Sunday, March 18, 2007

300 guys

Some time ago I came by 300, a Frank Miller graphic novel with a
striking cover. The starkness of the book's colour palette seemed to me
to balance the absence of words. It is of course what graphic novels
do, but I was struck then by how little dialogue was needed to depict
war. As 300 Spartans held back Asia's relentless hordes, this book
plunged into the war, weaving between its characters like a movie
camera in a battlefield. Part of the book's mastery was in its power to
suggest something - a slash or a thrust - and have us imagine the
violent follow through. So words counted for little in this novel even
though the book itself was a retelling of the battle. It was classy war

With this in mind, I braced myself in seat K2 of a dark hall yesterday,
armed with popcorn and a coke. The theatre brimmed with a horde of
young men, some clearly years away from admittance to an 'A' certified
movie. They came prepared like spectators at the Colliseum. The first
moments, where a baby is dangled over a ravine containing skeletons of
other babies, hint at what's to follow. They put in place a tenuous
prehistory to what is the main event. What this director, Zack Snyder,
really wants to show you is that main event. He's as eager for war as
the Spartans are. Every so often his characters assault women, jump
into orgies, and consult a fetching oracle. I like comic books, and
enjoy the stereotype of the fan they play up to ("likes muscular
bodies, big guns, large hybrid beasts and spandex") but this was too
heavyhanded for my taste. These incidents are held by a slender thread,
and just as they are on the verge of snapping, on comes another battle.

The war scenes by themselves are surreal in their effect, as the
director changes angles, colour, and slows down the pace before raising
the tempo again. There are two particularly delicious fights inspired
by video games. One is when a Spartan breaks out of his cordon and cuts
through a rush of enemies with his sword and deflects others with his
shield. The camera runs with him at the screen's centre, making him and
his enemies two-dimensional. Gamers will know what that's about. The
other fight is a trick we've witnessed in kung-fu flicks as well as the
second Matrix movie, but here we know they're fighting a losing battle,
that this bravery has its price - two Spartans, back-to-back, overcome
dozens coming at them from every conceivable angle, materialising out
of the mist. I'm in the market for this movie's conceptual art.

A few hours later I couldn't help but wonder: its weakest moments were
its overwrought dialogue. In this manner, I though, it continued to
evolve the language of earlier Arnold and Stallone guy movies, of
comebacks and dramatic declarations interspersed with the universal
language of guns and bombs. Then came Gladiator and its close relation,
The Mummy. After which came Kingdom of Heaven, Alexander, and Troy, all
in a short span. Now this. Of all the things it could have become, it
chose to be a guy movie.

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