You can’t spell W. without the V.

by John Holbo on October 1, 2006

I finally got around to watching V for Vendetta [imdb]. Being a comics nerd, I am mildly bothered by the departures from the original (wikipedia will tell you all about it) – and more so by the fact that the author, Alan Moore, didn’t want this. So he got his name struck from the project. (Then they went and packaged a whole teaser section from his graphic novel with the DVD. Chance of Moore disassociating himself from the Wachowski bros.? Not so much.)

I found it a pretty good film. Entertaining. Nicely slick. Thought-provoking? In some ways I think the less ambiguous treatment of the material suits the material, although in other ways it dumbs it down. But here’s my simple thought: the film pretty clearly intends to be anti-Bush allegory or what have you. (You can cut it finer, but it comes to that.) Yet you could turn around and say: but the whole Iraq mess depends precisely on people finding this sort of political romanticism far too realistic for their own good. The dream of an Event – an explosion – after which, miraculously, everyone comes out into the public square and spontaneously dons the mask of their destructive liberator. Freedom forever! Unity through demolition. And there will be flowers. Why would you think postwar planning wasn’t necessary?

Seriously. We spend a lot of time these days wondering at the cynicism of it all. But it’s the cynicism plus the crazy idealism that killed and still kills. (Those of us who were queasyhawks or fence-sitters. We pat ourselves on the back. We didn’t know the planning would be so bad. But were we totally immune to rather infantile fantasy, possibly brought on by too many stupid Hollywood movies.) Anyway, if we bomb Iran, on the theory that the people will spontaneously rise in the face of the beautiful destruction …

The torture in the film is problematic as well. (At least I haven’t heard any ‘waterboarding will make you free’ coming from our conservative commentators.)

In possibly related news, I was amused last week when someone felt compelled to write to Jonah Goldberg to the effect that “not every threat to our national security can be compared to killer Nazi bees with giant swastika-shaped stingers.” That was in response to this post. In case anyone needs me to draw you a picture … well, I can’t draw that well. And, anyway – here and especially here should do you.

I look forward to reading Jonah’s memoirs, in 30 years, in which he confides that the only “Simpsons” episode that puzzled him was “Call of the Simpsons” (why wasn’t it a good idea for Homer to do that?):

Homer spots a beehive. “Honey! We’re saved!” He sticks his fist into the hive and sticks a handful of honey (and bees) into his mouth.


Homer eats a mouthful of honey – and bees.

Homer (his voice muffled because his mouth is filled with honey and bees) yells for water, and Bart points him “that-a-way, man.”

Homer dives into a muddy stream and emerges a mud-covered beast. His appearance is captured on videotape by a nearby nature-lover, who runs away in panic.

News bulletin. Bigfoot has been spotted. The videotape is shown.

Now, the naturalist who took these absolutely extraordinary pictures was impressed by the creature’s uncivilized look, its foul language, and most of all, its indescribable stench. — Newscaster reports that Bigfoot (Homer) has been sighted …

Obviously a case of the MSM putting a negative spin on the situation. And then ‘cut and run’ Bart, dragging his feet when he should be staying the course:

Bart: Are we there yet?
Homer: Just a little further.
Bart: Are we there yet?
Homer: Just a little further.
Bart: Are we there yet?
Homer: Just a little further.
Bart: Are we there yet?
Homer: Just a little further.
– Wandering aimlessly through the forest.



Brendan 10.01.06 at 12:59 pm

On a related topic, isn’t it funny how these ‘this is world war 2, don’t you understand? WORLD WAR 2!!!!’ types don’t actually seem to have the faintest idea what actually happened in World War 2 except that Churchill was involved in some way and that the USA ‘won it’. For example, from the link above: ‘Declaring war on Japan increased the threat of war from Germany dramatically.’ Er…yeah. That’s certainly one way of putting it.
Or another (non world war 2 related) doozy: ‘Since when is any large, important, task required to show positive results at every stage’? Or any stage for that matter.


Richard 10.01.06 at 1:26 pm

this echoes something I’ve been thinking for a while: that the narrative device of ‘catastrophic good’ – the idea that, when the witch dies all her bad deeds die too – seems to structure an awful lot of US political thought (and has done at least since WW2). Catching Star Wars the Phantom Menace with my son the other day, I really wanted to warn him against believing in this setup, in which all the enemies are robots and they all stop working at once when you remove their leader.
…and then I got to thinking about how, in the first Star Wars movie, all that is necessary to save the day is to blow up the evil destructive military space station/office block, and it made me think that maybe the US isn’t the only player suffering from this delusion.


