Tuesday, December 13, 2011

300 (2006)

FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

It's been a while since I read Frank Miller's "300" graphic novel, but as I recall, Zach Snyder's film-adaptation of the comic is reasonably true to the original, apart from adding a few fillips (the subplot concerning Queen Gorgo, wife of the film's hero King Leonidas).

In interviews Miller asserted that he became interested in the subject of the Battle of Thermopylae after seeing the 1962 historical film THE 300 SPARTANS.  That film was a reasonably "straight" naturalistic depiction of the historical events, but both Miller and his adaptor Snyder were less interested in facts than in a sort of fever-dream translation of those events.  Snyder in particular defended 300 from detractors by asserting that the audience was in some sense seeing the events "darkly," as through a subjective glass: that it's "an opera, not a documentary."  Snyder would play with this subjectivized mentality once again in his equally operatic (but less interesting) SUCKER PUNCH.

I've mentioned in my review of CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR that whenever I see a historical situation depicted in such a way as to distort known facts, I don't consider it fantasy in the "marvelous" sense, but it may often be an "uncanny" fantasy.  The plot of 300-- in which the heroic 300 Spartans sustain a holding action against an army comprised of millions of invading Persians-- is not the source of the uncanny metaphenomenality, however. Rather, this phenomenality springs principally from the grab-bag visual characterizations of the Persians, who are explicitly said to have marshalled against Greece all the strange powers and cultures of Asia. (Technically Africa finds its way into the mix as well.)  In so doing 300 continues a long mythic tradition perpetuated in Europe, in which the progressive, often masculinist Occident is favorably compared with the repressive, backward and demi-feminine Orient.  Tennyson said it best in the poem "Lockley Hall:"

Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.
Thro' the shadow of the globe we sweep into the younger day;
Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.
Snyder's film certainly spins a similar story, crediting the stand of the 300 Spartans with keeping the Eastern menace at bay and making possible Greece's promotion of "reason" and "justice" in later European civilizations (though the film, like the comic, uses their values as little more than buzzwords).  The real impetus of 300 is not about reason or justice, but about the exaltation of the masculine virtue of "hardness" as against the relative softness and femininity of the Orient.
As I noted above, though, this vision of "the forbidden East" takes in pretty much everything that ever seems menacing to Occidental culture.  Thus Persian king Xerxes is figured (as the illo above shows) as an eight-foot-tall black man with a fey attitude and multiple body piercings.  In the world of 300 Persia's greatest fighters, the historical "Immortals," are outfitted with faux-Japanese metal masks and ninja-like garments.  At one point the defending Spartans even beat back an attack which they regard as "magic," though the attack is actually comprised of nothing but incendiary devices, perhaps fueled by that great Chinese discovery, gunpowder.  Further, Xerxes is clearly figured as a Satanic tempter.  He continually offers Leonidas fame and riches to stand down.  He fails to seduce the king but succeeds by offering temptations of the flesh to the one who does betray the soldiers.
In addition, whereas the Spartans have sought to ruthlessly eliminate from their culture any offspring with weakness or deformity, the Persians have embraced freakishness. One scene shows a monstrous fellow with crab-like appendages, who serves to execute soldiers who fail Xerxes.  Another scene has the Persians unleash a giant who is, like Xerxes, about eight feet tall, and has fanglike teeth.  This unnamed giant comes closest of any Persian to finishing off heroic Leonidas, in what I considered the film's most bracing fight-scene.  However, the Spartans are actually undone by one of their discards: Ephialtes, a hunchback saved from infanticide by his mother, and who lives to betray the Spartans to the Persians.  Perhaps this was Frank Miller's way of letting the "freaks" get back some of their own?  He could certainly afford to do so, since the 300 Spartans were doomed to die anyway, though their sacrifice rallies the rest of Greece to rise and defeat the Persian invaders.
I tend to agree-- partially-- with Snyder when he dismisses the film's racial politics, asserting that 300's rewriting of history is so absurd that no one should take it seriously as representing anything in the real world.  However, I wouldn't say that the racial and sexual content means absolutely nothing.  Such extreme depictions of race and gender are part and parcel of the often crude and self-adulating nature of dreams and fantasies.  It would not be incorrect to see 300 as a revenge-fantasy against multiculturalism.
Can I esteem the imaginativeness of such a fantasy, even while disagreeing with any real-world extrapolations from it?  I don't think that's so difficult.  Many naturalistic historical films are no less flagrant in their rewritings, and not nearly as imaginative.  Steven Spielberg's AMISTAD spends over two hours analyzing the virulence of slavery in the United States, yet at the film's conclusion it chooses to draw a convenient veil over the provenance of slavery in North Africa (i.e., the North African slavers are alluded to but never seen on camera).  
Though I've defended 300's transgressions against political correctness, I can't say I'm overly fond of the film.  I found the film's use of CGI and slow motion effects tedious in the extreme.  Frank Miller stated that the main reason he had his Spartan heroes clad only in capes and light armor had to do with allowing the viewers to identify better with the individual warriors, but it's impossible not to see some feverish homoerotic elements in the film.
"Not that there's anything wrong with that--" but as I'd rather watch female anatomy, all those abs became for me just a little bit ab-horrent.         

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