End of Story
From The American Spectator.
May 30, 2007.
A few months ago in this space (see "What’s the Story?" in The American Spectator of November, 2006) I animadverted on Hollywood’s recent preference for posturing and "attitude" over the humbler but more truly cinematic virtues of story-telling. Lately, I have begun to wonder if Hollywood even knows how to tell a story anymore. Another form of attitude is smugness, and (as I noted in "Slaves to Moral Self-Congratulation" in The American Spectator of March), this is what replaces story-telling in the movie, Amazing Grace. Michael Apted’s film offers us footling stories of the struggles of its hero, William Wilberforce, with his sense of vocation, with drug addiction and with romance, while the story of his ending the slave trade in Britain, if there is any story to it, is largely ignored. He makes some powerful speeches and eventually, somehow, the opposition to him collapses. The movie takes no real interest in how this happens, only in the hero’s superior righteousness.
I’ve recently seen the DVD of Casino Royale, having missed the picture when it was on general release last fall, and had a similar reaction. I’d heard that this was much better than the run-of-the-mill Bond movies we have grown used to in recent years, and that Daniel Craig was brilliant as 007. However that may be, the story proved to be utterly incomprehensible, and none of those who made the movie such a box office success — the renewal of the Bond franchise, as it was called — seemed to mind. The many twists and turns of the plot were mostly unexplained in the end, and the motivations of everyone except Mr Craig’s lugubrious Bond remained obscure. All that the movie could think of to do with him was to turn him, briefly, into the caricature of a world-weary, burnt-out John Le Carré or Graham Greene hero — a god of sex appeal and (almost) superhuman powers who decides he’d rather be a human being until yet another disillusionment drives him to take up once again the burden of his immortality.
This is just another form of traditional Bondian self-parody, though I might not have noticed it if the story had been well-told. In any case, it is a reminder that cliché is the essence of the post-modern cinema, which only requires that you use it creatively. Both Bond and the disillusioned spy who wants to come in from the cold are hoary old clichés, but put them together and you have something (sort of) original. I don’t think much of this style of movie-making, but audiences seem to love it. Witness the astonishing success of Zack Snyder’s 300. Once again, what we have here is the (arguably) creative juxtaposition of clichés, one of which is a variation on the standard Hollywood superhero. In 300 this is given all the heightened reality and graphic extravagance of its comic book origins and then combined with the ancient sword-and-sandals movie epic drawn from even ancienter history.
Mr Snyder, working from a screenplay that, with Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon, he adapted from the comic book — sorry, that should be "graphic novel" — by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, must have known that the only way he would get away with this paean to Spartan martial virtues was to make it a caricature set not, as he pretends, amid the Greco-Persian wars of the 5th century B.C. but in the fantastical world of comic-book land. True, the picture still got blasted in The New York Times ("about as violent as Apocalypto and twice as stupid") and The Wall Street Journal ("manages the trick of being blood-soaked and utterly bloodless at the same time"), but this was a movie that could afford to laugh at those kinds of reviews. Its audience is largely drawn from emotional adolescents, most of whom probably are unlikely to spend much time reading the Times or the Journal — or, probably, any other newspaper either.
Some of them may read The American Spectator, however, and may want to know what’s wrong with a comic book movie that has the right values, as 300 does — up to a point. My answer is that the comic-book mentality tends to leave its mark on a property in ways that undermine even the highest and noblest values. In 300 the good guys, led by Gerard Butler as the Spartan King Leonidas, clearly exemplify what earlier generations, who needed an excuse to look at naked people, called "the body beautiful." Just as obviously, the bad guys are almost invariably associated with the ugly and grotesque. The superhero-like physiques of the Spartans and the hideousness of the Persian champions are equally exaggerated, and so, not coincidentally, are the martial values the film celebrates. It’s hard enough to imagine the resonance of any honor culture with American audiences today, let alone one as extreme as this. Its extremeness thus becomes a kind of apology for its non-existence — and vice versa.
Of course there is historical warrant for portraying the Spartan ethos as having "no room for softness, no place for weakness," but making such quasi-fascist sentiments palatable to a contemporary audience depends on the unreality of the cartoon superhero, who provides the film’s context. And, as usual, this also means that there’s no story to speak of. The essence of plot lies in finding a way around and through the hard realities of the world, but to a god-like figure who can do anything, there are no hard realities. Mr Snyder’s team supplies what is essentially a sub-plot involving the intrigue of a treacherous politician (Dominic West), corrupted by Persian gold, against his fellow Spartans and the futile efforts of Leonidas’s Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) to stop him and send help to her husband. But this has no effect on the events that are at the center of our attention, the valiant stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae against the Persian hordes.
As befits a comic book, this is 90 per cent a visual phenomenon with a few slogans about Spartan military virtues and Greek "reason" and "freedom" thrown in to give the visuals a rudimentary moral and dramatic context. But if you were to ask any of the 17-year-old boys for whom the film was made — another astonishing thing about it is that it racked up its big numbers in spite of being R-rated — to write an essay on it discussing the Queen’s contention that Sparta fights for "liberty, justice and reason," I’m afraid you might be disappointed in the result. In particular, anything he might have to say about Greek reason would have to be imported from elsewhere, unless he were to make a very old-fashioned connection between the rationality of austerity and virtue and the unreason manifested in the luxurious and lascivious lives of the Persians.
This, by the way, brings up the question asked by more than one of the commentators on the film. Is Leonidas more like George W. Bush or Osama bin Laden? The preponderance of evidence — his fascism, his Puritanism, his ethnocentrism, his fanatical attachment to his own honor and the ideology of his homeland as well as his seemingly foredoomed resistance to what he sees as a decadent, corrupt, multicultural and sexually licentious empire come to swallow his people up — all these things must look to anyone not in thrall to the left-wing caricature of the President much more like Osama. Yet everybody knows that superheroes, as a condition of possessing super-powers, must fight for "truth, justice and the American way" — the meaning of which is another of those prospective essay topics that might trouble anyone who had only the legends of the superheroes themselves to rely on. The point is that being a comic book means that you never have to delve far beneath the visually enthralling surfaces of your self-created fantasy world to the things which, in the real world, would give them meaning and context.
That’s why the po-mo style fumbles so badly whenever it tries to tell a story. I suppose we must simply learn to enjoy, insofar as we are able, its other qualities, such as the visual impressiveness of beautiful bodies in motion or the ironic wit required to juxtapose two wildly incongruous or anachronistic styles and play them off against each other. These may be slight things when compared with the great films of the past, but they are not (quite) nothing. To see them at their best, I offer as this month’s DVD recommendation not the new Bond, but Julie Taymore’s Titus (1999), a visually splendid version of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus with elements of Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins stars) and other cinematic horror features as well as more general comic-book effects. The new production of Titus at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington by Gale Edwards is essentially an homage to (if not a complete rip-off from) Miss Taymore’s version, but one which doesn’t quite keep its nerve about rendering the play into comic-book-ese and so occasionally reminds us of the story that it can’t quite extinguish — and the human beings, not superheroes, to whom real stories always happen.