Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Gorgeous slaughter.


Something ominous lurks beyond the horizon, importing itself with the noise of a drumbeat and a stampede and a ching-ching. The barbarians have made another film. (Trailer here). Wait til you see the whites of their eyes, lads. Wait til you hear the strange tongues they speak in. Already the skies have been filled with such phrases as "gorgeous slaughter", "how fucking cool was that?", "best film ever", "Wholesale human slaughter never looked so pretty", "one-fifth history, four-fifths something that looks cool", "This movie is about the decapitations, severed limbs and blood splattering all over the screen. Yet, it works", "the movie's just too darned silly to withstand any ideological theorizing. And 'silly' is invoked here, more or less, with affection".

Obviously, I pinched most of those phrases from the thumbs-up reviews at Rotten Tomatoes. Most sympathetic reviewers have focused on how "rousing" and electrifying the slaughter is, how beautiful the machismo is, how alluring and artful the genocide is. At the same time, those who are sensitive to the charge of revelling in celluloid fascism are keen to assure readers that there is nothing ideological involved. That would be dirty and crass agitprop, while this is fun. The slogan that accompanies the film's title is "Prepare for Glory". The glory happens to be the last stand of Spartan "free men" against an anachronistic race of tyrannical mystics, effete warriors, transexuals, biomorphically perverse midgets, black people, lesbians etc. All the characters are digitally enhanced in ways that permit the level of editorialising through physical forms that is usually only available to the cartoonist.

Ahmad Sadri writes in a review for the Lebanese Daily Star (I can't find it online):

To my mind, Snyder's 300 drinks deeply at the cauldron of rage that is still boiling over in the United States six years after that bloody Tuesday. Two invasions, a trillion dollars in smoke and three thousand dead Americans have not sated the Achellian anger in a remote part of the American psyche. The movie 300 unleashes that abiding desire to curse, brag and rave at "endless Asian hordes." Bring'em on you barbarian slaves, you, you..., black, gay, effeminate, depraved cowards. Your friends are hunchbacks, deformed giants, midgets, magicians, eunuchs, perverts, lesbians and executioners. To hell with you all and your "mysticism and tyranny!"

Nobody expects historical accuracy from a Hollywood movie based on a graphic novel. But using domestic racial and sexual stereotypes to demonize the enemy is breaking new ground. In the movie 300 Persian "immortal" knights are snarling beasts beneath their sinister masks and their king is a pierced and bejeweled androgynous savage. But, more significantly, Snyder's Persians - I am not talking about the disposable extras covered up to their eyes in male burqas - are predominantly black and by implication of mannerism and affect, homosexual. Allowing the widest berth for the genre and medium one still marvels at Snyder's audacity in demonizing the "Asiatic hordes" while morphing the Spartan warrior into the typical white American survivalist. Snyder's Spartans are white guys fighting a sea of racially inferior blacks, yellows and browns. They are staunchly heterosexual and weary of their elected elders (ephors) who are seen as sacrilegious lepers, traitors and scheming politicians.


It was reported that in pre-screenings, critics booed this movie and walked out in droves because it was such a pile of crap. It has now made record-breaking profits. Frank Miller, the author of the comic that became the film, has not shrunk from the Clash of Civilisations thesis imputed to his dreck: it is about the superiority of Western civilisation against a "sixth-century barbarism" evinced by those who "saw people's heads off" and therefore "do not behave by any cultural norms that are sensible to us". On the one hand, the reduction of a brutal political strategy to "cultural norms" (where do these 'cultural norms' persist or emanate from?) gives the game away. On the other hand, films like this, and television programmes like 24 (in which I believe at least one person has had his sawed off by the hero) do indicate that such 'cultural norms' are eminently sensible to some American audiences. Sensible thus: "We don't like having to do it, but these barbarians come to our country in the hundreds of thousands and try to enslave us. We have infinitely fewer forces, but nevertheless we heroically resist, and if that resistance is brutal, then so be it." The book has an introduction by the Islamophobic neocon, Victor Davis Hanson, which denies a 'political message' but insists that it is problematic for 'multicultural' audiences in that it takes an unequivocally 'moral' stance on behalf of Hellenic superiority. Zack Snyder, the director, is someone who made the fairly commonplace move from advertising to movie-making, and presumably had a fair idea what it was about the comic that would appeal to audiences. You don't get to make that leap without knowing what sells.

It is quite interesting, this spate of historical fantasies, evoking Hellenic, Roman or Christian legacies: Troy, Alexander, Kingdom of Heaven, HBO's 'Rome' series, for instance. Something is decidedly up with that. There is nothing new in futuristic comic book fantasies saturated with contemporary reference and the worship of technology and fascistic superhuman power. Imagined futures are invariably composed from historical and contemporary bric-a-brac. Nor is the reimagining of history as a contemporary drama at all original. But why the sudden surfeit of it, with all its in-your-face civilisationalist, culturalist metaphors? Why the slew of earnest, fascist fantasy (Batman Begins, Superman Returns etc)? Why did the X-men 'cure' themselves? Why is slaughter 'gorgeous'? Why is genocide dampening crevices and stirring pocket-linings in a cinema near you?