300 and Others

Another foray into film reviews


Aficionados of impaling, dismemberment and decapitation were regaled recently with the release of "300," a film about the battle of Thermopylae. While there is no dearth of violence in the media these days, this graphic novel adaptation cannot fail to elicit a visceral response in even the most inured moviegoer or newspaper reader. 

You may read more elaborate descriptions elsewhere.  Suffice it to say that 300 gives us the hackneyed "good v. evil" scenario.  The Spartans are handsome, good and honorable and the Persians are evil, ugly and despicable.  Yawn.  It’s the same old, same old. 

Now, I have to admit, I enjoy a good impaling as much as the next guy.  I’m not squeamish.  And there is a certain appeal to the cinematic simplicity of solving complex problems with the expedient of violence, no matter the improbability of that in real life.  But it’s impossible not to take into account the context in which this allegory is taking place, namely the looming confrontation between the US and Iran.

As you are aware, or certainly should be aware, the first step in waging a war of aggression is demonizing the enemy.  Is it just an accident that this film is being released at this particular time?  We can’t answer that, but… it certainly seems suspect.  The Persians are, after all, the ancestors of the Iranians.  And the Spartans are, it is suggested, somehow our own ancestors, at least culturally — although perhaps the Athenians would better claim that title. In any case, the Spartans in the film are plenty American — ripped abdominal muscles, hooha, semper fi caricatures.

Frank Miller, the author of the graphic novel is fairly candid about how he views our current "clash of cultures."

"Our country… is up against an existential foe, yet we behave like a collapsing empire.  Mighty cultures aren’t conquered they crumble from within.  Americans are behaving like spoiled brats."  — Frank Miller

Miller sees the current events in the Middle East as a confrontation between the modern west and a "6th century barbarism."  He asks, "Why are people so self-absorbed?"  If anything, Miller is as bellicose as the Bushies.

At the very least, you have to question the wisdom of releasing such a film at this time.  Throwing gasoline on the fire in the Middle East hardly seems like a wise thing to do — unless what you really seek is to inflame passions, and cultivate a hunger for war.

Of course, one could read the film from another angle.  The story of a hegemonic super-power, intoxicated with illusions of divine right, greedy and corrupt.  Hmmm.  Remind you of anyone?  Meanwhile…

U.S. Opens Naval Exercise in Persian Gulf

But the overall effect of the film, regardless of speculations as to intent, is to advocate war.  Keep an eye out for more propaganda.  Watch the implacable machinery of war produce yet another monster.

The Lives of Others

The other film, and one I enjoyed immensely, was The Lives of Others. It *works* on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin.  Just see it.  One thing to keep in mind is the vastly greater technological resources available to Bush’s American "Stasi."   It’s not just the real-time monitoring capabilities, impressive as they may be.  It’s also the archiving and data mining capabilities.  What you do now may be innocuous.  But if you were to ever join the revolution (nudge, nudge!) and were to come to anyone’s attention, your whole history would be available for instant perusal.  Your credit card purchases.  The web sites you visited, and which pages you viewed.  Groups you belong to.  The people to whom you have sent emails, and received them from.  Those whom you called on the telephone and how long you spoke.  And their friends, too.  The Stasi was able to tyrannize a country with much less.

As always, comments, retorts, rejoinders, and asides are welcome!

Villainy or Virtue?

Villainy or virtue? Context is everything. V for Vendetta, the recent release from the Wachowski brothers, provides a prism of meanings, where any particular meaning depends on the individual viewer’s reflection. Moral absolutists will find the ambiguity vexing. Tough. Here’s my take.

The film begins in 1605 with the story of Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up Parliament and assassinate the King. Quickly, though, it pole-vaults the present to land us in a dystopic London 20 years in the future. A totalitarian government keeps the population in place with intimidation, propaganda and omnipresent surveillance.

