Watchmaker, watchmaker, make me a watch

Tuesday, 20 February 2007 — 12:40am | Adaptations, Comics, Film

Riddle me this: It’s December 1941 in Casablanca. What time is it in New York?

In the famous opening passage of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams describes the human species as “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” In this way, I am only human. I have worn digital watches all my life. I cannot live without one. It’s easy to tell when I’m fidgeting, because I check the time compulsively. As far as I am able to remember, on only two or three occasions have I been without a digital watch for more than a day, and on every one of those occasions, I panicked like an abandoned child lost on a San Francisco pier (which, come to think of it, is something I’ve also been at least twice). I have probably been without my watch more often than that, but those memories lie safely repressed.

Over the past year or so, my wristwatch dependency has loosened its grip. It still follows me everywhere, and I am still disoriented without it, but I replaced the strap a year ago and never got used to it. It wasn’t because the strap was uncomfortable; it was because I took my watch off with increasing frequency, either to time my own speeches or to permit the unobstructed handling of keyboards (both QWERTY and black-and-white), and never got so accustomed to the strap that I would be at a loss without it. But in any and all circumstances, my watch was never far.

I find that it is just as vital to know when you are as it is to know where you are, if not more so. If you are lost in space, you can find your way out, or you can stay in that spot, and develop a plan from the inferred state of your observed environment. Not so with time – certainly not here, where the winter days are but a few days in length, and the moon and stars lay hidden.

My model of choice has traditionally been the Casio Databank DB35H, mostly because I got very accustomed to its interface, feature set and display after years of use in elementary school; the segment layout is easy to read and familiar to me. It has evolved over several incarnations, and the one I purchased in what must have been 1999 or thereabouts had electroluminescent backlighting, which my first one did not, though it too has had its features extended in the latest revision. That said, given that I don’t really use the databank features, I’m open to superior alternatives like this Waveceptor model. At the same time, my current model suits my needs just fine, and I see no reason to leave it for another. Maybe an obsession with time is born of a desire for stasis and a fifty-metre resistance to change.

After roughly eight years of long service – perhaps longer, as I do not recall with the utmost precision – my battery died last week. For some reason, I don’t remember this happening before. The technical specifications for the latest incarnation of this model estimate a battery life of two years, which simply can’t be right. Perhaps my extensive use of the stopwatch features accelerated its demise. Or perhaps it was nothing more than any old battery expiring of natural causes.

I was at the university when time abruptly decided to stop, so at first opportunity, I went to the Bookstore to buy a replacement cell. Then I realized I was uncertain what battery I required, so I borrowed a screwdriver from the staff and opened up my watch on a counter. As it was already open, I decided to purchase a battery and perform the replacement myself then and there. I’d never been in the guts of one of my own watches before, so this was an autodidactic experience from the get-go. The battery housing was a veritable fortress, and tinkering about in its innards was a dextrous exercise ripe for eliciting a calm eddy of introspection, even if the device was only a digital timing implement and nothing that required me to meddle with mechanics and grapple with gears.

But irrespective of the absence of moving parts, disassembling and reassembling an electronic device and voiding its associated warranties is something I recommend everybody do at least once in their lives. Changing a lousy 3-volt lithium disc may be no big deal to those of my peers who spent their childhoods overclocking their CPUs, coiling solenoids for electric motors, or downloading instructions for building cherry-bombs from a nascent, textual Internet (and actually following them, to the chagrin of the junior-high caretakers); to them, it must seem no greater a task than the humdrum routine of replacing a lightbulb. However, I happen to be a Software Guy, a hands-off theoretician comfortable in his bubble of machine-independent algorithms afloat in the soapy bathwater of Platonic, Turing-computable ideal forms. For me, playing with little springs and unscrewing little screws and jumpstarting circuits with unfolded staples delivers a welcome pretence of handymanliness. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

In a timely coincidence, on that very same day I read about Zack Snyder’s plans for the Watchmen film.

Anyone who has been following my blog for reasonably long knows that of all the movies presently in development, this is probably the one I care about the most. More than the last three Harry Potters. More than His Dark Materials, which actually seems to be coming along very well from a design standpoint, though the jury’s obviously out on the script and will remain that way until the opening day of The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, if they’re releasing it under that title elsewhere). Maybe even more than Indiana Jones and the Spanish Inquisition or whatever Lucasian premise it is we’re not expecting. I do not exaggerate when I say that Watchmen is the Lord of the Rings of comic books, and it’s imperative that it’s done right. I’ve seen it pass from Aronofsky to Greengrass to Snyder, and 300 will hopefully give us a good indication of whether or not Snyder knows how to strike the right balance between aesthetic special effects and storytelling mojo.

All signs are good so far. Everything he says about the direction in which he’ll take the film is exactly as it should be; it’s just a matter of whether it can be done. For one thing, setting it in 1985 as a period piece is absolutely the right choice, if not a necessary one. Everything in the story revolves around the binaristic politics of the Cold War era, and the quest for a third way, a way to undo the Gordian knot. The organizing symbol of Doomsday Clock ticking down to midnight, and all of its consequent thematic material – Dr. Manhattan’s totalizing and reductivist perception of time, relativity’s coming of age with the ushering in of atomic physics, or the temporal suspension of the apocalypse – only resonate the way they do because of a very specific milieu that we now consider historical.

If you look at the James Bond franchise, observe what a paucity of truly consequential political storytelling there was in the Pierce Brosnan era, in spite of the fact that they had possibly the very best actor in the “debonair gentleman Bond” mould at their disposal. Goldeneye is by far the best, and it’s fundamentally a Cold War film; in the other three, Bond was a fish out of water, though things started getting interesting again in the deliberately comical Die Another Day. What was compelling about Casino Royale, from an adaptation standpoint, was how the writers managed to graft a Cold War story into the immediate “post-9/11” (post-baccarat?) present, to give a media cliché another whack on the head. I’ve always thought that the Bond franchise should be grounded in Fleming’s day instead of evolving with our present technology and geopolitical climate, but Casino Royale somehow achieved precisely that effect without moving an inch away from 2006.

It worked for Bond, and I ate my words, but it would never work for Watchmen. Too much of its backdrop depends on the relative parity that exists between two well-defined state superpowers at the zenith of an arms race, and how the iconography of the American superhero grew out of a very specific ideological landscape particular to an era where the theoretical band-aid solution to all matters of military prowess was more atomic power. While I haven’t paid much attention to how the comic-book superhero has fared against terrorists and urban guerrilla warfare in the twenty-first century, I imagine our situation is somewhat different.

But for now, let’s hope that 300 is a good film and a glorious financial success. It will keep the suits off Snyder’s back. Hopefully this time, Watchmen will motor through the production pipeline and come to the silver screen without too many complications; last time around, they only got as far as putting up a teaser website. I’d hate the job to be rushed, but I’m an impatient fellow, and the clock is ticking.

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