|conversations: Remember, remember: The politics of "V For Vendetta"
| Film critic and playwright Brian Dauth,
"November 3rd Club"
Editor in chief Victor D. Infante,
Performance artist and film critic Matt Cornell,
Libertarian Party co-founder Dave Nolan
PopCultureShock senior comics editor Guy LeCharles Gonzalez.
Victor D. Infante
I'm going to confess early - Alan Moore's original comic book "V For Vendetta" is probably my all-time favorite of the medium, with the possible exception of Warren Ellis' more recent "Transmetropolitan."
"V" for me was an almost perfect symbol for the political and social frustrations pent up in my then not-yet-post-punk late teens. I was living in England when I first discovered it, and hadn't yet read any Peter Kropotkin or any of the anarchist political philosophers who'd shape my more mature political consciousness. Really, I just wanted to burn everything around me to the ground.
I suppose I should be thankful I learned to sublimate through literature and symbolism.
But there was "V" - that Guy Fawkes mask's grin unmoving as he detonated Old Bailey, his dialog almost-exclusively in quotes - everything from "Faust" to the Rolling Stones; the history of Western culture distilled into one fictional character, who's role was to tear everything to the ground so we could start over.
That thought was appealing. It still is.
These days rebellion seems an almost self-defeating proposition. As writers as disparate as the French social critic Camille De Toledo and the British comic book writer Grant Morrison have pointed out, the corporate machine has learned how to assimilate rebellion, to turn it into a product to consume. At the most facile, punk rock has become a fashion statement, something to buy at Hot Topic in the mall. At it's most sinister, it's hard not to escape the fact that you're likely paying for both sides of the War on Terror at the gas pump. It's enough to breed despondency.
And then there's this movie. For me, it was like seeing an old - if exceedingly violent - friend; a stark reminder that the poor options presented to us may not be the only way through for society, that there really is a glimmer of hope that people can stand up to the notion that authority's there to govern them, a reminder of how much power fear has over people, and how that's used to keep a hold on them.
Frankly, I don't view V as a terrorist, although he uses some of the same methods. A terrorist's goal is to spread rampant fear in a population - a condition we in the U.S. are really coming to grips with now for the first time. V makes it clear - in fact, earlier in the movie than he does in the comic - that this is not his goal. He doesn't want people to be afraid. He wants them to stop being afraid. Clearly, this delineates him from the likes of Osama bin Laden.
I have an innate dislike and distrust of power - I fully understand this, and that it colors my views - but a good deal of political and social will is spent keeping people afraid of one group or another, be it poor minorities or homosexuals wanting to - gasp! - marry and raise families. And now we've bred a fear of Islam that's so deep that it scuttled a port deal that likely would have made no impact on national security at all and, frankly, would barely have been noticed a few years ago. Hell, most people still don't know that the British were running our ports, not us.
I wonder about that fear a lot, about what we could accomplish if we ever got passed it. And then I wonder if some structures weren't created to be eventually blasted down, when they're job was done.
Brian Dauth :
There are liberal pieties.
Then there are dishonest liberal pieties.
And then there is "V for Vendetta."
A bizarre romance with some fashionable progressive bromides thrown in to make bourgeois boomers and their bubble children feel righteous, "V for Vendetta" is one of the most toxic movies I have ever seen. The film starts with a variation on the classic meet-cute. She is on her way to an after-curfew assignation (as the unwitting beard for a gay man we later learn). He is off to a bombing. The director even photographs her feet going screen left to screen right, while his are shown going in the opposite direction (such rudimentary imagery is as good as it gets in "V for Vendetta" which is as lacking in visual intelligence as it is in intelligence of any sort.)
When she (Evey played by Natalie Portman) is stopped and threatened with rape by the authorities, he (V played by Hugo Weaving) magically appears and saves her. Then it's off to the rooftops of London to witness their first bombing together. V has chosen the 400th anniversary of Guy Fawkes Day to blow up London's Old Bailey. He also promises that one year from this night he will blow up Parliament and hopes all of Britain will come out to witness it.
Why all this terror? According to the movie, Britain has become a fascist state where all news is controlled, civil liberties have been crushed, and widespread censorship is the rule. V is portrayed as an avenging angel who seeks to light the fire of revolution within individual Britons so that they might rise up against their oppressors. Or maybe not.
Part of the tendentiousness of the film is that it also posits a scenario in which V is just a guy with a Mount Rushmore-size chip on his shoulder who is working out his issues. The unwilling victim of secret government experiments (Tuskegee Experiment anyone?), V is a man out for personal revenge who happens to have picked up a few decorative ideas about social change along the way.
Despite its general ahistoricism, "V for Vendetta" does attempt to gild itself with references to actual (even current) events, and this is where the film is most contemptible. I thought that the new standard for queer exploitation had been set (and fairly high) last year by Ang Lee with "Brokeback Mountain," but I guess records aren't what they used to be. "V for Vendetta" hits a new low when it exploits the real oppression of queers as a plot device in the tale of a heterosexual woman finding her inner strength (as well as true love) all to the strains of Julie London crooning "Cry Me a River."
Thinking that the assaults were over, I endured to the end, but the filmmakers had one last surprise up their sleeve: as the credits rolled whose voice should I hear but that of Malcolm X?!?! Here was the final indignity: in a film depicting the whitest London in screen history, the words and ideas of an actual African-American revolutionary who fought for social justice and change were tacked on as a parting shot of radical chic. The collection of Caucasoid crania in front of me (I prefer sitting toward the rear of movie houses) wagged in obedient unison: they got it and were well-pleased in themselves.
The credits finally over, I fled the theater, hoping that the chilly night air might alleviate the increasing tightening I felt in my chest. I saw that there was a record store up the block. I entered and went in search of something - anything - to help to purge the filth I had just witnessed. I felt begrimed.
