Sunday, March 11, 2007

This . . . Is . . . Spaahhtaaa!!!

I saw 300 last night amongst a crowd of teenagers, having a pretty good idea of what I was in for. I thought I’d give it a chance since I enjoyed Sin City, but there was no sense in which the movie was not utterly ridiculous. Each scene was more laughable than the last. The movie is parody-proof—any attempt to mock it would be redundant. I found myself wondering whether the movie was made in good faith, or whether it’s instead a Borat-like effort to pull one over on war-loving American audiences and liberal film critics alike. It certainly seems destined to take its place with the great B-movies of all time.

As it turns out, Frank Miller is fully nuts, and most likely his contributions as executive producer and creator of the graphic novel upon which the film is based were completely in earnest. Here’s a transcript of an NPR interview with him in January of this year:

NPR: As you look at people around you, though, why do you think they’re so, as you would put it, self-absorbed, even whiny?

FM: Well, I’d say it’s for the same reason the Athenians and Romans were. We’ve got it a little good right now. Where I would fault President Bush the most, was that in the wake of 9/11, he motivated our military, but he didn’t call the nation into a state of war. He didn’t explain that this would take a communal effort against a common foe. So we’ve been kind of fighting a war on the side, and sitting off like a bunch of Romans complaining about it. Also, I think that George Bush has an uncanny knack of being someone people hate. I thought Clinton inspired more hatred than any President I had ever seen, but I’ve never seen anything like Bush-hatred. It’s completely mad.

NPR: And as you talk to people in the streets, the people you meet at work, socially, how do you explain this to them?

FM: Mainly in historical terms, mainly saying that the country that fought Okinawa and Iwo Jima is now spilling precious blood, but so little by comparison, it’s almost ridiculous. And the stakes are as high as they were then. Mostly I hear people say, ‘Why did we attack Iraq?’ for instance. Well, we’re taking on an idea. Nobody questions why after Pearl Harbor we attacked Nazi Germany. It was because we were taking on a form of global fascism, we’re doing the same thing now.

NPR: Well, they did declare war on us, but…

FM: Well, so did Iraq.

At one point, King Leonidus’s wife, the queen, has an argument with the treacherous councilman Theron in which she scorns his “realist” take on foreign policy and defends her husband as an “idealist.” This I took to be a straightforward reference to the contemporary debate over the direction of U.S. foreign policy and the Iraq war. I’m no classical scholar, but I’m skeptical that these terms of modern international relations discourse were common in ancient Sparta.

Also, Sparta seems an odd subject for a movie about a freedom-loving nation of warriors, built as it was from top to bottom on slave labor.

Matt Yglesias weighs in:

My less political friends were mostly focused on the gay undertones, but from a foreign policy perspective it's hard to avoid noticing that this is a movie wherein your heros battle the insidious forces of Iran Persia. At one point, Xerxes even unleashes a rhinoscerous of mass destruction. Clearly, in the film's mythic retelling of the Thermopylae story, the Spartans are not only the heros but they are, in an important sense, us. We all living in the west are, or so the story goes, the heirs to Greek culture and civilization which was saved that day against in battle against the Asiatic hordes.

On another level, however, the "thousand nations of the Persian Empire" were the superpower of their day, like the United States. The Spartan rhetoric refers to "freedom" but it is not the liberty of the moderns for which they speak. In conventional terms, Xerxes' subjects were probably freer than those under Leonidas' rule. Rather, the Spartans fight for the freedom of Sparta the freedom of Greece, for the self-determination and autonomy of their people, and they fight for it to the point of irrationality and suicide. The impulse has more in common with, say, Hugo Chavez' defiance of the superpower next door or Palestinians detonating a car bomb at a West Bank checkpoint than it does with anything in contemporary American policy.

A commenter takes issue with the idea that we are the heirs of Greek civilization:

Actually, the idea that contemporary Western culture derives from the ancient Greeks is just as much a myth as the Garden of Eden. Think of the first battle scene in Gladiator and ask yourself which side became "us." It was the screaming Germanic barbarian hordes that became most of the white peoples of Western Europe and North America. The West almost completely lost access to Greek traditions during the migrations of the 400's and 500's and began a different type of cultural development during the Middle Ages. If you want to see a society that's derived from the traditions of Ancient Greece, visit Greece.

300 was also one of the gayest homophobic movies I’ve ever seen. Every other remark out of a Spartan’s mouth impugned the masculinity of someone deemed to be insufficiently warlike. The enemies all wore eyeliner, and the enemy king’s eyebrows were immaculately plucked and shaped.

Dana Stevens at Slate put it this way (via Andrew Sullivan):

Here are just a few of the categories that are not-so-vaguely conflated with the "bad" (i.e., Persian) side in the movie: black people. Brown people. Disfigured people. Gay men (not gay in the buff, homoerotic Spartan fashion, but in the effeminate Persian style). Lesbians. Disfigured lesbians. Ten-foot-tall giants with filed teeth and lobster claws. Elephants and rhinos (filthy creatures both). The Persian commander, the god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is a towering, bald club fag with facial piercings, kohl-rimmed eyes, and a disturbing predilection for making people kneel before him.

As others have noted, I’ve never seen so many chiseled abs and crotch shots as I did of the Spartans in battle in their leather hot pants. As A.O. Scott points out, electrolysis therapy must have been quite advanced in Sparta, or maybe they waxed before they went into battle. At one point the Spartan leader mocks Athenian men for their love of young boys. But anyone with a passing familiarity with Greek history (or Jesus’ General) would know that Spartans were famous for their state-sanctioned same-sex relationships (links from another commenter), which were used as a way to train boys to be warriors and improve unit morale—kind of the reverse approach of the U.S. armed forces. Somehow, none of this came out in the movie, which managed to be a perfect storm of homophobia and xenophobia.

More from Yglesias:

Certainly, on a not-very-subtle level the semiotics here are indicating that the Middle East is populated by people who are, at best, partially human. This is taken over directly from the comic book but somehow amped-up during adaptation.

I wonder how many of the film’s fans are going to realize that Persians live in Iran, the target of the latest war the administration is trying to gin up. But it probably doesn’t matter much—Miller still gets his message across. Arabs is Arabs, even when they’re Persian.

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