Tonight I watched 300 on Blu-Ray. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen the film – enough that I can speak some of the dialogue along with the actors – but tonight I saw it through new eyes. I realized why I like the movie so much and why I revisit it again and again:
It’s so ridiculously unrealistic.
Looking back at my original review in 2007 it seems like I was grappling with that aspect of the movie. I wrote: What’s interesting is how Snyder deals with the heightened nature of the story – in action scenes, he’s completely at home, but in all the slower moments the heightened aspects feel very, very silly. Snyder seems to miscalculate the line between heightened and ridiculous more than once; David Wenham’s voice over constantly strays over this line, and what’s worse than the silly tone in which he delivers the lines are the lines themselves. Much of the voice over seems taken directly from Miller’s graphic novel, and Miller writes in the sort of hard boiled way that a 17 year old in black nail polish might write. In conjunction with his art, this stuff actually works (sometimes) but spoken out loud it’s just outlandish. When Leonidas takes his leave of Gorgo, Wenham speaks Miller’s dialogue like a parody of a pompous Shakespearean actor: “There is no room for softness. Not in Sparta. No place for weakness. Only the hard and strong may call themselves Spartans. Only the hard… Only the strong.” I mean, that’s just wretched, and I almost wonder if any filmmaker could make that work.
Well, yeah, it is wretched. But it actually totally works. Because what I was missing at the time is the fact that the heightened reality saturates every moment of the movie, that this is a film that has no interest in realism or in people behaving like people. It’s about iconography and larger than life characters and a pulsating sense of coolness. There’s never a moment that feels like anyone on set ever uttered the phrase ‘Could that happen?’ They just asked ‘Is it awesome?’
There’s more to 300 than just ‘awesome.’ I could go on for a long time about how Snyder gives himself an out of reality by having the entire film be a propaganda speech, for instance. And I’m still as fascinated by the movie’s politics as I was in 2007. But this isn’t a revisiting of 300 (although I may do that at some point) – this is a call to unreality.
We’ve become a culture that seems to prize reality very highly. It wasn’t always this way; people weren’t stupider in the 30s, they just didn’t give as much of a shit that their entertainment be ‘realistic.’ It’s why your grandparents didn’t need some kind of device to explain why people were singing in a movie musical, it was just great to have people singing. Nobody cared how Superman managed to fly, it was just awesome that he did. And I suspect that adults watching The Wizard of Oz in 1939 weren’t ‘fooled’ by the painted backdrops, they just enjoyed the scenery for what it was.
None of that happens anymore. Photoreal is the buzzword in special effects, despite the lingering, nagging feeling that many of us have that we will always be able to tell a scene contains major FX work. We’re no longer interested in suspending our disbelief but in having it completely vaporized. Movies about giant robots punching each other or a guy dressing up in a batsuit to fight crime must be mired in realism, in backstory and in minutia. On top of that, we demand naturalistic acting at all times, which is why so many people think the exaggerated and theatrical acting style of 300 is just ‘bad’ acting.
Once upon a time this all made sense. By the time the 70s rolled around Hollywood movies had become bloated, soulless spectacle. Everything was phony as opposed to unreal, and a young generation fought back by going after the gritty and honest stuff. You need course corrections like that on occasion, to violently react to the status quo. But over time that ‘realism’ has become the status quo.
Obviously mainstream film in the 00s doesn’t embrace realism the way it did in the 70s. So many films from that period have minimalist scores, and nobody was sweetening sound effects. 70s movies are almost eerily quiet as a result. And the stereotypical 70s film is one where the hero fails and then dies at the end. But while we’ve made some allowances technical aspects and happy endings, we’re more rigorously devoted to the idea of ‘reality’ than ever before, even in things that are wholly unreal. It’s why The Lord of the Rings is such a 00s kind of blockbuster – it’s got politics and history and languages and exacting details. Middle Earth is so real you could almost move in. People complain about Lord of the Rings when the films dare try to be awesome, like when Legolas surfs down a staircase on a shield. That works because it’s fun, not because it’s feasible.
What I’m talking about here isn’t absurdism or surrealism. Internal consistency isn’t the same thing as realism; you don’t need to explain why Gene Kelly is suddenly dancing in the (manifestly fake) streets in Singing in the Rain, but you do need that character to behave from scene to scene in a consistent way. The world of the movie must make sense in and of itself, but it doesn’t need some kind of crazy elaborate backstory to set it up. I know that L Frank Baum went a touch JRR Tolkein in some of his later Oz books, but in the movie The Wizard of Oz Oz just is. We don’t need a geographic survey of the different regions to be transported. The crew never had to leave Culver City to transport us there. And that doesn’t look like any lion I’ve ever seen. But it works. Seventy years later, it completely works.
It reminds me of cartooning. Watching Pixar’s Up I thought of something Scott McCloud wrote in Understanding Comics (and I’m paraphrasing here): the more abstract a cartoon image is the more universal it becomes. Pixar straddles the line by using cartoony figures and realistic backgrounds, sort of the opposite of old studio movies that put real people in front of fake backgrounds, but the effect is the same – it creates the perfect mix of reality and unreality. In Up it means that you can be completely immersed in the emotional aspects of the story (since it’s taking place in a ‘real’ world, lending everything weight) while not being bothered by the idea that an old man can set his home aloft overnight by using helium balloons. Kelly splashing around in the water and singing is one of the most simply powerful moments in the history of cinema, and everything about it – from the sprinkler-provided rain to the set to the fact that a lone man in the streets has musical accompaniment – is unreal. But so powerfully real and true and wonderful.
Is it any coincidence that two of the best films of the year, both made by filmmakers who visibly chafe against ‘realism’ in their films, are kiddie movies? In the realm of the cartoon and the PG movie filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze can get away with things that would send viewers into rages in ‘real’ movies. Hell, the lack of a clear one to one relation between the Wild Things and Max’s real life in Where the Wild Things Are makes some people annoyed.
In fact I wouldn’t be surprised to see more ‘adult’ filmmakers dipping their toes into the kid movie waters. The Wachowski Brothers went there with Speed Racer; while the movie was a financial failure it was a success as a highly stylized, unreal film that is completely true at its heart. There’s a freedom allowed in cartoons and kid films that used to exist in mainstream movies forty years ago, and it’s a satisfying freedom for artists. Sometimes you want to just tell a story and as long story and the emotions behind it feel true, why does anything else matter? How does learning how Batman made his suit improve Batman?
Our current need for over-explanation and prequels and movies in general that start with the pitch “Did you ever wonder what would really happen if…”is boring. It’s time for another course correction, and I think it’s happening right around us right now. It’s time to remember the joy of an actor playing broad, of movies that want to sing rather than brood. What I wouldn’t give to be living in a cinematic environment where the Peter Parker dance routine in Spider-Man 3 was celebrated rather than mocked. I suspect that Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, Guillermo del Toro, Zack Snyder, the folks at Pixar and many others agree with me.
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