Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The Point of Smoking Lizard

Posted: March 23, 2020 in Uncategorized

Smoking Lizard is EVERYWHERE! I do columns here on this blog that are a mix of my personal adventures concerning a subject and pieces that will help others interested in that subject. At the moment, I really only like five things…WRITING (and the supporting READING): Behold! I give you the Scribbler’s Saga column. I will relate parts of my life as a writer, provide a review of properties I’ve read and tools I’ve tested, post essays about writing and hopefully interview other writers.Additionally, when I just need to fill my cyberspace with actual writing, whether short one-shots or small pieces of the greater whole: Author’s Assortment.MUSIC: I’ve been talking big about composing music for a decent while now. As I figure out how to fish or cut bait in this area, you, Dear Reader, will read all about it in the Composer’s Counterpoint column. Posts may include my Woody Allen-esque frustration with thinking I’m better at music than I am, reviews of music, tools and the presently rare live shows. Again, part of the mission is to interview other musicians.TABLETOP RPGS: Yes, I play Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, I can go on for hours about the time I played a thief that hot-prowled the villain’s house and walked out with a suit of armor. But, that was a long time ago. It’s time to make new stories. It’s time to see if I can create adventures other players want to play. As with the other columns the content of the Dungeoneer’s Diary, will mix the personal and journalistic.ILLUSTRATION and VISUAL ARTS: While I myself don’t draw, I do okay with a camera and certain apps. The Imager’s Impression column will probably be less frequently advanced, but will discuss my appreciation of pictures and the people who make them. And when I make more images with my script kid tools, the results will go here.MOVIES: Yeah, I thought I would skip writing about movies. Start laughing now. So anyway if I’m bloviating about movies, it  goes here in the Filmgoer’s Flamethrower.There will be times when columns will cross over, because working on a fun dungeon will spark a novel idea that may cause me to pull out the harmonica…Lastly, if you came to the site for my older content click on one of the many pages that will provide links to nearby archive sites. Happy Reading.

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© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

People my age or older who don’t write are sometimes a trip and a half. One common refrain to raise its ugly head in discourse is the one about handwriting…specifically cursive. Few schools teach it. No one under the age of tadpole seems to know how to read it and I’m not sure I care.

The arguments go like this…

  1. “You lose the ability to read the original citizenship documents and other great works of our past that are handwritten, which means that unscrupulous people can trick you by changing those words in the dead of night.”
  2. “It’s an important discipline to teach the student how to mentally organize their thoughts or…”
  3. “Science shows that teaching cursive is better for a developing mind and…”
  4. “How else will a student learn to create a distinctive signature?”
  5. “It’s a good backup skill for when the power goes out.”

There might be a few more, but I think that covers it for now.

Option 1 also known as The Animal Farm Argument sounds like a reasonable concern. The Pigs did change the Farm’s Constitution in the dead of night to the infamous dicta – “Some animals are more equal than others.”

I might gently ascribe to this thinking when the subject is English instruction as a whole asserting a visit to the Library of Congress as an American civil variation of the Hajj to Mecca. That as long as the original documents exist and we learn English the bad guys can’t change the copy printed in the back of the Eighth Grade Civics textbook, which is the version we actually read…or not.

I’ve already conducted that civil hajj. In the late Seventies, I took the trip to Washington. The Constitution and Declaration were at the time kept in their matching argon-filled bullet-resistant polycarbonate vaults at the Library of Congress. Cool…except for the part about not getting closer than twenty feet.

The logic of the Animal Farm Argument requires a ten-year-old to jump the rope line with textbook in hand to compare texts. I didn’t think of it at the time, in part because we don’t really teach the Original Documents in class until you are in the eighth grade and get issued the aforementioned Eighth Grade Civics textbook. Also, this was long before tablets and Kindles…the textbook in question is a lot to lug in the line for a ten-year-old only about two bad breakfast burritos away from – “Fuck the old parchment! Show me the planes and rockets a couple doors down at the Air and Space Museum!”

Bringing things around to the specific argument for cursive, the above makes even less sense. The documents in question may have been handwritten, but with an eye towards public display. This meant that what is actually protected by the vault is written carefully with a script that isn’t block printing, but isn’t the average handwriting, then or now, either.

