Thursday, January 1, 2015

A movie for our times

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2006)

I was already a little depressed on the day I saw V for Vendetta, which means that by the time the movie was over I was probably lucky not to feel suicidal. Is it just me, or does every second movie now feel like a grim commentary on the decrepit times we live in? The previous day I’d seen Joyeux Noel (see last week’s review), the French film about the makeshift 1914 Christmas Day truce between French, German and Scottish soldiers stuck in the front line trenches. The men are condemned for their actions, and some of the rhetoric sounds uncannily contemporary. I’m thinking of course of George W. Bush and his magnificent Iraqi adventure, although our own new administration will probably spend progressively more time in that section of the phrase book as well. The saddest thing about this, I realize, is that such terms as “forces of good,” and “freedom” and “God’s help” have become hopelessly loaded with undertones of mendacity and cynicism, so that I even wonder how much of a future they have in their current form. We’ve been lied to so persistently and thoroughly, on so many levels, that the term “truth” may be in as much danger.

Our times

Not that it’s unhealthy to go through life with a degree of engaged skepticism. But surely the ideal state would be one of confidence in certain inalienable truths, tied to a consensual notion of perpetuity and progress and general benevolence, against which we push and agitate based on incremental rather than fundamental concerns. Well, we drift increasingly far from that. On the most basic issue possible – our long-term survival and that of our descendants – we have only drift and apathy. As Jeffrey Simpson recently pointed out in The Globe and Mail, Stephen Harper’s five key priorities – to which all cabinet utterances must be directed – are largely useless, pandering sops. They do nothing to address our long-term sustainability, whether economic or environmental. And the sad thing is that even this mediocrity is almost incalculably preferable to the wanton destruction of the US administration, a body that I must admit I increasingly regard with the paranoia evoked by the darkest science fiction fantasies.

Saddest of all, as I said, is Bush’s perverse, completely unwitting, genius– time after time – in turning on their heads even the most obvious building blocks of reality. Five years ago even liberals like myself generally accepted the morality and “greater good” of some notion of a war on terrorism. But now we must face the overwhelming reality that no amount of cumulative terrorist activity would ever have been as disruptive as the mess in Iraq. For sure, some lives that would have been lost under Saddam have been saved; but the insurgency or strife or civil war (call it what you will) merely substitutes the loss of others; a fragile democratic freedom gained on the one hand, much basic stability lost on the other. I’m not making a judgment on this calculus, only suggesting that there has been a criminal lack of attention to the elements of the equation. Except for one thing of course: that the neurotic fear of terrorism – regardless of the laughably low odds of loss in any of our individual cases, compared to almost any of the other hazards of living – is allowed to trump almost all other considerations. We possess so much information, so much sense of irony and – to some extent at least – complexity, and yet we flail in irrationality.

Killing ourselves softly

It’s at such times that I most wonder about the time I spend on movies. I love them, but at least to the extent we’re talking of Hollywood, they merely manifest the distractions and misdirections that saturate our minds at the cost of any engagement with anything that might matter. When you think about it, there is something truly frightening about the fact that the outcome of American Idol is a much more prominent issue in the minds of far more people than the environment or even Iraq. Oh, I understand the mentality for sure – the easy identification with the drama on the screen just seems more relevant, because of its immediacy and accessibility and easy connection with understandable circuits of pleasure and desire. Well, on such easy waves we're selling our entitlement to a future. Foolish debt levels financing a consumer boom constructed largely on the selling of pure crap, the way that the public agenda is hijacked by minutiae and nonsense, the willingness to place neurotic agendas of morals and values over any rational consideration of a future strategy – it’s all easier than the alternative, for now.

I know some readers will agree with none of this, or even if they do, will think that I have no particular credibility in these matters (even compared to what little I may possess in matters movie-related). This is fair enough, and my only justification  - rightly or wrongly – is that this is what is in my head after seeing V for Vendetta. Which may, as I acknowledged, merely be the intensification of a preexisting moroseness. In any event, in the little space I have left I should at least try to justify this as more than an utterly subjective leap. The film, directed by James McTeigue, is set in an England of the near future that is ruled by an authoritarian, almost Fascist government that bases its power primarily on fear fueled by lies. “V” is a masked insurgent, based on Guy Fawkes, who is apparently the only voice of resistance. Natalie Portman plays a young woman who falls into his orbit, and gradually becomes politicized.

V for Vendetta

The film looks stylish, but isn’t particularly well put together otherwise, and even by the standards of the genre one has to swallow almost countless unlikely achievements by its protagonist (from single-handedly reclaiming a big stretch of the abandoned London underground to – most oddly – finding the time to arrange thousands of dominos in the shape of his personal logo). It can be seen, as David Denby put it in The New Yorker, as a “dunderheaded pop fantasia that celebrates terrorism and destruction.” But this is the tragic measure of our times I think, that such a celebration seems to me more relevant to our circumstances than, say, Capote or Brokeback Mountain.

“Only the West,” says Denby, “could have made a movie in which blowing up civic temples (he means the Houses of Parliament) is a ‘provocative’ media statement.” If so, I’d suggest it’s only because only the West could misuse and pervert the use of those civil temples to the extent that they seem to yield poison rather than enlightenment. Yes, V for Vendetta is another calculated product. But at least its calculations might lead toward productive anger rather than neutered exultation. The question is – what do we do now?

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