C FOR COOPTATION
The Wachowski Brothers Commodify Your Dissent—Again!
by Shlomo Svesnik
"Guerilla war struggle is the new entertainment."
—"5.45," the Gang of Four, 1979
"They got Burton suits—ha! They think it's funny; turning rebellion into money"
—"White Man in Hammersmith Palais," The Clash, 1978
The posters for the Wachowski brothers' latest futuristic dystopia thriller, V for Vendetta, now plastered all over New York City, consciously evoke political propaganda of the 1930s—the era of Hitler and Stalin, the era that shaped Orwell. Like 1984, the film depicts a near-future totalitarian England, with many elements lifted directly from Orwell's nightmare vision: the all-powerful leader peers from screens everywhere, his hate-filled propaganda pours from loudspeakers on every street, his electronic eyes and ears surveil everything, and all relics of the past decadent culture have been purged from society. But is this movie Orwellian in the positive sense or negative? Is it an Orwellian prophecy or itself Orwellian propaganda? Is it warning of dystopia, or, paradoxically, part of the dystopia?
The vision of fascism in the UK is all too plausible, with draconian "anti-terrorism" laws now passing there, criminalizing not only violence and conspiracy but advocacy of (vaguely-defined) "terrorism." The postponement of Vendetta's release date by five months reveals how the film cuts a little too close to reality for comfort. It was supposed to open on Nov. 5—the pivotal date of the film's story, that of Guy Fawkes' 1605 "Gunpowder Plot." Release was allegedly pushed back because the Wachowski brothers superstitiously wanted the film to open at the same time of year as their 1999 blockbuster The Matrix. But it is widely held that the real reason was last summer's London Underground terrorist attacks. (The delay was announced weeks after the attacks.) The film essentially glorifies a terrorist who succeeds where Guy Fawkes failed, blowing up Parliament and other London landmarks, and thereby bringing down the state.
Vendetta's opening was attended by controversy for other reasons too. The film was disavowed by Alan Moore, who wrote the early '80s comics series it was based on—allegedly because he was unhappy with the script. But the deviations from his original story are minimal. Moore's dystopic future was set in 1997 and extrapolated from his Reagan-Thatcher Cold War context, with a fascist England emerging from a US-Soviet nuclear exchange. The Wachowskis push the year back to circa 2020 and bring the dystopia up to date with a War on Terrorism context—biological terror attacks in England provide the spark for the fascist coup, while the US, torn apart over a Middle East military quagmire, descends into civil war. Immigrants, gays and leftists years ago disappeared into concentration camps in a purge known as the "Reclamation"—an obvious echo of the post-9-11 sweeps in the US. Heretics and misfits are still dragged away in the night by ski-masked agents—black hoods thrown over their heads, a visual reference to Abu Ghraib. One character is "disappeared" for owning a copy of the Koran—while here in the real world, German anti-immigrant groups have just brought legal proceedings to get the Koran banned. Nice timing, Andy and Larry.
Perhaps Moore's real critique is that the mainstreaming of his dark vision by Hollywood inherently defangs it. V for Vendetta was originally serialized in the UK's quasi-underground Warrior magazine, then picked up by DC Comics as a graphic novel. Perhaps Moore thought a silver screen version of his work would be too much—making it a mere entertainment and distraction from the very sinister trends he was warning against. After all, how else can we explain the lack of opprobrium directed at such a movie without turning to Marcuse's concept of "repressive tolerance"? Even if the Wachowskis had the highest of intentions (which is doubtful), inevitably a part of the message is: "Relax, it's only a movie."
The film's muddied moral world makes this dismissal all the easier. Sweet young thing Evey (Natalie Portman) is rescued from a police patrol gang-rape by masked terrorist "V" (Hugo Weaving—ironically the same guy who played authority figure Agent Smith in The Matrix) and then sequestered away in his (implausibly lavish) underground hide-out. He subjects her to brainwashing—complete with extended torture sessions, shaving her head as she cries piteously. She, of course, develops a whopping case of Stockholm Syndrome, and becomes his collaborator. V, her savior/tormentor, perpetually faceless behind a grinning Guy Fawkes mask, straddles the line between hero and anti-hero for most of the flick—demented and ruthless, but swashbuckling and romantic. However, he is decisively vindicated in the finale.
