Monday, March 19, 2007

the honour and the gory

I am a reasonable, reasonable man. I may have come into this world with high expectations, but the last three decades have tempered my optimism. I do not expect great coffee from a Chinese lunch kiosk at the food court. I do not expect to find love in Dick Cheney’s heart, and I do not expect to get away with draping myself in the corpse of Don Knotts and dancing down the Hollywood Walk of Fame, screaming “Where’s my star?” I really don’t.

When I pay ten dollars and more to see a movie, though, I expect in exchange at least one memorable image, one watchable scene, one line of dialogue that doesn’t make me want to plunge a sharp Spartan spear through my eye and ravel out the neuronal string that carries the memory of having sat in an inexplicably crowded theatre and watched Zack Snyder’s lame muscle epic 300.

What can I say about 300, a film that could have been made by Leni Riefenstahl, if Leni Riefenstahl had never heard of depth of field? If Zack Snyder had been the mind behind Triumph of the Will, the Nazi empire would have folded like a lily at dusk. Only the over-the-top solemnity and relentless pomposity of the story saves it from being truly offensive. The rhetoric is pitched so high, the fight scenes so monotonous, the betrayals and tragedies telegraphed so achingly early, that any engagement with the film is damped down in favour of dull amazement that this soggy homoerotic thrustfest ever got made. No gladiator flick has ever assembled so many near-naked over-buff meatheads, just to have them march around in boots and capes and leather Speedos.

A brief run-down of the story (there are spoilers here, I suppose, but since this is a butchering of a 2,500 year old story, I don’t feel like I’m spilling any fresh beans): King Leonidas grows up in the harsh world of Sparta, a place where grown men beat up five year olds for fun. He earns his crown through the venerated tradition of kicking everyone’s ass all the time. One day a godless ambassador from Persia and his pyjama’d entourage come to visit with a message: give us Sparta’s natural resources and we promised not to murder you all. Leonidas takes the diplomatic route and has the Persians thrown in a conveniently placed well. Despite this provocation, the politicians hem and haw, being the spineless debate-paralyzed toads that the movie needs them to be. Leonidas, Mr. Action himself, climbs a phallic-looking mountain to consult the Oracle in what is THE STUPIDEST SCENE in movie history. I won’t describe it, but it will make you long for the pleasures of Mel Gibson’s filmcraft.

The Oracle delivers a message to Leonidas: don’t go to war with the Olympics approaching (if only that admonition were observed today). The wicked, inbred, corrupt priests and the wicked, inbred, corrupt politicians urge noble, free, buff Leonidas to heed the Oracle’s words, but Mr. Action brooks no tradition and, after a night of scronking with the fierce, noble, tigressy Queen Gorgo, picks three hundred WWE rejects to march off to Thermopylae, a narrow corridor where a small band of soldiers can slice and dice the invading hordes.

And hordes they are. If you thought that Asia was made of ordinary folk such as yours and my own self, 300 is here to set you straight. Pantalooned, festooned and a little too fancy for the red-blooded male comfort zone, the Persians and their vassals from the far corners of Xerxes’ empire trudge straight off the checklist of Orientalist clich├ęs: slavish, silent masses of disposable meat so interchangeable that they can be whipped and killed with impunity by their own commanders. Behind their masks, the elite shock troops of Persia are bloodless monsters. Imposing Africans with faces draped in gold ride angry rhinos and elephants over the helpless bodies of infantry. The Spartans slaughter them all in a slo-mo whirlwind o’ gore.

Even though the Spartans are ‘free men’ who will not be ‘enslaved’ by ‘mysticism and tyranny’, they eventually fall due to treachery at home and on the battlefield. O treacherous traitors, with their treachery! How they traduce! A hunchback named Ephialtes, rejected by Leonidas, leads the Persians through a narrow pass to flank the doughty band of buffsters on both sides. Thwarted in his desire to join the Spartans, Ephialtes’ deformity makes him morally weak (in the graphic novel, he redeems himself somewhat) and naturally ignoble. Welcome to Anatomy as Destiny 101. Back in Sparta, Theron, the oilest politician ever to rape Queen Gorgo and throw the charge of adultery in her face before the assembled council, is a kept man of the Persian Empire, who seeks through delay and inaction to leave Sparta and the rest of the Greek city-states open to the rampaging drag show of Xerxes’ armies.

Then they all die. Deserted by their Thespian allies, Stabbed in the back and surrounded by sodomites, all three hundred of the 300 are thrashed thoroughly. No density of pec or ab may block the scorpion-headed arrows of Xerxes, who appears to be an eight foot tall drag queen so powerful that he brings his own runway with him, borne on the backs of hundreds of slaves. Leonidas goes out fighting, launching his spear at RuPaul Xerxes and shaving off some of the emperor’s precious facial jewellery. Predictably, this results in a whole lot of screaming followed by a general overarrowing of Leonidas. We go out on a note of hope, as 10,000 Spartans in their ridiculous outfits run screaming towards the camera. According to Dilios, the lone survivor, this is supposed to herald in a new age of freedom and reason. Sure, why not.

Oh yeah, and the dialogue sucks. Most painful is the voice-over narration, which helpfully tells you precisely what you’re looking at. Since the images of 300 are depthless and blocked out like a sidewalk theatre show, this is hardly necessary. Here’s an example: early on in the movie we witness a wolf circling a boy. The narrator provides context: “The wolf circled the boy. Sniffing the night air. Hungry for its next meal”. No shit. I never would have guessed from all the circling and the sniffing. Or how about the scene where they’re marching, and the narrator says: “We march”? Dude, it’s like you’re sitting right behind me, telling your blind friend what’s going on. I can almost feel the bits of popcorn and drops of Mountain Dew being sprayed on my neck.

