Thoughts On: V For Vendetta (2005)
A terrorist ploys to overthrow a dystopian British fascist government.
V For Vendetta is a movie, like Watchmen – another adaptation of an Alan Moore graphic novel – that I never liked. This is because of its terribly pretentious tone, one clearly dragged out of a disinteresting comic book. I know a lot of people will completely disagree with this, but I find it hard to see what others see in films such as Watchmen and, more pertinently, V For Vendetta. All in all, I’m just not a fan of V For Vendetta’s characters, its writing, its aesthetic nor its story arc.
The best and most simple breakdown of what really gets under my skin about V For Vendetta and movies alike was put fourth by Slavoj Žižek in this video here:
At the 9:20 mark Žižek says…
I hope our viewers have seen a movie, I think about ten years ago it was popular: V For Vendetta. I will not go into the story. The point is that in the end there is a revolution in England, some imagined England… the crowd… breaks through the police barrier, penetrates the British parliament, the people take over… and… the end of the film. My idea is that, sorry for this vulgar expression, but it expresses precisely how I feel, I would like to see–I would sell my mother into slavery–to see a movie called V For Vendetta Part Two.
Žižek goes on to ask what these people would do with this power – how would they restructure, what their plans are to re-shape the world – all before going on to talk about larger social paradigms. Nonetheless, this is a problem you see with a lot of movies; everything builds towards a dumb conclusion. One of the most egregious examples of this is a movie I covered a long time ago, In Time, a post that’s essential point on blind morality could be directly translated onto V For Vendetta. In such, like in V For Vendetta, within In Time we see a politically motivated uprising across a narrative, one that is concluded with anarchism masked with some underdeveloped sense of equality and democracy. This is so frustrating as the movie essentially builds towards a grand notion or point, one that falls flat on its face.
An interesting question you may raise here is then one on the ending of movies themselves. Why are they so important? Why, if the ending is weak, do we deem an entire film terrible? I’ve heard this question posed before with intentions of pointing out the absurdity of judging an entire narrative on the final few moments. However, this kind of reaction to a movie is a pretty reasonable one – one that holds an important lesson to writers.
As we have discussed a few times before, there is such a thing as an Infinite Story. The Infinite Story is simply a recognition that there are no beginnings, nor ends, to stories until we give one to them. In such, why does Stars Wars start here…
Why not start here…
Then again, why not start thousands of years in the past, finding the origins of Jedi, exploring the establishment of colonies… it goes on. A plot line is merely a microscopic segment of what can be an infinite story (as Disney and Hollywood big shots are determined to make very obvious to us all). The task that a filmmaker is then faced with, knowing they have to fill around 120 pages of white paper, is: how do I choose a (relatively) small segment of time to spotlight? The answer is: find a story that has a point, that is self-justifying. We see this idea translated to the first Star Wars with an end that, with basic analysis, concludes the journey of a hero proving himself…
We are content with this end because the narrative of Star Wars, that we just sat for 2 hours to get through, clearly had motivation from the get-go; it now makes resounding sense why each moment of the narrative had to be put on screen. Non-endings or weak endings say that a filmmaker didn’t have anything to say, that they were wasting our time. However, how do we define ‘weak endings’?
The answer seems to be in the idea of a narrative building towards something: you have to have a point. The best way to then think about a narrative is almost as an essay; you are using an allegory to develop points and build towards a conclusion that is nuanced and complex, though understandable, with thanks to the paragraphs preceding it. Weak narratives don’t have a point – or, at least, they don’t have a worthwhile one. Just having a point isn’t enough, however. This is an idea best conveyed by Terry Gilliam as he critiques Schindler’s List…
Whilst I wouldn’t say that all movies need entirely ambiguous endings, like that of 2001, moreover, whilst I would say that there is a place for straight-forward and comforting movies, it’s very clear that the most poignant, complex and lasting narratives play a bit of a trick on us. This trick can be best explained by looking for a moment at an already mentioned figure:
Many will quickly say that Kubrick is a genius, I myself have probably said this many times, but, what are our grounds for this? Of course there are his masterful movies, but, they, like the public perception him, were meticulously managed with a whole lot of smoke, special effects, mirrors and darkness. In such, a huge reason why Kubrick as a man remains an interesting and compelling figure to this day probably has a lot to do with his elusivity – a point that Malcolm McDowell, among others, have made before. And this idea bubbles over to his films. As Gilliam says, 2001 defies definition; you could just as easily say it is about a trillion things as you could say it means nothing.
