The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32

A Rare Rant

Did anybody else see “300”?

I thought it was basically war porn.

Via Rex I just saw this NYT op-ed by Neal Stephenson defending the movie somewhat:

The less politicized majority, who perhaps would like to draw inspiration from this story without glossing over the crazy and defective aspects of Spartan society, have turned, in droves, to a film from the alternative cultural universe of fantasy and science fiction. Styled and informed by pulp novels, comic books, video games and Asian martial arts flicks, science fiction eats this kind of material up, and expresses it in ways that look impossibly weird to people who aren


I haven’t seen it yet, not sure if I’m going to. But I have comments anyway!!! (“Rare rant”: you must be disregarding my history of comments in that account 😉

First: this is the “salvation of the west”? Yeah, Thermopylae allowed the joint Greek forces to repel the Persians… just long enough for the Spartans and Athenians to remember that they didn’t really like each other very much. 60 years later, the militaristic Spartans ally with the Persians and basically destroy Athens, seat of Greek democracy, art, philosophy, history, etc. Three cheers for Leonidas…

Second, generally I’ve been very disappointed with all the Hollywood renditions of Classical stories. Has there been anything good recently other than Peter O’Toole’s performance in Troy? Okay, Gladiator was passable, but then it won an Oscar so I must hate it remuneratively.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for modernized Classics, I highly recommend War Music (and the follow-up volumes; they’re being published serially), a retelling (not translation) of the Iliad in modernized English verse. Sort of also war porn, but reluctant war porn, and with a lot more brains and a lot more heart. Somewhere between Homer and Brad Pitt’s greased buttocks for accessibility.

I thought Stephenson’s article worked better as meta-criticism than as a defense of the entire movie. Two points in particular I remember standing out:

1) Movie critics seemed to assume that nobody in the audience would be able to see the same homoerotic and ironic subtext that they saw. Stephenson says that the core comic book/sci-fi audience is smarter than that — and that they don’t need the ironies of the movie pointed out to them. Either they’ll like it or they won’t: they won’t be tricked.

2) You can’t really make a movie about the Greek-Persian war without making it a war between tan people and brown people. I haven’t seen the movie, so I don’t know how much the brown enemy is humanized or demonized. The worst war movie I’ve ever seen is Top Gun, where the Russian enemy is literally faceless — storm troopers have more personality.

Last, for takes on classical lit/history, I recommend the HBO/BBC series Rome and to go a little more old school, I, Claudius. Both are smart, imaginative, and real.

Totally with you on Rome. I am addicted to it.

I’d like to complete the trifecta of people chiming in on 300 who haven’t actually seen it. (I have toddlers. I never see movies anymore. Ask Tim.)

I have, however, read the graphic novel. I’m a Frank Miller fan, even if being so demands that one acknowledge some of Miller’s tics and shortcomings.

First, I think that 300 works as a comic book in a way that it doesn’t work as a movie. I enjoyed the comic book thoroughly. The battle of Thermopylae is right up Frank Miller’s alley, and he goes to town with the story. THe art is heavily stylized and very powerful, I think all the more so for being static. 300 as a film seems almost a cynical sequel to Sin City (which I also have not seen) as a story in its own right. Sin City was notable for its attempt to recreate, frame-for-frame, Miller’s artwork. 300 attempts, well, to do just about the same thing.

While the best films have strong mythological elements, forcing people to inhabit actual roles can often reveal the shortcomings of the source material. Who can play the devil? But he’s great in Paradise Lost. Miller’s characters and their motivations are flat, simple—death, glory, honor. It works on the page. Not so much on the screen.

It’s off-topic, but the other HBO show I’m catching up on now that I can’t say enough about is The Wire. The first and fourth seasons, in particular, rival the first three seasons of The Sopranos and the first season of Deadwood as perhaps the best dramatic television in the history of the medium.

The Wire also really rewards marathon-style DVD viewing, probably more so than other HBO series. It is really more like a novel than serial television.

I’ve gotta check that out. Everybody keeps saying it is the Best TV Show Ever Made.

At the risk of unbalancing the trifecta, I have to chime in too. I’m just going to say why I didn’t go see it, rather tahn pretend that I did. Thermopylae is too important, and not because may have (and probably didn’t) prevent the abortion of “Western” society, whatever, great and glorious thing that might be. In western society, where we find ourselves regardless of the causes, it has become a symbolic touchstone of an important notion that separates the warlords from the militaries. Warlords campaign, dragging their societies around with them. Militaries are sent, at the bidding of their society. Whether we’re talking a royal oligarchy, as in Sparta, or a Democracy, as in Athens, or a Republic, as in ourselves, Thermopylae represents the soldiers pledge to use their weaponry and training, their sanctioned killing, for some larger purpose. If you’re not going to go hardcore Quaker and disavow war altogether, Thermopylae represents the premise on which war can have any kind of moral theory, the contract between a controlled military and the larger society. The military does the fighting and the killing and the dying, and the society as a whole does the choosing and takes on the moral consequences. They lie dead in obedience to our command.

And this is completely, totally, utterly the central political issue of our day. We have utterly fallen down in our abiility and duty to choose wisely for our military, to send them carefully, to direct them wisely, to care for them when they return wounded, to make up for their mistakes. All the information technology in the world, all the intellectual capital, all the leisure ability, and we still cannot manage this awesome task. And we can hardly bear to talk about it, let alone fix it.

