Conan the Barbarian - and --- Postmodernism??!!

I know, Conan as good of a movie as it is has no stopmotion, but this is the Story subforum, and this post is about story. Well, and also about a subject we've talked about many times in the past (this post is dedicated to Uncle LIO )

The other day I ran across this excellent (and very lengthy) article about Conan the Barbarian and was rather surprised at some of the related subjects the author discussed. Mostly by way of contrast - illustrating what it is that makes Conan's script and direction so solid by comparing it to so much of what was being churned out around the same time and especially afterwards that fails to measure up. 

On the old board we had many discussions about good old-fashioned filmmaking and what has come to replace it. There are many factors contributing to what changed and why, but this article encapsulates it very well I think. 

I'll just post this section of it and let it speak for itself:

(I hope it isn't wrong to post this, especially considering I've also posted the link to the whole article)...

      Conan the Barbarian is an old-fashioned movie told in a conventional way.  It does not exhibit the manipulation of cinematic devices and audience expectations that since the mid-1970s has progressively been the hallmark of action movies, a reflexive instant gratification that promises audiences everything and delivers it, too.  In an article published shortly before Conan was released in 1982, Stephen Schiff refers to the "repeatable experience" that formed the appeal of genre movies--Westerns, films noir, war pictures, screwball comedies--during the heyday of the Hollywood studios and points out that "true genre movies don’t exist anymore" because so-called genre movies produced today are more about a genre as defined in retrospect rather than of a genre:  "It’s a matter of ontology.  When a being is aware of itself, it becomes a different being.  And even though Body Heatis a very good movie, it’s not a true film noir because it’s too much about the form--asDouble Indemnity and D.O.A. and Out of the Past never were and never could be." [10]

      In the 1970s, Schiff says, such directors as Robert Altman and John Milius’s film school contemporaries Steven Spielberg and George Lucas "began to use genre as if it were a recombinant nucleic acid--to create new forms."  A "recombinant-genre" movie such asStar Wars

can give birth to what looks like a new genre . . . but it doesn’t act the way genres act . . . .  George Lucas doesn’t work within or even on genre.  He plugs in genre, flashing its proven elements at us as though they were special effects . . . .  [R]ecombinant-genre movies delight in the viewer’s ignorance.  The audience for Outland doesn’t necessarily know from High Noon, and the crowds that flock to Raiders of the Lost Ark may never have heard of Lash LaRue or Tailspin Tommy.  Parts of old genres replace the nuts and bolts of narrative that used to keep movies running.  More and more, genre becomes a secret junkyard.

     The secret junkyard of postmodernism, that is (the term was not yet commonplace when Schiff wrote his essay).  Postmodernism is concerned with demographics more than it is drama, with form more than function, with the mechanical more than the natural.  It is cynical, relying for its effects on the automatic identification and instant appeal of known quantities, the "junkyard" of images, icons, motifs, and gimmicks that have developed in the kinetic, commercial, American twentieth century. Postmodernism is the sound bite, the bumper sticker, the high concept:  content removed from its context and now accepted in and of itself, one dimensionally. [11]  Postmodernism does not reinterpret; it merely reiterates.  Purveyors (one hesitates to use the word creators) of postmodern entertainment do not as a rule respectfully borrow from and build upon the work of their artistic forebears or stand upon their shoulders; they simply take.  Postmodern narrative is a series of non sequiturs lined up like so many separate squares on a game board.  Cut to the chase.  Go over the top.  Use stick figures who do not grow or mature but who transform.  Astonish with sudden shocks, or persist in ratcheting up precalibrated shocks; do not enlighten with outcomes of gradual revelation.  Above all, be impatient. [12]

       Schiff was prescient.  His essay was written before MTV signed on via cable television, before our summer entertainment became dominated by big-budget, lighter-than-air action-adventure movies at the metroplex, before word-processing authors of popular fiction became corporate profit centers (just as their stories became assembly-line widgets that either enhanced the bottom line or were dropped to make room for more successful, more appealing products), and long before the personal computer revolution, pushed into fast forward by Bill Gates, digitized everything from payroll checks to the Five-Foot Shelf to pin-ups on the Internet.  Schiff saw that Star Wars itself was the source "of a genre that transcends cinema:  the video game"; little could he know that just on the horizon were new and improved, vastly more sophisticated video games as well as Dungeons and Dragons, a product that begat a whole new sensibility in action-fantasy novels, movies, and games that in turn begat such hybrid, more-context-than-content corporate falderal as the syndicated television programs Hercules and Xena, Warrior Princess--recombinant-genre products no doubt designed that way from the first strategy session.

