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