Monday, April 02, 2007

So You Say You're From...Sparta?

You know, for a recruitment video for the Spartan army, 300 is awfully well-produced. Yes, to continue my journey through movies everyone else in the world saw a month ago, I saw 300 this weekend. First impressions? Fun movie, but it's fucking retarded. Definitely see it, but the idea that it's the first great movie of 2007 is hysterical. And I'm not kidding about the recruitment video thing, although I figure that was at least partially intentional. It had to be. The whole "see how we stand, marvel at how we fight" narration, coupled with Gerard Butler's preposterous dialogue filled to bursting with every "On my signal, unleash hell" cliché culled from the dregs of the Braveheart cutting room floor. The Spartan army is looking for a few good men, eager to fight for vaguely-defined "freedom" against vaguely-defined "tyranny" and seemingly even more eager to die. By the time the phrase "freedom isn't free" is uttered verbatim, you're pretty certain that if Dick Cheney isn't already jacking off to this movie nightly, it's only because Warner Bros. hasn't gotten a screener to him yet.

That being said, it feels almost cheap and dirty to bring Dubya-era politics into a movie as empty-headed as 300. Sure, it cloaks itself in so many swinging-dick pretensions that you half-expect the President to pop up in the corner, helmet and spear in tow, flashing a double thumbs up. But in all honesty, this is a movie about shoving sharp things into squishy targets. And about the traveling freakshow that was apparently the Persian empire. And about painting well-defined abs onto the already-taut tummies of the flesh parade that is your cast. It's about honor! And bravery! And how when you're a Spartan, you're a Spartan all the way! And how the Spartan shields were virtually indestructible! Far be it from me to ascribe any kind of serious intention to a movie that, no shit, trots out a massive blobby Lobster Man, not to mention a Faun serenading the Persian court on the flute.

The entire characterization of the Persians is just one big puzzle. I like that director Zack Snyder had the surrealistic verve to portray Xerxes as a literal giant of a man. I wasn't so sure, however, why he had to paint Rodrigo Santoro up as one wig short of full-on drag queen to make his point that Xerxes was the enemy. In a movie as dumb as 300, you don't need much justification as to why we're cheering against the Bad Guys. They're the Bad Guys! Cheering against them is what we do. So I'm not sure why we needed the reminders that the Persians were decadent (they wore lip-liner! Their women were lesbians!) or craven (all Xerxes wants is you to kneel before him, wink-wink). I'd lump it in with the depressing tendency on HBO's Rome to use eye-liner as a shorthand for weakness and indulgence, but I don't want to do Rome the disservice of dragging it into this muck.

I did say, way back at the beginning, that this was a fun movie, and I should stand by that. Rarely have I had a better time being told to act like a man and not a pussy-ass Arcadian. (And seriously, what the hell did the Arcadians ever do to deserve such scorn? They might as well be wearing Berkeley sweaters.) The action scenes, while not exactly worthy of the scores of fanboys passing out from the vapors at Snyder's feet, are not without their charm. And when the pace of the non-stop shield-to-sword-to-gaping-flesh-wound action gets too predictable, there's usually a well-toned thigh to draw your attention away. Or another weird-ass creature from Dr. Moreau's laboratory will show up and get quickly dispatched by Gerard Butler and His Manly Men. Felled by the mighty forces of his speech impediment, no doubt.

Sure, Snyder's film -- and no doubt the Frank Miller graphic novel upon which it was based -- seems to be slathering itself in the sweat and blood and guts of men who aren't too nancy to just die for their country already. But it's as much about a call to support the troops as it is a two hour advertisement for the fine craftsmanship of Spartan shields. Seriously, those things were fuckin' strong! Stop thinking so much!


JA said...

It's totally a piece of fake-propoganda - what the Spartans would've made a movie about their army look like. But like Starship Troopers - a movie 300 will forever be lumped with in my mind - I don't think it's meant to be taken seriously. I mean... obviously this movie is not meant to be taken seriously. There's a goat-headed man! It's sheer ridiculousness piled upon ridiculousness, and I thought it was a blast. People ascribing the whole Bush-Administration mindset onto this thing (Not accusing you of that, Joe) really seem to have missed the point, at least for me and how I viewed the film. I thought it was hysterical, but on purpose.

Joe R. said...

I thought of Starship Troopers and almost mentioned it in this post, but ultimately, while it was kind of a mindfuck of tone and satire, ST was really upfront about its intentions. If 300 wasn't serious about it's intentions, it didn't really let you know it. Or else it fumbled it badly. The existence of the goat-headed man tells me we're not entirely rooted in reality, but nothing ever subverts the general sense of jock-grabbing on the part of the Spartans. I'm not sure the ridiculousness of the film should entirely absolve it of comparisons to current events, particularly when the American public is responding to it in numbers like it has been.

Anonymous said...

I think you give the American public that is going to this movie to much credit, to actually pick up the comparisons to current events. The theater I saw it in and the crowd I saw it with seemed to just want to see either, violence or hot men in Speedos. Why must we read into the intentions of the movie, can't we have just gone to see it to see what they did to the Frank Miller comic? I enjoyed the movie and for 2 hours was entertained, from this type of movie that is all I ask.

Joe R. said...

Well obviously you can see and enjoy 300 on any level you wish to. But I don't think there was a whole lot of "reading into it" on my part, considering it kind of jumps off the screen. There's no reading into "freedom isn't free." That just kind of slaps you upside the head. As for entertainment, I wasn't as entertained as I thought I'd be, and these are some of the reasons why.

JA said...

Yeah, I'm not gonna go as far to argue that one shouldn't read into the movie because it's popcorn entertainment - I spent an entire semester in college writing papers on films like Die Hard, so I get there's more than plenty to read into blockbusters.

And I agree with ya, Joe, that 300 isn't nearly as obvious as Starship Troopers was with the faux-propoganda angle (but then a sledgehammer to the face is less obvious than ST was - and I love it for it!). But I chose to read the film that way, even if I agree with you that it doesn't 100% sell itself that way, and it made my enjoyment of the film much higher.

I also wanna step back on my praise of the film, cuz I didn't bust a nut at it or anything; I enjoyed myself, yes, quite a lot, but it wasn't life-changing or even mind-blowing.

But I do think some critics who've ripped into the movie for what they deem its nefarious political intentions are kinda not in on the joke, and are being way too self-serious with regards to a movie this silly, that is obviously not even taking itself seriously. Some of the reviews I've read, like Dana Stevens at Slate, she seemed horrifically offended by the film, and all these cries of racism and homophobia, they just seem like the liberal mirror-image of a knee-jerk reaction like Jerry Falwell calling Tinky Winky gay.