Monday, April 9, 2007

300's Expressionism without a Point

It took only one comically short game of Halo to ensure that I would never receive an invitation to play Xbox ever again. Since my inability to simply walk straight exposed me to a rapid succession of execution style deaths, I voluntarily agreed to “sit one out.” Watching other people play a video game is one of the most boring activities on the face of the Earth. Neither the eye, mind, or soul is engaged on any level by viewing the random grotesque spilling of pixilated blood. I wasn’t repulsed as much as I was bored out of my mind.

Sitting through two agonizing hours of Zach Snyder’s 300 elicits the same irrepressible ennui. Rather than being a significant contribution to cinema through its Matrix-style expressionistic take on ancient Greece, 300 represents a new low in film’s brief history, and perhaps for our culture as well.

Expressionism is a general film term often used to describe a flamboyant cinematography style that distorts the surface of the material world for spiritual, lyrical, or psychological reasons. Rather than recording events objectively and preserving film’s natural photographic realism, expressionists employ high levels of distortion in attempt to express their own idiosyncratic artistic vision.

Expressionism’s heyday can be traced back to post-World War I Germany before Hitler’s absorption of the industry put the kibosh on its artistic efforts. This brief era produced the silent classics The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, and Nosferatu. These films created their surreal and futuristic worlds through the careful distortion of shape and proportion. This manipulation of reality communicated symbolic truth, whether it be psychological, spiritual, or densely intellectual. In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, for example, director Robert Wiene recreated the delusional subjective world of the narrator through acutely angled shapes and jagged set designs. This symbolically reflects the narrator’s skewed and psychotic reality. German expressionist filmmakers like Ernst Lubitsch and Fritz Lang didn’t distort just to create a cool looking image, but to reveal the essence of reality hidden beneath the surface.

300, though brimming with distortions of surface reality (practically all of it was filmed in front of a green screen), differs significantly from these great expressionist works. Zach Snyder distorts reality not to communicate anything of value, but to prick the nerve endings of his audience. 300’s surreal video game style contributes nothing to the overall meaning and inhibits the storytelling. Many, however, have found this sundering of cinematic form and content appropriate. Victor Davis Hanson, for example, drew a parallel between Synder’s style and the Greek’s own form of storytelling:

"The Greeks themselves often embraced such impressionistic adaptation. Ancient vase painters sometimes did not portray soldiers accurately in their bulky armor. Instead, they used “heroic nudity” to show the contours of the human body. Similarly, Athenian tragedies that depicted stories of war employed contrivances every bit as imaginative as those in 300. Actors wore masks. Men played women’s roles. They chanted in set meters, broken up by choral hymns. The audience understood that dramatists reworked common myths to meet current tastes and offer commentary."

One must take into account the reasons the Greeks employed such highly imaginative techniques, and what they communicated to the audience. Firstly, the impressionism Mr. Hanson describes was intrinsic to the artistic mediums of the Grecian theater and pottery art; thus, the Grecian audience was sensitive to the subtle truths communicated through it. The “heroic nudity” portrayed on ancient vases is a subtle distortion that communicates the greatness of the human person and the glory of the ancient Greek civilization. Similarly, the elaborate contrivances of the Grecian theater had a point: to more powerfully communicate the essence or deeper meaning of the story. The choral interludes, for example, commented on the themes of the story and helped guide the audience into a deeper understanding of them.

Like the artistic forms of ancient Greek theater and pottery, cinema also has a distinct form of communication: a powerful blending of word, image, and music. While avant-garde directors would disagree, the cinematic style is not an end in itself—it must be subordinated to the subject matter or else the audience is left with striking images and nothing else. 300’s expressionism is an end in itself and ultimately this lurid style leaves us empty, feeling as if a compelling story had just been lost under the menagerie of digital blood, ridiculously cartoonish fighting, grotesque creatures, pulsating rock music, superfluously lascivious scenes, and a whole host of other excesses.

All genuine emotion drained down this sensationalized gutter. We are supposed to feel, for example, the pain of the captain’s loss after his son’s head is graphically sundered from his shoulders, but instead feel the same amount of emotion as we would watching a cyber teammate spit blood after being shot in the game Halo. A wonderful story of Grecian heroism and sacrifice was lost, and, instead of leaving the theater with cleansed emotions and a renewed understanding of virtue and truth, one leaves with merely jangled nerves.

Yet I have been told by many people, young and old, of the emotional power and of 300—many comparing it to Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Gladiator, a comparison that fatally prompted me to see it in the first place. Gladiator is a powerfully moving story of nobility, honor, and courage—a movie that imparted on its viewers a deep understanding of the nature of evil. The most 300 can offer, on the other hand, is sensual stimulation and nebulous musings on the value of freedom, and 300’s Spartan freedom never moves convincingly from the level of abstraction. The only indications of a free society we are given are a few scattered scenes stressing (in an overly affected manner) the equality of Spartan women and the free choice the 300 make to oppose the Persians. It was not enough to convincingly establish the nobility of their freedom, and Zach Snyder seemed too busy with his pointless visual effects to bother about drawing the audience in emotionally to the importance of Spartan liberty and culture. Gladiator, on the other hand, persuades the audience of the stakes: Rome, despite its excesses and perversions, is the civilized light in a dark, barbaric world. Gladiator convinces us that Roman liberty is worth defending, and we respond emotionally to threat of tyranny posed by the ambitious emperor.

Millions and millions of people, however, left the theater compelled and in love with 300’s edgy and sensuous recreation of the ancient clash between East and West. An indication that the general public’s sensitivity to the cinematic language and the subtle truths communicated therein has been numbed. If flamboyant visual style is an end in itself, than the cinema has been reduced to the level of a fireworks display. This is also not a good sign for our culture. The general populace, or at least those who aren’t video game enthusiasts, ought to see through the cheap thrills and gaudy exterior to the nothingness underneath.


Marta Mary said...

Martin, I understand that you do not appreciate graphic novels, and their style of art and storyline. You obviously have projected a western ideal of story telling onto a very eastern style. It's as if you judged a Chinese film by Hollywood standards! Obviously this isn't your movie motif.
I haven't seen the movie, so I can't really agree/disagree with your critique of this specific plot line, but I do understand graphic novels, like the one this was based off of, and the exaggerations et al are there on purpose. Go read a few before you knock the style.
Oh, and look at greek "heroic nudity" one more time. Yeah. The guys are a bit more exaggerated that you think. It's pretty out of control, and about on the same level as graphic novels.
Once again... we don't agree on a movie...

Anonymous said...

I say this with all due respect for silent cinema, but have you seen Nosferatu? It is revolutionary for it´s time, sure, but it comepletely undermines your point. All you can find underneeth the expressionism ist are attempts to scare a film-illiterate audience, there is no depth, it is just the original Dracula story with different names.