Friday, January 23, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: 300 (2007)

THIS IS SPARTA!

Or is it?

Is this ancient Sparta we see depicted on our TV and movie screens...or is this actually...us -- circa 2001 - 2008, the turbulent, violent span of the Bush years and the Global War on Terror?

And if this is actually a story about us, who -- precisely -- are we in the play? The Spartans? The Persians? The Athenians?

These questions, I believe, are the primary ones raised by this gripping, violent, visually arresting and -- by my reckoning -- brilliant cinematic adaptation of the Frank Miller limited series (originally created in 1998).

Directed by Zack Snyder, 300 is undeniably cutting edge -- a technological special effects wonder consisting of more than 1500 special effects shots. - Yet it's also something else entirely; a determined, gritty and heartfelt meditation on the value of freedom.

300 dramatically countenances several important, life-or-death issues that we, as citizens of this era, recognize and have pondered deeply of late, Issues such as supporting the troops; the invasion and occupation of a sovereign land; the corruption of politicians, the propaganda value of organized religion, and more.


What I find endlessly provocative about this war picture, however, is the multi-faceted level of discourse it offers. Like the greatest examples of art, 300 -- on the surface easily dismissed as yet another computer-enhanced action movie -- can be interpreted in a number of ways. Nay, it has been interpreted in a number of ways.

So first, let me spell out some of the varying and even opposing fashions in which 300 has been read and interpreted by film critics, viewers and historians.

We are all Spartans

Yes, yes, 300 is indeed jingoistic, xenophobic and nationalistic. I don't deny that. Some scholars thus view the Spartans as a surrogate for contemporary America, and therefore they "read" the film as an explicit validation, apology and defense of all the actions taken by Bush after 9/11.

Let's consider this point of view.

After the horror of 9/11 we in America all (righteously) thirsted for justice...for retribution. So much so that we attacked Iraq...a country that wasn't at all responsible for 9/11. We were spurred to this aggressive military action by calls for "patriotism" from the media and the Bush Administration.

That's nationalism.

And jingoism? Well, we fought not only a just war in Afghanistan, but also (sadly) an unjust one in Iraq with overwhelming military "shock and awe." Our leader even landed on a military aircraft carrier in a military plane and spoke to the nation in martial tropes. Mission accomplished.

Xenophobic?
Well, two points. First: do you remember General William Boykin, undersecretary of Defense under Bush, who compared his Christian God to the "evil" Muslim God. He said in 2003 "because we're a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christian" ... and the enemy is a guy named Satan." He also said "I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.

Secondly, what about the widespread viral e-mail (and fear) of many uninformed Americans during election 08 that Obama was a secret Muslim raised and educated in a radical madrassa? That with a "foreign"-sounding name like Barack Hussein Obama (rhymes with Osama!!!) he must be an evil terrorist bent on our destruction? We often feared (perhaps still do fear...) that which might seem different, new, or ethnic.

Now compare these widely-held views to those held in the film by the Spartans. How do the Spartans of 300 gaze at those who share their world? Well, the Spartans are extreme xenophobes. The Ephors are "in-bred swine." The Athenians are "boy-lovers." Those who are sadly deformed (like the traitorous hunch back, Ephialtes ) are as ugly and untrustworthy inside as their physical form is repugnant outside. The Persians are seen as "barbarians" who are worshipful of a false God (Xerxes).

Spartans regard themselves as a breed apart, chosen by the gods and therefore special. "Only Spartan women give birth to real men," declares Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey). Nationalism is raised above all other values: "service to Sparta." Dying for Sparta is the highest ideal.


As for jingoism, the Spartans resolve differences with violent confrontation. They have been "baptized in the fire of combat," are "constantly tested" and taught "never to retreat." The latter phrase might be re-parsed in American terms as the platitude, "stay the course." Violence in Sparta is rampant. Leonidas murders a diplomatic emissary from Persia in cold blood when he doesn't like his message. Queen Gorgo dispatches a political enemy, Theron (Dominic West) with a sword when he impugns her integrity. And remember, in America, we killed the sons of Saddam Hussein and then broadcast their bruised, bloodied corpses on CNN, parading the fact before the world.

