'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Film Notes: V for Vendetta 

[First posted 3/27/06: though flawed, V for Vendetta still represents the best, most sincere attempt to capture the social and culture dimension of the so-called war on terror, far better than more dignified, serious attempts to do so.]

Remember, remember
the fifth of November,
the gunpowder treason and plot.

I know of no reason
why the gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot.

V for Vendetta is the one of the most exciting pulp action political allegories since Executioners, a 1993 futuristic Hong Kong martial arts film featuring the Heroic Trio of Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung and the now deceased Anita Mui. Both films are noirish, violent and psychologically disturbing as they emphasize the irresistable temptation to seize and maintain power by appeals to fear in all its variations. Both also shamelessly steal from The Phantom of the Opera, displaying, yet again, the inexhaustible artistic potential of this seemingly simple story, although V for Vendetta does so more than Executioners, and both look to feminine heroines for salvation. Stephanie Bunbury, of the Australian newspaper, The Age, has chronicled the making of the film in detail, with an emphasis upon its cultural sources.

V for Vendetta is overtly political in its purpose, as the official Warner Brothers website ominously declares: People should not be afraid of the governments. Governments should be afraid of their people. Conversely, to this day, as Executioners is known primarily only to Hong Kong action film fans, it is still mistakenly viewed by many as little more than a high wire special effects extravaganza, and hence judged in comparison, sometimes unfavorably, to other productions in the genre.

In fact, Executioners was politically visionary, with a story line that exploited anxieties about the transfer of Hong Kong from Britain to China as an opportunity to explore the far more serious interrelated subjects of spectacle and military neoliberalism, with the latter concept being one that did not gain common currency until after the turn of the century, as a consequence of 9/11 and the publication of books like Afflicted Powers. The plot now strikes the ear as banal. The wealthiest man in Hong Kong conspires with the head of the military to destabilize the government and impose martial law by depriving the city of its water supply (seven years before Cochabamba, Bolivia violently erupted after Bechtel took over the municipal water supply and implemented nearly exponential prices increases!). Fortunately for Hong Kong, Michelle, Maggie and Anita overcome the combined forces of militarism and finance capital, if only to the extent that Hong Kong still has water. A small victory, but a victory, nonetheless.

While V for Vendetta is more a response to events than an anticipation of future ones, or, so we can only hope, the protagonist, the mysterious V, has a far more ambitious goal: the instigation of a 21st Century anarchist revolution that echoes the earlier Bolshevik one in St. Petersburg in 1917. Adult comic fans know that the film is based upon a 1980s series written by Alan Moore and predominately illustrated by David Lloyd. Moore reportedly created the series to give artistic expression to his revulsion of Thatcherism.

V is inspired by Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of November 5, 1605, a plot to blow up Parliament, portrayed in the film's prequel to the activities of V as an attempted act of liberation instead of a conspiracy of Roman Catholics, consistent with the incorporation of Fawkes into anarchist histories as the only man to enter Parliament with honest intentions. His failure has been forever enshrined in British history as he was recently acknowledged as one of the "100 Most Famous Britons".

As Fawkes is hung for treason, a voiceover from the narrator, Evey, a young woman who finds her life inextricably bound with V's, states: 400 years later, an idea can change the world. Wikipedia thereafter describes the momentum of the film into the not-so-distant future:

. . . . The story then moves to the movie's present day, where government spokesman Lewis Prothero gives a speech showing England to be under the rule of a religious, fascist, and bigotted regime. There is a curfew in effect.

Evey, a young woman who breaks curfew is caught on the street by members of the secret police, known as "fingermen." They are about to rape Evey when a man dressed in black, wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, intervenes by either incapacitating and killing the fingermen. After introducing himself to Evey as V, he takes her to a London rooftop to show her an event. As the clock strikes midnight of the fifth of November, Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" begins playing through the city's PA system and the citizens of London go outside, astounded, to listen to the symphony. In the symphony's climax, The Old Bailey is blown up and fireworks are released.

The Norsefire regime, the futuristic totalitarian regime of Britain headed by High Chancellor Sutler, explains the destruction of The Old Bailey as a voluntary act of emergency demolition on the part of the government. The police are also dispatched to find Evey, who was identified based on closed-circuit television images showing her in the company of V.

Clearly, the most controversial aspect of the film is the daring inducement to the audience to interpret it in light of emerging developments in the United States, such as Guantanamo and the war in Iraq (clearly, periodic references to the US being in the throes of a perpetual civil war are cosmetic). V is, by turns, warm, engaging, refined, violent and deranged. Through his ability to perform spectacular stunts, he disorients both the government and the people as he proceeds to undermine the regime, constituting the flip side of a cinematic coin that bears the image of German film director Fritz Lang's infamous creation, Dr. Mabuse, a 1920s and 1930s movie meglomaniac that disrupted society to lay the ground for fascism.

