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Comic Book Film for Dubya

In '300,' macho Spartans whup pesky Persians.

Steve Burgess 9 Mar

Steve Burgess reviews films for The Tyee every second week. He's back from his travels through Asia.

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Violent, pretty and dumb.

What's your favourite movie?

Someday soon, you may ask a new acquaintance that question, and just maybe -- because it takes all kinds -- your new friend will reply, "My favourite movie is 300."

If this happens, back away slowly. Your new friend probably kills cats for fun. Worse -- your new friend may be George W. Bush. Director Zack Snyder's new dramatization of the epic Spartan stand at Thermopylae will probably go down real well at the White House, and wherever disturbed young people massacre hundreds in violent video games. Others should exercise discretion.

This is a historical epic, but its real history is not so much ancient Greek as recent comic book. 300 is another film taken from the work of graphic novel auteur Frank Miller, following very much in the CGI tradition of last year's Miller-inspired Sin City. Nothing in 300 is natural -- not a ray of honest sunlight falls on a single frame of the movie. Like Sin City and the execrable Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, 300 was filmed entirely in front of blue screens and subsequently built around the actors digitally.

Pretty dumb

It's certainly better than Sky Captain, visually at least. 300 has an undeniable beauty, a burnished look intended to evoke the mythic. Think of the dream scenes in Gladiator and imagine a whole movie of that. Don't imagine much else, because you'll be disappointed.

Someday, somebody is going to make one of these comic book movies that isn't quite so depressingly comic book. Not this time. 300 is an adolescent wet dream to its very core, a homoerotic paean to half-naked Greeks and their bloody, thrusting swords. And to make all the Chippendales-style posing more palatable for the young straight male target audience, there's a little bit of rough doggie-style hetero sex too.

The plot -- don't blink now -- is this: 300 brave Spartans, led by the heroic Leonidas (Gerard Butler), guard a pass against the Persian hordes commanded by King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). There's a small bit of politics thrown in, and the aforementioned boinking (featuring Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo). But it's mostly just the glorious, sexual thrill of slow-motion violence and orgasmic geysers of spurting blood. Really. Such unabashed tributes to slaughter are usually delivered with a wink in slasher films, but 300 does not know how to wink. It is deadly serious in the way that so often provokes giggles.

Certain parallels

There's virtually no development of the Persian side, almost no real sense of who they are and why they are so scary -- except that there's a whole lot of them, and their leader Xerxes is seven feet tall, like Darth Vader and with pretty much the same voice. When it finally arrives, the big sacrificial climax doesn't even make a lot of sense. It's just heroic.

Regardless, 300 will likely be a masturbatory experience for the Ann Coulter crowd. Cruel, militaristic Sparta is the ideal; weak, artsy Athens is mocked, particularly in a scene where Athenian soldiers are revealed to be potters, sculptors, poets. Brave men who leave what they love to defend their country? Bah! Weaklings, according to this flick. As a tribute to a particular world view, 300 could play on a double bill with Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will.

And no doubt it will be screened at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. President Bush will certainly relish a film in which King Leonidas tries, and fails, to get authorization from Sparta's governing council for an attack against the forces of Persia, a.k.a. modern-day Iran. Leonidas goes ahead anyway. History calls him a hero. So much for congressional funding.

There's even evidence that the film consciously grasps at this clash-of-civilizations message. "Today we will rid the world of mysticism and tyranny," shouts a Greek soldier, leading a charge against the Persians moments after we have seen an image of dead Spartans in Christ-like poses.

Most of the bloodthirsty teens in the audience won't care about that stuff, of course. But Dick Cheney will cream himself. I guess Dick can use a little diversion. He's had a rough year.

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