Dec 15, 2011

Conan the Barbarian, Mark II

Spoiler Alert -- tongue in cheek, because for reasons I will soon set out, what I'll inevitably reveal about the plot and events of the new Conan movie are unlikely to ruin anyone's movie-going or -watching experience.  But on the off-chance that someone hasn't yet seen the movie who has been hankering to do so, and would be shocked or disappointed to learn what occurs in the face of dangers braved by Conan and his compatriots. . . well, they'll want to stop reading here, or at the break just below.  Or, if of easily offended sensibilities about our times and the inferiority of their cinematic products, right about now.

For the new Conan remake suffers under many of the same defects that typically plague relatively recent epic action, adventure, and combat movies -- when they are remakes or retellings, for then the comparisons to previous incarnations become inescapable.  These are not defects of choreography, special effects, costume, staging, casting, even acting -- all of those tend towards greater and greater triumphs.  The deficiencies, the decline, appear on a less glitzy and more fundamental level of storytelling, for they concern the all-important elements of plot and character.

By way of comparison, consider another set of reprises of a classic story of swordsmanship, brawling, bravado, scores to settle, and intrigue: Alexander Dumas' The Three Musketeers.  I have to admit that by far my favorite film rendition of it is not anything close to one of the original adaptations (which date back to the silent era), but the version from the 1970s -- split into The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, bedecked with renowned actors and actresses who fit themselves so admirably into the skins of the characters they portrayed -- or perhaps better incarnated and inhabited -- that for me, not only will I always imagine D'Artagnan as Michael York, Oliver Reed as Athos, Faye Dunaway as Milady de Winter, those youthful and passionate characters haunt, like superimposed ghosts, those players no matter how age and role change them.

The 1970s version possessed notable strengths -- excellent, even bawdily playful, choreography for the duels, brawls, and battles, matched by cheeky humor, vigorous execution and advancement of the story, meticulous attention to period details -- to say nothing of a cast that placed Christopher Lee, Richard Chamberlain, and Charlton into roles well-suited for each of them.  The 1993 version brought in new blood, with plenty of star power, but perhaps not the same level of performance.  The dueling was of course competent, incorporating a greater and wider martial arts expertise available by that time.  Production, when you compare movies of the 70s with those of the 90s, is of course significantly better -- as are special effects.  It might seem as if the more recent version built upon areas of strength of the excellent earlier version. So it ought to have been -- as are all things more modern, no? -- yet more excellent than its predecessor.

Unfortunately, watching the new version was a very disappointing experience -- and not only for myself, as the Tribune and Times reviews indicate -- and for good reason.  The fundamental mistake was not in casting, or in choice of director, but in the over-simplification of the classic plot, which then unavoidably removed needed depth from the characters.  I don't know whether Kiefer Sutherland could have matched the sheer darkness, the grim resolution, the languorous drive of Oliver Reed's Athos, or whether Rebecca de Mornay as de Winter, confronting her former husband, could shift so easily from coquettish and imperiousness to the sheer terror Dunaway unmasked in that moment -- I suspect, actually, that those two younger actors were up to such personification -- but they were never given the chance.  Any potential for genuinely excellent acting on their parts was written out of the simplified story, for acting requires roles commensurate to the talent in order for the talent to emerge from latency to light.

I could go on a length about the vital and fateful differences between the earlier and later versions, but I'll just emphasize one particular point of reference:  Death -- not just deaths of stock villain, henchman, or opponent figures (to call such essentially faceless recipients of heroes' cuts, kicks, and thrusts "characters" is to stretch that term a bit far) -- but of significant people on the hero or heroes' side, as well as of key antagonists. For a period or fantasy movie involving deadly conflict, such deaths are not only integral to the plot, they also tie the characters together, allow them to unfold their inwardness in revenge, grief, exultation.