When they let people get close enough to take pictures for the Wikipedia article, we see they’re far more decipherable than we sometimes credit as we bemoan the loss of cursive. And let’s face it, no other handwritten document in English matters except to the historians who in the future will take college level classes on reading cursive. The same way that people who want to teach Greco-Roman Classics and other Old And Presumably Important Cultural Documents at the college level take Ancient Greek, Classical Latin, Sanskrit and other such languages…as electives. Who then make decent livings translating for the rest of us.

The people espousing Option 2 scare the shit out of me. I didn’t have any traumas associated with learning cursive the way I might’ve landing in that one high school English class with the hippie-dippy teacher. You know, she never met a Baghwan she didn’t love and went out of her way to kill enjoyment of Hamlet due to an overreliance on symbolism and “what it all means” in her teaching method.

But I do remember a huge amount of tedium tracing the letters, just so, early on. And then you grow up a little and they just tell you to write your five-paragraph essay. I was never dinged nor praised for my handwriting. I turned in some of my papers with printing or a mix of print and cursive. My grade was the same…I either spelled my words correctly and made a logical argument while demonstrating that I’d read the source material or I didn’t. Sometimes I didn’t do the essay…another form of a lack of discipline that cursive practice didn’t solve.

I have friends who teach and may quit as soon as their health benefits and pensions vest. The common refrain for the current spate of not liking the job is that students don’t read, don’t do homework, don’t write and don’t even do the work when time is given in class, because homework is frowned on. So, teaching cursive will magically solve this?

Seems to me that the people who lead with Option 2 are like the old-timey doctors that resisted the move in medical school for shorter less crushing intern shifts in the teaching hospital – “I survived it, so you have to do it too.” Almost like abusers passing their curse down through the generations.

Despite the fact that while we haven’t completely eliminated paper, we’ve come close. We send documents back and forth using PDF files that you either print out, sign and rescan or there are apps that create a digital signature with the same legal effect. We send emails, texts and social media links.

As a GenX in-betweener, I can talk about feeling a strange joy getting a card recently from my biological mother who still trusts pen and paper. Yes, I can read her words. On one hand, I speak piously about just doing my first draft at the keyboard, or on the converse that I fill up notebooks either paper or digital by the score because moving the stick we call Pen or Stylus helps me work out my more stupid ideas.

However, none of that handwriting is in cursive and hasn’t been for a long time. You’d think the idea of working out certain ideas on paper or the notetaking app in need of an Apple Pen would mean I would be in the cursive camp. Not when I have printing for that.

All through my school years, I might start an essay question in cursive and finish in printing. Never really figured out the why. They tell us that cursive which keeps the pen nib on the paper saves time. I personally never noticed it, especially since my hands, wrist and elbow still ache and the same general amount of time elapses between Blank Page and Done. And I nearly always ended the essay or blue book test in printing.

Writers accumulate the wreckage of our collective writing pasts. Boxes of notebooks. Copies of this or that, some with markups. So, if I do become important enough for people do some literary archeology on my box (slowly migrating to Dropbox) and I end up printing anyway without noticing any lost time or quality, it makes sense to just print to make my detritus more readable from jump. You know, indulge a bit of ego to make it easy for scholars to understand me in the future. It’s an ego driven avocation to think I have a story to tell that you want to hear.

The science argument. This disposes easily – “cite your sources.” I haven’t seen any citations. Maybe cursive helps young minds develop. And maybe the content on that piece of paper does the same thing. The teachers that wanted me to write whatever I liked as extra credit are the teachers I remember as being my personal Mr. Holland (just without the music). The draft of my magnum opus about Jesus rolling up to Mount Olympus to demand the keys was delivered mostly in printing and then typed and saved my grade for the semester. Which has more impact?

Moving on to the signature argument. Makes sense, I suppose. Mine is derived from my leftover cursive when I intentionally just took my signature from how I would just write my name. But then I’ll put my dad’s signature in juxtaposition, a squiggle that barely has a R, a J and an S in it that has no other relationship to cursive. Why? He believed forgers would freak out getting his right trying to steal checks. Seems to me that we can put any old thing down on the credit/debit slip as long as we do the same thing every time.