V is very English. He quotes the outlawed words of Shakespeare and Blake (and, in the comics version, Mick Jagger) as he dispatches his victims. While the film attacks xenophobia as a pillar of the fascist state, all non-whites seem to have been vaporized in the "Reclamation" and play no role in the action. V himself is a survivor of the concentration camps, where he was the vaccinated victim of Mengele-like human guinea-pig genetic experiments which (of course) gave him super-(anti-)hero powers. He also figures out that the experiments were linked to the bio-terror attacks, which were actually carried out by the government itself to lubricate the fascist take-over (a vagary that will vindicate the "9-11 skeptics"). The title is actually a little misleading, because V's personal vendetta—to exact deadly vengeance on those who ran the camp where he was interned—is really a sideshow to his revolutionary ambitions.
V's supposed role model Fawkes was actually a militant Catholic incensed at the imposition of Anglican hegemony under James I. The real template for V is the cliché of the 19th-century bomb-throwing anarchist. From the 1880s to the First World War, anarchists, taking their cue from theorists like Mikhail Bakunin, terrorized Europe and America with an audacious wave of bombings and assassinations (although nothing approaching the scale of the contemporary jihadists). Bakunin believed that such individualistic acts of "propaganda by the deed" could spontaneously spark a social upheaval and bring down the state. Then, as now, draconian measures were taken against not only violence and conspiracy, but advocacy and propaganda. Then, as now, immigrant communities were targeted for sweeps, deportation and persecution in backlash against the terror—including (ironically, from today's perspective) Jews. The analogy was not lost on The Economist, that sacred guardian of the neoliberal order, which carried a retrospective on the anarchist terror wave after the London attacks: "Bombs, beards and backpacks: these are the distinguishing marks, at least in the popular imagination, of the terror-mongers who either incite or carry out the explosions that periodically rock the cities of the western world. A century ago, it was not so different: bombs, beards and fizzing fuses."
The Bakuninist model is the prototype for V's strategy, and the popular caricature in newspaper cartoons of the old anarchists' day is the prototype for his black-caped image. This period distancing is a part of the reason the film gets away with it. Can you imagine a big, successful Hollywood production in which the hero is an Islamic terrorist rather than an anarchist one? Didn't think so.
And while the movie treats real political activists favorably (Evey's parents were "disappeared" for being anti-fascists—socialists, in the comic book), it is the individualist, adventurist, terrorist V who is glorified. When mass protests are sparked at the end, it is entirely by the clandestine machinations of V. There is no strategy or analysis behind the protests—only the naive Bakuninist faith that chaos will lead to freedom. History indicates it generally works the other way—chaos leads to tyranny. Of course, for the Bakuninists, this was part of the strategy—state terror in response to the chaos will only fuel further rebellion. The comic-book caricature V doesn't even have that much strategy. His "revolution" that triumphs at the movie's climax is pure deus ex machina.
It's another twist of the real-life story of V for Vendetta that it was released simultaneously with Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, a German film on the White Rose, the clandestine student group that resisted the Nazis. The films are a vivid contrast despite obvious parallels. A central character in both is a young woman who is imprisoned for resistance activities. But while Evey and V blow up buildings, Sophie and her brother Hans distribute leaflets—for which they were beheaded after conviction on treason charges by a Nazi kangaroo court in Munich, 1943. (Some ten other White Rose members would be executed following later trials, both in Munich and Hamburg.) While Vendetta is a roller-coaster ride, Sophie achieves a stark, haunting realism through understatement. In Vendetta, the viewer is not supposed to question the apparently endless money and resources V has at his disposal. In Sophie, a mere ream of paper and book of stamps are precious and precarious—both because of wartime shortages and their potential as incriminating evidence if they are discovered (as, of course, they are).
