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March 10, 2006

V For Vicious Pro-Terrorist Agitprop

Hollywood's finally made a film about terrorism, after years of avoiding the subject.

Of course, it's pro-terrorism.

The Mad Man In The Mask

The directors of the The Matrix make a movie where the hero is a faceless terrorist trying to blow up London. Yes, you read that right

By LEV GROSSMAN

Is it possible for a major Hollywood studio to make a $50 million movie in which the hero is a terrorist? A terrorist who appears wearing the dynamite waistcoat of a suicide bomber, and who utters the line--from beneath a full-face wooden mask that he never takes off--"Blowing up a building can change the world"? A movie written and produced by the Wachowski brothers, the cyberauteurs who created The Matrix? Starring Natalie Portman, shaved as bald as Demi Moore in G.I. Jane?

These are not rhetorical questions. V for Vendetta, set for release March 17, is that movie, and it is the most bizarre Hollywood production you will see (or refuse to see) this year. It's the kind of film that makes you ask questions like, Who thought this was a good idea?

It definitely started with a good idea. The man who had it was Alan Moore, probably the greatest writer in the history of comic books. In 1982 Moore--who also wrote Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen--began publishing an almost unbearably dark series of comic books set in a dismal, dystopic future Britain ruled by an oppressive Orwellian government. V for Vendetta starred, instead of a superhero, a bitter, brilliant, at least half-insane resistance fighter known only as V, whose face was permanently hidden behind a grinning mask that, if you're English, you recognize as the face of Guy Fawkes. (Who--again, if you're English--you know as the proto-terrorist who tried and failed to blow up Parliament in 1605.)

Moore's London was not, in fact, quite Orwellian, although that is understandable enough shorthand. Orwell, himself a socialist, wrote 1984 as an idictment of socialism and left-wing fascism. Such a cautionary tale for fellow-travellers wasn't the sort of thing Alan Moore wanted to write-- he wanted to write a simple, simplistic indictment of the fascist right-wing Thatcher government. (You remember Thatcher's death-squads rounding up and executing political dissidents, don't you?)

Of course this is the sort of anti-fascist movie Hollywood would make. Not that troublesome 1984 book, whose references to Ingsoc might be misinterpreted by audiences as suggesting there was great peril in giving so much power to the state (first economics, then personal liberty, and finally over a person's sexuality). No, the only fascism Hollywood bothers itself about is right-wing fantasy fascism, a bogeyman that scares them at night when actual Orwellianism, of the left wing kind, is being practiced on college campuses today.

By the way: the comic book itself sucked. The Watchmen itself was greatly overrated -- benefiting immensely from the sudden interest in mature graphic novels due to the amazing Dark Knight Returns -- and V for Vendetta really doesn't even rate being mentioned in the same breath, except that it came out at about the same time.

There were some noncosmetic challenges too--difficult, ideological challenges. V for Vendetta is a movie about a heroic terrorist. However unjust the regime he opposes--and we know it's unjust because it features a pedophile bishop, a jowl-shaking Big Brother figure, a spittle-spewing telepundit, concentration camps, institutionalized racism, religious intolerance and homophobia--V is a guy who goes around blowing up parts of London, and he likes his work. That was repugnant enough back when Moore wrote his comic book, two decades before Sept. 11. It's become even more so since last July, when terrorists actually did bomb three subway trains and a bus in London.

Everybody associated with the productions--Portman, McTeigue, Weaving, Silver--forcefully, insistently stresses that V is an ambiguous, ambivalent figure. They express their hope that the movie will spark debates about the definition of terrorism.

The debates they always seek to spark are about the defensibility of terrorism, rather than its repugnance.

Is there anyone in Hollywood actually brave enough to challenge his own biases and assumptions? It's pretty soft-soap to "challenge" the beliefs of other folks. How about your own once in a while? How about "challenging" the Hollywood community with a truly challenging movie-- one that posits that terrorism is simply evil and abominable?

And in a prestige project, too, not in some crappy low-budget piece-of-shit Thomas Ian Griffith straight-to-video abortion.

Here's another tough question: whether V for Vendetta is the movie that will start that conversation. The kind of delicate ambiguity that Portman talks about is hard to achieve within the narrow constraints of a popcorn movie--morally speaking, they tend to be shot in black and white--and V may come off as a bit too noble for the movie's good. As both the product of violence and its perpetrator, he should be doubly twisted. "What was done to me was monstrous!" V snarls. "And they created a monster," Evey replies. But if V plays as a Phantom of the Opera monster, a Beauty and the Beast monster, a monster with a sweet, sad center, he becomes less than he should be: a mere action hero. Maybe that's a lot of nuance to ask of an action movie, but terrorism is a subject that demands nothing less. Give poor, tortured V back his goodness, and you take away his greatness.

And you know that's precisely what they've done. I doubt there's much ambiguity in the film at all, unless you count the unambiguous message that terrorism is itself an ambiguous moral act. Sometimes, it seems, it's justified to murder civilians.

Why do conservatives get so riled up about Hollywood? Because, as much as we demean it as superficial, vapid, and borderline retarded, we recognize it is an important institution. The German Nazis and Italian Fascists and Russian Soviets recognized the power of fictive cinema to reinforce ideology and so invested heavily in the art form. I'm not comparing Hollywood with those regimes, simply noting that storytelling through moving pictures can have a great impact on how people view the world.

Hollywood can't have it both ways. They can't, every Oscars show, celebrate themselves for having such a profound effect on American culture and politics, and then claim that pro-terrorist agitprop is "just a movie" that really shouldn't be taken so seriously.



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posted by Ace at 03:35 PM

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