As for the power going out. I print. Got it covered. There you have it. I don’t like cursive, not then and less now when it really doesn’t matter to society. Thus endeth the opinion.

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

Stop me if you’ve seen this movie before – “A long journey up the metaphorical river undertaken by an isolated protagonist to confront a missing metaphorical father figure over the consequences of his isolation from civilization brings dangers and greater wisdom to the protagonist.”

If your reply is to ask – “Yeah, kinda, isn’t that, like, the plot to Apocalypse Now, the preeminent movie about Vietnam?” – then you’d be right. If your similar reply is to ask – “Yeah, that’s, like, the plot to Apocalypse Now Redux, right?” – then you’d also be technically correct, though subject to me being a douchebag about your liking a bloated early draft of an otherwise great movie.

Anyway, enough trash talk upon Francis Ford Coppola, how was Ad Astra, the space movie with the same plot? It held my interest on average dark night in front of my TV. On a different night after many bad breakfast burritos, I might’ve hated it. It’s that kind of movie.

Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) works on a SETI antenna array tall enough to reach just above the atmosphere, requiring astronauts with parachutes to work the upper decks. Power surges coming from Neptune orbit start blowing up all things technological across the Earth, including the array. McBride saves the array with a timely pull on a kill switch and then has to fall.

Thus, begins a movie in which Major McBride, the very model of what Tom Wolfe asserted was the common personality of astronauts and test pilots: buttoned up, always calm and unlikely to reveal very much personal or emotional…at least until long after they retire, must journey to confront his “heroic” father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) in Neptune orbit.

Plot wise, the movie proceeds very much along the lines of the Coppola movie. The protagonist takes the long journey. Nearly everyone who helps gets blasted out of the boat on the way. There is even a tiger scene, well, okay not a scene with an actual tiger, but would a pair of scared and pissed off baboons on a derelict research boat do nicely as a substitute, ya bloodthirsty mugs? You know, to reinforce – “Dear Mom, today we got attacked by a motherf@#king tiger, teaching me one important thing…never get out of the f*@king boat!”

The baboon scene begins with Major McBride trying to assert his authority as Classified Passenger to get the captain of the ill-fated USS Cepheus to ignore the distress call, we see filmmakers who have absolutely seen the Coppola movie go for concise. Consolidating the Tiger Scene with the Tragic River Interdiction Scene, yup, this is how a three-hour movie (the good version of Apocalypse Now) becomes a more manageable two-hour movie and get to the same place. This is always good.

The movie improves when we take the discussion out of the purely plot and into the much better characters and worldbuilding. Yes, Roy McBride has trouble relating to his wife, Eve (Liv Tyler) and is the sort of man who doesn’t have to take mood stabilizer pills before the mandatory psychological evaluations that the subject must pass every time before the next big task in space. He doesn’t end up that way.

We start with a man who is so Astronaut of All Astronauts that we might imagine Chuck Yeager and Neil Armstrong, both famously reserved on the job, shaking their heads and saying – “Guys, the man is borderline psychotic!” We end with a kinder gentler man who can smile at the end of the movie upon seeing his estranged wife enter the door at the coffeehouse giving hope of reconciliation.

We have no word if Major McBride quit Space, like his metaphorical uncle Captain Willard (Martin Sheen, not in the movie) quit the Army, or if he figured out how to do Space for the benefit of his country and still be a good husband. Something to discuss at a dinner party that the answer I suppose depends on how romantic one is.

Regardless, the move plays out in a narration very similar to the one in the Coppola movie. I thought this arc from buttoned up and angry over the abandonment to wise, human and caring as it plays out on Mr. Pitt’s face worked and was worth the price of admission. However, the arc isn’t solid enough for someone else with a different perspective (bad breakfast burritos) to see the same movie and not hate it. It’s that kind of movie.

I found Tommy Lee Jones doing well with his small part as the obsessed man willing to sacrifice everything on a fruitless search for extraterrestrial intelligence. When confronted with the in-story assertion of We Are Alone, he can’t let go and previously killed people mutinying over what should logically be the end of the mission. It means he has to go the way of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando, really not in the movie). At least, this time the nutter father figure has the realization to unhook the tether himself.

