Archive for the ‘300’ Category

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300 Reviews

March 12, 2007

Of course I saw 300 this weekend, you crazy geeks. As Frank Miller tales go, 300 is my Sin City. Somewhere around the halfway mark, somewhere after Lena Headey’s sex scene and just before the Immortals attack, it had become one of my favorite movies. It’s a spectacle. But you knew that already.

So let’s look at why some of the people reviewing this movie are numbskulls. Let’s start at the bottom of the heap:

A.O. Scott, New York Times: The Persians, pioneers in the art of facial piercing, have vastly greater numbers — including ninjas, dervishes, elephants, a charging rhino and an angry bald giant — but the Spartans clearly have superior health clubs and electrolysis facilities. They also hew to a warrior ethic of valor and freedom that makes them, despite their gleeful appetite for killing, the good guys in this tale. (It may be worth pointing out that unlike their mostly black and brown foes, the Spartans and their fellow Greeks are white.)

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: The effeteness of the debauched Persians, on the other hand, is indicated by the multiple piercings of their leaders.

Right. The piercings. So the Persians in 300 have a lot of piercings. I could tell by looking at them. Anyone could. But thank heavens you were here, movie reviewer. Tell me, though, how are facial piercings evidence of effeteness — are they overrefined or ineffectual?

This recurring issue with facial piercing, which seems to be the silver bullet that kills escapism for these joyless schmucks, keeps coming up in the movie’s negative reviews. This is pathetic. These reviewers gave the movie such a superficial look that the best criticism they can muster is that the bad guys sure do have a lot of jewelry. Cutting wit, to be sure.

The other motif in the negative reviews is the comparison between 300 and a video game. Apparently, highly stylized visuals are not suitable for two-hour cinematic experiences. Only realistic images are suitable for looking at in excess of 90 minutes, it seems. Unless we’re talking about animated movies. Or, say, The Third Man, which is about as realistic in its visuals as 300, separated only by the available technology of the age. (The assumption that Carol Reed or Fritz Lang would have been above CGI just because their careers are free of it is asinine, but that’s a point for another day.)

Yes, we get that the movie is highly stylized. It has a lot of CG elements, just like a video game, and the men in it sure do act manly. But writing that down does not constitute a review, you lazy gits. Associating visual effects with video games is outdated fashion reporting. It is certainly not a film critique — is this really as deep as you can look at a movie?

Imagine I asked you what you thought of 300. You say, “It looks like a video game.” First, you could have made that conclusion from the fucking trailer. Reach farther. Second, you sound out-of-date, as if the very phrase “like a video game” connoted some kind of measure of quality. Then you say, “The guys in it sure don’t wear much.” If that, too, is expected to contain some kind of inherent value judgement, then I can presume you’re a juvenile dolt uncomfortable with the very idea of naked men, or simply a homophobe. Good show, sir.

This is what so many of the reviews of 300 amount to. But even a lot of the favorable reviews don’t go much beyond this kind of surface-scratching — they only go the extra step of excusing it in the name of spectacle and escapism. And that’s fair enough, because at least these reviewers seemed to make the attempt to suspend their disbelief and enter the picture. You reviewers who chide the bare chests, bloody spears and painted backdrops sound like you didn’t even try to be an audience. So, not to put too fine a point on it, forget you ineffectual posers. You’re the chaff.

This subtle and lazy criticism continues in the way so many reviewers attacked more substantial parts of the picture, though. More than one reviewer pointed out the characters’ philosophical and political attitudes, without actually saying much of consequence about them. Again, we get assumptions rather than criticism:

Kyle Smith, New York Post: Even the softer voice of Leo’s wife (Lena Headey) tells him not, “Pick up a gallon of milk on your way back” but “Come back with your shield or on it.” Like “no prisoners,” which also pops up here, this is a familiar battle cry that makes no sense unless violence is war’s goal rather than its means.

So our “hero” is a psycho, which puts a hollow at the center of the story.

At least this approaches actual criticism, though rather than asking any meaningful questions of the material, the reviewer simply arrives with his conclusions, then states them as if, obviously, this is the way we feel about these things. First, has Kyle Smith never heard the “on your shield” farewell before 300? No, he says it’s “familiar.” So is his criticism seriously that 300 is bad because it did not revise out this popular reference to ancient Greek culture? Second, shall we poll the number of soldiers throughout history who, having died for a cause, would agree that the only reason they fought was to die? (Never mind that “Come back with your shield or on it” is not a battle cry.)

On a filmic level, the idea that psychotic protagonists hollow out the center of a story suggests Kyle Smith is a cultural elitist (ancient foreigners who do not think like us are “psychos”) who has never heard of an anti-hero. This is even if we grant that his definition of “psycho” protagonist — one who is willing to die for his cause — is valid. I don’t.

