Zack Snyder’s "300" is noteworthy because it’s going to be one of the most commercially successful films of the year. Based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae in 470BC, it recounts the efforts of several hundred Greeks (mostly Spartans) to fight theenormous Persian army of King Xerxes to a standstill. LIke the heroes of the Alamo, these men die with their sandals on, fighting to the last man, and ultimately inspiring subsequent armies to carry on their battle to a victorious conclusion.
More than anything, "300"resembles a comic book. As in "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" and "Sin City," live actors are drawn over and then placed in a sketched out background. The effect is that we recognize the actors, but they don’t look like their real selves. Though visually stunning, the comic book quality is regrettably reflected in every other aspect of the film. Characters are either heroic or base. The fight scenes involve creatures that don’t really exist and battle skills that defy gravity. Men spend most of their time screaming in cliches. The ultimate effect is like watching the best of modern film technology applied to a Steve Reeves Italian clunker from the 1950’s. To be sure, "300" looks great and the action scenes are exciting. It’s an enjoyable two hours. But that begs the question of its hugesuccess, and how it fits into the landscape of other films about male comraderie.
As "300" careens towards $200 million of domestic box office, it has inspired a host of explanations for its popularity. It’s a stirring defense of the war in Iraq, as the Greeks fight for "reason" and against "mysticism." It’s a critique of the war in Iraq, as the Persian hordes with their numbers and technology represent the immense American war machine. It’s a racist attack on Persians meant to pave the way for our next military intervention in Iran. It’s a fascist celebration of hyper-nationalism, militarism, racism, xenophobia, and adoration of a charismatic leader. It’s a rendering of the sensibility of World Wide Wrestling- with uber-muscled, scantily clad men. And of course there seems to be a homo-erotic quality to all of this male bonding, touching, hand-holding, piercing, and long, soulful looks. But, I think that "300" isn’t nearly as homosexually situated as the average contemporary buddy films and romances.
"300" celebrates the male bonding that is found in most war and sports movies. What gives those films their homosexual subtext is less the sweating, shirtless males working together for victory. Rather it’s the unstated assumption that unlike the men, none of the women in these men’s lives will ever really grasp this singularly important, defining experience. Whatever these men and their future wives share, the women will just never "get it." However, in war and sports films, the men still hunger for a life of normalcy- settling down and raising a family with their female soulmate. But that fantasy of living happily ever after with your true love has little emotional resonance in contemporary buddy films and romances: think The Break Up, Failure to Launch, Old School, Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, American Pie.
It wasn’t always so. In ’50’s and ’60’s films, the emotional relationship that men craved was with a woman. Then two films undermined that assumption. For the artier crowd, "Diner" depicted male friendships as deeper than anything that a man could share with a woman. For the mass audience, the same message was abundantly clear with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. No woman could ever be as perfect for Redford or Newman as they were for each other.
Yet in those films, there was still a kind of true love. The guys in Diner were in love with each other, not with guys generically. Butch and Sundance were perfect only for each other. But then came Doug Liman, Kevin Smith, John Favreau and others, and they created something entirely new. Guys didn’t really want to be with women. Nor did they need to be with the true-love-best-friends of their youth. Almost any guy would do. And almost any guy was better than any woman.
In terms of what seemed important in a relationship: understanding, companionship, support, nurturing, fun, shared priorities- men could provide this better than women. Moreover, the existentially bedrock experiences of life were about guys and their own fathers and sons. The emotional logic of contemporary buddy films is that guys would be so much happier if they shared their lives with guys. It’s not that men are commitment phobic. They’re phobic about being intimate with women when the best of life’s experiences are those shared with other guys. In these films, women are valued primarily as sexual partners and status symbols.
Women often have a more valued role in sports and war films. In "300," the Spartan queen is not only gorgeous and a fabulous lover, but she also strongly supports the values of her husband and the Spartan men. But in contemporary buddy films and romances, the woman often wants to come between a guy and his friends. Her desire to domesticate and tame is not new. But her desire to separate him from his most important emotional ties seems especially damning. The revealing exceptions are the Minnie Drivers in films like Good Will Hunting, where the woman both respects the relationships between male friends and is herself "one of the guys."
In most war and sport films, the defining battle or game is something only guys can share. But there’s still the longing for heterosexually living happily ever after. But in a wide array of buddy and romance movies- it’s clear that these guys would be happier living with other guys. Heterosexually driven to be with women, their sexuality becomes a curse.