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300 (blog)

Category: 300 Reviews
Article Date: June 13, 2007 | Publication: blogspot.com | Author: Pacze Moj
Source: http://criticalculture.blogspot.com/2007/06/300.html

Posted by: stagewomanjen


Zack Snyder's 300, a film adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae told from the points of view of Spartan King Leonidas and his Queen, made a lot of money and a fair bit of noise when it came out in March. In other words, just as audiences were paying oodles of money to see the film, critics were extracting political and ideological meaning from it. Depending on a particular critic's reading, 300 was fascist, pro-war, pro-Bush, jingoistic, racist, homophobic, anti-Iranian, anti-Eastern, anti-Muslim, and other adjectives. On the crest of a sudden and ironic interest in the truth, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad even denounced Snyder's film as a conscious effort to "tamper with history" and make Iran "look savage".

Although I'm too late to join in a meaningful discussion of these aspects of 300—if such a discussion ever even existed—based on reading a handful of interviews with Zack Snyder and one with Frank Miller, I'm convinced that rather than being a piece of super-propaganda, the film is simply an empty vessel: a finely-crafted, nicely-painted jug signifying nothing. As Snyder says in one of his interviews:

I wanted to make any Frank Miller work that I could. We would talk about 300 like film students, "Wouldn't it be cool if we made this shot? It'd be awesome."

I certainly follow some of the arguments put forth by various critics, and see the fun in arguing them; but, ultimately, the arguments are so many that they weaken rather than reinforce each other. For instance, wouldn't it be great filmic fun to argue that, in addition to being preparation for an American invasion of Iran, 300 is pro-abortion because the Spartans, the undisputed heroes of the story, are shown discarding disfigured infants down a jagged-looking ravine?

However, maybe it all comes down to this: what do you see in the above still? A funky silhouette and cheeky lens flare; or, the heroic figure of a man towering against an image of two twin towers, obscured in a dust-red sky, as, amongst the remnants of war, he refuses to give in to the axis of evil and stands, to the last of his might, in the name of freedom, liberty and democracy (while, back home, the scared politicians plot to stab him in the back)?

Now, with that formality out of the way, on to a few interesting observations:

The element of 300 that caught me the most off-guard was part of the film's editing strategy. Although Snyder and his editors don't employ this strategy at all times, there are several key moments in the film when I was waiting for something to happen—something that would and does happen in most Hollywood action films—but it never arrived: rapid cutting.

This image, for example, comes from an unbroken battle shot that lasts 1 minute and 10 seconds. That it's probably inspired more by beat 'em up video games than Tarkovsky is beside the point: it's a long take! And, although Snyder slides and zooms and bends time to give the illusion of cuts, the shot remains an unbroken whole. Questions of violence aside, the technique on display here is impressive; it's an effective, well-constructed, intricate shot.

Another aspect of the film that deserves mention is its composition and lighting. Granted, some of this may be due more to Miller's frames than the eyes of cinematographers and artists, but it remains majestic, nonetheless.

I like these two shots not only because, like the rest of the film, they're operatic and unabashedly un-subtle; but also because they show off two different uses of what could be called a cinema-palette. The colours and light-dark proportion in both are similar despite the difference in content and shot type: the first is a long-shot landscape, the second a medium close-up portrait. Taken together, both images illustrate one half of 300's lighting schemes; the other half, a golden scheme, is evident in the first two stills.

On a personal note, I'd be hard-pressed to say whether I enjoyed 300 or not. I appreciated many of its visuals, and was impressed by the battle scenes; however, the story, the characters and everything else around those battle scenes was recyclable. Hence, I enjoyed the build-up much less then the battle, and the "home front" politics much less than the bloody head-bashing. The fantasy mixed in with the history made 300 akin to a compact Lord of the Rings at times, too. After the credits ran, though, I did feel slightly queasy from all the violence (even the credits in 300 are bloody); but only when the idea of cutting off someone's head was divorced from the cartoonish way it was presented in the film and put back together in my mind as something that has an ugly place in reality. Finally, in terms of ideology, I couldn't pick out a discernible effect: I certainly didn't want to enlist in the army or attack random Iranians on the street, but I also didn't get the "war is hell" feeling that comes with some war films.

If I were to liken 300 to another film (and I am) I'd pick the equally violent and equally operatic Saving Private Ryan. Both films have the rousing score, the distinct lighting and crisp, ambitious cinematography, the big lines delivered at big times, and that carefully-engineered apolitical tone that realizes hey, it's all just business; so let's leave the political stuff at home.

In terms of films about ancient civilizations that milk the cinematic possibilities of yellow light, soft music and wheat fields, I liked it more than Gladiator.

 


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