And now you want me to go see a pornified melodramatic battle drama? If any single review had indicated that the issues above were treated centrally and with seriousness, I would have checked it out. But without all that, I find the idea of getting off on sacrifice–when we should be desperately trying to minimize it—almost repulsive.

You can’t really make a movie about the Greek-Persian war without making it a war between tan people and brown people.

What? Why not? Persians aren’t particularly browner, and Greeks often tan darker.

Robin, if you ever pull a Wire Marathon, hook me up, yo.

Very interesting perspective Saheli. In a way I’m glad we have the tragedy of the Peloponesian War to balance the perspective. I.e., although your differentiation between warlords and military resonates with me, the final result is still pretty tragic a few decades down the line.

“You can’t really make a movie about the Greek-Persian war without making it a war between tan people and brown people.”

Dude, if they can make a movie about Alexander the Great where everyone has an Irish accent, they can do whatever they want.

It could be overemphasized, and the Greeks shouldn’t be played by Anglos, but I think it would do a disservice to pretend that a multi-nation empire spanning from the upper Nile to present-day India wouldn’t be ethnically quite different from a small part of the Peloponnese.

The other thing I like about The Wire — and this ties back into Saheli’s comment about the potential/missed relevance of 300 is that while Rome and Deadwood have a great allegorical connection to the present, and The Sopranos, with all its complications, manages to sink its hooks into the present by means of its characters, The Wire actually manages to be about the real institutions of the present. It tells the truth. At the same time, it’s also a finely drawn piece of fiction, one that’s ruthless with its characters and plots, but at the same time allows them to expand and explode.

It’s funny how often novels, movies, etc. approach the present by means of the past or future… it’s always historical allegory or future dystopia, much more rarely A Real Story About Today.

Or so it seems — this might be a historically localized phenomenon — I’m not enough of a student of literature or the movies to really be able to tell.

Any recent examples (besides The Wire) that I’m not thinking of?

(P.S. To support my thesis I can of course point to the sharpest, most sophisticated allegory of present times around — Battlestar Galactica.)

Well our tastes might veer slightly towards the fantastical, futuristic, or historical—in theory A Real Story About Today is the main mission of mainstream literary fiction. Great Gatsby, Babbit, The Jungle, much of Heminway–all set in their day, no? What are our great contemporary realistic examples of literature? They seem to focus on narrow zones, but I wouldn’t say they are any narrower than before, just more explicit. I’m not so well-read on modern literary fiction, but what comes to mind immediately is Love Medicine which has historical elements but certainly converges onto its present.

It’s a good question really. What’s the most recent realistic novel that has commented deeply on our times?

Peter, I can’t really do a good job of articulating this now, but the hold Thermopylae has on me is almost independent of the larger story—the Persians are simply a threatening force, and what happens after doesn’t matter either. It’s simply the incident itself—your society is deeply threatened, they dispatch you to defend it, they give you orders that turn out to be suicidal, you accept the necessity of the orders in trust and obedience, you fight and die–and your trust is not misplaced. Its setpiece quality–the pass, the betrayal, the few hundred men, the certain death, the bravery the epitaph afterwards–can almost be independent of the *historical* context, and thus more deeply resonate with the *social* context. Does that make any sense?

Some of this might be that the urge to make fiction mostly comes out of the desire to either retell stories or create an entirely new world — hence Rome on the one hand and Battlestar Galactica on the other.

Obviously, lots of movies deal with contemporary material, and the globalization melodrama is becoming a genre unto itself. But in general, I don’t think that a feature film really gives you enough time to get acquainted with a world, its institutions, interlinking plots, lots of characters, etc. To get all classical on it, film is not epic or history, it’s tragedy — it begins in medias res, and tells a single plot featuring a small group of characters.

Network television also has its problems addressing contemporary themes head on, although for some reason, cop shows do a particularly good job. The early years of Homicide and Law and Order are both standouts, and to a lesser extent The West Wing — which is a great show, but a little more on the fantasy side when you’re totally honest about it.

When it comes down to it, the HBO/BBC style series of four or eight or a dozen hour-long shows just has huge advantages in establishing both characters, a world, and slow-building, complex, and multiple plot lines. I’ll go further and say that this kind of cable series is the serious popular art form of our time — it is to us what the novel was to the 19th century and film to the 20th. It’s perfectly suited for the digital age, whether on DVD, on demand, or digital downloads. At the same time it synthesizes most of the salient aspects of the novel, the film, and traditional television. It’s the art of the living room, the medium-sized screen, shifting between a shared experience and a private one. Shows like The Sopranos and The Wire are simply the most important things happening in popular culture right now.

God, I miss cable.

But to backtrack, and try to answer Saheli’s question about the novel — I don’t read nearly as much contemporary fiction as I’d like to, because I’m too busy reading or writing about the old stuff, but the one that jumps to mind is Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Contemporary, big, smart, emotional — Dickensian.

I often play the detective game of “what year is my fiction reading set in”, and the default first guess is always the year before the publication year. But I don’t know too much contemporary stuff.

Re: Thermopylae, I definitely see it as a decisive battle in that it allowed an important, though brief, period of Pax Atticus, and I can understand how it takes on a mythological quality due to all the circumstances. But if it really marks a transition to a more institutionally organized military, the results 50 years later are nothing to gloat about. Maybe it shows that a military can beat a warlord by falling back on its discipline and sense of societal responsibility and righteousness, but then 50 years later we see that two such militaries pitted against each other leads to an even worse bloodbath. Whaddaya think?

The snarkmatrix awaits you

Below, you can use basic HTML tags and/or Markdown syntax.