Sunday, March 11, 2007

300

Is Zach Snyder's adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novel 300 an ode to George W. Bush and his doctrine of pre-emptive war in the Middle East, or is it merely a cartoonish depiction of one of history's most famous battles? It certainly feels like a statement on the need for aggression in foreign policy and the inherent weakness of compromise or capitulation.

Certain sequences seem to directly respond to contemporary American politics. When the Queen (Lena Headey) pleads with the Council to send more troops to the front lines, her rhetoric rather directly echoes our Congress' recent debates on a similar matter. When King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) argues about the need for war to protect "freedom" from "tyranny," one can't help but by reminded of America in the Spring of 2003, the pressing need to "fight them over there" so we won't have to face our enemy here. And, of course, the depiction of said enemy as diabolically evil, sexually perverse and physically malformed recalls the blatherings of every right-wing scumbag from Michael Savage to Michelle Malkin to Ann Coulter, who insist that there can be no settlement with our present-day Arabian and Persian foes. Only slaughter.

A common counter-argument to this view, that 300 the film has been designed as propaganda for Bush's war, is that it's based on a book written well before the Bush regime came to power. What utter nonsense. Certainly, the decision to make a film out of the book occured post-Bush. As did the decision to write this particular version of the script and film it in this particular style with this particular perspective. Not to mention that I have read the novel and the film is considerably different. (That scene I mentioned with the Queen isn't in the book at all, if I recall correctly). You heard the same bullshit when V for Vendetta came out. Sure, the book was about Thatcher's England. But the book is not the movie...Done. Care to try again?

So it's entirely possible that the film was meant as an argument in favor of Bush's Iraq Adventure (and possibly an Iranian one to come). But I don't really think this is the case. 300 represents something much older than George Bushism. Snyder's film and Miller's book have tapped into a regrettable sub-genre that runs underneath much of our culture - war porn.

300 may be the most offensive piece of war porn I have ever seen. Seriously, if you screened this film for Leni Riefenstahl, she'd say..."It's really good, but could you make it a bit more subtle? I just feel like we're hammering people over the head with this thing."

300 fetishizes violence in a way that is not at all reasonable, or even entertaining; it magically transforms sadistic cruelty into heroism and fascism into freedom right before your eyes. If Generalissimo Franco had a nightmare that was guest-directed by Mel Gibson after a 10-day coke binge, 300 would be the likely result. Warner Bros. must have hired some expert sound editors, because otherwise I swear you could hear Snyder and Miller jacking it during some of the rousing speeches and frequent beheadings. I left 300 a bit disgusted, but more than that, exasperated. How could you reason with someone who thought that this ugly, gruesome spectacle has any merit, as popcorn entertainment or otherwise? Certainly, it goes without saying that I would do my best to avoid anyone who shares its worldview, which is pretty much universally hateful, hostile and an affront to thinking, sophisticated, modern people everywhere.

It's also incredibly boring and repetitive.


The armies of Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), god-king of the mighty Persian Empire, coalesce outside the Greek city-state of Sparta. They have come because the Spartan king, Leonidas, refused to bow before Xerxes and, in a show of pride, murdered a Persian messenger. Unfortunately, the corrupt Ephors and Councilman who control the Spartan army have refused to aid in the city's defense, so it's up to 300 brave Spartan warriors to defend all that they hold dear against the largest army in all of Asia.

Eventually.

First, they spend what feels like hours stalking around the countryside in underoos, showing off their grased-up abdominal muscles and celebrating their imminant martyrdom. In voice-over, Dilios (David Wenham) goes on and on about the "warrior code" of the Spartans, how they never surrender, how they begin learning to fight at the age of 7, how they detest any sign of weakness and respect only stoicism and on and on and on. We see Leonidas kill a wolf as a child, just in case we didn't get the message that he's a badass who don't take shit off no one, even Mother Nature.

