All posts by Chris

Film review: 300

Even though Armand is back from holiday, he is very busy, he tells me, so I will continue to guestblog…

Anyway, lucky old me got a tickets to the premiere of 300 last week (not, alas, as one of these funky favoured blogger-type people, but through the old-fashioned mainstream media). We got packed into screen 6 of the Vue, Leicester Square – several of the screens were filled with people, and this meant poor crew & cast carted from screen to screen to be introduced to the audience. Which meant we had to wait ages before we got to see it. Still, we got free popcorn.

First however, a warning, spoilers follow.

The basic plot is around the 480 BC Battle of Thermopylae, a battle where (according to the film) 300 Spartan warriors led by King Leonidas held off the 120,000-strong army of Xerxes I, until they were betrayed by John Merrick. Or something like that. The film isn’t that true to history, but then it is based on a Frank Miller graphic novel, and so you know what you’re getting beforehand; you’re not getting Simon Schama strolling across the battlefield drily describing what went on – you’re going to get smacked in the face with a fist with the words “dramatic re-interpretation” all over it. So don’t complain, just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Trying to sum the film up to Tom on the way out, I came up with the three words: “exquisitely choreographed ultraviolence”. The film is visually gorgeous and compelling, yet the acts depicted in are unashamedly brutal and ought to be ugly and repellent. There are severed heads and limbs, impalements, and acts that today would be quite gross abuses of the Geneva Conventions. However, the CGI-enhanced presentation turns it into something else; time is slowed and sped up alternately, as we see the warriors fight and spear and kill in ballet-like motion; the battlefield is turned into a elaborate stage, the warriors lit like models on a catwalk and framed by a perfectly-tailored landscape. The result is so engrossing, so hyperreal, that I ended up being neither appalled nor excited by the violence; instead I was just entranced.

Frank Miller’s fascination with the grotesque and fantastical runs through this thickly, from the depiction of the leprous Ephors, mystical priests who are bribed by Xerxes, to the hunchbacked Ephialtes, who after being rejected, betrays the Spartans. In fact, it’s pretty much safe to say that all the good guys are flawless specimens, while the baddies are thronged with the repulsive. As Tom Reynolds puts it:

It seems that the Persians have a more inclusive role in the society for the disabled, yet they are the bad guys.

The creators of this film best be careful, that sort of thinking got Glenn Hoddle into a lot of trouble a few years ago.

Anyway, the film’s imagery of the flawless, buffed European warriors versus the multitudinous hordes of disfigured Asians isn’t exactly subtle, and as Scaryduck puts it:

Loaded with U.S. vs Them imagery, the Persians are portrayed as swarthy sexual deviant warmongers bent only on the destruction of those good, white, European Greeks. Unable to learn from their mistakes, they use force of numbers against the more intelligent, better organised Spartans to no avail. Because, hell yeah, we’re number one.

Indeed, the best other parallel in fiction I can think of is in Star Trek. The Spartans are the Federation, where a cabal of few (mostly human, mostly Western) highly-skilled, highly principled individuals are fighting against a collective of disparate races assimiliated together into one massed unit, i.e. the Borg, the one continual ever-present bad guys throughout the latter 20 years of the series, which of course was borne out of American fears of the Soviet threat and Reagan’s Evil Empire in the 1980s. I’ll leave you to work out what the film’s creators have used as their inspiration.

Just in case you don’t get this point, then there’s a nice subplot involving Gorga, Leonidas’ wife, who tries to get the Spartan parliament to send reinforcements, culminating in an impassioned speech for “Justice, truth, and law and order”. It’s all a bit too “Atticus Finch in the 5th Century BC” to take seriously, mapping a modern western ideal of liberal democracy back onto a society where democracy was still very much in its infancy at the time. As Tom put it to me on the way back home on the Tube, she might as well have added “… and a separation of powers, a second chamber directly elected by proportional representation and no DRM on our CDs!”

Not that any of this makes 300 a bad film. It’s just that it wears its politics awkwardly on its sleeve; afraid the message will get confused or the audience will come away not thinking precisely what you want them to think, the writers and directors hammer the point home far too unsubtly. Quite frankly, if you’re going to do that, then at least follow Team America: World Police‘s lead and make it funny (warning – rude language in that link).

