Frank Miller’s 300: On Laconism in Contemporary American Cinema (Part 1 of 2)

300 Poster[Warning, spoiler alert]

I had a very frustrating conversation last night about 300, the new film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel on the Battle of Thermopylae. The conversation was frustrating for two reasons. The first is that, by the time the conversation started, I had consumed enough alcohol to render me mostly inarticulate on the subject. The second is that, from the moment when I “confessed” to having seen and even enjoyed the film, I felt attacked. I’m not sure exactly how to account for that. The film is, admittedly, clearly problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its insistence on the line “Freedom isn’t free” which of course resonates in the current political landscape with a weak defense of the worst aspects of the “War on Terror.” In fact, the film’s dialogue as a whole is problematic, but in an interesting way. Indeed, I readily admitted this last night at the outset of the conversation. But given that 300 is clearly driven not by dialogue but by its remarkable and innovative cinematography, it seems odd that the film would occasion such a whole-scale a priori rejection from people who had seen only the preview.

Not that I mind the critical engagement – indeed, I hope this post will occasion some. What was frustrating, however, was the sense that the question had somehow been already resolved in advance, along with the severe reluctance to consider the possibility that certain aspects of the film might be recuperable despite the film’s obvious flaws. I’ve encountered a similar reluctance when attempting to articulate my reading of the third Matrix movie. Last week, the subject (which I don’t think had been discussed in 3 years) came up at a poker game, and someone there who hadn’t heard my reading asked me to explain it…which was greeted generally by groans, of the “not this again” variety…which is odd, since, as I said, this hasn’t come up in years. Admittedly, my reading (which I won’t reproduce here) isn’t all that great of a reading, but it’s not so bad that it dare not speak its name. At last night’s poker game, when I tried to recuperate 300 in a slightly similar manner, before I had even explained my reading, someone alluded to my Matrix reading and said, more or less, “not this again.”

While I hope I’m wrong about this, and someone will correct me, I have a hard time understanding these reactions as anything less than a certain kind of aestheticism that insists on maintaining a clear dividing line between “good” and “bad” taste. Only the obligations of taste permit a reading to be rejected on face rather than on the basis of a counter-reading – thus, since clearly everyone (academic and non-academic audiences alike, myself included) agrees that Matrix Revolutions is a bad movie, it’s best never to speak of it again, except possibly in the form of a critique, lest the taint of a recuperation reveal something like bad taste. This sort of obligatory dismissal is not only contrary to the way we talk about “high literature,” it ultimately results in simplistic readings: as I will attempt to show here, what is most troubling about 300 is not the superficial political commitments of its awkward dialogue, but the deeper ideological commitments of what the film does best – its near perfect visual form. Rejecting the film based on its dialogue gets the critique entirely wrong.

I. The Aesthetics of Economy and Excess

The term “perfect form” is taken from the film itself and is, from the start, the primary virtue attributed to Sparta. The film opens with a montage of Leonidas’s development from boy to hardened soldier to king of Sparta, a development which is implicitly to be read as at once typical of the Spartan upbringing and exceptional. When Leonidas, left to survive in the mountains in the winter, feeling not fear but a heightened attention to the sensation of the cold and the physicality of his own body, kills a wolf by falling backwards at the precise moment at which the beast lunges to fall upon his spear, holding the spear perfectly still as the light slowly (gruelingly slowly) vanishes from the wolf’s eyes, and finally, pulling out the spear, thrusts it through the wolf’s mouth in a single, economic motion, he constitutes the perfect symbol of Miller’s Sparta: the economy of form, in which no movement is wasted, in which every fiber of the organism organizes itself around the single principle of survival. Even falling is not a failure but the form of an attack. His “perfect form” is at once the embodiment of Spartan perfection and the perfection of Spartan perfection. He is, furthermore, a formalist reader – no detail of the scene escapes his attention; he is, finally, a symbol of the symbol as such, which is at once the embodiment of a principle and its perfection.

Perfect, here, means, in short, “laconic” (a word, of course, which derives from Sparta, i.e. from Laconia). The equation is made between the perfect form of Leonidas, who wastes no movement, and the precision of Frank Miller’s art, which employs Leonidas as the perfect symbol of its own perfect symbolism. The choice of Sparta as a subject, then, is dictated initially not by the Spartan defense of “freedom,” but rather by the Spartan obsession with form, which allows Miller to comment on the formalism of his own work.

