March 23, 2007
Thoughts on 300, art, and objectivity
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?