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March 24, 2006

Brokeback Batman (finished, more or less)

Hollywood serves up a murderous metrosexual morality play that clumsily strokes every erogenous zone on the leftist body politic

I went to see V for Vendetta last night for two reasons: 1, I've written about it a lot, so I should see what I've already criticized, and 2, I like superhero movies and I also like fascist dystopia movies, so, really, if you've got both of those together, how bad could it be?

Let's cut to the chase. Even ignoring all the brain-dead ham-handed sledgehammer-subtle political text-messaging in the film -- white male Christian conservatives are just plain evil, gays are lumious beings strong with the force whom the Sith want to eradicate, terrorism is often justified, but there is actually no external terrorist threat at all, as the government did it all -- this is just witless, dreary, clumsy, amateurish and, most inexcusably of all, flat-out dull movie. It wins the award for the both the worst superhero movie and worst furture dystopia movie I've ever seen, and I've seen both versions of the The Punisher (including the one with Dolph Lundgren and Louis Gosset Jr.) as well as Soylent Green.

I want to stress that this is a bad movie. I was ready to ignore its politics, because I do in fact like the idea of Zorro-like revolutionaries/vigilantes running around thrwarting a corrupt government. And I figured-- future dystopia? Well, certainly there's a lot of interesting stuff in such movies. The depiction of pure misery, fear, and coercion is often an exciting one, in artistic terms. Set design and costume design alone are often worth the price of admission -- 1984 was dismal-looking by design, but in an interesting manner, Brazil was nothing but eye-candy, the fascist modern-dress version of Richard III was sumptuous in its depiction of a Nazi-esque 1950's England. So surely there would be enough nicely choreographed action, cool 1940's-styled high-collared leather longcoats, and fascistic iconography and statuary to hold my interest, at least in visual terms.

Nope. There's hardly any action at all -- there is one brief fight scene in the beginning one one slightly longer and better one at the end -- and the future, apparently, looks almost precisely as it does now. I don't believe that choice was out of a lack of budget, or costume and art designers with a lack of imagination. I think that choice was quite deliberate, made in order to further suggest the fear-based fascist theocratic dystopia shown in V is in fact occurring right now.

As a political statement, that may work for the lefties, but as a cinematic and artistic choice, it's an abysmal one. What is the point in seeing a movie set "in the future" when everything, from clothing to fluorescent lights to London's skyline to computers (they didn't even bother making the computers look a little more advanced and compact!) look precisely the way they do at this moment?

[More coming; just wanted to put this up right now as I compose my criticisms. If I can prevent one person from seeing this abortion by putting up a half-written review now, it will have been worth it.]


I will discuss the abhorrent and ham-handed political posturing of the film later. Let me just rip it apart now on purely cinematic grounds.

We are introduced properly to the hero (and he is a hero-- make no mistake; he is not an anti-hero or ambiguous hero or hero/villain; he is a pure hero, a departure from Alan Moore's original comic, I'm told) in the most cliched and brain-dead way imaginable. Now, you may call this a "classic" hero introduction; I'm afraid I've seen this so many times I just call it a cliche.

A young woman is walking down a dark alley and is accosted by thugs, who want more than her handbag and jewelry. Here, this being an R-rated movie, they're more explicit about what they want -- they want to rape her until she's the "sorest" "piece of ass" in all of London -- but it's standard in superhero movies that the goons in the alley have sexual designs on the Red Riding Hood out too late in the dark forest. And now-- yes, just as it seems she's about to be raped -- a mysterious black-caped figure emerges from the shadows and smoke machines to save her, and kicks the thugs' asses unholy. The woman is frightened by the mystery man's ominous appearance, but he says to her "I assure you I mean you no harm."

Now, look, as a comic-book fan, I recognize all that as fairly standard stuff. It's not the hugest failng in a comicbook movie to revert to the hoariest of cliches in a lunkheaded comic superhero movie. But this movie is garnering a 75% positive critic review rate at Rottentomatoes.com, with most of the positive reviews praising its intelligence, craftiness, wit, originality, and smartness of direction. How can it be said that this is original or witty when it's just repeating standard tropes from dozens of other better comic movies before?

Daredevil was a bad movie, but trust me, it was much better than V.