I mentioned worldbuilding. Where director and co-writer James Gray really went right was creating the world (well, Solar System) in which the many set pieces that serve to wipe out people on the boat. The mission starts from the Moon where you land in the nice neighborhood areas presumably on the Near Side, but have to travel by rover to the launch facility on the Far Side. A route beset by crater pirates in their own moon-buggies.

Yes, you could deride it as a way to have the PBR Streetgang (yeah, it’s a lot of Coppola references) get mugged…killing everyone but Roy McBride. But it also serves as a launching point for all kinds of fan fiction and other movies about how the crater pirates got their start and, more importantly, if the United States military might send in the space-qualified Delta Team to clean up the pirate base? You know, Against All Flags meets The Guns of Navarone set in Space?

You’ll read in a lot of places about how this movie fits into the Real SF tradition that includes Gravity and so on. Certainly, the movie handled zero-G decently well as I didn’t get the sense of actors on wires having to act like Earth Normal at Sea Level still isn’t pulling them to the bottom off the access tunnel set. But there are things I still want to hear about from the current crop of TV physicists and science presenters …paging Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye.

The Tiger, sorry Baboon Scene, resolves with the last baboon getting shut into an airlock and the protagonist hitting the Red Button (air vent). Said simian splatters all over the interior side of the window in the hatch, a nice crowd-pleasing SPLAT of Strawberry Jam (what the mess looked like), or Chunky Salsa (the common metaphor among science explainers for the same thing). Problem, other sources assert rapid decompression is more likely to result in freeze-dried bodies and boiled away fluids. Still messy, but not quite the cinematic pop we bloodthirsty filmgoers love so much.

Next we have the Suborbital HALO, actually a Suborbital High Altitude High Open jump if we are to judge from when the stuntman doubling Mr. Pitt pulled the ripcord. Looks good on the surface. Real life nutjobs with endorsement deals with Red Bull have gone up in balloons to the edge of space (you get astronaut wings going into the very thin parts of the atmosphere, not vacuum as is believed) and jumped out. The devil’s in the details. Roy McBride wore what looked like a standard issue orange spacesuit/flight suit that say a Shuttle crewmember might wear to survive launch. The record setting Red Bull nut wore a suit more like a Mercury astronaut, a more robust garment.

Lastly, the plot revolves around antimatter. We have Star Trek to thank for our misconception of this substance as the end all be all fuel source cum convenient detonation to end movies that seem have a union mandate for a big explosion at the end. However, ask a real Trekkie and you’ll get this answer…by itself antimatter colliding with matter (proton and antiproton) doesn’t power the warp drive. In addition to needing a scarce We Could Run Out of Gas substance to drive the Cold War conflict metaphors of the original show, lots of physicists wrote in explaining how antimatter couldn’t provide enough energy to crack dimensional barriers without the unobtanium of dilithium crystals to act as fuel additive.

Bringing this thread back around to Ad Astra and the antimatter reactor on the Lima Project boat/space station, we might learn that the threat of ending the whole Solar System is overblown. Matter and antimatter collide releasing vast energies related to the calculated values for protons and the nearly identical antiprotons essentially annihilating two protons into energy.

This means that the Lima Project ship has to bring enough antimatter to blow up the whole Solar System on a one for one basis, or in layman terms drag along enough mass of antimatter equivalent to the mass of the Solar System. Which is clearly not how the model/CGI departments built the boat. Keep the threat to random power surges causing disruptions to all things tech and you have more plausibility.

Anyway, driven by an interesting acting performance to play out the arc of the isolated protagonist who needs the one last bad mission to recapture his humanity, the movie is fun and interesting to watch. This takes the movie well out of the cellar where we like to laugh at our entertainment because we have otherwise seen the story before. There are worse ways to spend an evening at the TV.

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

Conan is back. Morgan Freeman does the “Between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis…” preamble and doesn’t appear in the movie. Okay, the hypothetical wizard he might play can’t be named Akiro, but…never mind.

