CINEMA MATTERS: Sorting out V for Vendetta

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Confused, not thought through

By David Walsh 

ORIGINALLY AT WORLD SOCIALIST WEB SITE

FIRST PUBLISHED ON 27 March 2006 ||  Email the author

V for Vendetta, directed by James McTeigue, written by the Wachowski Brothers, based on characters created by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

V for Vendetta, directed by James McTeigue and written by the Wachowski Brothers (The MatrixBound), aspires presumably to be a meaningful political thriller and offer an equally meaningful warning. It is largely undone by the primitiveness of the artistic means and disoriented or wrongheaded social views.

In the near future Britain is ruled by a totalitarian regime, rooted in nationalism with overtones of Christian fundamentalism (as well as the ‘Big Brother’ aspects of George Orwell’s 1984). Political opponents have been jailed or executed en masse, secret police thugs rule the streets after dark, and the face of Chancellor Adam Sutler is omnipresent on the omnipresent television screens.

A young girl, Evey (Natalie Portman), wandering out at night after curfew is rescued from a trio of vicious secret policemen by a mysterious masked man, known as V (Hugo Weaving). The two join forces eventually in a campaign to bring down the regime. A third figure, Finch (Stephen Rea), a member of the political police, has his own misgivings about the course of events. As he comes closer to the truth about V’s identity and history, his doubts grow.

V is driven by the desire for revenge as much as political idealism. He was mutilated in a fire at a detention center, which specialized in horrifying medical experiments, some time before. He has sworn to avenge himself on all his tormentors. His political program consists of killing government officials and blowing up public buildings. He wears a Guy Fawkes mask, to remind the British population of the early seventeenth century Catholic conspirator who plotted, along with a few others, to blow up the Parliament buildings.

The film is based on a graphic novel, i.e., a comic book, produced in the 1980s by writer (and anarchist) Alan Moore and illustrator David Lloyd. The work was directed against the Thatcher regime and the threat Moore and Lloyd felt the latter represented to British democracy. There are politically prescient and perceptive elements. The Wachowski Brothers, in adapting the graphic novel, have added obvious references to the present situation in the US. The Sutler regime is particularly hostile to Muslims and to Islam, and has used a disaster, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths, which it actually orchestrated, to eliminate elementary rights. Right-wing demagogues, in alliance with hypocritical clergymen, monopolize the airwaves.

I could possibly be convinced otherwise, but basing a serious film on a ‘graphic novel’ seems to me a questionable proposition. Is that not perhaps an inherently limited medium? Such an argument could be made. Almost inevitably the word ‘cartoonish,’ and not meant as a compliment, comes to mind. The comic book has no doubt gone beyond its simplistic origins, but, in the final analysis, it seems to me that a lowering of film standards rather than the emergence of the graphic novel as a significant art form accounts for the prevalence of films based on such works. In any event, Ghost World, From Hell, Road to Perdition, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, A History of Violence, Sin City and nowV for Vendetta do not constitute much of a persuasive argument.

No doubt many film scripts fail to transcend, and many may even seriously fall below, the level of the average graphic novel, but that is not an argument in favor of comic books, it is largely an argument against current filmmaking. To begin with a graphic novel, it seems to me, is to set oneself a ceiling, an artistic ‘maximum,’ that it is difficult to go beyond.

At any rate, whether Moore (who has taken his name off the film) or the Wachowski Brothers are primarily responsible, the drama and dialogue in V for Vendetta are often puerile (all too ‘cartoonish’). At times, indeed, the film reminds one unhappily of that other recent melodrama about a masked man who inhabits an underground lair, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s execrable The Phantom of the Opera (made into one of the most painful films of recent decades).

These samples will give some flavor of the current film.

Evey to V: “You’re getting back at them for what they did to you.” V replies: “What was done to me was monstrous.” Evey: “Then they created a monster.”

Or:

In his hideout, where he has a Wurlitzer jukebox, along with art works he has rescued from the dictatorship (including Jan van Eyck’s famed “The Arnolfini Marriage”!), V absurdly invites Evey to dance on the eve of ‘his’ revolution. When she questions it, he answers (in a paraphrase of a comment by American anarchist Emma Goldman): “A revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having.”

Or:

Evey: Who are you?

V: Who? Who is but the form following the function of what. And what I am is a man in a mask. Evey: I can see that. V: Of course you can. I am not questioning your powers of observation. I’m merely remarking upon the paradox of asking a masked man who he is.

Or:

Evey: I don’t want you to die. V: That is the most beautiful thing you could have given me.

And so forth.

It may very well be that disgust and horror at unfolding events, both at home (the growing assault on constitutional rights and civil liberties) and abroad (Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo), animate the filmmakers. Warnings about the possibility of a police-state, fascistic regime are certainly in order. However, for these warnings to have a measurable impact, the artist has to have thought through political and social questions, as well as problems of dramatic plausibility and psychological realism. There is little sign of that here.

