On fantasy terrorists, graffiti rhetoricists and intellectual propertyists (???): Part One

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V for Vendetta

Finally got to see V for Vendetta on Friday. I didn’t have my hopes up and made sure I read Peter Bradshaw’s one-star review to deliberately dampen my spirits. The great thing about Peter Bradshaw is that he has absolutely no taste and you can guarantee him to give a bad review if he perceives that “everyone else” thinks a film is good – never was iconoclasm so drearily predictable. The fact is though, he confirmed all my prejudices: eighties roots too glaring, US portrayal of “us Brits” patronising, overblown Wachowski fanboy pap. This was the film I was steeling myself for.

…so I’m happy to relate that it was nothing like that. V isn’t a perfect film by any means, but compared to the earlier Alan Moore adaptations we’ve been offered – From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – it was a masterstroke.

The important difference that puts it several cuts above those films is that it had some degree of integrity. James McTeigue isn’t the film maker he’d like to be, but at least he seemed to be trying to pay homage to the original.

Let’s get what I didn’t like out of the way first. Much as I have a fondness for Natalie Portman, and as effective as she was at times, I fear she was miscast as Evey. She couldn’t get the accent straight, veering from posh to South African to Kate Moss. Either way, Evey should have been a lot more common. At times her acting was unforgiveably bad – the scene with the Bishop in particular – and it is a black mark on the director for settling on such substandard work from someone capable of much more.

The other big flaw was the pacing of the film. Taking place over the course of a whole year, there was absolutely no sense of time passing. Aside from the main scenes, the storytelling is abysmal with far too much dependence on expository dialogue. Major tricks in this respect were missed. In this retelling (note to self: I must reread the original soon), the film concludes with the people marching on Westminster. We are “told” that dissent is on the increase but barely shown until the final half hour. A valuable visual aid is missed: the “V” graffiti is used only once in the whole film (not counting the end titles), when an important visual clue of the story progressing would have been seeing how a spotless city is gradually taken over by graffiti.

On the other hand, sometimes the symbolism overly simplistic. The end sequence, where thousands of people descend on Westminster dressed in “V” Guy Fawkes costumes, was weakened by the decision to have everyone wearing the same costumes. Wouldn’t it have been more meaningful to have lots of people otherwise masked or wearing their own home-made costumes? As well as looking less, frankly, totalitarian, with all those people wearing a uniform, it would have shown a greater degree of active participation.

Finally, the slight modification of the main character from shadowy bomber to allround swashbuckling action hero was mistaken. Apart from anything else, it wasn’t done with any real conviction: there was only one real action scene and having V fight like Neo in the Matrix after being pelted by a hail of bullets was simply too much of a stretch of incredibility.

With all that said, when it was good, the film was very, very good. As a meditation on totalitarianism, it is one of the most thoughtful films I’ve seen in a long time (better than Good Night and Good Luck and much better Syriania). The central sequence about Evey’s incarceration and eventual salvation via “Valerie” was taken straight out of the comic and was masterful.

Many of the criticisms I’ve heard are misplaced. Yes, John Hurt’s character is nothing more than a ranting idiot on a screen: that was clearly deliberate. It was clearly a creative decision to avoid turning the film into some macho clash between V and Sutler – ultimately Sutler is just a simpering fool who is easily despatched. McTeigue should be congratulated for avoiding that particular Hollywood cliche.

Similarly, Bradshaw’s complaint about the Benny Hill pastiche is to miss a point the film maker was trying to make. Dietrich’s spoof interview with Sutler was childish and stupid – not an attempt at high wit by any stretch of the imagination – yet it still got him killed. What better, internationally recognised, way of demonstrating childish silly nonsense than the Benny Hill Theme?

Comics International – the UK comic industry’s “trade journal” which is edited by V for Vendetta’s original editor Dez Skinn is peppered with little criticisms, some of which are fair but several are utterly bogus. For example, it compains that David Lloyd’s conceptual work on the release posters was ignored in favour of the “Zorro-like end product”. Firstly, no-one can deny that V is very much derivative of “Z”. Secondly, the very posters they refer to were used in promotional work – see the official website for proof (the middle three designs are by David Lloyd; the one of the far right is the one I’ve seen most commonly).

One of the things that appears to have caused a furore on t’internet is the way everyone eats “eggy in a basket”. I assumed this was some WWII thing, but apparently no-one in Britain has ever had the stuff – it’s one of the things that Alan Moore has taken the most exception to – it just goes to show what a capitalist running dog I am to have not realised this didn’t exist (it’s quite nice though – my gf made it for me for breakfast this morning). Less convincing are the complaints about the Royal Mail being replaced by something called “FedCo” – if this is a rightwing future we’re talking about, it seems inconceivable that the Royal Mail hasn’t been sold off to some rich bastards sooner or later (probably Lib Dems, natch).

