Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Smallest of Killings: The Public Sacrifice of Alan Moore & V FOR VENDETTA

It’s a difficult proposal, this motion picture of V for Vendetta. In a not-too-distant future Great Britain, a fascist government has risen to power, using a prior biological warfare terrorist attack to keep its citizens oppressed by fear. A man in black, wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, and known only as V (Hugo Weaving) seems to be the lone counter-force, exploding government buildings, killing agents, and finding a follower in a young television PA, Evey (Natalie Portman).

The film is full of fine acting, particularly Weaving’s entirely faceless voice performance as V. Stephen Rea is remarkable as Finch, the tired cop chasing V with dawning horror that he may not be after a terrorist, but a freedom fighter. Most subtly heartbreaking is Stephen Fry as Dietrich, a talk show host whose personal beliefs cause him to make a final stand illustrating Roger Rabbit’s axiom: “A laugh can be a very powerful thing. Why, sometimes in life, it's the only weapon we have.”

Vendetta is also loaded with beautiful images, some of them politically charged, some not, some brought to faithful life from David Lloyd’s comic book art, some not. Director James McTeigue and producers/ screenwriters the brothers Wachowski have made a powerful and pretty film, which sometimes wears an action movie mask, a political thriller mask, a police procedural mask… but which also wears its ideals on its sleeve.

It’s a difficult proposal on several levels, this thing of political allegory. Leave them too vague, and the haze off mythology will conceal your message. Leave them too specific and you’ve destroyed the illustrative purpose of using metaphors in the first place. Leave them without interpretive moral wiggle-room, and you have a fable. Fables are prescriptions for behavior, and aren’t open for discussion.

Do any of these, and prepare for a flood of misinterpretation and indignation to wash away your intentions.

V for Vendetta is not a fable.

“People should not be afraid of their governments,” growls the mysterious V through his Guy Fawkes mask, “Governments should be afraid of their people.” And Chicago Sun Times’ Roger Ebert in his esteemed and muddled manner, takes issue, saying that no no, governments and citizens should coexist peacefully (he’s wrong too: they should be one and the same, but…)

What’s missing from Ebert’s equation (and let him stand in for your nay-saying popular critic of choice) is that V for Vendetta is a story in which no character is absolutely justified, correct or righteous. In interview with Publisher Weekly Comic Week, Alan Moore, the blazingly brilliant comics writer who scripted the novel, once laid the thorniness of Vendetta on the line: “The central question is, is this guy right?”

If you need a compass less obscured by action movie language and the cultural baggage of comic books, consider Do The Right Thing. Spike Lee’s film is carefully built so that we love every character, understand why they do what they do, but which ultimately doesn’t tell us the Right Thing. Because the truly-Right Thing is a conclusion you must reach on your own. The idea is to foster discussion and thinking: which ideas, behaviors, and characters do you agree with? Which ideas are inexorably linked?

The difference is that Do The Right Thing is easier to accept as probing and questioning, as an open-ended essay, because it ends as a zero sum game: a building is destroyed, a neighborhood is torn apart, a boy is murdered… but a full-scale race riot is averted. V for Vendetta ends positive sum, with its totalitarian government brought down by a possibly insane revolutionary, via terrorist tactics and murder. Vendetta ends in celebration and people’s revolution.

It seems to me that V for Vendetta is primarily about how fascism works, how it happens, and a warning that it is the complicity of a citizenry that will allow it to happen again. There are other important questions posed, about the tensions between individuality and nationalism, about media manipulation, about the fate of ill-mounted revolutions. But that’s the core idea. While the celebratory blowing-up of Parliament at the film’s finale, it must be admitted, is unequivocally “positive,” there is never the assumption that V’s means have justified his ends. He spends equal time carefully preserving works of banned art, but destroys beautiful historic architecture; he teaches Evey the power of personal spiritual freedom by torturing her; he cultivates extinct roses only to use them as calling cards for murder: V can only understand art and people as the ideas they symbolize. He can only love or do violence to them based on that relationship. It’s a shortcoming for a human being as much as it is a strength for an activist. And so Vendetta asks: IS this guy right?

