After seeing Zack Snyder’s top-grossing box-office hit 300 again last night (I first saw the film at a press screening in Boston several weeks ago), I decided that it was time for me to regroup and to respond to some of the dominant reactions of audiences, critics, and international politicians alike.
It’s no secret once you read my review of the film that I would rank 300 among the top ten best films of all time. This is no superfluous ranking based on mere cinematic fluff and personal appeal, however. While many critics (both professional and amateur) have cited, among numerous other aspects of the film, the fact that it is based on previous texts and the unoriginality that seems to result as a reason to snub one’s nose at 300, this complied intertextuality is actually one of the factors that places this cinematic masterpiece at the top of its game.
Zack Snyder’s film is based on what has been called the best graphic novel of all time, 300 written by Frank Miller and “colored” by Lynn Varley (who continues to receive next to no credit for her role in bringing Miller’s fantastic images to life using the bold, vivid, stylized colors ultimately responsible for much of the look of Synder’s film), which tells the story of Spartan King Leonidas and the small band of soldiers he led against the Persian army of the tyrant Xerxes. The substance of Miller’s graphic novel, however, wasn’t drawn from history books. No, the powerful narrative of Leonidas and his three hundred warriors was drawn from Miller’s childhood experiences watching The 300 Spartans, a 1962 film directed by Rudolph Mat© and collaboratively written by five different writers. This film, in turn, was based on research conducted on the historical events surrounding the Spartan stand against the Persian army that took place around 480 B.C.
Clearly, the source material for Snyder’s film is fractured by multiple media and individual perspectives, to say the least. Which brings me to the recently articulated stance of the country of Iran on 300.
Recently, the Iranian government accused the Hollywood movie industry of using Zack Snyder’s film to wage “psychological warfare” in the realm of international politics. The film, which has apparently hit a chord with U.S. troops in Iraq (who somehow have the time amid the fighting to watch 117 minutes of other men fighting), sparked a heated reaction most likely due to current conflict between the U.S. and Iran over the latter’s nuclear weapons program. According to an article from the Los Angeles Times, “the film has sparked outrage in modern Iran, which denounced the blockbuster’s depiction of the ancient battle as ‘hostile behavior which is the result of cultural and psychological warfare.’”
Los Angeles Times writers also reported that Iranian officials “denounced the movie as portraying the Persians as decadent, sexually flamboyant and evil in contrast to the noble Greeks. Some elected officials in Iran are urging other Muslim countries not to show ‘this anti-Iranian Hollywood movie.’” Problematic about such a characterization of 300 is the fact that there is a historical basis for the way in which the film depicts both the Persians and the Spartans. Also problematic is the paradoxical logic necessary to read the film as such a critique of the Persians: in order to criticize their decadent, sexually flamboyant and evil portrayal, one must read the film in a very literal way, looking at very specific, concrete details (such as the obvious makeup worn by the Persian leader Xerxes) that support each of these characteristics, while simultaneously overlooking other, more flattering readings of the film.
By “more flattering readings” I of course am referring to what has appeared in the dominant dialogue on the film as yet another criticism: despite the negative characterizations of the Persians as cruel barbarians and slave drivers, these people are also shown to be far more accepting than the Spartans, who discard their young at the slightest sign of flaw or infirmity. This practice comes back to bite them in the ass in the film, as the mutant hunchback Ephialtes, who is only alive thanks to his “mother’s love” that led his parents to leave Sparta lest he be tossed off a precipice like other imperfect Spartan infants, joins forces with Xerxes and the Persian army after being slighted by Leonidas.
But does 300 really support the politically charged reading suggested by officials of the Iranian government? The answer to this question is not important. What is important in this situation is the integrity of film as a medium.
Despite the fact that certain visual and linguistic information can be culled out of the film and combined to support readings of the film as political, homosocial, or perhaps even racist, none of these interpretations were necessarily intended by either the writers or the director. In fact, Zack Snyder stated in an interview with a colleague from a newspaper that I write for that his intent was simply “to make a cool movie.” But should the way in which a film may be interpreted by different groups be accounted for during the production process? The result can be devastating. Look for example at Michael Bay’s 2001 film Pearl Harbor, which was hotly contested by WWII veterans for its softened portrayal of the Japanese generals involved in the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Fortunately, Snyder and his associates had no such intentions when they created what will in the future be hailed as the cinematic masterpiece that redefined filmmaking of the twenty-first century. Shot almost entirely in a warehouse in Montreal, Snyder’s intense and pervasive use of CGI (every frame of the film was altered digitally in at least one way) to turn each and every frame of the film into a perfect and artistic composition has also ignited a decent degree of controversy with regard to the future of filmmaking. Recently, an article in Time magazine discussed Snyder’s use of CGI and the term that is quickly becoming part of standard Hollywood dialogue: “digital backlot.” According to the article, “Snyder is one of a small, hyper-technical fringe of directors who are exploring a new way to make movies by discarding props, sets, extras and real-life locations and replacing them with their computer-generated equivalents. Cinema has always had a tenuous connection to reality; they’re severing it almost completely.”
This idea of finally cutting virtually (haha, pun intended) all cinematic ties to reality brings into question the future of Hollywood filmmaking; we long ago left behind the monumental sets necessary for classic historical epics like D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), but are we really entering an age in which the entire notion of sets and props has truly become obsolete? And what does this ultimately mean for the film industry? Is this a bad thing? Though the answer is uncertain, Snyder’s use of CGI in filmmaking probably won’t spell the end of the Hollywood system as we know it.
My advice? Go see 300, if you haven’t already, and if you really don’t believe that Snyder was just trying “to make a cool movie,” check out Frank Miller’s graphic novel (available at Newbury Comics and Borders, as well as on Amazon.com). Overlook for a moment all of the popular opinions of the film that promote readings dealing with politics or sexual orientation and instead marvel at the sheer magnificence first of Miller and Varley’s gorgeously crafted images, and then in the utter perfection with which Snyder translated genius from print to moving image, creating a film that can stand tall among some of the best in history.