‘V’ Signs and Simulations by Tom Jennings
[published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 7, April 2006]
V for Vendetta, dir. James McTeigue
This hopelessly incoherent mish-mash of random elements from comic book superhero back catalogues – combined with various soundbites from and random references to recent and contemporary political fiction and real-world circumstances – is stitched together with the most superficial philosophical musings about freedom and justice. Writers Larry and Andy Wachowski were also responsible for the trivial pursuits of The Matrix, with similarly absurd pretensions of reflecting on media-saturated culture, but at least faithfully following its computer-game logic. Whereas in V for Vendetta the narrative demands of blockbuster oversimplification are met by making complete nonsense of history. So freedom fighter Guy Fawkes rounds off his four centuries-old project in blowing up the Old Bailey and Houses of Parliament (now redundant symbols in a near-future police state) and assassinating a sample of political figureheads and functionaries – justified with a jumble of pompous platitudes wrenched from literary sources and thrown together to resemble sophistication.
On one level an enjoyably daft and meaningless cartoon mess, the film nevertheless purports to smuggle salient social questions – of violence, terrorism, and the passivity of populations cowering in complicity with fascism – into the consciousnesses of millions of multiplex punters. And that doesn’t happen every day, even if these filmmakers lost the plot in mistaking an avalanche of disconnected details for complexity. Such hysterical postmodern pastiche can be a strength, if the ensuing indecisive open-endedness prompts exploratory interpretation among viewers. Unfortunately Vendetta’s recuperation of its chaotic impulses reproduces, rather than subverts, the authoritarian strategies supposedly subject to critique. A graphic novel’s fractured format forces readers to elaborate its story in a manner film rarely matches (an honourable exception being Robert Rodriguez’ uncanny translation of Frank Miller’s noir nightmare, Sin City). Here, the seamless cinematic flow merely encourages submission to lazy, careless, dishonest (dis)simulation in celebrating the superiority of cynical quietism.
Most disgracefully, the glossy fantasy aesthetic obliterates material and economic degradation or struggle, leaving for motivation only a tawdry bourgeois Oedipal Stockholm Syndrome between aristocratic (anti)hero and nubile middle class disciple. Although an amusingly gratuitous insult to leninist vanguard vanity, this corresponds to the depressing representation of a passive (and strangely lilywhite) multitude of couch potatoes confronting the military in the finale. With no grievances beyond dissatisfaction with spin, the zombies march in uniform desire for better media and ringside seats at the spectacle. Given the volume of explosives trundling towards Whitehall along the disused underground, all that awaits them is ecstatic annihilation along with most of central London. Any remaining quibbles about the nobility of revolutionary idealism are therefore ultimately superfluous in V for Vendetta’s utter contempt for its audience. After all, the mischievous potential of trash lies in travestying – not reinforcing – the delusions of grandeur of power.