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April 1, 2006

V for Vendetta

While most film critics, shaped by auteurist impulses, have compared V for Vendetta (IMDB) to the Wachowski Brothers' cyberthriller, The Matrix, I found myself reminded more of David Fincher's politically ambivalent treatment of anti-globaliztion in Fight Club. Like Fight Club's Tyler Durden, V becomes a charismatic, if ambiguous, figure who attempts to overturn a repressive (or totalitarian) society. But while Durden's tactics fuse Naomi Klein-style anti-corporate critiques and an Adbusters aesthetic with a 1990s-style masculinity crisis and a subversive violence, V for Vendetta depicts V as a freedom fighter railing against a post-9/11 totalitarian state who is equally inspired by British anti-hero Guy Fawkes and Shakespeare, though his motives for attacking the British government are also more deeply personal. In my article on Fight Club, I ultimately argue that Tyler's anarchist impulses are contained by the narrative twist and romantic subplot, and V for Vendetta seems to reach similar limits in its dramatic conclusion. In fact, as J. Hoberman suggests, if The Matrix recalls Baudrillard's concepts of simulation, V for Venetta might be read alongside Michael Hardt and Toni Negri's Empire.

V for Vendetta opens with a brief pre-credits sequence featuring the famous British anti-hero Guy Fawkes who sought to blow up Parliament in 1605. Fawkes' actions allowed the British government an excuse to crack down on Catholicism, and V (played by Hugo Weaving) takes Fawkes' heroism as an inverted badge of honor when on the anniversary of Fawkes' arrest, he blows up the Old Bailey, promising to destroy Parliament the follow year. V, who is always seen wearing a creepy Fawkes mask, with its rosy cheeks, strking mustache, and ambiguous smile, ultimately befriends and wins the grudging support of Evie (Natalie Portman), an employee of the national British television station that broadcasts government propaganda and misinformation, first when he rescues her from a group of police thugs who corner her in an alley, and later when he "educates" her regarding the more intrusive effects of the police state.

Like Stephanie Zacharek, I'm ambivalent about Alan Moore and David Lloyd's 1982 anti-Thatcherite, anti-Big Brother comic series, in part becuase V's status as an "ambiguous" hero seems to forgive the monstrous mind games he plays with Evey, and the Wachowski Brothers' screenplay (directed by James McTeigue, an assitant director for The Matrix) did little to complicate the problematic gender politics, with Evey becoming a kind of British Joan of Arc-style ingenue and protege for V's anarchist tendencies. V's mindgames are oddly set against a flashback narrative, in which a confined Evey discovers a story scribbled on toilet paper by "Valerie," a lesbian who had been imprisoned in the same jail cell, with Valerie's story serving as an explicit critique of attempts to use the power of the state to discriminate against homosexuals, but for me, the gender politics undercut the film's good intentions in celebrating tolerance.

But the real target of the Wachowskis' V for Vendetta is fascism, specifically of the post-9/11 variety. While Newsbusters' Tim Graham seeks to distance V for Vendetta by emphasizing its British setting, it's clear that the film's critique is directed at the use of fear-mongering and intimidation to garner support for the war on terror. As V eventually reveals, he was radicalized against the state because of his treatment in a concentartion camp-like prison that recalls Guantanamo and other secret prisons (information about the prison conveniently disappers inside bureacrtic black holes). The state-run TV stations consistently pump out misinformation, even stating that the explosion at the Old Bailey was "intentional" in order to avoid admitting that there might be opposition to the state's policies, and a TV talk-show personality who might fit in on Fox News uses rage and fear-mongering to cultivate suport for the country's Chancellor (John Hurt).

[Major spoiler follows] V ultimately succeeds in blowing up Parliament in the visually audacious final scene in which thousands of people congregate in the streets of London, all wearing the Fawkes masks in an act of defiance against the state. Just as Tyler Durden's explosion of the glass-and-steel credit card company skyscrapers represent a symbolic act against global capital, V's anti-fascist act is framed by its staging. While Tyler and Marla watch the symblic collapse of the credit card industry from the safety of a nearby building as if they are watching a movie, the explosion of Parliament plays similarly to the massive audience on the streets. But while I enjoyed the scene's audacity, I still found the film's politics to be somewhat constrained, and its inability to imagine an alternative to the futuristic police state was striking.