Sparta is cast in contrast to the army of Xerxes. Both armies operate on aesthetic principles in the interest of symbolic power. Xerxes messengers carry the skulls of dead kings and warn that the Persian army is so numerous that the earth shakes in its path. The personal guard of Xerxes takes the daunting name of “the Immortals” (whose name, the narrator annoyingly and repeatedly insists, Leonidas will “test”), and Xerxes himself claims to be a God. The power of the Persian army is thus to force submission without battle by instilling fear, presenting themselves as an immortal force that cannot be defeated. Sparta counters with its own aesthetic display – Leonidas’s army builds a wall from the bodies of slain messengers, and fights back the initial attack without losing a single man. Its successive victories earn concessions from Xerxes, who offers Leonidas command of Greece in exchange for his submission. Leonidas’s primary goal is not to defeat Xerxes but to be defeated (to attack by falling: his own death motivating a larger Spartan retaliation) in the act of spilling Xerxes’s blood – literally, he thrusts a spear that glances Xerxes’s cheek, showing him to be mortal; by implication, the slaughter wrought by 300 men shows the vulnerability of Xerxes’s army and undermines his symbolic power, overcoming Greek defeatism and thus inspiring the larger force that will eventually defeat Xerxes.

While both armies operate in the service of symbolic power, they do so on the basis of opposing aesthetics – indeed, it becomes possible to read the battle between the 300 Spartan soldiers and the Persian military machine as the conflict between an aesthetics of laconic formalism and an aesthetics of excess. Xerxes’s army kills women and children in order to cover the branches of a tree with their corpses as a threat. The threat he projects is the product of the shear number of soldiers he commands (again, the spectacle of the earth shaking) as well as by the variety of troops he controls: foot soldiers, archers whose arrows blot out the sun, cavalry, rhinoceroses, elephants, (presumably anachronistic) grenadiers, the aforementioned Immortals, a giant with teeth carved down to fangs, a behemoth of an executioner with swords in the place of arms, etc. Xerxes himself is carried on an enormous pedestal on the backs of countless slaves, and he commands a harem which, in one scene, serves as a display of sexual excess in order to tempt a traitor. All of this is, of course, in contrast to the Spartan phalanx made up of only 300 men, a closed structure formed from the circular repetition of identical, interlocking elements that mutually support each other (each man must defend the man to his left and his right).

Miller of course needs both the formal precision of the Spartan army and the excess of the Persian army to make his film effective. The spectacle of Xerxes’s troops and his chariot is Miller’s own invention, and the technique of accumulating characters, classes and races is already apparent in Miller’s <i>Sin City</i>, especially given it’s episodic structure. Thus while Miller is clearly invested in laconism and clearly stages a conflict between economy and excess, he does not seem to be writing against excess per say. Rather, it seems that the aesthetic effect of his film is produced as the confluence between excess and economy – that is, as the incorporation of a diversity of figures into a tightly bounded structure, which seems to be essential to the comic book genre. Just as the glory of the Spartans is contingent upon the existence of an enemy force, the formalism of Miller’s art is validated by its ability to incorporate excess into its tight design.

II. The Lack of Laconic Dialogue

Most aesthetic criticisms of the film I’ve heard so far are focused on the dialogue. The common line seems to be that the film doesn’t have enough – the tendency among critics is to offer a facile reading of the film and then criticize it as using an excess of blood, to cover a lack of substance, with substance as a synonym for “eloquent dialogue.” Part of this is a reaction to legitimate complaints about the image track which I will discuss below. Part is a recognition that the dialogue that is included genuinely doesn’t work so well. But the conclusion that the film needs more rather than less dialogue seems to be misdirected. In part it seems to mirror the glib dismissal of the graphic novel as inferior to the print novel, as well as to channel the bias of an American audience uncomfortable with silence and reluctant to infer meaning from imagery. There’s a certain anxiety there, a desire for the film to spell out exactly what it means and exactly how we should feel about the events it depicts. But this desire is exactly what gets the film in trouble – the need for the film to be readable as a clear political statement is fulfilled by the worst possible reading of the film’s images by its dialogue.

