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March 28th, 2007

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09:55 pm - A movie Ares would adore . . .

Spartan hoplite statue

Saw "300" today. I'd been hearing a lot about it, mainly as a vehicle for political subtext, so I thought I'd go and see for myself what all the fuss was about.

Plus I wanted to see the Spartans fighting on screen as they did in ancient times.

Only the actors were wearing loincloths, so that was a bit of a disappointment. (But not much, since the fellows playing the Greeks were all quite toothsome.)

While I do enjoy comic books, and have quite a few in my private collection, I wasn't familiar with Frank Miller's "300", the graphic novel which was the basis for the movie. I am, however, somewhat versed in Greek history and culture -- one of the side-effects of growing up in my neighborhood, just like getting good, fresh feta while Apollo and Aphrodite peer down from between the cans of dolmades and the piles of baklava on the store shelves.

I found some of the visual style of the film off-putting -- I didn't care for the grainy, color-drained look, punctuated by points of enhanced color, like the red of the Spartan capes and the gold that dripped across the Persians. I understand that that was to make more of a visual link to the look of the graphic novel, but I found it unpleasantly distracting. I also didn't care for the grotesque makeup of some of the Persians and the deformed Spartan traitor -- apparently the Elephant Man had quite a few cousins in Xerxes' army. Dilios' narrative voice as a constant background also served to throw me out of the movie quite a bit and made me feel like more of an observer -- that distancing made me feel more disconnected from the story than was really necessary, although I can understand that he was part of the "frame" of the tale.

I freely admit to enjoying this movie very much, though, and not just because of the eyecandy on screen. I thought it had lovely action shots, even if the stylized filming of them was rather cliche. Some of the visuals were quite stunning as well and I liked how some of the characters were portrayed, as well as some of the lines, many of which come from history.

One of the things I enjoyed quite a bit was the little quasi-flirtation going on between the Captain's son (whose name I cannot remember -- he was the one beheaded) and one of the other soldiers. While I was watching their exchanges, I couldn't help but think of some of the controversy in the American military over having homosexuals serving in the military. Ancient Greeks considered those types of relationships to be beneficial to unit cohesion, the opposite of current U.S. military thinking. The Greeks felt that an army of lovers would be more likely to protect its members well and to fight more bravely, not wanting to appear cowardly in the eyes of their beloveds. You could see some of that attitude in the way these two characters interacted, both on the battlefield and off. They were really rather cute together -- in a manly way, of course. Given that the Captain's son resembled Keanu Reeves in his "Bill and Ted" days, I half expected them to start saying "dude, be excellent to one another" any time they were on-screen. (I certainly expect to see "300" slashfic featuring those two in the future, if it hasn't already been written.)

I also liked the visual style of the end-credits, before they did the scroll of the cast and other participants. I liked how that brought the graphic novel style back to the audience's attention.

Now as to the aforementioned subtexts . . .

I thought that there were a few subtexts going on, some of which I found more distasteful than others. I've already mentioned some of the more gay-positive subtextual elements, although there were some negative ones as well -- Xerxes as Ru Paul, anyone?

I can certainly see why Iranians would not be happy with the Persians' portrayal -- the eyeliner budget must have been enormous, not to mention the piercing-studio fees. No Islamic fundamentalist revolutionary would like this prancing poof as an effeminate emissary of Persian culture to the rest of the world.

One of the things I found very striking -- and more than a little disturbing -- was a page that seemed to have been ripped out of George Lucas' book. As in "Phantom Menace", there was ethnic stereotyping going on that was as bad as Jar Jar Binks and the Trade Federation representatives. The Greeks were all portrayed by actors who were Northern European Caucasians. Fair enough, that, since the Caucasus is just up the road from Greece and quite a few tribes that eventually settled in Greece had ancestors from that region. BUT . . . why were the Persians so obviously Not Caucasian, many bearing distinctly African features? The entire Persian army was very clearly Not White (as in Northern European Caucasian), either in coloring or in features and usually in both.

That bothered me.

