V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta
Bevin Chu
Saturday, April 15, 2006

poster_1.jpg

V for Vendetta (2006)
Directed by James McTeigue
Graphic Novel by David Lloyd, published by Vertigo/DC Comics
Screenplay by the Wachowski Brothers,
Produced by Joel Silver, Grant Hill, Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski
Starring Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, William Rookwood, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt, and Tim Pigott-Smith

A for Anarchy, E for Execution

According to the official Warner Brothers’ website, “V for Vendetta” is:

Set against the futuristic landscape of totalitarian Britain [and] tells the story of a mild-mannered young woman named Evey (NATALIE PORTMAN) who is rescued from a life-and-death situation by a masked man (HUGO WEAVING) known only as V. Incomparably charismatic and ferociously skilled in the art of combat and deception, V ignites a revolution when he urges his fellow citizens to rise up against tyranny and oppression. As Evey uncovers the truth about V’s mysterious background, she also discovers the truth about herself and emerges as his unlikely ally in the culmination of his plan to bring freedom and justice back to a society fraught with cruelty.

If I had to encapsulate my review in a single sentence, I would say that V for Vendetta gets an A for Anarchy, but an E for Execution.

Politically, the filmmakers deserve five gold stars. They had the audacity to send a unapologetically incendiary anarchist political message to movie audiences throughout the modern world, one that most people in the left/right, liberal/conservative political mainstream may not want to hear, but need to hear.

Technically alas, the filmmakers deserve to wear a dunce cap and sit facing the corner. They committed a critical blunder depressingly common among “auteurs.” They became preoccupied with “style” at the expense of story. In doing so, they weakened the enormously valuable message they were sending.

A for Anarchy

qt-a_bra.gif

Anarchist Circle A

desktop_v_800_600.jpg

V for Vendetta Circle V

The A for Anarchy in a circle, usually in red and spray-painted on the background, is one of the most successful images among political symbols. It was created during the 20th century and is therefore a much more modern symbol than the classical black flag of anarchism. Its origin is not known, but there is evidence that the symbol was used by some anarchists during the Spanish Civil War and later by the Belgium organization AOA (Alliance Ouvriere Anarchiste). The Circle A is said to represent Proudhon’s maxim that “Anarchy is Order.” The “A” is for anarchy and the circle is either a symbol of order or represents the “O.” But the Circle A is also said to be a symbol of unity and determination, forwarding the anarchist ideals and the inevitable rebellion against the rulers. Anarchists are devoted to the re-establishment of freedom for everyone and the importance of the cause cannot be affected by outer restraints. The circle is therefore, to some extent, a shield against the oppressive society surrounding the sovereign anarchist. The Circle A also lends support to the idea of international anarchist solidarity, where the circle encompassing the “A” for anarchy could be interpreted as a representation of the world. Anarchists are committed to the abolishment of all rule, coercive hierarchy and oppression–no matter where it exists. The unavoidable anarchist rebellion takes no prisoners and thus no tyrant is safe when the rebellion has begun. No matter the origin and the true meaning of the symbol, the Circle A is a very powerful symbol of anarchism world-wide. It is very often seen spray-painted on walls and under bridges or on the background of a black flag of anarchism.
— Anarchism.net, The Well-Known Symbol of Anarchism, the Circle A

It should be abundantly clear to anyone that the red on black Circle V symbol in V for Vendetta was derived directly from the red on black Circle A symbol of the Anarchist movement. Just eliminate the horizontal stroke in the Circle A symbol, rotate it 180 degrees, and you have the Circle V. In case anyone imagines the nearly identical visual symbols are mere coincidence, consider the following voice over from the film:

EVEY (V.O.)
“Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot. I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.” Those were almost the very first words he spoke to me and, in a way, that is where this story began, four hundred years ago, in a cellar beneath the Houses of Parliament. In 1605, Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. He was caught in the cellars with enough gunpowder to level most of London. Sometimes I wonder where we would be if he hadn’t failed. I wonder if it would have mattered. I suppose the answer is in the rhyme. More than the man, what we must remember is the plot itself. For in the plot we find more than just a man, we find the idea of that man, the spirit of that man, and that is what we must never forget. This, then, is the story of that idea, of that spirit that began with an anarchist’s plot four hundred years ago.

