Monday, March 12, 2007

This is Sparta, and This is the Mars Volta

I didn't go see 300 because I thought it would in any way shape or form be a "good" movie; rather, based on the previews and advance buzz, it looked like a very bad movie in many ways. But it did look like it might just be a hoot regardless of its quality, sort of a Snakes On A Plane for the sword-and-sandals set.

If you've read this blog for any amount of time you know that I am no fan of Frank Miller. I loathed Sin City in comics form and have had to repeatedly defend my disinterest in the film adaptation from otherwise well-meaning people who - unfamiliar with the man's work - naturally assume that there is method to his madness, a meaningful irony to be found in his assiduous application of overwrought sensationalism. But insomuch as it is possible to read an artist's intentions through the evidence of their work and their public statements, Miller is absolutely, painfully sincere. The alternative is to believe that everything the man has done for over two decades has been a kind of Andy Kaufman-esque performance art statement. Considering that the man is currently and enthusiastically busy on a project roughly hyped as "Batman vs. al Qaeda", it becomes more and more probable that books like Sin City, 300 and All-Star Batman are resolutely honest in their steadfastly reactionary ethical framework.

I went to 300 with a friend of mine who was very much looking forward to the movie. Totally unfamiliar with Miller's work, she is something of a military history buff. She had downloaded the trailer and watched it repeatedly, and really wanted to see the film simply on that basis. I tried to warn her: this is going to be an extremely bad movie. If it's as accurate as the filmmakers claim, it will be comically bad. Of course, oracles are often ignored in their own time . . .

About the first fifteen or twenty minutes of the film we spent in total silence; me trying not to ruin my friend's enjoyment of the movie, her in shock from the first frame of the film and trying desperately to will the film better. But at a certain point she simply gave up: it was the scene where the Spartans are surveying the ruins of one of the cities ravaged by the Persian forces, and the little boy's shadow rising against the smoke looks like a giant Transformer robot. She started laughing hysterically, covering her mouth and hyperventilating so as not to disturb her neighbors. She leaned over and whispered in my ear that she had "never been so disappointed by a movie in her entire life". The laughing on both our parts did not end for the entirety of the movie's running time. Although the majority of the film's sold-out audience did seem quite sincere in their enjoyment, there was a small but vocal minority who along with us were hooting and laughing throughout the whole film.

I have to say that I enjoyed the movie a lot more than I thought I would. I was expecting it to be bad, but not this bad . . . in the annals of crap cinema, 300 has immediately risen to the level of Citizen Kane - a classic of crap, an ecstatic celebration of all the worst kinds of schlock. It isn't just that the acting is poor; it isn't just that the plotting is ramshackle and disjointed (betraying the weakness of the source material); it isn't just that half the things which occur on screen seem to happen without any cause or context; it isn't just that this is one of the most claustrophobic films in history, betraying with every frame the fact that every second of film was shot in a small room filled with green screens (some of the dialogue still carries the flat echo from being recorded indoors). Everything together conspires to create one of the most thoroughly incompetent film experiences in recent memory. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a film so much: although it may seem counter-intuitive, I highly recommend 300 to anyone and everyone. You won't have a better time in the theater all year.

It's the type of film that really makes you wonder just why, at no point in the process, no one involved ever thought to raise their hand and make an objection - "doesn't anyone else see just how silly this all is?" As my companion observed, 300 would be the perfect movie if everyone in the world was fourteen years old. Sure enough, anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that the film is well on its way to being a monstrous hit, winning the acclaim of the bulk of the movie-going population. It's not the first profoundly dumb movie to achieve massive success, but something about the sheer glee with which the conventions of history and storytelling are skewered in 300 places it a cut above the average moron fare. There's not a note in the movie that wasn't cribbed wholesale from another, superior film; there's not a single historical fact left unmolested when it could be warped to fit the storytellers' ideological agendas. I believe very strongly in the inviolability of history in art: an artist has the responsibility to either get the history right to the best of their ability, or to make changes in good faith with the understanding that an intelligent audience will be able to interpret the changes as necessary sacrifices to artistic merit. 300 merely changes history to suit its whims, and the majority of modern filmgoers will most likely never be the wiser, and will never know that Miller's omissions and elisions are in fact harmfully disingenuous, the kind of changes that would perhaps in a more skeptical era be attributed to rank propaganda. It may not - as many commentators have tried to suggest - be directly political propaganda, but it is ethical propaganda of the most egregious.

So we have a historical epic that presents a disastrously bad distortion of history, an epic spectacle that looks dinky and stupid, a special effects movie with poor special effects, a graphic novel adaptation that hews so closely to the source material that it slavishly recreates the source material's every fatal flaw. At what point did Frank Miller become a serious media mogul and aesthetic touchstone, and not just a hacky ideologue with a disproportionately large following? The world may never know. Why can't, say, Robert Heinlein get this kind of slavish devotion? Now there's a slavishly reactionary libertarian who could actually tell a story . . .

Perhaps I was biased walking into 300, on account of the fact that I have very recently read and enjoyed a surpassingly good account of the actual events that inspired the story - Tom Holland's Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West. The Persian invasion of Greece presents one of the most fascinating military, political and social narratives in all of Western history, from the Athenian defeat of the Persian expeditionary force at Marathon, through the Spartan defeat at Thermopylae and on to the tremendous navel victory at Salamis and the final, decisive rout at Plataea (the battle alluded to in the movie's final moments). It's a great story and told exceedingly well by Holland. Anyone with even a modicum of interest in the real story owes it to themselves to give the facts a real hearing.

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