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An expectation has arisen among film-critics and audiences, that movie-makers will deal with the serious issues, such as racism and violence, at a serious level. In other words, it is expected by critics and film-goers alike that films will have meaning. However, if meaning is expected — what precisely creates and communicates meaning in a film? As Louis Giannetti points out in his book, Understanding Movies (2008), the presence of ideology in a film impacts the film in its entirety, from tone to theme.
In Giannetti’s estimation, “ideology is another language system in film” and this language is largely conveyed through “code” (Giannetti, 453). In order to help illustrate the way that ideology influences films, Giannetti offers a series of categories into which the influence of ideology in film can be functionally divided. The following discussion of the film 300 (2007) will use Giannetti’s ideas as a support-structure to show how meaning in film is ultimately determined by the film’s prevailing ideology.
In any discussion of meaning in film, it will be important to distinguish between what might be considered “overt” or even propagandistic meaning and thematic or expressive meaning.
Of course this distinction is quite artificial and the two hypothetically divided types of meaning are often one and the same. That said, there is often a conspicuous difference between a film which has an explicit propagandistic agenda than a film which is based on generating thematic and emotional subtlety. The movie 300 offers, even to the most casual viewer, an example of what Giannetti calls “Explicit” ideology (Giannetti, 449).
In this category of ideological content, a movie serves, at least partially, as obvious propaganda for a viewpoint or cause. That 300 functions as a form of propaganda is easily arguable. However, it is slightly more difficult to pinpoint exactly what specific cause or theme is being forwarded by the film’s ideology. In order to determine the film’s ideological bearing, closer attention must be paid to its content and its artistic tone. Giannetti mentions that tone in a film can be one of the most important aspects of presenting the film’s ideology.
What Giannetti means by tone is “its manner of presentation” (Giannetti, 489). For example, in the movie 300, any number of important scenes, if played with a “comic” rather than a “heroic” tone, would create a different response in the viewer and therfore communicate a different ideological vision. Imagine the scene where Leonidas kicks the Persian messenger down the well: if the well had sounded out a loud burp after swallowing the messenger, the tone of the scene would have mocked the idea of Spartan pride and Spartan loyalty rather than celebrating it.
The reason that tone is so important in a film is that it defines the way the audience will evaluate and judge the characters and scenes of a film. Because as Giannetti insists, “Tone can strongly affect our responses to a given set of values” (Giannetti, 489), tone is closely connected to ideology and theme. In the example given above, Leonidas kicks the Persian messenger down the well and this scene is presented in a heroic tone. From the outset of the film, the viewer is cued-in to understand that the Spartans are heroic and that they operate from a sense of pride and fearlessness.
The tone of heroicism is conveyed not only through the action of the scene, but through the stylized representation of the characters as muscle-bound heros. The Mise-en-scene of the film is connected to the visual color-schemes of comic books and graphic novels. The sense of legend permeates the film, as it permeates the actual historical event. Therefore, the most dominant or controlling tone of 300 can be considered “heroic. ” The fact that a movie has a controlling tone does not mean that other types of tones are not present in isolated scenes.
In fact, the opposite is generally the case. The shifts against the dominant tone also help to convey meaning and ideology in a film. If the controlling tone of 300 is heroic, then the scenes that play against this dominant tone, such as the scene where Theron rapes Queen Gorgo, serve to reinforce the film’s dominant tone and ideology. When Theron tells the Queen she will not enjoy what is going to happen to her, the tone of the scene is tragic rather than heroic, and Theron’s status as a villain is cemented in the audience’s minds.
The scene, by depicting graphically, the rape of Sparta’s Queen reinforces the heroic sacrifice of Leonidas and his men. Another aspect of films that influences ideological language is the cultural context in which a given film is made and shown. Cultural context is a crucial aspect of a film’s ideological meaning. The expectations of a given audience rest on the fact that “Every nation has a characteristic way of looking at life, a set of values that is typical of a given culture” (Giannetti, 465). The movie 300 is an American movie made for American audiences. ecause of this it would be hard for anyone to miss the obvious connections between contemporary world-events and the ideological themes that are shown in the movie. Comparisons with recent events are more or less easy. Any observer could see the present-day war against terrorism as a stand for freedom and to view the Battle of Thermopylae as a sort of allegory for the modern-day struggle against tyranny. Obviously, the movie 300 forwards this connection through the kind of “code” that Giannetti describes.
Still, as Dennis Behreandt points out in his review of the film from The New American (2007) the movie “serves to buttress the American mythos that our present-day warriors are likewise fighting for freedom in Iraq” and also that this is most evident in the scene where ” Gorgo addresses the Gerousia, the Spartan Senate” when her speech could only remind any aware person of the “recent troop surge in Iraq” (Behreandt). This kind of cultural context would, obviously, be of less significance to someone who lived out side of the U. S. han to someone steeped in to American values. In addition to the cultural context of a film, there is usually a predominant political context. The political context of a film, for Giannetti, can loosely be divided into one of two categories: left and right. Left-leaning films are those that show multiple viewpoints to issues and propose more flexible responses to issues and problems. Giannetti describes leftists as people who “believe we ought to be flexible in our judgments. ” By contrast, right-leaning film-makers are those who embrace a more stringent world-view.