Kip Manley 10.01.06 at 2:05 pm

The torture thing is far more about initiation than, well, torture qua torture (per se?); one of the film’s (many) crimes is to omit Finch’s LSD trip to Larkhill (though they weirdly kept most of the resulting epiphany): it’s clumsy in the book, yes, but at least it’s there, to drive home certain points about V and Evey and Finch, and what it seems to take to be driven over the threshold.

There’s something to be written about how V uses (presumably) the same torturous tactics as his enemies in Fascist Britain; all the Old Boys’ Clubs haze, you know, and for the same reason: to tear down the old person and make room for the new. And how ghastly it is to make that choice for someone else. (Valerie’s toilet-paper letter is the only thing powerful enough to let you swallow the awfulness, the first time through.) —Which starts to get at the terrifically uneasy mix of predestination and autonomy in the book, the largely unresolved conflict between genre and political statement (how easy it is to be an anarchist, a moral terrorist, when one is a superhero!). Moore at least knows it’s there, and plays with it (perhaps came to see it over its long and rather drawn-out course, and wisely chose not to address it too directly to avoid having the whole thing pop before our eyes?). The movie doesn’t seem to be aware of it at all, which made me throw popcorn at the screen.


harry b 10.01.06 at 2:20 pm

further to brendan’s irrelevant but sympathetic comment — I like the way the WWII types seem also comletely to misunderstand Churchil himself, and to imagine that there is some sort of Churchill figure hanging around here somewhere. If you don’t have a Churchill, watch out. And if you do have a Churchill, but not an Attlee and an Eden, watch out even more.


Adam Kotsko 10.01.06 at 2:27 pm

If this is World War II, then presumably we should make an alliance with Iran and let them bear the brunt of the fighting, and then we can partition Iraq and have a Marshall Plan for the Kurds while the rest of the country lives under the iron fist of Islamofascism, and we can have a Baghdad airlift….

In this scenario, of course, while Iran was taking our casualties for us, we’d be fighting North Korea or something. I’m confused.


abb1 10.01.06 at 3:20 pm

then presumably we should make an alliance with Iran…

Well, in this scenario perhaps Ahmadinejad is FDR and Bush is playing Stalin? And apparently Iran already has a Marshall Plan for Lebanon:
Even before the fighting in Lebanon ended, Iran committed to fund Hezbollah’s relief effort, says Nehme Tohme, Lebanon’s minister for the displaced. Tohme says Hezbollah officials told him that Iran would provide Hezbollah with an “unlimited budget” for reconstruction once the shooting stopped. – Bloomberg reports.


Jim Harrison 10.01.06 at 5:18 pm

I’ve had several go rounds with folks who think that this is 1938 and Saddam/Admadinejad/Chavez is Hitler. I’ve finally realized that it is futile to argue about historical analogies with people who know nothing about WWII except that it was probably a sequel.


Syd Webb 10.01.06 at 7:35 pm

Jim Harrison notes:

I’ve had several go rounds with folks who think that this is 1938 and Saddam/Admadinejad/Chavez is Hitler.

As I said elsewhere back in 2003:

I’m getting pretty bloody sick and tired of all the spurious analogies between Europe in 1939 and the Mid East in 2003. Here are four facts:

1. Yes, both Saddam Hussein and Edward Smigly-Rydz were dictators with moustaches. But there the similarities ends. Smigly-Rydz was able to maintain his grip on power by pointing to external threats rather than terrorizing his own populace.

2. Yes, both Hitler and Bush were elected by a minority of their people. But Hitler faced no further elections beyond some bogus referenda. Whereas traditional elections continue to be held in the USA with Bush’s stance being endorsed by the voters in the 2002 mid-terms.

3. It is wrong to speak of ‘appeasement’ in 2003. In 1939 there were two apparent threats to European stability, both Germany and the USSR. Three, if you count Mussolini’s Italy. So countries were cautious in opposing German expansion, unsure if that was the greatest threat. In 2003 there is only one superpower, which is why more European countries are willing to take a stand.

4. While neither the attacks on Poland and Iraq were done on the auspices of the relevant international bodies – the League of Nations and the United Nations, respectively – Germany had walked out of the LoN. The USA remains a member in good standing of the UN and pays her dues.

So any more of this crap and I’m invoking Godwin’s law.

[My point 4 concerning “pays her dues” was true in 2003 but may no longer be so accurate today.]


Cryptic Ned 10.01.06 at 8:19 pm

My researches on Edward Smigly-Rydz extend only to this magazine cover, but from it I’ve learned that
A) he didn’t have a moustache, at least in 1939
B) Magazines captioned his picture with the phrase “His was to be a holy war”. Sounds more like Bush than Saddam to me!


abb1 10.02.06 at 2:11 am

The League of Nations vs. the United Nations point is weak. Perhaps it tells you something about these international organizations rather than the regimes in question. For one thing, the US was never a member of the League of Nations – what are we supposed make of this fact?

