300 (Zack Snyder, 2007)
My first exposure to violent art is a painting done by Juan Luna called Spoliarium. It's a painting that is shown to each and every young Filipino student, even in his tenderest years. It depicts a scene in a Roman gladiator coliseum, where dead gladiators are being dragged by other men. It's not necessarily a realistic portrait; the bodies are not proportionate nor are their formations in possible arrange. It's an exaggeration that only meats out the hideous twists and grotesqueness of the situation. Above what's literally seen in the portrait is a nationalistic ache, a courageous exposé of the collective experience in the Philippines. That is art --- violent yet beneath such violence, is a passion, a history, a resonating and clear message.
Zack Snyder's 300 is very similar with Luna's masterwork. 300 is teaming with exaggerations --- mountains of disfigured corpses; limbs flying out in the air like dandelion seeds in search for fertile grounds, fresh wounds exposed like badges of honor. Comparing a Hollywood film to a painting might raise eyebrows but the reason why I saw the comparison fit was because despite the plenty similarities, 300 fails to be anything more than pretty pictures of violence. Underneath the initial shock or delight of seeing men fight to their deaths, there's really nothing. It's that --- frames of a graphic novel put into motion with no real depth but plain "cool."
300's racial stereotyping, its ineptitude in fashioning the Battle of Thermopylae as a modern narrative, its questionable artistic themes (freaks are evil, muscular pecs and perfect abs are good) are attributable to Frank Miller. It's something I really can't comprehend --- there's a near-pious reverence to Miller's art that almost all directors who try to adapt his work (including Robert Rodriguez in Sin City (2005)) has a fervent duty to replicate his art. Snyder, whose first feature is a remake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (2004; probably his only contribution to the genre is to turn zombies into hyperactive sprinters), makes every scene look like it belongs in the pages of a glorified graphic novel rather than in a darkened movie theater.
The rest of the film's failures I attribute to Snyder. He's out to prove something, yet in so doing overkills the concept. The film is mostly eye-straining. He edits like a madman; and the fight sequences are butchered to the point of ridicule. True, when Snyder tries to ape Peter Jackson with vistas teaming with goons and monsters, there's still a momentary sense of awe. However, when the fights actually happen, he focuses on thrusting limbs and swords, then just before you relish the lethal blow, cuts to the next muscular limb slashing, then again cuts, resulting in complete incomprehension. It's quite inutile which is only further emphasized with Snyder's indulgent use of slow motion; quite funny I thought as Snyder puts into slow motion the movement of a Spartan from one victim to another, then puts into real time the actual slash and blow (the abundance of the gimmick, the misappropriation of such only weakens, annoys, and cheapens).
300 can be seen as overtly political (against American imperialism, or for Bush's wishes to bring in more troops to Iraq). However, its political message is drowned by the film's boorish trappings. It's an inevitable trade-off; especially when the message is skewed by cultural ignorance (in exchange for aesthetic coolness), racial sanctification (the Spartans are all perfect Caucasian specimens, as opposed to the evil Persian army --- a mixture of Black, Arabic, Asian, Indian and the freakishly indeterminable), political incorrectness (Xerxes as bald drag queen diva; his voice lowered to further the fearsomeness of this macho gay), and bad filmmaking (I need not explain this more).
Again, there is nothing more to be gathered, not even the typical lessons of the actual Battle of Thermopylae (a rousing point, a morale-booster for the brave yet hugely outnumbered), nor the evident emotions or humanity of a desperate situation. It's all gloss, unjustified spurting of blood and floating of glowing embers, and loud yet empty battle cries. I'd rather stare at Luna's painting for the entire duration of the film, than be maligned by this mess pretending to be art.