V for Vendetta

When V for Vendetta popped up on the big screen at mainstream cinemas, there was a buzz amongst anarchist circles. Reading various posts across the internet and in personal conversations, comic book geeks turned anarchists confessed how Vendetta had been the first thing to politicize them. Some folks in NYC even set up a website “A for Anarchy” to remind people about the philosophy behind the original comic. Having never paid proper attention to comics before, let alone Vendetta a supposedly anarchist graphic novel, I looked forward to seeing the film. People who had seen it already, seemed impressed. One friend of mine took her newfound inspiration from V to cover the city with posters against the war the same night.

So needing some pick me up style movie to distract me from all the onslaught of bad news, I went. The film is set in post World War III fascist Britain, an era put into context through TV footage from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (which the US lost). The subsequent economic collapse of the US economy and its economic empire has given rise to Britain as a new global Superpower. Some of the footage of protests and clashes around the US against the war could have been events I had been present at. In Vendetta era Britain, the Christian right wing Norsefire party rules England, brutally repressing dissenters, anti-war activists and gender outlaws, an obvious allusion to our present day aspiring fascist theocracy in the United States.

We first meet V, the film’s masked hero, as he rescues co-protagonist Evey from being raped by Fingermen, the regime’s undercover police force. Seeing 5 rapist cops mercilessly get the shit beaten out of them is certainly a great feel good first scene. Definitely a refreshing change of pace from the day in day out diet of cop culture we endure from the Daily News to Hollywood. But the heroic rescue is also a first sign to have me wonder about the anarchist nature of V. From then on out V and Evey take up a profoundly strange relationship. (and it’s in relationships where we can test for values like anarchy)

That Evey is taken under the wing of V, a male paternalistic superhero (who goes on to educationally torture Evey), is just the first sign that something doesn’t quite jive with V as an anarchist role model. The power that V exercises as a terrorist threat to the State feels much more akin to that of a leftist Osama Bin Laden - an elusive and dangerous terrorist – really the mainstream stereotype of an elusive masked bomb throwing intellectual. Other anarchist ideas take a back seat in Vendetta; values like spreading of directly democratic power in communities, collective ownership and control of the economy, people finding their strength in themselves despite their place in society, genuine solidarity amongst people. And these are values which have always been the traditional basis of anarchist thought and work.

But that said, Vendetta does manage to challenge territory in ways that you won’t often see in Hollywood productions, especially in “action” films. Particularly on gender notions: The Norsefire party strictly outlaw gender deviance as they understand it with severity. One character, at great risk, comes out as queer to Evey while he hides her from Fingermen. He then gets snatched up by cops after airing a satire of the ruling dictator on the TV show he hosts. Vendetta at various points makes the point to spell out a number of familiar examples of how daily life is impacted by intolerant religious norms. And V himself at times even seems ambiguous sexually.

The Wachowski brothers, who wrote the screenplay, no doubt changed the territory somewhat from that of Allan Moore’s original comic. After reading the screenplay, Moore insisted his name be taken off the credits for changing his own scenario of a struggle between anarchist visions and a fascist Britain to what he saw as the Wachowski’s version of liberals vs. conservatives in the United States.

The Wachowski brother’ Matrix had some excellent idea content mixed in with the spandex supereffects and flying fists. Particularly Morpheus’ talk with Neo explaining to him his role in postmodern corporate capitalism (ie. the Matrix). But as with Vendetta, radical and subversive ideas had a lot of their punch taken out by this truly weird proto-Christian messianic strain that persists from Neo to V. Both V and Neo go about single-handedly annihilating their respective ruling orders. Any social movements we can see in either V’s England or in the Matrix’ Zion either come too close to religiously worshipping their One or wear V’s mask. The broader social picture which is central to the works of thinkers who’ve apparently influenced the film makers (Emma Goldman amongst others is paraphrased in Vendetta), play incidental, almost invisible roles in both stories.

By the end of the film, thousands of masked Vs emerge from London into the streets, fearlessly past police standing in their way, gazing at the spectacle of fire and explosions – signifying a new dawn of sorts. This scene is just too weird and has me simultaneously thinking of a few different scenarios:

One. V as a masked voice of many; someone like the Zapatista Subcommandante Marcos who like V likes to talk in prose and refers to the ski masks the Zapatistas wear as equalizers and levelers of power, neutralizers of cults of personality (ironic as that may sound coming from Marcos). Marcos and the Zapatistas have often stressed the multiplicity in struggle and use their own status as media spectacle to challenge the notion of a proletariat that can be stereotyped. Self identified Zapatistas ranging from Queer activists to farmers fighting for their land to workers struggling for better conditions to marginalized indigenous women say “Todos Somos Marcos” (We are all Marcos) to stress their support for the Zaps who reciprocally support them as part of a recognized larger struggle. The final scene in which the crowd assembled under the explosions of government buildings drop their masks to reveal a multitude of faces of different ages, ethnicities and genders could suggest V as a social metaphor.

“We use black ski-masks to show our faces. Only in this way can we be seen and heard.”

Two. But then I simultaneously think of the effect of idolized leftist saints. Leaders like Tito or currently Venezuela’s Chavez who despite their authoritarianism act as empowerers of ideas. Ideas that ultimately resulted in some very effective and powerful grassroots movements. I feel elements of a messiah in this one too. One can’t dismiss the effects of such charismatic leadership in helping both individuals and movements of people gain the necessary confidence to overthrow oppressive situations. But we also know that when liberatory ideas and relationships are too strongly attached to idols or other symbols, we often see them die along with their messiah.

Regardless of who V is or was intended to be, it’s always important to remember that things like repressive societies or societal oblivion are primarily social relationships. It’s about how we relate to each other; how resources are controlled, how we understand, exercise and respond to power. The title of an old anarchist pamphlet against terrorism says it concisely: You Can’t Blow up a Social Relationship. Not that explosions have no role in creating a free society, but they should be seen as what they are. They can be symbolic statements or momentarily necessary tactics, but of course explosions won’t change how we interact, nor how coercive power exists as threads in our social fabric. In the end, despite the pretty fireworks and the annihilation of cops, V falls short for me because it’s a film about a revolution, but falls back on too many things that seem so counter to what our project of deconstructing power and building different realities is about.