A Fairy Tale of Blood and Bronze: Tatara Sees 300
Peter Tatara - March 13, 2007
I read a lot of comics growing up, and to this day have stacks and stacks (and stacks) in my childhood home. My parents, for one reason or another, have yet to toss the books, and I'm thankful, too, as I'm sure Generation X #58 will one day buy them a cottage in Cabourg. I mainly read Marvel but gathered together a diverse and eclectic collection, and I remember one day flipping through the first issue of Frank Miller's 300. I was mesmerized by the art, the narrative, and the story. I thought long and hard about buying the volume, too, before I ultimately grabbed an issue of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. While, in hindsight, that was a stupid, stupid, stupid move, at the time, Lara's pen and ink mammaries were the closest I could get to a real woman -- I was a comic book fan, remember -- so I really can't fault myself for buying the thing.
This was my first encounter with 300, a memory that has stuck with me until today. I never really thought about 300 after that initial meeting, and I don't really know how the above episode fits into everything that will come below. No, I do know. When the 300 motion picture was first announced, my first reaction was a flash back to that day in a comic store and the overwhelming, all-consuming sensation that this movie was going to be something glorious.
And it was.
Before going into 300, I had read a good number of reviews and found they fell squarely into one of two camps. Half were nothing short of love letters to 300, nicely encapsulated by a few quotes from Ain't It Cool News's Neil Cumpston's review. Cumpston's called 300 "just ass kicking that kicks ass that, while said ass is getting kicked, is kicking yet more ass that's hitting someone's balls with a hammer made of ice but the ice is frozen whiskey." Of Director Zack Snyder, he proclaimed he "must have a dick made of three machine guns." And, summing up the motion picture, "my final analysis is 300 the most ass-ruling movie I've seen this year, and will probably be the King of 2007 unless someone makes a movie where a pair of sentient boobs fights a werewolf." High praise, no? The other half of the reviews I took in denounced the film for being unbelievable, historically inaccurate, built on Right (and/or Left) Wing talking points, and squarely called out positive reviewers as fanboys or Nazis. Seriously, Kyle Smith of The New York Post wrote "it isn't a stretch to imagine Adolf's boys at a 300 screening, heil-fiving each other throughout and then lining up to see it again."
With both of these brawling about in my brain, I took in 300 with several friends on opening night. And with all of us skewing toward the jackboot contingent, we took in the film on the biggest screen in Manhattan. We saw 300 in IMAX. We were pumped. We were psyched. We got our tickets two weeks in advance -- and two hours before they sold out. We were let down. After 300's credits rolled, we walked out distraught. Not by 300. Not at all. Instead, by IMAX. With a titanic, arched screen, unless you sat dead center, the entire picture -- a picture endlessly refined by Zack Snyder's vision -- was rendered garishly distorted. Grotesque.
We then filled our stomachs and minds with cheap Mexican food and drink in Long Island City until 3 AM, going over what we could make out of 300 and occasionally petting a fat grey cat that lived in one of the bars we invaded just before last call. The cat was probably against any number of Health Code regulations, but he was cute. We ranted and rambled about 300. We loved it. We couldn't make out half of it, but what we did see, we adored. To the reviewers who complained the film wasn't faithful to the facts, 300 wasn't about history. 300 was based on a book, and Frank Miller didn't intend his graphic novel to be read in any history class. No, at the core of 300 is a myth. An archetypical poem about the paragon of man. It's a story of rarified valor, bravery, strength, and dedication. To those who read the film as an allegory for the Bush Administration, again, 300 was based on a book -- published in 1998 -- and that book was inspired by the Battle of Thermopylae -- in 480 BC. Sure, you can read 300 as being about the War on Terror, but that's a personal interpretation. Critics who see fit to circumscribe a single, literal, political agenda to the work are mistaken.
I finally fell into my bed at 5 AM and was back on my feet no later than 10. After helping a friend buy a futon and having an abysmal time at a Spectrobes launch party at the Nintendo World Store, I was again outside a cinema. Not IMAX this time, I was now by my local Queens theatre, an independent, neighborhood place open since 1946 and with matinees seats only $5. I saw 300 again and again. Digesting the movie twice -- back to back -- I was spellbound.
With a narrative distilled down to its most basic, barren, even spartan elements, what rises is a fairy tale. A story of immortal men that stands apart from time and space, 300's glory and barbarity don't exist in this realm and are instead a manifestation of the purest essences of these emotions. 300 gives form through god kings and holy knights to man's most ancient fears, hopes, dreads, agonies, and prayers. But this much I took away from the film's premiere. What I experienced for the first time at a matinee in Sunnyside, Queens was that this story's abstracts were turned to crystal in 300's visuals. Tirelessly crafted, Zack Snyder turned the ethereal into the real with very tangible beauty, blood, and bronze. Each frame of 300 was sculpted and polished and made to shine. Visually and aurally, 300 was refined until the real and the unreal were made one, and this one was made to emote an ageless emotion.
So, I liked the thing.
Critics have spat upon the very core of 300's story, citing that while, sure, Xerxes wanted to enslave Greece, the freedom that Sparta's fighting for is the freedom to lob deformed babies off of cliffs and forcing the babies that aren't battered against savage crags to fight and steal and kill to survive until adolescence. It's true. Leonidas was an asshole, but Thermopylae was a steel cage match between a Grizzly Bear and a Great White Shark. Both sides were vicious, wicked, and cruel, and while you wouldn't want to ever meet either of the two, if you did, more than anything, you'd want the other to back you up. I don't care if Leonidas isn't the kind of guy I'd want to have a beer with (because I'd be too afraid he'd gut me and half the bar with a toothpick if they didn't have his favorite microbrew on tap). No, all that matters is that when Leonidas's back is against the wall, he will destroy everything that is in front of him. And he does.
And it goes by in the blink of an eye. I'm astonished by how quickly 300 came to a close, by how brief the whole film whirls by. I wanted more. I know that we're given lingering glimpses of arms, legs, and heads shorn free against a sepia-colored sky, allowed to glut ourselves at a buffet of untimely demises, but after the film's final scene, I didn't want it to cut to black. Blood thirsty? Not satiated with the preceding two hours of slaughter? No. It just wanted five minutes more. Snyder spins his thanatoic yarn so tightly that the entire audience writhes in anticipation of 300's last moment, and when it comes, we want just to savor it, to revel in it.
IMAX is shit. 300 is glorious.