Saturday, April 08, 2006

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

The new Existo title sequence dates the film (via its overt references to Bush and especially Ashcroft) -- both as a not-at-all-distant future, and as an specific artifact of the pre-2005 Bush cabinet -- but it also places Existo precisely where many of us have personally found ourselves at some point in the past six years: paralyzed in our homes by the news of an out-of-control government we neither want nor feel any measure of empathy or control over.

The revised prologue’s conclusion succinctly states Existo’s philosophy and modus operandi -- he is an artist, specifically a performance artist, using his art to strike out against an intolerably repressive theocracy -- unlike V, though, Existo’s means are more accessible (and legal, for the time being at least) than those employed by his London-based comrade-in-arts/arms.

Inspired by the convicted and executed historical terrorist who sought to demolish Parliament, V unapologetically seeks to create terror: he is Moore & Lloyd enlightened vigilante. As he says at one point in both the graphic novel and the film, (I’m paraphrasing) “The people are afraid of their governments; governments should be afraid of the people.” By design, Existo and his ragtag band of fellow artists parody the grim imperative and tactics of V, though their intentions are absolutely in synch: a complacent populace must be shaken awake with all due force.

Only ingeniously staged outrageous public spectacle will do.

Existo’s methods and means are his music & songs, which are in and of themselves pretty amazing. Bruce Arnston and his collaborators have pulled off something quite extraordinary; the musical numbers are beautifully executed, exhilerating and intoxicating. The only recent accessible parallels I can cite off the top of my head would be Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s and Trey Parker & Matt Stone’s remarkable synthesis of music, song, ire and satire.

Consider just one of Existo’s setpieces, “And I Cry.” Like all the tunes in the film, it must be heard/seen to be appreciated, but here’s a lyric sampler:

”So belly up comrades! It’s high noon and
The atomic clock has an erection
The size of the Washington Monument

Until all forms of art are subsidized
Untl the workers run the factories
Until condoms are dispensed with crayons
Until every flag comes with its own match
Until the sacred school prayer is replaced
With a minute of angst and foreboding
Until we have slit our bellies and spilt
Our bowels upon their hallowed marble floors
I will cry and I’ll cry and I’ll cry”

Interesting to note, actually, that in this Existo is closer to the showmanship and vaudevillian (“vaudevillain”?) flourishes characteristic of the V created and wonderfully fleshed out in Moore & Lloyd’s graphic novel. In his original form, V is as much a politicized Phantom of the Opera as an Orwellian Count of Monte Cristo, a subterranean-dwelling vigilante with a social conscience and a savage song in his heart.

This component of V was completely eschewed for the film (at best sublimated into his collector’s jukebox, accompaniment to his Dr. Phibes-like dance with Evey), no doubt because it seemed either potentially risible or too precious in the context of a contemporary action/sf film (indeed, Dr. Phibes director Robert Fuest in his prime might have pulled it off, though). Suffice to say the film adaptation favors the Count of Monte Cristo archetype over Eric the Phantom -- but it’s important to remember V’s music and ‘stage’ persona were essential to the characterization in the original graphic novel V -- and the work itself.

Both Existo and the original (graphic novel) V are performance artists, and anything but anarchists: they act on (rather than “act out”) their perceptions of reality with decisive political intent, aiming to awaken a complacent/repressed populace with catalytic public spectacles calculated to expose/explode prevalent illusions of safety/security/comformity and provoke some form of public or private action against the monolithic & fascistic status quo. The musical performances of Moore & Lloyd’s V have been stripped away in the film adaptation (making the rare 1984 V LP by Moore and David J all the more compelling, representing as it does the point at which Alan most publicly “played” his character via his performance, singing V’s song “This Vicious Cabaret”), but this aspect of the character is key to the original work -- and an interesting precursor to Existo.

Consider the opening stanzas of “This Vicious Cabaret”:

They say that there’s a broken light for every heart on Broadway
They say that life’s a game and then they take the board away.
They give you masks and costumes and an outline of the story
Then leave you to improvise their vicious cabaret.
In no longer pretty cities
There are fingers in the kitties,
There are warrants, forms and chitties
And a jackboot on the stair...”