Hans Scholl's last words as he is dragged to the guillotine are "Long live freedom!"—while Vendetta's promo kicker is "Freedom! Forever!" But the genuine heroism of the White Rose group contrasts the glib adventurism of V. OK, the comparison is unfair, as one really happened and the other is fantasy—but both films exist in the real world, and the question of which will get more viewers and attention says much about that world.
The White Rose leaflets, calling for "passive resistance" against the Nazi war machine, were intellectual, idealistic, almost naive. They quoted Europe's great philosophers (Goethe, Schiller, Novalis) and appealed to universal moral values; they never advocated violence or armed resistance. The only explosions in Sophie are a brief sequence in which Munich comes under Allied bombardment. Sophie watches through the window of her prison cell, wondering if the falling bombs will bring about the fall of Hitler in time to save her from the guillotine. And this points up a contradiction in the pacifistic ethic of the White Rose. Ultimately, lots of explosions were (presumably) needed to bring down fascism. This work was left to the RAF and US Army Air Corps, while the White Rose advocated "passive resistance" (although this was taken to include industrial sabotage in the arms plants, as well as boycotts of the Nazi party and its functions).
So in their own way, both Sophie and Vendetta serve the propaganda system. Sophie dodges the tough questions about the potential moral necessity to get one's hands dirty with violent struggle in extreme circumstances, while Vendetta reduces violent struggle to an entertainment spectacle, grappling with none of its grim implications. And the heroes of Sophie are Germans and devout Christians—not Communists or Jews. It is not that their story isn't worth telling. But there are other stories of equal heroism that could be told from the war years, which would raise more difficult questions for the contemporary world. It doesn't detract from the selfless courage and sacrifice of the White Rose to note that their rhetoric—which repeatedly invoked a future European order based on shared values of democracy—is a little self-congratulatory when invoked in a contemporary European film. And a little ironic when European democracy is being challenged by terrorism and its xenophobic backlash.
The totalitarian enemy in Sophie is "safely" in the past, just as in Vendetta it is "safely" in an imagined future.
Like The Matrix, Vendetta skillfully taps into popular alienation and fear, and the Wachowskis are obviously trying to replicate its success. But the execrable sequels to The Matrix—which had nothing to say, and merely milked a brand-name cash-cow—betrayed any spirit of prophetic warning in the original. Does Vendetta redeem the Wachowskis? Or does it represent mere capitalist recuperation of mass alienation?
The Economist concluded that the anarchists shot their wad eventually, and so will the jihadists. The capitalist order survived the anarchist onslaught, and it will survive the jihad. However, in the interval, The Economist failed to note, it had to resort to fascism throughout much of the industrialized world in order to do so. The threats by the time of fascism's rise came less from anarchism than Communism, and from capitalism's own internal crisis. But the anarchist violence was an early symptom of the same contradictions that plunged the system into crisis in the '30s, and the Bolsheviks exploited the same groundswell of popular anger that animated the anarchists. The current jihadi terror also reveals fault lines in the global system, even if the nearly complete evisceration of all forms of radical left ideology (the Wachowskis' Bakuninist revenge fantasy notwithstanding) has this time left fundamentalist Islam to fill the vacuum. In this light, The Economist's reassurance is less than reassuring. The years to come may reveal Sophie and Vendetta as both having more to do with the real world than their creators ever intended.
"For jihadist, read anarchist," The Economist, Aug. 18, 2005
"Al-Masri conviction reveals 'free speech' double standard," WW4 REPORT, Feb. 8, 2006
"Germany: call to ban Koran," WW4 REPORT, March 25, 2006
See Shlomo Svesnik's last piece:
"SYRIANA: REAL-TIME DYSTOPIA
Is Apocalyptic Fiction Now Redundant?"
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, April 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution