The Art of Reviewing: Special Case File #1: The movie “300”

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Every blog needs a large-scale project. The Art of Reviewing will explore reviewing as an art form and as a valuable element to understanding society.  During this project, I will profile specific reviewers of merit.  Several specific cases also explore other facets of reviewing.

Special Case File #1: The movie 300

In this installation of the Art of Reviewing, the focus will be on a single cultural product.  The movie is 300 (Zak Snyder, 2006).  In the halcyon days of Dubya’s second term, the film adapted a comic book written by Frank Miller.  In the process creating a sensational CGI box office hit that seemed to make Michael Bay’s film work seem understated and tightly plotted.

One of the rare pleasures of cinematic travesties is the vitriol they unleash in critics.  Two examples in particular shine out, because of their honesty, writing style, and emotional firepower.

The first is not so much a review as a vicious indictment of modern cinema.  Entitled “Rants & Hyperbolic Ejaculations,” it remains true to its form.  It is a common misperception that a rant is badly written.  A good rant is like a cruise missile, aimed to fly straight into a target and leave nothing behind.  Just because the author gets emotional and wields words like brickbat does not mean they are wrong.  Read and make up your own mind:

Excerpt from “Rants & Hyperbolic Ejaculations” by Cliff Burns

(Visit the author’s website and blog, Beautiful Desolation.)

A trip to the video store is enough to send my blood pressure soaring. As I walk up and down in the “New Release” section I see:

-200 copies of the latest comic book adaptation (crap)
-100 copies of the latest installment of a slasher/horror/snuff film franchise (“Boogeyman VIII”, “Hacksaw VI”, etc.—utter and complete crap)
-100 copies of the latest romantic comedy starring the latest pretty faces (crap)
-20 copies of the latest indie film about twenty-somethings looking for love or meaning in a world largely indifferent to their angst and vulnerability (crap)

So, inevitably, I skip “New Releases” and wander back into the stacks, hoping I’ll spot some Walter Hill actioner I haven’t seen for awhile or grabbing a full season of “Deadwood” on DVD or “South Park”, if I’m feeling particularly frisky. I also look forward to our family’s monthly trips to Saskatoon (the nearest population center of any size) so I can pillage the shelves of that city’s Central Library, securing as many of the movies on my “Wish List” as I can find. Our last excursion to Toontown was particularly rewarding; I brought back the aforementioned “Mon Oncle” along with Nicholas Ray’s “In A Lonely Place”, Georges Henri Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear”, Chaplin’s “Limelight” and a couple of films in Val Lewton’s weird oeuvre. Not one movie was more recent than 1956. Fuck it, what’s the point?

CGI (computer graphics) has taken over the world. Now you can shoot movies without sets, without a coherent script, without expensive crowd scenes and there is no limit to what you can portray. You can propel your audience from one end of the universe to the other, from the far future to the distant past.

Take “300” for example. Yes, take it and stick it up your ass.

I know, I know, it was #1 at the box office for three weeks and everybody and his kid brother was telling you what a brilliant film it was. Funny thing that: you had high school students lining up at the movie theatres, inflating its gross earnings…and yet the film was supposed to be “18A”, wasn’t it? That means there were a whole lotta theatre owners looking the other way as pimply faced kids with fuzz on their chins ponied up the dough and went inside to see one of the most ultra-violent shows since Leatherface strapped on a chainsaw and went looking for fun. Where were the folks who are supposed to be guarding our kids against such smut…more to the point, where the fuck were their parents?

I think one reviewer put it best when he said the target audience for “300” was “emotionally disturbed fourteen year olds”.

You know, of course, that “300” was based on a comic book by Frank Miller. That’s right, comic book. Go ahead, defenders of so-called “graphic novels”, take me to task. I’ve read plenty of ’em (including offerings by Miller, Grant Morrison, Joss Whedon, etc.) and it’s my contention that the basic level of writing hasn’t much improved since I was a tweenie devouring Batman and Spiderman comics by the pound.

But the comic book/graphic novel is the perfect format for brain dead twerps who are daunted by all those words in traditional books. They need purty pictures to keep their attention. Ritalin, apparently, isn’t doing the job.

The sad thing is the story of the Spartans is one of the greatest ever told. I urge you to find a of copy of Stephen Pressfield’s amazing account of the battle of Thermopylae, Gates of Fire. You will be absolutely blown away.

The makers of “300” utterly fail to capture the human drama, the scale of the sacrifice, opting to slavishly adapt Miller’s comic book, subjecting every frame to computer tweaking, creating lovely, eye-grabbing tableaux…with nothing at the centre. “Visually stunning” is the term I’ve read over and over again in almost every review. Okay, it’s nice to look at but what about the stupid script, the histrionic over-acting, the inaccuracies? Mere quibbles, supporters sniff dismissively.

When I first saw the promo ad for “300” I was, alternately, enraged and amused. The “Matrix”-like choreography was ridiculous…but the Scottish brogue of the chap who was cast as the Spartan king Leonidas was hilarious. I mean, this fucker sounded like Willie, the janitor from “The Simpson’s”! I was soon entertaining friends and family by re-enacting my version of “300”: “Lissen, laddie, we Spartans are mighty tough people and dinnae think you Purrsian gits are gonnae walk over us…”

“300” is a movie made by people raised on video games for gamers whose brains have been devoured by years of hours spent battling virtual ogres, their thumbs swelling to an unnatural size (frontal lobes shrinking commensurately). If you liked the movie, you’re a moron; if you bobbed your head in eager agreement when that fathead Richard Roeper called Miller’s comic book the “Citizen Kane”(!) of graphic novels, you’ve obviously no idea what film he was alluding to. Mentioning “300” in the same breath as Welles’ masterwork is like comparing an “Archie Digest” to Moby Dick. So fuck you very much, Richard Roeper.

In “Kane”, Orson Welles revolutionized an art form and created a landmark film that sixty years later still tops critics’ polls as the greatest movie ever made. How will posterity treat “300”? As just another mindless blockbuster, a manufactured, computer-simulated experience in the tradition of “Titanic” and Peter Jackson’s overblown take on “King Kong”.

These films have no heart, no brains and, in the final analysis, none of the gripping human drama that makes great art resonate down through the ages. They are fluff, confections, deserving nothing from serious film mavens but our contempt and vilification.

“300” is cinema for the lobotomized.

The second review was written by Matt Christman for his blog, Worse than Hitler.  (Full disclosure: Matt and I were both teaching assistants at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.)  While Burns’s rant is a brilliant use of the long form to deconstruct 300, Christman takes the film out at the knees with verbal precision and snark.  For similar satirical wit and ferocity, one could examine the epigrammatic work of Karl Kraus and Ambrose Bierce.

From Worse than Hitler, a blog by Matt Christman

A Mathematical Movie Review

Triumph of the Will + God of War on Playstation 3 * The Tony Curtis and Lawrence Olivier scene from Spartacus / The messageboards at FreeRepublic.com = 300

Similar spectacles of critical hyperventilation have followed in the wake of controversial films, from The Last Temptation of Christ to JFK to the Golden Compass.  In all cases, astute readers should follow the simple dictum, “Consider the source.”  When reading reviews, you should know where the reviewer is coming from.  Who are these people that love 300?  Why do they love the movie?  Are those reasons valid?

Taste is a subjective phenomenon.  However, it should not be immediately dismissed because of its inherent subjectivity.  Varieties of internal and external factors make up every person’s sensitivities regarding taste.  The movie 300 is a good litmus test for assessing taste.

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