The Mindscape of Alan Moore
directed by DeZ Vylenz
(Disinformation, 2008)

Originally released in 2003, this little-known documentary made by a film student as a class project previously had limited availability. Its re-release into most major retail markets has finally given it greater attention.

The reactions to the film from fans and critics have ranged from one end of the spectrum to the other. Some reviewers are so blisteringly negative that it's a wonder the webpage hasn't caught fire, while others are so glowingly over the top that it's equally obvious they're writing hagiography.

That Alan Moore can provoke such contradiction is part and parcel of what makes him such a fascinating writer. With his wild beard and long hair, he looks like the world's coolest English teacher, one for whom future college kids would be signing up for practically at birth. Moore, author of The Watchmen, probably the most infamous graphic novel of all time, and other seminal works such as V for Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, is a prolific and skilled weaver of tales and one of the field's most popular writers. His keen perceptiveness, intimate knowledge of all things archaic and pagan, and unique insight into human nature have made him a tale-spinning genius that has given him the status of a writer who is a celebrity both inside and outside his bailiwick, a thing he finds most peculiar.

The Mindscape of Alan Moore aims to get behind the man whose impact on the comic book industry has been like an earthquake.

Director and film student DeZ Vylenz aims the camera at Moore and just lets him talk. Answering a few basic (off camera) questions about his early, rather nondescript life, Moore then segues into his decision to leave everything behind when he made the leap to being a writer. At that point the documentary shifts from the ordinary background details of his life in Northampshire, a working-class industrial town composed of what he refers to "incest families," to a description of what the act of creation means for him, and a brief history of how his style, florid and poetic with strong touches of humor, developed over the years he spent churning out tales for the comic-book industry.

As you can imagine, Moore was and is a fairly voracious reader. But his writing isn't just informed by heavy doses of literature of all kinds. (Wouldn't you just love to poke around in his library?) It's also equally informed by metaphysics, the Kaballah, shamanism and plain old heavy pondering. Moore is deeply preoccupied with history and magic. Deciding, at mid-life, that a regular old mid-life crisis was simply too mundane, he decided to become a magician -- which, he explains, is so closely entwined with the act of writing in process and outcome that they are in fact inseparable.

Some are perhaps making too much of Moore's musings when they state, as one did, that viewing this movie had literally changed his life. While Moore's worldview is certainly very interesting, it's basically Philosophy 101, or Joseph Campbell On A Slightly Larger Scale. The ideas and concepts he discusses are not at all uncommon and not really all that high-falutin', but it is absorbing to see just how all this esoteric knowledge folds itself together in his mind to create his singular perspective.

His comments on the difference in the definition of "erotic" vs. "pornography" would parallel that of many a feminist, while his assessments about the effect of invasive media are based in fairly sound McLuhan-style logic. It would be hard to argue against the concept that the mass media is a 24/7 presence in our lives; that we are surrounded with media-created personalities of every type and stripe so we can choose any identity we want to try on, while our materialistic, consumer-based society makes us spend every penny trying to change our bodies, our identities, change the person that we are into what we think we want to be; most importantly, that we've become very lazy about our civil rights and are surrendering them all to privately held corporations. As Moore sees it, our identities are based on constructs, false ones at that, the inevitable result being that society in general is becoming too self-centered and materialistic. The stripping away of those false constructs and the exploration of identity are concepts Moore explores via his complex plotlines. The Watchmen, Moore's clear masterpiece, as well as V for Vendetta, were his way of describing a future dystopia that he feels is becoming more fully realized with each passing year, especially since his idea of cameras on every street corner is now an everyday reality.

Reactions to his reactions about the film adaptation of The Watchmen have been nothing less than visceral. Given room to explain his point of view, Moore's feelings are perfectly valid in their own context. It's hard to fault him, though some seem to be determined to try.

Moore is not really being harsh about movie. It is not a failure on his part to envision a good adaptation. Given how the printed images in his stories often seem to be actually, physically struggling to bring forth his vision (Exhibit A: the Promethea series), there is obviously nothing wrong with his ability to visualize the fantastic. The heart of his protest against adapting the book into a movie, is simply a desire to keep it pure. Moore's point, and it is a valid one, is that no matter how great the film adaptation is, there are layers of meaning to the graphic story that can only be accessed through reading it as it was meant to be read, with pictures and words combined in the extremely specific interplay that only graphic stories can produce. By relying on a purely visual medium, some of the details so specific to the graphic story would be altered completely, lost in translation, or both. Not only that: making a movie out of something that protests soul-destroying mass consumption is effectively commercializing the protest, thereby dampening the overall message.

Which doesn't mean that a movie can't support a story, and relay its core philosophy, just as well as the source material does. Flipping the argument around, film has the ability to highlight nuances that can't be seen in a two-dimensional print format. A well-done movie can be an equally effective framework for an already great story and have the beneficial side effect of bringing more people to the source. A work of art can become "multi-media" without necessarily devolving into a "brand." A good example of this would be Manuel Puig's novel Kiss of the Spiderwoman, a book about a movie that became a movie about a movie. Both were incredible. Or Keats' "Ode to a Grecian Urn," a poem inspired by an ancient funerary vase, one work of art creating another in a completely different but complementary way.

It could be that The Watchmen is too necessary right now, too needed, for it not to become a part of larger consciousness. Perhaps there are reasons, beyond merely capitalizing on a well-known graphic novel, that a story about the struggle for identity in a world that is on the verge of self-centered destruction, is suddenly such a hot topic. Perhaps it's time for a story like that to become part of mainstream thought. It could be an aesthetic miscalculation or perhaps, just perhaps, it could be that we need to hear its message now more than ever.

review by
Mary Harvey

11 July 2009

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