Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Here’s the thing: Jason Momoa is great as Conan. And the movie captures the heart and drive of Howard more often than it does not. When it does not, it’s because it slacks off into unoriginal, derivative sword-and-sorcery material that undercuts the movie’s own strengths.

But it does get more things right than not. Jason Momoa, I say again, is excellent. And not just him. Ron Perlman, Leo Howard (already catching high fives for his work here), and Rachel Nichols are fine, as well. There is real chemistry between Momoa and Nichols that adds an undercurrent to their scenes together. And Stephen Lang and Rose McGowan do well with what they’re given, too. I ached to have more about all of these characters, to have dialogue that was not on the nose, and that hinted at more inside these people. These are characters wanting to do more in this story.

It’s certain that the young men who wrote this script tried their best to bring Robert E. Howard to the screen; I lost count, for example, of the allusions made in the dialogue to this or that bit of trivia in the Conan canon. The problem, I surmise, is that we have sincere young men who have grown up in an environment in which derivative, mundane, mainstreamed sword-and-sorcery is commonplace, and so what sets Howard and Conan apart has been buried under tons of baloney barbarianism. Conan by this time, as a character, as a concept, is nearly as generic as Sherlock Holmes or Tarzan. The problem, though, is that the character, as created by Robert E. Howard, isn’t sufficiently familiar to the public, which time and again has been presented with a one-dimensional cartoon version of Conan. Jason Momoa goes back to the source material; his Conan is a tough, shrewd, pantherish, intelligent young man born to fight. This is Conan. It is the young Conan of Robert E. Howard, and it works. What critics don’t get—and this is what I mean by Conan’s not being sufficiently familiar to the public—is evident in the complaint made by many that Conan in this movie is so tough and brutal that he can’t be distinguished from the bad guys. Think of it: Howard was making precisely that point in his stories, that Conan is not a conventionally good character, that he is a fighter and a survivor in a brutal world. Howard was writing in the Depression, when popular fiction was full of many such unconventional protagonists, characters that succeeded with audiences precisely because they were not conventionally good. Conventionally good people had been kicked to the curb by the stock market crash, and popular fiction characters who were tough, morally ambiguous, thought for themselves, and stayed barely inside the lines meant a lot to a certain audience of readers. These types are no longer a novelty; we have had so many Dirty Harry pictures and spaghetti Westerns and cable series such as The Sopranos and Deadwood that you would think that the bright critics, at least, would get it.

I think the reason they don’t, or one of the reasons they don’t, is because Conan the Barbarian is honest about its primitivism, its deep emotions and ambitions, and doesn’t pretend otherwise. This movie is about people who wear swords and armor, when they wear any clothes at all, in an ancient world, doing what needs to be done without the pretense of their being noble Romans or proud Spartans, let alone being complexly motivated sheriffs or morally ambiguous detectives. (The lack of clothes has something to do with it; nakedness equals naked emotions and honesty—that is, the character can’t hide beneath a suit and tie or under a ten-gallon hat. This nakedness, in all aspects, makes many audiences and critics uncomfortable, I think.) In any event, this honesty is apparently still too much for early 21st century Americans, who prefer to react to this movie the way Howard biographer and Conan completist L. Sprague de Camp did to the original stories: de Camp regarded Conan as a juvenile delinquent—comparable, in the 1950s, to, say, a gangsta or thug today. You could take some of de Camp’s “Oh, horrors! I get the vapors when I regard this barbarian juvenile delinquent!” sentiments and place them neatly into most of the current reviews of Marcus Nispel’s picture, and the insertions would be seamless. “Oh, horrors! There is blood and there are many grunts in this movie! I am getting the vapors!”

The baggage of generic sword-and-sorcery intrudes time and again in this picture, and it weighs the movie down. Many of the one-liners are lame. The thief character is a direct lift of the Tracey Walter Malak character in Conan the Destroyer: this was a weak character then, and it remains weak in this movie. A couple of times characters look up at the sky and, in despair or heartache, roar. This bit worked well the first time, when Christopher Reeve did it in Superman in 1978; it hasn’t worked since. Let’s everyone agree to drop it. Also, the conceit that the world is a battleground for good versus evil is trotted out without any necessity for it at all: why not just have two antagonists fighting each other? We don’t talk about good and evil when we make movies about the Spartans or about the Picts fighting the Romans. We do it with derivative sword-and-sorcery pictures, however, because we have been trained by the success of the Tolkein books, and its commercial inheritors, to regard fantasy melodramas as exercises in good versus evil. Howard was smarter than that; however, simultaneous interest in, and the subsequent popularity and success of, The Lord of the Rings and the Conan paperback book collections, beginning in the late 1960s, yoked these two entities together in the public mind under the banner Fantasy, and joined at the neck they remain. Look: Howard wrote men’s adventure stories with touches of true weirdness, which was sometimes very unsettling indeed, and thereby created a new type of fiction. Tolkein, a scholar and linguist, fabricated a fantasy milieu that drew upon Northern mythology. So his wizards and elves and munchkins are very much borrowed from the realm of fantasy and cultural mythology.

