the honour and the gory

I am a reasonable, reasonable man. I may have come into this world with high expectations, but the last three decades have tempered my optimism. I do not expect great coffee from a Chinese lunch kiosk at the food court. I do not expect to find love in Dick Cheney’s heart, and I do not expect to get away with draping myself in the corpse of Don Knotts and dancing down the Hollywood Walk of Fame, screaming “Where’s my star?” I really don’t.

When I pay ten dollars and more to see a movie, though, I expect in exchange at least one memorable image, one watchable scene, one line of dialogue that doesn’t make me want to plunge a sharp Spartan spear through my eye and ravel out the neuronal string that carries the memory of having sat in an inexplicably crowded theatre and watched Zack Snyder’s lame muscle epic 300.

What can I say about 300, a film that could have been made by Leni Riefenstahl, if Leni Riefenstahl had never heard of depth of field? If Zack Snyder had been the mind behind Triumph of the Will, the Nazi empire would have folded like a lily at dusk. Only the over-the-top solemnity and relentless pomposity of the story saves it from being truly offensive. The rhetoric is pitched so high, the fight scenes so monotonous, the betrayals and tragedies telegraphed so achingly early, that any engagement with the film is damped down in favour of dull amazement that this soggy homoerotic thrustfest ever got made. No gladiator flick has ever assembled so many near-naked over-buff meatheads, just to have them march around in boots and capes and leather Speedos.

A brief run-down of the story (there are spoilers here, I suppose, but since this is a butchering of a 2,500 year old story, I don’t feel like I’m spilling any fresh beans): King Leonidas grows up in the harsh world of Sparta, a place where grown men beat up five year olds for fun. He earns his crown through the venerated tradition of kicking everyone’s ass all the time. One day a godless ambassador from Persia and his pyjama’d entourage come to visit with a message: give us Sparta’s natural resources and we promised not to murder you all. Leonidas takes the diplomatic route and has the Persians thrown in a conveniently placed well. Despite this provocation, the politicians hem and haw, being the spineless debate-paralyzed toads that the movie needs them to be. Leonidas, Mr. Action himself, climbs a phallic-looking mountain to consult the Oracle in what is THE STUPIDEST SCENE in movie history. I won’t describe it, but it will make you long for the pleasures of Mel Gibson’s filmcraft.

The Oracle delivers a message to Leonidas: don’t go to war with the Olympics approaching (if only that admonition were observed today). The wicked, inbred, corrupt priests and the wicked, inbred, corrupt politicians urge noble, free, buff Leonidas to heed the Oracle’s words, but Mr. Action brooks no tradition and, after a night of scronking with the fierce, noble, tigressy Queen Gorgo, picks three hundred WWE rejects to march off to Thermopylae, a narrow corridor where a small band of soldiers can slice and dice the invading hordes.

And hordes they are. If you thought that Asia was made of ordinary folk such as yours and my own self, 300 is here to set you straight. Pantalooned, festooned and a little too fancy for the red-blooded male comfort zone, the Persians and their vassals from the far corners of Xerxes’ empire trudge straight off the checklist of Orientalist clichés: slavish, silent masses of disposable meat so interchangeable that they can be whipped and killed with impunity by their own commanders. Behind their masks, the elite shock troops of Persia are bloodless monsters. Imposing Africans with faces draped in gold ride angry rhinos and elephants over the helpless bodies of infantry. The Spartans slaughter them all in a slo-mo whirlwind o’ gore.

Even though the Spartans are ‘free men’ who will not be ‘enslaved’ by ‘mysticism and tyranny’, they eventually fall due to treachery at home and on the battlefield. O treacherous traitors, with their treachery! How they traduce! A hunchback named Ephialtes, rejected by Leonidas, leads the Persians through a narrow pass to flank the doughty band of buffsters on both sides. Thwarted in his desire to join the Spartans, Ephialtes’ deformity makes him morally weak (in the graphic novel, he redeems himself somewhat) and naturally ignoble. Welcome to Anatomy as Destiny 101. Back in Sparta, Theron, the oilest politician ever to rape Queen Gorgo and throw the charge of adultery in her face before the assembled council, is a kept man of the Persian Empire, who seeks through delay and inaction to leave Sparta and the rest of the Greek city-states open to the rampaging drag show of Xerxes’ armies.

Then they all die. Deserted by their Thespian allies, Stabbed in the back and surrounded by sodomites, all three hundred of the 300 are thrashed thoroughly. No density of pec or ab may block the scorpion-headed arrows of Xerxes, who appears to be an eight foot tall drag queen so powerful that he brings his own runway with him, borne on the backs of hundreds of slaves. Leonidas goes out fighting, launching his spear at RuPaul Xerxes and shaving off some of the emperor’s precious facial jewellery. Predictably, this results in a whole lot of screaming followed by a general overarrowing of Leonidas. We go out on a note of hope, as 10,000 Spartans in their ridiculous outfits run screaming towards the camera. According to Dilios, the lone survivor, this is supposed to herald in a new age of freedom and reason. Sure, why not.

Oh yeah, and the dialogue sucks. Most painful is the voice-over narration, which helpfully tells you precisely what you’re looking at. Since the images of 300 are depthless and blocked out like a sidewalk theatre show, this is hardly necessary. Here’s an example: early on in the movie we witness a wolf circling a boy. The narrator provides context: “The wolf circled the boy. Sniffing the night air. Hungry for its next meal”. No shit. I never would have guessed from all the circling and the sniffing. Or how about the scene where they’re marching, and the narrator says: “We march”? Dude, it’s like you’re sitting right behind me, telling your blind friend what’s going on. I can almost feel the bits of popcorn and drops of Mountain Dew being sprayed on my neck.