It's rather impolitic on the politic left to approve of Zack Snyder's 300 (2007) these days, given Sparta's jingoistic qualities in the film, and the resonances of it that some detect so clearly in Bush's America. And actually, there's even more to disapprove of if you dig deeper. One can easily criticize the film in terms of historical accuracy, for instance.

Writing for the Toronto Star, historian Ephraim Lytle barked:
"300's Persians are ahistorical monsters and freaks. Xerxes is eight feet tall, clad chiefly in body piercings and garishly made up, but not disfigured. No need – it is strongly implied Xerxes is homosexual which, in the moral universe of 300, qualifies him for special freakhood. This is ironic given that pederasty was an obligatory part of a Spartan's education. This was a frequent target of Athenian comedy, wherein the verb "to Spartanize" meant "to bugger." In 300, Greek pederasty is, naturally, Athenian."

Ouch.

Critic Roger Moore (no, not the fellow who played James Bond...), wrote in the Orlando Sentinel that 300 is a "work with an obviously fascist aesthetic, it falls under the broad umbrella Susan Sontag used to encompass "fascist art," in that it reaches for a superficial human ideal (uncomplicated, orders-following, buffed, beautiful, nearly-nude fighting men) and celebrates death (theirs)."

Reviewer Dana Stevens, writing in Slade, noted that if "300, the new battle epic based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, had been made in Germany in the mid-1930s, it would be studied today alongside The Eternal Jew as a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war."


We are all Persians
When I gaze at 300 -- at the text of the film itself -- I see deeper shades of gray than some of the remarks above indicate.

300 grapples with so many issues of today, but it isn't precisely a one-to-one metaphor. For instance, we invaded Iraq, right? Not vice-versa. Doesn't that make America in some small way...the Persians, not the Spartans in this particular circumstance?

And secondly the Nazis also were aggressors in historical Germany; aggressors against their own Jewish citizenry and against all of Europe and eventually the United States. Again, that's not the case with the movie's Spartans. So the parallel doesn't fit. The Spartans were minding their own business when Xerxes launched his fleet, weren't they? We might dislike their martial, hostile, jingoistic, nationalistic, xenophobic nature, but to coin a phrase: they didn't start the fire. As the film itself notes, "Xerxes brought it forth."

The depiction of the Persians actually raises serious questions about...America. The Persians, according to the film, possess the greatest military might in the world. The whole world rumbles when the Persian army rolls.

In real life, America possesses the most powerful army in the world and deploys it with modern, technological equivalent of shaking ground: shock and awe.

The Persians, according to 300, are "decadent" because they have accepted into their culture such factors as varied ethnicity (Asians, Arabs, Blacks, and Whites all serve the God-King Xerxes), homosexuality (the film features a lesbian kiss...), body art/defacing, and even the physically-weak (handicapped). Tell me, which side, in real life, has embraced such diversity of belief, values and origin, Al Qaeda or America?

Xerxes, the Persian leader, considers himself a God. And wasn't it President Bush who said “I believe that God wants me to be president?” Also, it is difficult to reconcile the image of Leonidas (Gerard Butler) - the loyal, resolute, noble King of Sparta, with that of our former President. When going to war, Leonidas lays down his own life courageously, to personally lead the troops in battle. What was Bush's sacrifice in the War on Terror?

He gave up golf. That's his own admission.

So perhaps we have actually been depicted as the bad guys in 300, not the dedicated, stoic (but fascist...) warrior race.

We Are all Athenians.

This is the interpretation I prefer.

At its apex, the great city-state of Athens was the world's hub for art, philosophy and education. It is renowned to this very day as the cradle of western civilization, and it gave rise to greats like Sophocles, Pericles and most importantly, for our purposes here, Socrates. So perhaps we should consider 300 in terms of the Socratic method: a deliberate form of instruction (also known as pedagogy) that asks questions not so as to draw specific answers or parallels, but simply to encourage insights about a number of fundamental issues.

