[Marxism] V for Vendetta

Mike Friedman mikedf at amnh.org
Mon Apr 3 11:48:28 MDT 2006


I just saw V for Vendetta for the second time in a week, this time with my
13 year-old son. Some reflections:

My son liked it, for the right reasons: “it was against racism, homophobia
and war,” he said. For young people, this and movies like it may be a good
point of departure for critical discussion of the issues of our time, a
stepping stone through popular culture to revolutionary politics.

Folks who dismiss graphic novels lose sight of the role of popular culture
as both reflection of and tools in the class struggle, as described by
C.L.R. James. This particular movie and – I would assume, since I haven’t
read it – the graphic novel upon which it was based, articulates, albeit
rather ambiguously, some of the salient issues in the class struggle in
our time, issues brought to the fore by the Bush administration. In the
images of Muslims and gay people rounded up by Chancellor Sutler’s secret
police, the “yellow-alert curfews,” environmental disaster and the “former
United States’” disastrous wars, there appears a generalized criticism of
current policies pursued by British and U.S. administrations.

However, one mustn’t lose sight of the fact that this movie is, first and
foremost, derived from a comic book about a super hero battling evil, and
should be judged in that context.

The mysterious and anonymous V is by no means perfect: not a Superman-type
character, but, rather, a Spiderman or Hulk-type character. The man behind
the mask was an un-named and  -- literally  -- faceless individual, the
victim and lone survivor of the biological warfare experiments carried out
by Sutler’s cohorts in the Larkhill prison camp. V has no secret identity
that he needs to protect. When Eric Finch, the inspector investigating V,
catches up to Evey Hammond, the heroine, she tells him, “he was Edmond
Dantés. And he was my father, and my mother. My brother and my friend. He
was you...and me. He was all of us.”

V inspires sympathy and righteous anger, but he is also a twisted
character, inspiring pathos and loathing, particularly in his ruse
involving the imprisonment and torture of Evey, with whom he falls in
love, a treatment that brings to mind, perhaps, Patty Hearst. After V
frees Evey, she confronts him and asks: “You're getting back at them for
what they did to you?” V responds: “What they did to me was monstrous.”
She replies, “Then they created a monster.”

At the beginning of the movie, when V encounters and saves Evey for the
first time, he asserts in his diatribe that his actions are motivated by
the state terrorism and the “absence of the Vox Populii.” He hopes that,
like Guy Fawkes, he would inspire change through the symbolic action of
the destruction of Parliament.  During the period between his debut and
final act, he conducts a series of “guerrilla theater” actions, including
the takeover of the government-run (and only) television station and
mass-mailing of V (Guy Fawkes) masks to the London population. In the
process, he also systematically kills off all those officials associated
with the former prison camp. V is primarily motivated, apparently, by
thirst for revenge against his tormentors. V later reveals that if revenge
is his motivation, it is also for the horrors visited upon Valerie, the
woman who was imprisoned in the cell next to his for being a lesbian, and
who left her biography secreted on a piece of toilet paper in a crack in
the wall between cells. In a final act of redemption and love, V
sacrifices his life to kill Sutler and Creedy and turns his legacy over to
Evey – together with a train-mounted explosive aimed at Parliament, which
she sends on its way


The villains in this story --  equivalent to Lex Luthor or Doctor Doom --
are High Chancellor Sutler and perhaps even more, Creedy, the secret
police head and power behind the throne. The two men are somewhat
different. Sutler is driven by fundamentalist religious and nationalist
fanaticism. But, Creedy, the mastermind of Sutler’s takeover -- involving
a biological attack against London’s inhabitants and blamed on terrorists
– is unscrupulous and driven by thirst for power. Another of Sutler’s
associates is Lewis Prothero, the head of the national media, and the
former Major in charge of the Larkhill prison camp. He is driven by greed,
having enriched himself with a pharmaceutical company that was
mysteriously linked to the events at Larkhill. Beyond these somewhat
differing motivations, though, the evil characters were rather
two-dimensional. This was apparently done to focus attention on V’s human
qualities, but it was one of the artistic weaknesses of this movie. Even
Doctor Doom, in the recent Fantastic Four movie showed more depth and
subtlety of personality than Sutler or Creedy.

The key difference between Dr. Doom and Sutler, of course, is that, rather
than reflecting the supposed values of Washington’s enemies, as do many
super-villains, these villains reflect tendencies within our governmental
leadership.

Ironically (but not subtly), at one point, inspector Finch, observes a
video of V’s attack on the television station and sees V standing by the
unconscious Evey, who just saved his life. The Inspector Finch muses to
his lieutenant “I wonder what he is thinking of doing to the woman who
just saved his life.” The lieutenant replies, “he’s a terrorist, he
doesn’t think like us.” The Inspector Finch says, “somewhere inside
there’s something human.”