The point that we can then take away from Kubrick is that ambiguity in movies, especially with your endings, is a tool through which you, yourself, can say an awful lot more than you ever could with words, images or speech. With ambiguous symbolism, you plant an idea, an idea that, as is said in Inception, can be infectious. And this infectious idea is exactly what Gilliam describes when he outlines the power of an ambiguous ending. Without doing anything but planting that idea, you are saying so much through your thinking audience members as they will start to bring meaning to your movie instead of you supplying something that will not have the nuance, access point or perspective that many will be seeking.
But, it has to be said at this point that there are thresholds – all of which are different for individual people. In such, there is a point where your narrative becomes so ambiguous that it starts alienating your audience – a point at which they will dismiss it as pointless. For many, this threshold is surpassed with experimental films. Whilst I often try to exercise my threshold by watching experimental films, ones that ask you to bring a lot to them and formulate your own answers to take away, I’d say that I do have a threshold that can be crossed – one that often is by structuralist films like Wavelength. And what this says about the idea of ambiguity is that you can go too far. This in turn establishes a spectrum. On one end you have movies that have little to say, but will often nonetheless explain this to you in arduous detail – you find this a lot in horrific kids’ films. Coming away from this, you have shitty, cookie-cutter Hollywood movies with the most banal happy endings. Stepping further away, you may come to complicated, though still reassuring films like those by Spielberg – Schindler’s List being an example. Also in this realm you’ll find movies like Psycho that, if you chop of the last scene which explains all, you’d have a near-perfect movie. But, jumping to the complete opposite end of the spectrum, we would find the pointless (in my opinion) experimental movies like Wavelength, Empire and Eat. Getting past the pointless experimental films, you will find more intriguing examples; infamous films such as Un Chien Andalou. Moving further away from this extreme, you will begin to find movies like 2001 – which represents a sweet-spot that holds ambiguity, yet also some hint of answers. Also in and around this, you find the open endings – like those seen on many Coen Brothers films. Coming closer to the middle, we have movies that do not need to explain themselves thanks to some pure cinematic storytelling – all varying in their profundity of course. And beyond this, we start to stray towards grounds covered.
But, there is a nasty zone that we have not yet discussed. Somewhere near the middle of this spectrum stretching from complete ambiguity to patronising explanation, you will find movies like V For Vendetta and In Time. Not only do these movies have so much of nothing to say, but they build up these half-baked narratives towards an ambiguous end that acts as a bell saving the screenwriter from a vicious and seemingly inevitable KO. In such, movies like V For Vendetta are imitating the paradigm seen in 2001 without any true sense of how it functions.
On a side note, the title V For Vendetta could not be a better title for this witless movie which has to explain banal things to us. If you read this title out loud in a dumb voice, you’ll see exactly what I mean: “V is for Vendetta”. Why do we have to be told what this symbol means? Why would you explain your movie in such a vapid way anyhow? Wouldn’t a Guy Fawkes symbol of sorts be more articulate? Honestly, one of the most unintentionally ridiculous movie titles ever conceived.
Back on track, Kubrick builds 2001’s narrative, allowing us to believe that he is always purposefully leaving out something. This is why, when we see the Star Child, we are flooded with hopes for some hint of exposition. But, we don’t get it; it’s only teased. And such is Kubrick’s masterful illusion: he makes us believe his films are ingenious. By saying this, I don’t mean to disillusion anyone, or claim that Kubrick’s films have no real substance. This use of ambiguity may have been knowingly employed by Kubrick; maybe if you got to know him and asked him what the movie meant he could give you all the answers. Contrariwise maybe, like Lynch, Kubrick had no strict and set-in-stone notions or intentions, instead, only a will to conjure some unconscious truth. Nonetheless, we can still consider his use of ambiguity as a device to understand that there is untold power in this kind of open ending. Moreover, considering Kubrick’s approach, this is exactly what V For Vendetta, and many films alike, fail to capture.
The lesson you can then learn from recognising the huge flaw in V For Vendetta is that a writer must balance their ability to say something profound with their deployment of ambiguity. This is all because, no matter how smart and profound you and your ideas are, explaining this to people in a movie is a difficult thing. It has to not only be done with imagery, not 1000s of pages of dialogue, but also in a short-hand form that can be expanded into those 1000s of pages of dialogue by a willing audience member. So, whilst there is an art to explaining things to people, cinema, in narrative form, seems to be best suited for conveying emotions and ideas. Remember this, remember Kubrick’s face and films, and you may have the tools to create a V For Vendetta that’s downfall isn’t an impossible Part 2.
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