March 23, 2007

Thoughts on 300, art, and objectivity

Posted in Movies, Musings at 1:13 pm by The Lizard Queen

Wednesday night I went to see 300. On one level, it was an entertaining flick that accomplished what it set out to do. I read a review somewhere (can’t recall where at present) that stated that seeing the movie was like watching a graphic novel in motion; that reviewer was right on the money. The movie was stylistically stunning, even in the thoroughly gratuitous moments (though, of course, having read plenty of graphic novels, I recognize that those moments were very much in keeping with the genre). The plot was entertaining, if somewhat predictable, and the characters were fairly well-drawn, albeit pulled from a fairly standard stock. There were moments in which I bit my knuckle (yeah, I totally do that), moments in which I grinned and muttered “hells yeah” under my breath. By and large it was exactly what I expected, and I enjoyed it.

On another level, though, it was problematic–and indeed, in that respect it was also exactly what I expected. As one might expect, the Spartans were set up as the heroes right from the beginning, and emphasis was placed on the fact that honor and respect were among their values. The Persians, on the other hand, were set up as Other. Their skin was dark. Their clothes were strange. Their values were questionable–the messenger sent to Sparta brought the skulls of Grecian kings and told the Spartans that they would become slaves. The Persian king, Xerxes, had a harem of women in which some serious (and seriously gratuitous, again) heavy petting was going on. (Also, incidentally, Xerxes was played by a Brazilian in dark bronze makeup.) The fact that “unworthy” Spartan babies were killed is mentioned, but still more or less glossed over–and one deformed man who managed to survive childhood is ultimately turned into a traitor.

To a certain extent I was reminded of conversations about The Departed. “It’s a brilliant film,” many–including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences–state. “It’s full of racist and homophobic slurs!” others argue. I and others have pointed out that the movie was very true to character in that that’s exactly how people from Southie talk; the response I received was that Scorsese could have set the movie in another city–and who’s to say he didn’t assemble a cast and then decide on the setting?

On one hand, there are those who would argue that it’s necessary to accept a film, or any other piece of art, on its own terms. 300 and Letters from Iwo Jima were both about war to a certain extent, but can they really be objectively compared? On the other hand, there are those who would argue that yes, one can indeed hold a film or other piece of art up to objective standards–and furthermore, one should. I thought I’d turn this around to my readers, then: what say you?



  1. […] | Wikipedia on the Battle of Thermopylae | Dark Horse | I am the Lizard Queen | Villagers with Torches | Stainless Steel […]

  2. Dave Regan said,

    “I and others have pointed out that the movie was very true to character in that thatโ€™s exactly how people from Southie talk”

    From what I understand it was actually the other way around that the Spartans would have been the target of the man-boy-love jokes of the Athenians, but of course the Spartans were the heros of the movie so they had switch that around. Here is a great article talking about the historical accuracy of the movie. Also, the wikipedia entry on the battle of Thermoplyae and the rest of the war is a fascinating read. The Greek did some amazing things to defend their country but there was also a fair bit of luck involved. A significant part of the Persian fleet was destroyed by a storm.

    I thought the Spartans were portrayed a little two one dimensionally for my tastes, the “look how manly I am with my chiseled body, gruff nicotine rattled voice, and emotionless demeanor” theme got old for me. They also didn’t give the Athenians much credit for their contribution to the battle. It did stick to the comic book pretty closely though.

  3. Cara said,

    It never makes any sense to me when people try to demand more from something, especially art/entertainment, than it ever meant to give. That’s just setting yourself up for disappointment and/or outrage, but then some people get off on being disappointed and/or outraged. Going to see the The Departed and getting outraged about hearing some off-color and un-PC language is like going to a titty bar and getting outraged that you saw some tits. What the F were people expecting, you know?

    I thought The Departed was wicked pissah, by the way.

  4. pavlov112 said,

    I agree with you in principle, C, and yet for some reason the recent Star Wars movies jump out at me. George Lucas always talked about meaning them to be for kids, and yet I know so many people were disappinted by them. Are we adults who’ve grown up with the original trilogy being unreasonable in our disappointment that the prequels generally sucked?

    Damn it. Now all I can think is Anakin bitching about it being hot and sand getting everywhere. Sure, Luke started off as a whiny brat (“But I was going to Tosche Station to pick up some POWer converters!”), but he grew out of it. Bah. I’m not thinking very clearly today.

  5. pavlov112 said,

    Ha ha ha ha. I haven’t seen the movie myself yet, so I’m in no position to judge, but this is certainly a… pithy … review.

  6. Cara said,

    Oh, I mean it’s obviously okay to be disappointed in things, and have expectations/hopes…it’s not as if I’ve never disliked or been disappointed in a movie or book. Mostly that’s a matter of taste. But I do advocate being realistic about what one can expect from a movie/book/objet d’art and it’s not more than the piece or its author intended. Make sense? So what I’m saying is if the makers of the The Departed had intended it to advance a social agenda, I’m a monkey’s uncle (is that how the phrase goes?). I’m pretty sure it was just meant to be a good ole Southie-style mother-fing movie remake about crooked cops and mobsters… and calling it out for not being PC is foolish at best. I think it succeeded, remarkably well, in its intentions and I liked it. I’m sure some people didn’t like it, and that’s okay too. But if they wanted a movie that was going to be PC and ended up at the one where everybody shoots everybody in South Boston, they went to the wrong movie in the first place. And now, I haven’t seen or read 300, but from what I understand of it, I think if people went to that hoping it would be something more than an obvious one-side-is-good-the-other-is-the-blackest-evil, they either like to set themselves up for disappointment or they went to the wrong movie too.