Next, we meet V, which is a major problem for the film. He's fucking annoying. He's in love with his own voice, very taken by his own wit and erudition, and just cannot shut the fuck up, ever. His initial introduction to the Red Riding Hood, Evey, is just embarrassing: he launches into an interminable cutesy soliliquy in which two out of every three words begin with the letter "V" (vexing, villianous, vermin, vindicate, vengeance, etc... he just opened the dictionary up to "V" and went vild), which is true to the comics, and one of the first signs, back when I was reading it in 1984, that I was reading a crappy book. It's this kind of silly schtick that puts me off characters like The Riddler, but at least he's just a bad guy, not the central character of a story.

He then quotes from classic literature here and there, Shakespeare, etc. You can't make out most of his words, because, face hidden by the mask, you lose the ability to read lips to help you "hear" what he's saying, but that doesn't matter, because basically he speaks in quotations and dopey epigrams and the like.

Basically he's a metrosexual Batman, an intellectual artiste Daredevil. Or, as one reviewer put it:

”V” is a gay Shakespeare-soliloquy spurting blowhard with a creepy, but well-groomed, hairdo. He’s also a dancing knife-wielding karate killer.

Exactly. Not that there's anything wrong with that, you understand.

Heroes come in two basic styles: the laconic type, who barely talks except to wisecrack or express contempt, and the garrulous type, who's a funny blabbermouth who won't shut up but you don't mind because he's funny/stupid/goofy. Ash from Evil Dead is like that; another DC character (Deathstroke the Terminator?) is like that too.

V, on the other hand, is garrulous but not funny at all, and in fact the opposite of funny -- infected with a love of his own wittiness. But wittiness is a shallow character attribute; what does it actually say about a character? What does it tell us about his inner drives, etc.? It tells us nothing. Wit does not reveal character; it disguises it, hides it beneath a mask of arch glibness. For someone who talks so damn much, we know little about V, the person, which is fine actually, because one senses the more we know about him the less we'd like him.

Again: not because of his politics, or even because he's a terrorist. Just because he's an annoying, self-loving, portentous, pretetious git of an asshole.

V now blows up the Old Bailey in London, which (I'm not an expert) seems to be either a jail, or a building once used as jail and now used as a courthouse. He blows it up while annoyingly using a maestro's wand to conduct the music (he's made all the state-run propaganda speakers in London play Tchaikovsky's War of 1812 Overture) and then conduct the crescendo, the demolition of the building, noting that justice is now absent from England, or something.

One of the cheap tricks of the film -- belying claims that it provokes a "serious" discussion on the use of violence against a government -- is that the Old Bailey seems to be completely empty when it's blown up. Sure, it's nighttime, but there would be a security staff present, and a janitorial crew, and various people working late at night. But the film never mentions any innocent deaths due to V's terrorism, absurdly suggesting his terrorism is of bloodless and purely a matter of property damage. Just a bit of vandalism and mischief, it seems, but on a grand scale.

A film that really wanted to explore these issues, and paint V as something other than a standard all-righteous hero, would have Evey question the several dozen murders of innocent civilians he just committed, but she doesn't.

Because the building is just empty. Just because. Because if it weren't, the film might ask more uncomfortable questions than it has the guts to ask.

Next V infiltrates the TV station Evey works at, Britain's only station, apparently, feeding the masses idiotic chat/variety show opiate entertainment as well as an Evil Conservative Talk Show Host. You can tell he's evil because he's against terrorists, and because he says that God will ensure that England prevails.

Locking himself in a soundstage, apparently by reinforcing the doors with VERY quick-drying cement of some sort, V now addresses England, and the state cannot stop him. (Why can't they cut power? Disable the transmitter? Cut the cables to the transmitter? BLOW UP THE TRANSMITTER, if that's what it takes? The movie doesn't know, so it doesn't address this. Apparently the only way to stop V is to get through a door reinforced with concrete, which turns out to be a surprisingly difficult task for a SWAT team presumably equipped with explosives and even plasma torches.)

V, again in love with his own voice, now delivers a boring, chatty sermonette to England. Not a rousing speech; not a forceful delivery of bullet-points. No, he just sort of wings it in a casual style. In his chatty, soft-spoken, eliptical and off-of-the-cuff style, he resembles another terrorist who likes to send messages to governments he hates -- Osama bin Ladin. But that resonance is, I'm quite sure, unintentional. It's just that bad minds think alike, too.

He then escapes using a rather idiotic ruse -- he disguises a bunch of hostages in the same mask and costume he wears, binding their hands so they can't remove their masks -- so the cops don't know who to shoot (and in fact shoot a couple of innocent hostages, mistaking them for V). When V reveals himself, he dispatches the cops quickly and easily, chatting it up as he slices and dices, taking time to pose and preen.

