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Steely Dan: Confessions

Words and Mood - updated 2004.05.10

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

- from September 1, 1939, by W.H. Auden


Tuesday, March 14, 2006


C for Chickenshit

If anybody has paid any attention at all to my pathetic little corner of cyberspace at all, please allow me to apologize for my absence and this blog's semi-abandoned state. As is so often the case, real life tends to interfere with what we'd rather be doing, both in cyberspace and in the real world. As is also so often the case, it's amazing what can respark a renaissance of sorts in enterprises such as this. Much has happened since I last posted here; the world's been a virtual swirl of chaos. The war in Iraq staggers on, that country periously close to civil war at any given moment; the horrors of Katrina's aftermath not only exposed the deliberately ignored racial and socioeconomic divide in the US, it still has left wide swaths of the populace in horrifically bad shape; the Bush administration continues to its damnedest to jump into the abyss in every way it can manage and take us all with it.

In the midst of all this mess, what event finally manages to kick my ass into writing a new post? Yeah, that's right... the release of, and response to, a movie based on a comic book.

As this is written, V for Vendetta has yet to be officially released. Based on an artistically and conceptually challenging "graphic novel" by well known industry genius-cum-enfant terrible Alan Moore, it's been in and out of movie development hell for years. Combined with what Hollywood tends to do with his works (see tripefests like the adaptations of From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for details), and Moore's total disavowal of this production, and you can see why hopes have not been high for this latest (mis)treatment of his work. But, a funny thing seems to be happening on the way to the theater with this one. It seems for certain that the movie version won't be supplanting anybody's memory of the original version, but by the same token, it does seem that it may well be the first filmed rendention of Moore's work that doesn't entirely suck. Not that it will matter much to the author; in addition to being a perfectionist, he is one cranky son of a bitch, and tends to bite the hand(s) that feed him, really hard and relentlessly.

The great thing about smart, cranky, talented people, however, is that they tend to turn out work which is good, challenging, original, unconventional, forces you to keep your brain engaged, and is not for the faint of heart. The original V delivered on all counts. Hollywood's version looks to be toning things down a bit from what I've seen so far, but doesn't seemed to have turned it entirely into pablum. It was in this setting that I've been eagerly looking for whatever advance reviews of the movie that I can find online and elsewhere. So far, the meta-review site has it at a "fresh" rating of right around 70%, which is quite good for something as potentially incendiary as this. I dug eagerly into the reviews, which were quite interesting, and many of which were well thought out... until I hit some which were amazing in their audacity. Well, if stupidity and personal cowardace can sink to a level than can be said to be audacious, that is. The fascinating thing is that there seem to be "film critics" running around that feel their job isn't to evaluate film on an artistic basis, but rather to spend the first 3/4ths of their "reviews" whacking mightily at strawman versions of what they think the movie means (actually, what their paranoia needs them to believe its message is), and the final 1/4 viewing every imagined flaw through that lens, so that it becomes at the end a work of enkarte kunst from which the "critic" is protecting us all.

Probably the most egregious examples of these sorts of reviews are those of Jeff Giles for "Newsweek", Steve Rhodes in the email only "Internet Review", and probably the sterling example I've seen so far, David Denby's in the "New Yorker." Denby's in particular is probably some of the most howlingly overwrought criticism in a political vein since Charlie Krauthammer's turn as a "critic" tickled funnybones and was demolished by actual film critic Jim Emerson.

Denby gets off to a flying flop from the get go:

“V for Vendetta,” a dunderheaded pop fantasia that celebrates terrorism and destruction, is perhaps the ultimate example of how a project with modest origins becomes a media monster.

Goddamn, it CELEBRATES terrorism, do you hear me??? No, it's not a dystopian look at a FICTIONAL future with moral ambiguities and no real villains or heroes. No, it is not primarily concerned with IDEAS.

By the same "reasoning," one could say 1984 "celebrates" Big Brother and totalitarianism. Sorry, we don't have time for subtleties here, we've got art to slander before anybody gets an actual non-black-or-white idea in their head, heavens to betsy. And oh yeah, Alan Moore is NOT a critically acclaimed writer of those petty little comic book thingies, either; gotta make sure that modest origins is used as a synonym for "piffle you can safely ignore," ya know.

The prehistory of the movie begins in England, in 1981, with a gloomy but excitingly drawn series that was concocted by the writer Alan Moore and his illustrator-collaborator, David Lloyd, and initially appeared in the
magazine Warrior. By the time Moore and Lloyd finished the series, in 1988, and it was collected and published as a graphic novel, Margaret Thatcher had been elected for a third term. Moore, in an introduction to the book, insisted that “the government has expressed a desire to eradicate homosexuality.” He also said that “the tabloid press are circulating the idea of concentration camps for persons with AIDS.” As far as one can tell, Moore and Lloyd’s work was fuelled by the British left’s disgust with Thatcher’s policies, combined with imaginary menaces culled from antic British tabloids.

