Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Man Scalp

Watching Conan the Barbarian, I felt like I was spending an inordinate amount of time looking at the backs of people's heads. I'm not sure the movie has an exceptional number of back of head shots, it's more that the cinematic language is so poor that each time we went to the back of someone's head it felt like being put in a corner and told to face the wall.

According to the Wikipedia entry, director John Milius, "desired to have much of the film carried by operatic music rather than dialogue, and focused on hiring actors for their physicality." Maybe this is why the movie feels so disconnected from its characters. Normally, back of head shots are POV shots, usually followed and/or preceded by close-ups giving us a reaction to what we've been joining the character in observing. If a reaction shot isn't connected to a back of the head shot, it's usually meant to establish that the protagonist or someone is being watched by a mysterious presence. In Conan the Barbarian, what we often get is the back of Conan's head, followed by a frontal shot where his face is obscured by a hand or spear, or a shot too distant to discern his expression (and I was watching the Blu-Ray version), or Arnold Schwarzenegger's emotion resistant face. For a tale of a man consumed with a violent thirst for vengeance, its protagonist exhibits a curious lack of investment, generally appearing unconcerned or confused.

But the film features remarkably bad construction and editing in other respects, too. There's a lot of broken continuity in shots, enough to be rather distracting. The first example I noticed was when Conan, as a child, is standing beside his mother as she faces off against the bandits who have razed the village and killed Conan's father. First we see Conan's mother gripping her sword with both hands, and very shortly afterwards we cut to a reaction shot of the child where we can see her hand holding his. Which caused me to wonder for an instant if there was someone else present and, if so, who.

There are some pretty location shots, often marred by curiously meaningless movements by crane. There's one where we start on Conan and his companions riding away from us and we move up to bring the side of a hut into the foreground as though it's meant to hold some kind of significance.

The worst was when Conan disguises himself as a snake cult priest, is noticed and dragged away by guards. We spend so much time on the backs of a million anonymous white hoods, and coverage of Schwarzenegger is so poor when he's caught I wasn't actually sure it was him getting caught.

The movie has some decent action scenes, but even those are hurt by this unwieldy filmmaking. Particularly in the climactic battle where Conan's rather indistinct archer companion is wearing the same armour as everyone else, and then the movie belatedly tells us Conan's wizard ally played by Mako is there too. I assumed the archer got killed at one point because I saw two horned soldiers spearing one horned soldier, and figured since the archer was the one by himself, he was the one who was killed, but then we see that the pair was Mako and the archer. Possibly this was meant to be a surprise, it's very hard to say.

Ironically, the whole movie is supposed to be a reflection of Milius' impression of Nietzsche and the power of will. I've seen few films so unfocused.

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