There you have it, an explicit admission that the film is a manifesto for anarchism.

As the patriot movement in America likes to say, “No Justice, No Peace!”

As protest signs waved by the 500,000 to 1,000,000 strong crowd demonstrating against the ruling DPP’s March 19, 2004 shooting hoax and March 20, 2004 election fraud declared: “Guan bi min fan, zao fan yu li!” (Officials have pushed the people too far, Revolution is justified!).

But where does the “V” in V for Vendetta come from? As V explains, it comes from a Latin quotation, a motto: “Vi veri veniversum vivus vici. By the power of truth, I, while living, have conquered the universe.”

Anarchy is Order

Proudhon, for the record, was wrong about property. Property is not theft.

But Proudhon was right about anarchy. Anarchy is Order.

Anarchy is not disorder. Anarchy is not chaos. Anarchy is merely “the absence of government.” The absence of government does not equate with disorder. The absence of government does not equate with chaos. Quite the contrary. The absence of government is the blank slate, the tabula rasa, on which a spontaneous social order can emerge naturally and flourish.

Government, not the absence of government, is the source of social conflict. As Bill McKay, the idealistic candidate in Michael Ritchie’s 1972 political satire “The Candidate,” observed, governments invariably “play off black against white, young against old, rich against poor.” They always have, they always will.

Governments in “advanced democracies” work only to the extent that a pre-existing social order permits them to work. Social order is not a benefit conferred upon society by government. Government is a disruptor of the spontaneous social order that emerges naturally in the absence of government.

As the great Chinese sage Laozi observed:

The way [the “Dao” or Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand”] never acts, yet nothing is left undone. Should lords and princes be able to hold fast to it, the myriad creatures will be transformed of their own accord. After they are transformed, should desire [the statist compulsion to micromanage] raise its head, I shall press it down with the weight of the nameless uncarved block. The nameless uncarved block is but freedom from desire [liberation from the controlling statist mindset]. And if I cease to desire and remain still, the nation will be at peace of its own accord.

E for Execution

People rarely say exactly what’s on their minds … Especially when bringing up something painful, people often talk in circles until the other person figures out what they’re trying to say. Good screen dialogue should avoid being “on the nose.” Avoid having … characters cut to the meat … unless it’s a climactic scene, and even then, load your words with hidden agendas. There almost always wants to be tension between what your character is literally saying, what your character intends to communicate and what your character is thinking.
— Alex Epstein, On the Nose Dialogue
Complications Ensue: The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog

V for Vendetta is rife with “on the nose” dialogue, or perhaps I should say, on the nose monologues. In scene after scene, V talks up a storm, glibly explicating exactly what’s on his mind, even though he is supposed to be an angst-ridden tragic hero haunted by his dark past.

This groan-inducing syndrome is exacerbated by V’s Guy Fawkes mask, which covers his entire face, including his mouth. As V rambles on endlessly, we don’t see his lips move. All we see is his totally opaque, utterly static Guy Fawkes mask.

v_for_vendetta_guy_fawkes_mask11.jpg

V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes Mask

The credits tell us V was played by Hugo Weaving, the talented character actor who portrayed the dastardly Agent Smith in “The Matrix” (1999, written and directed by Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski). But how do we know? We never see Weaving’s face once during the entire 132 minutes of the film. For all we know, V was played by a stand-in, and Weaving dubbed the voicetrack afterwards. Given that the Guy Fawkes mask covers the actor’s entire face, including the mouth and chin, the voicetrack wouldn’t even need to be lip-synched!