Rich Johnson notes that anarchists are apparently up in arms because the book’s message of “fascism vs anarchism” has been replaced by “fascism vs democracy” – I think this must have been a different film to the one I saw, which began with the destruction of the Old Bailey and ended with the destruction of the Palace of Westminster. In fact, I didn’t detect being told anything about what should replace the totalitarian regime – perhaps the anarchists are upset that the film didn’t tell us what to think, which would be about right going by most of the anarchists I’ve ever met. I think it is fair to say that the film does ruminate on the Popperesque“open society” vs “closed society” – but Mr Smith Goes To Washington this ain’t.

Ultimately, after the week I’ve had, I’m hardly not going to enjoy a film where the main baddies are English Nationalists, am I? 🙂

UPDATE: I forgot to mention how much I thought Roger Allam reminded me of the weird love child of Christopher Hitchens and David Aaronovabitch. I’m not talking about the politics, just the look. It was freaking me out!

Alan Moore

Thus far I’ve written very little about the one person whose opinion of the film really should be listened to, if not swallowed whole. Alan Moore has publicly disowned the film and disassociated himself from DC as a direct result of it. Yesterday, I bought the latest issue of the fanzine Mustard, which has a whopping 9-page interview with the man who “knows the score“. Anyone who has ever read any previous interviews with Moore will know what they are letting themselves in for – they can be as entertaining as his best writings. This is no exception and he discusses his latest book Jerusalem (“my first novel Voice of the Fire, was set entirely in Northampton. I’ve now decided this was much too far-reaching and cosmopolitan“), science (“Everybody should [read New Scientist every week]. You’ll read funnier, more mind-blowing, politically relevant things in there than in most daily papers.”), magic (“Make up your mind before you go in the door, because the thing about magic being something to do with language; you have to be very careful what you say. All words are magic words. And you can find them cominc back to haunt you. And in my experience, magic always gives you exactly what you ask for.“) and of course those dratted films based on his work.

You can understand why Moore wants nothing to do with the film industry. It hasn’t treated him well, from Tim Burton ripping off key ideas of his in Batman, through to the above mentioned abortions and being sued for “ripping off” the plot of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen from some anonymous Hollywood hack. Moore has gone further however, and has now concluded that the whole genre is dreadful:

One of the problems with cinema is that since its inception, it’s been technologically intensive and therefore financially intensive. Which means that, probably inevitably in the greater majority of cases, you end up with accountants making the decisions rather than creators…

…[films] cost 100 million dollars to make. And when you’re talking about sums like that, which is probably, what, the food or education budget for an emerging third world nation? That’s where it starts to cross over a line from being a little bit distasteful to actually being evil.

And then you’ve got the immersive quality of film, which I also don’t like. In nearly every other medium, the audience is in control of the way in which they experience the work… now we have this spoon-fed culture, which movies have got to take an awful lot of the blame for.

It’s an interesting argument, but one which I ultimately reject. To start with, the economics is all wrong: there simply isn’t a zero-sum choice between third world education budgets and the latest Tom Cruise bit of trash. There is indeed a degree to which film can be abused to tell people what to think, but if you look at history it has to be said that the written word is responsible for far more spoon-fed propaganda.

Moore goes on to make all sorts of allegations about the film and comic industries being controlled by gangsters which no doubt has a basis in fact, but doesn’t particularly get us anywhere.

His problem is this: read any Alan Moore work and you see the result of a brilliant mind that makes the most unlikely and satisfying coincidences you are likely to find. That brilliance is, in part, fuelled by decades of a prodigious use of cannabis. The flipside is that he ends up seeing conspiracies and connections where there simply are none. I suspect this partly explains why it is that he seems to fall out with every single publisher he has every worked for.

…erm, this is getting too long. Watch this space for more on Moore, intellectual property law and, just to keep things interesting, my long promised piece on Banksy!

6 thoughts on “On fantasy terrorists, graffiti rhetoricists and intellectual propertyists (???): Part One

  1. I can go one better than that: Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys was his successor and the current Doctor Who “borrowed” his stage name from him.

  2. If you’re not already a listener, Mark Kermode’s film reviews on Radio 5 Live (Friday, 3pm) are pretty reliable and always worth a listen, especially when he blows a fuse and rants about a poor film. Available on listen again and as a podcast.

  3. Yeah, Neil Tennant never edited Doctor Who Weekly – he left Marvel two years before it started. As far as I know, Paul Neary was Dez Skinn’s successor. Now, Smash Hits

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