I’m responding yet again about the movie 300 for this simple reason:

I have been baited, again and again, into extremely violent or explicit films that proved to be empty… and worse, even abusive to audiences.

I have been told, “You have got to see it!”, and I’ve been promised that all of the graphic material was justified because of what it meant. “It’s about fighting for freedom! It’s about fighting for a higher cause!”

Most of the time, I’ve regretted it. While a character or two might say a few words about honor and courage in the film, they’re really just saying them. Time and time again, I’ve staggered out of the theater, weary, dispirited, beaten down by all of the graphic bloodshed on the screen, with precious little to think about or discuss. And I haven’t learned the slightest thing about freedom, truth, love, or what’s worth fighting for.

Dick Staub blogged yesterday that I’m just dismissing 300 as blood, guts and sex. If I understand him correctly, he’s saying that I missed the point as to why it’s popular:

It would be easy to dismiss 300 and to explain it’s popularity among young men by pointing out its gratuitous nudity and mind-numbing, over the top violence.

Reviewers I respect have taken this position–Jeffrey Overstreet decided not to see the movie commenting, “300 is rated R because it is an elaborate display of graphic bloodshed and sex… the film exists primarily to show off dazzling digital effects and to thrill audiences with a spectacle of gratuitous violence.”

I think there may be other explanations for the popularity of 300.

First of all, Staub’s excerpt of my post is misleading.

I did not say “the film exists primarily to show off dazzling digital effects and thrill audiences with a spectacle of gratuitous violence.”

I said this: “While reviewers are divided over whether the film is worth seeing, they almost unanimously agree that the storytelling is shallow and insignificant, and that the film exists primarily to show off dazzling digital effects and thrill audiences with a spectacle of gratuitous violence.”

See the difference? I was telling you what *other people* claim, not what I claim.

Okay. Now onto his point that there “may be other explanations for the popularity of 300.”

I agree. I’m sure there are plenty of explanations for why people would watch 300.

There are also plenty of explanations for why people watch the World Wrestling Federation. You can easily excuse all of the WWF’s excess, brutality, and sexploitation by saying, “Well, people are easily drawn into cheering for a symbolic battle of good versus evil.” But if we stop our analysis there, well, we’ve just thrown the door open wide for all kinds of exploitation.

Again, I haven’t seen 300… and I’m holding back based on the responses of some thoughtful moviegoing friends. So, to “flesh out” some of the reasons why I’m not convinced I need to see the film, I’ve obtained permission from Jason Moreheadto re-print his full review of 300 at Looking Closer.

You can read it there now, and maybe you’ll see why I’m not too keen on seeing Zack Snyder’s film “about freedom” at this point.

In fact, I would be very pleased if the film represented all of the things Staub suggests it does.

But I have yet to read a persuasive review that tells me just how the film accomplishes all of that noble stuff about freedom and virtue and fighting for something meaningful.

Friends who have attended the film have testified that the young men who are making the film a box office success are not walking out of the cinema talking about freedom and virtue… but about just how many cool ways that human beings were butchered in the film.

That’s not encouraging.

Hey, I speak as a big fan of Fight Club and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Branagh’s Henry V. I think Full Metal Jacket and The Thin Red Line are great films. I don’t mind battle scenes, so long as they are essential to a meaningful work of art. They have their place in a story where a great deal is at stake … for characters that have been powerfully developed.

But I didn’t care for Braveheart, or Gladiator, or Troy, because the plots felt like excuses to unleash big screen mayhem. They were simplistic frameworks on which to hang far more violence than we needed to see. The violence was portrayed with so much energy and so much screen time that the rest of the story was given short shrift. I wasn’t drawn into complex and interesting characters. Sure, there were moments in which these things began to emerge (I’m intrigued by how Gladiator scratches the surface of an interesting story about father/son relationships), but then the film’s urgency to get to the next big spectacle of bloodshed left me reeling, wanting so much more storytelling.

Those films exhausted me. And they undercut their own messages so severely that most of the guys I know left the theaters raving about moments of exhilarating death blows rather than how the story might change their lives. Just watching people shred each other while shouting “freedom!” doesn’t do anything for me. I’d rather watch football.

It’s all as disingenuous as a movie about a husband avenging the death of the wife he loved above all else in the world… a husband who stops along the way to “seize the day” and make love with a sexy princess who has a crush on him. Ahhh… the power of love. (Ahem, Braveheart, ahem.)

And what about 300‘s sex scenes? Perhaps they are depicted responsibly. Perhaps they are meaningful, appropriate, and contribute significantly to the story. I don’t know. But based on what I’m reading in the reviews, I have a hunch….

If I’m going to see 300, that will happen because someone convinced me that it’s a meaningful, worthwhile work.

As it is, I’m missing too many great films right now. (There are some masterpieces being revived on the big screen in Seattle right now, and I’m missing them all due to deadlines. I haven’t seen any of the local Christian film reviewers or cultural commentators blogging about the historic significance and meaning in films like Renoir’s The Rules of the Game or the revival of Jacques Rivette’s films…. and these are films that remain important for decades, regardless of the latest innovations in animation.)

I understand that Staub is trying to address why 300 is popular… and as far as that goes, I respect his insight and even agree with him. Staub has a lot of wisdom when it comes to cultural trends and why they happen.

But here, Staub is talking about the audience, why they are buying tickets, and what the seekers are looking for. I, on the other hand, am talking about the film itself, what it delivers, and how it won’t give those seekers
what they’re looking for.

Sure… people (mostly men) are flocking to 300, and they may find some glimmers of meaning to help them make sense of the madness in the world around them. But the question remains… is the work actually honorable and meaningful? Should we embrace it and encourage more films like it? Or are we kidding ourselves, and coming up with a convenient excuse for our enjoyment of sex and violence?

I’m just asking.

If we really want to stimulate cultural discussion about important themes, I suggest we focus our attention on films that explore those themes in responsible, rewarding, exemplary ways. If your high school boys are really so interested in history, I suspect that I can find a few that will teach them a heckuvalot more than 300 does. Again, I may be wrong. But it’s just a hunch…

As always, I reserve the right to be wrong.

*(For the record, I thought Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven struck a better balance than most … especially Scott’s director’s cut. That movie actually tried hard to be about something, even if I still don’t like the conclusions it reached.)

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