    I’m with you about being generally disappointed in episodes 1 & 2 (and I admit, somewhat ashamedly, that I still haven’t even seen 3!), but I also am honest that episodes 4-6 have been kind of deified over the years too (really, could the prequels possibly have lived up to what legions of fans had been hoping for for 20 years?). But then, the Yoda fight at the end of 2 was worth my $9 and then some ๐Ÿ™‚

    And also, from what I hear about episode 3, it was a blood bath of mothers… that’s hardly a storyline for children. So if George Lucas intended this episode to be (I think he changed his tune a little, from interviews I heard/read), then people rightly expected it and were disappointed. That’s legitimate.

  7. pavlov112 said,

    As I told our blog hostess recently (another who has not yet seen Ep. III), that it was a bloodbath is what partly redeemed the prequels for me as a series. It’s just such a dark flick. As I’ve grown more circumspect (ie. once I grew beyond my initial-viewing-in-childhood reactions), I’ve come to prefer Empire for the same reason, I think.

    Of course, I may have been partly influenced by the Empire/Jedi/independent contractor discussion in Clerks… ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Pavlov112: “As I told our blog hostess recently (another who has not yet seen Ep. III)…”

    Wait, is “blog hostess” supposed to refer to me (or do you have a connection to a blog that you’re not telling me about)? ‘Cause if so, I think you’re thinking of someone else. I saw Episode III. [WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD; scroll down to the next paragraph to avoid them…] I’m so naive and optimistic that I was actually excited by the previews for Episode III. As I’ve no doubt you can imagine, I was severely disappointed. What stuck with me was not the bloodbath, not the fact that the movie was dark, but that, in a strange sense, it wasn’t dark enough. One of the best movie villains of all time became a villain because he wanted to save the life of his wife and the mother of his children?? Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side for love?? That’s the lamest thing I’ve ever heard! *Sigh* Why does George Lucas hate me?

    Cara: “Going to see the The Departed and getting outraged about hearing some off-color and un-PC language is like going to a titty bar and getting outraged that you saw some tits.”

    ๐Ÿ™‚ Love it! I’m inclined to agree. On the other hand, though, when we study literature, we often move beyond authorial intent and into the autonomy of art; if a novel’s author meant to write a simple coming-of-age story but everyone reads it as an anti-Stalinist diatribe, then how do we ultimately approach that novel? (After all, Georgia O’Keeffe was just trying to paint some flowers, and–if I remember my art history correctly–was rather chagrined at her first show to find that everyone thought they looked like vulvae…) But then I look at the other side of that idea (what can I say, it’s 2:30 am and I’m good at seeing both sides of an argument anyway), and I think that if I were looking at the Departed as a “text,” if you will, I wouldn’t say that it’s advocating racism, homophobia, etc., but rather that it’s reflecting the racism, homophobia, etc. of a certain place at a certain time.

    I do think it comes down in large part to, as you put it, being realistic about one’s expectations for a movie/book/objet dโ€™art.

  9. pavlov112 said,

    No, I’m definitely thinking of you. It’s just that I’m thinking incorrectly. Must stop sprinkling crack in my morning coffee… (I’m sorry about that. I honestly remember having that conversation with you recently and now can’t for the life of me remember who the other person was.)

    [MORE EPISODE III SPOILERS] I don’t think it’s fair to complain that Anakin’s turn wasn’t dark enough. He ultimately redeems himself out of love for his children (“Father, PLEEEEEEEEEASE” zap crackle evil grin on Palpatine’s face); if that love for them (and by extension, I suppose, their mother, since they are all that’s left of her) is powerful enough to turn him in one direction, I don’t see why it shouldn’t turn him in another. And let’s face it – that Palpatine was one slick manipulator.

    Does this mean that there are tits in The Departed, too? Now I really have to buy it… ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. DavidD said,

    That’s why I turned to the dark side, Liz. Didn’t you know? Turning evil for the sake of power alone, greed, or other pure selfishness is so ordinary and unbalanced. There has to be something else to make it heroic or tragic. Anakin is rather juvenile at the point of his conversion, but he is clearly coming to appreciate the existential joy of his power, however he uses it, for evil or for good, to release his anger or follow orders. But it’s not just about power. It’s about the existential joy of being connected to all sorts of things, also for evil or for good.

    Part of real life turns to the dark side has been to become an instrument for whatever madman is in power, because of one’s professionalism or other joy in one’s talent. Hitler and Stalin both served visions that were bigger than they were, both being visions that could be spun in a positive way, and in turn they had many talented people become their instruments of terror.

    So George Lucas could have made Anakin a more mature character intent on a new galactic order for the good of everyone, not just to prove that he was as good a Jedi as anyone, even better, not just to save his wife, for whom he already broke the rules so she could be his wife. Anakin could have broken the rules in a big way, for good and for evil, only somehow the evil would dominate, as it has in reality. Ah, anyone can write that. But podracing and similarly loud running around in the vacuum of space was more exciting.

  11. […] Which brings me to a larger question: to what extent should we accept work on its own merits, and to what extent can we critique it for fa…? […]

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