Tuesday, March 31, 2009

300 Is a Far Better Film Than It's Given Credit For

In 2006, a film called 300 was released by a little-known director by the name of Zach Snyder. I've seen an awful lot of commentary about this film, ranging from the nation of Iran formally protesting its treatment of the Persian Empire to a number of reviews that focused mainly on its over-the-top carnage. But in all of this, I've yet to see any review that covered what I saw in the film, and what I consider to be the primary purpose of the film: political commentary. Let's backtrack a bit.

If you haven't seen the film, it's the tale of the legendary battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans (along with a much larger force of other Greek slaves and soldiers) held off a radically larger force of Persians due to the tactical advantage provided by a narrow pass. In the end, all but a few died, but the delay allowed preparations to be made, and the next year, the Persians were defeated by a large army of allied Greek city states.

The film, on the other hand, nearly deifies the martial prowess of the Spartans, casting them as supreme combatants to a man, and each of them the physical embodiment of the human ideal. During the course of the film you will see many things that even a casual observer will immediately recognize as ludicrous from legs being hacked off with a short sword (the femur is the largest, and strongest bone in the body) to a man being knocked off a horse and thrown back many yards by a hand-thrown spear. The Persians are either deformed or sufficiently covered as to look inhuman, and are characterized as hedonistic brutes (except for their women who are writhing objects of lust).

So what could redeem this film after it finished savaging one of the most important battles in history? Well, you'll want to read this after seeing the ending of the film... I'll give you a chance to go watch.

OK, so the film ends with Dilios (a soldier who had been sent back from the front lines to tell the tale of the battle, based loosely on the historical character of Aristodemus) recanting the tale that we've just seen to a massive Greek army that is preparing to face the Persians. In this moment it becomes clear, but is never stated, that what we've been watching is in no way an attempt to tell the tale of what actually happened, but an attempt to vilify and dehumanize the Persian army while glorifying the dead Spartan 300, specifically to rally this larger Greek army. The film turns itself into commentary on the nature of wartime propaganda, and it provides a unique opportunity to see its effects.

Looking around the theater, during the film, I saw many younger men on the literal edge of their seats, attention entirely caught by the action. They were ready, I'm sure, to jump in with the 300 and give their lives to stop these monstrous Persians! But it's not a film about the Persians, is it? In fact, it's not really a film about the Spartans either. In essence it's about the timeless art of propaganda and its continued use today. Had this film been about Iraq or Afghanistan it would have been too obvious, but casting it as an ancient battle between Europeans and Middle Easterners made it just hard enough to see through. The majority of the audience was taken in, and I have to admit that I was one of them. I very nearly walked out of the theater in disgust at one point (I think it was when the spear knocked a horseman onto the ground several yards from where he started), but I was rewarded for keeping an open mind and sticking with the narrative until the end. I hope you did too.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Repost: Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter

This review was posted to the old essays.ajs.com, and is being re-posted here because it's still fairly relevant.

I won't review Tales as if it were a stand-alone work. That would be unfair, since it's the B-story inside a larger work. Instead, I'll deal with its merits as an adjunct to the Watchmen film.

First off, the details. I got Freighter on Blu-Ray which was probably overkill. The animation quality isn't really that impressive, and DVD might have been the better choice in order to let its slightly retro look blend a bit more rather than having every pencil line (yep, hand drawn by Korean animators) pop out of my screen. It's animated in a very Heavy Metal style, though it's much smoother and obviously computer-colored. I think it's a good look, and certainly a less realistic style was the right choice to pair with Watchmen's over-sharpened reality.

As with the hacksaw scene from Watchmen, there's a problem with this story that's not really its fault: a man stuck on a desert island that starts talking to a head has been done between when Watchmen became popular and today. It doesn't feel derivative here as I'm sure leaving the hacksaw in the movie would have, but it does take a bit of the impact out of his growing insanity.

The major points of the story hold up well. The colors are as hellish as they need to be. The growing tone of madness and despair is palpable and the voice work is perfect.

That's where the praise and criticism really has to stop though because there are only two options here: either you are a fan of the book enough to have wanted to see this the moment it came out, or you should wait. The extras on this disk make it abundantly clear that there's a special edition in the works that will thread Freighter and Under the Hood back into the movie the way they were in the original book. That's really the one to buy. This is for fanboys like myself.

