Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Recent Commercial Cinema

In the 1982 Milius Conan the Barbarian, Schwarzenegger's musclebound bumbling hero exhibits patience and guile to exact a measure of revenge (the slaughter of his family & his village), only to find - the film suggests at the end - more emptiness and unhappiness.  In the 2011 Conan the Barbarian, Jason Momoa is ostensibly just born a badass.  He doesn't struggle much.  When there is a job to be done he simply knows how to go about it - doesn't appear to need money or time or help (except when his sidekick, a wise and loyal black man who speaks in aphorisms [of course!], comes to his aid unbidden).  Once Conan embarks on his quest to avenge his father (and unlike the earlier film, his mother is not a figure to be avenged) by killing the murderers, the path to the climax is quick and direct.  Easy victory after easy victory, punctuated by one or two narrow escapes amidst impossible odds.  Deus ex machina after deus ex machina.  Sword slashes that would gruesomely kill a man don't even draw blood on him.  We know he's formidable, and the film shows us he's formidable, solely because the narrative seems to require it.  This Conan can catapult a henchman into the roof of his enemy's fortress, even "aiming" so superbly as to target the bedroom of the main villain.  It could all be quite entertaining if only the movie had the proper infusion of wit & levity, and the right kind of self-awareness.  (This is what Van Helsing attempted and failed at, and what perhaps Jonathan Rosenbaum saw in the 1997 Kull the Conqeuror, which I've never watched myself.)   Instead ... well, John Milius, the paleoconservative, in 1982 slyly provides an extremely troubling and almost nihilistic view of patriarchy, religion, and vengeance in his early film (almost against his own professed politics) - which is why the first Conan the Barbarian is some kind of pulp masterpiece.  But this new product is just the re-entrenchment, and reification, of the subject's mastery over the (othered) world around him.

The early Conan the Barbarian fascinates me, as a movie, partly because of its ambiguity with respect to the supernatural - this new one just kowtows toward the supernatural, and it positions its heroic subject as the rightful steward of all this supernatural power, all this prophecy and all these vaunted bloodlines.  Whereas the authority of patriarchy is subtly and perhaps unintentionally exposed as myth in '82, it's reinscribed as gospel in '11.  Or, to put it another way - in Milius' Conan, the "riddle of steel" involves the recognition that there are no gods, no existential certainties, no homelands, no authorities but those established, contingently, through force.  In Nispel's Conan, "understanding the sword" means you do a lot of cool shit until people respect your authoriteh.

Sociocultural notes - the new Conan also features non-white ethnic figures as its first raiders to the Cimmerian village.  (In Milius' film, the counterpart invaders approximate Picts.)  This just goes along with The Lord of the Rings and 300, movies that figure an external social threat by ridiculously blunt markers of nonwhite otherness.  Furthermore, Schwarzenegger's Conan finds his (sad) romantic interest in a fellow professional, a strong and mature woman, the excellent Sandahl Bergman.  This Conan finds his (hopeful) romantic interest in a "pureblood," a young lillywhite nun - i.e., very similar to the ultra-femme character whose advances Conan declines in the 1984 sequel (helmed by Richard Fleischer).  Of course, she's a "strong female character" - in neoliberal 2011 spectacle terms - because she's a little bit snarky and stubborn and haughty and says things like "I take instruction from no man" with the stilted, 20% faux-British accent of contemporary fantasy/historical movies.  She also appears handy with a blade despite no apparent training.  Conan is a "barbarian" because he likes to drink alcohol and kill bad guys and he talks about possessing women - just like an image of the abundantly heteronormative dudes that comprise this movie's market.  His personal journey entails only the acceptance that his pureblood nun girlfriend is tough too - i.e., that women can be tough like him. 

But by framing things this way, the producers of this film, and the cultural shorthand upon which they draw, simply couldn't be sexist, could they?  Could they?

The problem is not the use of appealing female love interests, or even of white heroes and eurocentric iconography per se.  It is rather a matter of what representational strategies are employed and what assumptions these strategies call upon.  So why does a pulp fantasy movie about brawns & revenge, made by an NRA figurehead, during the Reagan years, seem so, so much more radically uncertain about its genre rhetoric (i.e., the value of heroism, love, destiny, authority, etc.) than this 2011 piece of junk?

