By Michael Koresky
Dir. Zack Snyder, U.S., Warner Bros.
On the morning of 9/11, my then apartment in downtown Manhattan became a place of immediate refuge for those who couldn’t make it all the way back to their Brooklyn apartments, due to the closing of subways and bridges. As we huddled around the television, with occasional trips to the rooftops, where the smoke was still hovering and billowing mere miles away in clear view, the room continued to fill up. By noon, the tiny studio was brimming with guests, wanted and not; tensions were high, and it was difficult to find the right thing to say—in response to the shock, as well as to the vivid images on television. One visitor, a friend of a friend of a friend who had found himself at our place, a recently graduated art major, carrying, if memory serves, an inappropriate pink boom box, remarked, with something approximating satisfaction, that even though what was happening was truly terrible, it was somehow “beautiful” and that the bodies and ashes crumbling to the ground “looked like glitter.” We were all too stunned to respond, both by the inanity of the comment and the combustible mix of feelings the day had wrought, none of which could be instantaneously expressed. Yet this self-identified artist, who had undoubtedly just spent four years being instructed to find the beautiful in the nightmarish and vice versa, whose ways of seeing the world versus methods of quantifying and rehashing it as “experience” or fodder, must have suddenly felt like something was coming together—unable to create a viable moral equation, he simply spurted out the first thing that came into his head.
At the time, I had no patience for this knee-jerk response, and I have been unable to shake it since. What I realize now is that he wasn’t merely insensitive or banal, though undoubtedly both: the same thoughtless artistry runs through so much of what we see, and he was merely a conduit, putting it in bold, bald terms. Certainly by now the “beauty” inherent in splatters, beads, or trickles of blood dotted across a movie screen is about as revelatory as, say, excavating suburban malaise or witnessing martial arts that “defies gravity.” A disregard for aesthetic responsibility is a problem from the top down, from bottom-line Hollywood filmmaking to the most self-regarding of artistic endeavors. It’s the same level of mind that produces a monstrosity like 300, both in filmic and “graphic novel” form. The bodies, indeed “fall like glitter” in 300, a film in which each and every shot is calibrated for maximum eye-poppery, yet each carries with it an ideological burden that the film can’t possibly begin to bear. It’s the kind of movie that requires no “review”: like Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, it’s post-cinema, and not created for the purpose of traditional entertainment, let alone edification. It’s onslaught filmmaking, the new form that’s self-defeating in its cacophony and nearly religious in its zealotry for its own form and mythos. Blue screen becomes an end in itself; both its hyper-stylization of visual effects and its fanciful source material grant it a sly opportunistic carte blanche to unshackle itself from the niggling details of things like historical verisimilitude or narrative coherence. It would categorize itself as “pure spectacle,” but aside from girth there’s nothing spectacular about it, merely a collection of overly designed pageantries masquerading as plot, and guttural screams disguised as forward momentum.
Directed by Zack Snyder, whose need for speed was first demonstrated in his superfluous, radically de-politicized 2004 remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, 300 seems to be aiming for the infinite realms of absurdity in its pixellated rendering of Frank Miller’s grey and beige-toned, fantastically embellished dramatization of the Battle of Thermopylae 480 BC, in which a small army, comprised of the titular number of Spartans, faced a horde of warriors from the Persian Empire, intent on ruling over Greece and thus the world. Undoubtedly, defenders will try to recoup the ensuing bombast, deafening in battle cries and noble blazes of glory, as either a satiric riff on blind patriotism, or perhaps some elaborate anti-imperialist statement. The latter seems particularly difficult to unknot, as the evocation of the Persian Empire, known since the mid-1930s as, ahem, Iran, as blood-hungry, heathenistic, evil enslaver doesn’t exactly “sit well” in the political present. And any doubts that 300 will appeal to a more ineloquently jingoistic crowd drown in its constant appeals for “freedom” and nods to the importance of democracy, as well as the epilogue, which frames the entire narrative as little more than an incitement to battle, and to, let me get this right, “rid the world of mysticism and tyranny.”
Led by a grotesquely fatless Gerard Butler as King Leonidas, all erect nipples, beard, and teeth, the Spartans are members of a military state obviously hallowed by both filmmakers and Miller for its single-minded fight-or-die mentality. Not acknowledged here as itself a wannabe superpower, Sparta is instead painted (in vomitous brown tints) as a noble underdog, certainly preferably masculine to Athens, tossed off by Leonidas as a bunch of “boy-lovers.” Perhaps he fears they would have wanted in on this little panty party—with the Spartans’ matching pecs and leather protective pouches, each battle looks as though at any moment it might devolve into an epic tickle fight. Flesh is supple in 300, but only as precursor to its ultimate slashing, hacking, or piercing. Spears and swords tear through bronzed skin like wrapping paper, leaving behind nothing but ribbons and just the faintest whiff of missed homoerotic opportunity.
And it’s in these battle scenes, which hover somewhere between that overused, moribund technique known as “bullet time” and the pompous grandiosity that Peter Jackson elevated to something rather classical with Lord of the Rings, that 300 is made or broken, where it should both represent Miller’s stunted-youth drawings and the heights of filmic virtuosity. Relying on an oddly herky-jerky motion that, within one shot, slows down each thwack and slice to a crawl and then speeds up those moments in between so that we can jump from one death to the next without “dead time,” 300’s fights are just so much faceless, tuneless carnage: the actors' body movements aren’t even recognizably human. When one warrior is emphatically mourned by his father late in the film, it comes across as disingenuous; Snyder elides drama by deleting those moments in between, as in those kill-baby-kill single-take death marches, and by trying to reinsert a moment of human empathy he commits an irreparable tonal shock. But what dramatic skills are necessary when, as in Dawn of the Dead, all you need to do is zip to the next big wallop? Snyder shows his narrative weaknesses especially in the intermittent cuts back to the attempted political and sexual co-opting of Leonidas’s devoted Queen (steely Lena Headey). Often falling back on the same “spectacle” of longueurs that Peter Jackson wielded with infinitely more virtuosity, these moments of intrigue have all the dramatic flavor of a withered pomegranate. When the words fail him, Snyder fills his dramatic vacuum with endless shots of Headey showing her eternal loyalty by staring off, her hair floating in slow-motion breezes, into digital landscapes. In fact, if 300 were shot at 24 frames per second, it’s doubtful it would crack the 30-minute mark.
Without the constraints of historical, political, or ethical consequence, this digital doodle needs do no more than bound from the Scene With the Rampaging Rhino-Beast to the Battle With the Giant Orc-Man. All the better to distract from its overabundance of unchecked masculine posturing and dubious racial stereotyping. If you’re not offended by the film’s early sequence in which Leonidas, surrounded by his white brethren, ignores the old adage “Don’t shoot the messenger” and dumps a dark-skinned Persian into a gigantic pit, there’s always the upcoming shot in which the image darkens so thoroughly that all that’s left of another villain is white crescent slits glowing in the pitch black. Xerxes the Great (Rodrigo Santoro, tanned to an evil shade of yellow) himself, is depicted as a middle-Eastern boogeyman par excellence, about eight feet tall, bedecked in jewels and errant piercings, his voice lowered to a Dolby-enhanced growl that sounds like Tim Curry in Legend. It’s all appropriate for a film so drained of color. And it would be laughable if at this moment all signs weren’t pointing to an imminent Iran invasion by the Bush administration. The racial and political tangle that is 300 is indicative of a muddled culture, one which flaunts political incorrectness as a badge of honor. Postmodern? Try postmortem. Aesthetically and politically, we need 300 like a hole in the head.