The rightist film-maker is “more absolute in judging human behavior [… ] Right and wrong are fairly clear-cut and ought to be evaluated according to a strict code of conduct” (Giannetti, 457). In the case of 300, the designation of “Rightest” is, obviously, the most fitting for the film due to its tone and cultural perspective. Loosely, according to the discussion above, the following observations about 300 can be made in light of Giannetti’s criteria for evaluating the ideological underpinnings of films.
First, that 300 is a film that relies predominantly on a heroic tone. Second, the film 300 depends on the specific cultural associations of American society to find its full ideological impact. Third, that 300 represents a “Rightest” political ideology. The three conclusions, taken together, along with the initial determination that 300 is an “explicit” communicator if ideology, beg the question as to whether or not 300 is more a vehicle for entertainment or propaganda.
One of the opposing aspects to this idea is the fact that 300 is based on history. The idea that historical realism balances out the “poetic licesne” often taken by Hollywood regarding tone and presentation is one that, for better or worse, many film-goers probably believe. In addition to the idea that a culture could exert such self-discipline in its military caste and instill within each soldier a sense of bravery and fearlessness was a very powerful concept in 300 , which seems to resonate deeply with modern times.
It is hard not to be fascinated by the Spartans, to wonder what made them as strong and resolute a they were and to wonder just as Xerxes “”What kind of men were these Spartans who in three days had slain before his Majesty’s eyes no fewer than twenty thousand of His most valiant warriors? ” (Pressfield, 8). However, the fact shades of realism exist within the largely stylized or expressionistic “flavor” of the film only serves to elevate its power to transmit equally stylized (or stereotyped) ideologies.
For example, the difference between vanity and pride seemed to have a great deal of influence on the Spartan conception of bravery as it was portrayed in the movie 300. Modern-day leaders would never think of putting themselves in direct danger like King Leonidas: his pride rather than his vanity dictated his actions and pride stems from a sense of civic (or national) unity. Loyalty is another important concept in the movie. It becomes the central most important idea, given that Spartan military power evolved out of the phalanx, which required the utmost loyalty and steadfastness of each warrior in the unit as a whole.
The idea that “a Greek traitor showed the Persians another path, which enabled them to come round behind and encircle the Greeks” and that this ultimately led to the wholesale destruction of the Spartans at Thermopylae shows how important loyalty was to the Spartans. After Leonidas is killed ” his men fought on with redoubled fury under the Persian arrows, as much to defend the fallen body of their King from the savagery of the barbarians as to show their valor” (“THE GREATEST WARRIORS”).
The historical basis of the film is incorporated into the larger and more important “myth” of the movie that is conveyed in heroic tones that simplify historical subtleties and create a fictional paradigm of idealism. Therefore, the fact that realism in films can be construed into a propagandistic function, is the reality that filmmakers, and especially American filmmakers, are subject to the prejudices and “blind-spots” which are inherent to the social position they occupy and to which they owe their ability to make high-profile films.
Elizabeth G. Traube’s Dreaming Identities: Class, Gender, and Generation in 1980s (1992) offers background to the mores and machinations of the filmmaking industry in America and her observations are important for understanding that movies are, in fact, propagandistic and often they represent the experience of only a very small segment of American society. This narrowness is obscured, according to Traube, beneath a veneer which can be thought of as a traditional moralistic package.
Traube points out that, in reality, “audience preferences are only one of many factors that influence production decisions. Producers also shape their work to conform to dominant sensibilities and values, including those of the producing community itself” (Traube, 69). This reality combined with Traube’s complex but insightful understanding of “fairy-tale” motifs in movies is crucial to elucidating the way that anger and racial conflict are expressed propagandistically in film.
All fables rely on a straightforward, linear narrative due to the fact that complex stories tend to obscure the thrust of the intended moral. Because the author of any fable is able to transform “topical news and politics into universal predicaments” (“Haggis’s Fable” 38), a fable carries with it the dangerous connotations of stereotype and oversimplification. The movie 300 stands as an heroic statement about the importance of protecting liberty and freedom.
The ideological message that bravery and loyalty are essential aspects of preserving freedom and rather than Sparta, now “it is America that faces the threat from Persia” and by telling this story so forcefully and with so much passion the film embrace the “mythos of the battle rather than the historical truth of the era,” which is strongly conveyed in the film. (Behreandt). The ideological underpinnings of the movie 300 are based in a rightist, conservative set of political values that celebrate military capacity and force of strength. he films’ ideological message is one of social and civic duty as well as xenophobia.
The film is geared toward an American audience in a time when America faces military challenges on several fronts and as such plays to the expectations of its audience. The tone of the film is heroic and its political ideology is conservative. The most logical conclusion that can be drawn from these facts is that, as mentioned by Giannetti, the ideological language of the film emerges as the most important aspect of the film as a whole.
Further, the “code” that is used in the movie is comprised of historical truths and cultural stereotypes. The film blurs the line between entertainment and propaganda. It is accurate to suggest that the film, stripped of its propagandistic functions, would cease to exist. The unity of the film, in terms of narrative, editing, staging, costuming, scene construction and even music is derived more from a unity of ideology than from a unity of style or form.
The movie follows a traditional fairy-tale arc of narrative to reinforce an already existing set of ideologies in its expected audience. Therefore, the best way in which to interpret the movie 300 is the method demonstrated by Giannetti that isolates and categorizes the ideological code of a film and makes the ideological language much more understandable for the average film-goer.
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