18 Mar 2007

Neal Stephenson Defends “300”

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He has some reservations about the film, of course, but Stephenson thinks it’s an acceptable assimilation of history to contemporary entertainment genre.

Many critics dislike “300” so intensely that they refused to do it the honor of criticizing it as if it were a real movie. Critics at a festival in Berlin walked out, and accused its director of being on the Bush payroll.

Thermopylae is a wedge issue!

Lefties can’t abide lionizing a bunch of militaristic slave-owners (even if they did happen to be long-haired supporters of women’s rights). So you might think that righties would love the film. But they’re nervous that Emperor Xerxes of Persia, not the freedom-loving Leonidas, might be George Bush.

Our so-called conservatives, who have cut all ties to their own intellectual moorings, now espouse policies and personalities that would get them laughed out of Periclean Athens. The few conservatives still able to hold up one end of a Socratic dialogue are those in the ostracized libertarian wing — interestingly enough, a group with a disproportionately high representation among fans of speculative fiction.

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’t used to it…

When science fiction tackles classical themes, the results may look a bit odd to some, but the audience — which is increasingly the mainstream audience — is sufficiently hungry for this kind of material (and, perhaps, suspicious of anything that’s overly polished) that it is willing to overlook the occasional mistake, or make up for it by shouting hilarious things from the balcony. These people don’t need irony or campiness self-consciously pointed out to them, any more than they need a laugh track to enjoy “The Simpsons.”

The Spartan phalanx presents itself to foes as a wall of shields, bristling with spears, its members squatting behind their defenses, anonymous and unknowable, until they break formation and stand out alone, practically naked, soft, exposed and recognizable as individuals.

The audience members watching them play the same game: media-weary, hunkered down behind thick irony, flinging verbal jabs at the screen — until they see something that moves them. Then they’ll come out and feel. But at the first hint of politics, they’ll jump back behind their shield-wall, just like the Spartans when millions of Persian arrows blot out the sun, and wait until the noise stops.

Read the whole thing.

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