Monday, October 6, 2014

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE (2014)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*

Frank Miller's second venture into Grecian formulas-- entitled XERXES--  has not yet been published, so it's impossible to tell whether or not its film adaptation, 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE, follows it closely or not.  While I was not a huge fan of the original 2006 film, I had to admit that it had a certain "feverish" power, full of wild fantasies of freakish flesh and racial transgression. Since RISE lacks this visual inventiveness-- which is generally present even in Miller's worst work-- I speculate that the filmmakers may have had to fill in a lot of holes in the narrative. Script and production were provided by Zach Synder, director of the original film, but actual directing chores devolved to one Noam Murro.

The film is based upon two crucial battles in the history of archaic Greek-Persian relations: the Battle of Marathon and the ten-years-later Battle of Salamis. As other critics have pointed out, RISE is in no way historically accurate regarding either battle, but that in itself is no criterion for judging the film's value as art.

Much of the symbolic power of the first 300 arose from tapping into political myths about the masculinity of the West vs. "the demi-femininity" (as I term it) of the East. Miller's fierce and uncompromising Spartans became the very incarnation of masculine power. But RISE, presumably in line with the unpublished graphic novel, chooses to investigate a less extreme representative of Hellenic culture: Themistocles, an Athenian general, who in the real world was justly famed for his leadership both at Marathon and Salamis.

Miller's fantasy-version of the Persian king Xerxes-- an eight-foot-tall Black African covered with body-piercings-- is the brains behind the assault on Salamis, just as he was in 300's assault on Thermopylae.  This time, possibly in answer to the many criticisms of Miller's having made the Persian overlord look distinctly un-Persian, the script for RISE provides a hypothetical reply. In youth Xerxes looks like any other Persian noble, but it is strongly suggested that he undergoes his transformation into Big Black Pierced Dude as a result of making a deal with unspecified dark powers.  This might open the narrative up to mythic associations between the East and the Judeo-Christian underworld, but since that concept goes nowhere, it's more likely that no one was thinking of anything more profound than a "continuity fix."

Xerxes, however, remains in the background far more than in the 2006 film, for the central villain is the female warrior Artemisia. In a rare combiation of tropes, she is both the evil genius who foments Xerxes' conversion to inhumanity-- she not only encourages his transformation but also kills all the lord's other advisers-- and his general on the field of battle.  Whereas Xerxes is a huge male who projects an air of effiminacy, Artemisia is a beautiful woman who proves herself adept at battle and leadership. She's also Greek by birth, but has turned against her people because in her youth Greek soldiers sold her as a sex-slave. A Persian general saved her from that degrading status, and trained her in the masculine arts of combat.

Like Themistocles, Artemisia is based upon a historical female battle-commander. But for the sake of a good story, the two of them are opposed romantically as well as combatively. During a conference between the two generals, Artemisia takes a fancy to the Athenian and tries to convert him to her dream of Persian supremacy. Like many heroes before him, Themistocles is devoted to the dream of democracy and refuses to switch sides-- though unlike most of those heroes, Themistocles does allow himself a quick fuck with the lady general *before* he turns her down.  This naturally leads to a bloody duel between the two during the climactic naval battle, and the best line of the film: the Athenian general strikes Artemisia during their duel, and she remarks, "You hit harder than you fuck!"

The metaphenomenal content of RISE is far less emphasized than in the original 300: Xerxes' possibly-Satanic transformation is the only uncanny aspect of the Evil Orientals. The samurai-masked "immortals" from the first film appear in RISE, but to far less effect, though they do qualify the film for the "outre outfits" trope.

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