Anyway, if you’ve watched the previous Conan movies (see post) (see post) you’ve seen this movie as the main points here are a blend of the previous two movies. Born of battle, a.k.a. pregnant mommy slashed open, gives birth, names Conan, dies. Daddy is the village blacksmith making the swords spouting Iron Age bushido. Orphaned in a later battle. Set loose upon an unsuspecting Hyborian-age world as Conan the Barbarian. Seeks revenge against the warlord that rumbled the village and took his father’s sword, in this case by way of a mission to accompany a special woman intended as a sacrifice to the evil gods on a long journey.

Sounds like I hated the movie like everyone else that turned this one into a bomb. Well, hate being such a strong word. I land it between the Schwarzenegger films and I do try to find things to like about everything I see.

This time around we have Khalar Zim (Stephen Lang) doing the Warlord who Mugged Conan’s People at the Beginning of the Movie duties. He seeks the many pieces of the Mask of Acheron, a vile example of Magi-Tech that operates on blood from the daughters of the Acheronian necromancers. Gives the usual control over the spirits of the dead power. The many Cimmerian tribes rose up and broke the mask, each taking a piece to hide so that it never resurfaces to trouble the world.

Corin (Ron Perlman, how did he not get this role in 1981?) is a kind father and village chieftain spouting a less crazy version of the Cimmerian/Viking warrior ethic – “a warrior is not afraid of death, but neither does he foolishly rush to meet it.” He sends out the boys with robin’s eggs in their mouths as a test of fitness to be part of the village’s first rank of warriors.

Conan arrives late because Daddy assigned chores possibly to protect his son a little longer. But Conan either finished early, or, we can hope, pulled a Tom Sawyer and delegated to other kids in the village. Corin relents and gives his son an egg and sends him out.

Khalar Zim chooses now to send his scouting wave against the village, a force staffed by appropriately growly dudes that kind of remind me of Mohawks or Iroquois in war paint. Well, it is the mythical Hyborian Age that essentially asserts that all things from history happened far earlier and humanity had to relearn many things over and over: cultures, steel, etc. Anyway, most of the boys on the egg-race turn back to warn the village. Conan turns and fights bringing back three heads…and an intact egg.

In the lull between waves, Corin takes the time to make sure Conan has finished his education in steel, swords and being worthy to carry both. The Iron Age bushido is more muted. The sword that eventually comes out is a worthy king-sword, but Conan isn’t quite worthy of it.

And then several months later, Khalar Zim shows up with his main force, a multinational bad guy operation that works on a “lose to me and if I like how you fight, you get to live and join me” basis. The village gets rumbled. Conan is left holding a bucket of molten steel to keep it from landing on his father’s head. Corin takes the bucket instead of seeing his son die. Khalar Zim’s witch daughter, Marique (Rose McGowan) finds the shard of the mask, steels the king-sword and now we’re ready for Adult Conan (Jason Momoa).

What follows is a perfectly acceptable romp through the wilds of Bulgaria doubling as Hyborian places that never really existed except in Robert E. Howard’s imagination. And it’s a lesson that filmmakers can trick the viewer into making the assumption of being anywhere in the world. The foliage is what it is, but drop in a temple that sort of looks like Ankor Wat and suddenly you’re asking – “did they find the budget to go to South East Asia?” No. Movie magic.

However, another way to phrase perfectly acceptable is Man, they could’ve gone so much cooler. We remember the big set pieces in these movies. This movie bats about .500 here.

A windswept Stonehenge-like ceremonial site conveniently near the evil snake dude’s tower of power? Well, no, but then I am making a reference to a great movie. We did get a decent moment with Marique creating a pack of sand monsters at what appears to be a Hyborian Age construction site.

Okay, cool-ish. Personally, I think the filmmakers dropped the ball slightly on the metaphor of creating warriors out of sand with which to mug the heroes. We have other franchises like Spider-man to instruct us that a sand beast can’t be killed with swords or guns. They break apart and reform until the hero figures out the writer’s choice of…

  1. Dunk the beast in water to make mud
  2. Zap it with lightning that melts it into glass
  3. Have your not in the movie wizard friend cast a wind spell for dispersion
  4. Drop the beast into the more convenient of steel forge, potter’s kiln, bread oven, glassblower’s hearth or sacred fire to melt it down and make glass
  5. Spray the beast with some kind of serious epoxy/resin (superglue) to freeze the beast into shape

There’re a couple things here. Maybe there are other creative ways to knock off sand monsters and I would like to hear any thoughts (try to find me at my comic book store for this nerd fight) that aren’t on this list. But, none of these solutions appear in this fight.

