Monday, November 5, 2012

REMEMBER, REMEMBER: V THINGS THAT KEEP V FOR VENDETTA FROM BEING GOOD


Like a lot of young people, I saw the Wachowski-siblings-adjunct movie version of Alan Moore's V For Vendetta in 2005 and was like, “Farrrrr out.” I had read part of Moore's comic some years before, and thought I didn't get it until I read my friend Isaac Butler's brilliant, scathing demolition of it. The movie was an improvement in a number of ways over the comic, and I was right on board with its whole “death to Fascism” trip, especially since Bush was still president. On the other hand, I was a little old to not see through the movie's bullshit (some of which it shares with the source material, some of which is new) at the time, which disappoints me, as there's a considerable amount of sight-obscuring bullshit to be found. To wit:


—There's a fundamental story problem here, and it's one I hesitated to bring up before thinking through because of the “why don't they just loop guys into the middle of the ocean” thing, where nitpicking about things one would have done differently in the characters' shoes negate the entire dramatic premise of the movie—hat-tip to Film Crit Hulk for the formulation, though it's an idea I'd raised on these pages as well—but in V For Vendetta, the argument “because that's what the movie needs to work” won't fly. The problem here is a paradox: for the movie to work, the authoritarian government needs to have absolute control at every level of society, except when it has no fucking idea whatsoever what one guy, who's carrying out an unbelievably complicated plan with an unfathomable number of moving parts, is up to. This is where fans are like “You just don't get it, do you?” and start yammering about how anyone could be V, eventually even claiming that everything he does the whole movie—blowing up the Old Bailey, hacking the government-run TV station to talk shit, kidnapping and torturing Natalie Portman, finally finishing what Guy Fawkes started and blowing up Parliament—is symbolic. Yeah, okay. Then why is the symbol so semiotically muddy and even contradictory? Leaving aside the fact that Guy Fawkes would likely be appalled at the end to which his antecedent V sought using Fawkes' means, V is the defender/representation of the masses, yet also a wish-fulfillment fantasy that one man alone with no help from anybody else can single-handedly set everything up so all Natalie Portman—again, one person—has to do is press a button and boom. Sorry, V, you didn't build that.


—On a strictly cinematic level, this movie is fucking boring. The Wachowskis—who wrote but didn't direct, responsibility for which was delegated to James McTeigue, the first AD for the Matrix trilogy—have, in every picture they've ever made (most of which, including their parts of Cloud Atlas, I have liked) shown a huge disconnect between design and composition. Which is to say, they come up with lots of really cool-looking shit, that far too frequently they shoot terribly. But, that said, the important stuff usually looks not only just fine but actually good in their movies. McTeigue, though, has the same problem with a much lower batting average, making V For Vendetta a weirdly shitty-looking movie for one with so many rockin' design elements. (And Natalie Portman.)


—Speaking of the lovely Ms. Portman, her accent didn't bother me as much as it did some people, and I actually think she did a pretty good job doing exactly what she needed to in the movie. Which is, essentially, stand there and look emotional while men threaten to rape her, ostensible good (or “not so bad”) guys pistol-whip her out of sheer frustration, the heroic figure of the movie spends weeks torturing her, etc. etc. Basically, her role is look pretty, get your ass kicked. This isn't objectionable because it's Natalie Portman, precious flower, it's more that a movie about being revolutionary might want to try letting women be people instead of set decoration or plot devices. Just a thought.


—Okay, Stephen Fry. Stephen Fry's fucking awesome, as he is in all he does, and his character (who's basically an original creation for the movie) has a very interesting role (that of a would-be subversive media insider) in the grand scheme of things, that the movie never lets him fully realize. The biggest thing they blow with him—and this isn't about what I would have done differently, this is simple cause and effect—is that when he unleashes that gigantic fuck you to the Fascists on his TV show, brutally lampooning John Hurt and using the music from Benny Hill and all that shit, he has seemingly no conception that this could be dangerous. This is in direct contradiction to his openly talking about being subversive with Natalie Portman, for one, and for another, it renders his surprise that the Fascists come to kill him utterly fucking ridiculous. The movie wouldn't have to have him calmly usher the Fascists into his living room in a velvet smoking jacket and wittily zing them in an insouciant defiance of impending death, but come on. Having him be surprised is stupid. The whole goddamn point of openly defying the government like that is that to do so is to risk certain death.


—In treating the text as a movable entity, changing the political context of the allegory from Thatcher's England to Bush's America, the Wachowskis made a movie that would politically resonate in that particular time and place but no further. The fear of encroaching fascism, which was a palpable thing for a while in the mid-00s, has lessened among reasonable Americans (and yes, let's be explicit, anyone who thinks Barack Obama is or ever will be a dictator is not a reasonable person) to the point where a movie that leans on pre-existing anxieties its audience no longer has to carry some or all of its dramatic weight, as V For Vendetta does, fails as text. This leaves its cinematic assets as its sole worth, and those are weak, as above.


So, what we're left with is a movie that while not as bad as some, is not good either. There are many other far better rallying cries for freedom. Leave the Guy Fawkes masks at home, unless you're a really esoteric English Catholic on his way to be obnoxious at a costume party.