can inform comics, there are things that only comics can do. If comics creators only work with movies in mind, their comics will be like “movies that don’t move.” So, as a result, most of his work was essentially “designed to be unfilmable.” I worry that the forthcoming adaptation of Watchmen will carry on the tradition of missing Moore’s point, and will simply be a dark, nasty, and depressing story of violence, sex, and depravity starring superheroes in sexy tights.
Moore declared to friends and family on his 40th birthday that he was a magician. That’s not “magic” as in the pulling of rabbits out of proverbial hats, but as in the exploration of areas outside the realm of science. Magic is the exploration of what science does not cover, but sometimes science describes the world in ways that might sound like magic. Collaborator Dave Gibbons points out the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, in which the more we learn what makes up matter and the material world, the less substantial it all seems. We can’t observe or measure it; there’s nothing there.
Moore defines magic as “The Art,” and if art is the manipulation of words and images to alter consciousness, then art is magic, and a writer is a magician. As Moore says in an interview with Daniel Whiston, his best grimoire (or book of spells) is actually a dictionary. Moore believes writing is a “transformative force than can change society” but by the 21st Century, writing is seen as a mere entertainment. Whereas once, in less rational or scientifically enlightened times, writers were feared. A witch could curse your crops or your health, but a writer could afflict you with a satire that could cause an entire community to laugh at you, and worse, for posterity to continue to laugh at you generations after you die! Now, the power of magic is not only underestimated, but abused. Advertisers work magic every day by manipulating and anesthetizing people en masse.
Moore posits the existence of what he calls “Ideaspace,” the landscape of the mind and spirit. The various systems of magic, like the Tarot and the Kabbalah, are maps to Ideaspace. He describes how writers and musicians sometimes feel like they are tapping in to something beyond them, as if merely taking dictation. I myself once felt a faint, pathetic little echo of I think what Moore is talking about. A high school friend and I used to compose and record instrumental music for guitar and keyboard. Our compositions were of varying degrees of seriousness, many just silly fun, but some fairly ambitious. While jamming around one of our silliest tunes, I still swear I heard a melody in the music that neither of us had played yet. My friend couldn’t hear it even when I figured it out on the guitar and played it over the backing tracks we had already recorded. Perhaps I was just hearing musical overtones that were literally present in the sound waves, but I remain convinced that, as silly as that particular song was, I very briefly connected into some kind of world of music. I don’t feel like it was a piece of music that I wrote, more like something that was already there, waiting, and I just had to hear it and play it back onto tape.
But if Ideaspace is real place full of “information” (nonmaterial ideas and inventions), humans are accumulating information at an exponentially increasing rate, and Moore predicts an apocalypse of sorts. If it continues at this rate, the accumulation of information will accelerate to a point where it will effectively approach infinity around 2015. He doesn’t know what will happen, but poetically describes the event as society reaching a boiling point and “becoming steam.” Moore’s ideas here are similar to Ray Kurzweil’s notion of the coming Singularity, the point at which computers become so advanced that they can act of their own accord, and improve themselves, and in effect become conscious. What Moore has to say here is both fascinating and frightening, but the film falls down by literally illustrating his big ideas with overly literal special effects sequences showing Northhampton burning.
Other filmed sequences reenact scenes from Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and John Constantine: Hellblazer (a series initially written by Jamie Delano, but starring the character Moore created for Swamp Thing). It probably seemed extremely unlikely in 2003 that any of these properties would become big-budget Hollywood films, and yet they now all have. In particular, the two sequences from Watchmen and V for Vendetta almost surely didn’t make Warner Bros. (who owns the rights to the works) happy, but they seem to have allowed Vylenz’ film to be released nevertheless.
A bonus DVD includes lengthy interviews with many of Moore’s collaborators, discussing their own work as well as their collaborations with Moore. Moore’s wife Melinda Gebbie, an American expat and illustrator of the pornographic novel Lost Girls, is more… well, normal than I would have expected. She’s extremely intelligent, with progressive politics, making her an obvious partner for Moore, but to be honest, I expected more of a freak. Also, Dave Gibbons does a wicked impression of Moore.
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Must read: The Craft, by Daniel Whiston. An extended interview with Moore on the craft of writing.