Tuesday, February 06, 2007

'300' and the Sum of its Parts

(I used to do semi-serious work, reading difficult articles on critical theory [I have Barthes and Baudrillard collecting dust on my bookshelf right now]. Now it seems all I do is write about television. Or movies.

I tell myself that I’m interested in the stories that society wants to tell itself, and I am. But it also absolves me of a lot of the heavy lifting. Especially when I wind up talking about a movie that I haven’t seen yet. On with the rabid speculation!)

I am giddy for ‘300’. I have the trailer on my iPod. I’ve downloaded the song featured in that trailer (Nine Inch Nail’s “Just Like You Imagined”) and have also put that on my iPod. I’m planning on getting tickets to see it, but not just on your run of the mill movie screen. I want IMAX. I want the carnage to swallow me. I want my ears to bleed.

Watching the previews, there’s absolutely no downside to this movie. The filmmakers seem to have crammed in every shot with of the stylized hyperviolent as possible. It looks like the beautiful, glossy, slow-motioned, musically-synched, jaw-(and body) dropping, twisted son of Quinton Tarantino and Guy Ritchie. Which is why I’m going to hurl my money at it.

In fact, ‘300’ will attempt to solidify a new branch of the hyperviolent films, those created on the page by comic book artist Frank Miller. Miller’s comics served as the inspiration for the surprise hit ‘Sin City’: the actors in that film (Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba-Lebeaux, Elijah Wood, etc.) acted against a green-screen throughout the film, enabling the filmmakers to perfect a seedy, sickly and beautiful world behind them, the world that Miller had inked long ago (there’s a sequel in production).

And ‘300’ uses the same green-screen technique (this could lead to an interesting trend: artistic adaptations have always integrated previous works of art, but films that successfully adapt any work of literature have to interact with that literature, transforming it for the medium of film [while we’re on comics, think the well-adapted ‘X-Men’ against the terribly or not-really-adapted-at-all ‘Batman and Robin’]. With Miller, the films succeed, or at least the films’ gimmick has worked, because they preserve so much of the original work).

Because I’m excited, because I enjoyed ‘Sin City’, I bought Miller’s comic book, the print version of ‘300’ that will serve as the principal, if not sole, inspiration for the coming movie.

Unlike the uber-noir ‘Sin City’, Miller’s ‘300’ has an added and nerdy historical layer (yet another reason for my excitement): The coming movie is based on the comic; the comic, however, is based on Herodotus.

Written some time in the 440’s BC, Herodotus’ Histories chronicles the Greek city-states’ war with Persia. Considered the first work of western history, Herodotus has earned the nickname ‘the father of history’, an interesting nickname, and in some ways an interestingly accurate one: if, as the name implies, Herodotus fathered history, then it also puts Herodotus outside of his progeny, separates Herodotus from the current and ‘accepted’ practices of that art. As Herodotus’ work can not be verified, can even rarely be checked against any opposing sources (indeed, in many instances, he is the source), and as his work sometimes smacks of the supernatural (god’s routinely broadcast instructions into the heads of kings, etc..) separating Herodotus from history seems pretty fair.

Regardless, among the various myths/legends/folkloric tales/actual events that Herodotus relates is the battle of Thermopylae, in which three hundred Spartans fought against a horde of invading Persians. The Spartans channeled the invading army into a narrow canyon to negate the advantage the Persians had in terms of numbers. In perhaps the very first underdog story The Spartans, supposedly the very best of the best at fighting in ancient Greece, fought long and hard and gloriously against the Persians but were eventually slaughtered to a man; still, their sacrifice bought the rest of Greece some time and eventually Greece repealed the invasion

(For those of you with a copy of The Histories lying around, check around in book seven).

Throughout his Histories, Herodotus returns to the theme of Greek reason and democracy versus Persian despotism. It wasn’t just a war of conquest, it was a clash of ideologies.
If this sounds familiar, look no further than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. On the fifth anniversary of September Eleventh, President Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office refering to the war on terror by saying “This struggle has been called a clash of civilizations. In truth, it is a struggle for civilization. We are fighting to maintain the way of life enjoyed by free nations. And we're fighting for the possibility that good and decent people across the Middle East can raise up societies based on freedom and tolerance and personal dignity.”

Miller’s comic book, again, the main inspiration for the upcoming movie, emphasizes this ideological clash again and again. The Spartans are fighting for reason, for equality before law, and they’re fighting against a ruthless tyrant.

Miller of course tends to ignore the fact that the Spartans were such good soldiers because they trained all day instead of say, well, farming. And they had the time to train all day instead of farm because they had an enormous slave population that did their dirty work and farming for them. But that’s besides the point.

I really think that the studios releasing ‘300’ are doing because its going to earn them some cold hard cash in an off-movie month. I think they’re doing it because comics in general and Miller in particular have set a precedent of being high-earners (plus the fact that ‘300’ is being filmed with relative unknowns in the lead roles…). I really do think that.

But I’m curious as to what its influence will be, if any. I’m curious how eager the audience will be, and for what reasons. I’m curious why they’ll see it: will it be because they’re obsessed fanboys trying to legitimize the comic books of their youth like me, or is it because the film will serve as some kind of safety valve, some release where we get to see Us Versus Them, where we get to see westerners die for a reason, for the rest of us in a war that we’re absolutely going to win. For the Homeland, even. For our way of Life. A lot of that is being promised from our politicians, but considering the recent election, it doesn’t seem as if most Americans have been delivering.

‘300’ isn’t America fighting the terrorists by any means, but it is the west fighting the east. It is our cultural ancestors versus darker-skinned people from Northern Africa and the middle-east. And, like the current war on terror, that war of invasion was dubbed as an ideological clash.
I have transgressed many a crime in Liberty City, San Andreas and Vice City, so I really hate writing this next sentence: but I’m a little worried. I’m a little worried about watching westerners engage in the wholesale slaughter of easterners in a cinematic way. I think a part of it will have to resonate with the war that we’re fighting, with our xenophobia, with our starring contest with fear. I really am. But it’s not going to stop me from seeing it.

1 comment:

Alexander W. said...

I'm really excited for 300, too, but I think that this film is hardly different from almost every war film ever produced. Even the most ambiguous war films inevitably draw fairly unambiguous lines between Us and Them simply by narratively and perspectivally favoring one side. Most war films that have attempted to unify both perspectives (Grand Illusion being, as a film about the artificiality of borders and wars, the best example) tend to nevertheless rely on attaching the viewer's perspective to one side or the other, even one person on one side, as they simultaneously rail against the artificial divisions that human beings insist on imposing and that underlie war.

That's what's interesting about Clint's recent movies-neither of which I've seen, either. He's made two (allegedly) sophisticated films about the same battle from both sides. This seems to acknowledge the difficulties inherent in making one film that is perspectivally divided. But making two films, of course, re-emphasizes division, whether or not it's Clint's intention to overcome it. In the end, a war filmmaker's role is kind of like the general's--(s)he's wedded to the binary.