I settled on a Michael Tilson Thomas recording of Stravinsky symphonies. Thus reinforced, I headed home and wrote this piece while listening to some of the most beautiful (if not the most beautiful) symphonic music ever composed. No
Romantic claptrap here (political or otherwise).
What a relief.
Matt Cornell :
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I haven't read Moore's graphic novel, though it has been bumped to the top of my reading list as a result of seeing the film.
I found "V" to be a rousing piece of popcorn agit-prop. Some would call it "agit-pop." (Prop-corn-ganda?) And I don't use this term dismissively. So many recent films have trafficked in images borrowed from our current national nightmare, but none with so much purpose and political chutzpah as "V For Vendetta." Whatever its faults (and there are a few), this is a film to be celebrated.
The release of "V For Vendetta" follows two fishy Presidential elections, an illegal war and occupation sold on lies and the development of an increasingly pervasive security state. While Bush's approval rating dips into the low 30s and Cheney's hovers around 18%, "V For Vendetta" is the number one movie in America! One has to believe that the movie is connecting with the public, at least partially because of its politics.
It's not surprising therefore, that the right wing has denounced the movie. One Web site I've been following equates the film with Nazi propaganda, calling it the
"Jud Suss" of our times. But what are they really objecting to?
"V For Vendetta" depicts the violent overthrow of a dictator who uses biological weapons and torture against his own people. Hurt's Chancellor, with his salt and pepper beard, resembles Saddam Hussein more than Bush or Blair. And the fireworks that bookend the film could just as easily signify the "shock and awe" campaign designed to announce the impending "revolution" in Iraq. Now, I'm playing a bit of the devil's advocate here, but how can the right wing NOT support the overthrow of such a government? Those who are angry at the film's politics end up looking like shills for fascism.
The Wachowskis have effectively triangulated right wing political discourse in America. To oppose V is to celebrate tyranny. It's a mercilessly effective rhetorical strategy. And I suspect that this is precisely why the film has left many leftist critics cold. There's no nuance, no moral ambiguity, no room to disagree with V's heroics. What makes it irritating to many critics on the Left is probably what also makes it such an effective act of jiu jitsu against the right wing. I can understand why Moore (a committed anarchist) has removed his name from the picture. He says that the film substitutes American liberalism for anarchy. He's right. In an odd way, the film's point of view can be taken as either left or right, or neither. Triangulation was Clinton's trademark, after all!
I'll wrap up here, but I do have some more specific thoughts about the movie, which I'll hold for the next go-round.
Dave Nolan :
In my opening observations, I will address "V for Vendetta" both as art and as social/political commentary or propaganda.
First, my thoughts on the movie as a movie. Generally speaking, both my wife and I enjoyed it. (We saw it together on Saturday 3/18, at a theatre in Tucson, AZ. The theatre was perhaps 1/3 full; mostly younger people, with a fair sprinkling of older viewers like us.) The production is good, the acting is decent, and the overall message - "Death to Tyrants" - is hard to quarrel with. Both of us left the theatre feeling that we got our money's worth.
That said, there are several problems with the movie. It's too long, and contains at least one unnecessary storyline: that of the lesbian actress Valerie. This side excursion serves no useful purpose that I can see, unless there's more to it than the movie lets on. (More on that later!)
More important, the main protagonists, V and Evey, are both morally ambiguous at best. Evey attempts to betray V at her earliest opportunity, and V tortures Evey. Not the most admirable characters. This leaves Inspector Finch as the only person for us to root for, and Stephen Rea does a fine job of making him credible and sympathetic. Finch comes closer than any of the other characters to being Everyman - a fundamentally decent fellow who gradually comes to the inescapable conclusion that the people he works for are monsters, and, in the end, does the right thing.
Beyond that, there are huge gaping implausibilities throughout the movie. V is portrayed as a loner, bereft of allies. Yet we are expected to believe that in a tightly controlled, constantly monitored society, he could fill a train with explosives, in a tunnel leading to the Houses of Parliament, without being detected. And what about those thousands of Guy Fawkes costumes? Did he make them in his basement lair, and then schlep them over to the delivery service? Wouldn't someone notice something out of the ordinary, and inspect one of the boxes?
Fawkes, by the way, seems an odd choice for a caped crusader to choose as his symbolic alter ego. I lived for two years in London, long ago, and the British have mixed feelings about Fawkes, to say the least. He wasn't even the leader of the Gunpowder Plot, and his motives were dubious; he and his co-conspirators were mad at King James because of his failure to stop the persecution of Roman Catholics in England, but the Catholics were quite as capable of nasty behavior when they got the upper hand.
These problems aside, it is worth examining the movie as a political statement. After all, if we can suspend our disbelief enough to accept V's knife-throwing skills, we can ignore the immense logistical problems he would face.
Much of the commentary surrounding this movie stems from a belief that it is somehow little more than thinly disguised Bush-bashing. And while you can read that into the movie, it seems a stretch. The leader of the British Fascist government is clearly patterned on Adolf Hitler. John Hurt is made up to look like an elderly Hitler, and even his name, Sutler, makes the point.
And while Sutler's government is portrayed as "right wing," that's not crucial to the movie's basic thrust. Change a few symbols and slogans, and the Bad Guys could just as easily be Communists. And it would make no difference to V, because his motivations are clearly personal rather than philosophical. He makes one laudable observation - "People should not fear their government; governments should fear their people" - but offers no vision of the proper role of government, or the nature of a just and humane society.