"LOONY LEFTIES!!! Slanderin' that poor, great Maggie Thatcher... NOTHING bad happened back then! She NEVER made a mistake or ever said anything bad. Move along... nothing to see here... here, take a Nytol..."

Setting their story in 1997, they projected a fascist future for England and a rebel hero, in a Guy Fawkes mask, who blows up Parliament and the
Prime Minister’s residence.

Pop cannibalizes and regurgitates everything, including history, and in normal circumstances only a literal-minded prig would treat graphic novelists or big-screen fantasists as if they had any responsibility to truth. But events overtook this pop apocalypse on the way to the malls. Scheduled for release last November, “Vendetta” was temporarily shelved, according to its distributor, Warner Bros., “to accommodate the film’s post-production schedule.” The delay, however, was announced in August, a month after Islamist terrorists bombed the London subway and buses. The filmmakers, whatever their intentions, hit reality with an embarrassing thud. At this point, a few simple questions need to be asked of them, such as, What in the world are you doing? It may be relevant to point out, for instance, that Guy Fawkes, who is at the emotional center of the movie as well as of the graphic novel, was no liberator but a Catholic dissident
who, in 1605, wanted to destroy the Protestant aristocracy by blowing up the House of Lords and killing King James I. Captured beneath Parliament with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder, Fawkes was tortured and hanged, and, ever since, on November 5th (the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot), he has been burned in effigy all over England in celebrations both merry and ironic. If Guy Fawkes has become a sympathetic figure, it’s his failure—his incompetence as a mass murderer—that has made him so.
Oh, I'm sorry... were you actually expecting SOMETHING about, you know, THE MOVIE by this point? Oh, you're SUCH a silly. Strawmen take time and effort to construct. Right after the leader of your collective gets done going over the great and powerful comrade general's plan to meet our production quotas, only then will you be properly and truly ready for the REAL criticism. EVERYTHING is political, no?

The Wachowskis, Andy and Larry, wrote an adaptation of the Moore-Lloyd material in the mid-nineties, but put it aside for a decade to work on their “Matrix” trilogy. Taking it up again, they moved the period of “Vendetta” to around 2020, and installed their “Matrix” protégé James McTeigue (he was an assistant director on those films) as the director. In “Vendetta,” America has collapsed under the strain of terror, plague, and civil war, and England has been taken over by a totalitarian dictator, Adam Sutler (John Hurt).

A goateed ranter intruding into people’s lives on a big screen, Sutler sustains an atmosphere of endless crisis in order to justify his iron rule. In the prison camp that England has become, the airwaves are dominated by a racist, hate-filled commentator, and all culture—including pop standards, books, and old movies—has been eliminated. Art is kept alive, barely, in the “shadow gallery,” an underground vault in which the rebel, V (Hugo Weaving), lives and plots revolt.
You better still be awake, comrade, or you'll be hauled off to the gulag IMMEDIATELY!

V was thrown into a detention center years ago and disfigured by a fire in its experimental lab, and now he seeks revenge. A fast-moving dandy, he hides his face and body behind a black cape and a smiling Guy Fawkes mask; he keeps everyone at bay with a teasing verbal dexterity that hovers between the awesome and the tedious. When he saves a young woman in the street, Evey (Natalie Portman), from being assaulted by government thugs, he treats her to a rapid alliterative patter (“A vendetta held as a votive, not in vain”), and Portman does a disbelieving double-take—the movie’s only funny moment. V is into Shakespeare, too, and, like a windy ham actor in his dotage, quotes “Macbeth” at every chance. Acting behind the mask, Weaving (Agent Smith in the “Matrix” series) seems to be doing an imitation of James Mason in his most hyper-civilized and elocutionary roles, though Mason was acidly witty, and Weaving is merely formal and condescending. Until he fights, that is: whirling around, V unleashes knives and daggers, slicing off hands and slashing throats in furious ballets of violent revenge.
Hey, there were some actual details about the movie in there that time. You better have been paying attention, proletariat!

Does some of this sound familiar? The filmmakers acknowledge that they were inspired by “A Clockwork Orange,” and by the rebellious, machine-gunning students of Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 “If . . . ” Many other
sources, notably “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Batman,” and the “Darkman”
graphic-novel series that was made into a movie in 1990, by Sam Raimi, are
obvious influences. But one particular source for “Vendetta” was not so much imitated as pillaged: the puritanical tone of the English dictatorship, the omnipresent surveillance, the Big Brother figure screaming at everyone—all this has been lifted from George Orwell’s “1984,” with no more than a token attempt at disguise. Orwell was drawing on his experience of England during the Second World War, when every human being and teacup from Kent to Northumberland was mobilized to resist a German invasion. In “1984,” he projected the bleakly austere wartime atmosphere into the future and filled it out with details from totalitarian rule in Germany and the Soviet Union. However much he invented as he created his dystopia, he was also relying on actual events and situations.

