Wednesday, September 06, 2006

V for, "Does it really matter?"

Last weekend I rented V for Vendetta, the Natalie Portman/Hugo Weaving vehicle that's based on comic book impresario Alan Moore's graphic novel. For those of you who haven't seen the movie, it's set in the not-too-distant future and is about the people's struggle against a totalitarian state--Britain, to be exact. V, the main character, is a modern-day Guy Fawkes who inspires the oppressed masses to rise up and to confront the homophobia, religious intolerance, fear-mongering, and lack of civil liberties that have beset jolly-old England.

What's abundantly clear is that the film is a warning about the slippery slope countries like Britain and the United States find themselves on these days. The future Britain it portrays--where copies of the Koran are banned, sexual minorities must live underground, art is suspect, and eavesdropping on the populace is the order of the day--is, in some respects, embodied in our present, though perhaps not in quite those extremes.

You might say that the film offers a scathing critique of the current policies of the British and U.S. governments, especially many of the initiatives that have begun under the auspices of the "war on terror." My question is this: Does it really matter?

Perhaps I've been out of the loop, but I don't get the impression that V for Vendetta has sparked much of a serious public dialogue about democracy's slide toward totalitarianism in either country. Perhaps that's asking too much from one film. But for me it raises a larger question: to what extent are the media genuinely effective in producing concrete shifts in governmental policy? Another way of putting this would be to say: to what extent is cultural politics able to change formal governmental politics or policy anymore?

V, for me, is an intriguing test-case. To the extent that it hasn't seemed to produce much public outcry (or effective public outcry), my inclination would be to say that the power critics once attributed to cultural politics may be on the decline. Don't get me wrong. I still believe cultural politics matters. By the same token, a film like V suggests to me that cultural politics may not matter in the way that it once did.


Jonathan said...

I often ask the same question but not historically. One of the most striking things about the cultural turn in the United States was that it happened at a time when humanities academics were completely cut off from any kind of center of political power. It seems less like an "anymore" and more like an "ever" question. Of course, if you think of cultural politics outside the university, of Black Power and Act Up, well then, yes, I think they can still make a difference. And here in Quebec, cultural politics drive all sorts of governmental policy.

Ted Striphas said...

Your point about humanities academics is an intriguing one, and to tell you the truth, I'm going to have to marinate on it a bit. I'm inclined to agree with your observation, though, and it certainly lends an intriguing dimension to why, in part, cultural politics seemed to take took on such importance among US humanities scholars in the 1980s and early 90s. I do think, moreover, as Larry and others have argued, that even formal governmental politics took a significant detour through the popular during that time. So for me the historical question is, is that detour still occurring to the extent that it once was? And if not, what does politics look like--or need to look like--today?

Lori said...

To what extent can a film's ancillary discourses - especially those involving fandom - affect it's potential for effecting political change? I'm thinking of V, but also about Star Wars Part III which, crap movie though it was, also contained a none-too-subtle subtext about the demise of democracy in the face of a manufactured war. In both cases, the mere existence of fans - ranging from casual to rabid - of the filmmakers was front and center in mass media discussions of the films. Given fans' excited anticipation of both films, and the films' subsequent (relative) failures at the box-office, is it possible that the films were first interpreted as being beneath 'serious' filmgoers (particularly given their fantasy/SFX underpinnings), and then ignored on the basis of their dismissal by some disappointed fans?

Just thinking out loud...

Ted Striphas said...

Hi Lori,

Thanks for your comment. You raise an intriguing question, and your examples are compelling ones to the extent that both films you mention didn't really meet their expectations.

For what it's worth, I recall reading The New York Times around the time of SWepIII's release, and remember how excited the reviewer was at the film's political edge. The reviewer seemed to take its politics seriously, despite its being a poppy FX film. (Shades, perhaps, of Lucas' generation of filmmakers actually reconnecting with their political roots?)

Nevertheless, the film didn't seem to excite directly widespread disquiet with respect to the Bush adminstration, despite its wide theatrical and subsequent (even wider) DVD release. And that makes me less sanguine about trying to teach through the popular, as the old cultural studies mantra goes.

Here, though, I'm forced to change course one last time. What I see from today's Times is, if the report's correct, growing dissatisfaction with the Republican party in the weeks and months leading up to elections. So maybe, in a diffuse way, all of these films I've been dismissing are having some kind of an effect. For me the larger issue still stands: what has become of cultural politics today, and what's the nature of its relationship with formal, governmental politics?

Great comment, and thanks again for checking in.

Lori said...

Perhaps - given the more fragmented and atomized nature of both media/culture and the public sphere in general these days - it isn't so much in the power of one or two films to effect much in the way of real political change. Rather, perhaps what they do is contribute to the broader zeitgeist of a given time/place; so that it isn't necessarily just V or another film, but V plus "The Daily Show" plus Stephen Colbert's 2006 speech at the Washington Correspondent's Dinner on YouTube, plus...