One could write a Saturday Night Live skit based on V’s Guy Fawkes mask. The “Pathological Liar,” played by Jon Lovitz, assures a casting director that he, Tommy Flanagan, actually played V in the movie:

“I was Weaving’s stand-in. In fact, I was V. I was the star of the movie. That was me behind the mask. Yeah, that’s right. Weaving got sick the first day on the set … from … the catered food. The shrimp was bad. I didn’t complain because Weaving and I were in Vietnam together. He sa … I saved his life … twice. Yeah, that’s the ticket!”

Contrast this with Erique Claudin’s mask in the “Phantom of the Opera, (1943, directed by Arthur Lubin, adapated by John Jacoby from a novel by Gaston Leroux) which covered the upper part of lead actor Claude Rains’ face, but not his mouth and chin. Doesn’t that make much more visual sense?

phantom_of_the_opera_1943.jpg

Phantom of the Opera Poster

phantom_of_the_opera_mask.jpg

Phantom of the Opera Mask

If for some reason the filmmakers objected to using a Phantom of the Opera style partial mask, they could have used a translucent mask. Movie audiences would then have been able to see Weaving’s lips move as he spoke his lines, and gotten an indistinct but queasy impression of the horrific scars the long-sufferering hero had been left with.

The gabby “on the nose” monologues and the deadpan Guy Fawkes mask undermine the film’s effectiveness. But they are not the film’s most serious problem. The film’s most serious problem is its clunky use of flashbacks.

Flashbacks can, if used appropriately, propel a film forward. But the flashbacks in V for Vendetta are constant interruptions that halt the film’s foward momentum, weaken the film’s thematic focus, and diminish the film’s emotional power.

Any device that diminishes a story’s emotional power — its ultimate payoff, its raison d’etre — cannot possibly be considered a worthwhile artistic choice.

B for Brazil

Terry Gilliam’s critically acclaimed but grossly neglected masterpiece “Brazil” (1985, directed by Terry Gilliam, written by Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown) did a dramatically better job of depicting the Kafkaesque injustice of totalitarianism than V for Vendetta.

Brazil, a highly creative variation on George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984,” was in retrospect, uncannily prescient. Consider the following dialogue from the film.

INTERVIEWER
Do you think that the government is winning the battle against terrorists?

HELPMANN
Oh yes. Our morale is much higher than theirs, we’re fielding all their strokes, running a lot of them out, and pretty consistently knocking them for six. I’d say they’re nearly out of the game.

What does this remind you of, but Ken Adelman’s “Cakewalk In Iraq” and George Bush’s “Mission Accomplished?”

Brazil blew me away. I left the theater awestruck, wondering, “How did Gilliam do that?” V for Vendetta failed to blow me away, even though I wanted it to and gave it every chance to do so. I left the theater perplexed, wondering “Why didn’t the movie work better than it did?”

See:
Modernity and Mise-en-Scene, Terry Gilliam and Brazil

People should not be Afraid of their Governments. Governments should be Afraid of their People

Am I telling you not to see V for Vendetta?

No, I am not. See the movie despite its defects. Assuming you are a libertarian, V for Vendetta’s anti-authoritarian political message makes the movie worth seeing and worth supporting despite its botched execution. To turn media guru Marshal McLuhan’s famed aphorism on its head, “The message is the medium.”

After all, how can one not recommend seeing a movie whose tagline is “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”

The American Government, instilling Fear in the American People

Homeland Security Advisory System, Current Threat Level:

March 21, 2006 The United States government lowered the national threat level for the mass transit sector in August 2005. The country remains at an elevated risk, Code Yellow, for terrorist attack.

homeland_security_advisory_system0.jpg

Homeland Security Advisory System

The United States Government will continue to closely monitor and analyze threat information and share that information, together with guidance for protective measures, with state, local and private sector authorities as well as the general public as part of the sustained national effort to prevent terrorist attacks and protect our homeland.

Recommended Activities:

All Americans, including those traveling in the transportation systems, should continue to be vigilant, take notice of their surroundings, and report suspicious items or activities to local authorities immediately.