And also the ‘bogus referenda’ vs. ‘traditional elections’ point. If a militarist lebensraum clique can manage to hold on to power by traditional means, I don’t see a reason why they wouldn’t. This doesn’t seem much more significant than decision to grow the moustache.


bad Jim 10.02.06 at 2:22 am

Too funny: Wikipedia’s entry for Guy Fawkes currently includes an alternate version of the ditty:

Remember, remember the 28th of September
The torturous Congressional plot;
I know of no reason why Congress’s treason
Should ever be forgot.

It does note that Fawkes, under torture, did reveal the names of co-conspirators, though not promptly and perhaps not reliably.


raj 10.02.06 at 9:41 am

The movie V for Vendetta was OK (I’ve never seen the comic book), but the movie wasn’t nearly as interesting as the hype led me to believe it would be. In fact, it was rather dull and pointless.


Benjamin Nelson 10.02.06 at 10:56 am

I read somewhere that Moore always dissociates himself with movie projects that fall out of his work (i.e. “From Hell”). If so, then his treatment towards this project wouldn’t have been unique.

I actually thought the movie was better than the book in some respects, if only because it cut out the tangential and uninteresting storylines near the end. Though one thing I missed were V’s speeches, which I recall having a great deal more punch to them in the graphic novel.


Martin Bento 10.02.06 at 11:02 am

Anyone who wants to get people to make or prevent a great change has first to convince them that change is possible. The cathartic exaggeration of apocalyptic myth has this purpose, I think. During prehistory, most of human existence, change was glacially slow and cultural memory short. Civilization sped things up some, but it was not until the modern era that each generation had life experience significantly different from its parents. In the modern era, “the world is coming to an end” is always true as refers to the specific world of the speaker. But we are not evolved to believe it.

I don’t have the reference, but I recall reading a debate between some preacher in the 1950’s who was terrified of that devil’s music rock n’ roll and a liberal who defended the music. The preacher said that rock would lead to promiscuity, miscegnation, drug abuse, homosexuality, masturbation, and teen pregnancy. The liberal pooh-poohed all this, and said rock was simply a musical fashion enjoyable for dancing and that it would probably have no long-term musical and certainly no longer term social effects. Now, I am of my time and have a much less negative view of most of what the preacher was talking about than he did, but leaving aside such judgements, it’s clear that all of those things are much more part of our world or much more accepted than they were then. Although rock is not the sole cause, it certainly played a role through its centrality to the 60’s counter-culture. The Preacher’s apocalytic fantasy was essentially correct, and the reasonable liberal simply failed to perceive the significance of the music and the culture around it. Chicken Little was right. I wonder if there were any apologists for rock in the 50’s who understood how disruptive it would be and defended it on that basis. On the beatnik lunatic fringe, perhaps, but they were mostly into jazz.

It seems to me, though, that the myth of Iraqi’s throwing flowers was less apocalytic myth than the casting of Iraq 2.0 as the sequel to “Reagan’s triumph over communism” as rendered by the American center and right. In Eastern Europe, they did throw flowers, in effect, and America was seen to live up to its noble rhetoric, which was true to a degree. Toppling the statue of Saddam was patterned after destroying Lenin’s monument and Cerny’s pink tank. It may be that some liberals fell for this because they wanted their own moment of being seen as liberators, rather than as the craven realists who were uneager to risk nuclear war to topple the USSR. But to fall for this frame, you had to trust at least some of Bush’s account of the situation, so I still say the crux of the matter is willingness to trust the government. Liberals are naturally given to excessive trust in established institutions because they want to see such institutions take a hand in solving social problems, which requires trusting them to some degree. Bush has, among other things, exposed a basic problem of liberalism: it is difficult for liberals to distrust elites, so liberalism is easily suckered by them.


Benjamin Nelson 10.02.06 at 9:07 pm

Interesting analysis, Martin. Still, I don’t agree with the last part — liberalism’s anchor into centrism is based entirely upon distrust of the major sectarian forces.


Another Damned Medievalist 10.02.06 at 10:54 pm

I thought the torture in the movie (and the gn, although not as much) was clearly torture. As in, I felt only revulsion, and it served in my mind to demonstrate that V was ultimately warped and perverted. That’s one of the reasons I think John’s point about the dangers of idealism is so right on the money. Me, I ws simultaneously thrilled and chilled by the masses and their gathering to gether to Make A Change — but then, they didn’t know the story of V and Evie. I was far more disturbed (and I think I was supposed to be) by Evie’s implicit acceptance of V’s treatment of her — something I don’t remember from the gn. I dunno — I just dont’ see V, especially in the film, as a hero — cool, yes, but hero, no. But then, I don’t see Batman — especially post DK Batman, as a particularly good hero of the role model sort — unless you like your role models to be issues wrapped in vigilantism. Batman is cool, yeah, but he’s pretty fucked up. So’s V.


