Friday, March 23, 2007

Freedom isn't free.

300 is a rare thing: an utter failure of both form and content. The film, an adaptation of the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, is a constant visual assault - a mishmash of iconic hero tableaux punctuated by lovingly rendered moments of decapitation and dismemberment and accompanied by a deafening cock-rock soundtrack. All of this is apparently designed to repeatedly hammer home two points: the Spartans were awesome and the Persians were homos. This is very faithful to the novel, and to Miller's xenophobic, phallocentric and frankly ridiculous worldview. But the comic form serves as a perfect frame for Miller's one-dimensional brand of storytelling, which finds a proper context in a broadly representational medium. Robert Rodriguez was smart to adapt Sin City with a healthy dose of irony - as 300 repeatedly proves, this hogwash can't be played straight. Where Rodriguez' film worked as an amoral thrill ride, director Zach Snyder (who showed promise with 2004's Dawn of the Dead) makes the grave mistake of telling this story with a straight face. The result is a film that Leni Riefenstahl would have made if she had an iMac.

The film, like the graphic novel, recounts the Battle of Thermopylae in the simplest possible terms: 300 Spartans, led by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), manage to stand against the massive Persian army for three days. That's more or less the plot, but this should not suggest that 300 tells a story, although an omnipresent narrator spells out practically every single moment should you get confused. The bulk of the film is an extended battle sequence in which the Spartans stand up against increasingly daunting opposition from their enemies (the film is in many ways reminiscent of Mike Tyson's Punch-Out). This non-narrative is matched by Snyder's monotonous visual strategy, which mimics Rodriguez' techniques but not the director's style or wit. Glance at 300's IMDb trivia page and you'll find a wealth of information about all the cutting-edge effects programs used on the film; unfortunately, these tools are not put to use in an imaginative way. The film's images lack a proper sense of scale - every shot is big and loud (and usually slo-mo), and the result is dramatically inert and aesthetically boring.

The film also rests uneasily in a gray area between fantasy and historical fiction, making it unclear whether we are to take its thornier messages at face value. It feels almost too obvious to dwell on 300's hatred of non-whites, women and the disabled, especially since Snyder has repeatedly protested that those who dare to analyze his film as a text have "missed the point" (an interesting statement, as it implies that 300 has a point). If the film's incendiary messages were the result of a singular vision, as with The Passion of the Christ, the result would at least be perversely fascinating. But Snyder's defiant anti-intellectualism is actually far more disturbing - if the film lacks a real authorial perspective, then it becomes a sort of Rorshach test upon which the audience can project its worst instincts. The Persian army, which is inferior to the Aryan superheroes, may not be intended as a comment on its modern-day descendants, but for Snyder to ignore the ways that his film might resonate with towelhead-fearing patriots is not only irresponsible, it's pretty frigging stupid.

If there's one theme in 300 that cannot be written off as unintentional, it's the film's fear of sexual deviance. The Persians are depicted as a bunch of faggots, dykes and perverts engaging in all forms of decadence (menage a trois - shock horror!), and Xerxes is a slender, deep-throated pretty boy with a perfect manicure. When one considers how much of the film's action hinges on who will or will not kneel before Xerxes, it becomes clear that the Spartans are not fighting for freedom so much as trying to escape submission in any form. 300 is ultimately a movie about every red-blooded American male's deep-seated, unshakable fear of getting fucked in the ass. As the foundation for a narrative, it's completely retarded. But had the filmmakers followed in the example of Walter Sobchak, they could have at least had a hell of a tagline.


Anonymous said...

I was surprised to see that you disliked 300, but after reading your review, I see where you're coming from.

I've noticed alot of films lately that I've gone to see lately require sort of a frame of mind for them.

Ghost Rider is far from a great movie, but I found if you think about as "I'm watching a comic book", you get a better feel. Short sight gags, corny dialogue, and over-the-top fantastic story are base elements for what most American comic books are like, the move sort of plays on that.

TMNT was more recently something that I went in with high hopes, but felt like I was going to be disappointed. Wanting to see something that made it enjoyable to be a fan of the turtles, but see something that had hints of going a bit deeper than the Saturday morning cartoons I grew up on. I was pleasently surprised, with more depth that I was expecting, but still a good amount of fun for the kid at heart.

Finally, 300, was something that I wanted to just go in and see something crazy. I was expecting something that took Frank Miller's work and the history lesson and made it over embelleshed. I saw as just that, going crazy with the story. Over time the story gets built up, tweaked, and slightly changed for the sake of making it more interesting. 300 is not the Battle of Thermopylae from your history book, it's the tall tale campfire story.

But the "freedom isn't free" line sucked, I'll give you that much.

Dr. Criddle said...

"a film that Leni Riefenstahl would have made if she had an iMac"....I love it!

Jules called me up and told me the very same thing. He thought it was the racist, militant, anti-Middle Eastern bunch of hooey he ever saw in his life. Funny thing is, that hearing this from you guys actually makes me want to go see it more than hearing it's a "new standard in filmmaking" from the critics at Maxim.

Brad said...

I started reading your blog when I came across your review of "The Fountain" - a movie (and a soundtrack) which resonated with me for months (my heart still stops everytime I hear the opening chords to 'The Last Man,' the first song off the sound track). I've enjoyed, and frequently agreed with, your views and also appreciate your writing abilities.