The problem with the dialogue, in other words, is not that it is too laconic, but rather that it is not submitted to the laconic formalism of the image track. For a film that thematizes its own participation in a return to visual formalism in American cinema (something we see recently in foreign cinema, for example, in Pan’s Labyrinth), for a film that idealizes the Spartan soldier as wasting no movement, 300 sure wastes its words. As I will argue, it is primarily on the basis of the excess of dialogue that the film can be incorporated into the rhetorical defense of American imperialism that is the object of the main ethical critique of the film.

An example, first to illustrate the excess of dialogue: the movie features as a running bit a series of exchanges between two soldiers in the Spartan army that might best be describe, to quote Much Ado About Nothing, as a “skirmish of wit.” The two soldiers trade insults, playing off each other’s language in an attempt to constantly one up one another. The motif of the skirmish of wit is common in Shakespeare and is echoed in the salon-wit common in 19th century French literature or, for example, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Since I can’t quote the dialogue directly from the film, I’ll quote the first scene of Much Ado About Nothing as an illustrative example. Here Beatrice and a messenger are discussing the wartime service of another character, Benedick, whom the messenger defends as Beatrice mocks:

Messenger

He hath done good service, lady, in these wars.

BEATRICE

You had musty victual, and he hath holp to eat it:
he is a very valiant trencherman; he hath an
excellent stomach.

Messenger

And a good soldier too, lady.

BEATRICE

And a good soldier to a lady: but what is he to a lord?

Messenger

A lord to a lord, a man to a man; stuffed with all
honourable virtues.

BEATRICE

It is so, indeed; he is no less than a stuffed man:
but for the stuffing,–well, we are all mortal.

LEONATO

You must not, sir, mistake my niece. There is a
kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her:
they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit
between them.

Notice how Beatrice plays off of the language of the messenger, echoing back “a good soldier too, lady” as the mocking “a good soldier to a lady” and “stuffed with all honourable virtues” as “he is no less than a stuffed man: but for the stuffing,–well, we are all mortal.” The messenger plays back, answering for example “what is he to a lord?” with “A lord to a lord, a man to a man.” The rule of the game is to use the ambiguity of one’s opponent’s language against them. The two Spartan soldier’s play a similar game with a wit of course unworthy of the comparison to Shakespeare, but the point of the scene is hardly to call attention to the ineptness of their puns – it is merely bad screenwriting. The skirmish of wit belongs to a tradition of rich word play which is at odds with the terseness of Spartan culture and the precision of Miller’s imagery, both of which would scorn so much ado about nothing.

300 displays, in one scene, a certain awareness of the dangers of its own verbal excess. A second running bit involves the captain of the 300 troops, whose son is also enlisted. The captain says that he is quite willing to sacrifice his son in battle (he has more sons, after all) but the experience of battle seems to create a deeper bond between the two. Towards the end of an early skirmish in which the Spartan phalanx has mostly defeated a unit of Persian cavalry, the captain calls out to his son, not in warning, but affectionately. It seems as if the captain is about to praise his son for valiance in combat, perhaps even to tell him that he loves him; we see the son, alone against a smoky background, turn to face the father, a cut back to the captain, and finally a cut back to the son. A Persian horseman suddenly emerges out of the smoke. Cut to the father, who screams “No!”, but too late – before the son can turn around, he has been decapitated. Later the father regrets not the sons death, but never having told him that he loved him.

The awkwardness of this series of scenes in the context of the laconic Spartan army is painfully obvious. This bit, along with the bit between the two friends, serves to humanize the characters by translating them into the idioms of contemporary American popular cinema – the male friendship founded on trading insults, the father and son incapable of talking about feelings, etc. The gesture of humanization does not fit with the inhuman formalism that gives the Spartan force its strength. These characters talk too much, and talk primarily to express their feelings, all of which is quite the opposite of laconism. But the irony is that in this particular scene, it is quite clearly the excess of words that kills the captain’s son. It is only because the captain has called out his son’s name in order to express his feelings that the son is distracted and decapitated. Too many words, in a situation which calls for an economic use of gesture, is deadly.