This is part of the two problems with the Black-Costumed Man Of Mystery movie. Batman and the Crow also suffered from this problem-- in order to make the hero seem bad-ass and mysterious, the director always seems to revert to turning the hero into a simply unstoppable, undauntable force of nature who is never in any real danger. He simply never comes across a credible threat, an equal to challenge him, or anything, really, that scares him or makes him doubt his own chances of success. He just shows up, kicks ass quickly and efficiently, and actually is so in command of the situation he can take the additional time and effort to pose, preen, soliquilize, and generally just toy with his adversaries.

The problem? It's boring. If the hero is never really in a situation he can't easily handle, where is the excitement or drama? In The Crow, the black-wearing white-Kabuki-make-uped hero (seems a swipe from V, actually) just walked up to a bunch of guys he wanted to kill and... killed them. Only in the first and last executions was there even a fight, and those fights were never versus opponents who posed any sort of credible threat. V is absolutely similar in this regard -- his first appearance features a fight which he wins without even trying, then he just kills three or four people without having to even fight past security -- and his victims are all aged and out of shape and quite plainly not up to taking him on; one is 60 year old woman, for God's sakes -- and his last execution does feature a fight, but, just as in the Crow, you can pound him with automatic gunfire, but he's not going down until he murders someone.

The hero just never shows any fear, so the audience just never feels any fear on his behalf. Contrast this with Indiana Jones, who frequently makes that "Oh dear God" face to let you know "You know, I think I might just actually die" here. For the audience to feel fear on behalf of the hero, he has to feel it himself. And films suffering from the Black-Costumed Man of Mystery syndrome just never seem to realize that.

(Batman, especially the first and second ones, suffered from this to a lesser degree. Burton was so keen on showing us how badass and capable Batman was he forgot to occasionally inject actual humanity into his black-rubber Puppet of Vengeance. But even the latest, and far superior, Batman entry suffered from this in the early going, but did also have Batman going up against real threats.)

The other problem with the Black Costumed Man of Mystery film is the clumsy structure it seems to force on the film. He's a Man of Mystery, you see, so you just can't begin with his origin story, and begin from the beginning, as it were, and as was done in Superman and Spiderman. No, as he's a Man of Mystery, you can't know his Mysterious Background until later in the film, so you begin in the middle, and you need a second character (usually a cop, sometimes a reporter) to investigate this Man of Mystery and reveal, as the film proceeds, his actual origin tale.

The clumsiness comes from cutting between different characters. Hollywood tends to favor films with strong point of view characters, that is, you're with the main character for almost the entire movie, you know what he knows, etc., for a reason. They usually make for better, stronger narratives. When movies cut between different characters pursuing different agendas, it feels like a TV movie of the week, where a strong point-of-view narrative is far less emphasized. Black Costumed Man of Mystery films always feature a secondary character trying to figure out who the Man of Mystery is, slowing down the actual forward narrative as the secondary character searches into the past.

And of course the big "Mysterious Background" is never really that mysterious at all. It's just variations on They Done Him Wrong, and He Got Mean And Nasty And Learned Karate, And Now He's Out To Kick Ass.

V's "Mysterious Background" is just that he was in something similar to a concentration camp for "undesirables," where they did all sorts of Evil Experiments on him him. Ho, hum. Standard comic book fare.

The art design and cinematography just absolutely suck. The sets are shit -- the "dark alley" where Red Riding Hood Evey is first accosted by wolves looks like the cheapest set in a Burbank back lot -- and there's just nothing interesting by way of art or set design or wardrobe. Everything looks just low-budget and crappy. At least with the Matrix they gave the "Matrix world" that sickly yellow-green sheen, and cool fashions for the heros and villains. This "Futuristic Dystopian London" looks exactly like the London you'll see if you turn on BBCAmerica and watch one of their six thousand detective shows. Everything has the cheapness and lack of imagination of a made-for-television production.

Moving on to the poltical criticisms:

This movie's politics aren't as odious as I'd been lead to believe. They're far, far worse.

V says of destroying a building (as best I can remember): "A building is just a symbol. So is the act of destroying it. Without people to witness it, the symbol has no power. But if enough people see it, blowing up a building can change the world."

Osama bin Ladin just couldn't agree more!

