Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Oedipus Pecs

I haven't seen 300, not for any particular reason beyond I'm not even sure what the last film I saw in theaters was. But not seeing a film has never stopped my from writing about it, so I was mighty intrigued when the Los Angeles Times today ran dueling think pieces about the film by Carina Chocano and Patrick Goldstein. Chocano got to a point that's driven me nuts for years (I taught college students, remember), that she put about as well as I've ever seen it:

The interesting question is how "entertainment" has come to be accepted as a valid, irreducible argument against interpretation; how, in a broader sense, the act of putting things in context has come to be seen as inherently suspect. Whether it's the attorney general claiming lack of clarity on the firings of U.S. attorneys, or a Lionsgate executive admitting mistakes were made regarding the torture billboards for Captivity pasted all over town, it seems that no connection is too clear, no cause and effect too obvious for shocked denial and feigned surprise not to be a viable option.

That's not to suggest that anything involving 300 exists on the same plane of importance — it's just a good example of a trend that would be funny if it weren't so insulting.

Exactly why is it that we as Americans assume the only way to be entertained is to stop thinking? You'd think we'd like to think, given for so many of us our jobs are about not thinking (there's a reason Office Space is a cult favorite you know). Even in creative jobs we generally are stuck hewing to a format or style or boss who knows so much better than we do (note: I do not work for such a boss anymore). So why can't our entertainment push us a bit? Isn't it fun to have to figure things out, puzzle connections, fill in artfully left behind blanks?

I guess not, for the usually wise Patrick Goldstein takes the "the adults don't get it" tack in his essay. To drive his point home he does this:

Critics are largely shaped by the aesthetic of the cinematic past, which is why you often get the feeling they've been dragged, kicking and screaming, into a new world they describe as coarser, more superficial and less intellectually stimulating than the golden age of their moviegoing youth.

The complaints are almost always the same. "It's an epic without a dream," said one critic. "The loudness, the smash-and-grab editing, and the relentless pacing drive every idea from your head, and even if you've been entertained, you may feel cheated of some dimension — a sense of wonder, perhaps." Those words were written 30 years ago by Pauline Kael, reviewing Star Wars.

Nothing like trotting out the much reviled den mother of many critics still today--after all, her acolytes get called Paulettes--to prove how stuffy and behind the times those of us who can't just go with the flow are. (And it's taken 30 years for Kael to become a symbol of the stodgy--good things she's dead and doesn't have to hear such claptrap.) Goldstein then goes on to quote the film's director:

[Zack] Snyder has learned that film is a subliminal art, in the sense that he uses his visuals to supply the film's emotional underpinning. In 300, the sky is always dark and unsettled, as if to signal the bitter bloodshed to come. "We tried to make the sky reflect the emotion in the movie, which you can't do in a regular movie," he says. "That's what is great about this kind of green-screen filmmaking. It's not just the actors who matter. Every element in the frame supports the emotion of the moment."

First, it seems neither Goldstein nor Snyder have learned that the pathetic fallacy has been part of art way before moving pictures were a twinkle in Edison's eye. Second, are you trying to tell me no filmmaker before Zack Snyder has used every element in a frame to support the emotion of a moment? Did someone drop Andre Bazin in shoes lined with mise en scene cement into the Mariana Trench when I wasn't looking?

Or perhaps the key is the word "emotions." Snyder doesn' want you to think about 300, he wants the grunting animal brain at the top of your spine to go "WEEEEE!" And sure that "WEEEEE!" is us--to the tune of $129.2 million in just 10 days--but let's hope it's not all of us, and I don't mean that as something snooty and exclusive. I just want the rest of our brains to have something to do, too.

Labels: , ,


Blogger Mike said...

I haven't seen it, so I won't comment on its qualities as entertainment, art, or the combo of the two, but this movie seems to be having a real polarizing effect.

Funny to me in that sense.

11:28 AM  
Blogger Trekking Left said...

Of course, it doesn't help matters when smart television shows like Studio 60 get pulled off the air, but "Dancing with the Stars" is a ratings smash. When 300 makes 70 million opening weekend, network executives (who are generally quite dumb) will make more of the same.

2:26 PM  
Anonymous Tessitura said...

I would like to comment on some things but alas I just got done watching a preview of 300 and can no longer form full thoughts...

WV: try #1)mhkmj...the initials of MJ's great great great grandson. (you pick the MJ)

6:56 PM  
Blogger Numfar said...

Paradoxically, ironically, whateverally, I think Goldstein and Chocano both nail it because they're talking about the same thing: American anti-intellectualism.

Since it's easy to sound like you've got your extended pinky up your ass when you talk about it, let's keep it simple (or, in the spirit of things, simplistic).

Goldstein basically says, "Well, duh." Chocano: "Indeed ..."

Goldstein, normally a contemplative guy, argues that sometimes it's okay to let subtlety and nuance wash over you. Where he screws up is letting Snyder try to explain it. You're right; Snyder's full of crap, a pretentious Philistine with a huge opening weekend.

Chocano, on the other hand, goes for the obvious, arguing that we Americans have an outright disdain for context and perspective. The great sinking middle -- which drives our sense of "culture" -- is happy to embrace happy cluelessness. Well, duh.

Here's a thought: If "300" were set in a universe just different enough that it had no historial reference, would any of these conversations even happen? Would we flog ourselves over its meaning or lack thereof, or would it be just a movie in which buff, half-naked guys beat the crap out of each other in slow motion?

10:10 PM  
Blogger George said...

I'm for a "movie in which buff, half-naked guys beat the crap out of each other in slow motion" as much as the next heterosexual guy, but a text is a text and it can be read if set in "historical" Greece or a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

That most Americans don't want to do so isn't my fault, for trying to stem that tide made me feel like a Spartan in the trenches of cultural illiteracy back in my teaching days.

10:39 PM  
Blogger George said...

And I know I've got a tide in my trenches. War is hell.

10:40 PM  
Anonymous amy said...

And here I thought it was just about half-naked guys in slow motion... After all, I saw the trailer for it at Casino Royale...

9:22 AM  
Blogger Numfar said...

Trust me, I feel your tide. I used to teach English at Brooks, where the only admission requirements seem to be a checkbook and a pulse. Although I usually had one or two bright students, most (especially the film school kids) thought text was something you did with your phone.

I found I had to start, literally, with Winnie-the-Pooh and work up from there. It was a pretty good reading list for people who didn't read and couldn't tell a metaphor from a meteor.

Did it do any good? I dunno. A few always thanked me for introducing them to good stories, but most just seemed to be treading water until they could make the next Baby Geniuses.

Teaching is hell.

9:53 AM  
Anonymous dr buddy frank said...

King Leonidas is supposed to be the spokesman for freedom and democracy but in fact the Spartans were a military elite ruling a huge subject population of Lakonians and Messenians with no rights or votes. Any of them could be killed with impunity by a Spartan. They were taxed heavily and had to serve in the Spartan army. Read more books.

11:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Too very different points here, Chonano about denying the implicitly obvious and Goldstein about explicitly making everything obvious.

1:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:40 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

eXTReMe Tracker