THE latest entry in the annals of Money Changes Everything is Zack Snyder's "300," which about a month ago was being discussed in terms of its allegorical message, but is now being closely inspected for its magical money-making properties.
Even before it became a box-office sensation, the director was sloughing off questions of whether the movie was a metaphor for the current war, or any war we might happen to have in the works. Any political message was "inadvertent." That people were picking up on some political message -- well, you could have knocked the director, producers and studio marketing department over with a feather. As for some people's fixation on certain words, "When someone in a movie says, 'We're going to fight for freedom,' that's now a dirty word," Snyder told Entertainment Weekly. "Europeans totally feel that way. If you mention democracy or freedom, you're an imperialist or a fascist. That's crazy to me."
Someday, maybe, the "entertainment defense" will no longer hold water. But for now, we're slogging through the era of the completely implausible denial. Like many films that seem to riff on everything without stooping to make a point (which would be just so hopelessly earnest and dorky), "300" proudly claims to be about nothing. Or rather, like another type of purchased pleasure, it claims to be about anything you want it to be. As long as a movie is dumb and violent enough, it can quote whatever cultural allusion is handy, then deny that it did with impunity.
Granted, as hard to buy as these denials are, their claim to meaninglessness does seem entirely possible. Sure, Frank Miller, on whose graphic novel the movie was based, has a political point of view. On NPR's "Talk of the Nation" last month he expressed his dismay about the "state of the home front" and his disappointment at the fact that "nobody seems to be talking about who we're up against -- and the 6th century barbarism that they" -- by which he meant not just terrorists, but entire civilizations -- "actually represent." (He also, incidentally, quoted philosopher Will Durant's line -- "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within" -- which opened "Apocalypto," another movie that was either a comment on our current political situation -- or not.)
Snyder has repeatedly expressed his desire to remain true to Miller's vision and leave it at that. A commercial director before making "Dawn of the Dead," his job is to sell -- and what's better for business than the appearance of reality with the tedious connections to reality removed? "300" straddles more lines than SUVs packing a mall parking structure. Nearly everything in the movie rings a bell, but it's hard to know what to make of it. Is it unabashedly camp or athletically self-serious? Homoerotic or gay-baiting? Slyly allegorical or chaotically referential? A rousing defense of a military campaign that despite being doomed to failure represents the defense of Western civilization against barbarous (and gay) Middle Eastern hordes? Or just harmless (or as it's now called, "mindless," because decerebration is a virtue) entertainment?
Ultimately, the big question is not whether the Spartan king, Leonidas (Gerard Butler), a warrior with steel-cut abs girded by a leather codpiece whose NFL-ready soldiers rally behind him with a synchronized bellow and a heavenward pump of the fist, is supposed to be George Bush. Or even whether, as some foreign journalists at a press junket in February suggested, the president has more in common with the tyrannical Persian emperor, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), done up to resemble RuPaul after a scuffle with Gwen Stefani's stylist. The question isn't even if Xerxes is intended to be perceived as a big, gay menace. (Although, maybe that one thing is clear: Snyder has allowed that the overtones of sexual menace were not accidental, because "What's more scary to a 20-year-old boy than a giant god-king who wants to have his way with you?")
The interesting question is how "entertainment" has come to be accepted as a valid, irreducible argument against interpretation; how, in a broader sense, the act of putting things in context has come to be seen as inherently suspect. Whether it's the attorney general claiming lack of clarity on the firings of U.S. attorneys, or a Lionsgate executive admitting mistakes were made regarding the torture billboards for "Captivity" pasted all over town, it seems that no connection is too clear, no cause and effect too obvious for shocked denial and feigned surprise not to be a viable option.
That's not to suggest that anything involving "300" exists on the same plane of importance -- it's just a good example of a trend that would be funny if it weren't so insulting.