V hates his country's rulers because of what they did to him, and to others. While watching the movie, I briefly thought that perhaps V was the "after Larkhill" version of Valerie, the lesbian actress whose story is briefly chronicled in flashback. Otherwise, why even bother to introduce this character at all? True, V's voice is masculine, but who knows what effects the "experiments" at Larkhill might produce? If they could give someone super strength and agility, surely they could change his/her voice as well. And given that there are 26 letters in the alphabet, is it just coincidence that the actress was named Valerie, rather than Ann or Zoe?
But whatever his prior identity, V is a destroyer, not a builder, and I suspect that the short-term result of his blowing things up will be chaos, just as Sutler warns. And perhaps a few months of chaos is a reasonable price to pay for long-term freedom. Unfortunately, there is no attempt within the movie to seriously discuss political philosophy, which seems odd, given its talky nature. And that's a pity, because "V for Vendetta" could have been so much more than simple entertainment.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez
In the comics world, there are many sacred cows, and Alan Moore and his impressive body of work is perhaps one of the biggest in the herd. While I'm not a fan of sacred cows - the very suggestion often taints my first impression the same way my High School required reading lists did - I do have fond memories of Moore's ground-breaking "Watchmen" maxi-series, serialized back in 1986 during the peak of my first go-round as a comics fan, before a looming adulthood started offering new and more varied distractions. As a result, "V for Vendetta," which began serialization a year later, never hit my radar, and I picked it up for the first time last summer in anticipation of the movie.
I'd reread "Watchmen" a year or so earlier and, while able to appreciate its much-deserved place in comics history for Moore's real-world spin on superheroes, felt it hadn't aged well at all. Despite Time magazine honoring it as one of their Top 100 Novels last year - the only graphic novel on the list, BTW -- I would never suggest it to someone who's new to comics and looking for something to read. Considering I'm pretty sure that I didn't actually finish rereading it, and as I type this, can't remember any of the specifics of the story, I don't think I could wholeheartedly suggest it to modern superhero fans, either.
"V for Vendetta," on the other hand - while similarly dated and liberally incorporating elements familiar to any fan of the vengeance seeking, flush with resources anti-hero - holds up remarkably well all these years later. It's a flawed story, mind you, as Moore slips back and forth between compelling melodramatic fiction and ham-fisted polemic (similar in some ways to "Fahrenheit 9/11," I think), but the overall result is that of an incredibly engaging tale - part revenge thriller, part political potboiler, part police procedural - that takes the reader on an emotional roller coaster ride before ending on a somber, if obliquely hopeful, note. Moore ably juggles a large cast of reasonably fleshed-out characters, some moreso than others, and multiple intertwining subplots, and the sum is, without question, greater than its individual parts.
The underlying theme throughout is that of individual choice, and how the choices we make, or don't make, affect the world around us. Set in 1997, in a post-apocalypse, fascist England that would make George Orwell smirk, V explains, during a take-over of the state-run television network:
"We've had a string of embezzlers, frauds, liars and lunatics making a string of catastrophic decisions. This is plain fact. But who elected them? . You have encouraged these malicious incompetents, who have made your working life a shambles. You have accepted without question their senseless orders."
Reading that particular passage, I pictured the Wachowski Brothers' eyes lighting up, recalling the red pill/blue pill scene in "The Matrix," and the tickle in the back of my own head the first time I saw it, wistfully contemplating the philosophy behind the idea. At that point, I was pretty sure they'd do a good job with the movie, and, for the most part, they did, despite Moore's furious objections that ultimately led to his removing his name from the credits (both of the movie and future printings of the book, I believe) and signing over all royalties to his collaborator, the artist David Lloyd, who did a stellar job bringing his story to life the first time around.
The movie is an adaptation in the most literal definition, "a composition rewritten into a new form," and anyone looking for a panel-by-panel, "Sin City"-style production is going to be sorely disappointed with it. If anything, whereas the book fits the proverbial "whole is greater than the sum of its parts," the movie is the opposite, featuring several great parts that come together in a satisfying, if not stellar, whole.
The Wachowskis, necessarily so, have flattened Moore's story, jettisoning many of the subplots and streamlining the story's two primary threads -- V's vengeance and Evey Hammond's enlightenment. They've also revamped most of the characters; updated the setting into the 21st century and incorporated several overt (and, at times, ham-fisted) references to a world led into ruin by the United States of America and its War on TerrorT; and completely rewritten the final act. The latter point is, perhaps, the most contentious, as it strays from Moore's embracing of anarchy as a solution and posits a vague democracy via agitprop scenario that a more cynical person might point out is simply an ill-fated frying pan to the fryer choice. Of course, some might say the same about choosing anarchy, so in my mind, it's a minor quibble.
The larger flaw, however, lies in their unnecessary addition of an overt romantic link between V and Evey, and the shift to making V's beef with the government a much more personal one than it is the book. Both additions serve to weaken the ending somewhat, with Moore's being stronger despite the road to getting there being infinitely more implausible. (Brother Eye, anyone?) Overall, though, most of their tweaks actually improve upon the story, not the least of which is adding a much-needed bit of a sense of humor to the proceedings, as with an early scene featuring V in a floral print apron.
Natalie Portman pretty much carries the movie on her slim shoulders, though she is assisted by several spot-on supporting performances, especially Hugo Weaving's, who deserves some recognition for pulling off what must be one of the most difficult challenges for an actor, completely hidden beneath a mask that gives no hint of the man underneath. It's all body language (and camera angles), and though at times I kept hearing Agent Smith in the back of my head, I think he did a great job. Stephen Rea, as Chief Inspector Finch, does a wonderful job, too, as the detective who keeps on digging despite knowing he might not like what he turns up: "If our own government was responsible for the deaths of a hundred thousand people ... would you really want to know?"