Conan whacks these guys with swords. They die crumbling back into the sand and they come back, but each new CGI-enhanced stuntman that arises from the ground is a different guy. Yes, it’s sort of my job to pay attention to the closeups of the sand encrusted faces trying to kill our fearless hero.

 The movie has a bigger success with a tentacled almost Lovecraftian squid monster blocking entry into Khalar Zim’s city. Big, appropriately scary, and hard to kill and a good way to get some mileage out of Conan’s earlier making friends with a thief, Ela-Shan (Said Taghmoui), who has the keys to every city in Hyboria…until the squid monster causes him to drop them into the water.

Of course, everybody in Fantasy does squid beasts since H. P. Lovecraft articulated the Elder Gods like Cthulhu. Lovecraft and Howard were friends, the letters still exist and they agreed to share concepts. Even Tolkien dropped in a squid beast in front of the Mines of Moria. We don’t have information whether American pulp magazines made it across the Atlantic to Britain, or maybe squid beasts are, like sharks, things we have nightmares about even if we have never seen the sea.

Here, it’s a great scene because the squid beast is always a great scene, unless we’re talking about the crappy hunk of rubber that Ed Wood made Bela Lugosi roll around with…oh never mind.

The movie gets a little better contemplating the moments in between the big stuff. Jason Momoa doesn’t get blamed here because someone in the writing room pretty much wimped out. Putting an enemy on catapult to send a message to the Big Bad, yeah, this also works every time I see it…and it’s something all versions of Conan would do.

There are wagon chases. Interludes on Conan’s pirate vessel. He frees slaves. Celebrations after battle that kind of remind me of a few college parties that I absolutely don’t want to tell the future She Who Must Be Obeyed, or any of my sisters for that matter, about. You know: beer (actually mead, the one nod to our known historical timeline of when humans learned to do stuff), arm wrestling, loud music and so on.

Which brings us to the core of a Conan movie with the plot of Conan escorts and protects the special young lady from the warlord that wants to be a god…how are they on screen together? Jason Momoa and Rachel Nichols as Tamara are actually, in a different version of this movie, a great screen adventure couple.

Trying to avoid getting yelled at by people who yell at movies over things like representation of women, the production made Tamara a monk at the peaceful Cambodian style temple. Monk usually means: reading, Kung Fu, riding horses and generally doing better for herself than, say, a certain princess draped on a different Conan’s arm. And she just works, though there was a moment I wanted to see slightly expanded.

Conan says Tamara dresses like a harlot. She replies he’s never met any other kind of woman. Conan mentions that Cimmerian women dress like warriors. Conan leaves to do other things. Conan’s seafaring buddy, Artus (Nonso Anozie), says Conan likes her. Leading to the part that isn’t in the movie – “what, he wants me to dress up like his mommy, how weird is that?”

I could go on a bit mentioning Rose McGowan being fun to watch as the creepy witch daughter, but really this is a movie with lots of things where stuff was almost great. We would’ve needed more from her character in a context of not holding back on screen.

Actually, that kind of describes the whole experience of this movie. There you have it, a movie I can enjoy at the level of if it’s on a streaming service for which I already pay I’ll watch.  

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

Going back to the era “between the time the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Arius” proved generally fun in the form of Conan the Destroyer.

This time around Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is just minding his own business somewhere near the fabulous city of Shadrizar. He has a new thief sidekick, Malak (Tracey Walter) has the wizard Akiro (Mako) on the Hyborian Age version of speed dial and life is good…except for still mourning Valeria (Sandahl Bergman, file footage).

Unbeknownst to Conan, Queen Taramis (Sarah Douglas) plots to send her niece Jehnna (Olivia d’Abo) on a quest to retrieve a jeweled horn sending Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain) as protector to the virgin princess, who will then be sacrificed once the demon/evil god Dagoth is released. And Bombaata will stick Conan in the back once he’s served his usefulness.

