Saturday, 18 March 2006

V For Vendetta (the Film)

"People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people." (V, from the movie V For Vendetta)

"Remember, remember the fifth of November
The gunpowder treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot." (Traditional Guy Fawkes Day Rhyme)

Tonight I went to see V For Vendetta, the new film written by the Wachowski Brothers (of The Matrix fame) and based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. The film has been advertised as an "Uncompromising Vision of the Future." For once, a movie's tagline isn't simple hyperbole.

Like the graphic novel upon which it is based, V For Vendetta takes place in a futuristic Britain where a fascist government is in control. Against this totalitarian government arises a lone freedom fighter, V, who has patterned himself after the notorious Guy Fawkes. For those of you who don't know your English history, on November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up Parliament using a copious amount of gunpowder. Wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, V starts his vendetta against the fascist government with a "bonfire" like no one has ever seen... In some respects, it's Batman meets 1984 meets The Phantom of the Opera...

From this description, many might think that V For Vendetta is a simple action movie. Nothing could be further from the truth. Like Moore and Lloyd's original graphic novel, V For Vendetta is full of ideas. Is V simply a terrorist or a freedom fighter? Do V's ends justify the means with which he carries out his vendetta against the fascist government? Is this movie simply a possible vision of the future or a commentary on current political situation? These and many other questions are posed by V For Vendetta. Indeed, it is perhaps the most subversive movie to have ever been produced by a Hollywood studio. I rather suspect that Bill O'Reilly will probably hate the film...

Without giving away any spoilers, I must say that purists who are expecting a faithful adatption of the graphic novel are going to be sorely disappointed. While V For Vendetta is much more loyal to its source material than other adaptations of Moore's works (From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman). Indeed, some of the scenes are taken directly from the graphic novel. That having been said, there were changes in the character of Evey Hammond, in how the fascist state came to power in Britain, and in even to some degree in the character of V (he does not express nearly as much anarchist philosphy as he does in the graphic novel). The reaction of the graphic novel's creators to these changes were mixed. Writer Alan Moore was so angered by the changes that he had his name removed from the credits of the film. On the other hand, illustrator David Lloyd has given the film his blessing and has been very vocal in his approval. My own personal take is that some changes were necessary in the film. The original graphic novel was publshed in 1989 and meant as an indictment against the Thatcher administration. A lot of things have changed since then and for the film to be relevant to today's audiences some aspects of the plot had to be altered.

Regardless, V for Vendetta is a very good film. Hugo Weaving is perfect as V. Clad in the Guy Fawkes mask for nearly all of the film, he expresses V's inner emotions with body language and his voice. Even considering his roles as Agent Smith in The Matrix Trilogy and Elrond in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, this could well be his best role yet. Natalie Portman also does well as Evey Hammond, who is alternately fascinated with and shocked by the audacious V. The largely British supporting cast of V For Vendetta also give excellent performances. While John Hurt is impressive as High Chancellor Suttler, the best performances of the supporting players are given by Tim Piggot-Smith (who has previously appeared in Gangs of New York and The Four Feathers) and Stephen Fry (perhaps best known as Jeeves from the series Jeeves and Wooster and a veteran of many films and TV shows). Piggot-Smith gives a chilling performance as Creedy, the head of the secret police (who reminds me a bit of Dick Cheney...). As to Stephen Fry, he is delightful as Gordon Dietrich, a British television comedian with a lot to hide and everything to lose (he is one of the few sympathetic characters in the film).

V For Vendetta is the first film helmed by James McTeigue (who served as assistant director on both The Matrix Trilogy and Star Wars Episodes I-III). For a first time director he shows that he has already mastered his art. While McTeigue gives us some excellent action sequences, at the same he insures that those action sequences do not overpower the ideas that are central to film.

V For Vendetta does have its weakness, perhaps the greatest of which is suspending disbelief that one man (even assisted by Evey) can do so much. But then I suppose it must be kept in mind that in many respects the movie, like the graphic novel, is a parable. And like the graphic novel, among its themes are that one individual can make a difference.

V For Vendetta is a powerful film. I rather suspect that it will be an uncomfortable movie for many to watch (as I said, Bill O'Reilley will not like this movie...). But it is also a film that poses some important questions and does so in a way that is both entertaining and visually impressive. I really cannot recommend this movie enough.

Friday, 17 March 2006

Greatly Exaggerated Deaths

"The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."--Mark Twain

I have good news for fans of comedian and actor Will Ferrell. He is not dead. On Tuesday a hoax press release, in which it was claimed Ferrell had been killed in a freak paragliding accident, was published on the website iNewswire.com. According to the release, Ferrell was killed when a gust of wind came up, and Ferrel and a companion were blown into a heavily wooded area at around 60 miles per hour. Despite the fact that the news release was filled with grammatical and spelling errors, despite the fact that news of the actor's "death" was not reported in any of the major news outlets, and despite the fact that Ferrell is still very much alive, rumours of his death soon spread across the internet. iNewswire has since yanked the prank news release.

