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300, take II

posted by dru Geography: Quebec Montreal Topics: film

March 24, 2007

300, take II

Here's a letter I sent to the two corporate-owned alt-weeklies in Montreal. The Mirror didn't print it, and while I confess I haven't picked up the Hour yet, I'm not holding my breath.

* * *

Dear Hour,

During a visit to New York last week, I went to see the movie 300 on its opening day. The consensus among the New Yorkers I spoke to was that the timing of the movie was "septic," its appearance coinciding with the Bush administration building for an attack against Iran (with Harper and the Canadian media close behind). There, it seemed obvious that a movie that depicted pasty-white greeks slicing up their attackers--veiled and masked Africans and Arabs led by an eight-foot tall dark-skinned king wearing eyeliner, facial piercings, and sporting a throaty lisp--was politically and ethically problematic. The racism and homophobia permeating this movie were never in doubt.

Morbid curiosity prevailed, however, and I went to see it with a friend.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I returned to Montreal to find 300 celebrated by several local papers for the fact that it was produced here in Montreal, and for its adrenaline-fueled battle scenes.

While the aesthetic and technical work of the filmmakers has won much approval from critics and audiences alike, this Montreal production is nothing to be proud of.

It is--or should be--a source of shame.

Beyond Hollywood's usual casual racism, this film is a clearly a call to war, or worse, to some kind of Aryan jihad. The filmmakers are at pains to depict the Scottish-looking greeks as defenders of freedom, reason and democracy against an "enslaved," dark-skinned, liberally pierced Middle-Eastern/African hoard. 300 is "Clash of Civilizations"
propaganda at its most gruesome. When we do see the foes' normally masked or veiled faces, they are disfigured and monstrous. The Spartans' swords and spears cut their flesh like butter, and blood flies like it does in video games. And you can hear the same video game justifications: "it's ok to kill them, they're evil monsters."

My friend, who is half-Greek and grew up with stories of these legendary battles, commented afterwards that 300 would "make Leni Riefenstahl blush".

The actual history is both more relevant and interesting. One doesn't need to get much more revisionist than Thucydides to realize that the ancient Greeks discussed, in their democratic assemblies, whether or not to commit genocidal massacres against those city-states that defied their imperial (their word) will, and whether or not to enslave (which means, inevitably, to rape) the women and children that remained. To ancient Sparta and Athens, the arguments for genocide and slavery were usually more convincing.

What's fascinating about ancient Greece is that democracy and
imperialism, freedom and slavery, coexisted so seamlessly. It may be what is fascinating about ourselves.

There are many lessons that Canadians and Americans could learn from ancient Greece. I hope they aren't the ones that 300 is trying to teach us. Meanwhile, the lack of critical coverage is embarassing.

Dru Oja Jay

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Narrow world view

I don't understand why current events permeate every discussion about this movie. You don't even mention the graphic novel it's based on (and you aren't alone), which was published in the late 90s, incidentally. Whether that novel is historically accurate is debatable, obviously, but why is no one talking about how the spectacle translates on the big screen (really big, actually, as an IMAX exp. show)?

This is an example of a cognitive bias gone wild: just because two events coincide - U.S. vs. Iran in the press, and the release of a movie - doesn't mean they're related.

300 is Related

Of course they're related. They're happening at the same time, and each contributes to the popular understanding of the other. I'm not saying that there wasn't also an intention behind it, but it's simply the case that regardless of what was meant by the film, it has a particular effect as propaganda.

But that sort of misses the point. Racism and war have gone together for centuries now; that doesn't mean that they aren't related, and it doesn't mean that they shouldn't be questioned, much less stopped altogether.

And yeah, I read the graphic novel. What requires me to mention it?

Coincidence vs. correlation

First, let me separate your valid criticism of 300 from the preposterous notion that its release and the press storm I mentioned are related. (Something that was perfectly clear in my comment.)

The fact that they're happening at the same time is a coincidence. I have seen no evidence to support another conclusion. The fact that people may look at one to understand the other is a result of the coincidence, not evidence to support correlation.

Now, as I said, your criticism of 300, in all its glorifying the nationalistic urges that war is built upon, is perfectly valid. Frankly, I just went to see some really cool combat, and wasn't disappointed.

And, finally, you aren't "required" to mention the graphic novel. But, come on, if you read review after review of Sin City, and they all talked about current events, violence in movies, how we should do away with gender, etc. wouldn't you have a WTF moment? That's my point.

The first review I read? Fine, that reviewer's got Iran on the brain. The second? Strange. The third, with "Montreal should be ashamed"? This has gone too far.

Montreal Reviews and Complicity

I looked at the three biggest English language papers in Montreal, and didn't see a single mention of Iran, or racism, or contemporary war. The NY Times mentioned it in passing.

That's what the letter was responding to.

As for coincidence, it's hard to imagine the director wasn't aware of the political context into which the film was being thrust. Assuming he wasn't in some cave, he knew what he was doing, and could reasonably understand how the film could contribute to racism and war. But he released it anyway. The director/producer/distributor may or may not have intended it. But they definitely chose to do what they did.

History has taught us over and over that complicity is a powerful force. In most cases, it is the decisive one. Do we (from filmmakers to filmgoers to film critics) really need to be taught again?

Movie making 101...

Uhm, you are aware of the time it takes to make a movie aren't you? From the time it starts to the time it reaches theatres can take years. so you really shouldn't generalise about awareness and political context when a director is spending 18 hours a day for 2-3 years on a project, spending $60million. What? You think he has final say over when it's released? Gimme a break. The studio needed to recoup it's cash.

Ancient Greece, Ancient Film?

So: are you saying that the planning of this movie was set in motion before there was widespread anti-Arab racism in the US, and before the US went to war in the Middle East? That's some pretty long turnaround, but if you have evidence of this, I'd be happy to revise the responsibility attributed to the filmmakers.