The True Hollywood Left
Zack Snyder's 300, the saga of the 300 Spartan soldiers who sacrificed themselves at Thermopilae in halting the invasion of Xerxes' Persian army, was attacked as the worst kind of patriotic militarism with clear allusions to the recent tensions with Iran and events in Iraq - are, however, things really so clear? The film should rather be thoroughly defended against these accusations.
There are two points to be made; the first concerns the story itself - it is the story a small and poor country (Greece) invaded by the army of a much larges state (Persia), at that point much more developed, and with a much more developed military technology - are the Persian elephants, giants and large fire arrows not the ancient version of high-tech arms? When the last surviving group of the Spartans and their king Leonidas are killed by the thousands of arrows, are they not in a way bombed to death by techno-soldiers operating sophisticated weapons from a safe distance, like today's US soldiers who push the rocket buttons from the warships safely away in the Persian Gulf? Furthermore, Xerxes's words when he attempts to convince Leonidas to accept the Persian domination, definitely do not sound as the words of a fanatic Muslim fundamentalist: he tries to seduce Leonidas into subjection by promising him peace and sensual pleasures if he rejoins the Persian global empire. All he asks from him is a formal gesture of kneeling down, of recognizing the Persian supremacy - if the Spartans do this, they will be given supreme authority over the entire Greece. Is this not the same as what President Reagan demanded from Nicaraguan Sandinista government? They should just say "Hey uncle!" to the US... And is Xerxes's court not depicted as a kind of multiculturalist different-lifestyles paradise? Everyone participates in orgies there, different races, lesbians and gays, cripples, etc.? Are, then, Spartans, with their discipline and spirit of sacrifice, not much closer to something like the Taliban defending Afghanistan against the US occupation (or, as a matter of fact, the elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard ready to sacrifice itself in the case of an American invasion? The Greeks main arm against this overwhelming military supremacy is discipline and the spirit of sacrifice - and, to quote Alain Badiou: "We need a popular discipline. I would even say /.../ that 'those who have nothing have only their discipline.' The poor, those with no financial or military means, those with no power - all they have is their discipline, their capacity to act together. This discipline is already a form of organization." In today's era of hedonist permissivity as the ruling ideology, the time is coming for the Left to (re)appropriate discipline and the spirit of sacrifice: there is nothing inherently "Fascist" about these values.
But even this fundamentalist identity of the Spartans is more ambiguous. A programmatic statement towards the end of the film defines the Greeks' agenda as "against the reign of mystique and tyranny, towards the bright future," further specified as the rule of freedom and reason - sounds like an elementary Enlightenment program, even with a Communist twist! Recall also that, at the film's beginning, Leonidas outrightly rejects the message of the corrupt "oracles" according to whom, gods forbid the military expedition to stop the Persians - as we learn later, the "oracles" who were allegedly receiving the divine message in an ecstatic trance were effectively paid by the Persians, like the Tibetan "oracle" who, in 1959, delivered to the Dalai-lama the message to leave Tibet and who was - as we learned today - on the payroll of the CIA!
But what about the apparent absurdity of the idea of dignity, freedom and Reason, sustained by extreme military discipline, including of the practice of discarding the weak children? This "absurdity" is simply the price of freedom - freedom is not free, as they put it in the film. Freedom is not something given, it is regained through a hard struggle in which one should be ready to risk everything. The Spartan ruthless military discipline is not simply the external opposite of the Athenian "liberal democracy," it is its inherent condition, it lays the foundation for it: the free subject of Reason can only emerge through a ruthless self-discipline. True freedom is not a freedom of choice made from a safe distance, like choosing between a strawberry cake or a chocolate cake; true freedom overlaps with necessity, one makes a truly free choice when one's choice puts at stake one's very existence - one does it because one simply "cannot do it otherwise." When one's country is under a foreign occupation and one is called by a resistance leader to join the fight against the occupiers, the reason given is not "you are free to choose," but: "Can't you see that this is the only thing you can do if you want to retain your dignity?" No wonder that all early modern egalitarian radicals, from Rousseau to Jacobins, admired Sparta and imagined the republican France as a new Sparta: there is an emancipatory core in the Spartan spirit of military discipline which survives even when we subtract all historical paraphernalia of Spartan class rule, ruthless exploitation of and terror over their slaves, etc.
Even more important is, perhaps, the film's formal aspect: the entire film was shot in a warehouse in Montreal, with the entire background and many persons and objects digitally constructed. The artificial character of the background seems to infect "real" actors themselves, who often appear as characters from comics rendered alive (the film is based on Frank Miller's graphic novel 300). Furthermore, 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.
The practice of mixing different arts, of including in an art the reference to another art, has a long tradition, especially with regard to cinema; say, many Hopper's portraits of a woman behind an open window, looking outside, are clearly mediated by the experience of cinema (they offer a shot without its counter-shot). What makes 300 notable is that, in it (not for the first time, of course, but in a way which is artistically much more interesting than, say, that of Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy), a technically more developed art (digitalized cinema) refers to a less developed one (comics). 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.