Wednesday, November 07, 2007

V for Vendetta, Revolution, Guy Fawkes, and Entertainment

Monday was Guy Fawkes night which we at the community celebrated in a most untraditional way (and perhaps very American way) by watching V for Vendetta. A movie with a very tenuous connection to the historical events surrounding Guy Fawkes and the Gun Powder Plot. So no bonfires or fireworks,and no one burnt in effigy. In fact our celebration was as much a celebration of Kate having finished work on two films (a short and a promotional trailer) that has taken up most of her time and left her sleep deprived for the past month or so. The fifth of November was her first day free, and so there you have it, have some people over for soup (very good squash soup made by Benjamin)V for Vendetta and a Guy Fawkes night celebration all because Kate has some free time and is exhausted.

This is the second time I have seen V for Vendetta, and conversation over the soup surrounded the history of the Gun Powder plot, and some of the legends. According to one of our guests (an historian working in publishing) a BBC or History channel (or some such network I can't remember) did an experiment to see what sort of damage would have been done had the gun powder been lit as planned, and revealed that it would have taken down parliament sure enough and blown out the stained glass windows at Westminster Cathedral. A very effective way to take out a ruling class when they are all gathered together. Of course it was Roman Catholic nobles who planned the whole thing in the first place, not necessarily your enlightenment and post-enlightenment revolutionaries, but it does provide and interesting premise for a comic book and movie, even if it transforms the event and historical person into a very different symbol, and thus subverts the meaning of the celebration.

In good comic book fashion you have the lone hero against forces of evil. V is transformed to some degree in the movie, made less ambiguous as the "good guy" in a Guy Fawkes mask. Also in good Comic book fashion things are exaggerated. The fascism and hatred the xenophobia are stark, one has no sympathy for the Chancellor and his cronies except the chief inspector, who is the only party member to go through character development in the film. But this is not intended to be a realistic piece of film, it is the adaptation of a comic book, which has its own style to it. All in all and whether or not Alan Moore was in the end satisfied with the adaptation, V for Vendetta is a beautiful film and whatever flaws one may find are in part its genera and the flaw of adaptation (it is always referring to something outside itself); For instance two things are never quite adequately explained in the movie itself, How V was able to survive the fire and how the pieces of TP upon which the autobiography of his neighbor in the cell block survived the conflagration. There are other small details that are not explained and leave little holes (of which I can't recall) but the plot and art direction propel the audience along such that the holes are covered over and barely noticeable.

As we sat around talking after the film someone brought up whether or not such a revolution propelled by one man and essentially taking out a ruling party could actually bring about anything we would recognize as freedom. This however begs the question of what sort of revolution is envisioned by V for Vendetta either as found in the comic book or in the movie? I found myself unable to engage the question of what V's revolution would bring about after blowing up parliament (Oh sorry yes, if you haven't seen the movie V the mask of Guy Fawkes succeeds (with a little help) where the historical Guy Fawkes fails, though V is also found out.) because it was not clear to me what sort of revolution is ultimately depicted?

Perhaps the title of the comic book and movie is the key: it is no revolution at all but a personal vendetta dressed up in revolutionary and historical masquerade. We are given an inkling of this irony (perhaps satire) when Evie asks V at the beginning of the film who he is, and she is stung by his response, to which he simply points out the irony of asking a masked man his identity! (There is perhaps some irony in asking a masquerade of a revolution if it is to be taken seriously as a revolution.) Perhaps to ask of V for Vendetta what sort of revolution it depicts and if that revolution would in fact bring about freedom is to miss that the revolutionary is in masquerade as a Roman Catholic rebel hired by Catholic nobility in hopes that Roman Catholicism would become the religion of England again, who I might add has been burnt in effigy along with Pope Paul V, ever since.

So, V wants us to remember the fifth of November, in away opposite of the poem quoted in the movie (but only in part), and in away only a few anarchists (perhaps forgetful of Guy Fawkes's faith) have attempted to get us to remember. But what sort of remembering is this when it has so little to do with the historical plot and yet mimics the plot and succeeds where history failed.

The guest who questioned the effectiveness of the V revolution also pointed out it was revolution as entertainment and thus not truly populist, and thus unable to bring about recognizable freedom (the further irony about this is that the guest arguing all this claims to be post-modern, in away it seems to me that would undermine his apparent concern for the revolution succeeding in bring about "freedom"). However, what revolution isn't entertainment for the masses, and bloody entertaining at that! After all revolutions involve public executions, which we tend to forget was great fun and good family entertainment: see that other person get his/her comeuppance. No a spontaneous and populist uprising without instigation of some form of leadership and goading has so far as I know never occurred. There is an entertaining aspect to revolution, there is a morality play aspect to the public spectacle of revolution. Violent and bloody for sure but we all know what great fun violence is when projected on a screen and the bad guy gets it in the end. The bad guys get what's coming to them as the populous rises up and watches a few take out their vengeance on the once powerful. This leads eventually not to some utopia of freedom, but to dictatorship: French Revolution leads to Napoleon, Russian Revolution eventually ends up with Stalin and the Chinese always had Mao Zedung.

In the end perhaps there is no revolution envisioned in V for Vendetta, but only anarchy. As V distributes Guy Fawkes masks throughout London and England anarchy is what is depicted as resulting. And we see one scene in which some one is robing a convenience store and as he leaves he yells "Anarchy in the UK", which brings us back to revolution as entertainment and to interestingly enough Punk rock, but that perhaps is another post, and yet is yet another symbol evoked in this film.

However, i want to say that V for Vendetta is one great masquerade party in which there are devils angels and saints and we get one better than burning people in effigy we see the powerful and evil, one by one, executed by V. In Biblical fashion V is executed in the act of his final execution killing even the executioner. That all of this succeeds and that one finds oneself hopeful at the end of the film is a testament to the story telling power of the creators of this film.

In the end we are entertained while all our ideals and fears are presented to us as a masquerade ball with all the flourish and melodrama of a morality play and comic book combined. As for what we are to take from the film, one is left puzzled. Certainly the film is meaningful (perhaps too full of meaning) but the meaning is cobbled together out of fantasy, history, and legend to create a symbol of our longings that politics and revolutions have claimed they will fulfill and yet never do. V is the symbol of our longings and hopes placed in populism, revolution and anarchy and unmasks it as vengeance, all the while never letting us see our own face.