16 comments:

Schmutzie said...

This makes me glad that I bowed out of this particular theatre experience with you.

i am the diva said...

Oh sure, but if you're looking for 2 hours of ABS ABS ABS while the rest of your party (all male) get all macho over bloodgorelustopia... then this is the film for you. ABS ABS ABS.... did i say Abs? Yeah. Abs. :D
This is the best Abs movie of the year, and i doubt you'd find any woman who was NOT in favour of the leather speedos.

Friday said...

Oh bollocks. We just bought tickets to see this at the IMAX. Not reading your review so that I might at least preserve the element of surprise (everyone dies - surprise!).

palinode said...

Yeah, it's pretty much a Chippendale's experience. And in between the blood and the abs, there are women dressed in gauze and chains to entertain male eyes. And normally I'm totally in favour of cheap excuses to show flesh. But I just kept thinking: you're going into battle. You're supposed to be all bad-ass, but how bad-ass do you have to be to show up pretty much naked for a fight? 'I see you have 500,000 men, a bunch of elephants and arrows to spare. So I'm not going to wear armor and fight with my big flowing cape. Because that's what freedom means: kicking your ass in Speedos'. It wasn't even like, Hey ladies, here's a bunch of man-flesh for you. It was all so serious. Even the naked dancing girls seemed all portentous and full of dire import and all that. Like, don't touch the Persian dancing girls or you'll be all ensnared in their decadent debaucherous sexery.

The other thing that weirded me out was that the movie is pretty much aimed straight at guys. There's a strong female character, but by and large this movie is for young men. So really, why all the nearly naked guys?

Melle said...

My blog is currently the #1 Google result for "300 abs". This has been amusing me all day.

Of course, as my friend noted, the reasons we went were really more about abs and CGI than historical accuracy...

I also like Neal Stephenson's take on the whole thing.

palinode said...

Melle: I went and Googled "300 abs". And lo, there was your post. That's funny. I get the feeling that, being male and heterosexual, I'm missing out on the main appeal of the movie.

Thanks for the link to Neal Stephenson.

palinode said...

Friday: go with the correct expectations and you cannot possibly be disappointed. I really wanted this film to be campy fun, but it didn't really get there for me.

sporky said...

abs, photoshop and sparta (carry the a)

clearly that's all that i need to make my millions.

sgazzetti said...

So, this is intended to be a negative review? because with phrases like "soggy homoerotic thrustfest" it's sort of hard to tell.

wench said...

hahahaha - you kill me palinode!

I LIKE IT! aarrghggghhhh a landbound piratefest if ever there was one. diva's got the number - abs calves backs ... chippenhackenslash is the name of this game and it's good to go, right over the top.

however, I din't pay $10 bucks.

palinode said...

Wench, I think it was the admission price that sealed the deal for me. If I'd watched it for free I would have been more generous towards the film. No wait. I still would have hated the shit out of it, but at least I wouldn't be out ten bucks.

Anonymous said...

Okay, so having been someone who, on a couple of occasions, sat behind someone in a theatre, earnestly telling my blind friend what was going on, I have to admit that providing voice over isn't as easy at it sounds and even the best of us can get caught up in the heady pressure of the solemn duties of narration: I have to confess that I once leaned over to my aforementioned blind friend to inform him that an ambulance was approaching in one particularly dramatic scene, completely (and stupidly) oblivious to the very obvious sound of the sirens that tipped him off well before I did. Oops! This is what comes of putting too much focus on one sense over all the others...or not having too much sense to begin with?

trinity67 said...

Well I loved it. So much so that I saw it twice - once on Saturday and the second time the following Sunday. The movie visuals were exactly like how Frank Miller drew the comic book, it's like the entire movie walked straight out of the comic book and onto the movie screen the way the actors looked, the colours, the graininess, the costumes, the scenery - just gorgeous.

Oh and the male eye candy didn't even faze me until the second time I saw it, I was so mesmorized by everything else.

palinode said...

You're totally right - the film looked just like the Frank Miller comic. Snyder really went to great lengths to ensure that the look of the movie stayed faithful to the graphic novel. I kind of wish that Ephialtes had redeemed himself a bit in the movie, as I believe he did in the book, but Snyder clearly wanted to keep the story focused on Leonidas and his arrowy destiny.

I really wish that the movie had deviated at points from the look and pace of the graphic novel. The power in the images in the book comes from the heightened pitch of tension in each one, as if Miller and Varley had plucked the most intense moments from every point in the story. The movie pulls those images out into shots, and then pulls them out further into scenes, until there's no power left after a while. The whole thing felt sludgy and drawn out to me.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I can't believe you spent so much time to critique a movie that was based off a comic book. Yet, your long and boring critique doesn't even mention that fact. I was actually very impressed, as I have never seen another movie adaptation come so close to the comic book.

You keep on with the abs... would you have preferred some fat slobs to have taken these roles? Maybe that would have been more convincing for you... someone as fat as you playing the role of a Spartan warrior? Hehe, I'd pay $10 NOT to see that, and I wouldn't even cry about it in a 9 paragraph critique novel!

palinode said...

Hey, you're right - nowhere once did I mention that 300 was based on a comic book. In what way does that change how much the movie sucked?