Friday, April 07, 2006

Of Existo and ‘V,’ Art and Fear, and Why They Are Essential: Part One

As promised, I’m going to make my way in the coming posts to a discussion of the now-in-theaters adaptation of Alan Moore & David Lloyd’s graphic novel V for Vendetta, a film I’ve now seen twice and quite enjoyed. But as any long-time reader of this blog knows, I can’t do so without discussing the broader context for the film, the viewing, and its current popularity.

Addressing immediately the latter, I’ll note from the outset that it’s clear the film V for Vendetta has plucked a nerve among younger viewers. This massive audience has little or nothing to do with the graphic novel devotees: no mainstream feature maintains a #2 boxoffice position based solely on graphic novel audience numbers. Apart from anything relevent to the source work (or the controversy over its co-creator’s disowning both the film and original work), it’s a film my 20-year-old son and his circle of friends are mightily impressed with. It was evident at both viewings I caught that the predominately youthful audience (a few teens but mainly folks and couples in their twenties) was engaged & bowled over by V as few films since Fight Club have touched them.

However diluted (and that’s something I’ll eventually get to), the powerful dypstopian narrative Alan & David concocted in reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s rule of their native country is terrifyingly timely and attuned to W. Bush’s US empire of 2006 -- and the film retains/adapts enough of the strengths and specifics of that political parable to disturb, awaken and arouse.

And that, given the complicity & complacency of American mainstream studios by definition, is quite an achievement in and of itself.

I would further posit V for Vendetta the film as a successor to Patrick McGoohan’s subversive TV series The Prisoner, which after all reached most of us stateside via its unusual CBS-TV broadcast in the late ‘60s, unheralded and an unknown quantity quite out-of-lockstep with the mind-numbing context of its network’s usual (ahem) content. Even as a ‘cult’ item, the stranglehold the three US networks had on 1960s America was such that millions saw The Prisoner at some point or other during that oddball broadcast season, just as V the movie is reaching millions lured by something other than the political context that made, say, Fahrenheit 9/11 such a pre-polarized boxoffice sensation a couple of years ago.

Suggesting a companionship between V the film and The Prisoner is easy -- hell, there’s even the British correlation as both a calling card and safety valve of relative exoticism (no way Time Warner would be releasing a V that ended with the White House being blown to smithereens: that’s fodder only for jingoistic sf like Independence Day and safe satires like Mars Attacks).

But there’s a much closer companion feature, and one as original as The Prisoner TV series and Alan & David’s graphic novel V for Vendetta were in their respective times. Unlike the movie version of V, though, this companion feature hasn’t the corporate might of a Time Warner behind it: it’s been denied any viable distribution whatsoever for over six years, and consigned to a sad limbo, well out of reach of any sizeable potential audience.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Existo -- figuratively (and presciently) subtitled by its makers in some packaging and publicity as The Forbidden Movie.

If you’re wondering what these two films have in common, allow me to cut to the chase by transcribing the new opening title sequence concocted by co-writer/director Coke Sams and Existo himself (and co-writer) Bruce Arnston for the ‘festival cut’ of Existo. I think you’ll see the parallels in a heartbeat. I don’t want to erroneously raise expectations or draw false correlations -- unlike V for Vendetta, Existo is a satire, and quite pointedly hilarious musical comedy at that -- but there are a number of crossover elements worth citing and discussing.

The first version of Existo I saw back in ‘99 (thanks to lifelong Coke Sams compadre and mutual friend Paul Redmond) opened with a straightforward introduction to Existo (Arnston) and Maxine (Jackie Welch) via their arrival at the underground cabaret “The Swamp” run by queen bee Collette (veteran character actor Gailard Sartain) as Collette performs the opening number “Do Me” onstage.

Thereafter, by osmosis via dialogue references and the narrative itself, we come to understand what the new prologue makes explicit.

That's how Existo originally ran. Soon after, Coke & Bruce revised the opening minutes, deleting completely the suggestive "Do Me" and presenting immediately Existo's backstory:

The following radio broadcast (from The Daily Truth Radio Network) is heard as we see Existo suffering an anxiety attack in bed, sweating, gritting his teeth and tearing his hair while Maxine sleeps beside him. A rotating fan spins overhead, adding to the claustrophobic clamminess of the title sequence; the broadcast bytes and Existo’s angst are crosscut with vivid infrared black-and-white flashbacks to Existo shattered by a violent shock therapy/exorcism at the hands of the totalitarian authorities (including a glimpse of the nominal fundamentalist villain Glasscock, cited in the broadcast):

”It’s four more years for Bush... [given the] Supreme Court’s 4-5 decision to grant President Bush an unprecedented four year extension on his term of office... in addressing the Court’s postponement of this year’s election, Justice Scalia wrote in the majority opinion, ‘another drawn-out Presidential campaign would only serve to question the legitimacy of the President, thus giving the terrorists exactly what they want.’...

Earlier today, Secretary Doran of The Department of Culture, Heritage and Values Corporation along with Armand Glasscock of The Decency Council joined Wayne Newton in kicking off the ground breaking ceremony on the long-awaited Helms Memorial. When complete, the structure will house the prestigious Strom Thurman collection of beloved Norman Rockwell prints. The non-barrier free memorial will use absolutely no public funds and will be built entirely by rehabilitated homosexuals...

It’s family values in action in this the first test for our recently-privatized GE National Guard... [with] their week-long intercity house-cleaning effort Codename God-Like Purge. In New York City alone, over two hundred drug pushers, actors, poets, homos and pedophiles have been rounded up and sent to the nearest Disney World indoctrination facility....

Attorney General and acting FBI director John Ashcroft made a rare appearance on Capital Hill today, urging Senators to expand last year’s sweeping Right to Life legislation to include a ban on male masturbation within a thirty-foot radius of an ovulating white woman --”

At this, Existo snaps awake: we hear the sound of thunder and flashes of lightning from a storm raging outside their bedroom. He has been dreaming, but his voiceover immediately following (as he quietly slips from the bed without waking Maxine, opening a massive trunk and removing a framed document he tenderly handles with devotional care) indicates the political reality of Existo’s world isn’t far from that of his nightmare, and that his flashbacks were genuine:

”It’s been ten years since the exile. The procedure in the psych ward has left me a bit suicidal. And while Maxine nurses me back toward lucidity, the Corporate Beast and their fundamentalist minions have been mopping up what’s left of our Proletarian wet dream...

In a few days, there won’t be an underground left to lead. So once again, I return to the manifesto to fight the only way I know how -- because I am a soldier in the culture war and art is my weapon of choice...”

As the thunder rolls, the title Existo fades into view.

[To be continued...]


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