(This isn't really a fault, but 300 is also one of the gayest movies I can recall. Not terribly surprising, I guess, for a movie about Ancient Sparta, even though the movie would never admit that all its leading male characters have, at one time or another, dabbled in the homoerotic arts. At one point, a character mocks the Athenians as "boy-lovers," a clear attempt to distract audiences from the fact that they are watching a film set in Ancient Greece starring a cast of naked men pledging their undying devotion to an oily Gerard Butler while a narrator emphasizes repeatedly that they are "hard and strong, strong and hard." It's like Logjamming on steroids.)

300 was shot much like the previous Miller adaptation, Sin City, with the live actors set inside a digitally-created background. Director Robert Rodriguez used the technique in that film to simulate Miller's black and white comics, bringing an antiquated panel style to new life on the screen. I thought it was largely successful, visually innovative and a lot of fun. Zach Snyder comes up with a few nice-looking sequences in 300, my favorite being the shot of Leonidas and his men as they watch Xerxes' ships get knocked about in a storm, but the film overall looks pretty awful.

Daylight is always brown, nighttime is always blue, and they both look washed-out and muddy. Though there's lots of fighting, there are very few establishing shots to give you any real physical sense of the action that's taking place in the big picture. What remains may be brutal and gory but it's not terribly cinematic.

What's more, Snyder seems to be developing a case of latent Peter Jacksonism in terms of the use of slow motion. Action scenes that should whip past are slowed down, dulling their intensity, making what should be some of the movie's most striking moments and images feel overblown and silly. (A shot of one of the Spartan heroes dying at the hands of a Persian on horseback is a perfect example. Like Jackson's King Kong falling off the Empire State, it would have more impact if it didn't take 10 fucking hours to go down.)

Evidence of Snyder's affection for Peter Jackson is evident as well in the Persian army's "creatures," many of which do not appear in the book and look ridiculous. An oversized troll, really just a misplaced Middle Earth troll, has an dreary, predictable back and forth with Leonidas. A hunchback named Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan) looks entirely fraudulent. I can't tell if the character was digitally retouched at all; it looks like a man wearing a silly rubber costume. How did Snyder even think he could get away with this, post-Gollum?

I mean, I went in expecting the politics to bother me, and they did, but at least I thought the film might be aesthetically pleasing. No such luck.

As I said, the film's not really all about Bush, as some online liberals have argued. You'd have to be delusional to conflate the buff, heroic Leonidas, who bravely rushes into battle 10 feet in front of his men, with Commander Codpiece. Bush is more like Xerxes, anxiously awaiting news of the battle from atop his golden slave-drawn chariot. The film's just about the glory of war, how great it is when attractive nude men attack one another for sport and to bring glory to their leaders (particularly if you get to watch it from the comfort of a movie theater).

It's designed specifically to delight those odd authoritarian military junkies who are in our midst and always have been, even before Bush. You know who I'm talking about...Nerdy loners, usually men, who hang around in the Borders "Military History" section, post comments on the Free Republic forums, frequently turn the conversation around to martial arts they know or weapons they own, and can't wait for some dirty brown foreigner to start talking smart so we have an excuse to drop some bombs. War is what gives them their sense of self, I suppose, or what sets them apart from the loathed intellectuals and hippies living off in their elite urban enclaves.

Regardless, I'd expect some will savor every stab wound, every slash of the sword and arrow to the eyeball. Insecure white men, those who feel threatened by the unknown, by women and minorities, will see a film like 300 as confirmation that their suspicions were always correct. Their manlitude is a gift from the gods, they represent the greatest single development in the whole of Creation, and history calls upon them to fight any and all comers. Remember, it's okay to root for deplorable violence, provided it's delivered upon a person representing a foreign, decadent culture.

