Archive for April 4, 2008

“This is Sparta — we’ll just set aboot ye.”

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2008 by dcairns

Watched “300” at last. I’d been wary of it and reluctant to spend money on something I expected to disapprove of. But a friend loaned us a copy with the suggestion that it was more politically nuanced and ambiguous than we thought, and since it was free, we thought, “What the hell.”

Leave your head at the box office

The ambiguity was supposed to stem from the portrayal of Sparta as a nation funded on institutionalized child abuse — but I’m not certain how much weight to give this. On the one hand, the film is literally about a historical conflict, and that aspect of Spartan society is pretty well-known. In a populist film, you don’t ignore the one thing your audience might remember about the subject from school. Then again, the film’s attitude to infanticide and child abuse, via its narrator, is broadly approving — so I think we have to see a level of irony at work (or else get really angry that Frank Miller and Zak Snyder are pro-child abuse). If we DO see the film as a right-wing tract (and a glance at Miller’s comic The Dark Knight Returns should be enough to clear up any questions about his stance, though it also shows that he likes to mix things up and add some questioning liberalism here and there) then the ritualised brutalising of Spartan children can be read as metaphor: “a nation must be tough (not quite like this but you get the idea) to protect itself.”

Snyder's Oracle in 300

Bava's Oracle in Hercules and the Haunted World

Snyder’s Oracle in “300”. Bava’s Oracle in HERCULES AND THE HAUNTED WORLD.

The plot: Xerxes of Persia (eight-foot tall mutant) leads an army of millions to attack Greece, and demands that King Leonidas of Sparta kneel before him. But Leonidas — a Scotsman — refuses to bend the knee. Hampered by a corrupt senate and other political/religious forces, Leonidas leads an illegal mission of three hundred crack troops to defend his borders.

I think this reads as a fanciful replay of Iraq: instead of invading, Sparta is defending itself. Instead of being a bullying giant, Sparta is cast as the underdog. Persia stands in as a good geographic substitute for modern Iraq, and the Persians are portrayed as inbred mutant subhuman orcs, or else as very very ethnic. (And anybody who’s “ugly” or “weird-looking” in this film is automatically a bad guy.) The VO, most of which is badly written, badly delivered and unnecessary, constantly stresses their “darkness,” even referring to Xerxes’ “dark will”. Even as a portrait of ancient Persia this is offensive, leaving aside any modern connections.

(It doesn’t matter if the comic book source predates the present conflict. Tolkein likewise predates the Iraq mess, and Peter Jackson’s Frodo franchise looks irresistably like the heartwarming fantasy of good versus evil that GW Bush tried to sell the world.)

And the language of the film implicitly implies that the Greeks are modern and reasoning, their religion akin to Christianity (“Tonight we dine in Hell,” not Hades) and the Persians are mystical, superstitious, pagan, with all the western value judgements that implies.

Caged Wheat

There is quite a bit to be said in favour of the film-making, when you ignore politics (or better, when you keep politics in mind but look at the other aspects). From the trailer I expected to find the constant CGI and digital retouching claustrophobic and airless. In the movie I didn’t. It is what it is, but the constant magic-hour lighting (it’s always either dusk or dawn in Greece, apparently) smears everything into a misty Impressionist glow, which is much more effective and attractive than the pin-sharp greeting card look of BEOWULF. We accept that nothing is real and nothing exists outside the frame, or even in it, but that goes with the territory. The fight scenes are impressively coherent — Snyder entertains himself nicely with visual tricks and impossible stunts, but we don’t lose out on spatial awareness, we can see who’s hitting whom (unlike in GLADIATOR, BATMAN BEGINS etc) and even when figures are knocked flying through the air like skittles, they maintain a believable sense of heft and meat— there’s none of the obviously-rendered, weightless digital maquettes we’re used to. And the filmic choreography of it all, with time slowing down and speeding up in spurts of violence, is beautiful in itself.

There’s even humour. Although Leonidas is annoying from his odd beard to his drawn-on six-pack to his constant ROARING, he has a certain dry wit, delivered by Gerald Butler with a touch of Sean Connery’s wryness (and a Greek King with a Scots accent echos Connery’s turn as Theseus in TIME BANDITS. Listening to Butler is like being tickled all the time from an unknown direction.) It’s much more effective than the stabs at comedy in Zemeckis’ BEOWULF, or the LORD OF THE RINGS films. There Peter Jackson, by nature a humorist, struggled to find any light-hearted expression that wouldn’t render his whole myth-cycle absurd. Lame jokes about cow-pats and dwarf-tossing violated the pompous tone and derailed the movies from their inescapably simplistic route.