Apart from such intellectual and artistic labor, disgust and horror are not entirely reliable guides. The attitude of the protagonist V and the filmmakers toward the population is ambivalent, to say the least. The notion that an assassination campaign and the demolition of landmark buildings will provoke a social upheaval is false and, ultimately, deeply antidemocratic. V is single-handedly carrying out ‘his’ revolution, as Evey calls it.

Ordinary people are portrayed as zombies, glued to their television sets, who need to be galvanized by bombings. The filmmakers stack the decks by having the population respond as V would like. But what if they did not? Would his next targets be crowded underground stations or shopping centers, as part of a further effort to arouse the slumbering masses?

The choice of Guy Fawkes, a former mercenary and Catholic conspirator, as revolutionary inspiration is hardly promising. It points to the essentially apolitical and asocial (and nationalist) character of V’s supposed uprising, in which personal revenge plays as large a part as any other element.

Taken at face value, the film neatly, if inadvertently, captures the bankruptcy of anarcho-terrorist ideology: the mass of the population is reduced to the role of a passive spectator while the heroic individual (and super-egoist) carries out exemplary, supposedly ‘electrifying’ operations. The sudden appearance on the scene of large numbers of people in the final sequence, the destruction of Parliament, in support of V’s actions is both unconvincing and problematic. Since the population has taken no part in the ‘revolution,’ has not advanced its own social awareness in any noticeable manner, how is a new, liberated society supposed to emerge from all this?

We will be told that we are taking this all too seriously, but, as a matter of fact, these are serious matters.

DAVID WALSH is a well known film critic filing reviews from a socialist perspective. 

Another viewpoint—

BY LOUIS PROYECT

January 1, 2007

3 Scary Future Movies

Filed under: Film, immigration, repression 

From the very beginning, mainstream movies have often been set in a future world that exhibits many of the ills found in the contemporary. This allows the film to adopt a critical stance but without risking a confrontation with the powerful financial interests that dominate mainstream movie-making, who don’t seem to mind a bit of subversion tucked away in a science fiction subgenre.

The future as dystopia can assume one of two guises. It can be a world in which there is material abundance and sybaritic pleasures but one governed by strict rules that prohibit personal expression, even on the level of sexual intimacy. Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” is an inspiration for these sorts of movies, ranging from Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” to Sylvester Stallone’s “Demolition Man.” Both of these include a comic scene in which the protagonist, who has woken up from a Rip Van Winkle sleep, is shocked to discover that sex in the future does not involve actual intercourse, but electromechanical substitutes. In all other respects, the citizens enjoy the good life despite being tightly controlled by a paternalistic state.

The other model is George Orwell’s “1984?, which is far less pleasant across the board. There are harsh living conditions, force-fed propaganda messages and brutal repression directed against dissidents. Obviously, Orwell’s future is a lot closer to the one that late capitalist society seems to be evolving toward.

The very first foray into a scary future was Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” a film that featured factory workers slaving away in the bowels of the city under the control of a master class that lived in luxury on the surface. They ultimately rebel against their conditions in a manner that must have resonated with the average worker in Weimar Germany, where the film first appeared. Despite its ostensibly radical vision, Marxists did not exactly greet the film with open arms. They were repelled by a class collaborationist message that involved the tyrant’s son interceding on behalf of the workers after he wakes up to the system’s injustice. While one might quibble with a certain kind of dogmatism that failed to recognize a great work of art on its own terms, the critics were hitting on something that pervades all such films. That is the tendency to feature a kind of super-hero who liberates the oppressed rather to depict the oppressed liberating themselves. The latter message would appear to defy long-standing studio parameters, even more so than those involving sexual taboos.

These considerations provide a context for evaluating three recent films that are of ascending interest, both cinematically and politically: “V for Vendetta”, “District B13?, and “Children of Men”.

1. “V for Vendetta”

The screenplay for this 2005 film was written by Larry and Andy Wachowski, who wrote and directed the Matrix series. Before they made films, the Wachowskis wrote comic books for Marvel, the publisher long associated with super-heroes and pushing the envelope of the genre. Marvel Comics have spawned a number of blockbuster films in recent years, including the X-Men and Spiderman series. Its proclivity for making money attracted the interest of corporate raider Carl Icahn who fought Ron Perelman, another corporate raider, for control of the 3 billion dollar comic book empire in 1989. Icahn’s goal was to move Marvel into the film-making business. Eventually, the value of Marvel stock suffered a huge loss in value, despite being “hot” in the mid 1990’s.

Stenberg Brothers poster

In 1993, comic book artist Neil Gaiman gave a speech to an industry gathering in which he compared comics to the tulip mania of the 17th century and accused his audience of selling cases of comics to children who thought they were buying collectors’ items, the equivalent in essence of their seniors who bought Enron or Pets.com stock around the same time.