The self conscious excess of the film’s dialogue is further marked by the pointed accumulation of adjectives which characterizes both the narrative voice-over (“spears and swords and bodies and blood,” etc. – the quote is approximated) and the rhetorical use of language within the narration (Queen Gorgo’s attempt to persuade the Spartan council to send more troops begins something like “I come to you as a mother and as a wife and as a woman and as a citizen of Sparta,” etc.). The film’s dialogue, little as there may be, is always, stylistically, the diametric opposite of the image track. It does not participate in the formalism of the film, and thus comes off as severely out of place. If the image track is Miller’s, it may be that the awkward dialogue was added in the adaptation process as a failed attempt to render the graphic novel more palatable to the movie going public or more relevant. It is also possible that the print elements in the novel itself are equally awkward (could someone who’s read the graphic novel comment on this?). In a sense this is immaterial – wherever we locate it, there is a disconnect between the economic form of the image track and the careless excess of the dialogue, which mistranslates the images into the landscape of contemporary cinema (through the excessive rhetoric of love and friendship) and politics (through the excessive rhetoric of freedom).

III. Preliminary Remarks on Orientalism

In addition to criticisms of the film’s dialogue, critics have fortunately shown an awareness of the problematic Orientalism of the image track, which casts the protagonists as white Europeans fighting against exoticized and effeminized Asians and Africans. I won’t seriously refute this criticism – as I’ve said, I’m not attempting to deny that this film is deeply flawed – but I do think I should point out that:

  1. Because of the film’s direct thematization of symbolic power, the exoticism of Xerxes troops is not conceived of as an inherent property of race of culture, but rather as a strategic projection of symbolic power. The Immortals wear masks that endow them with inhuman faces, and Xerxes clothes himself in religious iconography all in order to intimidate. The idea of exoticism as self-imposed is not without its problems, but at least it calls attention to the artificiality of its categories.
  2. The figure of Ephialtes, the Spartan hunchback who has survived the renowned Spartan practice of killing deformed babies only because his parents fled Sparta upon his birth, is a cruel reminder of the inhumanity of the Spartans themselves. Spartan society is conditioned on its own ritual violence (consider also the treatment of the oracles) and indeed on the very destruction of any possible difference from the racial/genetic norm. Xerxes’s alliance with Ephialtes and the scene where the Immortals fight alongside a giant cast the Persians as embracing a heterogeneity which the Spartans repress. The opposition thus no longer appears to distinguish an exotic society from a familiar one, so much as to distinguish a society that embraces exoticism as a form of symbolic power from a society that violently represses it.
  3. The critique of the film as orientalist assumes a lot about how it maps onto the contemporary political landscape, which is to say, it assumes, rather awkardly, that because the film casts white Europeans against and army based in the Middle East, the exoticism of the Persian army is meant to be projected on top of the contemporary Middle East. While this is certainly a reasonable suspicion, the fact that in practice the mapping proves so awkward and even contradictory presents severe challenges to this reading. Furthermore, one does not have to be a racist or orientalist to condemn the army of Xerxes as a colonizing force in the ancient world. The conflict which the movie portrays cannot be reduced to the conflict between the same and the other, precisely because the “familiar” protagonist proves so unfamiliar, and the exotic other proves so domestic.

I’m going to pause for the night here. In a follow-up post, I will elaborate on these final statements by explaining how the exotic other in 300 proves domestic, how the familiar protagonist proves unfamiliar, and how this ultimately disrupt the mapping of Sparta and Persia onto the United States and the contemporary Arab word. I will conclude by looking at the political commitments of Frank Miller’s investment in formalism, and perhaps with some reflections on the problem of taste I introduced in the first paragraph.

…to be continued…

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~ by Matt on March 11, 2007.

3 Responses to “Frank Miller’s 300: On Laconism in Contemporary American Cinema (Part 1 of 2)”

  1. Hey, I’m sorry you felt attacked; that certainly wasn’t my intention (and probably alcohol was making my words less precise). In particular, I certainly didn’t mean to imply that the supposedly conservative nature of the film requires us not to see it. The reason I’m not seeing it is that the dialogue and overacting look unbearably bad, not for whatever its political commitments might be. As for the Matrix argument, the “not this again” concerned the level of fighting that usually develops when we talk about the movie, not the quality of the argument or the frequency with which you bring it up, though, again, I can see how that must have seemed insulting at the time. I’ll try to be less haughty in the future.