For many rumours of the still very much alive Ferrell's death might seem strange, but rumours of the death of celebrities is nothing new. Indeed, it happened to none other than Mark Twain, possibly the greatest American writer of all time. In 1897, Twain visited his cousin James Ross Clemens, who was seriously ill, in London. Somehow this became construed that Twain himself was ill. As a result, the New York Journal published news of Twain's "death" well before he had passed on (in 1910, for the curious). Twain, with his typical wit, responded with the above quote.

At least Mark Twain was famous when his death was erroneously reported. Frank Gorshin was still an up and coming comic when his death was reported much too soon. In 1957, well before he would find everlasting fame as The Riddler on the Sixties series Batman, Frank Gorshin was in an auto accident in which he fractured his skull and after which he was in a coma for four days. Several Los Angeles newspapers reported that the upcoming comic and actor was killed in the wreck.

While Mark Twain and Frank Gorshin's deaths were only erroneously reported once, Bob Hope had the dubious honour of having his death erroneously reported twice before he actually died. In 1998 a pre-written obituary somehow made its way onto the Associated Press website. As a result Hope's "death" was even announced in the United States House of Representatives! In 2003, another pre-written obituary of Hope, along with those of other celebrities, was published on CNN's website when their password protection failed.

At least Twain, Gorshin, and Hope's "deaths" were misreported by the press. And even Will Ferrell can blame reports of his "demise" on a website. Often rumours of a celebrity's death spring from nowhere. And more often than not these urban legends have a morbid twist. In the Seventies one of the more popular urban legends was that Susan Olsen, famous as Cindy Brady on The Brady Bunch was killed when her pigtails (or in some versions her coat) was caught in the doors of a bus and she was dragged to death. Nearly as bizarre as the urban legend regarding Susan Olsen's supposed demise is one in which Steve Burns, one time host of Blue's Clues, died of a heroine overdose (or, alternatively, was killed in a car wreck). Some variations of this urban legend even claimed he was replaced by a look alike (much like Paul McCartney--see below).

Indeed, often urban legends about a celebrity's death become increasingly complex over the course of time. One need look no further than the urban legend in which Jerry Mathers, the "Beaver" of Leave It to Beaver was killed in Vietnam. Now Mathers did serve in the Air National Guard after graduating high school, but he never went to Vietnam. What makes this urban legend so strange is that it has even spawned what might possibly be urban legends regarding its origins. Supposedly, the legend that Mathers was killed in Vietnam started when a soldier with the same name died in Vietnam. This led to erroneous reports in the Associated Press and United Press International that Jerry Mathers, the Beaver, had been killed. On The Tonight Show that aired that night, actress Shelley Winters repeated the news of Mather's supposed demise. This sounds like it could have realistically happened, but Urban Legends Reference Pages has found no evidence of false reports of Mathers' death, nor a Tonight Show appearance in which Winters mentioned Mathers being killed. In other words, as the Urban Legends Reference Pages theorise, it could simply be an urban legend about the origins of an urban legend...

Of course, rumours of Jerry Mathers' death are nothing compared to the "Paul is Dead" phenomenon. The rumour may have begun with the song "Saint Paul," performed and written by Terry Knight. The song was played heavily in the Midwest in May 1969 and treated Paul McCartney of The Beatles as if he was already dead. More likley Knight was making a metaphorical reference to the eminent break up of The Beatles. At any rate, the rumour that Paul might be dead began to spread. The rumour first saw print on September 17, 1969 in the Drake University (that's in Des Moines, Iowa, if you're wondering) newspaper The Drake Times-Delphic in an article entitled "Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead." The rumour would really catch fire, however, on October 12, 1969 when DJ Russ Gibb of WKNR-FM in Dearborn, Michigan received a call from someone calling himself Tom claiming to have "evidence" that Paul McCartney was dead. In October 14, 1969, Fred LaBour, then a junior at the University of Michigan, published a review of the album Abbey Road in which he claimed that clues to Paul's "death" could be found in the covers of various Beatles albums. The rumour soon took on a life of its own. It was "established" that Paul was killed while driving in his Aston Martin (the particulars tended to vary). Even a date for Paul's "death" was established--5:00 a.m. on Wednesday, November 9, 1966. As to Paul still being part of The Beatles, this was explained by McCartney having been replaced by a double. This double was even given a name, usually that of William Campbell, William Shears (after Billy Shears, the leader of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band), or William Shepherd.