The ham-handed leftist politics are just everywhere. One minor character, played by Steven Fry, you know little about. When Evey shows up seeking his aid, there is a moment's curiosity -- will he just turn her into the authorities, who will kill anyone who gives her shelter? But at the very moment he reveals he's a homosexual, all such doubts vanish. In this sort of movie, if you're gay, you're good. And of course he is good -- very good indeed. He's so good that he has a secret room where he stores objects and paintings and books censored by the state -- incluing a poster reading "Coalition of the Willing -- To Power" (joining together Bush's "Coaltion of the Willing" and Hitler's Will To Power, of course), and -- get this -- a KORAN! Because the Koran has now been banned by the government, and all Muslims, presumably, rounded up into concentration camps.

This is tediously repetitive in the film, by the way, because V himself also has a secret hideout filled with outlawed objets d'art and paintings and music. It's just baffling that the screenwriters were so brain-dead as to give TWO different characters the same basic metrosexual bachelor pad. Couldn't they have offered a different method of displaying that the Fry character was progressive and enlightened, other than offering the film's second secret-room-filled-with-censored-art?

The whole thing is an effete metrosexual fantasy of a superhero movie. V not only listens to classical music and quotes great literature, he cooks! With a floral apron on, over his black costume! (No, I'm not kidding.) Basically the metrosexual den of creature comforts the Edward Norton character had in Fight Club-- that's where V lives.

And the name of this secret tasteful hideout of the most wanted vigilante/aesthete in England! The Shadow had the Inner Sactum; Batman had the Batcave; Superman had the Fortress of Solitude. V has... the Shadow Gallery. Gallery. Like, as in an art gallery, which is what it is, actually.

V -- a superhero for those who find Aquaman too damn masculine and "heteronormative."

Anyway:

Homosexuals and Muslims have been rounded up, but no Jews, apparently. Probably because the film didn't want to give these bastard Zionists the coveted status of victim. So we are to guess that Jews are full collaborationists with the fascist regime.

The fascists seized power after terrorists (presumably Muslim; not sure if the film makes that explicit, but it's definitely suggested) release a deadly plague and kill 100,000 people in England alone. (America is far more devastated; apparently it's in a state of civil war.) But the Big Secret in the movie is the fascists released the plague themselves, then put the blame on poor innocent Muslims, in order to grab power.

So, the film feeds into 9/11 conspiracy theories that the Twin Towers were destroyed by the US Government itself.

Further, the fascist stay in power by spreading fear through the television, showing fictitious threats from terrorists, subversive undesirables rioting, the Avian flu (! -- hey, that's happening now, right?), etc. Suggesting, of course, that the Michael Moore "fictitious threat"/"fear keeps them in power" claim is accurate.

Displaying riots in the US, a shot shows an anti-Bush poster. But the film is set in 2020 or so -- suggesting that perhaps Bush has remained in power by cancelling democratic elections and appointing himself President for life.

And on, and on, and on. Evey's parents are good, we know, because the father was a writer (an artist!) and the mother was, presumably, a school teacher or social worker. Both were of course political activists, so Evey grew up right.

The complaint isn't that one can't feature writers or activists as heroes; it's just that this film is so by-the-numbers and obvious in its effort to flatter every single interest group in the leftist coalition.

And if every lefty interest group gets flattered, so every lefty enemy gets insulted. The radio talk show host is a racist, homophobic jingoistic fearmonger. The bishop is of course a pedophile -- a heterosexual one, because, as we know, gays never do anything bad. The head cop is brutal and stupid. The soldiers are all willing to fire on a crowd of unarmed civillian protestors without much compunction about doing so. And etc.

V for Vendetta is a revenge play, all right -- it's a fantasy vengeance of every leftist loser who dreams of slitting the throats of those who "oppress" him.

This is a dangerous message. There are people who take this crap seriously; film is the most powerful medium for sending potent, visceral (dumb) messages, whether in favor of right-wing fascism or left-wing political violence (followed, of course, by left-wing fascism).

I ask again: Would Hollywood ever put out a movie suggesting that it was morally justified to commit acts of violence, terrorism, and arson against a government associated with the left-wing? With a Hillaryesque figure presiding over a socialist fascist state? I rather doubt it.

There's one good thing about V for Vendetta-- it's a boring film, a stupid film, a witless, obvious, dreary and dull film, so the sickness of its political agitation for murder and terrorism will be limited by the fact that not many people are seeing it, and few who see it will remember it much at all.

As I was leaving, I noticed four high school kids rousing themselves to leave the theater. Their eyes were puffy and their faces slack, as if they'd been asleep. I could understand that -- had I not been so persistently annoyed by the film's crappiness or viciously, I would have joined them in their nap.

Unless V for Vendetta has a subliminal track that affects the minds of the sleeping, there shouldn't be too much damage from it.

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posted by Ace at 04:53 PM

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