300

As I sat in the theater a few nights ago with my friends, G and P, desperate for 300 to end, I kept thinking of John Robb’s description of the film as absolutely amazing… So unrelentingly great that it has earned a permanent place in my top 10 movies of all time.

Wherein lay the “greatness”, I wondered, and how had I managed to miss it?

Good works of art frequently provoke polarized responses. For example, James Rocchi’s review, cited in John Robb’s comments:

There are many reasons to see 300. Maybe you’re a 14-year old with a love of violent entertainment. Or you’re a classics professor who longs to get a splitting headache. Or possibly you’re an experimental gay pornographer, and want to see the newest techniques in ab-oiling. Perhaps you’re a special effects aficionado who’s curious about the state-of-the-art in faux decapitations and digitized blood spray. Or you’re a big fan of Frank Miller’s work, and Sin City just didn’t sate your appetite for writhing, speechless women, mutilated giants and two-dimensional tough guys. Speech pathologists may go to 300 to witness how the two-syllable word ‘Sparta’ can be quadrupled in length and extended even moreso with each bellowed repetition. Or, finally, maybe the phrase ‘moving pictures’ has always seemed a bit contradictory, and a movie that unfolds with the glacial pace of a series of oil paintings in a series of nearly-still images sounds soothing.

And this riposte, by Hale Seighton, in a comment on Rocchi’s review:

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, so here’s mine: You’re an idiot. That’s a pretty lame reason to deter people from seeing this. Because it’s a big-budget action movie!? Obviously you aren’t the target demographic and you’re apparently far superior to the troglodytes like me who occasionally enjoy a mindless action flick with a laughable plot… Maybe you should pull the coat rack outta yer hiney and just try to enjoy the visual effects, the character design, the art direction, jeez, at least the oiled muscular guys or any of the other things the film is actually good and are pushed in your face. Not everything can be a German art film with French subtitles.

I’m definitely not the target demographic but I occasionally enjoy a mindless action flick with a laughable plot. Apart from The Departed, the American film I enjoyed most last year was Snakes on a Plane.

John Robb conceded that Rocchi’s review was pretty funny, then added:

It’s certainly not fare palatable to the refined, urban ‘intellectuals’ who, by and large, make up the vast bulk of movie reviewers. It’s very visceral and therefore totally opaque to those that either lack or have lost the requisite nature.

By “requisite nature” I assume he means the capacity to respond emotionally or instinctively rather than intellectually.

I’m a “refined, urban intellectual” (or at least I’d like to think I am). Yet visceral films are not at all opaque to me. Among my favorites:

So I have no difficulty enjoying and appreciating films in which blood gushes, limbs are hacked off, and people are beaten, shot, impaled, pierced by arrows, or blown to smithereens. But I prefer that the violence serves to illuminate character or drive the narrative. A verbose description of the character development and narrative arc in 300 would fit on an arrowhead. Apart from a couple of moments of genuine emotion late in the film, all that I could perceive was unrelenting violence filmed with technical bravura.

Admittedly, I was briefly captivated by Larry Fong‘s silvery, desaturated images, the artful slow- and stop-motion photography which faithfully replicates Frank Miller’s two-dimensional graphic novel, and the remarkably effective use of bluescreen filming. But Zack Snyder’s more-is-more aesthetic philosophy proved simultaneously exhausting yet emotionally unsatisfying.

As the battle progressed, I began to wonder how just 300 Spartans managed to hold off a force of Persians estimated by contemporary historians to number about 200,000. The image that came to mind was of John Wayne killing fifteen Indians without reloading his six-shooter. So I was relieved to find an explanation by Professor Ephraim Lytle:

according to Herodotus, Leonidas led an army of perhaps 7,000 Greeks. These Greeks took turns rotating to the front of the phalanx stationed at Thermoplyae where, fighting in disciplined hoplite fashion, they held the narrow pass for two days.

The film reflects historical reality in one regard: Spartan women enjoyed greater autonomy and influence than in any other Greek city-state. But, given the film’s breathtaking indifference to any kind of political correctness, it seems reasonable to conclude that the commanding presence of Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo does not demonstrate deference to the new orthodoxy that all works of fiction should feature strong female characters but is simply a cynical manipulation of that part of the female audience who desire something more ideologically satisfying than 300 oiled muscular guys.

More troubling is the central deceit upon which 300 depends: the unrelenting heterosexuality of the Spartans.