I believe that this is precisely what 300 accomplishes. There is much talk of duty in 300, and so we, as viewers, are implicitly asked to weigh our duty -- as American citizens -- in a time of war. What is the duty of a priest? A politician? A free man? A soldier? A King? Would we act as Leonidas or Theron? Of course, We each arrive with our own personal answers to those particular questions, but 300 provides examples both positive and negative. We see loyalty, sacrifice, avarice, grief, stubbornness and other characteristics dramatized in the crucible of Sparta. The full-breadth of the human experience is delineated, with various characters symbolizing various paths.

As the film ends, the film's final statement is that the Greeks - Spartans and Athenians together - set out to save a world from the oppression of "mysticism and tyranny." What's at stake here is a "new age of freedom." That's precisely the historic promise of Athens. And the historic promise, not coincidentally, of the United States. Sometimes, we simply carry freedom on our tongues and forget what it actually means. What it means, simply, is that Spartans can be different than Athenians...and still fight side-by-side, as brothers. Lest we forget, freedom to choose is the freedom for everybody to choose their destiny. Whether Spartan, Athenian, Persian, American or Iraqi. You can defend freedom, if it exists. But you can't impose freedom, at the end of the gun. Control, yes. Freedom, no.

Perhaps that is the ultimate and most valuable lesson of 300. I think it's a pretty damn worthwhile statement, especially in this era.

We Are All Formalists


We would not be discussing any interpretation of 300 at all, had the film not been created in such powerful, artistic fashion.

I'm in no position to judge if "the new age of freedom is here," but in 300, the New Age of the Computer in Film has certainly arrived. This is a film that creates and sustains an entire world from the ground up. Everything is artificial and highly-stylized (from the land, to the sky, to the beasts set loose by Xerxes.)

The film isn't "real" so much as it is "super real," and since the 300 is a legend of sorts, that approach is entirely appropriate. Remember, this film isn't merely the story of Xerxes, it is the story of Xerxes as told by the verbose and charismatic storyteller, Dilios (David Wenham).

Because we are "hearing" and "seeing" the story as told by orator Dilios, everything we see and hear must be interpreted through that very lens. Dilios hoping to rally the troops (Athenians and Spartans) on the eve of the final battle against the Persians. His words must prove timeless, brilliant, inspiring and ...glorious. Therefore, the heroes of his tale must not be merely men...but paragons. The villains must be not mere men, either but...monsters. That's why a rhino or an elephant appears in his story as giant Goliaths and terrifying creatures. That's why Xerxes isn't just tall...he's a colossus. That's why the Earth shakes when an army walks. And that may be why talks of xenophobia are somewhat misplaced. This is how Dilios re-casts reality, not reality itself.

The entire film seems rendered on a single leitmotif: a "heightened sense of the moment." That's the exact spot where Dilios is, incidentally, as he recounts the tale of Leonidas: his adrenalin pumping, as battle nears. And that is exactly what our protagonist, Leonidas feels again and again, at crucial points during his life. When he battles a wolf in winter (as a young man), he recalls feeling a "heightened sense of things."

At the moment before his death, facing a different wolf -- Xerxes -- Leonidas makes the same mental notation (in voice over) In this instance, the film cuts to a brief montage so the audience feels what he describes. We see birds flying overhead. Wind blows at his feet. He experiences a brief vision of his beloved wife. Gorgo. Leonidas is aware of little but important things like heat, weight, breeze....the impulses and feelings of the moment.

A "heightened sense of the moment" is also a perfect way to describe the stirring battle sequences in 300. Snyder constructed his shots (action and otherwise) from specific frames of Frank Miller and Lynn Varley's comic, but importantly, he has added dynamic motion. Snyder does so by mixing slow-motion, fast motion, and focal zoom and retraction into an orgy of sustained but beautiful violence. Leonidas's first, spirited advance is captured in an amazing combination of these techniques. He leads the charge - and we zoom in. He swings his sword - and we zoom out. He hacks down an opponent, and we go into slow motion as blood spurts and the limbs of the enemy are severed.

We see muscles flexing, tensing; so much so that we can almost feel the athleticism of this battle. We experience it as "heightened," right alongside Leonidas. I know some people complain about this kind of effect and think of it as Matrix-inspired silliness. Perhaps The Matrix is where some of the effects techniques originated, but Snyder has utilized them in a method all his own, and one in which the the form of the action explicitly supports the film's content and narrative.