Portman, though, was a revelation, shaking off the horrid "Star Wars" trilogy in a way Hayden Christiansen can only dream of. Of particular note is the scene where she is being tortured for information about V and does most of her acting with her eyes. It's a powerful scene in the book, perhaps the most powerful, and the Wachowskis transfer it to the screen pretty much intact. If I were her agent, I'd be cutting that scene onto a DVD and sending it out to every voting member of the Academy next Winter.
Considering the timelessness of Moore's original story, despite being written in the same era as Watchmen, if I had a vote, I'd substitute "V for Vendetta" on Time's Best 100 Novels list. It's more intricate, more engaging, and, in many ways, more accessible, and I highly recommend it to anyone who's not turned off by sequential art as a form. (ie: My wife won't be reading it.)
As for the movie, recognizing it for the densely layered popcorn action thriller it is, it gets two thumbs up from me, as well as a suggestion to not read the book first if you haven't already. Judging from my wife's confused reaction to it, I feel like there might have been some information that I caught because I'd read the book the day before. Nevertheless, it's as entertaining a 2+ hour movie experience as I've had recently, and I'll definitely be buying the inevitable special edition DVD whenever it comes out.
Matt Cornell :
In addition to reading your remarks on "V," I have been catching up on more reviews from liberal film critics. It's interesting to see that many of the negative reviews take such a scolding tone with the Wachowskis. Scott Foundas of the LA Weekly calls the film "reactionary" and finally suggests that the filmmakers "should be ashamed to show their faces." David Denby of the New Yorker says that the movie "celebrates terrorism" and recommends "V" only to goths, "aging kids" and "people driven mad by the ineptitude and folly of the Bush Administration" Uh, wouldn't that cover a majority of the American populace? (And never mind that ineptitude and folly are Bush's lesser crimes.)
Implicit in many of these criticisms - and also in Brian's - seems to be the idea that "V For Vendetta" is simply a juvenile fantasy for liberals - that it's only "singing to the choir." Similar charges were leveled at Michael Moore, even while "Fahrenheit 9/11" raked in $100 million and introduced the world to the "My Pet Goat" footage.
I'm reminded a bit of my years going door to door raising money for California Peace Action. When we were canvassing in liberal areas like Berkeley or Palo Alto, we'd find people slamming the door in our faces, telling us that we were wasting our time. "You're just preaching to the choir" they'd say as the door swung shut. My response then (in the mid 90s) was the same as it is now: The choir ain't singing!
That's why simple dismissals of "V" irritate me. In his opening remarks, Brian sounds like a vegetarian forced to review a steakhouse. He suffers through a comic book movie and then cleanses himself with a piece of high culture. Brian, please count mine as one of the "Caucasoid craniums" which was nodding to "V'"s beat!
Brian complains that V For Vendetta paints a lily-white portrait of London. This seems to miss the point. The film is about a futuristic fascist dystopia! I hardly expected it to be a portrait of diversity. On the other hand, he accuses the film of "queer exploitation." It seems that the filmmakers are damned if they do, and damned if they don't. Also, given that Larry Wachowski is reportedly queer, this is a charge that requires more analysis, beyond Brian's simple assertion.
In any case, I don't think that "V For Vendetta" simply sings to the choir. I think it's a film made and marketed for the masses. As I wrote in my last post, its strategy is actually somewhat Clintonian. I think that this is what lends it some persuasive power.
Tellingly, Evey and V (the revolutionaries) are not the most important figures in the film. The heart of the story is Stephen Rea's detective, who begins the movie as a weary enforcer for the state and ends as a disillusioned patriot. The police procedural is what drives the narrative. It's the cop's transformation more than Evey's that we're asked to identify with. He's a stand-in for the silent majority who is moved from fealty to revolt.
"V" has also been attacked for lacking ideas or solutions, but I think this also misses the point. The film's final scene portrays what is essentially the world's largest flash mob. It's not meant to advance an ideology or suggest an alternate model of government. It is only a demonstration of power in numbers. This in itself is a political statement.
What the filmmakers do with this last scene is also kind of interesting. When Evey finally blows up the Houses of Parliament, the explosion sets off a fireworks display. The crowd removes their Guy Fawkes masks and stares up at the sky. This mirrors a similar image in George Romero's "Land Of The Dead" (last year's best agit-pop movie.) In "Land Of The Dead," the humans use fireworks to distract the zombies. Fireworks in that film represent media spectacle and patriotism. "Land Of The Dead's" most optimistic moment finds the zombies realizing they've been manipulated and finally lowering their gaze from the fireworks to the world around them, where dinner awaits! By contrast, "V For Vendetta's" optimism is located in the final moments where a citizenry are torn from their isolation at home watching telly and compelled to make a show of force in public. Here they're transfixed by fireworks. They're being reconnected to their revolutionary origins.
I realize that this message is getting long, so I'll just touch on one more thing that Dave mentioned in his message. That's the scene where V tricks Evey, by convincing her that she's been imprisoned in a government gulag. After days of torture and isolation, she is finally offered the choice between death and confession. She chooses to die. This is when V reveals that the whole detention has been an elaborate test designed to liberate her from fear. This is by far the film's most surprising and suggestive passage. I think it serves two functions within the movie.
First of all, this scene shows how people in hopeless situations can become ideologues unafraid of death. Since it's meant to reference the detentions at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and other secret facilities, it serves to show us how we are creating even more fearless enemies. The Red Cross estimates that nearly 90 of those imprisoned at Abu Ghraib during the worst period of abuse were innocent of any crime. The Pentagon now admits that most of the detainees at Gitmo are also innocent, many of them bountied by Pakistani warlords looking to make a buck. By subjecting innocent people to imprisonment, torture and dehumanization, we're radicalizing them. The detention centers serve the war machine by minting fresh enemies almost as efficiently as they press new license plates.