Yes, I realize a case can be made that Xerxes was drawing his army from the ethnic groups of his empire, but I've seen Persian people -- they are quite Caucasian in appearance. I only noticed a very small handful of actors who appeared even vaguely Arabic. (Costuming aside -- which seemed more reminiscent to me of Berber outfits than anything from Arabia or Asia Minor.) If the casting directors are going to play the race card, there should have been more of a mix in Xerxes army. Most of the prominent representatives of Xerxes looked decidedly African, so the battle scenes came out with this visual subtext -- small band of Brave White Guys defy the overwhelming Non-Northern-European Evil Ethnic Horde.

That's a rather strong cultural subtext, in my opinion.

I wouldn't be surprised if someone flames me here because I'm writing about this, but it just was soooooooooooooo In Your Face that I just could not avoid noticing it, especially when it was combined with the Manly Greek versus Effeminate Persian.

Part of me wonders if Americans will read this more as White versus Non-White while Europeans will view it more along the lines of the political controversy surrounding Turkey's desire to become part of the EU as well as Ethnic European Christian versus Non-European Muslim/Turk/African Immigrant. Both readings of the film can be supported, I believe, as well as a jingoistic "Support the Iraq War" one.

The above subtexts certainly make me wonder if this film will end up at the top of white supremacists' DVD wishlists this coming Christmas. (Although the more gay-bashing ones might decide to give it a pass.)

As for myself, on the whole I did rather enjoy it, admittedly in large part because of the Nekkid Greeks. :)

One thing seeing this film has made me want to do is revisit the Spartan art exhibit I'd seen a few months back, since it's still open for a few more weeks. (The picture for this entry is from that exhibit -- it's a statue of a Spartan hoplite that is thought to be King Leonidas.) I'd like another chance to see the Laconic art on display there before it goes back to Greece. If anyone would care to join me, please let me know by leaving a comment to that effect or sending me an email -- there are some folks on my f-list who weren't part of that original party, since it was done on a weekday, and seeing it on a Saturday is certainly do-able for me.
Current Mood: pensivepensive
Current Music: "Helden" by Unheilig
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(3 seeds eaten | Eat a pomegranate)


Date:April 1st, 2007 06:17 pm (UTC)
Flame? never. The racism of the film was disturbingly blatant, and the story itself was irritatingly distorted from the historical narrative, keeping only a paltry handful of original sound bites. And yes, the eye candy of the Spartans did at least almost make it worth viewing. I managed to see it with a friend & fellow casual historian, and I think both of us were running to the bathroom to rinse our eyes after watching the film because of how badly distorted the context was. I was pleased, though, that the flirting was left in at least. At least they left that much truth in.
But seriously - A rhino?!!???! Elephants?!??!! Since when does the Barnum & Bailey circus have a military wing?
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Date:April 1st, 2007 11:48 pm (UTC)
Race is such a charged subject that I tend to avoid it, considering it to be the "third rail" of civilized discourse. One needs to have an asbestos suit to hand if one is foolhardy enough to address it.

I'd gone into the film expecting to see jingoistic subtext as well as an anti-gay subtext, based on what I'd read about the movie beforehand, but I felt completely blindsided by the de facto racism of the casting decisions. I'm astounded that an issue hasn't been made of it in the media, given how PC Hollywood has tended to be in the past and how blatant it was in this production. Really, how can you not mention it, after seeing this film???

As for the critters, I can see the use of elephants, actually. After all, Hannibal did use them in his campaign against Rome and it is possible that Xerxes would have had access to war elephants from India, although the film ones had the larger ears of the African elephant, from what I recall. The rhino, however, was just plain stupid as a war creature -- they have very poor eyesight and would be a terror for their own side as well as the enemy. If they were going for an African menagerie, why not include a hippopotamus or three as well? From what I've heard, they're actually one of the more deadly creatures, in terms of numbers of people killed per year.

Date:April 2nd, 2007 06:22 am (UTC)
I do agree with your assessment of the racism - why it hasn't been more remarked upon I won't even guess at. My main objection to the elephants is one of simple geometry & facts as I've heard them. Yes, Xerxes would most likely have had some kind of access to Asian elephants, but a)he would have had great difficulty maneuvering them over his (completely ignored) pontoon bridge or get them in his ships for that matter, and b) as near as I can tell from the bits I've read, he didn't use them. Willing to look into the matter, but pretty sure the heffalumps sat that one out.

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