That element of weirdness is lacking in this movie, but it wasn’t in the Schwarzenegger pictures, either, although the Milius movie wanted to go there in a few places. Too bad. On the page, such a leap into the abyss, such a hint of cosmic unease or supernatural menace, distinguishes some of the best sword-and-sorcery fiction from unoriginal or less imaginative stories because this element has its roots in a philosophy and is not simply a stylistic exercise.

To be honest, this movie felt to me as though there were two drafts of the script in contention with each other, and someone mooshed them together. The hypothetical stronger script has the opening about the Cimmerian village; this stronger script also would explain why the Stephen Lang character has a giant octopus monster under his castle—clearly, there is some connection between it and the monstrous mask he brings back to life and puts on his face. The stronger script would also be the one that slows down occasionally and lets the actors do what they want to do, which is to spend a quarter of a page or half a page once in a while talking to each other. The weaker script has the leaden one-liners (including the embarrassing “No man should live in chains,” which could have come directly from that goofy syndicated TV show of ten years ago or whenever it was), and it rushes things along. Still—as much as I like the opening, that wonderful sequence set in Cimmeria, it does feel as though it is from a different movie. If it were cut out, we could spend more time on the story proper, which is where this movie wants to be, with Conan as a young man adventuring in the world.

The special effects are fine, although by the time we get to the ending, we are given another physically impossible, video game-derived set piece in which things fall and twist and crumble in blinding speed, reducing the characters to puppets acting out an adolescent fantasy. Conan deserves better than this. Remember the ending of Rob Roy? Nobody was jumping around trying to do fifteen things at once while dancing above a giant fiery cavern. Next time, resist the temptation to indulge the fanboys and instead give us a climax that adds to the characters and doesn’t reduce them to one-dimensional, reckless damned fools.

One final gripe: the actors all pronounce Cimmeria as “Simmeria.” Damn it, I’m sure that it should be “Kimmeria.” And they pronounce Acheron as “Asheron.” Surely (or Churely) that “ch” is a “k” sound.

So with all of these complaints and nits being picked, is there anything good about the movie at all? There is—and it is the performances of Jason Momoa and Rachel Nichols, as well as some of those scenes that must have been written in my hypothetical stronger draft of the script. The pirate ship scene is pure Howard and as enjoyable as anything he himself might have seen on the screen when he was a kid—in the silent movie version of The Sea Hawk, say, or Douglas Fairbanks’s The Black Pirate. Some of the background matte paintings, too, of glorious incandescent cities, have that misty throwback feel to earlier periods of filmmaking. The tug of war between Momoa and Nichols really transcends the barbarian bully versus spunky girl cliché: these two have chemistry together. Stephen Lang and even Rose McGowan, given the superficial material they have to work with, do well with it. We need to know more about Khalar Zym’s wife and why his feelings run so deep—these are not pleasant people, after all, and we need to understand them, particularly because he is a very powerful warlord of some sort, and how did he get that status?—but Lang does what he can with what he is given. It is another instance of my wanting the characters to have been able really to come to life, and the script held them back. And, of course, if the whole movie had been about Leo Howard and Ron Perlman and the Cimmerians, I would have been content with that. Their performances are wonderful. They do have stuff to work with, and they bring it home.

And I keep coming back to Jason Momoa, who now owns this character. He nails it, he gets it, he is Conan. I say, lose the derivative, LOTR-inspired high-fantasy trappings and the imitative Hercules superficialities and, next time, we will get a stronger movie. You know how a lot of people liked the original X-Men but some critics thought it weak in spots? The sequel topped it, and then some. Please let’s see that happen with the second Conan movie.

Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser

A book review by David C. Smith…

A passage early in the short story “Mad Shadows,” the first of the six included in this new collection by Joe Bonadonna, illustrates why I like these stories so much and why Dorgo the Dowser is a sword-and-sorcery character who deserves your time and attention.

The Dowser is investigating why the mad shadows of the title are up to no good in the city of Valdar, and he crosses paths with an acquaintance and sometimes-informant, a satyr named Praxus. We get this:

In his youth, Praxus Odetti had been Valdar’s most celebrated pugilist, equally proficient with hooves and fists; he retired undefeated from the arena shortly after I came to Valdar, but I did get to see his last few bouts. He lived in a run-down tenement, yet he was far from poor. In fact, under an assumed name, he owned a massive country estate and private club outside the city. The Hoof and Horn Club, it was called. This villa provided a home and medical care for aging and disabled centaurs, minotaurs, satyrs, and unicorns who had retired from racing and fighting in the Crimson Sand arena. Most of the money he earned from begging went to his fellow K’Tothians. I’d met him through a mutual friend who managed a few minotaur wrestlers.

