Some Thoughts on ‘V for Vendetta’

     January 19, 2006

Posted by Frosty

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By Matt Morse

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The planes appear without warning – closing in on a towering, powerful symbol of government. Although the government sends its own fighters up in defense, it’s too late. With limited resources and manpower, and blind religious faith, the terrorists obliterate thousands of lives in an unsparing attack.

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Sounds familiar, right? It should. It’s the ending of Star Wars. Luke Skywalker was a terrorist.

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Wrap your head around that one.

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The dictionary defines terrorism as: “The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.”

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What fascinates me is the way that definition ends up applying to all sorts of things.

As Kevin Smith trenchantly notes in Clerks, there were probably a lot of innocent people onboard the Death Star when it blew. Doesn’t that make Luke Skywalker a textbook terrorist?

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Hell, the entire American Revolutionary War was an “unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence….for ideological or political reasons.”

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Doesn’t that mean that sometimes terrorism (as it’s defined) can be a “good” thing? Can you justify violence with your intentions? When? When “our” side wins?

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These questions are unsettling in real life. That’s why so many people turn to the movies, where heroes and villains run around with “Good guy” and “Bad guy” practically stitched over their breast pockets. It’s why V for Vendetta (hereafter VFV), which largely forgoes any such embroidery, is going to be one heck of a ride.

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It’s the point in time that we’re all living in that makes VFV into such a dirty little bomb of potential controversy.

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In the wake of 9/11, being anti-authority didn’t seem very cool at all. Not much did. There were serious discussions about whether or not anything would ever be funny again. Remember that? Even today, more than four years after those worthless, terrible people turned airplanes into weapons, attempting to talk about terrorism raises people’s hackles like a long-tailed cat in a roomful of razor-edged rocking chairs. And here comes VFV, a film whose hero is a terrorist.

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That’s what makes VFV such a fascinating film to talk about. Written by Alan Moore, who’s largely considered to be the grand Mack-Daddy of comic book writers, the original graphic graphic novel is a dense, challenging, and yes, intellectual piece of pop art. It asks you to sympathize with a terrorist. And it’s pretty successful in doing so.

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Of course, you might not suspect any of that if you read Rolling Stone’s “The Mystery of Larry Wachowski.” The article almost totally ignores the upcoming movie in favor of giggling over Larry’s sexual shenanigans. Are you a person who’s interested in female-to-male-transsexual porn titles and the California bondage scene? If so, have I got an article for you. But if you’re interested in VFV, you’re pretty much outta luck.

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I think there’s a reason that Rolling Stone chose to gossip over Wachowski’s private life, rather than VFV, and it’s not because more than a few of you probably are interested in titles like “Buck’s Beaver.” The fact is that VFV is a seriously controversial story. Not controversial in the sense that it has boobies or gay cowboy sex in it. It’s controversial in the sense that it can be read as a seeming endorsement of total anarchy. Oh, and an arguable glorification of terrorism.

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Just writing those two sentences is probably giving Sean Hannity agonizing voodoo spasms. Hell, it gives me the shakes (and I’m a godless, heathen lib).I intend to begin avidly taping Fox News and anything with Bill O’Reilly in it approximately two weeks prior to VFV’s opening. I think it’s possible we could see someone’s head explode.

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Before 9/11, VFV might have been an interesting comic book flick with a higher literary pedigree than most. Post-9/11 it’s an invitation to talk about one of the greatest threats to life and liberty in existence. More importantly, it’s the ideal vehicle to carry such a weighty topic to the masses despite having a “hero” that refuses to conform to audience expectations.

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American film audiences, much like the Hues Corporation, still love watching somebody rock the boat, baby. We like a hero that “bucks the system!” Someone who “won’t take no for an answer!”

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We like watching powerful people get taken down a peg or two. Failing that, we like to see those people stabbed, shot, exploded, frozen and shattered into itty-bitty pieces, or made to ride the school bus with a weird kid who asks if they want a nice, warm gummy bear that’s been in their pocket all day. We get a kick out of it.

