May 13, 2012

Revisting Conan the Barbarian

Commenting on my post back in January in which I gave mixed reviews, along explicitly Aristotelian lines (derived from the Poetics), to the recent remake of the classic (1982) version of Conan the Barbarian, James Brown brought up several very interesting points, which I'd pledged to follow up on:

conan barbarian film movie aristotle poetics plot character scene style thought ethos dianoia mythos music tempo dialogue philosophy aestheticsI think of cinema as being primarily of a kind with the visual arts like painting, not with drama. It is, at base, moving pictures more so than filmed drama. We’re smack dab in the middle of imagery and representation where color and optical illusions sway the spectator the way eloquence and rhetoric sway the listener. . . . John Milius accomplishes what a film-maker tries to do – that is, he is able to draw the spectator into the world of images he created. Once we’re there into that world, we are then in a position to reflect upon the themes that undergird the movie, as you point out.

He goes on to explore this distinction in a bit more detail, culling out its implications for several different movies:
There is something lumpy and knotty about the esthetics in movies like Conan (1982) – and to that, I might add Excalibur (Boorman) and Dragonslayer (M.Robbins). Perhaps it was the state of the art of special effects at the time – close enough to imitating reality, but sufficiently imperfect so that the representation depends in part on our own imagination doing the rest to make a whole, convincing picture. It depends on our own input, too, not just passively taking in images. We’re thus more easily brought into the make-believe process that happens when watching a movie. . . . .the problem of special FX & cinematic/synthetic imagery technology today is that it does too much for us and winds up anesthetizing the images in the movie
James is onto something very interesting, in my view, and I'm very glad that he brought this focus on the aspect of spectacle (opsis) -- an aspect of Aristotelian aesthetics which I'd somewhat downplayed in my earlier piece, in favor of analyzing in terms of the triad of character, plot, and thought, why the older movie worked so well and why the new one, despite considerable technical investment and decent acting, seems fated to simply miss the mark. He continues:
I agree with the points you said on the three requisites drawn from Aristotle’s Poetics. The plot & characters were quite well developed. As were the thought-out themes which sustain the former two. I would thus just want to make the point that before we get to the discursive aspect of the film wherein these three get fleshed out, there is an initial process whereby the world of representations works on us. These visual representations are masterfully done by Milius & company and make the movie so memorable. He (or they) transports us there, we hear the dialogues, the soliloquys and “da lamentations of da women”, and are left (at least in my case) with a lot more than just swordplay and special effects.
This seems dead-on to me, though I would also add that the earlier version of the film also excels in another key element or dimension of mimetic production -- music or soundtrack (melos) -- which equally supports, and arguably precedes, prepares the reception for plot, character, and thought.  James' mention of the discourses also reminds me of a telling and parallel divergence in delivery or diction (lexis) between old and new.  I'll delve into these in more detail shortly, but first, a last key point James makes:
[T]he big difference between Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer, aside from the fact that the latter simply sucked, was that the former painted a self-sufficient world. In terms of its place – the topos (or topia?) – it was u-topia, a nowhere – that plays up on its verisimilitude. It could have taken place…somewhere…a long time ago. Conan the Destroyer, on the other hand, took place on a Hollywood set. That was obvious.
As I reread these passages, I'm reminded once again of the similar contrast between what to me has become the "classic" version of another film (or rather two films -- there's a whole story there), and a newer, remade, flattened, dulled version -- The Three/Four Musketeers, which I'd brought up by way of comparison in my previous post.  The same differences in development and deployment of spectacle, music, and language mark that 1970s version -- and give the world of those Musketeers a solidity, the sort of deep "verisimilitude" and "self-sufficiency" James rightly noted about Conan The Barbarian -- and the two other fantasy movies he mentions, Dragonslayer  and Excalibur.
 

So, all of that said, what I'd like to do here in the rest of this post is four things.  First, I'd like to make a brief return foray into Aristotle's theory of dramatic production and criticism, specifically to those six basic elements or dimensions which he distinguishes and disentangles in the Poetics (some of these he also examines in portions of the Rhetoric , the Nichomachean and Eudemian Ethics, and even the Politics.)  Then, still looking at these matters in an Aristotelian way, I'd like to explore some the multiple purposes dramatic, mimetic, artistic production and consumption serves.  After that, James' own suggestions about the formation of an imagined world, standing in opposition to our own, deserve being followed out.  Then, all three movements can be braided and brought back together, to focus on something that particularly impressed itself upon me as I watched Conan the Barbarian again, the interplay between tempo, action, rest, silence, and speech.