Aristotle knew and wrote about this more generally.  What are the most important elements of drama and narrative in his Poetics?  It is not spectacle (opsis), an area in which recent directors and producers, even writers, display ever-improving sophistication.  Nor is it melody or music (melos), nor even delivery, style, language, or diction (lexis) -- though there we are getting closer to the heart of things. Instead, the emphasis must fall -- for these indeed do assume determinative density and richness distinguishing higher-quality artistic productions -- upon three other elements:  thought (dianoia), character (ethos), and plot or story (muthos).  Without some modicum of excellence in these, the best one might hope for would be a rather superficial, though entertaining production.

And that, unfortunately, is what the recent, admittedly spectacular, exciting, action-packed, well-produced, but ultimately unsatisfying Conan the Barbarian becomes, particularly when one has the previous version from the 1980s still in the back of one's mind.  I have to admit here that not only did I so greatly enjoy and indulge in the earlier movie, casting Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Cimmerian, I was a youthful and avid reader of as many of the Conan books as I could get my hands upon.  No doubt, in many literary circles, these admissions -- and my taking such fantasy literature and films seriously as artistic productions (which in fact, I do) -- would place me permanently beyond the pale.  But there it is.

Fortunately, the points of comparison between the new and the old Conan films are not as far removed as for the Musketeers movies.  The new film rings true in a certain kind of faithfulness to the fantasy world imagined in considerable detail by Howard in his pulp novels.  And, in fact, the early origin story portion of the new film does rival the older one, even surpassing it in a few respects, at a few points.  The new central villain, Khalar Zym, possesses and exhibits an empire-building vision rivaling that of Thulsa Doom, and manages to surpass his own ethnic beginnings to assemble a motley host whose diversity of warriors would give even the historical Persians pause.  Though the fighting styles differ considerably, they are equally cinematically bloody and harrowing, and the great Kraken-Hydra-like monster the new Conan tangles with is considerably more deadly-seeming than the mammoth snake the earlier Conan slays after scaling the tower.

As an actor, playing the Barbarian's role, Jason Momoa leaves nothing to be desired -- he's appropriately massive and yet agile, rugged yet expressive, unencumbered by the accent under which Schwarzenegger labored.  He can transform his visage and voice to project passions not only of rage and revenge, opportunism and opposition, confusion and challenge, but also playfulness, the genuine warmth of companionship.  Add to this Ron Perelman's performance as Conan's father, in a much more extended  role than in the original movie, and Rose McGowan as the suitably decadent and deadly, repulsive and attractive Marique, just for starters, and there was certainly enough acting ability on the dock to render this version as epic a film as the earlier Conan turned out to be.

In order to grasp what went lacking in the revisioning -- how it becomes a film only loosely replicating the original, one has to contrast the two in terms of those three essential Aristotelian elements of dramatic narrative:  plot, character, thought.  These interconnect and support each other -- weaken one of them, by making a substitution which on a surface level appears more appealing, and you, perhaps imperceptibly at first, but inevitably in the end, weaken the other two as well.

Consider one aspect of thought, expressed clearly in words, reimpressed and forged anew, made into a fulcrum of contention and motive:  the riddle of steel.  In the first movie, the young Conan learns this in some dim, inchoate, yet unexpressed sense from his father, the Cimmerian blacksmith.  It is Conan's great antagonist, Thulsa Doom, played by James Earl Jones, whose warriors destroy Conan's village, kill his parents, enslave the young man -- it is Thulsa Doom who first seeks the riddle of steel, and then finds and articulates an answer, one which after sharing with a newly captive Conan he leaves him to ponder, crucified on the Tree of Woe.

It is not only this secret, but also Conan's relentless but surprisingly crafty pursuit of retribution against Doom, which binds their two lives more and more closely together.  In fact, shifting perspective to the warlord and them cult leader's point of view, one might characterize the narrative as a gradual recognition and realization by Thulsa Doom of Conan's unique and indomitable nature and status -- ultimately proffering to him an argument that he is more Conan's father, forger, and former than anyone else could possibly claim to be, an almost hypnotically alluring appeal which Conan barely breaks through, taking his revenge at last, decapitating Doom.