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Robin Hood, virtually every existing cop flick, Terminator 2, Ghostbusters, Good Morning Vietnam, Rambo, Alien(s), every Disney movie since the Little Mermaid, Pump Up The Volume, Cool Hand Luke, etc., etc., ad nauseum. All of these films, and countless more, have this theme in common: Fuck Authority (yes, even the Little Mermaid. Don’t tell the kiddies).

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Man, do we love a good Fuck Authority flick. Only, we have certain requirements for them. “Authority” must be represented physically; preferably as one person/cybernetic organism. It’s good if they’re also a monster (literal or figurative. We ain’t picky.).

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In the 1980’s, the entire concept of a guy so relentlessly, oozingly BAD that audiences are basically muscled into rooting for the hero by default could be summed up in one man: William Atherton. Atherton made a cozy career out of playing unbelievable assholes. He’s probably best remembered as the smarmy EPA guy in Ghostbusters, though his oeuvre is wide and expansive. He’s so easy to hate that the moment his weasel-faced mug appears on screen, something primal and Cro-Magnon makes you want to beat him across the face with a femur.

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Most figures of Authority in film follow the basic Atherton boilerplate. There are understandable reasons for this. When we go to the movies we want entertainment. We demand it – like giant, hungry, creepy babies. We make an unspoken compact with the movie screen: I just gave you enough money to put a down-payment on a houseboat. Make me forget my life for two hours. And don’t mess with me.

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Film elitists look down on this with a withering disdain that’s pretty hilarious, but they’re missing the point. Most people like to see movies because they’re entertaining. Seeing something moving or provocative is a plus. But being entertained – being taken out of our troubles for a few blessed hours – comes first, and it always will.

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This helps explain why Scooby-Doo made $153,294,164 (domestic), when it is clearly a festering boil on the unmentionables of society, while Memento played art houses. It also explains the existence of William Atherton.

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Slimy people are easy to hate. Through them, we can hate on authority safely and without confusion. We’re excused from potentially troubling questions about the Ghostbusters running an insanely-unsafe operation in the middle of Manhattan because, essentially, the EPA guy’s a dick. Besides, Peter Venkman is so charming! Sure, Peter! Have an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on your back!

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In real life, things aren’t that simple. Authority is not personified in one guy. It’s a massive, amorphous “thing” that hangs above us; identified by other authorities: “Police,” “The Government,” “Wal-Mart.”

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It’s a lot harder for a movie hero to defeat “The Government” then it is for that hero to defeat Mr. Smith, convenient stand-in for every authority figure you’ve ever loathed. It’s more satisfying for an audience to see their hero bring down one obnoxious guy. It’s reassuring. The system isn’t broken, these films say. We just need to bitch slap William Atherton for a while.

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Which brings us to V.

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V is the “hero” at the center of VFV, a story which paints a picture of people under totalitarian (a fancy word that means “Big, oppressive government”) rule. He’s a complicated figure – the sort of man we tend to go to the movies to avoid. Since I hate spoilers (but sometimes can’t resist them) I won’t go into detail about the character of V, or the plot of the film. Suffice it to say that V is, in one sense, a “hero.” But in an equally valid sense, he’s not. He’s a terrorist.

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That’s the sort of brief character summary that’s sure to land this movie on every conservative pundit’s shit list. But it’s true. On the one hand, VFV does a version of the William Atherton trick by making the government into an oppressive, monstrous force with conveniently punishable people representing different aspects of that force. Against these folk, V comes off as Robin Hood fighting the Sheriff of Nottingham (who gamely stands in for the decidedly-un-sexy problem of unfair taxation in Merry Olde England).

