Tuesday, March 20, 2007


300 (2/5)

Last Friday I saw a matinee of 300.

After the movie I had a cavity filled at my dentist. When they asked me if I wanted any painkillers I told them that Spartans didn’t have pain killers. When Spartans were born they were subjected to years of dental checkups without Novocain. They would have mouths of cavities filled without one shot of anesthesia. When they drilled into my tooth I gave out a scream. A warrior scream, not a girly scream, never a girly scream. I cried “We are Sparta!” Well, it sounded more like “Eee aaw Staaata!” Of course, the dentist did wonder why I came in greased up and in an ancient loincloth, but then again she probably didn’t see the movie.

That night my girlfriend tried to fry me some tofu. I wouldn’t stand for it. “I don’t eat my tofu fried,” I said, “I eat my tofu raw!” I grabbed the uncooked tofu and ripped its slippery flesh with my newly cleaned incisors. “This is madness,” she exclaimed. “No,” I said, “this…is…tooooofuuuu!”

By chance three of my friends from Ohio visited me that weekend. That Saturday the three of us met up with a friend of mine from Boston. He brought four people with him. “You only brought three drinkers with you?” he questioned. “How many alcoholics do you have among you?” I asked. Two Bostonians sheepishly raised their hands. “O, H” I yelled. To which my three friends replied “I, O.” “You see,” I said, “I brought more alcoholics than you.”

At least that’s how I pictured my life after seeing this movie. Too bad I just felt lethargic.

300 is the story of Thermopylae, where three-hundred Spartans defended Greece against an onslaught of Persians. Of course, historically speaking, there were plenty of other Greeks and lots of help from the Athenian navy, but don’t let history get in the way of a good yarn.

The whole battle starts off from a little misunderstanding. A Persian messenger comes to King Leonidas and asks for him to pay tribute and bow before Xerxes. Well, apparently Spartans don’t bow because the messenger finds himself looking for the bottom of a bottomless pit. Much of the dialogue is concerned with what Spartans do and do not. “Spartans are this and Spartans are that.” It’s all very boring. In fact, they should have replaced every word with variations on Sparta. “Sparta Sparta Spartans. SPARTA!”

Right now you’re probably thinking to yourself, “well, you already made fun of the historical inaccuracies and the dialogue, but I really just came to the movie for the action.” That’s all fine and good except for the fact that even the action sucks. Sure, the choreography isn’t too bad, but the film is almost entirely shot in slow motion. In fact, there’s about a half-hour of film stretched out to two hours. I was waiting for the dialogue to be slowed down and the inevitable “nooooooooooo” but alas the film did not deliver. Slow motion should be used for emphasis, but when every action scene is in slow motion then it loses its impact. It’s kind of like using a highlighter to highlight an entire book instead of just the great passages.

There’s also an inordinate amount of homoeroticism, which isn’t a problem in and of itself, but the fact that the filmmakers seem absolutely unaware of it is rather odd. For example, Leonidas calls the Athenians “boy lovers” but then goes and greases himself up, puts on a Speedo, and then hangs out with 299 nearly naked greased up men. It’s kind of like the pot calling the kettle black. Despite an attempt at showing a romantic relationship between Leonidas and his queen, the only convincing relationship is between the captain’s son and the “fight in the shade” guy (I don’t think we hear more than two or three names throughout the movie). I was barraged by a series of come hither glances and double entendre and halfway through the movie I wanted to tell the two to get a goddamn room.

I could continue and complain about lack of characterization, the inane queen plot, or some of the more laughable visual choices but what I really want to talk about is The Watchmen. A Watchmen film has been rumored for years and it seems that 300 director Zach Snyder has finally gotten his CGI obsessed hands on it. The Watchmen is the holy grail of comic books and was even chosen by Time as one of the all time greatest novels alongside The Grapes of Wrath and The Sound and the Fury. It’s some heavy stuff with lots of post-modern implications and a questioning of superheroes in general. However, Snyder’s handling of 300 has made it evident he does not have the intelligence to handle a Watchmen film.

300 is pretty faithful to the comic book, but in one of the tiniest changes it betrays a complete misunderstanding of Frank Miller’s intent. One of Snyder’s more awkward visual was his attempt at tearing Ephialtes from the page and put him on the screen. As expected, Ephialtes looks like a guy with lots of makeup and a fake humpback. It’s almost Ed Woodesque. In both the comic and the movie Ephialtes explains that he was born as a Spartan but because of his malformation he was whisked away by his mother to avoid being cast off a cliff. Since that time his father raised him as a Spartan and taught him how to fight. Ephialtes implores Leonidas to allow him to join the Spartans in their battle but Leonidas explains that because of Ephialtes’ physical shape he is unable to raise his shield high enough to protect the other Spartans in their famous Phalanx formation.

This is where Snyder changes Miller’s words and also shows he doesn’t understand the complexities of a mostly undemanding comic book. In Miller’s version Leonidas tells Ephialtes “I can’t use you” and then turns his back as Ephialtes jumps off a cliff. In the film Leonidas suggests that Ephialtes carry the dead off the battlefield or take other non-combat jobs before he throws himself off a cliff. Later in the story it is Ephialtes who betrays the Spartans by showing Xerxes the pass that allows him to outflank their position. In Miller’s version, if Leonidas, and by extension, Spartan society could have mustered the imagination to find a place in society for everyone, then they would never have been outflanked. While most of 300 the comic book exalts the Spartans, Miller still has the insight to slyly critique some of their shortcomings. Snyder completely misses this point, and while reading the comic probably wondered why Leonidas wasn’t a little gentler to poor Ephialtes and decided to add the line about carrying dead off the battlefield. This was a mistake. If Snyder isn’t able to understand the slight complexities of 300 then there’s no way he’s going to understand the mass complexities of Alan Moore’s Watchmen. The only hope is that Snyder keeps close enough to the source material that he stumbles upon some of Alan Moore’s brilliance.

300 was disappointing, but it was also an adaptation I wasn’t expecting, or would have immediately thought “hey, what a great property for film adaptation,” but Watchmen is. I’ll just have to keep telling myself that I’ll always have the original no matter how badly Zack Snyder fucks up the only graphic novel that matters.

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