300 is very very big on the notion of Western supremacy. The Greeks of the film aren't just defending their long-ago destroyed city (how many modern Americans are even aware of the past existance of a place called "Sparta"?), they're defending all us good, civilized Whites against the Foreign Hordes. They fight to save Us from Them. The "beasts," the "brutes," the "barbarians," as they are repeatedly called. When we get a look inside the court of Xerxes, everyone's naked and writhing around. There are monsters, freaks and, of course, lesbians. No lesbians in Sparta, no sirree. They're not allowed because they aren't strong and hard, hard and strong.

Watching this movie is like spending 2 hours inside Charles Krauthammer's head and it made me decidedly uncomfortable. That is, when I wasn't laughing at the cheesy ludicrousness of it all.

[UPDATE: I forgot to mention the reprehensible use of nu-metal on the soundtrack during some of the battle scenes. Honestly, it's shocking that any filmmaker would actually use this kind of lazy Korn knock off during a battle scene any more. That is so ridiculously overdone. All this "Let the Bodies Hit the Flooooooooooooooooooooooooooor" shit went out in, like, 2002, dude.]

7 comments:

Evorgleb said...

I'm not buying in the whole "300 is a metaphor for the Iraq war" thing. People will always force relationships where there aren't any. 300 is getting more press than it deserves. I just did a review of 300 over at Highbrid Nation is you care to read it. In the end it was just another movie that did not live up to the hype to me. Can we say "poor man's Gladiator"? Most people will likely disagree with me though, lol

berns said...

That's one of your best reviews, Lonnie! Excellent!

matt said...

What does a poor man's gladiator mean? That movie was terrible.

drummer510 said...

I heard it was terrible also from three of my friends. One is of Macedonian decent and fairly ignant at times, one's parents are Persian, and one's just a pecimistic individual. If these guys were dissapointed, I just can't imagine.

On a side note, I finally saw The Departed. Definitely one of my favorite movies to date. It's amazing how such a loaded cast worked so well together. I don't what this trend is with these Bostonian cop/mob movies like Mystic River and Departed, but both are great.

Favorite quotes:
Ellerby: Go fuck yourself.
Dignam: I'm tired from fucking your wife.
Ellerby: How is your mother?
Dignam: Good, she's tired from fucking my father.

Frank Costello: How's your mother?
Man in Bar: She's on her way out.
Frank Costello: We all are, act accordingly.

c.k. said...

I gotta say, I really liked it. Yes, it was over-hyped in that the previews for it were more thrillingly action-packed than the true pace of the movie, but I didn't see the Bush parallel. That may be because I'm a closet Classicist. I kept comparing it to Troy, which was an awful abomination that condensed a 10 year war into 10 days and killed off Agamemnon (who was supposed to keep on living for many years) just to satisfy a pro-feminist plot that wasn't in the original.

Compared to Troy, 300 was a breath of fresh air in this Classic stories retold genre. I liked that the elephants and rhinos were "monsters" and the only real fantasy bits were Xerxes insane size and that odd creature with blades for hands that worked for Xerxes, which I think is pretty fair and reasonable considering it's all based on a Frank Miller graphic novel.

FCSuper said...

Wow, you put a lot of effort into creating exaggerations about 300 as big as the ones in 300. Not to be overly critical, but some of the points in the review are nonsensical. "Running they spend what feels like hours stalking around the countryside in underoos?" There's like only one scene with the troops on the countryside, and they aren't running all over it, and that military dress looks nothing like underoos. Nice try though. It's a great movie. Stop hating. :)

Lons said...

FC, I can't help but notice that you avoid all of the real arguments about the film's flaws in my review, focusing instead on one sentence - and one intended as humor - that you believe you can tear down.

(In fact, I stand 100% behind my statement that much of "300" is taken up by men stalking around the areas around Sparta in what looks like underwear. I invite others to judge for themselves.)

Do you, then, agree that the film is reprehensible, boring, ugly war porn, but simply felt that I was too hasty in calling the Spartan uniforms underwear-esque? And am I the only one who thinks it ironic that you're accusing me of "hating" on what is easily the year's most hateful American film, a movie so hateful towards other cultures that it's sparking international protest?