I thought I would give my two cents, however, on your 300 review. Firstly, any review which references both Leni Reifenstahl and Walter Sobcheck is obviously something I'm going to enjoy reading. Well played with those references, thats top notch ;)

I think it's important to note that 300 (the story; Frank Miller's romanticized, one-sided telling of the Battle of Thermopylae) is a deliberately biased, one-sided completely Greco-centric *legend* of how the battle actually took place. Many reviews I read focus on this fact and strike the film (and the story) down for not being more fair and more politically correct.

I think if you can accept the basic viewpoint of the story - that 300 is more legend and fantasy than reality - the movie itself becomes easier to handle (on a social/intellectual level). If you try to compare it to Gladiator or Braveheart or any other pseudo-epic films, you start comparing apples and oranges. For me, 300 was a purely artistic film. Whatever it implied about Persian culture with it's dichotomy of visuals and depictions is taken within the context of the story "300" itself being a racist, one-sided legend of how the defeat at Thermopylae was actually a heroic last stand. And from that perspective, things like the feminine depiction of Xerxes aren't pointed statements about America's racist views or the state of Western society, but just an aspect of Frank Miller's tall-tale. We can reject its social commentary while still enjoying the presentation of the lore.

My only real complaint was the pandering to the American public with all the bullshit about "Freedom isn't free." That wasn't in the graphic novel and was a blatant attempt to give the American people something to identify with. I would have appreciated if the Spartans felt more alien, as they do in the novel.

Regardless, I love your and appreciate your viewpoint, which is always conveyed clearly and eloquently.


Andrew Bemis said...

Jack: You read Maxim now?

Doug/beee_rad: I think I could go with the "embellishment" angle if the film didn't also ask us to feel for these guys. The problem with using a "print the legend" approach with this story is that it can be used to defend anything -if you separate the message from the medium, than it's all just pretty pictures. It's not that I'm adamantly PC - I liked The Passion of the Christ, because it was a work of geniune (albeit cracked) artistry and a compelling, singular moviegoing experience. And even if I were to strip away the incendiary elements of 300, I just don't think it's particularly fun or visually interesting. I will admit that the trailer, cut to a Nine Inch Nails song, did pique my interest. So at least the inevitable 300/Sevendust YouTube mashups will be a hoot (and not that different from the movie itself, just more honest).

That said, I'm glad to see some discussion brewing around here. As Tom Waits has said, if there are two people who know the same things, one of them isn't necessary. Stick around.

Dr. Criddle said...

Hah! No, I most certainly do not read Maxim. That would go against my fundamental basic beliefs. But the movie posters all bore, in big bold letters across the top, (let me just dig in my junk drawer full of old newspapers) "A landmark motion picture!" - Peter Hammond, Maxim. Others said it was the greatest piece of cinema since The Matrix or some such nonsense. Which translates to me into "save your eight bucks for TMNT."

By the way, your six-track radio is kicking all sorts of ass.

Gregory Joseph said...

I think you hit the nail on the head. A few observations:

Snyder set out to, like Rodriguez, transform Frank Miller's 300 into a film. This is fine. Yet, if we are to judge this attempt, I can't see how we can see this attempt as anything but a monumental failure. While Miller has always been rather conservative (his graphic novel with S. Bisley, "Bad Boy," imagines a fascist-liberal government where meat-eating is illegal), his brand of libertarianism has always felt more Robert E. Howard than Ayn Rand. That nasty video-game version of the "will to power" notion of modern militaristic adolescent culture ultimately prevails here. And while 300 the comic does contain bonehead phrases like "come get some," I can't picture Miller ever stooping to the level of "freedom isn't free" (I instinctively groaned at this moment in the film).

Also, what exactly is the virtue in translating a comic to film, to this degree? There is no great reason for computer animating the wolf in the film to fit Miller's drawing. It looks like a cartoon. The fact that Snyder is willing to even render a wolf in the style of Miller--which doesn't work alongside flesh and blood actors-- makes the choice appear arbitrary. Rodriguez' work on Sin City was exciting because there was a tension present, there was a sense of creative adaptation.

In interviews, Snyder sez the film is "90% accurate." This is ridiculous. Not only did the Spartans have a near policy of homosexuality among soldiers (the idea being that if you were fighting to protect someone you loved from harm, you would fight more ferociously), but Sparta also had slaves, and populated its military partly with merceneries. It's nearly impossible not to see 300 as a thin analog for any fairy tale version of the absolute superiority of western culture and military might (this seems to be the final message of the film, as far as I can tell--the last few lines spell this out, I think).

Worst of all: Snyder's smug attitude, in the wake of 300's across-the-board critical panning, seems to be that this is a film for "the fans," and not the critics. This is disturbing because this implies that formalistic big-budget films are not supposed to be: interesting, challenging, intellectual, subversive, or in any other way rich with content. This is disturbing.

Flipping around Direct TV at my parents' place, I heard a news anchor ask, as a program was going to break, "Next: Is "300" the future of cinema?"

Sheesh let's hope not.

Andrew Bemis said...

Total agreement, Greg. As for that anchor's question, I suspect that 300 is going to date quickly. There's a precedent for this sort of thing with Rambo: First Blood Part II, a film that also happened to arrive at just the right moment, made a ton of money, had everyone talking about its political implications and possible influence, and flamed out just as quickly, its influence limited to lower-budget knockoffs. That said, I'd rather watch Rambo again.

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