HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

April 2, 2007
From the Editor

John Turner


In his review of Gothica, the film critic Roger Ebert says: "The sainted Pauline Kael taught us: The movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we might as well stop going."

I had something like that in mind over the weekend when I went to see 300. And I was rewarded about as I should have been. I expected it to be moderately silly, and it was. I also expected it to have a few moments when, if you let pure adolescent idealism take over, it would be stirring. And it did. You can't take it as much of a history lesson. For one thing, I don't believe the Persian emperor Xerxes was eight feet tall. Still, the name of Leonidas does continue to live and that was one of the points the movie emphasized.

Even for all its foolishness, it did spark a few thoughts about war and how we hold onto emotions about it that no longer make much sense. We shouldn't be naively romantic. Ancient war was hideous. But, even so, it did involve a certain athleticism which carried with it the possibility of a warrior ethic. And the ingredients of that ethic -- physical courage, strength, vigorous training, group discipline, and the desire to live in the memory of the homeland -- had at least a little to be said for them. In 480 BC, you couldn't kill your enemies by punching buttons. You had to meet them face to face. I suppose there still is some face to face confrontation in warfare now, but not much. In fact, if you see the face of the man you're killing it probably means you've done something wrong. And yet, we still talk about warfare as if it involved a small brave band holding a pass against an overwhelming invading horde. That's not the kind of talk we should be engaged in nowadays.

Iran has said the film is an insult to their people, and that's true. The Persians in this movie were either dopes, dupes, or monsters, and, sometimes, all three. And the Greeks all looked very good, being played by young men who obviously have spent many hours taking advantage of the wonders of modern bodybuilding machinery. But if I were an Iranian, I would just write it off as a comic book episode and not worry too much about it.

I wish we could figure out the intelligent use of comic books, if there is one. Is it simply pure entertainment that must be kept completely separate from actual life, or is there some kind of symbolic connection?

I would like it if you, as readers of the Harvard Square Commentary, would settle that question for me.


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