Pederastic scene: erastes (lover) touching chin and genitals of the eromenos (beloved)

It’s not as though I expected any kind of accurate depiction of homosexual relationships between the Spartan soldiers. 300 is, after all, a Hollywood movie produced by a homophobic culture and aimed, as the Cinema de Merde review points out:

primarily at boys aged 14-25. The bulk of this movie is made up of shots of muscled men wearing leather thongs. More than that, the primary theme of the movie is the glory and admiration of masculinity. And a lot of 14-25 year old boys can be made distinctly uncomfortable by spending two hours admiring muscle guys in leather thongs. Therefore, if the studios want this movie to succeed with its intended audience, they need to find a way to make it really, really NOT GAY.

Asked about the 60 million dollar budget, Zack Snyder explained: I wanted to make an R-rated movie and I wanted to make Frank Miller’s version of 300 with no stars. You present the studio with that formula and they go, ‘That’s a lose/lose/lose situation.’ I’m proud that they gave me that much money.

An R-rated movie based on Frank Miller’s 300 with no stars and a special emphasis on the pederasty that was codified into Spartan law. Sounds like a lose/lose/lose/lose situation. No money for you.

But I wish that the Spartan heterosexuality hadn’t been fabricated at the expense of demeaning homosexual relationships:

  • the Athenians ridiculed as “philosophers and boy-lovers” (whereas as Professor Lytle writes, while the Spartans were defending the pass, a vastly outnumbered fleet led by Athenians was holding off the Persians in the straits adjacent to Thermopylae); and
  • Xerxes, the Persian king, depicted as an effete homosexual with eye shadow, facial piercings, and a ton of bling (rather than a general capable of raising and leading an army of several hundred thousand).

Why am I bothered by this? Isn’t it, after all, just a mindless action flick with a laughable plot? Because I’ve always loved stories that depict a struggle against insurmountable odds, because the Battle of Thermopylae is a great story about the nobility of defeat, and because 300 is such a mediocre rendering of that story.

In his Variety review, Todd McCarthy suggests that 300 could have used some overhead or otherwise orienting shots to clarify the geography, just as some visual grace notes expressing genuine human emotion, rather than just macho belligerence, would have helpfully expanded the film’s range of impact.

Two scenes towards the end of the film bear out that view, offering a glimpse of how, with more intelligent direction, 300 could have been infinitely better: the grief and regret expressed by Artemis, Leonidas’ loyal captain and friend, at the death of his son is deeply moving, as is the overhead shot of the slain Spartans, its flattened perspective momentarily turning the scene of carnage into a still, elaborate fresco.

There are other films based upon the Battle of Thermopylae, including The 300 Spartans (which Frank Miller says changed the course of [his] creative life when he saw it as a seven year old boy in 1962) and Go Tell the Spartans (a low-budget 1978 film about American military advisors in the early days of the Vietnam War). I have both on order.

6 Responses to “300”

  • On April 9th, 2007 at 10:12 pm, John B wrote:
    Because I’ve always loved stories that depict a struggle against insurmountable odds, because the Battle of Thermopylae is a great story about the nobility of defeat, and because 300 is such a mediocre rendering of that story.

    That’s exactly how I felt when I walked away from 300 – “wow, wouldn’t a movie about the real battle of Thermopylae have been cool.”

    The special effects were amazing, though. Simply stunning.

  • On April 9th, 2007 at 11:52 pm, Shelley wrote:

    I loved Snakes on a Plane, but this one doesn’t even sound like something I’d want to get through Netflix, much less watch in a theater. And I’m not a refined, urban intellectual; but then, I’m also not a 14 year old boy.

  • On April 10th, 2007 at 12:03 am, John Robb wrote:

    Jonathon,

    Here’s one way to look at it: It’s the mindset/lens of a zealot, jihadi, or kamikazi. Complication detracts.

    John

  • On April 10th, 2007 at 12:46 am, Joe Clark wrote:

    John Oftheheart/Ofthecourt… is back!

  • On April 10th, 2007 at 10:49 am, ARJ wrote:

    I have not yet watched the film, but I have read 300, and I enjoyed Miller’s art in the book. Its strength is purely visual.

    The attitude to the Spartan’s sexuality is the same in the book as in the film, and the pedant in me found that very frustrating, especially since it’s my understanding that it was a deliberate choice on Miller’s part to diverge from historical fact (maybe because he just doesn’t like homosexuals? which really bugs me). I did think the story was rather shallow, but that seems to work better in the confines of a graphic novel– I will probably see the film, but maybe not in the cinema.

  • On May 10th, 2007 at 7:47 am, MrMike wrote:

    ‘The final revelation is that lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art.’ – Oscar Wilde

    Mind you I saw this film and it wasn’t history OR art, it was just a hot, steaming pile of crap.