Sandwiched between 17th Century religious oppression and a familiar vision of a fascist future (Orwell’s 1984 and Nazi Germany are strongly evoked), the casual references to present-day events have the viewer shifting contexts. Seeing the ubiquitous surveillance cameras it’s easy to be reminded that London is the current leader in deployment of such devices with an estimated 400,000. Are the film’s futuristic audio surveillance vans all that far behind? The vitriolic TV pundit “The Voice of London” spews his jingoistic, homophobic tirades, and how can we not be reminded of a certain cable network bully? Allusions to the war “the United States started” can’t help but resonate with the current catastrophe in Iraq. These sparing references prevent us from slipping too complacently into what might otherwise be an entertaining futuristic fantasy, events happening in a galaxy comfortably “far, far away.”

V for Vendetta is a film about revolution. Certainly, the revolution of bombs and assassination, but also the personal revolution that is at the heart of all great revolutions and revolutionaries. Che Guevara said “The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.” And so it is with “V”, our hero, or anti-hero, if you prefer. Revolution is a matter of the heart, a passionate battle for truth, and fearsome defense of liberty, of love, of human dignity. In the nobility of that cause, what means do we allow ourselves? How far do we go before we sacrifice what we would succor? V is as merciless in his vendetta against the guilty as he is in the liberation of his young protégé, Evey, whose own internal revolution of love and freedom he induces. As Guevara also said, “the oppressor must be killed mercilessly…the revolutionary must become an efficient and selective killing machine.” V is exactly that — efficient and selective, a lover and a killer. What revolution of the soul must one suffer to become that?

The idea doesn’t sit well with my pacifist friends, steeped in Satyagraha. I wonder if the conditions that made nonviolent change possible in India, or in the Deep South, apply today. Is nonviolence universally applicable as a tool for change, or only effective at certain points in history? Does nonviolence not depend on the ability of the oppressor to feel shame? It finally worked with the British, but would it have worked with Pol Pot? Gandhi said “Love does not burn others, it burns itself. Therefore, a satyagrahi, i.e., a civil resister, will joyfully suffer even unto death.” Considered in that light, I wonder whether my friends will suffer even unto their deaths, or are effectively choosing hopeful complacency in the face of the long train of abuses and usurpations perpetrated by our nascent suzerain.

V for Vendetta throws a lighted match in our pool of political gasoline by asking how brutally people will allow themselves to be abused, for how long, and what means might they ethically use to put an end to their oppression. Any means necessary?

John F. Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable.” A corollary might be that violence is also inevitable if good men simply do nothing. As we witness the steady erosion of our civil liberties, at what point do we actually do something, as opposed to merely nodding our heads politely at cocktail parties and murmuring that it’s indeed a deplorable situation? A revolution comes not from agreement but from action. It comes when enough people align their actions to that end, perhaps even seemingly insignificant actions. Why, one could even be part of a revolution inadvertently, by forwarding an email. In a networked age, receiving an email may be all it takes to be labelled a revolutionary — or a terrorist; and never truer the words of Benjamin Franklin on signing the Declaration of Independence, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Hijacking a television broadcast, V sends the following message to the people of London:

There are of course those who do not want us to speak. I suspect even now, orders are being shouted into telephones, and men with guns will soon be on their way. Why? Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the annunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance, and depression. And where once you had the freedom to object, think, and speak as you saw fit, you now have sensors and systems of surveillence coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. We, ourselves, are responsible for the fact that something is terribly wrong with this country.

No truth could be more refreshingly inflammatory in our present political predicament, and no message more timely, because accepting responsibility for what is terribly wrong with this country is the necessary preliminary to setting things right. When sufficient numbers of Americans turn words into action no government can stand in their way. “People should not be afraid of their government,” V says, paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, “Governments should be afraid of their people.”

There is still a window of opportunity wherein Americans can act to effect peaceful change. It is by no means assured, of course, but at least our Constitution provides for that possibility. If Congress can impeach a president for a fib about fellatio, it can certainly impeach him for fabricating a pretext for war, “extraordinary” renditions, and for violating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Failure to take action now may lead to a future not unlike what is depicted in V for Vendetta where the stark choice will be submission or violent revolt. Let’s not go there.