Inspector Finch, it turns out, is riddled with his own doubts. Although he
has been a “loyal party man for 27 years,” his parents were Irish and
apparently died under mysterious circumstances – the Irish, it seems were
also targets of Sutler’s biological warfare. He discovers Sutler and
Creedy’s perfidy behind the virus outbreaks in London, and in the end,
allows Evey to carry out V’s demolition plan.

One of our list colleagues commented that the movie “pushes all the wrong
buttons in all the right people.” With the qualifications I gave above, I
think this is true. The movie, as I noted before is manichaean, good
versus evil, hero vs. villain and falls within the theme of the Great Man
in History. Great men, good and evil, make history, independently of
social formation and class forces. As such, it is merely the obverse of
Bush’s demonizations of Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden. The Problem, in
this movie, is Sutler and his cohorts. While we can assume that, like
Hitler, Sutler represents an effort by English capital to save itself from
its own crisis, the depiction never moves beyond the tyrannical and
megalomaniacal Sutler and the scheming Creedy. It never really shows the
social forces behind the terrorist state, beyond mention of Prothero’s
pharmaceutical business and the military that ran prison camps and backed
the coup. The capitalist class is missing. Instead, we are presented with
various mysterious interlinked conspiracies behind Sutler, et al.’s
accession to power. Sound familiar?

On the other hand, there is also no depiction or differentiation of the
social forces oppressed by the terrorist State, beyond the religious
intolerance, racism and homophobia of the oppressors As noted above, V
asserts that the Vox Populii has disappeared. Citizens are oppressed by
this State. Thus we are left with the State and Citizens, a dichotomy that
falls within the anarchist world-view. Lest we doubt that this movie is
inspired by some variant of anarchism, we have V’s principle slogan:
“People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be
afraid of their people.” But, we have a puerile, individualist,
adventurist, anarchism in which the masses --  the vanished Vox Populii --
are reduced to passive spectators of events staged on their behalf, in
their name, by V. The (largely white) Vox Populii makes its presence felt
only at the end, inspired by V’s actions, and even then, largely as an
audience. They march in their legions disguised behind “V” masks (kind of
reminds me of recent antiwar demonstrators hiding behind Zapatista masks),
pushing past befuddled soldiers to watch the destruction of parliament.
Thus, if V for Vendetta pretends to inspire political change, it is flawed
and misleading, in terms of how social change has occurred in the past and
what it will take to overcome the evils it depicts. In fact one possible
message of the movie is that familiar liberal/ultra-left mantra that “mass
politics” are out-dated and must be transcended with “bold actions.”

For me, one of the most disturbing episodes of the film was V’s
aforementioned staged abduction of Evey. Following her rescue of V in the
television station, he takes the unconscious woman back to his hide-out,
where he informs her that she will have to stay there for a year, until
his plans are consummated. She tells him that her parents had been
political activists and organizers, murdered by the regime. But, she says,
she doesn’t have it in her to follow their – or V’s – path: she’s afraid.
She escapes from V and seeks sanctuary from a talk show host, who is
subsequently murdered by Creedy’s men. Evey escapes only to be captured by
Creedy’s police – or so she thinks. It is all an elaborate ruse by V, who
has by then fallen in love with Evey. She is placed in a cell and
systematically tortured. Her interrogator offers her the choice:
collaborate or die. She finds the letter by Valerie – secreted in a hole
in he wall, just as it had been for V, and reads it. As she does so, she
becomes inspired to resist, finally transcending her fear of death and
fired by anger and hatred. In the final scene of the interrogation, her
tormentor again offers her the choice: sell out V or die. She says “no.”
Her captor then informs the astounded Evey that she is free. She walks
out, only to find herself in V’s lair, facing V himself, and she realizes
it has all been a hoax. V informs her that his purpose had been to subject
her to what he had been through in order to enable her to free her from
her fear and win her to his perspective.

What bothers me most about this episode is not simply the fact V would
subject Evey to torture, but that it is informed by an individualistic
psychology that justifies recruitment ala Patty Hearst. There is no
conception, here, of consciousness as a social phenomenon, the product of
social being. It is idealistic in that it places primacy on an
individual’s consciousness, which can be subjected to Skinnerian
manipulation, "instant-mix consciousness." Even when both Evey and V
transcend their hatred and become motivated by love, it is not in the
sense of Che’s famous aforism, just as their hatred was not Fanon’s. It
was all individualized. The concept of solidarity is pretty much missing
from this film.

Finally, if ultra-left adventurism is the flip-side of liberalism, then
this movie is kind of a liberal’s fantasy of revolution. In this sense, it
struck me that V for Vendetta parallels Fahrenheit 911. Of course Michael
Moore delves somewhat deeper into the forces behind Bush’s wars, as his
flick was a documentary, than Alan Moore did into the workings of Sutler’s
fascist England, but for both Moores, the problem resides in government
cabals. Their solutions reflect obverses: vote Democrat or Smash the
State.








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