How exactly are we supposed to feel about all those robust ancient stomach muscles?
Perhaps one of the most common New Year's resolutions in the gay community is to start working on that stomach. More than any other muscle group, the abdominals are what inspires the most looks of lust -- and jealousy -- at the nightclubs. It would seem an unlikely choice, because the stomach doesn't really indicate any specific purpose or strength: Arm muscles suggest youth and vitality; back muscles conjure strength and stability; leg muscles indicate athleticism and speed. But stomach muscles are the brawn of vanity. Indeed, nothing says "I love myself" more than a rock-hard set of abs. Which is why, I think, gay men are so fascinated by them. They are about indulgence -- they exist for no reason other than pleasure and spectacle. There is also an element of competition that plays into the worship. Attaining a set of washboards is perhaps one of the highest honors you can achieve in the homosexual world. They generally trump money, success, status, even a handsome face -- it's the signifier that you, indeed, are at the top of the gay dating food chain.
And so, it makes sense that the first words out of most gay men's mouths after seeing the blockbuster 300 are about the stomach muscles. Fully on display throughout the film, those bulging bellies threw most dudes I know into a state of panic. But it's perhaps those muscles themselves that represent much of what I found surreal about seeing 300 this past weekend. It's a film that, like a stomach muscle, seems totally impressed with its own magnitude and beauty, but doesn't actually lift anything and is kind of purposeless; and, like a ripped ab, it is a movie that inspires the lust of many a gay man, who drool and sigh and dream that their own bodies might someday reach such a state while simultaneously (and ironically) inspiring the admiration of many a straight frat boy; and ultimately, like that guy in the gym whose body just is a little too sculpted, it reeks of a creator who is working really hard at something, but seems a little dim to the implications of his own work, like the world doesn't see him as he sees himself. All of these contradictions swirled together to create one of the oddest filmgoing experiences of recent memory, leaving me to wonder, how the hell am I supposed to think about this thing?
Take, for instance, the undertones of right-wing ideology that run rampant throughout the movie. Is it possible that the director, Zack Snyder, really had no idea that many of us in the audience would read the "they hate us for freedom"-esque speeches as a metaphor for our current foreign policy? It seems impossible that this is unintentional, but then again, does Snyder really believe the George W. Bush rhetoric? And if so, how can you then possibly explain the huge numbers at the box office, considering how unpopular this president's policies have become? No -- it seems to me an unintentional gaffe -- like a bodybuilder who's hoisting the weights but doesn't have a purpose to the pump, who just lifts there aimlessly. But then again, the rhetoric is so obvious, you just can't believe it was unintentional. And so...bizarre confusion.
And then there's that odd appeal to both the straight and gay communities. Back in my college fraternity, guys used to sit around the house watching pornography together. It always struck me as completely homoerotic: men watching other men have sex with a woman, and also being surrounded by men who are all becoming aroused. The subtext was always ignored, but still the air was thick with tension. The same vibe filled the Mann Theater where I saw 300. The gay guys were getting off on the ripped, hairless bodies while the straight guys were, well, also getting off on the ripped, hairless bodies. It is, of course, again all about the abs. The gay guys want to touch them and the straight dudes want to, ahem, like watching a large penis in a porn movie, "admire" them -- but confusion hung there as we all tried to navigate this attraction/repulsion. (The crisis for the straight male libido started before the movie even began when a Dove commercial featuring nude senior and plus size women ran before the trailers.) Are the gay guys allowed to find pleasure in the sexiness of the bodies with all the frat boys around them? Are the frat boys allowed to enjoy the blood-and-guts violence perpetrated by near naked men who are clearly being eroticized in an oh-so-gay aesthetic? Can the straight guy get off on his fetish while the gay guy gets off on his? And can we sit next to each other while this is happening?
This is even further complicated by the arrival of Xerxes -- the queen (er, king) of Persia, who arrives wearing her finest cartier and makeup by Bobbi Brown. At once the gay crowd recognizes one of their own, a caricature right out of Priscilla. Meanwhile, we also recognize the ugly stereotype that we thought went the way of the pashmina -- the evil, bloodsucking drag queen who preys upon the innocent straight guy, Leonidas, who just wants to go back to his wife and kids. Leonidas, meanwhile, mocks all those philosopher queers up in Athens, and you just can't help but think he doth protest too much. Afterall, it's well known that the Spartans were the greatest pederasts of them all. And so, our hero Leonidas comes across like the butch top trying desperately to avoid becoming engulfed by the femme bottom -- ever seen those MySpace pages looking for a straight-acting gay guy? This is what they're talking about: I just sleep with dudes, run around half-naked, wrestle and fight, but I'm not gay. Yeah right. But is this homophobia? Is it pandering to the straight audience? What exactly is going on? And if it is homophobic, how again are we supposed to feel about those beautiful, glorious and romanticized abs? The film seems to hate us for loving them but want us to keep looking. Huh?
The question marks beget question marks, but ultimately, you just toss your hands up and realize the entire experience is just a great big exercise in futility -- like chasing after perfect tummy toning. A cursory search on Google turned up this quotation from Zach Snyder: "Some people have said to me, 'Your movie is homoerotic,' and some have said, 'Your movie's homophobic.' In my mind, the movie is neither." So much for the aueteur's vision and point-of-view. Like a mid-riff six pack, 300 doesn't really say anything other than the fact that a lot of time and money was expended. It's pretty much a great, big, puffed up, rounded, toned, erotic, nothing.
Getting Reel is a biweekly commentary about movies and the world.