It’s not my party; I’ll cry if you want me to. Here I am at the fifth installment of this column, in which I parade my lack of understanding of film context for your entertainment. So far, I’ve had a blast encountering Battle Royale, and Die Hard, as well as relating what it was like the first times I watched Pulp Fiction and Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. The next few weeks are going to be all about me playing catch-up, checking out the flicks that have logjammed in my "to watch" list. General Consensus has it that a number of these movies kick ass. General Consensus has been good to me, so far.
So, sit back and let me tell you what you may already know, but with the enthusiasm of your ADHD nephew.
Conan the Barbarian
He punches a fucking camel! And it goes down!
There’s a pair of sentences just filled to the brim with nuance. I could probably end this column right now, and you’d still be able to glean all my opinions of the cinematic Conan. A camel, guys.
I’ve been a fan of Robert E. Howard’s barbarian for a number of years, now, in fiction and in comic books. I got turned on to him via his correspondences with H.P. Lovecraft, right around a time in my taste development when I figured sword and sorcery fiction was crap, through and through. Coincidentally, this happened to be about the time that I was getting into the studies for my English degree. While many of my fellow students were diving into the Nobel prizewinners, I was getting myself acquainted with Hyperborea, Frost Giants, piracy, kingship, and gold. (At the behest of one of my professors, I’d like to add.) This hints at why I did not excel in my higher education.
I made the mistake of letting on in a critical theory class that I was enamored of Howard’s writing (everyone calls his prose "muscular," but I’ve never been sure why that means what it does) and his pastiche world. I had a nameless classmate who happened to be fully defensive of feminist theory. It wasn’t the first argument we had had in class, but it was definitely a violent one. Axes were swinging, blood was flying, mad gods were laughing– no, wait, that was in the story I was reading at the time. Anyway, my classmate was (violently) offended by the violence done to women in Howard’s stories, and by the general misogynic and male-centric orientation of the Conan fiction. I asked how she felt about Red Sonja, but that’s just because I was bitter and argue face-to-face about as well as I can KO livestock.
You know what’s different about me and Conan? (That’s like asking you what number I’m thinking of. There are infinite answers.) There is no apology in his actions. If I had punched a camel, I would have come over all, "Shit, man. Sorry I punched your camel. Are you all right, camel?"
I can’t imagine the difficulty an artist must feel if he is conflicted about the intent of his art. Everything creative I do has to be done with full conviction that I’m working on something awesome in and of itself. Howard found that creative impetus, much more certainly than I do. Like his barbarian, he was not one to apologize for the works of his hands. Maybe that’s what the term muscular prose ought to mean (if it doesn’t already): words that don’t shy away from their collective aim.
The Conan stories are decades old, now; they’re artifacts, containing elements of their time and Howard’s space. I’ve never met anybody with a serious critical mind who considered suppressing even offensive segments of a period’s art or entertainment. I think what my vehement classmate too umbrage to was the fact that I enjoyed the hell out of those stories. It’s not Howard that had to apologize; it was me.
Well, to hell with that. I’m going to find my spine and declare that I’m fond of blood, bosoms, and alliteration-breaking adventure. I’m not well-read enough to make an academic defense of Howard as being a literary figure, so I might get a little flak for saying this, but… I’m also a big fan of cheese, when done right. There’s a gravitas to Conan, but as an exaggeration of fantasy the character nearly defines the cheesy, which brings me, finally, to Conan the Barbarian on the screen.
Taking a page from Howard, this movie refuses to apologize, the difference being that where Howard never said sorry for his content, the filmmakers seem to have adopted a similar attitude with regard to their presentation. In its framing, line-delivery, casting, and editing, Conan the Barbarian is top cheese. I thought it was absolutely delicious. My grandfather collected sci-fi and fantasy magazines when he was a kid, and, to my great pleasure, he saved most of them. That meant that trips to the grandparents’ house meant long hours of reading pulps by the sodium buzz of the street lamp outside. To a degree, that’s the spirit that was captured in Conan the Barbarian, though using a completely different set of tools.
It’s not "so bad it’s good;" that’s a disservice to talented people. The film may lack some of the blood-nobility of Howard’s original creation, and stray a bit from the established chronology and rich scenarios, but what it preserves is far more important to the willing in the audience: the senses of adventure, of unapologetic entertainment, and, uh, muscular prose.
And, y’know, misogyny.
It was probably a girl camel.