In my blog post earlier this year, in presenting the main dimensions through which Aristotle conceptualizes what goes on in drama, how it works or fails, and the criteria for evaluating a dramtic piece, I confined myself to discussing the three elements which Aristotle himself seems to regard as most essential, those deepest at the heart of dramatic production and performance.  These are:


  • Plot, or Story (mythos) -- what is going on in the piece, the over-arching narrative which binds or bonds all of the loose ends, the sub-plots, the private stories and perspectives, into some sort of unity -- a sequence of connected and (at least partly) intelligible actions
  • Character -- or more properly, characterS, in the plural (ēthē -- the singular would be ēthos, not just the personalities of the dramatis personae, but their specifically moral characters, what kind of people they are or reveal themselves to be, down to their cores.
  •  Thought (dianoia) -- the views, the decisions, the reasonings and reflections of the characters, revealed in monologues, asides, speeches, dialogues, arguments, even taunts or jibes.
These are "what is depicted" or, more literally, "imitated," "reproduced" (ha de mimountai) through drama, and the three are, of course, profoundly intertwined. There's another, very important element necessarily involved with all three of these, for it concerns "how depiction takes place" (hōs de mimountai).
  • Diction or Delivery (lexis) -- the style, the distinctive way of speaking, the choice of words, even, I'd argue, when one speaks and when one is -- dumbly or eloquently -- silent.  
Then, there are two other elements, the media, the means of delivery, not just of words, but of world, of environment, appealing not just to the mind, but to the eye, the ear, perhaps even the other senses as well.  These are the "through what depiction takes on its form and life" (hois men. . . mimountai, you'll notice I'm translating a bit freely, but for a reason).
  • Spectacle (opsis) -- what there is to be "seen," the look, along with all that synaesthetically accompanies that visual entanglement or offering, staging, arrangement, costume, scenery, and so on.
  • Music or Soundtrack (melopoiia, melos) -- Aristotle actually has in mind the songs sung or chanted by the chorus, but there is no reason not to extend this further than his explicit intent in the Poetics to encompass that very key dimension of film. 
Interestingly, in considering what must have been a debated topic in his own time, whether Epic or Tragic poetry, comprised not only in the poetry itself but in its performance, is better, more noble, a greater form of art, Aristotle comes down on the side of the dramatic performance, not least because, as he reasons, tragic poetry possesses and uses all the resources epic does -- the first four above -- but adds to them the last two, which increase the intensity of pleasure for the audience (perhaps even, we'd say as well, for those involved in its performance).

That provides a good point to transition to reflecting on the teleological structure of drama and film, in particular genres like fantasy, science fiction, action, noir -- which exhibit interesting correspondences with the mythological and legendary narratives supplying material for classic epic and tragedy (even some comedy). I ought to warn that in writing of "teleological structure" here, I'm intentionally introducing an ambiguity between several different levels of the dramatic production.  I'm also going to anachronistically shift language -- just for convenience's sake -- from this point on, no longer writing of "drama," but rather "film."

Teleology has to do with means and ends, orderings and evaluations, purposes and purposiveness, functions and activities. One -- or perhaps several -- levels of teleology are already involved or implicit within the film itself.  Characters have motivations and desires, some of which they stick to, others suppress successfully or not, others sacrifice to higher or lower ends, and yet others perseveringly see through to the end.  Certain of these will overlap, intersect with, or butt up against the trajectories mapped and followed out by other characters.  This is part of what makes the plots, characters, thoughts -- the determinate matrix from which the film unfolds -- not only intelligible but interesting.

At a higher level, where the film is not the story and spectacle into which the viewer is absorbed, where we can ask about what is going on in the film, but where the film itself can be an object of consideration, we can ask the questions:  What is the point, the purpose, the function of the film?  to be sure, we can ask this of its parts, its portions, its passages, its fractions, transitions, continuities and back-references -- What is this action sequence doing?  Why is this vignette in here? -- there is yet another level of teleological structure to the composition of wholes from parts.  But we can ask about the overarching whole, the film itself:  What is its purpose?  What is it for?  Asking and answering this is a necessary preliminary to making any useful judgements of value about film in general or about a film in particular -- and we always approach films with some answer in mind, even if one we unconsciously inherited, uncritically accepted, implicitly adopted.

So, what could the purposes or functions of film be?  One might come up with a number of answers subordinating the film as an artistic production to some perceived good external to it -- making the film into a mere means to an extrinsic end.  Films produced primarily for propaganda purposes would be of such a sort -- as would those engaged in merely to make money, or even those quickly cobbled out to fulfill some onerous contractual obligation.

What else?  What other reasons exhibit a more intrinsic connection with the content and form of the film?  Entertainment, providing pleasures perhaps mixed with or contrasted against pains of sorts, is certainly at the heart of all mimetic production.  But, why are films pleasant?  It's not simply because of what is depicted, in the sense of simple content which we enjoy.  Rather, it's through the sorts of devices made possible through the complexity of plot, the interplay of characters through action, conflict, dialogue, revelation of who one is and what one things, alterations in perspective, allegiance, in understanding and commitment -- a number of which devices Aristotle analyses in the Poetics, "reversals" altering the condition of characters, for instance, or "recognitions" of what was previously unrealized, ongoing revelations unfolding character, "sufferings" deserved or undeserved, sequences of actions playing themselves out, and "complications" referencing events exceeding the immediately exhibited environment of the film and folding it into a world of meaning.

Aristotle very famously states as the first sentence of his Metaphysics: "All human beings desire to know," and this central human drive, this desire to find out, to get to know, to understand, to assemble knowledge, plays a key role within the pleasure or lack of pleasure provided by films.  There are many kinds and modes of knowledge, and some are more satisfying, offer more traction, gripping points, texture and connection, for our minds as well as our senses.