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On the other hand, V’s motives for his actions are, at heart, pretty selfish. He’s striking out against oppressive government, but he’s striking out because he was struck. He is not altogether-trustworthy, and the end-result of his actions is questionable. There’s no guarantee that life after V is any “better” than life under the government. If that ambiguity comes across in VFV, the Wachowski’s have displayed enormous (and, in the case of Larry Wachowski, pierced) balls. V isn’t simply an “anti-hero” (a phrase that has come to represent anyone with an “edgy” attitude). He isn’t even necessarily a hero.

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This is likely to upset some folks. But VFV has a built-in advantage/defense.

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In his Vanity Fair article on VFV, Michael Wolff writes that “…super-hero sets, with their shadowy cities and exaggerated villains and menacing architecture…turn out to be a great place to stage a political drama, perfectly made for all sorts of Orwellian-ness.”

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Well, duh.

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Critics have consistently failed to grasp that comic books and comic book flicks use exaggeration to tackle topics from angles and viewpoints that more realistic fiction cannot manage. What Alan Moore and every other great fantastical fiction writer – from George Orwell to Brian K. Vaughn – understands is that they can convey deep truths and ambiguous questions without turning off their potential audience.

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By setting a political conversation in a world of supercomputers and caped vigilantes and fabricated (though familiar) governments, they can talk about the politics of terrorism to both ultra right-wing conservatives and blame-America-first liberals. To prove this, simply substitute the American flag for the flag of VFV’s totalitarian regime and see what sort of meaningful dialogue that provokes. I’ll be waiting in the other room with several gallons of Bactine and an organ transplantation team.

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It’s the ability to sneak meaningful dialogue into popular entertainment that makes the “superhero” film such a vibrantly possible genre. VFV has the potential to be potent, universal, and easily digestible. That’s a powerful combination. In a world where partisan politics have replaced the WWE as America’s favorite fake sport, V for Vendetta offers up the possibility of luring the acolytes of Limbaugh and Franken into the same movie house. Good stuff, I say.

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But can audiences handle the idea of hero as terrorist? Even if the Government of VFV is an eeeevil government, will they cheer to the sight of V entering a building strapped with explosives? Hell, I don’t know. No one’s paying me for answers here. Just maddening questions and obscure character actor references.

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Lost in all the pseudo-intellectual hoo-ha above is the simple fact that VFV looks damn exciting. Yammer on all you’d like about how it looks “just like The Matrix.” If anyone should be aping that movie’s look, it’s probably the guys who made it. Seeing Hugo Weaving kick totalitarian ass looks fun, in a very William Atherton sort of way. And while we’re enjoying the spectacle of men in capes and the surprisingly-good-looking-when-bald women who follow them, maybe we’ll notice that the man we’re rooting for is a terrorist, in the truest, most troubling sense.

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What VFV promises (and by all accounts, appears to deliver) is the resurgence of debate-as-entertainment. VFV isn’t a partisan polemic like Fahrenheit 9/11, which spends two hours pointing a finger and screaming “EVIL! EEEEEEEEVILLLLL!” No, V for Vendetta seems to be something more. Like A Clockwork Orange, it appears to wrap serious, controversial debate in the guise of “entertainment.” That’s the part that makes the film so exciting to anticipate. ;

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I don’t know how VFV is going to be received, though I can make a fairly educated guess. You’ll have a few ratings-whore pundits shouting about the movies immorality, and an equally obnoxious group of radicals who do stupid shit like set fires and spray-paint the anarchy symbol. The rest of us will thank God for our continued sanity (whether inborn or pharmaceutically prescribed) and proceed to make our own judgments. But whether or not we end up loving them, movies like VFV need to be seen. Art is an important part of our national dialogue, and without it, we lose our best and most expressive means of social commentary. You don’t need to have a doctorate to talk to people about what you’ve seen on a movie screen and what it meant to you. Do yourself, and the author, a favor and check it out when it rolls into theatres on March 17th, 2006. Look for me there. I’ll be the guy escorting Larry Wachowski in his finest bondage-wear.

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