Thermopylae is a wedge issue!

It’s All Geek to Me by Neal Stephenson: After a lengthy absence, Stephenson returns with an oped in the NY Times. He tackles the film 300 from various geeky angles, and in the process, he hits on a few ideas that I’ve been thinking about recently.

Critics at a festival in Berlin walked out, and accused its director of being on the Bush payroll.

Thermopylae is a wedge issue!

Lefties can’t abide lionizing a bunch of militaristic slave-owners (even if they did happen to be long-haired supporters of women’s rights). So you might think that righties would love the film. But they’re nervous that Emperor Xerxes of Persia, not the freedom-loving Leonidas, might be George Bush.

This seems to be happening more and more these days. Somebody makes a movie without any intention of making a political statement, and then liberals and conservatives fall all over themelves in an attempt to spin the movie in their favor. This isn’t limited to movies or other forms of art either (nor is it limited to politics, for that matter – people often spin things in subjective ways). For instance, talk to anyone who has strong opinions about politics and they’ll tell you that the media is biased against them. It’s amusing, really.

When I saw 300, the thought that this might be applicable to our current political situation occurred to me, but I dismissed it pretty quickly. I’m sick of politics and have been for a while now, which brings me to another point Stephenson makes:

When science fiction tackles classical themes, the results may look a bit odd to some, but the audience – which is increasingly the mainstream audience – is sufficiently hungry for this kind of material (and, perhaps, suspicious of anything that’s overly polished) that it is willing to overlook the occasional mistake, or make up for it by shouting hilarious things from the balcony. These people don’t need irony or campiness self-consciously pointed out to them, any more than they need a laugh track to enjoy “The Simpsons.”

The Spartan phalanx presents itself to foes as a wall of shields, bristling with spears, its members squatting behind their defenses, anonymous and unknowable, until they break formation and stand out alone, practically naked, soft, exposed and recognizable as individuals.

The audience members watching them play the same game: media-weary, hunkered down behind thick irony, flinging verbal jabs at the screen – until they see something that moves them. Then they’ll come out and feel. But at the first hint of politics, they’ll jump back behind their shield-wall, just like the Spartans when millions of Persian arrows blot out the sun, and wait until the noise stops.

I’ve been thinking a lot about politics in art, and I don’t think it’s as influential as it once was. The modern world is so saturated with politics and hyperbolic outrage that yet another movie or album that decries war or globalization or secularization or whatever is just, well, lame. You look at someone like George Orwell and you can see why he wrote what he did and why he wrote how he wrote. If he were writing today, I bet it would seem gimmicky and lame.

Alas, at the end of the article, it didn’t mention that Stephenson would be releasing a new book anytime soon. I know he’s working on the Diamond Age Miniseries, but I’m still impatient for his next book, whatever it may be. These NY Times opeds are nice and all, but they seem too short for Stephenson. I like it better when he rambles on for a few hundred pages.

2 thoughts on “Thermopylae is a wedge issue!”

  1. Ha! I thought some of the same stuff. Either Leonidas or Xerces could be symbolic of Bush, but that’s kinda obnoxious and probably not what was meant anyway.

    Politics in art seems like overkill now. Unless it’s done with a lot subtlety, it, for me at least, comes across as way to preachy. Even if I agree with the message, I’m tired of hearing it. There’s too much of it and no one seems to take the time to say it particularly well anymore anyway.

  2. Seriously, if I even catch a whif of politics on something, especially when it seems kinda preachy, I’m probably not going to go out of my way to see (liste, read, etc…) it. Seriously, even the new NIN album seems annoying. Babel? Blood Diamond? Agh, no way! I think that’s a big part of the reason I didn’t like Children of Men too.

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