All Americans can visit http://www.ready.gov

Fearless

Fearless
Bevin Chu
Friday, April 14, 2006

fearless1.jpg

Fearless (2006)
Directed by Ronny Yu
Produced by Bill Kong
Martial arts sequences directed by Yuen Woo Ping
Starring Jet Li, Betty Sun

Release Dates, in chronological order:
China [mainland]: January 25, 2006
China [Taiwan]: January 26, 2006
China [Hong Kong]: January 26, 2006
Malaysia: January 26, 2006
Singapore: January 26, 2006
Philippines: March 1, 2006
Thailand: March 2, 2006
United States: August 4, 2006
France: September 20, 2006
Germany: October 12, 2006

In Fearless … Huo Yuanjia, a real-life fighter who energized China during the last dark days of the Qing dynasty … is forced to learn that there’s more to martial arts and life than just winning or losing, living or dying … At the start of Fearless, Huo is a ball of highly skilled but undirected martial-arts aggression; his only goal is to become the top fighter in his hometown of Tianjin. He accomplishes this in rapid order, knocking off any and all contenders in a series of brutal one-on-one fights … Huo cracks skulls, snaps fingers and shatters knees … Surrounded by an entourage of drunken sycophants, squandering his money, ignoring the warnings of his wiser friends, Huo acts like a 19th-century Mike Tyson. He’s clearly headed for a fall. It comes when Huo, for nothing more than vanity, takes on Master Qin … The fighters go at each other with every available weapon, until a crazed Huo lands the killing blow. His victory comes at a terrible price — one of Qin’s students slaughters Huo’s family in reprisal. Overcome by guilt and self-loathing, Huo drifts away, ending up in [a] rural village where a beautiful blind girl [helps] him understand that existence is about more than just beating people up … Huo’s … gentler, more powerful form of kung fu … serves him well when he departs for a Shanghai that’s been drawn and quartered by foreigners. There, in a spurt of nationalism, he takes on Western and Japanese fighters, eager to prove that Chinese aren’t the sick men of Asia.
— Emotion in Motion, Time Asia Magazine, January 30, 2006

A Farewell to Arms

Fearless, according to the movie’s official website, will be Chinese martial arts champion and international action star Jet Li’s final martial arts flick. Li has told interviewers that he no longer has any desire to make martial arts films, but instead wants to dedicate his life to promoting his deeply-held metaphysical and spiritual beliefs. Whether Li’s legions of fans will allow him to do so remains to be seen. In any event, Li has drawn a distinction between martial arts films and action films.

As Li explains:

I’ll only be devoting 50% of my time and energy into making movies going forward. I’ve reached a point where I feel I can do something else … Making this film now I feel this is a concluding chapter to my martial arts movie career. Let me stress that martial arts movies and action movies are two separate things. Action could be modern times and set among city streets. What I term as martial arts movie would be the likes of Wong Fei Hung (Once Upon a Time in China) series. I just feel it’s time to close this chapter in my life.

Revenge, Good and Bad

Fearless belongs to a tried and true movie genre, the Revenge Story.

Revenge Stories fall into two categories: Revenge is Good stories, and Revenge is Bad stories.

Revenge is Good stories, to be perfectly blunt, are psychologically primitive, even atavistic.

Revenge is Bad stories are psychologically more evolved. That said, some Revenge is Good stories are less primitive than other Revenge is Good stories.

Revenge is Good

The gut-wrenchingly violent 1974 urban crime drama Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson, is a classic Revenge is Good story, and ranks among my guilty pleasures. Death Wish is a movie in which the hero’s acts of vengeance come across as morally justified. The hero’s wife and daughter are brutally raped and assaulted by street thugs during a home invasion. The hero’s wife dies from fatal kicks to her head. The daughter lives, but is so traumatized by the assault she retreats into catatonia. Bronson, a law-abiding white collar professional, is paralyzed by his loss, until one fateful night, when he fights off a mugger with a sock filled with quarters. He then acquires a handgun, and using himself as bait, blows away a series of muggers who mistake him for an easy mark.