The characters of Conan and Thulsa Doom though all of this attain a kind of depth and complexity that simply cannot be developed in the new movie -- even through the device of a much more extended, deliberate, interactive scene in which the new central villain, Khalar Zym, humbles and imposes a grim death on Conan's father, even forcing the son into the dillemmatic position of having to participate in his father's fatal scalding.  Zym also wastes the village in quest of something that will grant him ultimate power -- but not a secret, a riddle, a mysterious intelligibility, but rather an external object, a mask of great power which must be reassembled out of reunited sections.

Female leads and male companions figure on the side of the hero in both movies as well, but again with key differences, or better put, privations of possibility.  In the first film, Valeria, a thief and swordswoman, becomes Conan's only true lover, a peer to him.  After failing to convince him to give up the quest for revenge -- in his pursuit of which they met in the first place -- in favor of a long, glorious life with her, Valeria and his friend Subotai rescue the fatally wounded Conan from the Tree of Woe, bring him to a wizard, and brave the consequences of bringing him back to life.  Valeria will herself die in Conan's arms, poisoned by an arrow-strike, shot by Doom himself, when they invade his fortress to rescue a petulantly ungrateful princess.  When Conan revenges himself, first staking out a last-ditch killing ground for Doom's soldiers, then taking the battle to the ruler himself, it is no longer for the loss of his parents and childhood but for being robbed of his chance for genuine happiness.  Nothing like this in the new film.

Those are the sorts of matters great stories and characters -- even if pulp-fiction swords and sorcery fantasy ones -- are made of.  A few faint glimmers of these shine at moments of the new film, but only that.  In these remakes of classic action-adventure films which were earlier done admirably well, there often seems on the part of those responsible for the new product a kind of tin ear, a tone-deafness, a eye that can see, a mind that glimpses only superficial possibilities, a deficit of sensibility.  I'm not sure why that is -- perhaps there's a misapprehension that since these are not psychological dramas they need no psychological depths?  Could it be that, since these are action movies in which the main characters are warriors, the emphasis necessarily falls upon the physical rather than the spiritual (and, for so many, would not even that last term jar, when discussing a films about swordsmen?), a kind of expectation lowered to mere (and admittedly good) entertainment?

I don't know why, but I do grasp -- thanks to Aristotle's own millennia-old clarities -- the causation: a decline in attending to and crafting plot, character, and thought.


  1. Yes, too much opsis and not enought muthos and dianoia and ethos. Bout' sums up Hollywood and TV as well, but there good exceptions in both. The recently new Star Trek was outstanding and I hope the sequel is just as good, but I guess we'll see.

  2. No doubt, in many literary circles, these admissions -- and my taking such fantasy literature and films seriously as artistic productions (which in fact, I do) -- would place me permanently beyond the pale.

    Such literary circles are not worth the time of day, in my mind. A work's worth should not be judged on the paper on which it's printed, or the genre in which it resides: it should be on the work's own merits. It's the height of pretention to me.

    Your discussion of the Aristotlean elements of the two films (or lack thereof) is interesting, but one important factor is the choice of those elements. The new film has a few elements of the original Howard stories, but also many from the 1982 film - many of those being utterly alien to the short stories the film was ostensibly based upon. The problem is that in attempting to bring more Howardian elements into the new film, it diluted and omitted the strong elements from the 1982 film. In the ill-advised urge to reconcile the icy-blue and white-hot themes of Howard with the burning red and fiery yellow symbolism of Milius, the 2011 film ended up being a bland, Milquetoast beige.

  3. Yes, there are some exceptions -- quite a lot of good writing out there, but unfortunately it seems like fantasy or classic swordplay narratives, which did get the sort of attention to craft previously, don't get it often enough today -- or really, since the 90s.

    Things can even founder in the middle of a series -- the newer Battlestar Galactica, which in my view started out very well, and surpassed the older series, took an intellectually easy way out in its resolution, a sign that writers had outstripped their intellectual, moral, and narrative resources.