The political fumblings aside, it is a good film, with a decent enough script and plot. The direction is tight, keeping the film well-paced and not overlong despite the obvious temptation to do so. And it’s helped by a good cast; Gerard Butler gives a mighty performance as Leonidas, like a young Brian Blessed, while the very beautiful Lena Headey as Gorga does well despite the shoddy lines she has to deliver. The supporting cast all perform well, with Butler supported by a load of suitably roary and fighty Spartans, and Rodrigo Santoro playes Xerxes as a superbly camp yet insecure man-god, whilst looking like a nine-foot tall Richard O’Brien; yes, this is the same Rodrigo Santoro who plays the very hirsute (and annoying) Paolo in LOST.

And to bring it all together, there is the beautiful presentation. You might think that it’s a triumph of style of substance, but you’d be wrong; the style is the substance. The film’s depiction makes it go beyond real, into the more than real. It is an interesting thing to think about – this kind of film would have been impossible to make ten years ago, yet the technology available now means we can meld truly fantastic (in the original sense) and compelling effects into live action absolutely seamlessly. What 300 does so well is that it isn’t just a load of effects with the plot and dialogue as cinematic Polyfilla; rather they are combined into a compelling and enthralling whole that cannot be separated. That takes the film as a spectacle on the next level, and that’s what made it such an enjoyable experience.

Some reflections on geekdom

Haha! The opportunity to take over every site in the world, one WordPress login at a time, begins! Only I have to not swear while I’m doing this.

So… let’s talk about geeks. The word itself has a weird and wonderful origin:

Etymology: probably from English dialect geek, geck fool, from Low German geck, from Middle Low German
1 : a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken or snake

But of course it has a much different meaning in the modern day. But what exactly is it? Armand and I both proudly self-identify as geeks, but defining what makes you a geek is a bit tricky. Armand and I have often discussed the matter, and a few months ago Armand put forward a mostly agreeable definition of “A person with great passion for life, and things in it” but to me it doesn’t quite capture the essence. Passion is not enough; it’s the slightly neurotic devotion that we have to whatever it is we’re fans of that sets it apart. In addition, the word “passion” is becoming increasingly misused and co-opted by business-speak, and by using it we may be muddying the waters:

We’ve used up so many great and needed words this way, and passion is a sacred one. It’s the language of Abelard and Heloise, Petrarch, Anna Karenina, Beethoven, and Oppenheimer. It belongs to lovers, artists, and worldchangers—who rarely need to talk about it, because they live it—and it means something more than “kick it up a notch.” We have good words for what we need—curiosity, enthusiasm, craftsmanship, and dedication. Let’s stick to them, and save passion for when we (really) mean it.

Curiosity, enthusiasm, craftsmanship, and dedication are all geek-like qualities in addition to passion, particularly craftmanship; the pride one takes in a particularly good bit of code, or an astoundingly funky design, or an excellent and nuanced insight. At least, in my opinion. But it means we’re left with a less snappy tagline.

Even with additional embellishment, we are still left a lot of latitude about what geeks are into; defining an actual “geek culture” it is actually quite hard. I for example, have always been far more into computery geek things, leading to all-too amusing situations where I’ll send Armand a link to an XKCD comic strip (such as this one, which I now have on a T-shirt) and Armand is left having to ask me to explain it. At the same time, I know next to nothing about graphic novels and fantasy sci-fi, while Armand’s knowledge (and personal library) is staggering.

Trying to pin us down to particular cut and dried stereotypes about our hobbies and interests is never going to work. Still, you can trace particular threads through much geekdom, extrapolating from the basics established above: an attraction to novelty, regression to childhood delights, an unerring devotion to the topic at hand and an eye for detail, with a strong streak of fantasy and idealism. Putting it like this, it makes us sound dangerously autistic, verging on a state of permanent infancy. And yet, for the most part, the geeks I know are functional and sophisticated adults as well, even if it can take a little longer to get to know or appreciate these qualities.

Of course, all this shows is that you cannot rely on a single identity to live by, which is as obvious for this as it is for any other form of identity, be it gender, race, religion, politics etc. But it’s a trap a lot of people seem to fall into; in over-emphasising the geek aspect over the others. As wonderful and enjoyable as it is, you should never let it rule your life.