Modern-day storytellers are circumscribed by reductivism. Adopt a classical method – and you’re out of touch, a coward channeling a bunch of unfashionable dead white guys. Adopt a classical method and innovative technology – you are not merely out of touch, you are also a corporate whore.
This is the problem with much of the critical reception surrounding “300.” The mention of the “war-weary times,” (as if most of us know what it’s like to be war-weary in the first place), the shudders of horror at the stylized violence, the sneering suggestions that the filmmakers are not self-aware when it comes to the various forms of eroticism the movie portrays – these things add up to the feeling that we are missing something here, something older and much more mysterious. The both sincere and studied critical responses point to a self-devouring culture that couldn’t appreciate a fun mythology if it stomped on said culture’s collective bum with a big, sandaled foot.
The reactions of ethnic Persians to this film are understandable and important – on a variety of levels, myths are (to borrow a word from today’s fashion experts) fugly, and we should not forget that. But Persians aren’t the only ones who ought to feel at least slightly uncomfortable: the movie aims to kick you around no matter who you are. It’s a splendidly wicked story; it doesn’t quite push one’s buttons as much as jackhammers them.
The end result is both pleasurable and painful to watch – the post-battle tableau of pierced, bloody, beautiful Spartans, arranged as lovingly as figures on the Sistine Chapel, can be read as a nod to the death-cult of warfare, an exercise in spiritual ecstasy, a pin-up worthy seduction, etc. The image is attractive and terrifying at the same time. And perhaps one of the reasons why “300” is such a hard pill to swallow for some has to do with the way in which it doesn’t invite interpretation – you can simply sit back and let it pound you, and there is some guilt inevitably attached to that, no?
“300” also speaks to the viewer visually – the dialogue is the backdrop, and not the other way around. This set-up reminds me of the band Nightwish – masterful guitar-work and very secondary lyrics. The film is also visual in the manner of Little Red Riding Hood re-tellings (no, no, I’m not just saying that because of the Spartans’ blood-red capes) – identity is created through colour, through artful, manipulated imagery. This style is classic in the way that folk tales are – and as lovely and dark as the deepest recesses (rabbit holes?) of the creative mind. It’s no wonder that the film begins and ends with the words of a storyteller.
The Spartans were, as the fictional Xerxes put it, a “fascinating” group of people, noble and savage, and so is this twisted, gorgeous spectacle of a narrative. Said narrative is told from their perspective and with them in mind; we in the audience are the soft-bodied, pathetic, popcorn-littered bystanders. It’s a great device and it doesn’t have to alienate the viewer – especially if the viewer can tear himself or herself long enough from post-structuralist Marxist methodology, or whatever it is that the kids are snorting these days.
“But Natalia!” You might say. “Don’t be all lame and interpretive and crap! Let’s talk codpiece!”
Yes, indeed. No matter how you spin the other aspects of the movie, there is always the film’s spank-you-with-a-copy-of-The–Histories attractiveness, the twinkle in King Leonidas’ eye that keeps on suggesting that we will, at some point or another, get to, at the very least, hold his spear.