You can sell lots of comics to the same person, especially if you tell them that you are investing money for high guaranteed returns. But you’re selling bubbles and tulips, and one day the bubble will burst, and the tulips will rot in the warehouse.

(NY Times, May 24, 199 

The Wachowskis are very much a product of this world. They understood that the Matrix films would appeal to the same kind of audience that flocked to other Marvel Comics adaptations. The Neo character played by Keanu Reeves was not that much different from Spiderman or the X-Men, who were plucked from obscurity and thrust into planet-saving roles. What the Matrix offers, however, is an opportunity to be educated in Wachowski thought, which can best be described as a kind of neo-Gnosticism that pits the forces of Light against the forces of Darkness, in this case a network of artificial-intelligence guided robots that have taken over the world. To show that they were some degree sensitive to real-life struggles against injustice, they cast post-Marxist and African-American scholar Cornel West in the final 2 films of the Matrix trilogy.

Larry Wachowski, who went to my alma mater Bard College, had told West that his writings had influenced his work. As it turned out, one of the two sentences the Wachowskis had written for West’s character (”Comprehension is not requisite for cooperation” run counter to West’s socialist beliefs but that did not prevent him from agreeing to play a bit role.

In many ways, “V for Vendetta” seems to be right up the Wachowski brothers’ alley. With a masked, lone-wolf, anarchist-terrorist hero battling the fascist rulers of a Great Britain of the future, the story once again places the emphasis on the individual redeemer. To show their affinities with Marxist culture, if on a somewhat superficial level, the promotional poster for the film was done in the style of the Stenberg brothers, two mainstays of Soviet poster art.

The screenplay was an adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel. Moore had published with Marvel Comics’s UK subsidiary during the 1980s and later moved to DC comics, a competitor. A number of films had already been made based on his graphic novels, all of which he regarded as a travesty. “V for Vendetta” seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, however. Even before the work began on the film adaptation, Moore said he was not interested. Referring to Larry Wachowski, Moore told the NY Times in March 12, 2006: ”I explained to him that I’d had some bad experiences in Hollywood. I didn’t want any input in it, didn’t want to see it and didn’t want to meet him to have coffee and talk about ideas for the film.”

 
Producer Joel Silver and wife at Matrix premiere. With revolutionists like these the system need not tremble.

That did not convince the two brothers and producer Joel Silver, who had collaborated on the Matrix series, from going ahead on the project. (Silver regards himself as an expert on Frank Lloyd Wright, and owns several houses he designed. He added: “I buy art – I don’t make it.”) The principals obviously understood that big bucks were involved.

While Moore’s novel was an attack on the Thatcher regime, the movie is a thinly veiled attack on the abuses associated with the “war on terror”. The British government uses the mass media to control public opinion in an ongoing conflict with domestic dissidents and enemies abroad, including the USA somewhat inexplicably. The atmosphere is very much that of Orwell’s “1984?, with a passive population being force-fed idiotic “entertainment” and political propaganda on a nonstop basis from government-controlled television stations.

In tune with a general sense of suspicion about the government in the post-9/11 period, the “V for Vendetta” plot includes a government conspiracy to unleash biological warfare on an unsuspecting population that in some ways resonates with claims that the American government developed the AIDS virus in secrecy as a weapon against African peoples and gays.

“V”, the hero of Vendetta, who is responsible for a series of Weatherman-style bombings of unoccupied government buildings, styles himself after Guy Fawkes, the Roman Catholic who was hanged in 1605 after being implicated in a plot to blow up the Parliament building. V was the victim of an early experiment in developing an antidote for the virus and now seeks revenge against the people who wronged him. Throughout the entire film, he demonstrates not the slightest inkling how Great Britain ended up in such a state or how his isolated actions will end the dictatorship. Leaving aside these sorts of fundamental questions, V’s character development is hampered by the fact that he is behind a mask the entire film. Although Greek tragedy and Jean Genet utilized masks, I found this device utterly counter-productive. Then again, the Wachowskis are no Sophocles.

In the climax of the film, V succeeds in blowing up Parliament with the help of Evey, his acolyte who can best be described as a yuppie TV junior employee that he recruits to his plot in a variation on the Stockholm syndrome. After simulating a rat-infested dungeon that Evey originally assumes was inside a state prison modeled after Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, V somehow pressures her into becoming an anarchist-terrorist like himself.

As implausible as this sounds, it is nothing compared to the final moments of the film when thousands of ordinary citizens converge on the Parliament just before it is blown up. They are wearing Guy Fawkes masks that he has sent out in the mail. Apparently, just receiving such a mask is sufficient to get them to turn against the system. What a fool I was to sell socialist newspapers throughout the 60s and 70s. I would have been better off blowing up buildings and sending out Karl Marx masks to complete strangers, I guess.

Louis Proyect’s blog, The Unrepentant Marxist, comments frequently on issues spanning culture and politics.

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