My site has also talked about Hitler and fascism, specifically in relation to aspects of Korean national ideology. So one would think I would tend to agree, right?
Here's the problem with the assertion, as is the case anytime people starting throwing Hitler's name around – there has to be more than an aesthetic resonance with the concept; in other words, there has to be some meat to the assertion.
Quoting Susan Sontag? Leni Riefenstahl? Triumph of the Will? Armies marching in procession? The fetishization of physical perfection? Sound compelling?
The problem is the missing factor – ideology as a function of state interest.
Riefenstahl's hauntingly beautiful imagery in Triumph of the Will (which, unlike most people who quote the film, I've actually seen, taught, and sits on my bookshelf) is employed in a lot of films since its initial showing, and her cinematic techniques have become part of the filmic grammar used down to the present day. It's no wonder that film is commonly described in film theory classes as "the most greatest documentary ever made" – because, by definition, it was.
And the imagery in Riefenstahl's Triumph (and the far less visible film Olympia, which has been made available for the first time ever from last year on DVD, and is in the cue for my next Amazon run) have been quoted far more deliberately, all over the cinematic map, than in the film 300.
If simply glorifying the general ideals of physical perfection through the depiction of ripped abs and pink, perky nipples is "fascist," then surely the direct quotations of Riefenstahl's technique – shot for shot in the film Gladiator – when the camera comes down through the clouds to merge into a low-angle profile shot of the Roman armies standing in relief as the crowds chant with fists thrown in the air, with all the Roman regalia on full display (which is the historical "quotation" that Göbbels used in constructing the pageantry of Nazism in the first place), this is much more fascist.
Or the film Starship Troopers, which was indeed accused of being fascist, in that it used oodles of fascist imagery lifted directly from Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will as well as Capra's Why We Fight series and Know Your Enemy – Japan, which were produced for the U.S. Army during WWII, which themselves quoted Riefenstahl. In fact, Capra made it a point to procure a copy of Triumph of the WIll before making his own films for US propagandastic purposes, and borrowed her techniques even as clips from the films were used to show just how crazy the Germans apparently were.
If you watch the humorous opening sequence of the troops in Starship Troopers standing in formation as the camera moves across their proud, youthful, perfectly-formed faces, you'll see a direct reference to Triumph even as director Verhoeven playfully lays over the very American style WWII-era prompting "Are you doing your part?" with the kid "surprising" everyone in his little battle get-up and affirmatively answering, "I'm doing my part, too!" Ha ha ha – ah, I just love little child soldiers. So cute!
And that's just the beginning. What most people didn't get – including the Washington Post and CNN – was that fascist imagery was being used as part of an anti-fascist, anti-militarist message (although Heinlein's original book was fascist as a mofo), a fact I pointed out in a graduate paper I wrote during the film's premiere.
In that film, the humans are the bad guys. And the significance of the young, eye-candy actors, bombastic fanfare with trumpets, along with clear and obvious quotations from just about every actual fascist and propagandistic piece of film ever made, was missed by even movie reviewers, who simply saw some of the imagery and accused the film of being fascist, and not getting the fact that he was poking dead-serious fun at it.
Indeed, in the middle of the film, when the fictional commentator for the "Federal Network" asks Johnny Rico his response to the accusation that it was actually the human race that had infringed upon "Bug" territory, Rico replies "Kill 'em all!" as the commentator looks suspiciously into the camera.
The quotations of Hitler's "breathing room" policies as the leader of the Federation talk about making space safe for "human, not insect civilization," or the images of Doogie Houser, M.D. machine-gunning a captured enemy warrior in front of the camera for the sake of a medical experiment – they were so over-the-top that one would think any film reviewer would have gotten the obvious fact that the film wasn't "fascist" on its face, but was rather being so ridiculously fascist that it could be nothing other than parody.
Starship Troopers was the Naked Gun of Triumph of the Will, yet too many people didn't seem to get it as anything other than an imagined "Triumph of the Will 2."
My point is that mere accusations of utilizing the aesthetics of fascism, or the fact of utilizing them, do not in themselves constitute fascist art itself. If this were the case, Starship Troopers, Gladiator, and even Lord of the Rings – umm, especially that one – would all be guilty of being "fascist" art, regardless of the purpose behind the work.
Well, in the latter case, I think LoTR would more guilty of "Orientalism," which is another inappropriately and too liberally-applied term, one confused with being simply "anti-Asian" or somehow depicting "the Orient" in a negative light. That's not what it means, and I'll use a quick explanation of it to get back to my original point.
In the sense that Edward Said constructed the term, it was clearly a trope in British literature, a conventional way of representing "the Orient" as an ideological part of the very real and very bloody imperial plan to justify the continued domination over and subjugation of "inferior" peoples by the British empire.
