Monday, February 25, 2008

Revolution Defused: Another Look at V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta exploded onto the big screen. It made some people angry. It made some people think. And then it went quietly the way of all film and conceded to the hyper-speed cycle of movie releases, where movies pass through theaters like images pass through the projector. V for Vendetta came and it went, and that’s about the size of the story. By now, V has been laid to rest in its thin, black butterfly-case coffin and filed away in millions of mausoleums posing as personal DVD collections. Just to be clear: this is not exactly a review of the movie, but some thoughts about V for Vendetta’s paradoxical power to inspire and then defuse that inspiration.

Of course, Vendetta is set in the Orwellian nightmare, where the romantic notion of revolution is embodied in a Phantom of the Opera-esque figure. Natalie Portman (Evey), Hugo Weaving (V, Agent Smith in The Matrix), and John Hurt (Adam Sutler, the Chancellor) each deliver powerful, believable performances. Natalie Portman demonstrates her impressive emotional range. Hugo Weaving’s voice and ability to deliver hypnotizing monologues are already famous from The Matrix. With his body language as well as his linguistic prowess he gives life and complexity to the masked revolutionary spirit that is V. The movie was well done and very moving, in my opinion, with the totalitarian world in Orwell’s 1984 brought to life (which was obviously intended, but for which some reviewers have called the film unoriginal), the story has interesting and universal characters, and it deals with big ideas like freedom, tyranny, and revolution, which are unlikely to pass from the collective consciousness as long as humanity attempts self-government, especially in America. If only for the presence of big ideas, V for Vendetta was an anomaly among most fare flowing down from Mount Hollywood.

The movie abounds with great one-liners like: “Beneath this mask is more than flesh, Mr. Creedy, there is an idea, and ideas are bulletproof.” Not without holes, I might add, but still bulletproof. It’s tough not to feel vicariously like a bad ass when Hugo Weaving delivers lines like: “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people,” and, “I killed you ten minutes ago while you were sleeping.” Another one to whip out at parties: “Artists use lies to tell the truth. Politicians use them to cover it up.” In addition to the gold mine of aphoristic one-liners, there is enough action to temper that talking.

In an immediate sense, V for Vendetta was a very cathartic film. I was pumped as I walked out of the theater, as were many others I’m sure, feeling like we had just taken part in a two hour revolution and that Big Brother was destroyed. Even if it was just a movie—a play set where many of our current fears, anxieties, and deep concern for our future were reproduced as images—I still felt as though these things were taken seriously by someone with a voice that might actually be heard. I left the Cineplex feeling as though I had gotten something off my chest. My voice had been heard. The same thing happens when we read a novel or hear a song that articulates these things for us better than we could have for ourselves, and we feel a sort of cathartic comfort knowing that someone else out there thinks and feels the same way.

This cathartic release is precisely why V for Vendetta did not and will not incite any revolutionary action, or inspire any real and lasting change.

Well, who said it was going to start a revolution, man? That’s absurd. It’s just a movie. Entertainment and nothing more. That’s not what the film was trying to do.

Really? But if the world depicted in the movie (or at least something very similar) is where so many people firmly believe our society is headed and is frighteningly close already, why won’t a film like V for Vendetta inspire us to action, maybe even extreme action? Or even slightly more involved pre-emptive political action to try and prevent that future before we find ourselves scurrying home to beat the curfew? The reality is that a film like this will move us emotionally and intellectually but not practically. It is pseudo-activity, an exercise akin to masturbation.

As I said above, those in the audience for whom the idea of revolution in itself was enticing and came to ‘take part in a revolution’ most likely left the theater satisfied as well. They had reached catharsis by the end, climaxing with Evey (innuendo intended, as an almost sexual ecstasy was certainly part of this catharsis), but also defusing the likelihood of any revolutionary action in the real world. V’s revolution does its job in that world and in this one as well, only inversely. Of course, Aristotle developed the idea of catharsis in relation to Greek theatre to describe a successful dramatic work, dealing specifically with the tragic hero. Catharsis means purification, cleansing, purgation. It is the release of pent up emotion or energy. Before Aristotle used it metaphorically, catharsis was a medical term referring to the evacuation of reproductive material. Also, the Roman gladiators in the Coliseum come to mind, quenching the public’s bloodlust as an effective means to keep the masses at peace in the city. And today, our sports fetish from Little League to the Big Leagues, celebrity worship, reality TV, fashion cycles, election season, holiday shopping season, etcetera, etcetera, all serve as the blow-up dolls of our vicarious, cathartic lives. No action required, only consumption. Binge and purge. Fuck it out and go back to sleep.

