On V

First off, a little occupatio, in which one starts blathering about the thing which he said he was not going to describe(*): I’m not talking about V the miniseries.

V was immensely popular in Korea, so much so that only a couple of years ago, during a discussion over dinner with some old Korean friends, when the show came up, some of my tablemates were spouting out the names of major characters in the show, details I couldn’t for the life of me remember. Lime and I talked about the show recently and she said that it had a major impact on her when she was young, in that it horrified her. She recounted a scene in which a baby was born of a human woman — a hybrid alien-human baby. I realized after I heard her talk about the scene that I’d seen it, forgotten it, and begun rewriting the scene in my own head — one of the oldest extant examples of my writing, an abandoned attempt at a novel, includes a scene where a woman births an alien baby in a hospital.

Lime and I are thinking of tracking down a DVD set of it, since we know it’s obtainable in Korea — I saw it for rent in a shop in Iksan a few years ago — but, as I said, I wasn’t referring to the film or miniseries V.

I’m referring to V for Vendetta, which Lime and I watched on Friday night, the film recently reviewed by Marvin(but watch out for spoilers over there). I responded to his review here, and I’d like now to post my own thoughts about the movie. I’ll try to avoid spoilers but you may wish not to read this post till after you’ve seen the film — at which point you simply must comment here!

Right, I thought this movie was marvelous. Now, when I read the comic book over two years ago — this was the first thing by Moore I’ve ever read — I was impressed, but I have to confess it’s been long enough and I was relaxed enough by my experience at the time, staying with Ritu and her family, on painkillers, hanging out a lot, that I don’t remember exactly what was changed in the film.

So anyway, here’s the thing: I don’t remember exactly what was cut, except for the bit about a certain someone donning the mask, which Marvin complained about. And I agree with Marvin, we should have seen that, or, at least, I felt disappointed in not seeing it, since it was one of the few things I did explicitly remember from the comic.

Except that the film does something wonderful with the fact that the masks aren’t needed anymore; the film, I guess, instantiates the victory of V, and this means the dawning of a world in which the mask is no longer needed. V even explicitly prophesies the dawning of this new era, and Evey’s place in it (and his own lack of one). I don’t remember the end of the comic, but I do know that the end of this movie is explicitly utopian. Of course, this could be the drawing of everything in simple-colored markers.

It seems to me, looking north across the border, that the collapse of dystopia doesn’t always lead neatly to a utopia in its place, and sadly, I also regret to report that I somewhat doubt the realism of the most exciting, uplifting moment in the film, when the masses of London storm the Parliament in solidarity against their wicked government. Sorry, but in the real world, I think most of the living room shots would not have been beautifully empty of people; the couch potatoes would still be home, or at the cinema, like all of us were being entertained by V instead of even dreaming of enacting its political message.

Which wasn’t, of course, blowing things up. It was reclaiming your identity as a human being, a creature with inherent rights and power, and a right to demand that your government not be absolute crap, and the power to do so when your voice is raised with others. Courage. Integrity. Willpower.

The problem is that worrying about these things is hard when you have to make your RRSP payments, when you have a kid, when you have a monstrous debt hanging over your head. V as a fairytale is wonderful, exciting, titillating. The images toward the end, of the whole of London becoming mobilized — becoming, essentially, the same superhero that V is, superhuman through a simple reclamation of their rights and action upon that reclamation — is haunting, beautiful, but I guess for me it just rings false. It’s a fairytale of a kind that hurts me, and I weep all the harder that it cannot be, will not be, is not.

Humans have never risen up like that. Let’s face it. None of the wars in history have been an example of mass numbers of people rising up to oppose evil, oppression, or horror. The people who organized those wars told us that was what it was all about, but surely we know better than to believe the hype now? Surely, watching the current “Crusade” for “Freedom”, we know that the party line and the reality are so divorced that they wouldn’t even recognize one another anymore if they met on the street? Who set up American democracy? A handful of people. Who deposed the French monarchs? People who wanted their jobs, and not so many of them, at that, using regular humans like you and me as cannon fodder with painted-on haloes and glory.