Critics who don’t know or understand a lot about comic books have been trying to filter the character V through their myopic familiarity with Batman, but the language of superheroes has nothing to do with this vigilante. When V explains why he has not been halted by a hail of bullets, it is that “behind this mask, there is an idea,” it is a plea to look harder. There are ideas behind Green Lantern’s mask too, but that they superficially once shared the same medium does not make them equitable. Looking harder does not mean realizing Vendetta asks real-world political questions – that is frankly self-evident – it’s realizing that the film does not necessarily propose unambiguous answers.

Now. Speaking of comics.

Take Me To the Moore/ Dig a Shallow Grave

Alan Moore and his readers have good reason to be pissed off. After having gone years without screen adaptation, there has been a small glut of unworthy films based on Moore’s work. Perhaps the most difficult of these was the Hughes brothers’ attractive, well-intentioned but middling From Hell… adapted from a leading contender for Greatest Comics Novel in History. Close does not earn cigars.

Yes, you are weird, Alan.
Yes, I think it's coming across in the picture.

McTeague and the Wachowski’s are ardent fans of Moore and Lloyd’s novel. They’ve made the finest and most faithful screen adaptation of his work. There are missteps, missed opportunities, and poor choices, to be sure. But this is a case of a filmmaking team understanding what makes a writer special: they understand his storytelling technique itself.

Liberties (ha ha) are taken with the story, and the specific politics, perhaps to make for a less bitter medicine capsule. It’s not the plot points that sting, so much as the ideology this alters: V is no longer a frank anarchist (though his circled-V graffiti is still an inverted A), no longer do psychedelic drugs play necessary role in bringing policeman Finch and V together, and V’s liberation of Evey from fear may still take a similar tone to Morpheus freeing Neo from his bio-pod in The Matrix (or, you know – OUT of the Matrix), but it's also become a bit of a sexual come-on. Which kind of complicates the matter. But even as these changes are made (and really, that’s NOTHING compared to From Hell), they understand his storytelling technique itself.

Alan Moore is a magician. And that’s a literal fact, that he is a practicing honest-to-Crowley weirdo magician. But that structured, ritual exploration into realms unmentionable is not a bad frame to start understanding Moore’s work.

There’s no way for a narrative film to get away with the kind of radical formal experimentation of Moore’s novel. This is a book in which a chapter is structured as sheet music, for random example. But retained are Moore’s trademark impossibly complex networks of visual motifs, echos and mirrors; in Vendetta, the flashiest is the letter V itself, showing up as graffiti, as crossed knives, as a massive row of dominos, as a smear of blood, as a Roman numeral on a prison cell, and in a crucial moment, in the linked arms of two young lovers. The film cannot best the novel’s exhaustive inventiveness, but when the parallel rebirth of Evey in a nighttime rain, and V’s origin story by fire are startlingly intercut, it demonstrates a respectful attempt to retain a sense of Moore’s craft.

In the greatest of Alan Moore’s comics, there are often small stories within the story, and these strange gems will draw out the truths of the book in miniaturized, concise and specifically human form. In Watchmen, a pirate comic book darkly parallels the end of the world. In From Hell, a coach ride around the monuments of London reveal a secret map of occult and patriarchal history. In V for Vendetta, a political prisoner’s desperate autobiography is scrawled on toilet paper, a letter she cannot assume will ever be read. It gets read. That such a despairing story can be the heart of hope inside this dystopia should tell you something about the surprises of which Alan Moore is capable. The Hughes' film From Hell chose to gut its source’s most perfect sequence. V for Vendetta is much wiser.

V for Vendetta, the film by James McTeigue and Andy and Larry Wachowski, ends with a glorious moment of its own invention. It is open to multiple readings, but don’t believe anyone calling Vendetta a cynical film. The entire city of London makes a final stand outside the houses of Parliament, dressed as V dressed as Fawkes, a frightening but inspiring mob of late-blooming revolutionaries. Then the masks of this faceless mob are torn back to reveal another image: the individuality and personalized responsibility of democracy. And you are there.

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