Robert-E-Howard: Electronic Amateur Press Association BLOG

REVIEW: The Barbarians and the Critics: A Review of Marcus Nispel’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN

The Barbarians and the Critics:
A Review of Marcus Nispel’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN

by Frank Coffman
Professor of English and Journalism, Rock Valley College, Rockford, IL
Member: REHupa

I’ll begin by noting that this review is a bit different from most reviews in that it both gets into some technical cinematic jargon and also does some critiquing of the critics—at least in general—who have thus far commented on the film. I’ll begin by saying that my final estimation of the movie is quite positive with very few reservations.

First of all, to the raft of “critics” who have given us clichéd reactions like “two hours of my life wasted,” or “I wanted to leave the theater, but I had to stay since I’d promised a review,” or “gratuitous violence and sex,” for the former comments, my response is “strive for something original” and “if you don’t like your job, quit.” For the latter response, I’d like to ask what they expected to view at an action-adventure, heroic epic fantasy, Sword & Sorcery, R-rated flick?! Would these reviewers go to The Sound of Music expecting NOT to hear people singing? Would they see a Sherlock Holmes film and be surprised to find a classical detective story going on? Would they go to a Michael Moore documentary and expect NOT to see a fat-ass ultra-liberal ambush-interviewing people against whom he has an agenda, completely ignoring the journalistic principles of balance and fairness [this last example is optional for your consideration, depending upon your political slant]? You get my point, I’m sure. If you don’t know the genre of the book you’re about to read or the film you’re about to watch, do your homework first—worse still, if you already have an antipathy for the type of film you’re reviewing, then it’s only fair to announce yourself to the reader as a card-holding member of the opposition.

Second, to the gaggle of critics—unfortunately the majority, I’m afraid—who are members of the “high brow” intelligentsia, the self-righteous many who think all films “suck” [although most of them would not use that word] which are not fraught with deep significance, which don’t have any great message to convey, who believe that Entertainment should, if necessary, always be sacrificed on the altar of Enlightenment, you need to go back over the history of storytelling and discover what Story is supposed to be about: Entertainment is paramount, Enlightenment is optional. These folks are also likely “Realists” who, of course, believe in “Realism.” Strangely, they also think of themselves as “post-Modernists” who have decided that there is no such thing as true Meaning in language or in any Art. They have “deconstructed” themselves into their own strange realm. They have a clever lever (fabricated by de Saussure and Derrida), but they’ve left themselves no real place to stand—and Archimedes saw long ago that moving the Earth wasn’t possible without both.

Oh well, on to the film Conan the Barbarian by director Marcus Nispel. Right from the start and sustained throughout, as befits the genre, the film is highly Formalistic. It is a “director’s film” in every sense [although knowing—as some critics don’t—that the producers had a great deal of input and some power of insistence re: inclusions and exclusions or essences of character]. By this I mean that it is not, nor should it be, an attempt at realism or objective reality. It’s a fantasy world populated by fantasy characters, so a highly subjective director’s vision in script modifications, in storyboarding, in filming, and in editing prevails and should prevail. And Nispel also decidedly belongs in the Formalist School of directors, clearly demonstrating great influences from the Russian Formalists, championed in the art of film by Sergei Eisenstein and making use of “Montage Theory.” There are many transitions and “cuts” of various types in the film—all of them working according to Nispel’s vision of how the action should be portrayed.

Technically, the film uses an impressive, and I believe generally appropriate, variety of shots and camera angles. There are long shots, full shots, medium shots, close-ups, over-the-shoulder shots, crane shots, aerials, dolly shots, pans, tilts, high and low angles, etc. All of these are aptly and interestingly used, showing the virtuosity of storyboarding, filming, and directing. There are several extra long shots, not all for “establishing shots,” but many to emphasize the epic scope of the film—and this story of Conan IS an epic where none of the Howard stories actually fits that pattern. Again, folks, the film is nowhere near (nor did it ever pretend to be) a “literal” or even a “close” adaptation of a Robert E. Howard story. It is a “loose” adaptation, based upon characters created by Howard. Any reviewer “in the know” should not have expected a literal adaptation or story line.

I was most impressed by the use of 3D for “soft focus” shots—where the background is blurred in order to make the subject image “pop.” The “Law” in 3D photography (in which area I have some knowledge, having been involved in stereography for many years) is to use small-aperture “f-stops” in order to get clarity from near foreground through distant background (a great “Depth of Field”—think Ansel Adams). The idea is to have total clarity at the different distance planes (something, by the way, which the human eye can’t really achieve). But Nispel uses the “soft focus” with some interesting over-the-shoulder 2-shots where foreground character is blurred and the more distant person in focus, and one scene where Mamoa is speaking with Nichols in which, quite interestingly, we see his close-up profile in clarity with her slightly blurred in the background. This worked well.