But, the Gitmo-style encounter between V and Evey is not just a "test" or an act of politicization. It's also a form of romantic and sadomasochistic roleplay. I'm not suggesting that what happens is consensual in the ethical sense. Of course it's not. But within the context of the film, V is using such a trial to set Evey free. At the same time, Evey is demonstrating her love for V, her ability to suffer any indignity including death, for him.
Some have pointed out that it's far-fetched for V to convince Evey that she is being held prisoner by the state. Wouldn't she recognize his voice? Doesn't she notice that the cell-block guard is a statue? I would argue that this shows that on a deeper level Evey knows this is a roleplay. As in all S&M, V has repurposed an oppressive scenario as a tool for personal liberation. It is a daring sequence that suggests the revolutionary potential in BDSM. And if I'm reading the opinions of the BDSM community accurately, a lot of people think it's pretty "hot" too.
Well, I suppose that's more than enough for me. I look forward to hearing from the rest of you.
Dave Nolan :
After reading everyone's first round of observations and Matt's lengthy response, I will chime in with a second round of comments myself.
First I wholeheartedly agree with this paragraph from Matt: "Tellingly, Evey and V (the revolutionaries) are not the most important figures in the film. The heart of the story is Stephen Rea's detective, who begins the movie as a weary enforcer for the state and ends as a disillusioned patriot. The police procedural is what drives the narrative. It's the cop's transformation more than Evey's that we're asked to identify with. He's a stand-in for the silent majority who is moved from fealty to revolt."
It is through Inspector Finch's staunch detective work that we come to understand the true evil of the society that V is revolting against. And without that understanding, V's actions are meaningless. He's just a pissed-off guy (pun intended) who likes to blow things up. If anyone in this movie deserves special recognition for his performance, it is Stephen Rea.
In contrast, I am puzzled by much of what Brian wrote. Did we even see the same movie? Brian describes it as "toxic," but I'm at a loss to see whose mind is being poisoned and against whom, or what. One can reasonably criticize "V for Vendetta" for being implausible, sloppy, or even inane. But toxic? That's a word I'd expect social conservatives to use, decrying the film's depiction of Christian zealots and by extension, all Christians. And somehow, I don't think that's what Brian was getting at.
I'm also bemused by Brian's allegation that the movie exploits queers. There are only two significant gay characters (Deitrich and Valerie) and both are portrayed in a highly favorable light. In a more textured film, there would be at least one gay villain to make the point that good and evil do not map neatly onto sexual preferences. To have a gay villain would be totally unacceptable to the Hollywood liberal set, however, so don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen in a major movie anytime soon. (Incidentally, I thought the segment where Deitrich mocks Chancellor Sutler on TV, clearly patterned on the Benny Hill Show, was a highlight of the movie!)
Finally, I concur with Victor that the most valuable lesson this movie imparts is that fear is one of government's -- any government's - greatest weapons. Whether a regime justifies its atrocities in the name of the Fatherland, the Working Class, or the Divine Right of Kings, it is the atrocities themselves that deserve condemnation, and will eventually cause a revolt.
Response to Victor's Thoughts
- I wonder if Victor's love of the original comic book inflects his watching of the film. Reading what he wrote, I get the impression that the comic book was the much richer work and the film is a poor substitute.
- As for power, I wish the Left loved power more. Whenever people come together, power will be generated. To be successful, I believe the Left needs to assert that it has developed, tested, and mastered an ethics of power that is superior and more widely beneficial than that promulgated by the Right. At the present time, however, the Left shuns power as if it were a hungry cobra, and thereby commits itself to wandering about in the political wilderness. Unfortunately, some (many?) leftists look upon this exile as something noble to be cultivated and applauded, as if being able to proclaim "You're not going to catch us wanting to be in charge" is a virtue.
- As for violence and destruction, it holds no appeal for me. To engage in such behavior would be merely to ape the behaviors and tactics of those I detest. In my opinion, violence only begets more violence.
- With regard to rebellion, Victor is right rebellion is a fashion statement in the late capitalist era. I am much more fond of the thinking of the IWW who write in their mission statement: "By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old."
Change will occur, I believe, as an alternative system to the one under which we now live is formed, nurtured and expanded. Rebellion is easy to co-opt, but a system that runs on a different ideology is much more dangerous. Capitalism itself is full of rebellions where one way of doing things is succeeded by another, one fashion being replaced by the next all done in the name of profit.
Blowing things up or razing them to the ground while it might give a momentary thrill does nothing to challenge the system since it will just replicate itself on the ruins of what was destroyed. For lasting change to take hold, a viable alternative must be provided. But this urge to violent rebellion is one of the toxic aspects of the Romantic imagination/aesthetic (a handmaiden to capitalist expansion) which valorizes the Byronic hero/savior over the collective action of the group, and which "V for Vendetta" embraces and endorses.
Responses to Dave's Thought:
- I agree with him that the message "Death to Tyrants" is an unassailable one, and to praise a film for saying it is (to paraphrase Mme. Merteuil) like applauding the tenor for clearing his throat.
But I must disagree about the quality of this film. The acting (except for Stephen Rea's performance) is bombastic and the imagery is a mess. The director seems to have no sense of filmic space or rhythm scenes seem edited on the basis of whim.
- As for noting the implausibilities of the plot why bother? They will be unimportant to those viewers who plug into the movie, and appear as just another incidence of the film's shoddiness to those who are not fans.
- Dave is also correct when he notes that the film does not discuss serious political philosophy. "V for Vendetta" does not so much preach to the converted as preach to the posturing. In the place of engaged political thought it offers the petulant posing of a Byronic hero.
Response to Matt's Thoughts:
- I cannot agree with Matt that the film possesses "purpose and political chutzpah." As he rightly points out it is agit-pop (or as I would term it Ambien-pop): soothing Romantic images that make gestures and noises in the direction of rebellion in the hopes of arousing and then sating a viewer's inner Byron.