I’m not even claiming war can never aid the spread of freedom, but I’m really hard put to find an example where the war was actually, truly, honestly being fought for that reason. I cannot think of a citizens’ revolt that wasn’t about something else — standard of living, taxes, a desire for rock ‘n’ roll and blue jeans, too much oppression, or what have you. Citizens don’t rise up for freedom — they rise up to demand a little less unfreedom, and if you give that to them, they’re usually content to go back to their entertainments.

I find it funny when people call me “political”: I’m not politically active in any sense of the word, I’m skeptical of most political platforms, skeptical of the fitness of most governments and political organizations. And I take it as given that the reason I am thus skeptical is only because I actually spend a little time thinking about them. And it seems to me that most people consider my having political opinions, based on my (however flawed) thinking on the subject, constitutes “being political”.

Now, the instinct is to ask, “Have we fallen that far?” except that this, too, is part of the myth. The reason I believe we absolutely have not fallen that far is because, as far as I can see, the idea that we ever rose up above this is itself part of a myth. Most people in history have been too busy trying to get enough to keep alive, trying to keep their kids fed, trying to avoid being crushed by the local petty thugs and bosses, for us to have ever, en masse, have had much better political consciousness than we have now. In fact, the fact that as many people understand what the hell I’m saying when I talk about political subjects at all seems to me to suggest that, sadly, we may actually be at a high point now. This may be as good as it’s ever gotten.

I sadly suspect that V for Vendetta will therefore be a very curious historical document a century or two from now. People will look back and ask, “Did people really believe in such fantasies?” Maybe I’m wrong — really, I hope so, I hope that the improvement we’ve had till now is actually something that’s building up, that’s getting better. I hope very energetically that history looks back on what we call democracy now as a kind of misnamed transitional period, an attempt at something that we just weren’t quite equipped to fully implement but which presaged good things to come — but even so, the utopianism of a democracy rising up in unison against a dictator, it strikes me as a kind of… well, look, you’ll never get the whole polity rising up against a monster. Some people are monsters and they like monsters in power. (Just as some people are rich bastards who like rich bastards in power.)

I suspect a truly empowered democracy might even be scarier than the dystopia in which V for Vendetta is set. This might be why none of the governments that love to talk about democracy endlessly every actually want a full-fledged democracy to exist. Heck, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want one either, with the kinds of hatreds, biases, and clashes of opinion that exist in most modern societies. Governments are afraid of their people, is the essential truth that V forgets: the dictatorial party in V was absolutely terrified of the polity all along; and it’s for very good reason. I’m scared of the people, too: what happens when everyone takes off his or her mask as a citizen? The race-hatreds don’t go away. The homophobes don’t suddenly chill out. The warmongers don’t suddenly start wearing daisies in their hair. A post-Gunpowder Plot society would not necessarily be easy to live in — very likely not — and those wonderful ideals about “rights”, ideals I myself embrace, and don’t mock, would quite likely be under constant threat by all kinds of unsavoury elements and forces at a “pragmatic” level.

So, I don’t know. While I really enjoyed V for Vendetta, part of me distrusts its message deeply. What, is the “uprising” supposed to be going out there next election day and voting differently? That’s a very odd message to take from the film. (Just as “blow up Parliament” would be a misreading of the film.) Neither reading makes sense. I think, therefore, the message is more complicated. It might even be, “Ah, now you feel good and can go on living in a world where this kind of self-awareness and self-empowerment simply cannot and will not happen among the masses. But you feel good for now, don’tcha?” Or maybe it’s just a booster shot for leftists in the Western world not to give up all hope in the next few years? I don’t know. I liked the film a lot, and it excited me, gave me enjoyment. But this nagging doubt about it really, truly being about us…

Maybe I’ve missed the point. I don’t know. What do y’all think?

