300: racist war propaganda with septic timing

2 Posted by - October 30, 2007 - Blog, Screen

Growing up, my mother’s Greek ancestry was a personal lode star, a point from which I was able to get my bearings in the world. I read the myths, memorized the names of gods and heroes, and took pride in a people’s accomplishment, as if they were my own. This is the sort of thing that some boys do when they are a bit lost. When they are afraid, they latch on to visions of power and when fear poisons boys against the world, they turn to hate and cruelty. I never associated myself with the Spartans; I hardly thought of them as Greeks. I thought they were hateful. Even as a child I could see that were the cruelest kind of aristocrats. They gloried in war and had no work other than killing. They could do this because they were surrounded by “helots” – slaves who’s lives were given over to feeding, clothing, and when the time came for a Spartan boy to become a man, dying for the pleasure of these despots. Spartans are exactly the kind heroes a fearful boy wants. The kind of heroes that make him feel that he is superior and pure in the hatred of others’ weaknesses. The new film 300 basks in precisely this sort of hatred.

A.O. Scott dismisses the movie as stupid and violent, but it took in over $70 million during its opening weekend. Scott’s dismissal failed to see something a lot of other Americans were quick to recognise. 300 is not a terrible film, its a fantastic film that panders to a fearful America. It is a brand of propaganda I had imagined was a thing of the past. 300 would make Leni Riefenstahl blush . I think this is a smart film, that a lot of thought went into its making, but that its intended audience is not Scott, it is young men and women of fighting age. 300 is following up on the success of Sin City. Both films are adaptations of comic books by Frank Miller, who also is credited as a producer for both films. The films share an aesthetic of digitally abstracted violence, real flesh is turned into the consistency of cartoon ink: it gives way like warm butter, without resistance and without regret or consequence. These are worlds of deep black and white. Sin City pioneered this aesthetic at the service of noir nihilism. With 300 this stylized violence is harnessed to the cause of glorifying total war. 300 is a pornographic vision of power and perfection and has only contempt for the disfigured and unfamiliar. It plays on the contemporary fear that we are facing a clash of civilizations, and stokes that fear with racist imagery. By calling up old Aryan dreams of a classical world peopled by blond haired blue eyed individuals, and threatening that world with an undifferentiated dark-skinned horde, the film panders to the ugliest aspect of America. Race separates good from evil in this film, this is part of the way it promotes total war. 300 would have us believe that no quarter can be given to our enemies because they are sub-human and hideous.

When I found out that 300 had been turned into a film and was due to be released this winter I described its timing as “septic.” The comic book was a retelling of the story of Thermopylae – a story that has been used to psych up populations for war in democratic nations since year one of the French revolution. The original story, of warrior idealists protecting Greece against a huge Persian army, was a familiar one from childhood. Making a film from the story I grew up with now, with the US and Iranian administrations playing chicken with nukes and threats of attacks, would seem like tragically bad timing. When you add to that the comic’s racist imagery: the god-king Xerxes and his spokesmen are all dark skinned blacks, his army, masked and identical henchmen, described repeatedly as “slaves.”, it fulfills my prediction of “septic” timing. But I underestimated exactly how septic a film version of 300 could be.

The racism of the comic was something I could excuse. I like to think I am a sophisticated consumer of contemporary culture, used to unpacking the racist elements of films by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. I can enjoy a film with racist characters or racist banter without feeling like I am participating in racism. Even so, the comic book was troubling. I am half Greek, and I am used to being mistaken by orthodox Jews as Jewish (they want me to go to temple), by Turks as a Turk, Lebanese and Iranians as middle eastern (those guys generally want to talk food – sometimes they tell me warmly that I should pray). I like when this happens. I am being told: “you look like one of us.” And I do. Across the Mediterranean, everybody eats the same food (the Lebanese use more mint) and look pretty much the same – or as a character in the film Mediterraneo (1991) put it: “One face, one race.” In an electric scene from Quentin Tarantino’s script for True Romance Dennis Hopper’s character provokes a mobster, played by Christopher Walken, into killing him, telling him that “Sicilians were spawned by niggers… blond hair and blue eyes became black hair and dark skin… you’re part eggplant.” Tarantino’s script credits the “Moors’ with this change – that the dark skinned characteristics of Italians, and by extension Greeks, are a modern development. I have no doubt that sub-Saharan Africans contributed a mighty portion to my genetic heritage, but I think this is an exchange that has been going on since humans spread out around the fertile crescent. Africans have helped shape the ancient world, body and mind. I am sure that blonds helped too, but the Iliad makes it clear that Greeks did as well. Homer differentiates the Greeks from their neighbors only by the length of their hair (Greeks had the longer hair) . If I am part “eggplant” it is because Greeks have always been part eggplant. The image of fair skinned blue eyed ancient Greeks is the wishful thinking of racist anglicizers of the classical world.