      The ease with which images and token concepts are digested and burped back up in our accelerated, manic, postmodern "communications" culture trivializes everything.  As a filmmaker, John Milius is constitutionally incapable of creating such cross-pollinated, live-action cartoons as the Indiana Jones movies or Xena, Warrior Princess.  Conan the Barbarian is indeed a genre movie, albeit of a genre only sporadically represented on the screen until the 1980s and not universally identified as a cinematic genre until then.  It stands on solid storytelling ground and is very different movie from, for example, Return of the Jedi, with which it is more or less contemporaneous but which is little more than a marketing tool posing as a feature film.

      Conan the Barbarian was not cast in the same mold as the post-Star Wars recombinant-genre movies have been.  It has no secret junkyard; it is content rather than context; it is old fashioned because John Milius is himself an old-fashioned filmmaker.  He is inspired by storytellers who came before him but he does not steal from them; he takes down carefully from the shelf, blows the dust off, and incorporates, borrowing sensibly and with gratitude.  Conan the Barbarian ushered in or helped to usher in a tidal wave of audience-tested, audience-approved cinematic, computer, and video products--Sword-and-Sorcery Lite, Heroism Lite, Swordplay Lite.  The antics displayed in these no-brainer time-wasters are not Milius’s style.  Compare Conan with the action-fantasy offerings that have been produced since its release (and which have been so powerfully influenced by it), recombinant-genre movies that move but do little else.  They are the effluvia of marketing department strategy sessions; they are corporate products helping to hold the bottom line with their embarrassingly unimaginative hunks du moment, laughable anachronisms, reckless, ninjalike acrobatics, and insipid dialogue.  We can imagine John Milius regarding this parade of imposters and bastard offspring, shaking his head and smiling to himself.  Kids today.  What they don’t know.  You think this is good?  You think this is what it’s about?  You take a look at The Seven Samurai.  That is strength!  That is power!  The strength and power of the old masters!

Ok, Strider again --- 
Here's the link again to the entire article:
I had never tied in book publishing, but I've always been aware that radio changed at the same time movies did - suddenly the classical was out (classic rock) and what was in was Alternative - or to be more specific, an alternative to the classical. All those crazy subgenres of heavy metal! It's like the recording studios and movie studios all collectively lost their minds all at once. And I'm not saying I hate the postmodern stuff across the board - I really like a lot of it in a very different way. But I just wish it was still possible for a good band to make something like progressive rock and get played on the radio. It's shameful what the record companies forced bands like Kansas, Yes and the like to do in the 80's! 

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I'm not sure how to respond other than thanks for posting this, Strider. Individualism is being squashed by THE MAN ---- or is it THE MACHINE?

Maybe Anthony could add a new section, just under story, and above set building, called


Hahaha! That's ok - I didn't really expect any responses to this one, but thanks Oldschooler! Just wanted to get it posted here as I really like many of the ideas and I think it's the kind of stuff that's important for filmmakers to think about, whether they work in a more classical tradition or a more postmodern one. Or a modern one, which would be something else entirely, like the Quays or David Lynch. 

A brave attempt to raise the level and scope of discussion single-handed, Strider!  But I don't remember enough of Conan to add anything.  Unless I went with David T's blinking eye smileys...

  Or maybe this one, which looks like I'm thinking deep thoughts, without actually saying what they are and giving myself away.

Thank you for posting this. 

How can you go wrong with such memorable lines as the following ...

Mongol General: Hao! Dai ye! We won again! This is good, but what is best in life?

Mongol: The open steppe, fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair.

Mongol General: Wrong! Conan! What is best in life?

Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.

Mongol General: That is good! That is good.

... jbd  

^ Haha! Indeed. The role Arnold was born to play, and the only one I know of where he isn't smugly mugging for the camera the whole time, sort of parodying himself. 

"Conan" is still one of my all time favorite movies, and has one of the best film scores ever written. Not the best acting in the world (except for Max von Sydow and James Earl Jones), but the production design, direction and cinematography were fantastic.

Very interesting reading. The kind of Recombinant Postmodernism Schiff talks about is a big part of what's responsible for the flood of remakes that we're suffering through in this decade. 

"Look Barry, this demographic liked the dance element of that film ten years ago and that demographic liked the CGI element of that other film and there was that picture... Tony, what was it called again? - won a series of Oscars thirty years ago so if we combine the three things and slap some established brand on it we can call it a reboot only tell everyone that it's about THEM this time and we'll sell a half billion seats worldwide without even writing a script! Now who's hot to play the lead.  Can Ian McKellan still dance?"

I'm not making any value judgement. Trouble is; I hear complaints all the time from people saying producers aren't willing to take risks but those, perversely, often come from people who won't dare watch something outside a genre that they know, and never with actors they haven't heard of.

Troubles me.

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