I'm still sorting through my response to V for Vendetta's politics. To suggest that the film is an "ode to Al Zarqawi," as this Townhall.com review does, misses the point of V's symbolic act and the film's suggestion that torture only reproduces the violence it seeks to prevent. But I tend to agree with Cynthia Fuchs' observation that the film 's lack of faith in its audience and its lack of reflectiveness on its own use of violence undercut its politics. As she points out, "Yes, imperialism is really bad, and yes, Nazi-ish iconography is a sure sign of a regime's need for change. What's less clear, and could use some reflection, is how V's own violence will or will not produce more victims and vigilantes." Ultimately, I think it's this lack of self-consciousness that left me disappointed in, or at least indifferent, to the film.

Posted by chuck at April 1, 2006 11:25 AM

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Thanks for this. You may be interested in my brief review, mostly engaging with the Village Voice's argument that the film is Hardt/Negri writ large, here

Posted by: Jon at April 1, 2006 11:33 PM

You're not alone in the Fight Club association. The post on the film at my site was originally three paragraphs longer, and compared the way V and Fincher's film bot fail in their depiction of anarchy, in too very different ways. I'm hoping to expand that post and those excised portions into a longer essay...if I ever find the time to write it.

Posted by: David Lowery at April 2, 2006 5:26 AM

Jon, you're probably right to question the Hardt-Negri comparison. I think I got lost in the Fight Club comparison (which I do think is apt) when I introduced Hoberman's comments on Hardt and Negri.

Posted by: Chuck at April 2, 2006 10:49 AM

You touch on most of the factors that troubled me about the politics of V for Vendetta. In Fight Club the climax unfolds for Tyler and Marla "as if they were watching a movie." The climax in this film echoes V's earlier words about happy endings made possible "by celluloid," particularly in the unreal way in which deceased characters (the girl with the glasses, Evey's parents) are allowed to take part. This continues to strike me as both lazy and pessimistic. Combine this with the film's "inability to imagine an alternative to the futuristic police state" and I'm more depressed than inspired.

I'd not thought of it before, but it is odd that Evey's torture experience is set against a flashback narrative... this was the film's most problematic moment for me. V can be read as guilty of all of the fascists' stated crimes: dissemination of misinformation for the public's own good, destruction of relics of the past, torture. The proffered distinction that V is an "artist" lying to reveal the truth and not a politician lying to obscure it was deeply unsatisfying.

I also worry about the combined use of Nazi iconography and references to American conservative politics. My fear is that it's too easy for someone on the fence to reject the comparison between the American Right and the Nazi party, and thus reject all of the film's arguments that the seeds of fascism are already being sown. A group called Knife Party has a flash animation called "What Barry Says" available online in which they point out that "not all fascism looks like Adolf Hitler." Nazi iconography is too easy to appropriate, and too easy to reject. That particular rhetorical device makes me uneasy.

But I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy myself a bit. It is nice when you're natural sympathies are in line with the characters that you're being coded to cheer for. I think that the connections between V for Vendetta and Fight Club are important, but I haven't seen the latter recently enough to add even one cent to that discussion...

Posted by: A. Horbal at April 2, 2006 4:19 PM

Yes, I had severe problems with V's "education program," and I don't think the film was self-critical at all there. And like you, I think the use of Nazi iconography wasn't very useful. I'm looking forward to David's essay connecting the two films, but at the very least, Tyler and V share at least some of the same anarchist impulses.

Posted by: Chuck at April 2, 2006 7:22 PM

I saw the movie last night, and I basically agree with what you and A. Horbal are saying, particularly about the use of the Nazi imagery. However, it did seem to me that the film was somewhat self-critical about V's "education program" and about his use of violence and all that. When Evey says she hates him and can't forgive him and all that after she emerges from the cell, I think we're supposed to find that reasonable.

I am sorting through my thoughts on the movie too, and haven't really read anything about it or anything, but it does seem that the Wachowski brothers at least gestured in the direction of showing that V's plan for vengeance and anarchy are not much, if any, better than the fascist tactics of the ruling party. I didn't think we were supposed to exactly agree with V when he says he lies to tell the truth. Or, we were supposed to believe him the first time, but when he repeats it after the "education program" we're supposed to be deeply ambivalent about that claim. In other words, I think A. Horbal's claim that this moment is "deeply unsatisfying" is exactly the intended response.

Posted by: Scrivener at April 9, 2006 9:34 AM

You're right about Evey's initial response, but the eventual reconciliation suggests something different, at least in my reading. The film isn't as fresh in my memory right now, but I think you may be right that this response to the "education program" is intended.

Still, it's a relatively fascinating film, even if I had some reservations about it.

Posted by: Chuck at April 9, 2006 10:18 AM

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