See, the poison idea in these reviews is this: Making a movie about Spartans is bad. Smith isn’t arguing that having Queen Gorgo ask for a gallon of milk would be better characterization — he’s arguing that simply depicting these kind of militant characters with alien philosophies is bad movie-making.

There’s a more insidious thing going on here, and in similar reviews, though, and it both scares and irks the hell out of me:

Tom Charity, CNN.com: Gerard Butler’s glaring, glowering, bombastic Spartan king Leonidas is the Jim Jones of military strategists: never retreat, never surrender, death on the battlefield is the greatest glory. The rhetoric echoes sentiments expressed by Japanese imperial loyalists in Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima,” but there’s no criticism implied here. These are the good guys.

The implication here is that we, in America, regard (or should regard) movies with protagonists we do not agree with as bad movies. Escapism or not, ahistorical fantasy or not, it is improper to explore or even present a viewpoint distasteful to the (what? platonic?) audience without criticizing it? In other words, movies should not contain opinions, they should only recite our own opinions back to us?

That statement, “These are the good guys,” is the real slug for me. As if it neatly explains just why this poor foolish movie is messed up in the head: it doesn’t agree with you.

Here, as an example of taking this kind of skin-deep critique to a more thoughtful place, I’ll highlight why 300 is a wonderfully provocative film for smart people: If death on the battlefield is not the greatest glory, what is? The Spartans believe a beautiful death is the highest achievement, and the movie asks us to imagine what a people who think that way might be like. Perhaps it fails in taking us inside the Spartan mind, but simply asking us to make that philosophical journey, to suspend our disbelief, is not bad.

We don’t have to agree that death on the battlefield is the greatest glory, but it implicitly provokes a compelling follow-up question, doesn’t it? If death on the battlefield is not the greatest glory, what is? The Spartans have a clearly defined pinnacle for achievement in their society. We may not agree with it, but can we even agree on what the greatest glory is for our society? I don’t know, but 300 has me asking people about it. That’s a degree of success, in my opinion.

Again in the CNN.com review:

Tom Charity: Nevertheless, it’s not so much the body count or even the blood lust that’s disturbing. It’s that the film, with its macho militarism, seems out of step in a war-weary time.

The implicit assumption here is that movies should not resemble pro-war sentiment during “a war-weary time.” That’s a fair opinion, but a lousy assumption. I’m not sure I’d sign a petition that said certain movies should fall into step during wartime. I don’t think it’s the business of filmmakers, writers, artists and actors to speak out against things during wartime — I think it’s just their job to speak out.

This is an aside, but I’ve got to mention this, too:

Tom Charity, CNN.com: It’s noticeable, too, how Miller and his collaborators strain to disavow any whiff of homosexuality (well known throughout ancient Greece), even as they strip their buff warriors down to highly impractical leather briefs. Athenians are dismissed as “boy-lovers,” but Spartans are real men.

Here Charity seems to be implying that ancient Greece was all about the gay love — because setting a movie in ancient Greece and not featuring homosexuality is “strain(ing) to disavow.” Uh, okay. You know, men loved men in every period of history, but we’re not straining when we leave it out of, say, Last of the Mohicans. Charity seems to be trying to imply that 300‘s machismo is chavinistic, but I’m not sure you need to be either pro-gay or anti-gay just because you have half-naked dudes in your movie. (To be fair, the movie really just seems to be pro-nudity, which is fine as long as you look like Gerard Butler or Lena Headey.)

And since we’re talking about it, homosexuality was not “well known throughout ancient Greece.” That’s the worst kind of I-heard-it-said-once-so-now-I’m-educated historical claptrap. Homosexuality, as a term and as a strict binary state, is an invention of the 19th century (AD), you schnook. The Greeks weren’t all gay — they just didn’t think kissing men defined your whole identity. Deal with it.

But I digress. Tom Charity’s opinion is invalidated, anyway, when he writes:

“Meanwhile, Xerxes, the Persian king, is bedecked in jewelry and facial piercings, and has an effeminate, clean-shaven look. He’s also distinctly dark-skinned and not at all Persian-looking.”

Again with the facial piercings. Also, filmmakers take note, that Tom Charity says it’s okay for white Scots to play Greeks but not okay for Brazilians to play Persians. You have your orders.

Dana Stevens’ review at Slate.com has real substance, but still exhibits some of the lazy reactionary thinking of those lesser reviews:

Dana Stevens, Slate.com: But Leonidas is not above playing the tyrant himself. When a messenger from Xerxes arrives bearing news Leonidas doesn’t like, he hurls the man, against all protocol, down a convenient bottomless well in the center of town.

This is a great point. But Stevens dresses it in the idea that, I guess, two opposing armies in an historical epic must be utterly opposed. Their positions but be completely clear, with no overlap. Certainly, I guess, if the protagonist’s army gets the loud choral music, they must have moral and philosophical centers that are just the same as ours, out in the cheap seats.

Dana Stevens, Slate.com:Another of the Spartans’ less-than-glorious customs is the practice of eugenics, hurling any less-than-perfect infant off a cliff onto a huge pile of baby skeletons.