  4. (first comment for Perkunas, second one for Taranaich)

    Well, as an academic, I do end up spending a lot of time in such circles, so I can't afford to write them off altogether -- and they often contribute something to my own thinking, so perhaps I ought not write them off either. But, point taken.

    Yes, the choice of Howardian characters and themes is important as well -- but I'm not sure I agree that the 1982 film contains much that is "utterly alien" to Howard's stories -- divergent from, sure, not found as such in his stories, granted, but incompatible or even inconsistent with them, I'm not sure -- though I remain open to being convinced (and reading through your own blog may in fact do that for me).

    I think that you're entirely right that in many ways, the new movie incorporates features decidedly more Howardeasque, but that it doesn't come off, and weakens what they attempted to adapt from the older movie. The fact of "Jason Momoa being closer to Howard's creation than Arnold could ever be," as you mention on The Blog that Time Forgot is one prime example, which could be multiplied manyfold.

  5. Hmmmm....I'm not quite following why you segregated thought, character, and plot from the other 4 essential elements of drama. In my mind, Aristotle meant for drama (if it is to be considered 'drama') to have ALL of the 7 elements. If one was lacking, then it was not drama but something else entirely. But then, I'm an actor not an academic. ;)

  6. Well, put quite simply, I didn't segregate thought, character, and plot from the other three elements of drama which Aristotle identified and analyzed in the Poetics.

    To distinguish elements is not to separate them, let alone to segregate or isolate them from each other -- rather, it is what comparative analysis of the merits or defects of two related pieces requires.

    What I was doing here in emphasizing plot, character, and thought was focusing on the weaker point of these newer revisitations of Conan (and the Three Musketeers) -- as far as the other elements, go, as I noted, they're quite good. The trouble is that no amount of attention to lexis will make up for less interesting dianoesis, no grand opsis can conceal the weaker muthos. . .

  7. I found your article real interesting. I don’t plan on seeing the newer Conan version, so what I’d like to do here is just add my two cents to your remarks above on character, plot & thought. I think of cinema as being primarily of a kind with the visual arts like painting, not with drama. It is, at base, moving pictures moreso 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. Plato wouldn’t have approved of motion pictures but I think Cicero, a patron of rhetoric, would have. Renaissance & classical painting took its cue from Cicero in its revolt against Platonism, and then one thing led to another, and another, until now where everyone is revolting against everyone else’s codes of beauty & esthetics, etc. etc…
    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. For my part, when I think of Conan, I think of the poor fellows in Old English poems like the Seafarer, the Wanderer for whom life was ruled by cruel fate (life is weird/wyrd). They’re all lonely figures in desolate worlds.
    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. (Am I treading on Percy Walker territory here? Its been a while, but something tells me...) Anywho, 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 (ex.: Avatar). Perhaps that’s why for simulating celestial clouds in the “Tree of Life”, Terrence Malick went back to the old way of mixing chemicals and filming the interaction of all that organic shit up close instead of having a digital version made on a computer screen. Plus, the novelty wears off quickly and can become annoying - I’ve already seen the slow-mo blood-spurting sword fight scenes in Gladiator. The new Conan, from the trailer I saw looks like “Last of the Mohicans” meets “300” meets “Conan”.
    One last thing, the 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.
    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.

  8. Excellent and though-provoking comment, Jim -- and sorry to be so slow to approve it (as you can tell, I've been much less active on OD over the last month and a half than I'd have liked). I'm not sure I'd go as far as to say film (or TV for that matter) is more like painting than drama, but it's worth more reflection -- and Aristotle perhaps does play up too strongly those three elements I mentioned, while downplaying the more visual spectacle, which you're right, sets the initial tone.

    I think, I'm going to respond more adequately to your comments in a new post in OD, starting off with your passage:

    There is something lumpy and knotty about the esthetics in movies like Conan (1982). . . 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.