I am on record as being a big fan of James McTeigue‘s V For Vendetta but I am beginning to have a big problem with some of the critics out there who are trashing this film in less than critically intelligent ways. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with people disliking films that I like or vice versa but it seems like many of these nay-saying, V-hating critics are viewing the picture without any sense of context or history. V For Vendetta is the third in a series of truly progressive-bordering-on-the-radical films released by Warner Bros., following on the heels of Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana, both of which I loved. In fact I would go so far as to say that the three of them ought to be released in a box set with commentary by Noam Chomsky, Studs Terkel and Frank Rich in addition to commentary by the filmmakers.
Plot-wise, while not as convoluted as Syriana, V does indeed require you to pay attention and leaves no moral quandary unturned. Here begin my problems with some critics. The most egregious violations of sense come from two kinds of critics. First of all, those who piss and moan about how the film is different from the original material and continually use the fact that Alan Moore, writer of the graphic novel upon which the film is based asked for his name to be removed from the project as “evidence” that the film isn’t any good.
Well, to address the first point first: No shit. What a brilliant observation. The graphic novel was originally published in the early 1980’s as a comment on and reaction to Thatcherite England. Needless to say, some updating of the material was needed and when translating a novel, graphic or otherwise, to a film, certain things need to be changed. It’s just the way it goes. If you’re going to complain every time the source material is changed, you’re going to be spending an awful lot of time watching To Kill A Mockingbird and Brokeback Mountain, since pretty much every other adaptation departs from the source material, often radically.
Secondly, since Moore severed his relationship with DC Comics in 1988 or 89 and none of the adaptations of his work have had his name on them, I don’t think it’s fair to use the absence of his name as a measure of quality, as in “well, his name isn’t even on the film, he must hate it, so therefore it must suck.” The fact is, his name was never on this film and he doesn’t watch the adaptations of his work, nor does he work with the writers. His name being absent from the credits is certainly no measure of the film’s quality.
The second group of critics that are pissing me off are the pseudo-political and art snobs who either simply didn’t get it or use their column inches like some sort of a bully pulpit to show the world how smart they are. Or how smart they think they are, to be more accurate. I don’t care if you can quote Voltaire or think that the only truly subversive cinema is subtitled. I mean, is it really Manohla Dargis‘ job as a fim critic for the New York Times to insult her adult (read: all) readers, as she did with this pompous summing up in her review of V last week:
The more valid question is how anyone who isn’t 14 or under could possibly mistake a corporate bread-and-circus entertainment like this for something subversive. You want radical? Wait for the next Claire Denis film.”
She also falls into the “Moore doesn’t like it” trap, writing, as a parenthetical comment: “Notably, Mr. Moore is having nothing to do with the film.” As I mention above, this is actually a wholly un-notable thing to mention.
Dargis also doesn’t seem to have much of a grasp on the thin line that throughout history has separated terrorists and revolutionaries, even while falling into the trap of believing that V is a terrorist who is painted as a hero by the film. I would submit that V is neither of these creatures, nor does the film intend to paint him as such. He has two distinct goals that just happen to lend themselves to each other: vengeance and the inciting of a popular rebellion. First and foremost in his mind, it seems, is revenge. He is a man who has been done a brutal wrong and who uses the fact that those who did him wrong are also responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents as justification for his revenge murders. While these are not the actions of a hero, nor are they those of a terrorist.
As for his fomenting of mass rebellion through terrorism, the old saw that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter is actually applicable here. Is everyone who blows up a building for political aims a terrorist, as some people would have you believe? John Brown was likely viewed as a terrorist by the US government in the 1850’s, as was the Continental Army in the US Revolutionary War, as seen by the British.
What’s wrong with a film having a morally ambiguous central character? God help us if we have to decide for ourselves if the methods espoused by Guy Fawkes and V are justified. He’s clearly an anti-hero, one who we’re not necessarily supposed to agree with. Desperate times call for desperate measures is one of the mini-manifestos one can take away from this picture and yes, sometimes they do. Does the film come down solidly on the side of V, justifying his acts of violence and murder? I don’t think so, but it doesn’t bow to the modern conservative school of thought that all violence done against the state is terrorism, either. However, that’s a hair that apparently some critics, most notably the New Yorker‘s David Denby, are unwilling to split:
It’s true that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, but, by sticking to the blowing-up-Parliament template, the Wachowskis have stumbled into celebrating an attack against an icon of liberal democracy.
Denby’s assertion is not only inaccurate it’s also irrelevant. First of all, exactly how the English houses of parliament are icons “of liberal democracy” is beyond me. Parliament is made up of two “houses” one of which, the House of Lords, is made up of almost 800 wholly unelected legislators who serve for life, 92 of whom actually inherit their positions. It was also once the more powerful of the two houses. Hardly a “democracy” there. Also, so what if the Wachowskis are celebrating the attack on Parliament? When a government becomes corrupt and fascist and the people become mindless sheep, maybe a little demolition is exactly what’s needed. Clearly parliament in the time of the film was nothing more than a rubber stamp for the chancellor and had ceased to be anything but an icon for a failed and criminal government. I say, blow that motherfucker up, yo! Not to mention, had V really wanted to be a mass murderer (as Denby implies was Fawkes’ aim) he would have performed his demolitions in the middle of the day.
The fact is, Denby is completely out of touch with, well, everything. The second paragraph of his review begins: “Pop cannibalizes and regurgitates everything, including history, and in normal circumstances only a literal-minded prig would treat graphic novelists or big-screen fantasists as if they had any responsibility to truth.” Excuse me? Does someone who has such contempt for things pop (not to mention his readership) really have any business as the film critic for a major international magazine? Does he believe that there no such thing as allegory, subtlety, and symbolism in pop culture and that we’re not smart enough to figure it out for ourselves? In addition, of course there’s reason to expect creators of fiction to illumiate the truth! It’s the truth they expose that often defines our lives and our history. Here I feel the urge to quote the film again: “Artists use lies to tell the truth; Politicians use lies to cover it up.” At least in this review, Denby is dismissive of pop culture as a whole and of its ability to create meaningful art or have an effect on culture and as such, this was certainly not the right film for him to review.
Maybe it’s just that I am more politically radical than most, but I think that some critics are spending too much time on the explosions and grand political statements and are missing or ignoring the subtleties of the film and the message. V knows he’s flawed. He knows he’s (some might say selfishly) mixing a personal mission of revenge with a call to arms of national or even international revolution, and yet for a few brief moments, the two run parallel and the goals are the same. Does everyone V kills “deserve” to die? Well, it’s not my place to say, really. The real question is, if I were in his place, would I do the same? Maybe. I doubt I’ll ever come to know the real answer to that question.
Lastly, apply some present-day context to this film and it is indeed subversive, especially considering the current social and political climate of books being banned, the USA Patriot Act, illegal government wiretaps and “intelligent” design being taught in public schools. I wonder what V grossed in Kansas or if they’ll screen it at the White House….
Photos © Copyright 2005 Warner Bros. Pictures