In the Time of Monsters

Watchmen

a television series created by Damon Lindelof
Regina King in Watchmen
Mark Hill/HBO
Regina King as Angela Abar in her Sister Night costume in Watchmen

Eyes stare from the screen; we zoom out from stained-glass windows shaped like eyes. A superhero tilts her head to one side; we see a bronze bust tilted at the same angle, a purple mask over its eyes. The trunk of a car shuts; the trunk of a car opens. We zoom in on a detail of a white horse from an old painting of the genocide of Native Americans; a gentleman rides a white horse through a green countryside to his manor.

These are some of the striking visual moments in Damon Lindelof’s 2019 HBO series, Watchmen. The show is based on—really a sequel to—the 1986–1987 comic book series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, a gritty, virtuosic metafictional critique of superhero culture—including the comic form itself. These abrupt shifts from shot to shot are in fact one effort to capture the aesthetic of the original. In an interview about the show, the director of photography, Gregory Middleton, said:

One of the transitional devices we wanted to use to echo the graphic novel is the match cut. In the comic you’ve got one panel with a character in the foreground and someone in the background. The next panel is the same character in the foreground, but they are somewhere else—or somewhere else in a different outfit…and you’re basically just jumping time because you’re really with the character and where their state of mind is, so the intervening time between how they went from here to there is irrelevant…. It’s a nice, clever way to keep you on point…. [We] worked hard on all the transitions in that episode to try and achieve that effect and make it interesting.

As Middleton says, a match cut—technically a graphic match—“jumps” rather than flows from shot to shot. Unlike a basic cut, which moves smoothly from one angle or moment to another in a single setting, giving us a feeling of continuity, a match cut lasts long enough for us to notice that two shots in different settings have similar shapes or movements—we make the leap to connect them, to relate two things separated by space, time, perspective. You could think of a match cut as a visual analogy or metaphor: a purposive claim that one thing is like another thing, a “perception of the similarity in the dissimilar,” as Aristotle put it. Or you could think of a match cut as a visual pun: a trifling way to play with the fact that two things echo each other. Either way, as a technique for juxtaposition, match cuts raise two questions: What’s the relationship between the things juxtaposed? And how is the juxtaposition itself justified?

You can justify juxtaposition aesthetically, the way Middleton does: as nice, clever, interesting. The match cut between the eyes…


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