    As for this:

    While I hope I’m wrong about this, and someone will correct me, I have a hard time understanding these reactions as anything less than a certain kind of aestheticism that insists on maintaining a clear dividing line between “good” and “bad” taste.

    …you’re more or less right, although I would modify it so that it didn’t sound like I was accusing you of having bad taste but rather accusing the movies in question of being bad. Basically, for me, a bad movie cannot be redeemed by a good reading. For some it can: friend of mine found a website that purports to show that all of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal books featured a hidden symbolic system related to Kabbalistic mysticism (or something, I don’t quite remember); this redeemed the book Hannibal for him, which previously he hadn’t enjoyed. As for myself, I haven’t read Hannibal, but I read a review that suggested that I wouldn’t like it, and if the review is right it doesn’t really matter what codes are present in the book. Similarly, when you say, “it seems odd that the film would occasion such a whole-scale a priori rejection from people who had seen only the preview,” well, I can’t spend $9 every time a movie comes out, my duty as an academic notwithstanding. (Though, again, I didn’t mean to cast doubt on your opinion of the film; when you confirmed that the dialogue was bad, though, it sealed the deal for me.)

    Of course, it could be argued that, as academics, we have to spend a great deal of time reading things we don’t personally enjoy. I work in the modernist period, but I find that Henry James can sometimes be fatally dry (though sometimes he’s electrifying), I thought Cane was a mixed bag, and I thought Nightwood was a pretentious nothing. Since, in order to be an academic in the field, I have to be familiar with all of these, of course I have to separate, to some extent, my aesthetic enjoyment from my intellectual appreciation. But if I divorced those totally, I would be interpretively lost at sea, because part of studying literature is understanding the relationship between the aesthetic and the intellectual (as opposed to those who ask why we can’t just forget all our theories and read the beautiful words). Cane is, unsurprisingly, at its best when its dreamy style best fits with its commentary on race. I haven’t developed a reading of Nightwood, because the effort would be unnecessary; part of what I disliked about it was that it took the form of an overwrought polemic. If I say the second Matrix movie (never made it to the third) fails as a movie, I mean to imply that it fails across the board, intellectually as well as aesthetically.

    It does sometimes happen that a bad or mediocre product will nonetheless give insight into social issues, such as the films whose sexism was discussed at The Kugelmass Episodes recently. However, in those cases the filmmakers are revealing themselves as problematic; that seems different from a reading of their work, which would credit them with insight. It’s the old distinction of laughing-at versus laughing-with.

    A film (or book, or whatever) which requires the thinking portion of its audience to suffer in order to get access to its ideas is working at cross purposes. I would rather not give legitimacy to bad films by looking for ways in which that badness is justified or appropriate; everything, both art and criticism, needs to justify its existence. In his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth responded to those who argued that, if verse was made simple and unadorned as per his proposal, it would be impossible to tell good poetry from insipid poetry. His response was, “Why take pains to prove that an ape is not a Newton when it is self-evident that he is not a man?”

    (I’m afraid I haven’t responded at all to the actual substance of your reading; I’ll wait until the follow-up to do that.)

  2. tomemos – no hard feelings, of course, and you shouldn’t go spend $9 to see the movie if you don’t expect to like it. However, my comments about the awful dialogue notwithstanding, I still would recommend the film – there wasn’t enough dialogue for it to become distracting, and the image track, however politically problematic, was remarkable enough that it’s worth seeing in theaters.

    I won’t say much more at this point, since I want to finish my follow-up post. Just to note, quickly, though – I don’t know about the book, but I nearly walked out of Hannibal the movie. I’m not sure that tying it to a hidden symbolic system related to Kabbalistic mysticism would even make it better rather the worse…it certainly didn’t help my opinion of Madonna.

  3. […] effort to recuperate bad art on the basis of its self-consciousness of its failure.  See my reading of 300 below (plus there’s that Matrix III reading I allude to in that post, but trust me, you […]

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