THE BACK PAGES

The terrorist as romantic superhero

BRIAN D. JOHNSON March 20 2006
THE BACK PAGES

The terrorist as romantic superhero

BRIAN D. JOHNSON March 20 2006

The terrorist as romantic superhero

The Wachowski brothers go from sci-fi fetishism to fantasies of violent revolution

film

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

This was supposed to be the year of controversy at the Oscars. But now that the stardust has settled, at the risk of agreeing with Barbara Amiel’s column in these pages last week, I have to wonder what’s so controversial about two cowpokes going at it in a pup tent in Brokeback Mountain, or a news anchor attacking McCarthyism in Good Night, and Good Luck, or the spectre of corrupt oil politics in Syriana. Suggesting all this is pretty tame stuff, my colleague dismisses George Clooney’s new legion of lefties as a target hardly worthy of her contempt, then asks: “What would be brave in film terms today?”

Well, Barbara, if you’re looking for something you can really sink your teeth into, check out V for Vendetta. It’s a Hollywood movie with a terrorist hero who’s plotting to blow up Britain’s Houses of Parliament, using the London subway as a delivery system for a massive payload of explosives. Yes, he’s a romantic hero, not a sympathetic villain. And this is not some dodgy little foreign film. It’s an exhilarating action movie from Warner Bros, with a budget of US$50 million, and Natalie Portman in a starring role. Not only that, it was written by the infamously weird Wachowski brothers, who made The Matrix trilogy. The more notorious of the two, Larry Wachowski, is a cross-dressing submissive who ditched his wife for a Los Angeles dominatrix named lisa Strich—to the dismay of Strich’s husband, a muscle-bound female-tomale transsexual named Buck Angel, who made porn history last summer by shooting a sex scene with a male-to-female transsexual.

Incarnating the Christian right’s worst nightmare of Hollywood, Vendetta is a potential target for moral outrage that could rouse Joseph McCarthy from the grave—a blockbuster ode to anarchy concocted by a man who fits the Cold War cliché of “pinko

pervert.” It’s a thrilling, unapologetic embrace of violent revolution, right down to the closing credits, which slash across the screen in black-and-red to the pulse of the Stones’ Street Fighting Man. To find a precedent for Vendetta, you would have to go back to the 1960s, to Lindsay Anderson’s. ..If or to Gilles Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, which the filmmakers cite as a direct influence.

The Wachowskis wrote Vendetta in the mid’90s, before embarking on The Matrix. But, while remaining on board as producers, they handed the job of directing it to James McTeigue, a 42-year-old Australian who served as an as-

Vendetta is a blockbuster ode to anarchy, from a man who evokes the Cold War cliché "pinko pervert"

sistant director on the Matrix movies. The Wachowskis refuse to be interviewed or photographed to promote their films, and on the phone from London last week, McTeigue is loath to talk about them. “I can understand the fascination,” he says, “but I just don’t comment on their behalf. I’ve been friends of theirs for 10 years. I wouldn’t say they’re particularly reclusive—they just want to put their movies out there and have people judge them for what they’re worth, without baggage.”

Larry and Andy Wachowski, aged 40 and 38, made their feature debut in 1996 with Bound, a kinky film noir about a lesbian con

artist. Then The Matrix (1999) pulled in US$470 million and four Oscars. With Canadians Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss cast as guerrillas in a world enslaved by machines, it’s an asexual fantasy, but in the severe way that S&M can be asexual. The trilogy’s grab bag of metaphysics exists in a fetish land of leather and latex, a virtual dungeon that became wilder with each sequel. And in 2003, when Larry hit the red carpet in Cannes with plucked eyebrows, teardrop earrings—and lisa Strich on his arm—the filmmaker’s own fetishism became news.

A recent Rolling Stone article about Larry explored his personal life in lurid detail, quoting a boast from the Matrix man’s dominatrix that her greatest achievement was putting 333 needles into a single penis. The story also suggested the brothers have lost interest in making movies and are now more interested in video games. McTeigue says his opinion of the article “is zero,” adding that the brothers asked him to direct Vendetta because, after the Matrix series, “they were just tired.”

The movie is based on a comic-book series by Alan Moore and David Lloyd that was compiled as a graphic novel in 1988. Set in the near future, the story has Britain in the grip of a police state ruled by an evil chancellor (John Hurt, remodelling his role from 1984). The comic book was conceived as a dystopian response to Thatcher’s England. The movie retools the premise to fit a post-9/ll, postIraq invasion world, explaining that fascism

seized Britain “as America’s war grew worse and worse, and eventually came to London.”

The story’s superhero, a cutthroat crusader named V (Hugo Weaving), is a cross between Batman’s Joker and the Phantom of the Opera, with a swashbuckling bow to the Count of Monte Cristo. He swoops about the city in caped costume, his disfigured face hidden behind a smiling Guy Fawkes mask—a tribute to the man who was executed for trying to blow up Parliament in the Gunpowder Plot of 1604, and who is commemorated with fireworks on England’s annual Guy Fawkes Day.

V is a verbose vigilante with a love of alliteration who lives in a book-lined vault of verboten art. He’s also a killer who wreaks gleeful havoc, blowing up buildings and samuraislicing his victims with an array of knives, each time leaving a red rose on the body. As he becomes a guerrilla folk hero, his signature of a circled “V” (inverting the anarchist “A”) pops up as a graffiti symbol of resistance. Portman plays Evey, whose parents were killed by fascists, and who becomes V’s reluctant ally after he saves her from the secret police.

Vendetta does for revolutionary politics what The Matrix did for philosophy, reducing ideas to a voluptuous pastiche. Asked if the

MR. MATRIX AND DOMINATRIX: Larry and Ilsa at the premiere of The Matrix Reloaded

film excuses terrorism, McTeigue is cagey: “I’m trying to ask why people think their only way out of situations is through violent means. V’s character embodies terrorism—which has been a very one-dimensional word—and turns it into a three-dimensional word. There are a lot of other ideas in the film—about the individual versus the state, the politics of fear, and about how to be different is dangerous.” Asked about his own politics, the director says, “My politics are my politics. I can’t get into a discussion of what they are.” And don’t even ask about those Wachowski boys. Like comic-book heroes, they’ve undergone a mutation: they’ve acquired Hollywood superpowers. And secret identity seems de rigueur. M