- As for its being the number one movie in America. I will be curious to see its second week's grosses.
- I think that the reason the film has left many leftist critics cold is not that there is no room to disagree with V's heroics. I would characterize myself as a Buddhist anarcho-syndicalist and find plenty to criticize in V's behavior. From a leftist viewpoint, it is the sheer inanity of his actions and the film's disdain for collective action which earn opprobrium.
- Finally, I do not see the film as engaging in a "merciless rhetorical strategy." "V for Vendetta" peddles the same tired Romantic idiocies and platitudes that have existed for decades.
All together now and follow the bouncing ball: "Someday my prince will come. . . "
Victor D. Infante :
I find it fascinating that Dave managed to hit some of the issues that die-hard fans of the comic have had with the move, without ever having read the comic. Surely, that's a tribute to Alan Moore's writing when you can see what's missing from it when you see the adaptation cold.
Valerie's story, particularly, is something that gets a little short shrift in the film (although I'm glad it wasn't cut all together, if only for sentimental reasons.) In the comics, Valerie's story is what gives the reader the first real insight into what happened in England, of how horrifying it was when society broke down, and how people who were different - be it their race, sexuality or politics - became scapegoats for the accumulation of political power: with no external threat (in Moore's original, he posited a nuclear war that destroyed large parts of the world's population. He has since admitted that he was mistaken to believe so many people would survive such a conflict.) the population is turned on "created" enemies inside itself - minorities, homosexuals and political activists. Not unique in and of itself - I'm afraid, as I've noted already, that's an all-too common method of currying power.
It's Valerie's story that personalizes it, gives that horror a face. V himself is too inhuman to really relate to. By his own admission (in the comic) he's no longer a person. He's an idea. Indeed, it's often considered that Valerie herself is V, or that it's her lover, Ruth. There's really no reason for her not to be - in the comic, the police repeatedly note that they can't determine V's age, race or gender. V's also often posited to be Evey's father - which makes the movie's romantic angle a little squicky. Of course, in a comic book, you have a lot more room to play ambiguity like that. In the film, you definitely have to have a man or woman play the role, and as the actor is already obscured, well, I can see why they just went ahead and made it a man. It loses something, but then, good comics often lose something when they're translated to the screen. It costs a fortune to do things that an artist can squeeze into a couple panels as easily as drawing a guy drinking a cup of tea.
But that's neither here nor there - whether V is really Valerie, Evey's father or someone else entirely, the point is it's irrelevant. Because V him or herself is entirely aware of what he's become - not just a mere monster, as he says in the movie, but a metaphor to hang an abstraction on. Not an abstract concept, but something people can understand. Which is why, when he dies in the book, he transfers the role of V to Evey.
Evey's role is similar in the book, but there are marked distinctions. In the comic, she never tries to betray V, but rather, falls out with him over killing people. She refuses. Indeed, after her lover (transposed to a gay analog of Jon Stewart in the movie, I suppose) is killed and V "interrogates" her, he later offers to take revenge for her. She passes. Even after all of that, she refuses to kill - she's found a "one inch" that even V can't make budge. Her taking on the role of V serves to denote that the time for violence and chaos is over. That it's time to rebuild.
Matt Cornell :
Welcome Guy. Thank you for your comments, and for adding some background on the comic book.
Perhaps you can shed some light on one aspect of V's plot. Some have suggested that the revelation that the government manufactured and released the "St. Mary's Virus" is meant to parallel conspiracy theories about government involvement in 9/11. I'm assuming that the St. Mary's story was in the original novel and is more likely intended to invoke the idea that AIDS is manmade. Do you have any thoughts on this? And did you notice the Wachowskis tweaking the St. Mary's subplot in order to gesture toward either reading?
Regarding the Left's ambivalence about power Brian, I happen to agree with you. It's ironic, however, that the sharpest recent critique of the Left's masochism its fetish for powerlessness was actually made by Ted Kaczinsky in the "Unabomber Manifesto"!
You say that you are opposed to violence and destruction, that it "merely apes the behaviors and tactics" of those you detest. But how do you propose that the Left claim power absent the threat of force? Is there any kind of meaningful political power that isn't predicated on the threat of violence? Isn't that more or less why anarchists oppose all government?
It's also ironic that you invoke The IWW, a group whose membership is reportedly around 2,500 and whose effectiveness and power is virtually nil. And while I'm no student of labor history, I'm aware that the Wobblies have some history of violence.
You also find "V For Vendetta" toxic because it celebrates the romantic hero instead of collective action, but V isn't really a character; he's an idea. The movie makes this point numerous times. This is why we never see his face. This is why he speaks in borrowed quotes, and why he's a collector of artifacts. Hell, he doesn't even seem to eat! V is only a catalyst for collective action.
But let's assume that V is an individual. Which of his actions do you find fault with? He detonates two unoccupied buildings and kills a handful of the fascist elite (each of whom have done him personal harm.) As best I could remember, V may have killed one innocent, a security guard at the TV station. Excepting this last one, if I remembered it accurately, what bothered you?
Also, I'd like to hear specifically why you think the film exploits queers. If you're going to make such a charge, it's only responsible to back it up with some specifics.
Finally Dave, I'd just like to mention that there is a long history of queer villains in "liberal Hollywood" films. And if Hollywood were truly as gay-friendly as many believe, we should have seen at least one major star come out of the closet. But, like V, they have yet to remove the mask.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez :
So, Brian is the Simon Cowell of this divided roundtable, yes?
