Frank Miller and the City of Dis

I went to see 300 with my 11 o’clock shadow and musky pheromones primed and ready for action. I had heard magnificent things: “this movie makes men out of boys” I had been told.

My stubble and smells in tow; I left unsatiated and curious as to why. I felt as if I had consumed a bag of marshmallows instead of a full meal – I didn’t know why, and that left me frustrated.

Several conversations later I think I’ve pinpointed a couple reasons as to why. These reasons are not specifically directed to 300: they have more to do with Frank Miller. Get your grain of salt ready however because my knowledge of Miller consists of 2 viewings of “Sin City” and, of course, my recent viewing of 300.

In general I reject the divide between moral critiques and artful critiques, because to tell a good story you have to have a good story as well as telling it well. Spielberg, a masterful but conservative director, tells some great stories (Schindler’s list) and some sub par ones (War of the Worlds). Tarentino flitters between magnificent vapidity and ends up with entertaining and sick movies – with the brief hope of a glimpse of humanity. Scorsese can tell intriguing stories magnificently, but it’s ceiling is capped. Oliver Stone sucks. (OK I did like Platoon).

Frank Miller has emerged as one of today’s premier story tellers but he will never satisfy me until he understands the City that isn’t Hell. I could forgive him in SinCity because the parallel to Dante’s hell is easy (especially the City of Dis) and because it was my first exposure to him. Alternately, I’m sympathetic to the contemporary version of the tragic hero: the noir hero. SinCity revolves around these figures: stubborn and competent men who soberly welcome whatever fate has planned for them in order to protect the divine thing (aka “girl”) that they have seen. Of course in SinCity the divine spark is always a hooker or a stripper, but that’s forgivable because it’s still a woman; full of beauty and crying out for help. This is a noble virtue for someone in hell, stubbornly and self sacrificially protecting the divine spark.

But the City is evil, and the hero cannot escape it, at best he can only gain someone else’s release. I’m not going to rag on charitable self- sacrifice; but where Bruce Willis’ and Mickey Rourke’s characters satisfy the noir role, King Leonidas doesn’t. He fights, and bellows about Sparta. Miller also “bellows” about Sparta a bit, but mostly only to belabor one point: the entire civilization is geared towards making men into hard, ruthless soldiers. This ideal, while appealing on the surface, is the hollow sort of ideal city rejected in Plato’s Republic as the “City of Pigs”. It’s artless, heartless, and void of beauty. While the “City of Pigs” may or may not be an outright picture of hell, it certainly isn’t an enviable culture. The praise in honor of the Spartan ideal amounts to nothing more than a cheap pep rally for self-discipline and stubbornness.

Miller does see one sin clearly however. As even the demons pity and shame at the sight of Satan chewing on the traitors, so Miller looks on the hapless traitor Ephialtes. Betrayal, that which is beyond faintheartedness, lust, and greed, is the only real sin in Miller’s worlds. SinCity didn’t mind a bit if you’re a killer, hooker, or drug addict. Just don’t be a Satanic cannibal, beat up too much on nice women, or betray your army. I’m not even sure if it matters what you sickness you prefer in SinCity as long as you’re on the side of the noir hero, the exception being treachery; it makes you an outcast to everyone. It is the stain that cannot be removed, and the coldly served justice in the final scene reminds us of that

Did the 300 die well? Though I am tempted to look up to people who value something above their own life, it isn’t always a virtue. I want to say that these men fought and died for something grand that they loved – thus putting them alongside Braveheart’s William Wallace and Gladiator’s Maximos, but I’m just not sold. This isn’t because the movie offended my personal ideal or some esoteric philosophy, it’s because it didn’t sell me on what the people were fighting for. The story here is simply shallow and unconvincing. New, inventive, tremendously well shot; and unconvincing.

But I will go one step further out on my creaking limb and say that the reason that Miller can’t be convincing about Sparta is the same reason that he can’t write a story where The City isn’t the City of Dis. King Leonidas is as formidable a character as Jack Bauer, but with less depth because Miller doesn’t understand people relating to people, he only understands the lone man standing against the City. And all the man can seem to do is die for a dead hooker. Community is a boring and insignificant theme for Miller, whose best insight is into the most individual of individuals. These heroes follow a long pedigree and their profundity is not to be overlooked; but it seems that Miller can’t write a story that isn’t a version of the noir hero and have it be very effective. I might pay to see a movie because its talked about, different, or just because it’s cool – but it will not make it a classic. 300 hasn’t been very well received by the critics, but neither was Gladiator, and it went on to win Best Picture and has ingratiated itself into culture. 300 will not do that, and in 5 years time it will be remembered much like the Blair Witch Project is today: it made history as a trend.

Maybe it’s unfair to complain because of how magnificent a movie isn’t, and maybe I shouldn’t be outraged that I can’t list it next to Citizen Kane, Philadelphia Story, and Rear Window. I didn’t complain when I saw Serenity or Gattaca because they’ll be forgotten in years. But I wanted this movie to move me, to thrill me, to tell me about battle and home. I wanted the Ballad of the White Horse sort of apocalypse – full of death and pain and glory and God. I wanted the grass on the screen to be the grass of my hometown that I carved mazes in, but instead it was the desolate plains of hell on the outskirts of the City. I was ready to “drink a dreadful death for wine” and realized instead that the wine was actually the black river of Styx. I was ready to vicariously love and die and instead I was mildly entertained while my soul witnessed the hacking off of limbs as if they had been attached with scotch tape. I received neither the joy of real battle nor the lightheartedness of fantasy, and was given instead haunting pictures of a world without meaning where even those who die in glory have never lived.

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