Okay, this is weird.
Since about, oh, September 12, 2001, every writer, producer, director, and suit in this town has known one thing to be true: Don’t make fun of our so-called “enemies.”
Don’t stereotype them as bad guys. Don’t mock their beliefs. Don’t even mention their names. And for heaven’s sake, don’t make them mad.
Instead, try to understand them. Celebrate their diversity. And realize that, in a world (as the voice on the trailer intones) in which black is really white, up is really down, an attack is really self-defense and self-defense is really a provocation, we ourselves are actually the enemy.
This made things really easy. Out went any script that ascribed anything but the purest of motives to Arabs, Iranians, and Muslims. Back came everybody’s favorite villains: ex- and neo-Nazis (I haven’t met any, but I hear they’re everywhere) and crazed Christian fundamentalists, lurking out there in flyover country, itching to pull the triggers to establish a theocracy in a country we all know perfectly well was founded by unarmed vegetarian multicultural atheists.
Not even Jim Cameron could get a picture like 1994’s True Lies — in which the current governor of California slaughters hundreds of Arab terrorists single-handedly — made anymore, and he’s the King of the World. Instead, we got things like Kingdom of Heaven, in which the Christian ruler of Jerusalem becomes a hero by surrendering the Holy Land to the noble Saladin.
So now along comes a bunch of schmucks nobody’s ever heard of — graphic novelist Frank Miller, director Zack Snyder, and a couple of other writers — to pull in $70 million over the weekend with a movie about a handful of brave warriors who stand up against the limitless central-Asian hordes, iron men vs. effeminate oriental voluptuaries, and patriots against robotic slaves. How was this picture allowed to be made?
I’m talking, of course, about 300, a gory retelling of the Spartans’ defense at Thermopylae, which has got the whole town buzzing, and not just about its first-weekend grosses. Is it an ode to Riefensthalian fascist militarism? A thinly veiled attack on the Bush administration‘s insane war-mongering? Or is it something else?
Help me out here, because I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around a few things: When, early in the film, a sneering Persian emissary insults King Leonidas’s hot wife, threatens the kingdom, and rages about “blasphemy,” the king kicks him down a bottomless well. And yet nobody in Sparta asks, “Why do they hate us?” and seeks to find common ground with the Persians on their doorstep. Why not?
The Spartans mock the god-king Xerxes (whose traveling throne resembles a particularly louche Brazilian gay-pride carnival float), mow down his armored “immortal” holy warriors clad is nothing but red cloaks, loincloths, and sandals, and generally give their last full measure to defend Greek civilization against superstition and tyranny. Where are the liberal Spartan voices raised in protest against this blatant homophobia, xenophobia, and racism?
The only way this bunch of refugees from a Village People show can whup our heroes is by dangling some dubious hookers in front of a horny hunchback who makes Quasimodo look like Tom Cruise, and by bribing a corrupt legislator to tie up reinforcements with various legalistic maneuvers. When the queen finally kills the councilor, the others call him a “traitor.” Isn’t that both blaming the victim and questioning his patriotism?
You’d think 300 was a metaphor for something…
I heard the other day that one of the creators of this film is… yes, a closet conservative. And now he, whoever he is, is a rich closet conservative.
As screenwriter-god Bill Goldman says, it’s all about the next job. So that noise you hear this morning is the wind created by hundreds of writers from Playa del Rey to Santa Barbara, sticking their fingers in the air to see if the wind’s suddenly shifted, wondering if they can shelve their metrosexual Syriana and Babel knockoffs and conjure up some good old-fashioned “men of the West” material.
Because the dirty little secret is, we used to write these movies all the time. Impossible odds. Quixotic causes. Death before surrender. Real all-American stuff, in which our heroes stood up for God and country and defending Princess Leia and getting back home to see their wives and children, with their shields or on them.
And the dirtier little secret is: We loved writing them. Even a blacklisted commie like Carl Foreman came up with High Noon, in which a lone Gary Cooper defends a town full of ungrateful, carping yellowbellies and then throws away his badge in disgust at their cowardice. Sure, John Wayne hated it at the time, but today the Duke would be doing handstands to get his teeth into a part like that.
But then came psychiatrists and psychologists and Ritalin and global warming and racism and sexism and homophobia and the enlightened among us said the hell with John Wayne and Gary Cooper. Hollywood became one big Agatha Christie novel in the last chapter — you know, the one where the survivors of the homicidal maniac gather in the drawing room and realize: The killer must be one of us!
And then came September 11th and that was that. But now, I’m beginning to wonder.
Beginning to wonder if a $70-million opening weekend for a picture that was tracking at $40 million will get somebody’s attention. Beginning to wonder if a movie that has no stars, the look and feel of a video game, and the moral code of the U.S.M.C. might have something to say, even to audiences in New York and L.A.
But most of all, I’m beginning to wonder what it feels like to be the good guy.
– David Kahane is a nom de cyber for a writer in Hollywood. “David Kahane” is borrowed from a screenwriter character in The Player.