"V for Vendetta" is, at its heart, a solidly constructed popcorn thriller, nothing more, nothing less. While it uses political themes primarily as window dressing for telling a good yarn - the movie moreso than the book, though Moore's take on it wasn't really that much deeper, simply more focused - I'd say that it is definitely more agit-prop than legitimate political statement, akin to my getting on stage and reading an angry poem about life under Bush, or Howard Dean's opportunistic anti-war stance during the Democratic primaries back in 2004. It may be preaching to the choir at some level, but as Matt pointed out, "The choir ain't singing!"
"V for Vendetta" is about ideas more than solutions, and as Victor points out, V is an idea, a symbol, a metaphor writ large. "Ideas are bulletproof," explains V in the book.
His identity remains a mystery, in both the book and the movie, and that is purposeful (though in the book, it's made clear in Dr. Delia Surridge's journal that V is a man, and not Evey's father, and IIRC that's carried over to the movie, too). There's a sequence at the end of the book that's not used in the movie, where Evey debates removing V's mask, and the it repeats four times with four different results, the final scenario revealing her own face. The movie does something similar with Inspector Finch's character, whose transformation is the most relatable to the general audience, as he goes from loyal party man to skeptic to, in the end, siding with V (in spirit, at least).
That is ultimately the message I took from the story, that each of us has a choice -- the blue pill or the red pill, if you will - that any one of us, no matter where we start, can become V (or Guy Fawkes, or Nat Turner, or José Marti) if we make the choice to do so. It's agit-prop for the summer blockbuster crowd; too simplistic, perhaps, for the more politically savvy, but at just the right level for the average audience member more focused on making ends meet and putting food on the table than dissecting the nuances of political ideologies. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
PS: Matt's response came in as I was finalizing mine, but I wanted to address the St. Mary's sub-plot. It was the Wachowski's doing, their way of updating Moore's nuclear holocaust scenario and streamlining several other sub-plots. It was, IMO, the weakest part of the movie as it put too much emphasis on the past and raised unnecessary questions about V's true identity. I think your reading of it as being an analogue for AIDS and the conspiracy theories works, though, while I'm sure others saw it as referencing theories that 9/11 wasn't a really terrorist attack, but part of the neo-Cons' larger plans for remaking the Middle East.
I also second your point on the illusion of a gay-friendly Hollywood. That's a silly myth that's totally unsupported by even the loosest interpretation of reality.
Dave Nolan :
My apologies if you get this message more than once; my e-mail is acting wonky and I want to be sure everyone gets it at least once!
This will be my last posting in this discussion, because I think we've pretty much covered everything that needs to be said about "V for Vendetta." As I said in my initial comments I think it is an enjoyable movie, albeit riddled with flaws, but it's not a real heavyweight when it comes to addressing the subject of the individual vs. an oppressive State. One minor thought did occur to me after I made my previous remarks. Did anyone besides me notice that the emblem of the Fascist regime is a double cross? And does anyone know if this is an intentional visual pun, or just an accident?
Moving beyond the particulars of the movie, however, I'd like to challenge two assertions made by other participants.
First, Brian's statement that "the Left needs to assert that it has developed, tested, and mastered an ethics of power that is superior and more widely beneficial than that promulgated by the Right." Well, they can assert all they want, but history shows that regimes of the Left have been just as brutal as those of the Right. Stalin = Hitler; Castro = Pinochet; Mao = Papa Doc. Any group seeking power will assert that its intentions are good and that its policies will benefit humanity. But power does in fact corrupt - and tends to attract the corruptible - and all authoritarian governments are pretty much the same. Whether they're nominally Christian, or Socialist, or based on a racist or nationalist impulse, they are all to be viewed with suspicion and disdain. So please, no posturing about the moral superiority of the Left!
Second, while Matt and Guy challenged my assertion that Hollywood is "gay-friendly," I'd like to see some specifics. Various studies indicate that somewhere between 1% of 10% of the U.S. population is gay. Both of those figures are suspect; a reasonable guess is probably about 3% (see data). Now, looking at the 50 biggest box-office movies for each of the last 20 years (1,000 movies in all) how many overtly gay villains can either of you name? If art does in fact imitate life, and the movie industry is really not disparately pro-gay, there should be about 30 overtly gay villains one can point to in that period. So, start naming! (I point this out not because I dislike gay people - I don't - but because it strikes me as absurd to claim the "V for Vendetta" is anti-gay, or in any way atypical of the industry's generally pro-gay stance.)
Hello all. I was going to make my most recent post my last, but since Dave has challenged me on this point, I will reply.
As you might suspect, I did not attempt to find a list of the top 50 grossers over the last 20 years. There are numerous problems with the method Dave proposes for detecting pro-gay bias in Hollywood films. Here are a few:
- Gay issues are rarely if ever broached in Hollywood cinema, and even more rarely in films that make a list of the top 50 at the box office. And then we'd still have to find portrayals of "overtly gay" characters, an even rarer species of film.
- The sexuality of villains in cinema is often left ambiguous. Unless Dave assumes that a film character is straight by default, we'd have to leave most screen villains out of our statistics. Just take a look at the AFI poll of the top 100 villains in cinema history. This list includes Hannibal Lecter, the Wicked Witch of the East and the Nazi dentist from "Marathon Man," among many others. I have no idea what their sexual orientation is.
- When a gay character is portrayed as a villain, his moral failure is often directly tied to his sexuality. Straight villains are rarely portrayed as villainous because of their sexuality.
- When gay characters are present in a film, they are often portrayed as villains. If Dave wants to arrive at some meaningful statistics, it would be better to count the total number of portrayals of gay people in Hollywood cinema and then count how many of these are positive as opposed to negative.
I'd conduct such an analysis myself if there already wasn't a mountain of scholarship on the subject. Vito Russo's "Celluloid Closet" is not a bad place to start.