There is another dictum which, if I failed to acknowledge at this point, some reader would no doubt indignantly point out.  In all this exploratory talk about the purpose of film, or dramatic production, however you want to call it, you are overlooking what Aristotle actually said, something we all know, if it is the only thing we know about his theory of drama.  The purpose of tragedy -- and Conan can be seen in a sense as a sort of tragedy -- is catharsis, the intensification, outflow, expression, and "cleansing" of the emotions of the audience

It is true that evocation of emotions is centrally important, and Aristotle does accord pride of place -- at least if the number of mentions is a reliable index -- to fear and pity, by which the catharsis of emotion takes place. He also brings up another emotion for the audience is to be made to feel, philanthropia, "fellow-feeling," or perhaps partial identification or empathy with certain characters, sensing the relative justice and intensity of their own emotions, motives, responses.  Anger is another emotion -- one intimately, even dangerously connected with a sense of justice or injustice in Aristotle's other works -- which he mentions specifically and provides counsel about in the Poetics.

The emotions are evoked and engaged in film -- and this can be done in simple, even simplistic ways, using well-worked-out old standby devices that can be confined to a single episode, and which might rely solely on action or spectacle or music -- but if the aim to to really involve the spectator capable of deeper, finer, more complex feelings, emotions and sentiments have to be associated in complex ways with the other more cognitive elements or dimensions -- and spectacle and music must intersect with, find their fuller significance in dialectical relationship with these other dimensions of plot, character, and thought, providing a simultaneously stark and rich sensory situatedness within -- and by which -- plot, character, thought play out.  They must afford them grandeur, space, even what we might call leisure, so that emotion, action, thought, and structure can congeal into a greater unity.  In great films, a kind of of non-didactic education is produced or better yet provoked, stimulating the play of desire in the audience, so that they ask all sorts of questions, with their eyes and ears and minds . . . and then what happened?  Why did he do this?  What did he choose between?  How did he respond to that?  What did he learn? What was the result?  Did he give in or fall victim? Did he win? 
 

With certain types of films, this age-old process works out best, most fully, when the function of alternate-world-generation James stresses occurs to the extent needed.  That is one thing required to move a film from the merely entertaining to one involving a deeper, more lasting sort of pleasure -- the difference not only between the earlier Conan The Barbarian and the recent remake, but also between Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer.  The staging and special effects, conditioned by the technological and cinematographic limitations of the times, turned out to provide a combination of precisely what was needed, and just enough of a lack, as James noted:

. . . close enough to imitating reality, but sufficiently imperfect so that the representation depends in part on our own imagination doing the rest to make a whole, convincing picture.
He's right, what's wanted is not the sort of wizardry that permits pure passivity, that fails to call for an effort of imagination.  That's a condition for producing the part-world of the story, of the classic narrative, where a mythos can truly unroll, even grow.

I'm willing to grant James' point that before the more cognitively articulated elements of film can gain their hold upon us, spectacle has to transport us into that alternate imaginary realm -- but in the case of this film, I think that music rides flank to flank with spectacle from the start.  And, I think the starkness, the spareness, the "lumpiness" of the visual aesthetic is actually mirrored in another key element which so far I've only mentioned -- lexis, the style, the diction, the way things are said in the movie, the modes in which thought, character, even moment of plot are expressed, particularly if we're willing to make an interpretative leap and unbind lexis from being confined to solely the articulation of language and extend it analogously to the articulation of action, of expression, and of silence as well as speech.

I don't want to stretch it so far that it covers everything.  Music has its own distinctively different and equally resonant effects and structure.  So does spectacle -- for instance the distinctively "knotty" and often spare scenery about which James writes.  I do want to suggest, though, that the seriousness of the "self-sufficient world" conveyed or connoted by the film is in equally significant part a function of this lexis of deed and glance, of stance and gesture -- and that one prime characteristic of that lexis, not only on Conan's part, but on the part of a number of the other important characters, is a deliberateness, a willingness to scrutinize before talking.

There's a clear and prudent directorial choice not to fill what risks being empty time with words so that other modes of meaning, not only visual or musical but cognitive, desirous, intentional, emotional can emerge through silence -- particularly through the expressive, attentive silent moments of Conan himself.  Similarly, the battle scenes might seem choreographically parsimonious, but when there's so few of them, each thrust, each parry, each slice, each maneuver for ground, each time an opponent sizes up another, it means something.  Nothing gets lost in those older struggles. . . as, I must admit, even my attention does with the technical and technological virtuosity of the interminable, innovative, interchangeable and thus entirely boring fight scenes characteristic of today's movies.

Aristotle had insisted characters -- at least for tragedy and epic -- had to be great, not only in some moral sense, but in the sense of possessing and exhibiting the nobility able to provide the depth required for significant and gripping pathos on the part of an appreciative audience. That is present in Conan, a movie in which, among others, the question of "what is best in life?" is asked and answered, and by some characters even debated and reconsidered, a film not just about conflict and revenge, but about deliberation, sacrifice and even the value and nature of love and its counterfeits.