Tuesday, March 13, 2007
Why, you ask, would a pacifist even want to go see a film like 300 (in an IMAX cinema, no less)? The answer: I am doing a presentation on violence in film at the end of the month and thought I would need to see this to be truly contemporary. Besides, I had a free ticket.
Make no mistake - 300 is a work of art. It is surely one of the most visually stunning films ever made. The only downside to its cinematography was the way it copied some of the feel of Gladiator. This is a gorgeous film. But the seductive beauty of 300 only serves to make the film more dangerous - a hook to draw in and entertain the masses with a tale of redemptive ultraviolence. And this is a very dangerous film indeed.
To start with, we have 300 Spartan soldiers (all perfect beautiful specimens of humanity) facing a vast horde of monsters, magicians and mystics fighting for the Persian king Xerxes (the one Spartan who is a deformed hunchback becomes a traitor). That one fact alone makes the film dangerous; the film is an ode to dehumanization and there is not much worse I could ever say about a film. The fact that the beautiful heroic Spartans are westerners facing Persian monsters is also very dangerous in a time when the country that fabricated an excuse to justify the invasion of Iraq is now trying to fabricate excuses to invade Iran. Of course, in this case it is the U.S. which represents the invading Empire of its time, so perhaps the film is a work of irony (do the Spartans then represent terrorists?). But the real danger lies in the hugely excessive display of virtually non-stop graphic violence. Sure the violence is stylized, with countless slow-motion scenes of spear thrusts and sword thrusts and heads being sliced off, etc. But don’t try to tell me this makes the bloodfest okay. On the contrary, it just makes people think it’s okay to watch hundreds of people mercilessly butchered. It’s not okay.
I confess that I thought 2005’s Sin City, also based on a violent graphic novel (novels) by Frank Miller, was a work of genius. I wasn’t a fan of the endless violence in that film either, but at least that violence could accurately be described as comic book violence, even cartoon violence. The violence in Sin City had nowhere near the impact on me that the violence in 300 did. I was numbed and horrified by the cold and grisly deaths of the Persians, all the more so because they were so “beautiful”.
In a world at war, what kind of message does a film like 300 send to the millions who are apparently flocking to the cinemas in the U.S.? The glory of war, of fighting for freedom, of not showing weakness, of not negotiating, of showing no mercy: this is Sparta. Let’s try to have a world full of Spartans, shall we? If the writers and filmmakers were trying for some irony in their heroic beautiful depiction of the Spartans, I fear it will be lost on the masses, especially the young men toward whom the film is clearly aimed.
But there is yet another danger, related to the last: the religious symbolism which looked to me like it was trying to make the Spartan king (Leonidas) into a Christ-figure. There is the scene, for example, where Leonidas is tempted by Xerxes (who sees himself as a God): “Bow down before me and I will give you the world” and of course the seemingly irresistible crucifixion scene at the end. I fear that some Christians will think Leonidas indeed stands for Jesus, leading his perfect beautiful followers into a battle against Satan and his hideous deformed minions, a small army of Christians who will stand firm against the horde of Muslims and atheists (traitors) who are trying to attack the only true faith. That Leonidas is the exact opposite of Jesus (a man of compassion and mercy who saw it as his mission to humanize those who were seen as less than human and to love his enemies, not brutally slay them) will be missed by too many.
Gorgeous cinematography aside, 300 get’s a mug down for its dangerous assault on the mind, the senses and humanity. Can’t wait for the video game (how many Persians can you slice in half in ten minutes?)!