That is, perhaps there is still political work being done by these different media, but their effect must be cumulative rather than centered on one or two monumental works?

Still just thinkin' out loud...thanks for allowing me to do a little of it here.

Ted Striphas said...


Yes, I think you may be on to something here--which gnaws at me, a bit, because it takes me back to cultivation theory......

Sigh. Time to break out the Gerbner, I guess.

Lori said...

Actually, I'm thinking more in terms of globalization theories than cultivation theory; specifically, I thinking more about people who, having a given political bent (for the sake of argument, liberal or conservative, although these are too broad, really), seek out and/or find support for their own political beliefs in the media they consume, rather than a more concentrated attempt at circulating a given worldview on the part of media producers. In this sense, the same could be said for more conservative folks who first find solace in FOX News or something, and then find that particular take on the world reinforced/affirmed/strengthened in entertainment media. If "they're" just giving "us" what "we" want, there seems to be a lot of leeway in terms of just what that message might be, given the fragmented nature of media audiences today.

(I hope I'm not beating a dead horse here by continuing to post...)

Ted Striphas said...

Hi Lori,

There are no dead horses on D&R--except maybe for the advertisements that people post on the site from time to time. I'm just happy to have thoughtful people like you reading, commenting, and trying out ideas publicly.

Damon said...

Nice to come across your blog. Ted. The idea of thought aloud, without too much polish, is worthwhile. The polish will be come. The patience of 'polish to come', might also be granted to the effect of cultural product: Note the recent 'foiled plot' the British authorites claimed. I was pleased to read responses from the British public along the lines of, 'Was there really a plot, or are they (the authorities) just trying to keep us in a state of fear. I couldn't help feeling that such healthy suspicion was, at least in part, a result of V for Vendetta.

Ted Striphas said...

Hi Damon,

Thanks for your comment, and thanks for reading D&R. I'm pleased to hear that people in Britain are reacting skeptically toward recent news and events. Indeed, as you observe, one of the most pressing issues facing politically-inclined scholars (and everyone, really) is what Brian Massumi calls "the politics of everyday fear." Were I inclined to think out loud here, I'd say that we're living life increasingly in a strange "mood"--the present subjunctive, where we're acting as if the "now" were a protracted "what if?"

Anonymous said...

This sunday president Bush came to Colombia, and of course, there was a big manifastation against him....some of the persons there were using the mask of V for Vendetta, it was, I think a good strategy because they were protecting their identity (police here can get violent) and making a symoblical statement. What do you think about it?


Ted Striphas said...

Hi Monica,

Thanks for joining the conversation. The only thing I really managed to catch in the US media coverage of Bush's visit to South America was Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's remark, "Gringo go home!" I hadn't heard a thing about the V masks, though I must confess to not having followed the story as closely as I should have.

In any case, the presence of these masks as elements of protest is indeed intriguing, and certainly blunts some of the force of the questions I posed in my initial post.

I'm intrigued, moreover, by how a big budget movie made (I presume) in the US becomes, as it were, a way to protest American imperialism and political hegemony. And on a side note, the strategy of covering one's face in protest has become more intriguing to me after reading Jack Bratich's recent essay in the journal Cultural Studies.

Thanks again for the update. And please keep D&R posted if you encounter any more political uses of "V."

James said...

It seems everyone here has a bit to say, so I hope there is no harm in the reminder that V is the victory symbol [Winston Churchill was fond of it], the up-yours symbol [at least in Australia], and it recently seemed Verizon was leasing it from the public imagination. So, I hope that no one feels it is too obvious that I mention the website -which offers no advertisement, merchandise, etc.- seems respectably constituted -and that it mentions the comic genre is looked down upon by mainstream critics. I don't know if this will be likely to remain the case, however, if a graphic novel is able to catch the coveted Hugo award -a feat never before achieved until Watchmen.
Still, for all that, the comic has all but disappeared from current circulation on store shelves -with some notable exceptions.
(I have no idea about similar media such as manja, etc.)

James said...

I did like the fact that a book store's online customer reviews of the film, "V for Vendetta" seems to show some sense of public responsibility for the actions people are taking as individuals -self-defense, etc.

It might be interesting to know if people are acutely aware of just how little V really has to do with sexuality, christianity, and video monitoring (from my several viewings of the film, it seemed like gossips or 'snitches' were a worse contributor to the fates of the 'undesirables,' whatever there label). I regretably haven't yet put the comic alongside the film however, except through brief, vicarious reflection on some seemingly quality internet sites.

Tangent: Is it possible Moore et. al did more for arousing American's freedom fight drive through Promethea -and is that Phoenix guys Promethean movement part of the action we might want to watch if we're serious about this subject? It seems 'promethean' thought may be good, except that maybe it is too soft and cozy to achieve the practicality it says it wants. I gather this from their site, unless it isn't exactly very forthright. Yikes!