The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.


Late last night, friends and I engaged in post-referendum relaxation by watching "300," the film about the epic battle between Sparta and the Persian Empire. While the fight scenes are admittedly cool, the movie as a whole is a rather ridiculous fascist ode to Western supremacy against the barbarian hordes. I am sure that a lot of LGF readers must be incredibly excited about the parallels with W's crusade against the evildoing Muslimers.

I'm a Frank Miller fan, but this film neither innovates visually (it's really a combination of Miller's dark ink drawings as showcased in Sin City with the cartoonish bloodletting and fighting styles of Kill Bill and epic martial antics of the Lord of the Rings trilogy) nor artistically (all "acting" is done by shouting as loud one can while retaining a steely gaze and taut abs).

So all you have left is basically what will be interpreted by many to be a propaganda film for the war on terror, although it's probably more telling of frat-house mentality. That has been picked up by today's Persians -- as the New Yorker's review notes:

In Tehran, after pirated copies hit the streets there a few weeks ago, the movie was quickly denounced by an Iranian government spokesman as an act of “psychological warfare” that was intended to prepare Americans for an invasion of the country. “American cultural officials thought they could get mental satisfaction by plundering Iran’s historic past and insulting this civilization,” he said. The complaint was echoed by President Ahmadinejad, who said, “They are trying to tamper with history . . . by making Iran’s image look savage,” and a Time correspondent reported that many Iranians assumed that the movie was produced by an American government conspiracy. It is perhaps unfair to expect the Iranians to develop a sense of humor about American pop culture. They may also have trouble understanding that commercial American movies are ordered up not by “cultural officials” but by studio officials. The film is, of course, less an act of psychological warfare than an act of capitalism. It was called into being not by a hunger for war but by the desire to exploit a market—professional-wrestling and X-treme Fighting saturnalias play into the movie’s atmosphere. Everyone screams at everyone, and specialized Persian warriors wearing masks and other freakish regalia turn up to do battle. Pop has always drawn energy from the lower floors of respectability; this movie, in which fan-boy cultism reaches new levels of goofy chaos and sexual confusion, draws energy from the subbasement.

Still, the Iranians have a point: though first planned years ago, “300” is a political fable that uneasily engages the current moment. An all-volunteer expeditionary force of Spartans ventures forth, the warriors sacrificing themselves to stop the invading hordes from killing their wives and children, which may be an allusion to the Bush Administration’s get-them-in-Iraq-before-they-hit-us-here rationale. The Spartans also fight, as a lofty narration informs us, “against mysticism and tyranny.” Against mysticism? How many ancient armies went to their deaths with that as their battle song? And how many men have died, as the Spartans do, to defend “reason”? A whiff of contemporary disdain for the East—what the late Edward Said called “Orientalism”—arises from the mayhem: “300” turns into a dawn-of-democracy epic in which violence is marshalled to protect the future of Western civilization. Made in a time of frustration, when Americans are fighting a war that they can neither win nor abandon, “300” and “Shooter” feel like the products of a culture slowly and painfully going mad.
Luckily American popular cinema is a very, very varied thing. As a counterpoint to 300's glorification of Western superiority, there's some good-natured self-parody in Mike Judge's Idiocracy, when an average American of today wakes up 500 years into the future and finds that everyone is incredibly stupid and speaks a mixture of frat-boy wooos and valley girl slang. The joke is not just that this is the way Western consumerist culture is headed, but that it's not that far off now anyway. An Occidentalist argument? Perhaps, but then again one gets the feeling that the characters of Idiocracy are the kind of people that 300 is intended for.