300's color palette also qualifies as "heightened." Skies aren't merely gray...they're steely. Skin isn't merely flesh-tone...it's golden. A mysterious oracle doesn't merely dance in smoke...she swims in it. Again, it's a real historic event (the battle of Thermopylae) recounted through the super-real, heroic lens of our excitable narrator, Dilios.

Director Zack Snyder's form here -- just like Leonidas's form - is "perfect."

2 comments:

  1. John --

    Ah, 300.

    I am intrigued by your interpretations here, but I'm going to have to respectfully disagree. While I would like to believe that the film provides some sort of space for an audience to allegorically side with the Athenians and Persians, I really don't see it.

    A useful comparison might be made with another film that supposedly promotes a fascist aesthetic, STARSHIP TROOPERS. ST has persuasively been seen as satirizing absolutist film art, mainly by way of its pseudo-commercials, sometimes kitschy art design, and musical selection. Though it has been about a year since I've seen it, I don't feel that 300 dose any of these things. The only aspects that have been read ironically are the various lines that Gerald Butler roars, which have been sutured into internet mash-up videos and animated discussion forum icons.

    I would stand by the fact that the film goes out of its way--in characteristically hyperbolic and garish fashion--to forge a line of audience identification between the Spartan "protagonists" and the (presumed) American audience. I can confirm this via the fact that I had several students in my intro to film studies class last semester write on this film. Their (convincing, but sometimes a bit scary) interpretations of the film took it for its easy pleasures and convenient parallels to an America who yearns for heroism, "conventional" warfare (that is, a war in which your enemy is visible and in front of you...in short, a pre-Vietnam enemy), and an end to moral ambiguity. This last point is key. One parallel drawn was over the Israel/Palestine situation. For an American, it is hard to know which "side" to be on. While the US official policy has sided with Israel, religious Muslims and liberal/atheist leftists often side with Palestine, while liberal (and conservative) Jews and those supposedly in support of Israeli business and economic interests (thought to be "conservatives," but that is neither a clear-cut nor a given) support Israel. 300 eliminates the moral incertitude, not only in how it constructs its characters+narrative, but also in terms of how it aesthetically--absolutely, like some kind of moral gotterdammurung--frames its heroes.

    So I'm no fan of the film, but it could be viewed as the Bush era film par excellence. I won't reserve this for THE DARK KNIGHT, as I think you have on this blog, because I feel that it contains too much messy moral ambiguity to fit the Bush-era worldview. While THE DARK KNIGHT forges the strongest audience identification with the JOKER (the likeable, virtuosic agent of chaos) and not hero BATMAN (a gravelly, morose, frankly boring superhero this time around), 300 cuts out the moral incertitude around its characters, heightens the proceedings in various technical ways (as you mention), and lets the shit hit the fan. Shock and awe indeed.

    So I'm no friend to the film, especially given the fact that--to be fair, unlike in your analysis above--it has been taken at face. But, I would like to part with some words by director Alex Cox, who I think rightly shows how it is a film that will (rightly, in both senses of the word) be connected to the era.

    AC: "The only American film I saw last year was 300. [Laughs] I was at a freind's house and he wanted to show it to me. You know, I thought it was fucking great. I'll tell you why: Because it is a straightforward pro-war American film. It's getting the Americans ready for a war against Iran - and there are NO BONES about it. I thought that was a very honest form of filmmaking. And it has no movie stars - a horrible, obnoxious Hollywood violent action film with no movie stars. So it broke the domination of the Tom Cruises and all those dullards."

    - Alex Cox, Stop Smiling Magazine #36

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  2. Hey Kevin,

    Love your comment, and your thoughts on the film.

    I got a brief review of 300 from you on Netflix a while back so I remember how you felt about it. :)

    However, ask yourself this question: doesn't the filter of Dilios' vision (and he has only one eye, making this myopia even more plain, I think...) soften some of the overt war-mongering.

    Can a soldier, about to lead his men into battle, be anything jingoistic, nationalistic and xenophobic?

    For me, the filter of Dilios "recounting" the entire story as (one-eyed) narrator goes a long way to explaining some of the excesses of visualization, narrative and tone.

    best
    JKM

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