death_wish.jpg

Death Wish

As Roger Ebert wrote in 1974:

There’s never any question of injustice, because the crimes are attempted right there before our eyes. And then Bronson becomes judge and jury –and executioner. That’s what’s scary about the film. It’s propaganda for private gun ownership and a call to vigilante justice. Even the cops seem to see it that way; Bronson becomes a folk hero as the New York Vigilante, and the mugging rate drops fifty percent. So the police want to catch Bronson, not to prosecute him for murder, but to offer him a deal: Get out of town, stay out of town, and we’ll forget this. Bronson accepts the deal, and in the movie’s last scene we see him taking an imaginary bead on a couple of goons in Chicago.

Bronson defended Death Wish and its three sequels in 1987, saying “I think they provide satisfaction for people who are victimized by crime and look in vain for authorities to protect them.”

For the record, I consider Death Wish justified in its advocacy of private gun ownership and the right to self-defense.

Steven Seagal’s movies are also Revenge is Good stories. Seagal’s movies, paradoxically, are movies in which the protagonist’s vengeance is morally repugnant and indefensible. I say “paradoxically” because Seagal, a Tibetan Buddhist “tulku” or holy man, makes much ado about being “more enlightened than thou.” In Seagal’s movies the “hero” is an appalling bully, typically a law enforcement agent, who considers himself “Above the Law” and grossly abuses his mastery of Aikido, the “Way of the Peaceful Warrior” [ ! ] to beat anyone who dares defies him to a bloody pulp.

above_the_law.jpg

Above the Law

Never underestimate the accuracy of Hollywood movies as an indicator of American cultural trends. Transpersonal, aka “Integral” psychologists know that pop culture, especially popular films, are telling indicators of a society’s collectively held values, both conscious and unconscious. Hollywood is not known as the Dream Factory for nothing. Hollywood reads America’s psyche and projects America’s dreams onto the silver screen for all the world to see, literally and figuratively.

The constantly changing storylines of Hollywood films closely reflect America’s constantly changing values. Consider for example the 1987 comedy The Secret of My Succe$s, which reflected the “Winning is Everything” values of the Reagan Era. A mere four years separate the film from the 1991 comedy Doc Hollywood, which reflected the “Small is Beautiful” values of the post-Reagan Era. What makes the contrast even more remarkable is the fact that both films were Michael J. Fox star vehicles.

Steven Seagal’s films are an uncanny reflection of Charles Krauthammer’s “Unipolar Moment” triumphalism that guided Bush II regime foreign policy during Bush II’s first term, but is now hopefully on the wane. Steven Seagal’s tough cop protagonists, as they enforce domestic “law and order,” behave remarkably like Neoconservative “World Policemen” as they “defend democracy” in Bush’s New World Order.

Revenge is Bad

Revenge is Bad stories fall into two categories: Phony Revenge is Bad stories, and Genuine Revenge is Bad stories.

As you can probably guess, Phony Revenge is Bad stories far outnumber Genuine Revenge is Bad stories. Stories that pay facile pro forma lip service to the premise that Revenge is Bad far outnumber stories that conscientiously integrate the Revenge is Bad premise into the story structure.

Phony Revenge is Bad stories pander shamelessly to audiences’ atavistic desire to “kick ass,” then hastily cover up the pandering with a “Violence is not the solution” fig leaf that no one leaving the theater believes for one minute. The hero in Phony Revenge is Bad movies wreaks bloody havoc for two hours, then just before the end titles roll, mumbles some hypocritical platitude about how “Violence only begets more violence.”

Fearless is a rare example of a Genuine Revenge is Bad story. Fearless suggests that Revenge is Bad, and earnestly strives to convert audiences to that premise. Fearless conscientiously integrates the premise that Revenge is Bad into the story structure. In Fearless, the hero’s impulsive act of vengeance leads to such catastrophic consequences and to such deep remorse that the hero experiences a genuine epiphany and undergoes a genuine transformation.