That brings me to Under the Hood. This is a live-action short that follows some of the back-of-the-book text from Watchmen as a series of interviews. Some of this is directly out of the book and some is not. Some of it has been re-written so that it will work as a single piece. I won't say I like or dislike it, but I will say that where Freighter and Watchmen felt a bit rushed, this felt slow. That might work out well once the whole film is stitched together, but for the stand-alone it just doesn't work out very well. It's very nice to see more of the first wave of heroes who get limited screen time in the film (except for Comedian). The interviews are well constructed. There's also a bit of repetitious use of some sequences (I'm now sick of the Minutemen group photo), which could use more aggressive editing before it's added back.

So to wrap up: these are very faithful adaptations of the book. They capture what the book brought to bear, but without the main story they feel disembodied. I would recommend that anyone who isn't absolutely foaming at the mouth to see them wait for the special edition of the movie.

Notes from the behind the scenes extra:

  • The showed the attack on Hollis being filmed, so I expect that to be either back in Watchmen for the DVD or in the deleted scenes.
  • A nice point about Rorschach's first journal entry being a play on lines from Three Penny Opera (the origin of the Black Freighter story)
  • They do seem to have filmed sequences to bridge between the main story and Freighter with the boy reading the comic at the newsstand.
  • I don't know why, but showing the year that the interview is from in the lower right hand corner bothered me.

Google Maps - Planning the Perfect Evening

Recently, I wanted to suggest a route for a pub crawl to someone who was organizing a bachelor party. Google maps seemed like it might be the right tool, so I tried it out. Turns out there's a whole collaborative mapping interface I hadn't even realized was there.

I started by searching for a pub. Then I saved that location ("save to my maps") and did another search and so on until I had saved all of the pubs I was interested in to a map of their own. I then clicked on that map name in the side-bar and found that there's a drawing tool, so I was able to draw a line connecting the pubs.

The final result is saved in a map that's publicly viewable as "Cambridge Pubs near Central Sq". You can visit it, but only people that I invite as collaborators can edit it.

It seems as if, every day, I find new reasons to be impressed with Google's services.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Ralph Fasanella

Ralph Fasanella was a friend of my grandfather's and a really cool guy. He was also an artist, and if you visit Ellis Island or the Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. you'll see his work. What I remember of Ralph, though, is personal and probably a distortion of the greater context of his life. I remember him as an unrepentant cigar smoker. I remember that he loved food (especially that heavenly lasagna that his wife would bring over when they visited), and eating would put him in a mood to tell stories about his youth and the labor disputes that he'd been a part of. I remember the love he expressed for his wife.

Most of all, I remember Ralph as a man who was constantly looking for a way that his work could benefit others. He was the first hero I knew, and I never got the chance to tell him how much that changed the course of my life ... before his ended.

R.I.P. Ralph Fasanella, and thank you. I will continue to hang your prints with pride in my home and tell your story to those who see them.

Butterfly Effect 3... THREE?!

Every now and then I come across a direct-to-video sequel like Prophesy 5 or The Crow 4 that just begs the question (yeah, yeah, colloquial usage, blah blah, get over it): what were they thinking... and when exactly did the other ones come out? Well, I had that feeling again today with Butterfly Effect 3. Three? There was a two?! Well, I guess there was.

Construction at MIT: Part 3

As you can see, I'm just thrilled with this building. It's in the perfect spot, and I get to watch it being constructed, piece by piece. Every night before I go home, I look out of the window at it, and appreciate the fact that generations of MIT students who come through here after me, will have no idea how cool this place was. To them, it will just be yet another building with a number. Hopefully, a few of them will find this blog and consider how much work went into it.
MIT's Koch building under construction in the winter
I leave you with this parting shot. Someone crossed the street while I was taking a long exposure, and it really worked out perfectly.

Construction at MIT: Part 2

snow piles up in front of the under-construction Koch building at MITI came out of the office one night to find a planet (Jupiter, I think) over the street and the whole building lit up by internal ligthing, shining through the canvas pannels that they drop over the steele skeleton. Very cool looking, and just too tempting a picture not to take.
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Friday, March 27, 2009

Construction at MIT: Part 1

sunset behind the construction of MIT's Koch buildingMIT is building a new building on their Cambridge campus, right across the street from the building that I work in. I've now taken several pictures of the project that I think are worthy of sharing. This first one was taken at sunset, and shows the crane hovering over an empty work-site.
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Moving to Blogger

Aaron's Essays used to be at www.3d6.net/aarons_essays/ which was my own server running MovableType, but I just got too frustrated with MT, and finally decided that maintaining so many different services on my home server was no longer workable. So... welcome to Aaron's Essays. essays.ajs.com will continue to point to this blog as always. I'll continue to drone on about whatever it is that I find interesting, though there may be more posts here than there were on my old blog, since it's a bit faster and easier to use.