March 29, 2007

A Double Dose of Dopey Derring-Do

It's high time for a real post. I have been throwing all of my writing energy in other directions for the past week and a half, but now I'm back again. I saw two movies . . . when was it? Gosh, two weeks ago now . . . that I wanted to write about, because they were basically from the same genre and shared some of the same flaws from that genre. I rather enjoyed the first and squirmed uncomfortably during most of the second. They were Curse of the Golden Flower and 300.

Curse of the Golden Flower was just an outrageously fun movie in the vein of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero (but not as good as either of those) in terms of genre conventions (but without any flying). If you can't deal with the silliness inherent in the outrageous (but frickin' cool) acrobatics and ridiculous overkill (like the arrows in Hero), then this really isn't for you. I think that's a shame, personally, since I believe the heavily stylized should never be judged by its resemblance to reality. It's like hating a piece of modern art because it doesn't look like what it's supposed to be. You can hate the style if you must, but don't complain that it's unrealistic.

Anyway, Golden Flower is a sumptuous production, beautiful to behold. The costumes got an Oscar nod, and the sets and art direction are rich and ornate to match. It wouldn't be hard to sit and drink that in and enjoy it without paying any attention to the plot or the dialogue.

As for said plot, it basically boils down to this: The emperor of China won't be dead anytime soon, but he's got his eye on the question of succession. He brings the whole family (three sons and an estranged wife) together on the eve of an approaching holiday to have a little fun (sound familiar?). Golden Flower basically combines the scheming and intrigue of The Lion in Winter with the violence and high body count of Hamlet and tosses in a dash of the madness of King Lear and plenty of Oriental flair to produce something that is less satisfying than any of them, but still a heck of a lot of fun without taking itself too seriously.

See, the emperor is slowly poisoning his wife with a medicine that will eventually drive her insane. The empress has been having an affair with the oldest son (who is a product from an earlier liason of the emperor's). This earlier liason is now the wife of the ingratiating court physician, who is working with their daughter to produce and serve the empress her medicine. Said daughter, meanwhile, is in love with the oldest son (both being completely unaware of the looming shadow of incest).

The second son, oldest child of the empress, will soon be receiving the title of crown prince now held by his older half-brother, but feels compelled to join his mother in a rebellion against the emperor in an effort to save her sanity. And on and on it goes as the intrigue swirls in tight circles, revelations and counterrevelations are made, and the whole Forbidden City becomes a giant battlefield in reflection of the chaotic relationships between the members of the royal family.

Golden Flower in a nutshell: Imagine Ophelia going crazy and getting killed by ninjas instead of by a pond.

As for 300, well, that's a very different story. I'll try not to let my critique of the movie turn into a critique of the movie's fans. However, if I do and you are one, understand that I'm not talking about anyone I know, I'm talking about a vague, hypothetical "average movie-goer." With that disclaimer in place, I will accuse anyone who takes offense of having a guilty conscience . . . but feel free to defend the thing, if you can.

For those of you who are spelunkers, 300 is a movie based on a comic book inspired by a '60s movie about the Battle of Thermopylae (during which a ridiculously outnumbered Greek force held off the Persian army for three days). As such it would be fairly disingenuous to engage in a rigorous historical critique, since none of the filmmakers are officially pretending that this is historical. At the same time, there is a definite historiographical perspective at work here, and it is none too subtle (or, to me, palatable).

I'd be lying if I said I didn't think the movie had some pretty cool parts, but there were much longer stretches during which I was fantastically bored. And, over and above everything else, I had a distinct sense throughout that somebody was coming after my brain to scour it with lye soap and steel wool. 300 is intellectually idiotic and ideologically iniquitous, and for things I hate it's hard to beat the festering combination of dumb and preachy.

Nearly every spoken word in 300 is so disconnected from its actions that one would almost suspect it of having been completely redubbed by the studio months after production wrapped. Imagine walking into a movie theater of the future and seeing a member of the KKK in full regalia stand before a burning cross and give an impassioned recitation of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech as the soundtrack swells gloriously. That is how confused this movie is. Picture flipping through channels and seeing a televangelist fornicating on-stage while he preaches a sermon on sexual immorality. That is how revolting this movie is. There is a values system at work here that is outrageously simplistic, deeply offensive and fantastically off-base.

Morality in 300 is literally only skin-deep. If you are a good person, you are also a good-looking person . . . If you are an evil person, you look like a freak of nature . . . or vice-versa. The looks may well be the cause and the behavior may be the effect as far as we are given to understand. What is completely disorienting, though, is that what sane, civilized people recognize as good and evil are mixed together like a chocolate and vanilla swirl, and every Spartan gets to snack on a tasty scoop of ambiguity.

Let's review: The Spartans stand for truth, justice and the American way. Their government is some sort of happy enlightened monarchial republic thing where women have a voice. They prize freedom and courage and masculine virtue. They also have legalized baby murder. Their male children are torn from home at the age of seven, brutalized and brainwashed in preparation for a lifetime career based on the idea that there will always be someone to dismember. Meanwhile, the most beautiful females get shipped off to spend their lives in a drug-induced haze of sexual exploitation at the hands of the corrupt, diseased and lecherous priesthood. But hey, at least they hate faggots.

And those are just the heroes. I'll choose to ignore the Persians as a sodden mass of underdeveloped cannon fodder. They aren't villains, they're target dummies. For the most part, their sins are no different from the sins of the Spartans, they are merely carried out on a much grander scale. Seriously, the Persians don't do anything that the Spartans don't do, they just do a lot more of it and it looks wierder. Perhaps their only unique crime is in being too inclusive. Anyone can join the Persian Empire; true Spartans insist on racial purity.

So, forget the Persians. Let's talk for a moment about the only two interesting characters: Theron and Ephialtes, the Spartan traitors. Theron is a namby-pamby peacemonger. This is reason enough to hate him, certainly, but we find out later that this is actually because he has cannily sold out the Spartans to the Persians. In the end, it seems that he is an evil hater of freedom because he is a thinker and a talker instead of a fighter. I couldn't shake that feeling everytime he slunk onto the screen.

Ephialtes looks like some sort of hideous hybrid of Quasimodo and the Elephant Man. He is an outcast whose parents were forced to flee Sparta rather than have their infant child dashed against the rocks (now there's an enlightened free society to give your life for). His father taught him how to fight, and he is nothing if not courageous. But King Leonidas won't accept his service . . . he's too short to be of any use in a phalanx. Ironically (moronically?), the Spartans go on to break formation during virtually every battle sequence so they can grandstand solo, so there was really no reason to shut Ephialtes out.

Rejected outright by the Spartans, the bitter Ephialtes naturally goes straight to the Persians and delivers the tactical weak spot to them. The muted implication surrounding the character is that he stands as a vindication of the policy of infanticide. If his parents weren't so weak and compassionate, his tragic existence would never have brought about such an unfortunate outcome.

There was a rather "healthy" discussion about which of the two movies was better (worse?) after we saw them. For me it boils down to this: Curse of the Golden Flower has a charming literacy going for it, whatever its flaws. 300 relentlessly subverts its own perverted logic while affirming the most loathsome elements of jingoistic machismo.

Posted by Jared at March 29, 2007 05:44 PM | TrackBack