What has been a bit off-putting for some “official” reviewers and other less formal commentators on the Howard and Conan discussion groups is Nispel’s use of many and frequent cuts and quick transitions. This is solidly in keeping with formalist montage theory pioneered by Eisenstein and others in the 1920s and 30s. Eisenstein even developed a classification scheme for the montage. Nispel uses both Metric Montage and Rhythmic Montage: the former being arbitrary cutting based upon simple time sequence, a cut every second or two, for example; the latter—and the technique used more frequently in this film—being also quick, but not arbitrary and based upon the content of the shot that the director wishes to emphasize and the time that takes to be seen clearly, if perhaps even a bit subliminally. In the close-fighting sequences, most prominently, we see bits of the action from a multiplicity of angles and a blend of close-up, extreme close-up, full shots, and medium shots. This helps to emphasize the fury and ferocity and quickness of the action.

The film demonstrates scenes in both “open” and “closed” form as far as mise én scene is concerned. Some shots are “framed” by scenery, by characters, by actual frames like doorways or structures. In other scenes we have the definite sense of openness and the perception that there is plenty of territory outside the frame of the screen.
The film uses CGI of course and some backgrounds that would be far beyond cost prohibivity [<my coinage, take it or leave it]. There is an opening illustrated sequence and, of course, the two voice-overs by Morgan Freeman that are used to establish the bases of the plot.

And speaking of PLOT or story line, some reviewers and commentators—including some from “within” the Howard enthusiast and expert communities have pronounce loudly about a “lack of plot” or, at best, a “weak plot” in this film. I’m not sure where these folks get their definition of Plot, but the classical paradigm is that a good story is based upon CONFLICT (and that we have in abundance: man vs. man, man vs. society, man vs. self) that rises up through COMPLICATION to a CRISIS and thence a CONCLUSION. Actually, in this story, we have a splendid convergence of three plots: 1) Revenge—every bit as bitter and actual as that in Hamlet (“a father murdered” [and decidedly not as inhibited as in the story of Denmark’s prince]), 2) Quest—very much like a quest in another fantasy epic that is well-respected in which an evil object needs to be “unmade,” and 3) Rescue of the endangered damsel. The convergence of these plots is by no means contrived; they meld nicely in that the revenge can be and is accomplished in conjunction with the quest in which the endangered damsel is a necessary element. The mantra in Hollywood for several years now (Lucas’ Star Wars series is written and based directly upon the theory) has been The Hero’s Journey. This theory stems from the pioneering work of theorists and mythologists and folklorists such as Lord Raglan with his famous “22 points” and Joseph Campbell who maintained that there is a central and archetypal story that is innate within us: The Monomyth (see Raglan’s The Hero and Campbell’s Hero With 1000 Faces). Included in this sort of story, that is, indeed, the ever-repeated tale of all cultures and times, are elements such as: departure and return (There and Back Again—sound familiar?), helper(s) on the quest (for those who have curiously found fault with Conan’s ending up with a “sidekick” or two), and reward of some sort, often the princess’ hand (which Conan refuses, of course, instead riding off into the sunset and back to his father’s gravesite). Far from being a weak plot or a convoluted plot, these three plot lines converge with clarity from the get-go. They are another example of the archetypal master-plot within us all.

As far as editing continuity, the film works in following the story lines, the epic sweep of the transitions from place to place and the broad setting are befitting of the epic genre. The word adventure itself has travel and motion built right into it. The “-ven-“ infix is the same morpheme (unit of meaning) as we find in Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici,” or, for that matter, in the English words “wend” or “went” (old and parallel forms of “to go” [ever wonder why the past tense of go was went?]. So travel and movement are integral to adventure. We also have some static scenes with fixed and focused and narrower scope—even to a close-up sequence of love-making.

And for those reviewers who have argued that “Barbarians don’t ‘love’ or ‘Love’” — well, these folks have bought too solidly into the fabled—and erroneous—“Dark Barbarian” mantra which has attached itself to too much Conan and Howard criticism. Conan—both the Conan of this film AND the Conan of Howard’s literature—is NOT the ultimately “Dark” barbarian—benighted in ignorance, dull in intellect, violent indiscriminately, incapable of emotion. In other words, Conan is not a sociopath or a psychopath. The Cimmerians were capable of familial love, the love that can be part of friendship, love of country or clan or place—as well as physical love. They could feel the pain of loss: as in the deaths of Conan’s mother and father. They would not be recognizably Human if they did not, and in no way could they be heroic. There is a poignancy in the early scenes of Conan’s birth and in the death of his father.