Consistent with the satiric context of the film, Existo songs are funnier by design, but no less serious in intent. At key points, Existo’s are just as pointed and angry as V’s lyrics:

”My thoughts are oily
Slick advance men for the coming nightmare
They leave me shaking
They sucker punch me then they slip away
My clammy sheets reflect a random flash of lightning
Then the search light then the spotlight
Then the flashlight in the face -- fuckin’ A...”

Or this, again from “And I Cry”:

”Philosophy students are fed fundamentalist crap
While science departments excrete that creationist crap
And liberals can’t find their testicles without a map...”

It’s worth noting, too, the respective times & places that yielded both works: Margaret Thatcher’s UK, George W. Bush’s Nashville, TN. I’ll write tomorrow about the roots of Existo in the Nashville scene, but it’s worth pausing to reflect on the era that spawned the original serialized graphic novel V for Vendetta, and consider the parallels with the US today -- for it’s that conjunction that has yielded V for Vendetta the movie.

The tension among many of us in the US was thick in the Reagan era, but it didn’t hold a candle to that of the UK during Thatcher’s reign. I was there three times during those years, and it was palpable, suffocatingly so, and quite unlike anything I’d felt in America since the Richard Nixon era (when I was still too young to grasp the hardest realities, and only felt the most obvious and tactile aspects of politics -- codified in my own wallet with my fucking draft card; luckily for me, my number never came up, though my older brother served). In the non-mainstream culture, England seethed with rage at Thatcher, her policies, abuses of power, and the generation that elected her. From the howl of rage of the Sex Pistols and the UK punk scene to Alan & David’s buried-in-the-pages-of-Warrior subversive dystopian tapestry of V and the antic comedy of The Young Ones or razored satire of the Spitting Image puppets on the telly, it was impossible to miss if you were young enough and neither blind nor deaf.

All this trickled into the US at a frustratingly compromised rate, usually neutered completely (anyone recall the abysmal, toothless US broadcast of Spitting Image as a one-shot special?) or arriving at all on the fringes, as V originally arrived via scant imports of Warrior in a few comics shops and mail-order firms. Reagan’s repressive ‘back to Victory Culture’ era, the fresh assertion of conservative rule and the initial rumblings of the insanity of neoconservatism in seats of power held sway in the US, any mobilized protest or backlash domesticated by the one-two shot of the attempted assassination of Reagan -- which contemporary right-wing revisionists conveniently forget was the real catalyst for Reagan’s resurrection in the polls and renewed public support. Hinkley’s attempted assassination was Reagan’s 9/11, sans the global impact; it bolstered the surviving President’s sagging popularity and reinvigorated his Cabinet. The close association between Reagan and Thatcher was well known (and brilliantly summed up and savaged in one of the uncut UK Spitting Image program codas of their fleshy Reagan & Thatcher puppets lustily kissing goodbye to one another in an airport terminal, and as she departs Ronnie turns to the camera with fist raised and says, “What a woman! Too bad I’m only fucking her country!”)

Thus, Reaganism effectively squelched any overt anti-Thatcherism, and the bovine indifference of the American public to anything happening “over there” outside our own borders took care of anything missed by the media filters. We were by and large restrained from any full doses of anti-Thatcher media in any form, save for the punk movement’s inevitable spillover into the US (which of course generated its own regional punk subcultures).

Despite the mythic view many hold today, the Sex Pistols never penetrated mainstream US culture; hell, the Ramones didn’t either, unless you care to count their screentime in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and theme for Pet Semetary as crossover points (both pretty pale echoes of their musical and onstage impact). If I was pressed to mark what I consider the point at which unfiltered anti-Thatcher sentiments finally began to penetrate the US mainstream with any sense of urgency or genuine outrage, I’d have to cite hearing on the radio airplay of Elvis Costello’s “Tamp the Dirt Down” from his 1989 Spike (his first for Warner Bros., who coincidentally already had V for Vendetta contractually under their belt via Alan & David’s deal with DC Comics). The album was already spinning regularly in my studio and the tape playing in my car, but it was hearing it on FM radio that I’d mark as the crossover point. Costello’s lyrics and delivery dripped with the same venom I’d heard firsthand in and about England during my brief UKAK sojourns there in the mid-80s. Costello launches the song with the familiar image of a politician’s photo op with an infant, and upon that builds his portrait of Thatcher:

”I saw a newspaper picture from the political campaign
A woman was kissing a child, who was obviously in pain
She spills with compassion, as that young child's
Face in her hands she grips
Can you imagine all that greed and avarice
Coming down on that child's lips

...When england was the whore of the world
Margeret was her madam
And the future looked as bright and as clear as
The black tarmacadam
Well I hope that she sleeps well at night, isn't
Haunted by every tiny detail
'cos when she held that lovely face in her hands
All she thought of was betrayal...”

The parallels with W. Bush’s America are striking. Though few have noted it, Bush’s reactions whenever faced with an ordinary citizen’s outrage mirror Thatcher’s, sans her ability to articulate her contempt with something other than an elder frat-boy’s smug sneer. Consider anew his contemptuous treatment of his critics, his refusal to deal on any human level with the grief of parents who’ve lost their children serving in the Iraq War unless their grief is something he and his Administration can exploit (need I cite Cindy Sheehan?), his face when the rare opportunity emerges for a mere citizen to question his seemingly uncheckable power (the woman who asked Bush what mistakes he thought he’d made, a question that clearly blind-sided Bush in the final debate of the last election; his reaction this past week in Charlotte, North Caroline when 61-year-old Harry Taylor said, “I would hope from time to time that you have the humility and the grace to be ashamed of yourself”).

Of course, such open contempt by politicians for citizens is hardly unique to either Bush or Thatcher, but they are characteristics of both that I find as striking as the political parallels (both politicians’s hellbent advocacy of privatization in all levels of society, their appetites for secrecy and war, their disasterous fiscal policies, etc.). Again, Costello’s lyrical portrait of Thatcher in ‘89 rings true and could be applied to Bush without modification, sans for the gender switching from ‘she’ to ‘he’ in a single line:

“And now the cynical ones say that it all ends the same in the long run
Try telling that to the desperate father who just squeezed the life from his only son
And how it's only voices in your head and dreams you never dreamt
Try telling him the subtle difference between justice and contempt
Try telling me she isn't angry with this pitiful discontent
When they flaunt it in your face as you line up for punishment
And then expect you to say "thank you" straighten up, look proud and
Because you've only got the symptoms, you haven't got the whole disease
Just like a schoolboy, whose head's like a tin-can
Filled up with dreams then poured down the drain
Try telling that to the boys on both sides, being blown to bits or beaten and maimed
Who takes all the glory and none of the shame...”

Can any single line summarize the current President as succinctly as that last one?
It’s no coincidence that Moore & Lloyd’s complex narrative extrapolation on the worst aspects of Thatcherism circa 1983-86 resonate so clearly in Bush’s America circa 2006, even filtered by Hollywood studio timidity and Andy & Larry Wachowski’s adaptation. Cinematically, Existo is the real McCoy: undiluted by adaptation (save for the revisionist opening moments of the ‘festival’ edit), a direct reaction to Bush’s America within its own time and place, straight from its originators to our eye and ear.

In this rarified new environment we’re all sinking or swimming in, pop culture eruptions both suppressed (sans distribution) and popular (promoted with all the muscle a multi-national communications giant like Time Warner can muster) like Existo and V for Vendetta are not only topical and relevent, but suddenly urgent, imperative and essential.

They are “mere entertainments,” yes, but they are aggressively posing questions via their fictions “we” as a nation have studiously avoided for years and avoid even now, in any form that would be recognized as meaningful public debate (much less with consequence).

[To be continued...]

[Existo lyrics copyright 1998 Flo-El Music and EXISTO-Music]
[“This Vicious Cabaret” lyrics copyright 1983 Alan Moore/David Lloyd]