Terry 10.03.06 at 3:07 am

“Yet you could turn around and say: but the whole Iraq
mess depends precisely on people finding this sort of
political romanticism far too realistic for their own
good. The dream of an Event – an explosion – after
which, miraculously, everyone comes out into the public square and spontaneously dons the mask of their destructive liberator.
Freedom forever!”

Exactly !

IMO “V for Vendetta” is actually pro-Bush (in a sneaky way).

The hero V is a terrorist and a torturer, but that’s ok because he’s the good guy fighting evil doers.

The populace, instead of rising up in revolution, instead sit passively in front of their TVs waiting for the next thrilling installment on TV. Their only act of revolution is to clap at V’s thrilling action scenes.

They can’t even be bothered to come up their own masks and cloaks, instead V has to do that for them too, manufacturing the outfits and mailing them to his pseudo revolutionaries.

Meanwhile V goes on a murder spree and imprisons and tortures Evey for no particular reason (but that’s ok since he is the hero).

Then because he is successful at killing the dictator, a miracle happens, and freedom reigns. Just like Bush killing Saddam was supposed to bring about a free society.

I’m not expressing this very well, but “V for Vendetta” really irked me, and it really bothers me that so many liberals and progressives love this movie.


abb1 10.03.06 at 5:37 am

This thing is called insurrectionary anarchism.


ajay 10.03.06 at 5:40 am

Ah, Terry, you were presumably out of the room when the scenes of ordinary people painting pro-V graffiti and getting shot dead, or beating secret policemen to death with crowbars, were playing.

No question that V is deranged – who wouldn’t be – but it’s worth noticing that his ‘spectaculars’, as we used to call them, don’t involve the loss of human life – the destruction of Big Ben or the Old Bailey are all casualty-free. As for the murders, it’s a vendetta. He’s after the people who did horrible things to him and his fellow prisoners, as well as after the system that they used.

Another point is that the people don’t actually know Sutler is dead when they gather in the street – that has nothing whatever to do with the ‘revolution’. How could they know? By the time they gather outside Westminster, everyone who witnessed Sutler’s kidnap and murder is themselves also dead – V, Creedy, and Creedy’s men. There’s no causal link between Sutler’s death and the Party’s overthrow. Sutler’s death happens outside their light cone.

By the time the Party’s overthrown, V is irrelevant – in fact, he could have died months earlier and not changed the course of events. The crowds would still have gathered and overwhelmed the troops even with Sutler alive and V absent from the scene.

The point is that V is doing two things simultaneously. He’s working his way down a list of his personal enemies, who are more or less irrelevant to the regime’s survival. One bishop more or less, one police doctor more or less doesn’t really matter. He’s also undermining the regime itself, and he’s doing that without killing anyone, except in self-defence – he could have killed everyone in the TV station, for example, rather than taking them hostage, but he didn’t. He reaches his first goal quite early on in the film, by killing Delia Surridge, and had that been the end of it then the regime would have survived.


Rob 10.03.06 at 3:53 pm

What the film does better than the book – although I agree that it is all a bit deus ex machina – is avoid the contradictions between a thorough-going anarchism and the device of the superhero who solves all the problems. If everyone needs to realise that freedom is hard, and involves being prepared to make various really quite unpleasant sacrifices, which seems to be the point of V’s torture of Evey, then they’re hardly going to be made free by V undermining the regime from within by buggering about with its computer system: they need to overthrow the state, not V.


Terry 10.04.06 at 1:56 am

“Ah, Terry, you were presumably out of the room when the scenes of ordinary people painting pro-V graffiti and getting shot dead, or beating secret policemen to death with crowbars, were playing.”

Painting graffiti, getting shot, and killing some police does not a revolution make.

No one did any kind of organizing, coordinating or sabotage (other than graffiti) except for V (who acted alone).

You look at the histories of real revolutions, and there is quite of bit of *work* involved. Here the populace just laid around waiting to be inspired to magically self-organize into an effective revolutionary force.

Evey’s family and friends where brutally murdered by the regime, yet even that wasn’t enough to get her to become a revolutionary. Instead of realizing that maybe Evey just wasn’t cut out for revolution, V gamely tried to use torture to turn her into a revolutionary. The result was her spending a year evading the police (which anyone would want to do) and laying around watching Zoro movies. Her one big revolutionary moment was to bravely pull down the train lever. Very impressive Evey!

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