George Macdonald pronounced upon this in his important essay, “The Fantastic Imagination.” Fantasy MUST convey things that seem physically and materially unbelievable in order to be fantasy in the first place and to present the supernatural, but in terms of morality, it MUST NOT pervert the nature of good or evil, right or wrong. In every Conan tale, and in this film, Conan is The Bright Barbarian, shining above the ultimately dark—or at least much darker—foil character barbarians. Compared to the characters portrayed by Stephen Lang and Rose McGowan, Conan is civilized. He hates slavery and fights against it, he frees the oppressed [albeit tangentially], he gets his revenge against those who have slain for ignoble purposes, he saves the endangered heroine. And the Conan of Howard’s stories is the same Bright Barbarian—always with villainous foils who show what true and darker barbarity is all about.

On the other hand, the Conan—both the boy and the man, portrayed excellently and accurately in this film by Leo Howard (young Conan) and Jason Momoa (the focus character), are much closer than the Conan of the previous movies and decidedly closer to the Conan of Howard’s imagining. This characer (young and adult) IS barbaric and violent enough to fulfill the expectations about the literary character when need be. He not only cuts off a nose, he spites the face. He collects heads to prove his youthful valor and skill. He cleaves, stabs, and chops his way through oodles of foes (the number of the slain would be very hard to count). He displays some grim humor. He proves again and again to be “the baddest SOB in the Valley.”

As far as casting and acting go, what does the viewer or critic want? Perlman stood tall (pun intended), Stephen Lang and Rose McGowan were spot-on as far as portrayal—with McGowan making me yearn for her character’s gory and painful demise early on and highly gratified when it occurs, Rachel Nichols is a true beauty and a fine, promising actress, and Mamoa should continue to be Conan in what I hope are more close, if not literal adaptations of Howard stories in future films. He is much closer to the Conan in my mind’s eye than the oafish, lumbering, sword-posing “Ahnold.” Morgan Freeman voice overs! Several of the supporting characters came off very well, especially impressive is a great performance by young Leo Howard as the young Conan, by Milton Welsh as the minion of evil who “gets the chair,” Bob Sapp as the sidekick Ukafa, and Steven O’Donnell as Lucius the monk. The casting and acting were successes. The set designs and costuming were appropriate and the former varied enough to help show the panoply of Hyborian Age places. We had a script that allowed us to see Conan as warrior, avenger, sort-of-pirate, monster-slayer, sorcerer-conqueror, and lover—covering many of his aspects seen in Howard’s stories.

And that’s what this film is primarily meant to do: convey to a new generation, the uninitiated of any age, and a definite new “target audience” (sort of like “ideal readership” in literature) an introduction and overview to the marvelous character Conan the Barbarian and his world. I think it succeeds at that. If anything, the film, perhaps, attempts to show too much of Conan’s world in one sweep, but better more than not enough. I think a thematic musical score could have been much better done—something distinctive and more frequently repeated and something that might serve in sequels (as the theme music does successfully with the Star Wars series or with Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings) But if this film brings new readers to “pure Howard” and the literature that inspired the film, it will have succeeded. I believe it will succeed in that way also.

And there is an interesting variety of homages in the film also—enough to make the viewer, at least on subsequent viewing perhaps, find a new level of enjoyment. In addition to the often-incorporated “Odessa Steps” sequence [1], [2] (Eisenstein [The Battleship Potemkin]), there are clear nods to: Rapa Nui, Hamlet, The Mummy (modern versions), The Last of the Mohicans, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Niebelungenlied, Alien, Nightmare on Elm Street, Clash of the Titans (both), The Dirty Dozen, The Lord of the Rings, and The Return of the Jedi! What’s not to like? See this film if you like kinetic action-adventure heroic fantasy. It’s well-filmed, interestingly directly, masterfully acted, fast-paced and hits its target audience as intended. Definitely don’t heed the advice of those negative reviewers to whom the genre is anathema in the first place or who fault Fantasy because it’s “unrealistic.” There’s REAL and then there’s TRUE, and they are not always the same thing.


August 22, 2011 Posted by | General | Leave a comment


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