It's about ideology used in the service of real goals, those of the state. In the "fascist" art that one sees in Nazi Germany, Communist China, or even in North Korea, there is a clear ideological imperative to sacrifice the needs of the individual for those of the corporate body; written into the aesthetic of the imagery is the desire to make that sacrifice – it is beauty defined, like the shining face of an Aryan warrior, the forward march of youthful maidens, or the proud, beaming stare off into the horizon of a strong and sturdy farmer.
Does mere fetishization of the body, of courage, or even violence itself constitute "fascist" art? I argue that if this is the bar, then many artistic works would fit the bill, and the movies I could quote here would run down my keyboard: The Matrix, The Terminator, Rocky, etc.
The latter film definitely relies on existing tension between whites and blacks, through the Italian-American lens of race and manhood. As each blow pummels Apollo Creed into submission, The Great White Hope has been rekindled, re-empowered, reborn.
White pride itself is on the line, as it has been since the beginning of boxing history, and had been dethroned with the rise of Mohammed Ali and other black boxers to domination of the field. That film was every bit racial fantasy as personal journey.
And by the time we got to Rocky IV, and the racial trope had been exhausted with a match with Mr. T in the previous installment, the fantasy had become more national, as Rocky's homegrown American fists violently chastise the hypermodern, freak-of-fascist-science that was Drago, the Soviet superman. Rocky wins, and is draped in Old Glory, but only to make a speech about cooperation that gets brings the Soviet premier to his feet. But that step towards Soviet-American cooperation was crucially contingent on American victory and magnanimity.
Was the first Rocky "racist" because race was used as an emotional anchor in that film? I'd say no. Was the latter Rocky film "fascist" or even merely jingoistic or propagandistic because national pride was a theme? Slightly more so, but it barely got above the level of kitschy pap that was mere fodder to set up another character for our hero to pummel, and the race card was looking pretty ragged by the fourth installment.
But none of these films were "fascist" in style or intent. They didn't even effectively imply a role for the citizen, nor a destiny for the nation, or anything nearly that coherent for the viewer. Nor does 300.
The popular reading of King Leonidas as Bush, Xerxes and his empire as Iran, and the 300 who go into battle against the wishes of a corrupt and reticent people is superficial and facile at best, given the fact that this is one of the oldest and most retold stories in Western civilization on the one hand, and finds its origins in a comic book written well before the present crisis was at hand.
The styling of Xerxes as exotic, erotic Other is as old as British Orientalist depictions, and an ancient, decadent Orient steeped in mystery is a trope as old as the hills.
The muscles rippling on sweaty soldiers marching off to their sacred duties to orchestral fanfare and the sentimental, vaguely ethnic wail that started in Gladiator and continued through to Troy, Black Hawk Down, and now even the opening sequences of Battlestar Galactica) didn't strike me as "fascist" any more than The Rock did.
If anything, all the talk of Maximus and others fighting and preserving "the glory that was Rome" was truly "fascist" – and hey, at least the main characters with whom we were meant to identify were busy defending an empire that spanned continents, subjugated entire peoples, and was the actual, historical inspiration for Mussolini's fetishization of the fasces itself – his "fascismo," a term that this would-be modern Roman emperor coined.
In contrast, and if anything, 300 is heavily laced with a heady dose of American-style emphasis on free will and its importance to democracy itself. Importantly, Leonidas could have chosen a situation of subjugated suzerainty to the Persians, without bringing down the hammer of war and destruction upon his people; but it was a matter of both pride and principle for this Spartan king, and he could not bear to live without free will.
In the same way, it is also crucial that the 300 warriors were true volunteers and through their sacrifice, led their nation to fight by virtue of their example, not by taking over the reins of their nation by force, nor by pressing anyone to do anything outside of their own, individual volition. Even the psychological bait of "duty" wasn't dangled before hesitating members – the decision to fight and die for the state was intensely personal, which gave their deaths even more meaning.
And in the film, the intrigues and corruptions of the Senate were solved internally, not by sway of the sword (except through the gut of one obvious traitor who had obfuscated the "truth"), but by sway of logic and reason, something else that came up as a recurring them in the film.
So to facilely apply Sontag's argument into a simplistic argument that echoes of fascist style, or even fascist style itself is actually fascism in resurrected form seems pretty flimsy. The bar is too low, the definition too broad, and the depth of analysis too lightweight. Indeed, in the very Sontag article quoted in the review, the relationship between fascist art and the state are made far clearer than Applegate indicates:
“Fascist aesthetics,” wrote Susan Sontag, “endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude.” Fascist art is a dance between a leader and a growing mass of identical, devoted subjects, shifting “between ceaseless motion and... ‘virile’ posing.”
Fascist work “scorns realism in the name of ‘idealism.’” It “glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death.”
