Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Are you like a crazy person?
The incomparable work of Alan Moore has found its way to the silver screen with mixed-to-poor results. From Hell is interesting and well-intentioned but ultimately a letdown when compared to Moore's amazing book, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is goat sputum. So while I may have a few quibbles with V For Vendetta, I am happy to report that it is an adaptation that respects and enhances its source. Moore's idiosyncratic parable has been made into a sometimes confounding, often exhilarating work of pop art.
In the not-too-distant future (isn't it always?), America is a forgotten wasteland and England has been transformed into a powerful fascist theocracy. Evie (Natalie Portman), a young woman who works for the local tv station, is rescued one night from two leering police officers by V (Hugo Weaving), a mysterious figure in a cloak and a mask bearing the visage of infamous treasoner Guy Fawkes. It soon becomes clear that V is a terrorist (for lack of a better term) bent on overthrowing the government for reasons both ideological and personal. The early scenes are a bit clunky, particularly the too-clever wordplay, but I could say the same about the novel. The film kicks into high gear when we reach V's hideout, a sort of shrine to banned culture; high art, movies, music, cuisine and the like. The aspect of 1984 that has always resonated with me most deeply is Orwell's description of the proles, who are controlled with cheap booze, titillation and junk TV. The importance of protecting our cultural legacy is often underestimated in sociopolitical debate; that V depicts the protection of the Qur'an, erotica and Cat Power as equally important to any of our other rights couldn't be more true.
Ah, but you can see the sort of urgent dialogue that a book or film like V For Vendetta can provoke. The Wachowskis and director James McTeague have crafted a splendid piece of agitprop, one that weaves a tapestry of quotations ranging from the Boston Massacre to the Sex Pistols with wit and gravitas. An extended sequence in which Evie is imprisoned builds to a stirring bit of catharsis; a sequence within the aforementioned one (a favorite device of mine) relates the story of two women in love, underlining with devastating clarity the urgent need of any truly free society to embrace alternative sexuality (in other words, give Larry/Laurie Wachowski a frigging break). And the government, led by the Big Brother-like Sutler (John Hurt, in a fun reversal on Winston Smith), is depicted as more pathetic than fearsome. There is no Darth Vader in this film, just a bunch of old white guys who finagled their way into power with fear and brute force. They can be as easily wounded with satire - note the funny, creepy bit on the talk show hosted by Evie's boss Dietrich (Stephen Fry) - as with violence, and the ultimate statement of V is that an idea rooted in the minds of the people is more dangerous than any well-placed explosive device.
Does V For Vendetta sometimes stray into questionable waters with its terrorist hero? Certainly; while the Wachowskis' screenplay actually improves upon the weakest aspect of the book (Moore's sometimes sophomoric take on anarchy), it also sidesteps a few thorny details to make V an unambiguous good guy. But this recklessness is a part of the film's vitality; what, for instance, is the use of Guy Fawkes, of all people, but a call to drastically reevaluate our frame of reference? That V straddles the fine line between clever and stupid so effectively is largely thanks to Weaving's delightfully off-kilter performance, and especially Portman, who does her best work so far. Evie stands for the hope that soon, the pendulum will swing the other way, that people will keep learning and taking chances, that the infringements to our liberties that we currently live with are merely a backlash that precedes real progress (it's happened before). These are the sorts of ideas that V invokes, and while no one work of art can start a revolution, my hope is that the film will be a gateway drug for smart, aimless adolescents in the same way that A Clockwork Orange or Fight Club were for so many of us. Maybe it will cause some kids to check out a few philosophy books from the library or search for Guy Fawkes on Wikipedia, and that's a wonderful thing. Everyone has to start somewhere.