(*) Some — often Chaucerians — define occupatio as being a rhetorical technique by which one claims description cannot do something justice and then shows off by following up with a flowery description, but it seems to me that this misses the point; occupatio surely implies that a writer seeks to occupy the reader with something extraneous, something patently and openly declared extraneous, something that the author implies a promise not to get into, before getting to the meat of something. Or, anyway, that’s how I use the word.

5 thoughts on “On V

  1. “Booster shot for leftists” is a terrific description. As I recall the comic book comes out more in favor of anarchy than for any idealized conception of democracy, though.

    Upon further reflection, I think that I really wish the movie had managed to do a better job of capturing the disintegration of the ruling party. In the comic, the private lives of the “secondary” characters are explored in detail as the machinery of the state begins to shred itself. The plot is less about a popular uprising than it is about exposing the sorry characters who live beneath the fascist facade. The popular demonstration is, like the blowing up of Parliament, just another arrow in V’s quiver.

    Still, I love the fact that V looks the people in the face (so to speak) and tells them that the tyranny is their own damn fault. I especially love the way Stephen Fry is used as a kind of “mini-V” to show the true courage and danger inherent in dissent, minus the trappings of the superhero. That’s not in the comic as such, and it makes up for some of the movie’s less sterling bits in my opinion.

    (The fact that I love Stephen Fry and want to have his kittens has nothing to do with it.)

    And in a way, I suppose, I’m not entirely sure that the movie & comic aren’t about blowing up Parliament. One wants to find metaphor and allegory, of course, but maybe sometimes Parliament needs a good blowing up. Maybe not by Guy Fawkes — why bother substituting a Catholic tyranny for a Protestant one? — but goodness knows there are certain legislative bodies badly in need of a flush mechanism.

  2. Marvin,

    I’m not sure exactly what the difference between a functioning democracy and an enlightened anarchy would be, exactly. An anarchy, in other words, in which people collectively agree to bargain away their total freedom on certain subjects in exchange for the firmness of certain social foundations. ie. a kind of law-bound semi-anarchy. Can that be anarchy? I’ve never met an anarchist who was serious and intelligent and who wanted all government and law dismantled. I think some limits on freedom are a good idea, after all.

    You’re right, the Stephen Fry subplot does a very good job of showing how it’s non-superheroes who have to really make things happen for the real toppling of the tyranny. I wonder if a director’s cut would contain more of the stuff you were missing re: the private lives of the tyrants as the government began to digest itself.

    As far as the blowing up of Parliament — I don’t know, it seems to me a hugely symbolic act, almost a kind of civil uprising version of what September 11th was supposed to be, really — and even when you say you think its not necessarily metaphorical, you offer a metaphorical reading of it, as a sign of flushing out certain legislative bodies. I mean, midnight on November 11th, most of those Party members are not going to be in the building. It’s not actually a cleansing of any kind, is it, except a symbolic one?

    Which is not to say symbolic cleansings aren’t “real”. Sometimes they can be more real than a literal one. But it seems to me still mainly a symbolic thing.

  3. And by the way, this discussion has gotten me thinking about other “destructions of government buildings” in film. The one in The Day After Tomorrow is largely offscreen, if I remember correctly, but there is a pretty prominent one onscreen in Independence Day. I am trying to think of other examples, as I think it could make a pretty interesting subject of study. This is the first case I can think of where a protagonist sees the destruction of a his or her own government’s center (as opposed to an foreign country’s occupying government center) as a good thing and achieves it in any film I’ve seen, though. Hmmm. Maybe if I think a little more. I should watch Dune (the miniseries, not the Sting film) again. I can’t remember exactly what happens on Arrakis. (Maybe I could even read the damned book.)

    Surely there has to be another film in which a physical symbol of the government is physically destroyed by someone living under it, purposefully, and it’s seen as a good thing in the film? Anyone else know of any examples?