The supposed clues that Paul was "dead" were many and grew as time passed. Supposedly on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts club Band, The Beatles were standing in front of a freshly dug grave (I don't see it myself...). On the back cover of that same album, the fact that Paul is standing backwards was used as evidence that he was dead. The cover to Abbey Road was also supposedly a clue to Paul's "death"--namely, it supposedly potrays a funeral procession. John Lennon, in white, was the priest. Ringo, in a dark suit, was the undertaker. George Harrison, in a blue shirt and jeans, was the grave digger. As to Paul himself, barefoot and walking out of step with the others, he was the corpse. The songs of The Beatles also supposedly held clues that Paul had "died." The lines "O, untimely death!" from a BBC broadcast of King Lear, sampled in the song "I Am the Walrus", was supposed to be a reference to Paul's "demise." Of course, many also pointed out that according to the song "Glass Onion" on The Beatles (better known as The White Album), the Walrus was Paul.

"The Paul is Dead" craze resulted in numerous fanzines dedicated to the "late" Paul McCartney and his mysterious "death." Even the legitimate news media took notice. Life sent photographers to Paul's farm to see if he was indeed still alive! The result was an interview, published in the November 7, 1969 issue, in which Paul dismissed many of the rumours. Despite this, there are still people to this day who believe Paul is dead.

In many of these instances it is easy to understand how celebrity deaths could be erroneously reported. Mark Twain's cousin was ill and this got misconstrued that Twain was ill and that got misconstrued as Twain was dead. Frank Gorshin was in a serious car accident which led to reports of his death. In other instances, there seems to be no real explanation for how rumours of a celebrity's demise gain currency. Indeed, I can remember in grade school there was at one time a rumour going around that Jimmy Walker, then at the height of his success as J. J. on Good Times, had died in a car crash! I can only suppose that such rumours could arise out of our own society's fears of death. Perhaps in hearing of the death of a beloved celebrity it eases our minds as to our misgivings about our own mortality. I can only suppose that the knowledge that the rich and famous can die gives ourselves some security in knowing that we are not alone in being mortal. I realise this is not much of an explanation, but it is perhaps better than my other thought on the matter. Perhaps many in our society simply have a bit of a morbid streak...

Tuesday, 14 March 2006

Maureen Stapleton R.I.P.

Character actress Maureen Stapleton died yesterday from chronic pulmonary disease at age 80.

Stapleton was born in Troy, New York on June 12, 1925. She started acting on stage almost as soon as she graduated high school. She first appeared on Broadway in 1946 in The Playboy of the Western World. She earned her first Tony playing Serafina Delle Rose in The Rose Tattoo. She continued to appear on the Broadway stage for much of her career, in such productions as Toys in the Attic, The Secret Affairs of Margaret Wild, and The Little Foxes.

Stapleton made her first appearance on television in an episode of the series Curtain Call in 1951. She would go onto guest star on such series as The Philco Television Playhouse, Studio One, and even Saturday Night Live. She is perhaps better known for her work in film. She made her film debut in Lonelyhearts in 1958. She would go onto lpay Mama Mae Peterson in the film version of Bye, Bye Birdie and writer Emma Goldman in Red. She received the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for that role. She was also nominated for Oscars for her roles in Lonelyhearts, Airport, and Interiors. She also appeared in Plaza Suite, Cocoon and Johnny Dangerously.

I always did like Maureen Stapleton. She seemed to have a remarkable range. Her characters were almost always down to earth, but they could vary from strong to vulnerable. Sometimes the characters she played were downright unstable. Regardless, Stapleton always played her parts well. It is sad to think that she is gone.

She seemed very capable of playing down to earth characters who could be either tough or vulnerable, and sometimes both.

Monday, 13 March 2006

Storms

Today simply does not seem like a fitting day to make an entry on some artefact of pop culture. Last night storms ripped through the Midwest, with Missouri apparently the hardest hit. It is quite possible that we had more tornadoes yesterday than any other day in the state's recorded history. To give you an idea, according to a Kansas City Star article, western Missouri usually sees only 11 reports of tornadoes a year. Yesterday there were 15 reports of such storms in the area.

In all, nine people in Missouri were killed by the storms. Four of them were in Renick, which is only about 25 minutes away from my hometown of Huntsville. There was a good deal of property damage around Madison and Middle Grove (both about a half hour's drive from here), although fortunately no one was hurt. I know that there was a good deal of damage in the area, as while I have been able to get online, I cannot download my email (I'm having to rely on my webmail right now). As to my cell phone, I can make calls, but I cannot access my applications. Huntsville appears to have been largely spared, but the surrounding area was apparently hit pretty hard.

Elsewhere in the state, one woman was killed in Sedalia and another man in Ulrich County. Yet others died elsewhere. Although the city of Sedalia did not receive a direct hit from tornados, at least 100 homes in Pettis County were destroyed. On Interstate 70, around Sweet Springs, several tractor trailers were blown over. Some areas of the state are without power. As of yet the National Weather Service has not determined the strength of the storms.

Anyhow, I hope all of you understand if I do not think it is a fitting day to write about pop culture. I don't think Missouri has seen a day quite so bad with regards to twisters and with any luck we won't ever see one quite like it again.