According to Newsweek magazine:

Fearless went through ten screenwriters to ensure a seamless plotline. Perhaps most compelling are the movie’s emotional action scenes, which propel the story forward rather than serve as visual breaks from the real action … “One notable thing with this movie is that there are no villains,” says “Fearless” director Ronny Yu. “The good guy and the villain both reside in Huo himself.”

Fearless, like Spiderman 2, displays far more emotional depth than the run of the mill action movie, and transcends the genre’s usual limits. That Spiderman 2 was so deeply moving had a lot to do with its screenwriter, Alvin Sargent, author of the Oscar winning 1980 domestic drama, Ordinary People. Fearless’ official website fails to list the writers responsible for Fearless’ script, but whoever they are, they deserve similar credit.

A Larger Lesson

In any event, the final product reflects Jet Li’s personal convictions. As Li confided on his official website:

Time and again over the years I’ve stressed that violence is not the only means of solving problems. Western reporters also grilled me about why I keep professing my belief in this, yet keep on doing movies that are violent. I think it’s not possible to have every one of my movies represent what I truly believe. It just has to be the right subject matter, and now I think I found the right project that could help me achieve this.

If someone learns martial arts solely to pick fights on the street, to lean on it as a keystone weapon in conflicts, to use it to bully and intimidate others — then that person, in my opinion, cannot be considered a true martial artist. Sure, he may have mastered the physical aspect of the art – know all the forms to the point of creative second nature. Sure, he may win all the fights, beat up all his opponents, leaving them bleeding, and claim some outside applause. But while physically he may have won – in other respects, he has lost. Badly. For one can never win another person’s heart through fighting, through hostile force. The defeated, the one who had to bear the brunt of your physical force will only walk away with a wounded heart, with anger. As a Buddhist, I believe strongly in the concept of karma. What you do will come back to you eventually, as is the universal balance. You can win today, but tomorrow, your choice to use violence will return to you, perhaps in a form ten times stronger.

Jet Li could easily have been talking about right wing Japanese political leaders such as Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso, and Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara..

Jet Li could easily have been talking about Neoconservative foreign policymakers Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Lewis Libby, John Bolton, Elliott Abrams, Robert Kagan, Michael Ledeen, William Kristol, and Frank Gaffney Jr.

The “triumph” of Pearl Harbor led to the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The “triumph” of Desert Storm led to the tragedy of 9/11. What will the “triumph” of Infinite Justice/Enduring Freedom lead to?

Junichiro Koizumi, are you listening?

George Bush Jr., are you listening?

Fighting, or seeking revenge, is a self-defeating process and the escalation of retaliatory violence can have very bitter consequences … When you learn martial arts, it’s not just a physical endeavor — it is also internal — and your actions show an understanding of some of the highest levels of martial arts … one day those people who beat you up will have regrets that they hurt you — they will feel guilty. So perhaps their outcome, even though they won in the short term, is not so kind in the long term. The goal with any conflict isn’t to kill the other person. The goal is to win their heart. Turning one from enemy to friend is the highest level of martial arts. You win the battle without throwing a single punch.

Steven Seagal, are you listening?

Fearless not only depicts an individual’s awakening, it offers a thoughtful answer to the troubling question of how nations that have fought bloody wars with each other might resolve their differences and face the future. That Chinese film makers would produce a movie like Fearless at this moment in history, when China is undergoing a peaceful renaissance, is highly encouraging. It suggests that China’s much publicized “peaceful rise” will indeed be peaceful, as long as China isn’t deliberately backed into a corner by China baiters in Japan and the US so consumed with jealousy they cannot countenance the prospect of “uppity Chinamen” successfully competing with them in the emerging global marketplace.

Fearless is what Japanese and US political leaders need to be in the face of inevitable change. As a now deceased US president once admonished: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

Fearless : : The Movie
www.fearlessthemovie.com

The Official Jet Li Website
www.jetli.com