Swans Commentary » swans.com April 9, 2007  



Ancient Grease


by Charles Marowitz


A Film Review



(Swans - April 9, 2007)   Sitting in one's comfy seat in my local Cineplex watching the coming attractions of the several films readying themselves for release in the coming summer months, I couldn't help but feel that those portentous, obstreperous, bloodthirsty excerpts were all scenes from the same movie. They were all wrack't with gunfire and explosions, computerized brutalities, and subliminal flashes of furtive males fondling naked female flesh. When, mercifully, the coming attractions segued to announcements about turning off one's cell phones and "silence" being "golden," Zack Snyder's epic "300," the Feature Attraction, finally began -- offering an unbroken resumption of the blood, gore, mayhem, and brutality which had just preceded.

That America, violent by temperament and taste, produces the most violent movies ever looped into a can, goes without saying. Whether it's the heritage of our revolutionary origin as a nation, the legacy of a traumatizing Civil War, or the inescapable tradition of crime and gangsterism that raged in America during the Prohibition Era when movies came to their maturity, I cannot say. But one can hardly be an American moviegoer and not recognize that we are, and always have been, the Masters of Cinematic Aggressiveness; a tradition that goes back to D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" and the hilarious violence of our silent screen comedies (viz. Chaplin, Keaton, The Keystone Cops, et al.). And so Zack Snyder's "300" is a chip off the old block or, as one might say, another "kick in the groin."

What gives it a certain degree of distinction is the astonishing, terracotta hue of its art work -- the design of James Bissell and the photography of Larry Fong. Almost any one of its moments, if stopped, printed, and placed in a picture frame, could adorn the walls of the National Gallery or Smithsonian Institute. Its designer and cameraman have given the notion of "texture" a completely new meaning in that every nuance of skin tone is buffed to a high gloss. And it should also be pointed out that the bodies of Snyder's Spartan warriors (and their wives and concubines) are almost fleshly tangible throughout the film. (One Web site commentator, probably a teenybopper or the daughter of one, writes: "From a female point of view this movie was amazing! By this I mean a lot of half-naked, ripped men running about slashing and murdering Persians. King Leonidas in the buff...." etc., etc., etc.). The great advantage of setting one's film in the age of ancient Greece is that it allows for a certain measure of soft porn, which, as the Web site correspondent makes clear, tickles the libidos of both male and female ticket buyers.

Based on the graphic novel of Frank Miller (who was also responsible for the root-material of "Sin City"), the film, according to its P.R., is a "ferocious retelling of the ancient Battle of Thermopylae and the massive Persian army in which King Leonidas and 300 Spartans fought to the death against Xerxes ..... drawing a line in the sand for democracy." Some have found parallels in this film to the current Middle East crisis (Persians, after all, were early Iranians) with the courage of the Spartan 300 being metaphorically related to the 3000-some Americans already sacrificed in Iraq. But this is interpretational buncombe!

Almost any historic battle from Waterloo to the Alamo can be twisted to read "Us and Them." There is a "banality of evil" about wars that give them all a certain deadly resemblance. There are always so-called Defenders and so-called Insurgents and you can argue their identities from any one of a hundred different standpoints. The common factor is that there are always casualties and corpses and invariably, the moral climate that follows a war is polluted with the festering aroma of the conflict which preceded it.

The fact is Zack Snyder (whoever the hell he is) has produced a pro-war film that aggrandizes slaughter and simplistically presents good guys beating the crap out of bad guys, suggesting that if democracy (whatever the hell that is) is at stake, good guys should proudly sacrifice battalions of young, brainwashed men in achieving victory. Snyder has disseminated this idea by creating four brutal battle sequences in which limbs and heads are severed, spears prune out one's innards, and virtually everyone dies a hideous death for the sake of a hazy philosophic concept which can just as easily be characterized as dementia as it can Democracy. It is a film which, at base (and it is very base), is as intellectually contemptible as it is cinematically flamboyant. It appeals to the juvenile in all of us and as an historical treatise is about as substantial as a fortune cookie.

Gerald Butler as King Leonidas is the bearded, macho leader who has been weaned on cruelty and abuse in order to become the valiant King of the Spartans, and one must give him credit for maintaining a straight face throughout a film in which his character is constantly subverted by bathos. The script (also by Snyder, with some assists from Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon) is drenched in epic-speak: a hollow form of English that only Hollywood superheroes in epic films ever utter. Its relation to heightened language is like that of a Dr. Pepper to vintage Chateauneuf du Pape. It is unadorned speech infused with banal pomposities to suggest the grandeur that one associates with ancient Greece, but in almost every scene we can almost glimpse jeans and t-shirts behind the armor of these Spartan grandees. Leonidus's queen, Lena Headey, has strong cheek bones, a symmetrically attractive face and the perkiest nipples in Hollywood but, in the one scene before the Council of Elders where she needs stature and solemnity to persuade them to continue to finance her husband's misguided war, her lack of acting ability is as threadbare as her Grecian togs. (Note for the Design Department: if you are truly conscientious about preserving period accuracy, someone should have pointed that, in several shots, the ancient Queen's vaccination mark is clearly visible on her left arm.)

Because it is bloody, brutal and immersed in special effects, I have no doubt "300" will continue to rake it in at the box office. Nowadays, that is a barometer, not of quality but of the public's gullibility in the face of bogus period spectacle -- this, the latest fad from an industry whose specialty is cloning films which have already proven to have public appeal.

On a scale of 1 to 300, 300 being best, I would give "300" a 1.


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Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio).



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published April 9, 2007