Again, one whole movie cannot be about people we do not agree with. I guess the literati have spoken. Remember, courage isn’t courage unless it is displayed by your own team.

Dana Stevens also makes a pretty solid argument about the fact that all the non-white people in the movie are bad guys. All the lesbians, all the amputees, all the effeminate men, all the hunchbacks, all the, uh, rhinos, elephants, archers and goat-headed dudes — they’re all bad guys. That’s true. Sometimes that can be a sign of a subtle (even unintentional) insinuation. But sometimes it’s because you’re depicting a culture of eugenically obsessed warriors with a national pride that often spills over into arrogance. Is it so crazy to think that you’d depict the enemies of Spartans as embellished and deformed peoples from many cultures? That is, as people who are everything the Spartans are not? What’s more, is Stevens implying that director Zach Snyder should’ve tossed some black actors and lesbians onto the Spartan team just to even things out — or that it would’ve been a better movie if he had?

In all seriousness, I’ll grant that casting some white dudes on the Persian side and some non-white dudes on the Spartan side wouldn’t have brought the film’s logic to pieces. But, still, I think Stevens is missing the counter-point that is built into the story. It’s the great tangle of concepts that, to me, makes the subtext of 300 (if you’ll grant that it’s there) much more compelling than the modern-American-action-heroes-versus-orcs movie that so many critics seem to be demanding. Devin Faraci at CHUD nails it:

Devin Faraci, CHUD.com: But what’s funny about the whole film is how it is unable to control its own metaphors because of the ambiguity of the Iraq situation. Is Leonidas a stand in for Bush? Or could Xerxes be Bush? After all, he’s the invader, coming in with a multi-national coalition with more forces and better technology than the Spartans have. The Persian comes from a corrupted culture of depravity and sexuality, while the Spartans are all about moral rectitude. And being a smaller force, the Spartans are very willing to engage in savage tactics that the Persians see as outside the rules of war. It’s not hard to imagine an insurgent in Iraq strongly identifying with Leonidas and his men. And it’s actually harder for us in the audience to really identify with these guys – I mean, who among us is the least bit interested in dying for our beliefs?

Right or wrong in his conclusions, Faraci reveals that the movie is “wonderfully confused.” That is a meaningful criticism. The movie doesn’t boil neatly down into an allegory, but critics who assume that, because it is highly stylized and vaguely (vaguely) historical, it presumably should. And, thus, we must either agree or disagree with the allegory to determine whether or not we can like the movie or think it fulfills its mission well.

That’s nonsense. 300 looks unlike any other movie. It revitalizes the comic in a gorgeous and imaginative vision, without being so reverential that it can’t explore new material. It is a spectacle.

For me, the places where 300 lacks are the places where it reaches back into conventional Hollywood historical epic tripe. Historical epics have taught us that every army ever massed has either been fighting for freedom or against it, that gunpowder has been invented to somebody’s shock and awe in every historical age, and that wars generally happen in just a couple of days. 300 steps in every one of those piles of shit, but it didn’t really bother me.

What bothered me was when Snyder failed to grab hold of real opportunities to show us how much the Spartans are not like us. To me, their talk of owning slaves and of discarding weaklings is about as clear a demonstration of the Spartan’s hypocrisy as you can get without reverting to brutish expository arguments between characters (though the movie does that anyway — the dialogue in Gorgo’s and Theron’s scenes is especially stale). The Spartans think of their goal as freedom — and it is the freedom to be their own country that they’re fighting for — but it’s not what we’d call freedom. It seems that for some stiff critics, a movie being about people who want things other than what we want is too much of a disconnect to tolerate.

I wanted more of it. When one of the named Spartan characters gets slain in battle, I wanted his friends to feel grief (’cause they’re still human) but the rest of the army to cheer and congratulate the slain soldier’s friends and family. Spartans say they revere the beautiful death in battle, but we never really see them do it. We see Stelios giddy at the idea that he’ll die against a worthy foe, but I don’t think we get enough praise of the fallen. We certainly do get too much of the same old war-movie stuff like, “It’s an honor to die at your side.” That kind of talk I can get elsewhere. And have. For a long time.

The thing is, you don’t have to like 300. A movie that’s as stylized and wonderfully absurd as it is can’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But this kind of lazy criticism that implies a movie is bad simply because it didn’t adhere to rules of a genre it is clearly wandering away from, or the rules of movie-making in wartime, or the rules of historical homosexuality, or the rules of superficial racial symbolism, or the rules of physics — this kind of criticism is shallow to the point of being worthless. And no matter what you say, there is no intelligent spectrum on which a movie gets better the farther you think it gets from being like a video game.

Oh, and let’s everyone be sure to tell Kyle Smith at the New York Post to go fuck himself for stooping so low as to say that 300 is a movie that would have “Adolf’s boys” “heil-fiving” each other.

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