So I took the racism of the comic as part of an unreflected, inherited prejudice about the “Moorish” origin of Greek’s dark features. But the filmmakers took it further; the Greeks were fairer in the film, and the Persians darker. The ranks of identical masked Persian soldiers revealed flashes of long dark-kinky hair and charcoal rimmed eyes. Such stereotypically racist depictions of the enemy aren’t limited to 300, of course. Peter Jackson was criticized for imbuing “Easties “, a masked, race/tribe/group in his Lord of the Rings, with vaguely Middle Eastern features. And while the embarrassed director sought to placate critics by adding an explanatory/exculpatory scene in the DVD edition of the film, the makers of 300 have taken the opposite tack, pushed this aspect well beyond the racist colorations found in the original. In among the ranks of uniformed Persian regulars were whitewashed Sub-Saharan Africans, who were made to look especially pathetic and bumbling in their unlikely regalia. Xerxes’ shock troops of grimacing “Immortals” wore “Africanized” tragedy masks in the comic book. But that wasn’t enough for the filmmakers, who removed these bronze masks to reveal vampiric monsters with tusks like wild boars.

Because the movie takes so directly from the comic – almost religiously copying the look and composition – the aspect of the film that reveals the intentions of its makers is what is changed from comic to film. The comic turned a Greek traitor, Ephialtes, into a victim of the Spartan practice of exposing to the elements deformed newborns. Miller draws Ephialtes as a nightmarish hunch back, who desires to take his place among the Spartans. This is not a part of the story I grew up with and I found it an interesting twist. The filmmakers might have chosen to highlight the cruelty of the Spartan practice, and the irony that it led to their downfall, but instead they added a menagerie of monstrous and disfigured freaks to Xerxes’ army (but not as many as they added to his harem). Added to the story of the Spartan king defying the “priests of the old gods” is a new rear guard force – a decadent do-nothing parliament led by a traitorous politician in the payment of Xerxes who seeks to undo the King’s plan to mobilize all Greece by his heroic self-sacrifice. The peacenik politician tricks the noble “stay-the-course” queen into giving him the only thing the filmmakers could imagine a peace-seeking politician might want: forced sex, with the terms laid out clearly by the politician as he takes her from behind: “This will not be short, and you will not enjoy it.” The queen is betrayed all the same, but the traitor revealed. The film’s homophobic racist war-mongering intentions could only be made more explicit if the queen had hollered “Take that, you Nancy Pelosi-boy!” as she stabbed the traitor to death.

I am not easily alarmed by the spectre of propaganda, but this movie, which follows the comic book almost religiously, has reconstructed the narrative of Miller’s book in pointed manner that panders to those with the agenda of expanding the American war in Iraq. The image of Roman and Greek austerity and heroics have been used since the earliest years of the enlightenment as an ideal of democratic militancy. In his book Total War, David A. Bell argues that story of Spartan sacrifice at Thermopylae played a key role in the construction of the rhetoric for all out war. Bell argues that total war was spoken into being by enlightenment thinkers; only after the French revolution would their ideas be put into practice. As I watched 300 I kept wondering what it was that was being spoken into being. I understand that the director, Zack Snyder feels that the film can be interpreted as either pro-Bush or anti-Bush. That Bush could be either the Spartan king, or the Persian king – so he asserts that the film is non partisan, that’s a false choice. This movie is pro-war propaganda, it tells its audience to hate and destroy its inhuman enemy. The original story has a long pedigree of idealizing war. The comic book adds to this by abstracting out the nasty parts and carving it down to a simple idealized shape. In his book, Bell contrasts two works of Voltaire. The realism and horror of Candide, is contrasted with an early poem called Fontenoy , which describes a terrible and bloody French victory. Bell writes that “It avoided the gruesome details almost entirely. Instead, it used a style that reduced the battle to sonorous and decorative abstractions.” The filmmakers stated politics may be ambivalent, but the aesthetic they have used is unambiguously pro-war, and more alarming, pro-total war.

Bullies are unable to properly judge threats – they see everyone and everything as a threat. Bullies live in fear and they deal in hate. The current administration tells Americans to be afraid. They have told us what to fear, when to fear, and they have color-coded fear so they can tell us at what level our fear should rise to. They have told us that fanatics with box cutters and plastic explosives are as dangerous to us as the industrial might of Nazi Germany and the nuclear missiles of Soviet Russia. Only a coward would believe that. 300 was crafted by someone that is telling us we don’t have to be afraid, that we can hate instead, but they’re wrong. The Bush administration has picked the low hanging fruit, if they could bully North Korea or Syria or Iran the way they bullied Iraq, they would have already. America needs to stop being afraid. “Taking the fight to the terrorists” is one more policy built on fear, but to make friends we need to be brave.

John Powers is an artist living and working in Brooklyn, NY.

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