23 Mar 2006, 5:32pm
pop culture
by jordan

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V for revolution?

I went to see V for Vendetta last weekend, which made for a fun outing, but something bothered me about its feel-good revolution-through-truth message. The movie certainly succeeded in bringing some of the essence of graphic novel to the screen, while rendering the original message more provocative and relevant to the current political climate. As a fan of the original — a pivotal work that elevated comics to a more respected medium — I loved Hugo Weaving’s mysterious, literate, and somewhat twisted vigilante hero.

But the movie version is premised somewhat precariously on the notion that ideas alone can have enough force to change the world, as long as someone takes initiatve to broadcast the message. This strikes me as a convenient theme for mass-produced media, and it’s not exactly a new one. In the Wachowski brothers’ first hit, The Matrix, the movie ends with Neo promising to free the denizens of the computer-generated Matrix with a wakeup call to their communal predicament (unfortunately, the following films in the trilogy failed to make good on this storyline). Another more recent favorite comic of mine, Channel Zero, features a renegade filmmaker who fights theocratic fascism by hijacking public media.

While I can concur that ideas are powerful and can bring about real political and social change, I find something a little suspect in a mass-produced film patting itself on the back for spreading a grandiose message of action and revolution. Fight censorship, watch this movie! Beware governments that use fear of terrorism to clamp down on civil liberties — find out the truth by watching this movie! Subvert the dominant paradigm — watch this movie! Of course, presumably you’re not taking much action of any kind while you’re sitting in comfy stadium seating sipping soda and enjoying the surround sound.

I mean, I’m as nervous as the next liberal about the war on terror, illegal wiretapping, the Patriot Act, Total Information Awareness — but sometimes I think that the current administration doesn’t need to go as far as the fascist governments in 1984 or V to stay in power, or to pursue their pro-business agenda of protecting their wealth and privilege. They have Hollywood and the mass culture industry to ensure that people limit their rebellion to consuming edgy movies and music, showing up for their sober day jobs to support their weekend habits.

I don’t mean to regurgitate the thesis of Theodore Adorno, that mass media produces an uncritical mass audience susceptable to the control of fascist governments. I think, as Paul Willis has argued, that media and pop culture can provide the raw material for meaning-making, the “symbolic work” of communicating through a shared set of images and ideas. We live in a communal web of significance which we call “culture,” a structure that shapes how we interact and how we communicate. So I can’t argue with the movie’s premise that ideas can have potency. But ideas require people to organize around them and implement them, rather than just consuming another work of pop culture warning us about the evils of censorship, surveillance and totalitarianism.

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