The subject of Sontag’s essay was Leni Riefenstahl, the notorious Nazi propagandist who constructed her twin propaganda masterpieces, “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia,” for Adolf Hitler.
But Ms. Sontag’s words are also a perfect description of the special effects bloodbath that is “300.”
But one important thing is being forgotten here, and left out of the quotefest from Sontag's landmark 1975 Sontag's landmark 1973 article:
What is interesting about art under National Socialism are those features which make it a special variant of totalitarian art. The official art of countries like the Soviet Union and China aims to expound and reinforce a utopian morality. Fascist art displays a utopian aesthetics—that of physical perfection. Painters and sculptors under the Nazis often depicted the nude, but they were forbidden to show any bodily imperfections. Their nudes look like pictures in physique magazines: pinups which are both sanctimoniously asexual and (in a technical sense) pornographic, for they have the perfection of a fantasy.
As a special subset of "totalitarian art" – which she defines as having a specific, official message, "fascist art" is especially employed as part of an argument that physical perfection in the individual is in itself a sign of the overall perfection (health and superiority) of the body politic.
That is the function of the fascist art Applegate thinks he sees in 300, that physical perfection is a reflection of the state itself, but is really little more than eye candy for the girls and macho inspiration for the boys.
That's why Riefenstahl got off the hook, to some extent, in going down to Africa and filming the physical perfection of the Nuba tribe, which she published as the book Sontag was reviewing in the article in question – she was thereafter able to say that she had never been engaged in worshipping the aesthetic of beauty specifically in the service of fascism, but that she had been merely obsessed with the pursuit of beauty itself, quite apart from any political concerns.
From her film Olympia:
From her later work in The Nuba:
Whether or not that ship holds water in terms of Riefenstahl's spotty and suspicious past, as well chronicled in an amazing recent article on the subject in The New Yorker, it does hold water in terms of this film, which is not all that original in style, although visually quite compelling. But the point isn't to rouse crowds into action, or even, I think to do something so mundane as justify an American incursion into Iran, or justify the recent war in Iraq.
The film exists squarely within a genre of epic battle pictures populated by men with ripped torsos, beautiful women writhing in sheer fabrics, and dying for the sake of king and, ahem, cuntry.
And speaking of which, even in pornography itself, where images are lifted directly from Nazism itself, no one is confusing the fetishization of the body – in its ultimate, pornographic form – as anything remotely fascist, even thought the imagery is clearly such. Sontag notes:
Of course, most people who are turned on by SS uniforms are not signifying approval of what the Nazis did, if indeed they have more than the sketchiest idea of what that might be. Nevertheless, there are powerful and growing currents of sexual feeling, those that generally go by the name of sadomasochism, which make playing at Nazism seem erotic. These sadomasochistic fantasies and practices are to be found among heterosexuals as well as homosexuals, although it is among male homosexuals that the eroticizing of Nazism is most visible. S-m, not swinging, is the big sexual secret of the last few years.
Between sadomasochism and fascism there is a natural link. "Fascism is theater," as Genet said. As is sadomasochistic sexuality: to be involved in sadomasochism is to take part in a sexual theater, a staging of sexuality. Regulars of sadomasochistic sex are expert costumers and choreographers as well as performers, in a drama that is all the more exciting because it is forbidden to ordinary people. Sadomasochism is to sex what war is to civil life: the magnificent experience. (Riefenstahl put it: "What is purely realistic, slice of life, what is average, quotidian, doesn't interest me." As the social contract seems tame in comparison with war, so fucking and sucking come to seem merely nice, and therefore unexciting. The end to which all sexual experience tends, as Bataille insisted in a lifetime of writing, is defilement, blasphemy. To be "nice," as to be civilized, means being alienated from this savage experience—which is entirely staged.
In the same way, when engaging in the construction of a film such as 300, which is so overtly and obviously a visual spectacle, especially given the comic book form and over-the-top violence that is the trademark of Frank Miller's style of writing and drawing (in this way, 300 does not differ much from Sin City), fascism, if you can find it, is indeed theater, but nothing more.
300's visual elements are designed to give us the thrill of violence-as-pornography, which is the virtual, sensual draw of pornographic experience in the first place – to allow the virtual chance to do things you could not or would not do – such as participate in group sex, run a spear through another man's heart, or eat an expensive German chocolate cake made by a master Swiss chef.
Hence, graphic depictions of sex, violence, and food are often labeled "pornographic" – because they are. Indeed, Ron Jeremy, 300, and the Food Network all have something in common. We like the images hot, extreme, and served up on a silver platter – or screen.
The roots of the word "pornography" actually mean "graphic depiction", and when it comes to sex, violence, and food, there is no way we can sate our desires as they exist in our minds. So we sate them with our imaginations, with still and moving images, with the words of literature both great and vulgar; but to mistake the superficial pageantry of something that titillates for the thing itself is a pretty silly thing to do.