What is the actuality behind “Vendetta”? The last time I looked, London seemed more like a prosperous pleasure garden than like the capital of a jackbooted, dehumanized future.
OK, we're back to strawman construction and "what they really meant"-ism via an extremely dumbass Amazing Kreskin act. Well, now that he's honed in on an ESP wavelength and his strawman looks as good as it's ever going to, Denby goes for broke.

The Wachowskis clearly wanted to weigh in on current politics, so they threw in references to the Bush Administration’s political use of
Christianity. There’s also talk of “rendition,” and the secret police repeatedly throw black hoods over people’s heads, Abu Ghraib style. The society we see onscreen, its civil order crushed by fear, is meant to be a nightmare vision of our own society. V may begin his rampage in search of personal vengeance, but in the end he attacks the entire system, and, as the movie tells it, the system deserves to be attacked. It turns out that the government once released a deadly plague on the British citizenry in order to pose as its savior. But this kind of comic-book paranoia doesn’t seem as playful or innocent as it used to.

The movie has an elaborate visual design: gleaming red-and-black fascist
splendor alternates with glowing white interiors and smudgy industrial squalor. V jumps out of the darkness, and his mask—mocking and immobile—spooks us every time. The violent passages, with steel knives flying through the air and turning end over end, are as uncanny and beautiful as similar scenes in “The Matrix.” There’s a big drop in excitement every time V and little Evey discuss life and art in the shadow gallery, but, all in all, James McTeigue seems just as skilled as the Wachowskis in putting together a large-scale movie. Yet even if one
enjoys the craft of “Vendetta,” and, viewing it as an extravagant pop myth, cuts it as much slack as possible, there’s no getting around the fact that this allegedly antifascist work lusts after fire and death. At the end, V directs Evey to send a subway train filled with explosives toward Parliament, even though Sutler’s headquarters are elsewhere. V wants a big bang, with lots of fireworks and the “1812” Overture.

Yup, this movie is DEFINITELY "just an anti-Bush polemic." The Bush administration is mentioned all over (hint: it ISN'T), even though the movie is set in 2020, and even though, oh yeah, IT'S SET IN BRITAIN, genius. "Playful and innocent?" Good god, you twit, have you ever seen the source comic? Not unless your idea of "playful" includes death camps, torture, totalitarianism, medical experimentation, and big questions about the nature of good, evil, right and wrong, and what's acceptable to do in the name of good. But, don't you fret your pretty head about it. Unca Davey is here to wax as apopleptic as Don Knotts on a two week espresso bender about the "evils" of it all, so you have prepackaged, preconceived ways of processing all of this into rigid, black-or-white-ONLY little cubbie-holes in your skull, lest you might find all that thinking stuff to be too taxing.

It’s true that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, but, by sticking to the blowing-up-Parliament template, the Wachowskis
have stumbled into celebrating an attack against an icon of liberal democracy. No one’s questioning the filmmakers’ right to do any damn fool thing they want, but “Vendetta” doesn’t parse. Who might it appeal to? “Matrix” lovers, certainly. And the movie’s sullen, chain-clanking atmosphere connects with punk, Goth, grunge, and all the doomy tones of white teen rock for the past three decades. For aging kids stoned on pop rapture, it could be a trip. And for people driven mad by the ineptitude and folly of the Bush Administration this film may seem like a brazen romp. Only the West could have made a movie in which blowing up civic temples is a “provocative” media statement.

"Yeah, it's true... except if it gores my ox, gives me the vapors, or makes me pee my pants... MOMMIE!!!" Yeah, Alan Moore is "just trying to be provocative." Orwell and Thomas Jefferson, too.

You know, Davey, it sounds like your nerves aren't doing too well these days. It sounds like anything artistically or intellectually challenging makes you just run for the hills, construct strawmen to chase away the feeling that the bogeyman is near, and more importantly, you feel the need to brand anybody who doesn't feel exactly as you do in these areas with unpleasant terms, and to try to tell people how they should think instead of DOING YOUR JOB, which is to critique films on an ARTISTIC basis. If I want an "evertything is political" load of shit where all else is discarded, I could always consult the shade of Lysenko.

So, maybe you should leave art to those who haven't descended to chickenshit level just yet because the technicolor alert level is set to chartreuse or whatever. I'm sure that when you're less nervous, somebody will have a job for you.

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