The only thing more annoying than Star Wars and Lord of the Rings fanboys are Matrix fanboys. And comic-book fanboys. Plenty of both have told me of the subversive wonders of V for Vendetta, the hyped-up movie version of the Alan Moore graphic novel about a terrorist-knight swashbuckling through dystopian Britannia. Of course, real revolution is no subject for would-be blockbusters (just ask Godard about the last time he got a multi-million dollar deal), so radical effrontery is turned chic and faddish, the celluloid equivalent of "Che" Guevara T-shirts, "rebellion" offered to audiences by corporate puppetmasters. The opening is a 17th-century execution with British anarchist Guy Fawkes hanging from a rope for his anti-government deeds; onto 2020, where a neo-fascist England of enforced curfews and paranoid hatred has taken over the center of a ruined world from the razed "former United States." Natalie Portman strides into the night and bumps into one of the prowling gestapo squads; V to the rescue, combining Zorro, Batman, and the Count of Monte Cristo behind one grinning Fawkes mask and one endless verbal diarrhea torrent. A caped avenger played (or enunciated, rather) by Hugo Weaving, V takes over his model's conspiracy and whips up a call to arms for London's denizens; Portman, political activism already in her genes, wakes up in the hero's underground lair, decorated with Renaissance art, movie posters and "Cry Me a River" in the jukebox, and joins his fight against John Hurt's monotonously megalomaniacal overlord.
Moore's graphic novel, magisterial even to a non-fan of the medium like myself, envisioned post-Winter of Our Discontent anxiety, mixing sardonic shenanigans and the realization that Orwell's deadline for Big Brotherism was just around the corner. The Wachowski Brothers, who already stole pages from the funnies to paper the vacuous, corrupt philosophies of the Matrix series, here scramble to shove hidden contemporary relevance up the narrative's crevasses: a tyrant elected on fear, a bullying reactionary as the "Voice of London," a national disaster that might have been part of a wider strategy of control, for, as V intones, "there are no coincidences, only the illusion of coincidences." V for Vatic? Please. Portman's grueling "rehabilitation" sequence retains some of the power from the original work, but the allegedly jaw-dropping climax of communal revolution unleashed with a literal bang belly-flops -- the Big Ben-Parliament goes kaboom to the tune of Tchaikovsky, but the troubling, multilayered exhilaration is fumbled by director James McTeigue, the Wachowskis' chosen stooge who lacks even the mentors' synthetic pop kineticism. Stephen Rea and Stephen Fry are among the thespians nodding through the inert behemoth, which quotes Shakespeare and Goethe (and perhaps Malcolm X) but is really simply Daredevil in agitator garb. "There is something terribly wrong with this country," and indeed rattling the foundations of the system is needed for change, yet V for Vendetta is nothing more than a sheepish product playacting at revolt: the hero's smiling visage is as about revolutionary as the smug antenna ball Jack-in-the-Box restaurants use for a mascot.
For an actual work of ideas, try C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. While V for Vendetta tries to comment on the present by looking into the future, Kevin Willmott's racial mockumentary posits an imagined past that, as it unrolls, increasingly turns not so much alternative as parallel to the present. Coincidentally (or maybe not, considering V's warning), the "former United States" are evoked here as well, since the nation has, in the movie's meticulously layered faux-reality, emerged as an antebellum empire since the South's victory in the Civil War. Willmott's linchpin is the idea that winners get to write history, thus the conflict turns into the "War of Northern Aggression" and Jefferson Davis gets elected president after the White House is surrounded; Lincoln, meanwhile, becomes a fugitive hiding with Harriet Tubman, then dramatized (by Griffith, natch) in the silent The Hunt for Dishonest Abe, with the deposed president ducking behind blackface. "Dixie" becomes the national anthem, Northerners are patronized as wrongheaded romantics and, most startlingly, slavery is maintained into the new millennium. The oppression of blacks is the systematic norm, spread to the decimation of Native-Americans and immigrants; abolitionism fills the place of communism through the '50s, though not before America contributes to WWII via a sneak attack on Japan and wholehearted support for Hitler, whose racial supremacy theories the C.S.A. consider "biologically correct."
Willmott arranges C.S.A. as a spoof of the incense-burning of Ken Burns documentaries, all ponderous narration, elegiac reconstruction, snapshots, newsreel, and talking heads, with TV ads in between (the wicked commercials include Niggerhair Cigarettes, Coon Chicken Inn, and electronically modernized shackles). A brilliant idea as politicized revue show, and brilliantly sustained for a good chunk of the film -- "mammy" and "pickaninnies" still figure in the interviewees' vernacular, and, just as Pearl Harbor is appropriately reversed, so is the Cold War redirected toward Canada, the land to where the creative exodus of Mark Twain, Thoreau, and Elvis flows. (South Africa here becomes America's supporter, completing the film's ass-backward corkscrewing.) A British actor under burnt cork speaking sambo in a Technicolor biopic and a sexual-relations Clinton gag are facile nudges, but for the most part Willmott plays his gimmick for sore provocation rather than easy laughs, often blurring the two (the slave-shopping network cheerfully offers customers the choice to "either break up the family or you can have them as a set"). A Spike Lee "presentation," yet Willmott's film is closer to Zelig than to Bamboozled, a miniature stunt that occasionally slashes but remains oddly small, brimming with daring concepts though sporadically united into a lacerating whole. Still, the filmmaker understands the cultural fallout of the past and trenchantly overlaps his "what-if" with the "it-was" and the "it-is."
Robert Towne's early-'30s Bunker Hill in Ask the Dust is chronologically closer than Willmott's Civil War, yet its removed romanticism is even much more of a fantasy. A pet project for the renowned '70s dinosaur, for an adaptation of John Fante's novel has been dancing in the mind of the Chinatown scribe for three decades; now here's the movie version, with "movie" as the emphasis, since his Los Angeles is a postmodern illusion, tropes from Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice dusted off only to be oiled up with CGI. The director's basis is not noir, really, but the obsession of Wuthering Heights, used as template for the contempt-passion tango between penniless, self-loathing Italian pulp writer Colin Farrell and Mexican waitress Salma Hayek, both locked in an erotic tug-of-war from the very first meeting, as he insults her worn shoes and she wishes him a heart attack. Fante's spirit is the sloshed, romantic vagabond's, pre-Kerouac in its ruefulness and, to the writer of The Last Detail and Shampoo now mainly punching up Tom Cruise vehicles, an irresistible vessel for his own unfashionably moony themes. Instead of Towne's artistic resurrection, however, the airless, joyless Ask the Dust sadly illustrates, through botched filmmaking and muffled emotions, the difference not just between page and screen, but also between an aging signpost and a great auteur.
Reviewed March 23, 2006.