Seven inches of plastic pleasure

Where “300” does create ambiguity, or at least confusion, is in its sexual politics. While the only prominent female characters are shown nude, both are politically powerful. While Queen Gorgo (Gorgo? Really?) is sexually humiliated by a corrupt senator, she gets to avenge herself in a punch-the-air “feminist” moment.

And while the Spartan males are all bred to be dead butch, and speak scornfully of the “boy-lovers” in Crete, they are portrayed in a blatantly homo-erotic fashion. The innate contradiction has the same amusing quality as the queer sexuality of Italian peplum films. Something that seemsintended to be read as super-straight comes across as inescapably super-camp. The climactic massacre looks like the death of Saint Sebastian re-staged as a Busby Berkeley number. Even the fact that Leonidas screws Gorgo (his other beard?) from behind, seems suggestive of sexual ambivalence. This aspect of the film is what caused many critics to sneer, but it’s actually the most interesting and nuanced thing on offer.

An 'arrowing experience

It’s quite possible that Snyder doesn’t consider his film right-wing or allegorical or possessed of any particular meaning at all. Defenders on the IMDb talk of how it’s “a shame” that people have to “spoil things” by looking for racism or politics or, like, meaning. Snyder’s DAWN OF THE DEAD remake, which also had very good bits, was remarkable for the way it stripped the Romero mythos of any subtext or resonance whatsoever (while Romero’s own films have been getting more and more strident and direct). And his next film is an adaptation of the seminal graphic novel Watchmen, which was written by Alan Moore, an anarchist of the left. But politics tends to creep in, whether a director intends it or not. I won’t be altogether surprised if Ozymandias, the super-rich industrialist who manufactures a fake war on terror, emerges as hero of Snyder’s WATCHMEN.


Quote of the Day: shades of memory

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , on April 4, 2008 by dcairns

Jean-Pierre Melville: ‘The war period was awful, horrible and … marvellous!’

The Boys in the Backroom

Rui Nogueira: ‘So the quotation from Georges Courteline with which L’ARMEE DES OMBRES opens is a reflection of your own feelings — “Unhappy memories! Yet be welcome, for you are my distant youth.”‘

Jean-Pierre Melville: ‘Precisely. I love that phase and I think it’s extraordinarily true. I suffered a lot during the first months of my military service, and I thought it hardly possible that a man as witty, intelligent and sensitive as Courteline could have written Les Gaîtes de L’Escadron, whereas of course he too had been very unhappy during his service. The one day, thinking over my past, I suddenly understood the charm that “unhappy memories” can have. As I grow older, I look back with nostalgia on the years from 1940 to 1944, because they are part of my youth.’

~ from Melville, by Rui Nogueira.

No profound observations from me. But I love L’ARMEE DES OMBRES (translators please note : it’s The Army of the Shadows, not The Army in the Shadows) dearly, and would recommend it as an excellent place either to get started on an appreciation of Melville, or as an alternative point of contact if you’ve seen one of his crime thrillers and been left cold by it. I like the thrillers a lot, but this is something else.

Nic of Time

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on April 4, 2008 by dcairns

Sung by Tom Robinson, written by Robinson and Peter Gabriel. Directed by Nicolas Roeg. Think of it as a little unknown movie by the maestro Roeg. Hey, it’s better than FULL BODY MASSAGE. And you can certainly see Roegian themes and concerns and techniques at play in it. I was a little doubtful when it suddenly went all “video technique” at the end, but in fact the FX are used with taste and aren’t inappropriate at all.

Strangely, I know a few people associated with the Great Man. Screenwriter David Solomons (5 CHILDREN AND IT) was hired to write a first draft script based on the life of a German WWI hero who was sent to Auschwitz during WWII, never to be seen again. Roeg’s regular script collaborator Allan Scott was producing.

If you’ve ever seen Roeg interviewed, you’ll have noticed his tendency to burble away in a semi-coherent fashion, like THIS GUY, occasionally coming out with an unheralded flash of brilliance. I asked David S about this, and he sort of agreed. Apparently one of Roeg’s big ideas was that this film was “the ultimate story of man’s inhumanity to man.”


David S was faced with a problem. The real-life personage on whom this film was to be based had a very heavily-documented life. Mountains of research had to be digested. But at the moment he vanished behind the gates of Auschwitz, nothing whatever is known of his fate — although we certainly know enough about what happened to other people in that annexe of hell.

The script wasn’t getting written. Finally David S steeled himself, told himself the research was done and the only thing to do was to begin work on the actual writing, he opened a document in Final Draft — and the phone rang.

Call Me

Roeg: “I just wanted to say that, the more I think about it, the more I feel this IS the ultimate story of man’s inhumanity to man.”

Roegs rings off and then David stares at the blank screen computer until his forehead bleeds.

Deep Red