I finally got around to screening the much-ballyhooed 300 this weekend, and it seems to me a bizarre piece. As an out-and-out battlefield pic, it's a mediocre effort, all style and shot, with the requisite homages to Peckinpah and Jackson. That it's ultimately uninvolving is almost beside the point. It's so gloriously superficial, one might be tempted to overlook the particular demand superficiality requires: Analysis. For all of its apparent anti-intellectualism, the movie is most interesting as an intellectual exercise; it's so temptingly allegorical, one has to think twice about leaping to the automatic implications and consider matters more closely. The people for whom Xerxes is an icon of Arab-Persian hostility have it all wrong, I think, every bit as much as those who think the film's Leonidas some symbol Western of courage and bulwarkism. The allegory breaks down; the equivalencies falter. The allegorical dimensions, though, are fortified if read slightly differently. And here's where I make a perhaps absurd suggestion: that 300 may well prove to be the Al-Qaeda training film par excellence.
Think about it. Leonidas is a leader fed up with the corrupt priests (the ephoi) being bought off by the decadent Persians aligned with Spartan forces bent on consolidating their own power. Against this, Leonidas rallies a small force of true soldiers of Sparta for whom slaughter is glory, and the conquered dead emblems of righteous rebellion. The enemy? A gargantuan but inexplicably fey Xerxes, in command of the world's grandest armies and the most exotic and ostensibly terrifying weapons. But Xerxes' greatest weapon is neither: it's his capacity to corrupt, to provide wealth and power to those who bend to his will. Leonidas' heroism is rooted in his refusal to submit, and his resistance by most determined violence that's justified as part of a great martyrdom to awaken an otherwise complacent Spartan society to stand against the Great Evil. Sound familiar?
Follow the quadrations and the suggestion becomes bizarre: Leonidas as Bin Laden, the ephoi the Saudi and other Arab governments in bed with the enemy, and Xerxes the ineffectual Bush in command of all the great weapons of the world. The three-hundred, then, are Al-Qaeda, experts of death, staving off the intrusion of a foreign force that's fundamentally perverse-- and against which any act is justifiable and necessary.
Don't get me wrong. I don't for a second think the filmmakers intend us to read the film this way, but I suspect that's how it will be read in some quarters, especially since the allegory, as they say, holds the reading; that is, it allows it, and even unintentionally encourages it. In this way, 300 may speak to a different part of the zeitgeist than anyone in the Western world may want. 300's Persia isn't really Persia, much less contemporary Iran: it's the great world power, it's the United States, with its tentacles everywhere. If 300 becomes a kind of message-picture, I suspect that around the world it won't say what its creators meant it to say. In a film devoid of irony, that of course would be become the great irony.
But 300 offers another kind of contemporary reflection. It's a film that casts violence in video-game terms, every death an artful spatter, every character a cipher. Its intonations are declarative, its characters entirely without nuance. If any film in recent years has rejected irony so firmly, it's this one, and it may (as Star Wars did in the late 70s) signal a shift away from the would-be realisms of doubt and complication. The movie essays a kind of Homeric heroism at which even Homer baulked, but which intensifies the vicariousness of the heroic tale in the same way a video game does: it welcomes you to the killing spree, and you participate without question.
In this way, it may indicate something that I think has been coming for some time, ironic-fatigue. Whether or not that's a good thing, I'm not sure. As Mr Wilde once warned, those who go beneath the surface do so at their own peril; but as Mr Eliot has also noted, art of the surface can also be the art of great caricature. Maybe audiences really are yearning for spectacle without complication, as a moribund cultural fatuity inures itself. (Let's see how Grindhouse does.) And yet, the anti-ironic often becomes, with time, more ironic than the most duplicitous satire. (Right, Mr Cheney?) Consider it a reminder of the old lesson that one man's hero is another man's terrorist-- or should that be insurgent? Consider it a reminder too that art of the surface presents itself at its own peril, and just as often to its own detriment.