When 700 + 300 doesn’t equal 1000

May 27, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 0 Comments

Last week, I mentioned that I’d reached the total of 700 movies since I started reviewing ’em. To celebrate, I asked Twitter to choose the lucky 700th film, and the overwhelming consensus (well, three people) said 300.

A week later, and the review is done. Sorry, been busy doing other stuff, including this “in case you weren’t there” round-up of this year’s Cannes Film Festival – ironic, really, ’cause I wasn’t there either!

Anyway, here’s my thoughts on 300. Seriously, out of all the films in cinema history, this was the one you thought I should watch?!

(Zack Snyder, US, 2006)

Possibly the film of the 2000s… at least in terms of documenting the era’s passions. But what will future generations make of its uber-camp ultra-violence?

Now that the Noughties (or whatever you want to call them) are is over, it’s possible to look back over the past decade and determine what the hell it was all about. War, terrorism, reality TV… Same goes for its films – and 300 sits neatly on the faultline between two of the most significant aesthetic and thematic mainstays of the era.

Obvious one, first. It’s based on a comic book – or, if you insist, a graphic novel. This one is certainly graphic, but I think ‘comic book ‘ is the only way to describe its punchy, visceral images, dwelt on with such slavish adherence to the stillness of the frame that often it feels like the editor has decided to flick through the pages of the book rather than bother creating the illusion of ‘moving’ images. The decade just gone was when graphic novels became as accepted a source of adaptation as novels, and not just in the tried-and-tested superhero market, either. Odder, more leftfield choices of material punctuate the era: Oldboy, Road to Perdition, A History of Violence and, of course, Sin City. That was the significant watershed, in that Robert Rodriguez basically showed up with a copy of Frank Miller’s original and said, “Here’s the storyboard.”

300 is also based on a Frank Miller source, albeit one that – a long time ago – actually happened. But probably not like this. Notwithstanding the fact that the Persian army has malformed giants, killer elephants and some weird dude with scythes for hands, the desaturated colour palette (burnished grey flecked with splashes of red), stylised compositions of limb-chopping and head removal, and the ornately inked-in abdominal muscles of the Spartan warriors kind of give it away. This is Miller’s fantasy of the Battle of Thermopylae, and Zack Snyder is happy to go along with it.

Snyder is a bright young thing in some circles, and the undoubted King of Spring at the box office: three largely unanticipated hits out of three, all outside of the traditional blockbuster season, is manna to Hollywood bean-counters. There’s certainly something to be said for a guy who chooses such unconventional projects – 300 has no stars, no story as such, and has the vaguest title imaginable – and makes people buy into it. Three films into his career, he’s clear he’s got a practiced eye, technical bravura and storytelling nous (the sweep of the editing here is almost enough to convince you that more is going on than endless killing). Trouble is, he’s quite content to be a copyist: it comes to something when your most original film is a remake of Dawn of the Dead.

It’s an adolescent attitude, the uncritical doodling of a kid with some very expensive tracing paper. And 300, unfortunately, needs a critical eye, ’cause this is dodgy stuff. Miller’s blood-stained reverie for the Spartans makes heroes out of a killer elite who kill disabled babies, slag off “philosophers and boy-lovers” and break diplomatic protocol to slaughter dark-skinned messengers. And that’s just the first ten minutes. When these proto-Nazis, with their twin obsessions of body fascism and actual fascism, head off to kill the marauding Persian army, it’s depicted less as an (understandable) act of self-defence than as a crusade against superstition and savagery. Which, in 2006, with America mired in the amorphous War on Terror, is one hell of a subtext to be taking into the multiplexes.

And the worship of these guys is pretty full-on. Strutting around in hotpants and capes, making a big deal about their hot ‘n’ sweaty scrum-style strategy, they doth protest too much when it comes to their homophobia. Especially as the women, if Lena Headey’s fearsome queen is anything to go by, are masculine, muscular warriors in their own right. (Sure, her nipples are well prominent, but so are Gerard Butler’s…) Speaking of Butler, the poor man’s Russell Crowe, he looks the part and sounds it too with his hearty battle cries about dining in hell. But there’s no wit, no inner life. Arguably it’s appropriate that this should be the case – the Spartans, to a man, are single-minded lunkheads – but as drama, it’s wearisome. Life must be dull as fuck for the few Spartans who don’t have a gym membership.

And so, wave after wave of attackers is cut to pieces – usually in slow-motion so Snyder can get as close as possible to the ideal of images that don’t move at all – and it looks beautiful, but Leni Riefenstahl beautiful, each spray of blood another tick mark denoting the demise of yet another infidel. Synder is either blissfully unaware of what he’s doing, so obsessed he is with his fanboy reverence, or he’s complicit in a shameless, objectionable piece of wartime propaganda. You might think I’m reading too much into this, but I think the jury’s still out. Dawn of the Dead might have showed nothing deeper than a gleefully mindless delight in slicing ‘n’ dicing ravenous hordes, but even in Watchmen – as singular a piece of anti-fascist rhetoric as you can get – Snyder clearly got off the most on Rorschach’s anti-nonce ultra-violence. Kill first, ask questions later: that’s the neocon way, and Snyder sure knows how to bust those moves.

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