Friday, March 16, 2007

Who Wants to be Goliath?

One fine day, back when I was in third grade, my then best friend Maggie brought an illustrated children’s bible to class. Maggie was one of those kids who just couldn’t help being a rebel: she was a freckled, flaming strawberry blonde in a sea of raven-haired Middle-Easterners and South-East Asians, and she was Palestinian to boot.

Seeing as we were a private Muslim girl’s school in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a collective gasp went up at sight of the offending bible. As far as Maggie was concerned, it was a storybook. The rest of the class thought it might qualify as an instrument of the Devil. We settled the dispute by taking the object to our Islam teacher and asking her to weigh in on the debate.

“There’s nothing wrong in reading the Bible,” she said, “but you have to wait until you’re older.”

This was very cryptic advice to our seven-year-old ears. What was so cool about the Bible that we could only read it when we older? What did our parents understand that we didn’t? Watching 300 yesterday, I was reminded of that little nugget of wisdom imparted to my friends and me all those years ago.

300 is a cinematographic and visual triumph. It’s supposed to be modeled after comic book art, but what I saw in scene after scene reminded me more of fine art than comic strips. Two scenes stand out – one where murdered villagers are strung on a huge tree in a mess of limbs and shadows. Sounds gross, but was actually very Dali-esque, or even Garden of Earthly Delights-ish. In another scene where the good guys are scattered across the ground, the way their armor is strapped to their bodies and the splash of crimson from their capes delineating their figures, you’d think you were looking at a renaissance fresco or a work of stained glass in a church.

300 was also hugely entertaining despite the lack of a discernable plot, the blood-and-guts fest, and the cheese factor that only a good old we-the-good-guys-against-you-the-bad-guys movie can deliver. In other words, this may very well be the only movie ever made that both Bill O’Reilly and I can enjoy.

The problem? 300’s “message” was a like a crispy millefeuille, with layer upon layer of delicately stacked propaganda held together with a stickly sweet custard of myth and xenophobia.

Let’s see if you can guess what this movie is about from a brief plot synopsis: King Leonidas is think-with-my-gut kinda guy, who has little use for politics and weaklings. He doesn’t consider a short fuse as a shortcoming in his role as the Papa Smurf of Sparta, and his ruling philosophy can be summarized in a nifty little motto which would fit nicely onto a license plate should the need arise in a few millennia: Live free or die.

No ifs, ands, or buts about it. So, when a Persian emissary drops into town one day, the king, ever answerable to his gut as his personal motto, shoves the messenger into a bottomless pit knowing that this will provoke the Persian army into invading Sparta and probably the rest of Greece. The king does this knowing that there are only two possible outcomes: total obliteration of Sparta, or victory, and victory in this context implies a miracle of some sort. The king flouts Sparta’s laws and internal controls, which have been designed to prevent a king from leading the populace down an unpopular warpath, and goes with but the blessings of his gut and his queen, to fight the forces of evil and darkness, i.e. the Iranians – er, sorry, Persians.

Sound familiar?

Never mind that the director’s “vision” of Persians includes masses of foot soldiers with their heads wrapped in rags, bringing to mind a term Ann Coulter has been brandying about lately, and of black-as-soot generals, as opposed to the hunky, blue-eyed, all-white cast of Spartan warriors. I wasn’t expecting 300 to have the subtle nuance of Babel, or the raw message of Blood Diamond, but when Zack Snyder, the director, saw fit to have the ragheads fight on the same side as masked “immortals” and other assorted creatures from the depths of Hell, I thought that was taking the “message” a little too far.


The clincher, of course, was having our bearded, blue-eyed King Leonidas die in a pose worthy of Jesus in the throes of His Ultimate Sacrifice, pierced by the same sort of arrows that would have killed Saint Sebastian, the scene looking like it might have been hanging on a wall in the Louvre or the Prado rather than something being projected on a screen.


But that’s still not the part of the “message” I had a problem with.

The trouble with this movie and its timing, is the seduction of the underdog myth, where “few stood against many”. Whether the battle between the Spartans and the Persians is historically accurate or not is moot. What was unmistakable about 300 was the projection of Western values and faces on “the few” and that of the “Others” (insert name of whatever enemy we may be fighting at the moment here) on “the many”.

Our movie screens, television sets and popular myths are full of David-vs-Goliath stories. But who wants to be Goliath? I bet even Goliath managed to convince himself he was really David, fighting for his ideals and way of life. I bet all the old crusty Philistines got together and decided to launch a PR campaign that would convince their population the Judeans and other Semitic tribes were plotting to take over the world and that the only answer is a preemptive strike using their secret weapon: Goliath.

This is where 300 flirts with danger: bringing together a gore-fest that appeals to young audiences, scavenging in the graveyard of history for an appropriate vessel to carry the message, and marrying fantasy with reality to forge a nouveau-legend eerily reminiscent of our times.

As writers we know that this is the stuff of great fiction: making us relate to a situation that feels utterly alien. But as thinking people we have to ask ourselves, is Goliath really Goliath, or is David Goliath? Who is it exactly that we are relating to, and why are we made to feel like we should relate?

Maybe that’s what has President Ahmadinjad’s knickers all in a bunch.

Even believing Muslims can appreciate the Bible as literature, as non-Muslims can appreciate the Qu’ran. Yet both of these texts impart their own particular view of the world, which they fully intend the reader to take as Gospel, so to speak.

Maybe a storybook is just a storybook, and maybe a movie is just a movie. But then again, maybe not.

1 comment:

Dona Sarkar-Mishra said...

I liked your sentiments about 300..I agree, the movie was well-made, but certain parts, eh, they bring to light certain events going on in real life.