Brian Dauth :
Regarding Matt's thoughts:
- I do not consider V for Vendetta a juvenile fantasy for liberals - if it were only that innocuous. Rather, it is a film that offers an alternative that is actually just more of the same thing. Instead of the bad Chancellor telling people what to do, we have the good V telling people what to do. In either case the masses are reduced to passive spectators - either by television or in person - awaiting instruction from a leader. This notion is Romantic hooey at its worst and does nothing to address the situation as it now stands in the world. What is needed is collective action, not individual bravado. On one level, "V for Vendetta" is an anti-democratic movie.
- I was not trying to cleanse myself with high culture (and to do so with a Stravinsky recording would be nonsensical since he tried to erase the distinction between high and low culture), but rather rid myself of the rancid Romantic film that the movie had deposited on my mind.
While I did choose that particular compact disc, the urge to Stravinsky was an unconscious one. The justice of it only occurred to me later when I remembered that it was with his symphonic music that Stravinsky first banned violins, violas, and clarinets from his writing because he wanted to avoid the "lyrico-sentimental feelings" that pervaded the work of so many composers.
Stravinsky also was interested in examining and capturing communal and collective experiences in his music. In these ways, he represents a decisive break with the Romantic tradition that preceded him. I have nothing against comic book movies. I do have something against Romantic politics.
- As regards queer exploitation: the filmmakers invoke the real sufferings of queers as part of the story of a heterosexual woman's struggle to break through to a deeper sense of freedom. The tragedy that can befall queer lives is thus made into a heterosexual helpmate a la "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Once again, we live (and die) to serve.
It is similar to the way that Hollywood first dealt with the stories of African-Americans. In "To Kill a Mockingbird" the story of the false arrest and murder of a black man is used to allow Gregory Peck to play the noble white man. Just as "Mockingbird" focuses on a white man and uses the story of a black man to demonstrate how wonderful white people can be, "Vendetta" uses a queer story to help a heterosexual discover freedom and bloom in love.
- I do not believe it that it is the police procedural that drives the plot. For me, the film is propelled to a far greater degree by the love story and the tale of V's vengeance for what was done to him. Finch (Stephen Rea) serves as witness to Evey's assuming the mantle of Byronic savior after V drops it. He remains a follower, albeit with a new leader.
In the shot on the rooftop, Evey is screen left and in front of Finch who is to her right (audience's point of view) and behind her. To identify with Finch is to identify with someone who is to the right and behind (reactionary) with regard to Evey. I disagree with Matt that the silent majority is asked to revolt - it is asked merely to fall in line behind a new leader, spectators still. This sense is conveyed by the static images the director composes during this part of the film.
- As far as being opposed to violence, I am and intend to remain so. Having been the victim of both police brutality and physical heterosexual harassment, I have no illusions about the uses and benefits of violence.
The building of a nonviolent anarcho-syndicalist alternative (here is where my Buddhism intersects and merges with my anarcho-syndicalist beliefs) is a long and slow process, but for me it seems the only logical and possible alternative. I realize that violence has a gonadal appeal for a certain type of person, but in my experience if violence is to be effective it needs regular demonstrations of its viability and potency, an approach I cannot and will not endorse.
- I agree that V is more an idea than a character, and a dangerous one to boot. He is the go-it-alone-hero so beloved by the Romantic imagination. Whether it is the starving artist in the Parisian garret or the solitary gunslinger on the dusty Western street, this figure is valorized as the most honest of types (also the most susceptible to the blandishments of capitalism).
I disagree, however, that V's action is "a catalyst for collective action." It is merely another narcoticizing spectacle.
Regarding Dave's thoughts:
- What I was getting at when I used the word "toxic" was the toxic nature of political Romanticism - the search for the Byronic hero to save us all - that the film traffics in.
- While I am fully aware that both the Left and the Right can abuse power, the fact is that so long as people come together and form communities, the issue of power will have to be dealt with. But much of the Left seems either incapable or unwilling (or a combination of both) to articulate an ethic to deal with the issues of power and how they should be handled.
In place of reasoned moral argument, the Left supports a vague notion of everybody doing their own thing with the consequence that people now go to school and emerge with degrees in Etruscan pottery or Victorian lace-making or even film criticism, and then expect that there will be a place for them in society.
In a capitalist culture, everyone doing their own thing is a problem since those people occupying the lower rungs of society will be forced to do the work that the privileged avoid as they pursue their private goals. The thinking of starry-eyed, ballot-box Leftists goes no further than hoping that someday all people will be able to enjoy their own pursuits. Such Romantic idiocies conveniently ignore one inescapable fact: somebody has to take out the trash.
In my opinion, the Left must reject the hyperindividualization of capitalism and work toward building a sense of collective duty and responsibility where all people are involved in the construction and maintenance of a just society. It is not power that corrupts but overindulged desire that does. When Leftists finally understand this, maybe then they will move away from capitalism and its nexus of desire creation/gratification and toward the establishment of a just and equal society.
To look on power with disdain and suspicion is to acquiesce in one's own subjugation.
Regarding Guy's Thoughts:
- Simon Cowell never. George Jean Nathan forever.
- I find nothing solid about the construction of this film: its shoddiness is appalling.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez :
I second Matt's response.
I do agree with Dave on another point, though: "So please, no posturing about the moral superiority of the Left!"
"The Left" is as morally bankrupt as "The Right", IMO, and I've little use for the lesser of two evils mentality that effectively limits American politics to those two options. From that perspective, there's days when I can totally get behind blowing up a few symbols in an effort to wake people the hell up. Then my cynical side kicks in and says, what's the point? If 9/11 wasn't a strong enough cue for people to take the red pill, I can only imagine what would happen in the wake of a St. Mary's Virus. Isn't Viagra blue?
(The conversation doesn't have to end here, feel free to continue the discussion in The November 3rd Club Forum !)