Similarly, Super 8 is a rather incredible pastiche of late '70s, early '80s Spielbergiana.  The messy boys' rooms exhibit some of the year's finest production design, and the cast of children proves excellent.  (Or maybe by "excellent" what I only mean - if I'm honest - is that they are appealing in a way consonant with the commercial movies of my childhood, rather than the cloying, irritating, wiser-than-thou moppets of present-day cinema.)  But what motivates this movie?  Absent parents & bourgeois "creative class" aspirations.  And while I doubt the J.J. Abrams & Co. want Super 8's viewers to extrapolate practical lessons from the film, one could conclude: "In the face of an evil alien threat [punned connotations possibly intended], all you've got to be open-minded and empathetic, and presumably also a creative type, like a rich Hollywood liberal Democrat perhaps ... and then the destructive, evil alien threat won't kill you."  But, again, it's worth calling into question the shallowness of the monster-movie representational strategies Super 8 uses alongside its skin-deep X-Files-ish anti-fed politics.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is competent in a depressing way: it underwhelms because it doesn't appear disproportionately awful in any one respect, even though none of it adds up to much.  Its premise and outcome are bleak but formulaic, thus robbed of much force.  I haven't looked into any information about sequels, but I imagine the expected sequel will see heart-of-gold chimp Caesar overthrown by the ugly, mottled chimp - a representational strategy, again, that approximates if not duplicates the visual rhetoric of ethnic otherness.  (This is why largely unheralded works like Dante's Small Soldiers or the Spierigs' Daybreakers, whether they're excellent films or something much less, are still intriguing and encouraging in their representational politics.  They trouble distinctions of "ugly [ethnic/monstrous] them" and "beautiful [white] us.")

J. Edgar, like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, neither excels nor fails in any outlying way - though it's a better film.  While not top drawer Eastwood, and full of problems the way that post-Blood Work Eastwood often is, it's the sort of movie I wouldn't mind seeing just a little more of, simply because it approaches things with a measure of seriousness, compassion, and equal parts discretion and curiosity.  When it comes to how to treat the movie, David Ehrenstein has already said it well enough.

Monte Carlo isn't so great, but it's not so bad either - see this review by Ben Sachs.


Taranaich said...

The Conan franchise has a longer history than an 1982 film, though you sure wouldn't know it from the most recent attempt to bring Robert E. Howard's 1932 character to the screen.

Many of the themes in the 1982 film are alien to Howard's original stories. Howard's Conan, for example, has none of the backstory regarding the slaughter of his village and family, because his history is purposefully vague and mysterious, like the Man With No Name. Making a hero's journey out of Conan is, frankly, missing the point of the character entirely. Neither film satisfactorily evokes the character for me.

I do think it funny that you call the 2011 film on its use of non-white ethnics in the attack on the village, when the 1982 film has a non-white ethnic as the main villain.

ZC said...

Taranaich, thanks for your comments. I'm aware that the Conan character has a longer history than Arnold, as I'm sure are my readers, so I didn't feel any need to point it out - especially since I've never read REH and thus have nothing to say about him. Two other reasons I make the point of comparison the '82 film -

(a) personal affection for the film, which I've written about here before.

(b) it also appears to be a much closer relative to the 2011 than Howard - the hero's journey, as you mention (which I think the '82 incarnation, faithful to Howard or not, does a very good job with), and also a lot of the iconography (e.g., the early scenes of the '11 Cimmerian village seem pretty baldly to play as just an amped up version of the '82 opening). Almost none of this new Conan's audience will have read Howard, but I think the filmmakers anticipated at least some familiarity among a substantial part of their audience with the '82 version.

Fair enough that the films don't do justice to the spirit of Conan as Howard described him. But as I said, I've never read the books. I'm not "on the scent" for fidelity.

As for your final point, it is true that the first Conan cast James Earl Jones as its main villain. But my complaint was not with "positive images" or lack thereof, but instead with the laziness and perhaps the ingrained racism of certain strategies of representation. Thulsa Doom is meant to be a charismatic & enigmatic character - Jones' aloof, authoritarian performance works fairly well. But the early attackers in the 2011 Conan film, who aren't anything but iconographic figures of threat, use the kind of strategy employed in that final battle in the Lord of the Rings movies - when in doubt about how to show how villains are villainous, bring out the shorthand of non-Euro barbarism (mohawks, crazy piercings, tattoos, body paint, dark skin, incoherent growls - all great counterpoints to white folks in their heimat). Politics apart, it seems lazy - and Milius, who has made bad films, and films with far-right politics, never directed a film I saw that was simply lazy.

(Well, maybe Red Dawn...)

But again, thank you for your comments.

Joel Bocko said...

Great round-up of what sounds like a sorry lot. I don't really see new movies in theaters anymore, and you've kind of pointed to some of the reasons why.

I haven't seen either version of Conan, but I'm Netflixing the '82 version now. Aside from the films he directed (I've a soft spot for Red Dawn, even if it is lazy), Milius is the guy who wrote Apocalypse Now and the fantastic Quint speech in Jaws, so I'm not surprised the Schwazenegger version is more compelling and ambiguous than the 2011; at once less timid about being right-wing (as it sounds like this new film contains vague PC touchstones; your description of the "strong female character" paradigm is priceless) and yet more blinkeredly and unapologetically reactionary. Neo rather than paleo-conservative perhaps?