  4. I offer a metaphorical (“flushing”) reading of blowing up Parliament because I’m reluctant to come right out and say that many legislators would be better of dead, put out of the misery of those they rule. Of course I suspect that society wouldn’t be better off for seeing it’s government murdered — not yet, anyway — but in V’s world? Maybe so.

    I guess I’m just suggesting that as a symbol for smashing the state, blowing up Parliament isn’t very far from the act itself. It’s as much onomatopoeia as it is symbolism. Although you’re correct to note that the party functionaries wouldn’t have been in attendance, so maybe it would have just been symbolic. On the other hand, the ability to maintain its own symbols is arguably one of the primary signifiers of any state’s viability, so V’s destruction of those symbols is as much a real attack as an attack on the armed forces or political functionaries would have been.

    Since a fascist state in particular has little but its symbols to recommend it, attacking them is perhaps more real and damaging in V’s case than it would be in a case where the state had some usefulness and democratic legitimacy. I’m reminded of the occasional arguments we have in the US about flag-burning. It’s pretty clear that those people who are afraid of flag-burning are also the ones who most deeply detest the idea of the popular accountability of government. Seeing someone burn a flag, to them, is like seeing someone attack the culture, which is inseparable from the state, which is inseparable from its symbols. Those who favor the legality of flag-burning, on the other hand, understand that these things are not the same and mustn’t be allowed to attain either a real or a symbolic unity.

    The kind of government the former would build (has built in the US) exhibits much of the same blindness to reality as the tyranny found in V for Vendetta, and for them attacks on state symbols are, as we have seen, always interpreted as attacks on society itself.

    Put yet another way: when a tyranny attacks freedom of the mind by banning books, those books aren’t just symbolic of liberty but are an essential component of it. The attack is real, not symbolic, even though the books themselves are symbols and signifiers. (Am I even using that term right? I’m not sure.) Likewise, to destroy the symbols of the state sometimes comprises a real, not just a symbolic, attack. Such an attack might be truly symbolic only where the state and citizens are more invested in the reality than in the symbols themselves.

    Anyway, I’m thinking that in the case of V, the symbolic attack and the “real” attack are indistinguishable, if only because the state in question is real only to the extent that its symbols are accepted as representing a legitimate government.

    On the blowing up of buildings in movies. I remember that in Independence Day, everyone in the theater cheered when the White House was destroyed. That might not be the same as the protagonist advocating the destruction of his own government; but on the other hand the popcorn-munching moviegoer is being asked to identify with the protagonist in such a movie. So if I want to see the White House blown up…doesn’t that mean Will Smith wants to see it blown up too?

    In The Day After Tomorrow the audience cheers when tornadoes destroy Los Angeles. This suggests to me that we regard the entertainment industry as being a kind of illegitimate tyranny too.

    In Fight Club the protagonist and the audience are quite happy to see the financial centers — the credit companies — of the US being destroyed.

    So — we enjoy seeing our governments, our media monopolies, and financial centers destroyed on film. I think I’d interpret that as suggesting we want more freedom than we allow ourselves to hope for as a rule.

    On anarchy vs. democracy…I agree that an idealized democracy would probably resemble a functioning anarchy. But lately I’m starting to think of “idealized democracy” as being something of an oxymoron. It’s a bit like saying “idealized anti-retroviral drug.” The ideal is not to be sick in the first place. Democracy is an elaborately concocted, highly artificial drug — or perhaps “health regimen” is the more appropriate allegory — designed to resist the entropic human tendency to slide into states of viscious self-war.

    It is a way of managing the forces of coercion and violence that link government and the governed. A government elected by democratic means still rules by force, and if we regard each election as a kind of stylized revolution or civil war, imagine the war that would be required to dislodge the system in which those elections themselves are stage-managed. If force is required for a government to maintain rule, then force is also required for a populace to achieve a measure of self-rule.

    If blowing up Parliament is a symbol used to transmit a message preaching the efficacy of force as a means of regaining a measure of one’s liberty, then I’d say it’s as much a real attack — a real act of war — as sending a coded message to the troops: “We attack at midnight.”

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