Everyone gets on their horses and rides this way and that in the cinematic Mexican countryside doubling for Shadrizar, an ancient city that Robert E. Howard placed on his fictional Hyborian world map in what is now the Middle East. Deserts. Greenery. Lakes. Pretty landscapes galore.

Depending on how drunk or nit-picky snippy one wants to get about watching this sequel, we either really hate it or cock our heads to one side and say something like – “I see what they tried for.” Gone is the supreme bombast of the origin story of the first movie directed by John Milius who couldn’t do a Conan movie any other way than balls out R-rated. Replaced by an intentional desire to tone it down to a PG rating, while acknowledging the first movie at the hands of equally veteran director, Richard Fleischer.

The basic plot of “hire the hero as the disposable outsider to escort the virgin princess on her quest to retrieve, count ‘em, two related McGuffins and then kill both Conan and the girl” should automatically work under any circumstances and should’ve worked better than what’s on screen. Hell, I think Raymond Chandler used elements of this general plot in at least two of his Phillip Marlowe novels (or not I’ll look it up eventually).

For my money, this plot that requires the Bodyguard/Escort to start having feelings for the Princess/Protectee basically needs more on screen in this pairing of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s Conan and Ms. d’Abo’s Princess Jehnna. They went for naïve and petulant little girl against the war-hardened barbarian and the film never really finds a way for said princess to actually break through Conan’s romantic armor concerning his mythologizing of his lost love, Valeria.

The princess pretty much does everything she can, except wearing a sign – NEEDY VIRGIN PRINCESS, PLEASE MOLEST – around her neck to get Conan’s attention. An obvious way to milk the plot for more danger to the mission missed. Having Jehnna discussing the problem with Zula (Grace Jones) a warrior woman freed from a village vigilante mob by Conan doesn’t help much. It’s just kind of a flat relationship, acting, writing…blame somebody.

Part of me hopes that the cuts made to the movie to get the rating down from the R the film still had after shooting despite going trying to go family friendly are buried somewhere on my Blu-Ray’s secondary features. Having a sex scene between Conan and Queen Taramis would distract a little from the flat pairing of Princess and Barbarian. It might add more to the understanding of the evil queen lying and doing everything she can to unleash Dagoth’s darkness. But I digress…

Anyway, the movie isn’t horrible and manages quite a few interesting one-off gags, some that reference the first movie. The team enters Shadrizar. There’s a camel. Malak, despite having been recast from the previous Subotai (Gerry Lopez, not in the sequel) points out the camel. And Conan attempts to apologize for punching said beast in the first movie.  

Early in the movie, Akiro is captured by cannibals that want to eat the wizard to consume his power. He is rescued after struggling the way Han Solo comically struggled against his being tied up and cooked on a spit by the Ewoks. Malak and Akiro share a few barbs about – “why would they want to eat such a sourpuss as you?” Fun. Almost union-mandated, but still fun.

The movie gets better contemplating at least one of the two stops on Princess Jehnna’s quest. The crystal castle in the middle of a lake owned by wizard Toth-Amon (Pat Roach) proves almost worth the ticket price (disk price in my case) all by itself. Jehnna is spirited away across the water by Toth-Amon, daring the heroes across in the boat.

This leads to a visually interesting wizard fight in a hall of mirrors where Conan destroys each mirror in turn to destroy the monstrous form of the wizard. That and the having to swim to sneak into the villain base makes for a nice sequence that generally makes the movie.

And then second major stop that takes the key (a big honking grapefruit sized diamond) from the lake castle to use retrieving the jeweled horn to return to Shadrizar. Everything about this sequence that isn’t human works without question or quibble. The production found just the right tightly spaced rock formations in Mexico for a claustrophobic fear-inducing sequence. They also dressed up the studio set with a really interesting set with a lot of fire and trick locks and a lot of writing on the wall.