V for Vendetta has that electric quality that one associates with the greatest creations of the silent era, before cinema was reduced, except in rare instances, to commercially providing immediate representations of reality. Slavish adherence to plot rationality (how did V get all those masks and mail them to everyone in London?) is bravely jettisoned to the higher aspiration of exploring the limits of film as a method of story telling and political agitation in its own right. One critic deliriously responded to the film's poster art provocations, its masterful juxtaposition of a cinema verite present with a dystopian future, a London tricked out with noirish settings culturally expropriated from the industrial past and the postmodern present, and its blunt, politically uncompromising character, by invoking Eisenstein. Now, this, unlike the movie, is certainly over the top. But, having been mesmerized by the film myself, I can certainly understand how someone couldn't resist the comparison.

Moore has expressed unhappiness with the film's conception of V, asserting that he wanted to contrast the extremes of anarchism and fascism, seeking to encourage the audience to determine if V was insane or justified in his actions. Personally, I believe that Moore is too harsh on the scriptwriters, the Wachowski brothers of Matrix fame, and the disagreement highlights an essential aspect of the film. V carries out a killing spree for reasons of revenge (evocative of the great Vincent Price cult film, Theatre of Blood, wherein Price, playing a Shakespearan actor, kills the critics who denied him a prestigious acting award), but for V, the personal is the political, as they used to say, with his vengence releasing the latent discontent of the populace against their authoritarian government.

Accordingly, the Wachowski brothers are traveling over a terrain that is most disconcerting to anyone who believes that the hegemony of the US empire can be overcome solely through non-violence. V is a flawed, egomanical character that reveals the extent to which rebellions are often lead by marginalized figures who live outside of societal convention in profoundly troubling ways. Revolutions invariably, as shown in the film, involve a complex interweaving of violent and non-violent components. One need only look at the extent to which the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela basks in the security offered by the resistance in Iraq, a resistance that prevents the US from taking action thousands of miles away, as a contemporary example.

Significantly, however, the true protagonist of the film is Evey (a strong performance by Natalie Portman), not V. V needs someone who will carry his vision forward, because it will die with him, a solitary dream, a fantasy, if the next generation does not share it. Evey's evolution into a fearless, nameless (she ultimately survives with a fake ID), confident woman as she is forced to confront more and more harrowing degrees of loss, violence and deprivation, most memorably in a prolonged incarceration sequence, is therefore central to the film's premise. In this, V transcends his desire for grandiose revenge, and creates an enduring social legacy, much as the character of Prospero does at the conclusion of the great Shakespeare play, The Tempest, but the legacy requires that someone grasp it, and that person is Evey. Thus, the Wachowski brothers, paradoxically through the genre of the comic book action film, insist that we engage with the past, present and future by recognizing history as it is, not as we would like it to be.

Indeed, a detective, Eric Finch, played by Stephen Rea, is involuntarily compelled to do so in one of the film's most compelling sequences, as V, reminiscent of Prospero, skillfully stage manages his impending insurrection, navigating the chaos around him with ease. V's willingness to voluntarily hand over his movement, no strings attached, to Evey, leaving success or failure to her, distinguishes him from the fascist, Mabuse.

All along the way James McTeigue, the director, utilizes some effective alienation effects, as the past (Fawkes), our ephemeral present (through flashbacks of Evey, V and Valerie, an incarcerated lesbian) and the impending future, the present setting of the film's narrative, are powerfully contrasted. The surface normality of our times, with our knowledge of its concealed atrocities, and our belief that we are privileged enough to remain securely and happily independent of them, degenerates into the explicit brutality of an authoritarian future. Valerie's recollection of her affectionate London life with her partner, as the world around them becomes more and more intolerant of any expressions of compassion, is especially poignant.

A fusion of fear, fascism and media manipulation relentlessly devours all remaining sanctuaries of personal kindness and autonomy, as Evey's dear friend Gordon, who shelters her, tragically discovers as a result of V's obssessive pursuit of Old Testament revenge and revolutionary transformation. Yet another splash of ice cold water from the Wachowski brothers: a radical consciously goes forward despite the certain knowledge that some good hearted innocents will inevitably be consumed by the conflict around them, something that John Sayles acknowledged as an essential feature of his brilliant 1987 film about a turn of the century West Virginia coal miners strike, Matewan. J. Hoberman of the Village Voice has warmly described V for Vendetta as a supremely tasteless movie. Let's have many more of them.

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