Oh, and to your list of anonymous non-white hordes (which I think is probably more offensive, certainly aesthetically in its laziness if not politically, than a smart diabolical black villain) don't forget Jackson's update of King Kong in '06. There the out-of-Griffith barbarian natives are - ludicrously - painted white as if to throw us off the scent. Instead it just calls up images of blackface. But then again maybe Jackson can't win with me - I find his style fairly indicative of what's wrong with blockbuster filmmaking today (as compared to Spielberg, who - as you note in Super 8 - always had a touch for the resonant & nuanced in his everyday aesthetic - Jackson draws in broad strokes only, and his taste is incredibly poor; see that horrible shaky-zoom-like-it's-iMovie shot of the typewriter in KK; of course this makes the Tintin collaboration odd but then I haven't seen Indy 4 and from what I've heard perhaps Spielberg has already - pardon the expression - jumped the shark.)

Btw, I'm rounding up bloggers' favorite posts on my own in a week. Any particular post you would like to highlight?

Joel Bocko said...

* should say "LESS blinkeredly" (now I get to type my made-up word twice...)

Victor Morton said...

"bring out the shorthand of non-Euro barbarism (mohawks, crazy piercings, tattoos, body paint, dark skin, incoherent growls - all great counterpoints to white folks in their heimat)."

Apart from "dark skin," every one of those other things is more commonly associated with white hipsters or bohemians (or other domestic weirdos like shirtless frat boys spelling out the college team name in the stands, one letter per torso) than non-white foreigners.

ZC said...

Victor, thanks for dropping by - it's been a while & I hope things are well.

I very much disagree with your point, though.

While I grant that all the things you mention are indeed common hallmarks of a Burning Man set (har har, quite sly there, poking fun at me & swpl's both), aren't you overlooking the fact that such are considered implicitly desirable among swpl hipsters & bohemians precisely because of this patina of otherness? In which case, my point is bolstered.

That's why they're called "tribal tattoos" and not "trust fund tattoos" or "Maple Lane cul-de-sac tattoos." War paint - yes, frat boys in bleachers, but also American & African tribes and ceremonial garb, amply evident in (e.g.) decades' worth of issues National Geographic. Same thing goes for piercings and body modifications. Mohawks - yes, I don't know why I was so foolish to suggest that such a hairstyle had any connotations of ethnic otherness, as surely everything (including its name) is in the provenance of white hipsters.

As for incoherent growls - what indie bands are you railing against?

ZC said...

Joel, yeah I've caught up on a few bad-to-competent 2011 releases, and nothing's really been so great. The second half of Hugo is pretty good I think, and probably the best single sustained movie I saw was J. Edgar, which I wouldn't go to the mat for. But that's only from among the handful of recent movies I've seen so there's little useful context to gauge these judgments. Anyway, if you're missing anything good, I haven't seen it yet myself ... but I'll chime in on EL as I see some end-of-year stuff if anything is worthwhile.

Peter Jackson is not untalented as a filmmaker, but he does seem to be lazy in a lot of ways - maybe not a filmmaker who thinks about the iconography he uses, aesthetically or otherwise, because he's so concentrated on the desired effects. It's a little like a high school garage band trying to mimic a sound without knowing anything about music. Crude talent, ingenuity, and luck might take you so far, but you'll still have sticklers scratching their heads about how everything seems too stuck, unintentionally so, in mere emulation.

As for the racial representations, yeah, I think it's just a case of Jackson's laziness. Isn't PJ a self-professed liberal, or am I misremembering? I'd bet he probably has no intention to offend or to be un-PC. At the same time I think he simply uses the shorthand available to him, for efficacy, and doesn't think about it. That's why The Lord of the Rings has those barbaric African warriors in its final battle. I understand that intimations of this representational strategy can be traced back to Tolkien, and his more complex understanding of LotR as a defense of the West against its erosion (including from inside). But the film version eschews any explicit continuation of this philosophical (probably for PC / progressive ideological reasons, agree with them or not) while nevertheless relying upon the iconography when they need a villain. Though, if one follows Victor's point above, it seems that this guy just looks like one of the Fleet Foxes, and not, well, a fearsome fantasy composite of "an African warrior."

Joel Bocko said...

You raise, or suggest, an interesting point I haven't heard before - that for all its (or so I hear) slavish imitation of the source text, LOTR misses something fundamental about Tolkein. I've only read The Hobbit so I wouldn't know, but it makes me want to go back and read the books. Certainly, to me, the films seem full of empty iconography with little deeper resonance. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a gestalt there that Jackson completely misses. Maybe he was too busy playing with the Fleet Foxes to bone up on Tolkien - that is him on the far left, right?

Oh, and any post you wanted to submit as a highlight? I'm putting the round-up together tomorrow so I wanted to throw that out there once again in case you missed it.