Throughout the film we’re provoked by the huge, yelling, condescending face of the Chancellor/Big Brother/G.W.B, by the Bill O’Reilly/Rush Limbaugh/Jerry Falwell show host, as well as by the constrained and repressed atmosphere where someone is always watching and waiting for us to betray ourselves, just like Winston, Orwell’s main character. Then we’re rescued by V, a strong, mysterious, and intelligent figure. We’re awakened (reminded in the real world) to the corrupt and unjust world around us. Then we’re taught to shed our fear and we’re inspired, we find the courage we knew had always been inside us, and we join the fight. In the end we get to push the button and make everything go BOOM, and we win our liberty back. Immediately the lights come on, the credits roll, and we shuffle out of the theater and into the world again, the world we just conquered and saved. We get into our car, still thinking about all we’ve done and what it means. Then we go about our lives, changing nothing, because this is 2006, 2007, two thousand-whatever, and this is not a good time in our life for a revolution to come along and screw up all we’ve been working for. Besides, things could be worse.

Many reviewers were upset that Vendetta seemed to endorse terrorism. Certainly, anyone who enjoyed the film is obliged to denounce any glorification of terrorism, especially the 9/11 and London subway/airport brand of terrorism, as we conceive of it today. But on the other hand, if this is an absolute judgment, we’re condemned to live under the oppression of a world like that in which Evey and V exist, if in fact we believe even V’s version (blowing up empty buildings and landmarks, rather than people) is taboo under such circumstances. What with the close parallel to our own world, our own fears, it seems like some are taking V’s terrorism out of the context of his world and applying it to our world at present. In this case, aside from what appears to be poorly defined terms, the mixed and unsure reception of V for Vendetta supports claims concerning the increasing breakdown of our ability to separate fiction from reality, something writers and thinkers have been telling us from the virtual mountaintops for decades.

Some may have thought V was dangerous, subversive. But it seems that there isn’t much to the word “subversive” anymore except the fleeting, irrational excitement that is the power of buzzwords. Consider for a moment the hypothetical possibility of taking part in an actual revolution, one where success hinges on our personal involvement (a line any good revolutionary group will sell you). Hell, we’ll say that all we have to do is send a monthly check and the Great Liberating Revolution will happen while we’re at work every day in V and Evey’s world.

So we have a decision to make. Before we send that check, we must be willing to give up everything, even our life, as Evey had to find out in one of the most powerful scenes in the film. This is where most of us would end our silly revolutionary aspirations. Certainly, we would remain disgusted and angry about the corruption and our apparent powerlessness to change it. Our conscience grimaces at the thought of injustice, war, and the suffering in the world around us. We want to see the world get better for everyone, for corruption to be brought to light and evil to be exposed where it hides. But the cost is just too great, so we decide to keep playing by the rules, telling ourselves that we’ll just pretend to play along. While we’re getting situated, we imagine how we’ll subvert the system, eat it from the inside. But this has supposedly been going on for many decades now, and it’s clear that essentially nothing has changed. In fact, we see a Supreme Court Justice expressing concern that our socio-political climate is ripe for the rise of a dictatorship.

It seems the system has grown immune to subversive pretensions. We are a people driven by the contradiction between our stinging conscience and our creature comforts. We reside in a state of comfortable dissatisfaction. This is largely what drives our society (besides caffeine and keeping up with the Jones’s, of course). In a post-9/11 world, anything close to revolutionary action is not permitted unless it is conducted with picket signs in the designated protest areas where it can be effectively neutralized and ignored.

Subversive behavior has been neutralized in the same way original bands, artists, or performers are mimicked and reproduced out of existence. The subversive is commodified, nullified, and absorbed into the system, becoming no different than a popular sneaker or a new plasma TV. For instance, being a Goth used to be subversive behavior. Now we see a Hot Topic in every mall in America. For a long time now, it seems as though most protests and marches have been reenactments, reproduced relics of the 1960’s, more religious ritual than revolutionary movement. Passion plays with crucifixes exchanged for picket signs. We march and shout and shake our fists defiantly as we’re herded into the chain-link protest pens, which become little more than living museums and silencers, no matter how perforated that fence is. Are we actually practicing freedom of expression, or are we mostly reveling in a euphoric nostalgia, fantasizing about how frightening and sublime it must have felt to be part of something meaningful, actually making a difference, and being heard instead of humored?

On the other hand, we wouldn’t for a moment agree that terrorism as we know it now could be an admirable catalyst to make our world better. So we’re stuck. What are we to do? Certainly there must be hope that we can avoid the world Orwell foresaw and the one V and Evey live in, right?

I think V for Vendetta was entertaining, moving, and stimulating. It’s a good movie. However, I believe it has succeeded in dismantling what may have been its own call for revolutionary action, not only by catharsis but also by associating uprising and revolutionary action too closely with our jihad conception of terrorism. Or maybe the fact that it could be played in theaters across the nation without police presence at each screening confirms that it was never a threat to begin with, that the potency of its subject matter had been neutralized long ago.

Finally, a few words from Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), out of his book The Present Age: “In contrast to the age of revolution, which took action, the present age is an age of publicity, the age of miscellaneous announcements: nothing happens but still there is instant publicity… The age of great and good actions is past; the present age is the age of anticipation.”

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