Memo to Slavoj: 300 Blows

screened Sunday July 22 2007 on DVD in Weehawken NJ

It seems I'm several months behind on commenting after the controversially contrarian arguments of some of my favorite film writers. Just as well, since just about everyone has weighed in on Jonathan Rosenbaum's op-ed piece on Bergman in the NY Times. Everything I have to say has been said by other people and can be traced some way or other to Jim Emerson's extensive coverage of the fallout.

The only thing unique observation I can think of at the moment is an anecdote: back in 2002 I ran into JR for the first time at a conference on Iranian cinema. The main thing I remember is having a burning desire to ask him what he thought about Ingmar Bergman. If memory serves correctly, at the time I was embroiled on IMDb Classic Film in an all-out referendum on Bergman's value as a film artist. I was heavily against Bergman, decrying him as a "community college professor's idea of a great director" while I championed Bresson and Dreyer as his superiors, particularly in handling metaphysical subject matter in a uniquely cinematic format.

Ironically, this is one of the main arguments in JR's recent article, and yet I never conferred with him on this matter, even though I wanted to very much back in that September of 2002. His approach to film criticism was very influential to me, and yet I'd never caught anything he'd written on Bergman, and at that time I desperately sought an opinion from him to validate my own. Well, five years later I have it, and it's the very argument I would have welcomed back then. But I don't consider the article to be worthy of JR. It's begrudging in its tone, insufficiently grounded in some of its claims (i.e. that Bergman is less popular in some circles than Dreyer or Bresson) and, most unfortunately of all, probably does more to undermine the cause of high-art cinema emblematized by the likes of Bresson and Dreyer, by couching it in tones of film snobbery that won't even welcome Bergman into its ranks. Who knows how much of its pugilistic, snarky tone was cultivated by the Times... But reading the article has me wanting to make an argument for the artistry in Bergman that JR seems all to eager to belittle. I guess one contrarianism begets another.

I had gone through a Bresson/Dreyer vs. Bergman/Tarkovsky phase years ago, and I still consider Bresson and Dreyer to be supreme cinematic artists for their discoveries of new and unparalleled forms of cinematic expression, the same reasons JR tried to articulate in his article. But I'd much rather celebrate what's special about each of them than pit them against each other. (Though yet again, it appears that someone has beat me to it - and if you believe what Bordwell has to say, it sounds like much of the fuss raised by JR is traceable to tribal conflicts borne within film culture 40 years ago that, in my opinion, may no longer be relevant).

As Roger Ebert (who gave a feisty rebuttal to JR's essay) is fond of quoting e.e. cummings, "I'd rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach a thousand stars how not to dance."


On to the next contrarian, Slavoj Zizek, who caused a stir earlier this year, at least among those who follow his work, for his non-conformist embrace of 300, positioned as a virtual taunt against a vaguely defined array of critics who built an early consensus against the film for being, in Zizek's words, "the worst kind of patriotic militarism with clear allusions to the recent tensions with Iran and events in Iraq." I've been inspired and energized by much of Zizek's writings over the years, especially his appropriation of Christian mysticism and invocation of a contentious, argumentative Jesus Christ in his similarly voiced essays. As his film with Sophie Fiennes, The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, illustrates, he's as much an entertainer as a thinker, not afraid to pull the rug from any assumption and making it fun and liberating to do so. But this essay on 300 reads like a parody of Zizek, and it really underscores some of his lesser tendencies. Fortunately Zach Campbell has saved me time by expressing his own misgivings with Zizek and citing a couple of other blog entries critiquing Zizek's critique.

But to give my own take on the essay: the second paragraph reads like a brainstorming session in which Zizek set out to list every possible half-baked argument that those pesky liberals misread the film, broadly asserting that the Persia depicted in the movie - a juggernaut of military might and depraved sexual liberalism - is really America, and small scrappy Sparta is the helpless third world state i.e. Iran. Clever, but does this mean that the millions of testosterone-happy American teens watching this film see it that way? Zizek is too intent on upturning the opinions of a relatively small cultural elite whom this film wasn't even made for; I think if he had focused on how this film figures in the fantasies of the mass audience who embraced it, it would have made for a more insightful (and honest) critique.

Invoking the Christian mystic, he goes on about the film's serious stance towards the necessity of sacrifice, and this argument is starting to feel gratuitous and outdated. 9/11 and Iraq have done so much to contort the meaning and need for sacrifice, with stakes that could not be higher. And it's downright petty of Zizek to belittle left wing critics for dismissing a film that happens to tout his beloved idea of violent sacrifice when there are plenty of bigger targets out there who are using that same idea to far more pernicious ends.

Lastly, he touts the film for the metaphysical implications behind its hermetically enclosed, CGI-induced style:

The artificial (digital) nature of the background creates a claustrophobic atmosphere, as if the story does not take place in "real" reality with its endless open horizons, but in a "closed world," a kind of relief-world of closed space. Aesthetically, we are here steps ahead of the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings series: although, in these series also, many background objects and persons are digitally created, the impression is nonetheless the one of (real and) digital actors and objects (elephants, Yoda, Urkhs, palaces, etc.) placed into a "real" open world; in 300, on the contrary, all main characters are "real" actors put into an artifical background, the combination which produces a much more uncanny "closed" world of a "cyborg" mixture of real people integrated into an artificial world. It is only with 300 that the combination of "real" actors and objects and digital environment came close to create a truly new autonomous aesthetic space.

I don't see how this film is any more claustrophobic or artificial than the Lord of the Rings Trilogy or the last three (or is it the first three?) Star Wars movies. They all use similar CGI, have the same implanting of digitally airbrushed actors in entirely artificial environments, and in my view are about as airlessly fake-looking as 300. This last point may be where Zizek and I differ, but even if I grant him the distinction, 300 is by no means the first of its kind. Has he not seen Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow? Sin City? Again, Zizek's emphatic-ness outstrips his factualness.

His parting thoughts on the film's artificiality - done in a typical Zizekian backflip reversal - is perhaps his most troublingly underdeveloped:

The effect produced is that of "true reality" losing its innocence, appearing as part of a closed artificial universe, which is a perfect figuration of our socio-ideological predicament. Those critics who claimed that the "synthesis" of the two arts in 300 is a failed one are thus wrong for the very reason of being right: of course the "synthesis" fails, of course the universe we see on the careen is traversed by a profound antagonism and inconsistency, but it is this very antagonism which is an indication of truth.

He seems to suggest that the film calls attention to its artificialness, a fissure between reality and artifice that will stir critical reflection among its audiences. As if!!! The kids who flocked to this movie couldn't have given a rat's ass if the film was inconsistent with reality or history - they wanted their own innate desires for guiltless, unlimited killing to be satiated. You would think that of all the people to understand this plague of fantasy packaged for mass consumption, Zizek would be the one. But instead he's hung up on his own fantasy of petty-minded reactionary liberals, a temple of money-changers who are in perpetual need of rebuke. Like the saying goes, he who takes issue with the petty risks being petty himself.

Along those lines, I just have one word to sum up 300: NO