Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Thinking about 300

I made a choice not to go see 300. From the trailers, I could tell that it was in my genre of favorite films -- "sword and fire" films, as Tammy names them -- but I could also tell that the highly stylized violence was over the top. Instead, I went to read the graphic novel by Frank Miller (the film is basically a panel-by-panel recreation of this graphic novel).

What I read was vintage Frank Miller -- which clarified for me why I didn't want to see the film. However, listening to the discourse about this film, I'm confused about several things:

1) Surprise at its success. Some commentators are surprised that anyone is going to see the films -- thinking it's "out of step with the times" or that it's a disturbing development in filmmaking. Perhaps they're surprised at the subject matter being interesting. However, they don't realize that this is a Frank Miller piece -- to fans of graphic novels, this would be like a new Grisham movie. Frank Miller did for the genre of comic books (which we now call graphic novels) what JK Rowling did for Fantasy literature -- he reinvented it. Rowling moved us away from sweeping epics like Lord of the Rings toward a very personal coming of age story of young Harry Potter. Meanwhile Miller moved comic book stories away from cheesy action adventures toward gritty tales of tough men against Machiavellian power brokers of a dangerous world. Miller re-invented Batman as the troubled, near psychotic Dark Knight; he gave us the dystopic world of Sin City. He's huge with a gigantic built in fan base. Throw on top of that the popularity of sword and sandal epics (Troy, Alexander, Gladiator, etc) -- and how can it be a surprise that this film is a success

2) Shock at the Violence. Any commentator that praises Quentin Tarentino's work as "artistic and deep" and then questions the violence of this film has lost any credibility in my mind. Where were the cries of dismay with Saw, Descent, Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes and other gross over the top bind and torture and kill films? We expect violence in war movies; but these torture films I find much more disturbing.

3) Offence at the Message. Some commentators read into this film a rhetorical pro-Iraq war message that makes rugged westerners into good people and decadant non-whites into bad people. Yes, the film does paint the hues in more black and white than was truly the case (the Spartans were cruel oppressors of their neighbors; Persia was a somewhat tolerant empire) -- however, a quick look at Heroditus will show that his history sees the struggle in the terms of East vs. West. Heroditus begins his histories in myth and legends but then ultimately in the Battle of Troy -- the first great East/west conflict. And he moves forward through his sociology of the conflict of the Western greeks and the Eastern kingdoms all conquered by Persia. Heroditus gives us the overall theme of cultures in conflict -- it's not a new theme invented by Miller -- nor is it an irrelevant theme for our times.

Indeed, I'm surprised that peace activists haven't seized upon the film. A peace activist can give this reading: A massive polyglot coalition of the willing invades a small landmass where the indigenous people are divided among two main factions -- however the factions unite against the invaders, championing local autonomy over imposed external "peace" at the expense of submission to imperial power. The noble indigenous people fight bravely, losing the initial battle, but ultimately winning the long protracted war.

4) Why aren't religious people more critical? A key component of Miller's work is his reliance upon the tough independent ruthless hero who may be unpleasant, murderous, and cruel, but he's better than the arrogant stuck up shysters who want to rule over everyone else. These tough heroes don't need anyone -- and by their great deeds, they undercut the false pretensions of rhetoric used to control people. Rhetoric like patriotism (in the Batman series) or religion (in 300). In the graphic novel, Leonidas grudgingly goes to the priests for an oracle. The priests are greedy for bribes; they keep a young drugged up girl as their personal slave; and they sell out their country to the Persians. Make no mistake, Miller's message is anti-faith here. Leonidas depends on no-one but himself -- all those who would talk of faith are those who would seek to control you by coercion. I haven't heard anyone else talk about this aspect.

Indeed, Miller's read on Leonidas is that he is the great secular hero. This is what you get when you throw off the restraints of religion and rely upon reason. Take a long look at Miller's vision and shudder -- for that vision of the world is that life is nasty short and brutal, and that only the strong should reign.

5) Why doesn't anyone talk about the human elements? I hear a lot of criticism about the speeches and the over the top acting and violence. However there is at least one very powerful human story -- the story of Ephialtes. Ephialtes is horrendously deformed, and in Spartan society, he's an outcast. Yet he trained all his life to be a warrior -- ready to defend the honor of his homeland. When he offers his services, the Spartan warriors mock him, but Leonidas silences them. Leonidas takes Ephialtes aside and explains the rigors of the battle formation used in Sparta. He asks the deformed hunchback to stand as high as he can and raise his shield. By this request he shows how Ephialtes' deformity keeps him from being able to be a part of the Phalanx battle unit: he can't raise his shield high enough to protect the next man's shoulder. Crushed, Ephialtes throws himself from a cliff in a suicide attempt -- but fails.

Here's where the human story comes in. Ephialtes makes his way to Xerxes tent and offers his services. Xerxes says "Leonidas asks you to stand, all I ask is that you kneel" -- a good line. But that's not the end of it. Ephialtes betrays the Spartans, leading a rear guard action behind their lines. The Spartans are surrounded and defeated. Xerxes offers still the chance for surrender and even a position in the army as a general -- and here's the interesting piece -- in the graphic novel, Ephialtes hovers in the corner, quietly begging Leonidas to accept the offer. His act of revenge is blunted by his ongoing love of Leonidas and homeland.

Like the story or not -- this one character gives a fine look into the psychology of betrayal, vengance and remorse. And yet no-one seems to be talking about it.

I decided not to see the film because I didn't like Miller's anti-faith vision. That doesn't mean that it doesn't raise lots to talk about. The graphic novel is readily available in most libraries. I'd be interested in your thoughts on the buzz about this film.

Soli Deo Gloria