Here is what we get: lives. Characters who have lived lives. Continue reading

Back in Print

Today I signed a contract with Wildside Press to reprint a bunch of my out-of-print novels—the three volumes of The Fall of the First World, both of the David Trevisan books, and the five books of the adventure-fantasy series set in Attluma, the Oron books. I started the process of getting the rights back to these titles earlier this year, and once I’d achieved that, I took Ted C. (Teddy Waffles*) Rypel’s suggestion of querying Wildside about reprinting them. The result? Voila, as they say in France. Also in Cleveland, as well as in Chicago. Voila! they say in all of those places.

This is really good news. Well, for me it is. Wildside Press will publish these titles as print-on-demand (POD) volumes, available in both paperback and hardcover, and soon will offer them as e-books, as well. Wildside Books has been around since 1989. Founded and operated by John Gregory and Kim Betancourt, winner of awards as well as of gratitude and thanks on the part of readers everywhere, Wildside publishes the revived Weird Tales and lots of reprints (Leigh Brackett, Robert E. Howard, Clifford D. Simak, S. Fowler Wright . . . on and on the list goes), as well as original titles under a couple of different imprints. Continue reading

Chaos Theory, Movie Rhythms . . . and the Fractal Geometry of Stories?

A couple of months ago, while cruising the Web, I came across a piece written by Canadian blogger Jay Stone called “Chaos Theory and the Rhythm of Movies” (http://communities.canada.com/shareit/blogs/stonereport/archive/2010/02.aspx). He referenced an article in the journal Psychological Science in which authors James Cutting, Jordan DeLong, and Christine Nothelfer of Cornell “used the sophisticated tools of modern perception research to deconstruct 70 years of film, shot by shot,” looking for a pattern called the 1/f fluctuation. “The 1/f fluctuation is a concept from chaos theory, and it means a pattern of attention that occurs naturally in the human mind,” Stone writes. “Indeed, it’s a rhythm that appears throughout nature, in music, in engineering, economics, and elsewhere.” The Cornell authors, by measuring “the duration of every shot in every scene of 150 of the most popular films released from 1935 to 2005,” established that modern movies, particularly those made since 1980, “were more likely to approach this natural pattern of human attention.” Action movies, in particular, “most closely approximate the 1/f pattern, followed by adventure, animation, comedy and drama.” Among the movies they studied that have nearly perfect 1/f rhythms are Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935), Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Wolfgang Petersen’s The Perfect Storm (1955).

I found this to be fascinating, but I was mystified by exactly what the “1/f fluctuation” is. I’m not a physicist; I’ve read one book on chaos theory and a few other titles that tried their best to explain Einstein’s universe to me, but I’m not about to be able to explain what the 1/f fluctuation has to do with the attention spans of movie audiences or engineers or economists. The paper itself, “Attention and the Evolution of Hollywood Films” (http://people.psych.cornell.edu/~jec7/pubs/cuttingetalpsychsci10.pdf) is sufficiently technical to have me feeling out of my depth as I read it trying to find a clear answer to my simple question.

A wonderful article on the PhysOrg website, however, clarified it for me (http://www.physorg.com/news185781475.html): Cutting and coauthors “found that the magnitude of the waves increased as their frequency decreased, a pattern known as pink noise, or 1/f fluctuation, which means that attention spans of the same lengths recurred at regular intervals. The same pattern has been found by Benoit Mandelbrot (the chaos theorist) in the annual flood levels of the Nile, and has been seen by others in air turbulence, and also in music.” Furthermore, “Cutting said the significant thing is that shots of similar lengths recur in a regular pattern through the film.” Continue reading

Hello to Siberian Alex!

What is the coolest thing that could ever happen to a person? Yes, that’s right! Finding out that a heavy-metal band in Siberia has written a song based on one of your short stories!

This has actually happened! Purely by chance, I came across a link on the Web that led me to an excellent heavy-metal band named Blacksword. Blacksword is Alex Avdeev (guitar), Serge Konev (singer), Ivan “the Viking” (bass and acoustic guitar), Artyom Omelenchuk (guitar), and Vyacheslav Aparin (drums). Alex in particular is a big fan of dark fantasy and sword-and-sorcery fiction, one result being that the Blacksword track “Sword Arm” is based on my novelette Engor’s Sword Arm, which Morgan Holmes published back in the mid 1990s.

Man, this makes me happy!

Go read the interview with Alex. He discusses the influence of American heavy metal on Blacksword, the state of metal in the world today, life in Siberia (cold), and the release of their upcoming CD (soon!), The Sword Accurst, which will be available from Echoes of Crom Records.

Echoes of Crom is the label begun by Howie Bentley, the mastermind behind the band Briton Rites, who is himself a big fan of dark fantasy and s&s, particularly Michael Moorcock, Clark Ashton Smith, and, I proudly note, The Sorcerer’s Shadow.

Folks, go to Blacksword’s site, listen to the tracks available there (including “Sword Arm”), and order their CD. This is the real stuff.