That last part is important, writing on the wall, because Akiro ably demonstrates the common superpower of all fantasy wizards, the ability to read. He reads the prophecy on the wall that gives away that Queen Taramis wants to unleash Dagoth and Jehnna must be killed. And we go with all of this right up to the point where a small part named Leader (Ferdy Mayne), the second evil wizard to die in this movie appears on screen. Mostly, I couldn’t stop laughing at the typewriter bell sound effects as he did his magic. Pollutes much about an otherwise acceptable scene.

 Depending on the number of bad breakfast burritos I had the morning of viewing, I’m either going to go all out asserting that basketball great, Wilt Chamberlain, doesn’t belong in this movie at the level of thespianship, or just shrug and grade on a curve. For Conan movies, I always grade on a curve. It helps having the Big Man as the final boss fight.

Similarly, I’ve gone back and forth on Grace Jones as a cinema presence since the beginning of her career. Need a semi-scary, odd wild woman in your film, Ms. Jones is your lady. As an aside, it’s a pity that her performance as Zula, which has generally grown on me over the years, couldn’t help anything about Mayday or A View to a Kill, but I digress…

This time around, Conan thrilled me at the level of needing stuff in the fantasy genre to watch on Saturday nights inserting the disk. Most of the stuff I’ve mentioned that sounds like I’m basing on the whole experience really just lands in the – “well, they did their best and it’s still generally fun” – area…except for the lack of apparent relationship between Conan and Jehnna. Thus endeth the review…

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

“Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Arius…”

So begins the filmed version of the world’s most popular barbarian, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. An empirically fun movie and that’s all it needs to be.

We begin, as with most versions, with some variation of the bad people come to mug the village and young Conan is the only or one of few survivors trope. This time Conan’s father (William Smith) is the village blacksmith with a fondness for making swords makes what seems a great blade.

His font of fatherly wisdom includes reverence for the fictional Cimmerian deity of Crom and, in what now seems like a minor writing flaw, a lot of words concerning the “Riddle of Steel.” Steel attracts the aforementioned mugging party…this time at the hands of Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones). Daddy skewered. Mommy beheaded. Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) enslaved first upon the Wheel of Pain (a human-driven flour mill) and then to points further away as a gladiator until freed upon the world as barbarian, thief, soldier, pirate and lover. Soon to gain vengeance upon Thulsa Doom and his snake cult…

This movie lands so well largely because of the combined talents of two titans of cinema of the era (1970-1990), director and co-writer John Milius and co-writer Oliver Stone (imagine that!). Guided by L. Sprague de Camp (wrote a large proportion of the continuation novels) as technical advisor, the script pretty much hits all the high spots of the books and comics without actually being based on any one thing. Certainly, it gives the feel of a production that hit the cinema magic of writing to enhance what it had instead of writing to some mythical standard of what didn’t exist.

Casting a young Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead makes absolute sense physically. The muscles, of course, and it’s a short leap of hair dye and other costuming choices to get the former Mr. Olympia to look sort of like how Robert Howard described the character. Seeing the movie reveals some of that magic that landed on paper because…

…despite a later career where we sometimes laughed at the Arnold’s casting in this or that (e.g. Mr. Freeze anyone?), this production gives us a character that fits the perceived nature of the actor. Conan sometimes just needs to be all about the presence on screen that also translates to the one-sheet poster. And keeping his emotive range to determination, anger and the fundamentally unimpressed by the magic and other folderol of his enemies…I guess we’ll be arguing for many decades whether Mr. Schwarzenegger was a good actor, or an amazing presence that it didn’t matter. Projects that create that kind of ambiguity are, by definition, well written.

There are other ways in which this movie was destined to go well from the script stage like choosing snakes as the villain motif. True, the snakes of the Stygian (pseudo-Egyptian) god Set run all throughout the entirety of the mythos whether written by Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter or even on the comic book side, Roy Thomas. And yes, we as a species don’t really like snakes with the easy harken back to Genesis 2 and later.

However, I speak about the practical reasons you go with snakes as the villain motif in a movie filmed in about 1980-1981, the puppets. In context, the production came just a few years after Bruce the Animatronic Shark scared the bejesus out of the average beachgoer greatly aided by a now famous music cue, but looked kinda animatronic and fake when actually seen on screen. The absolutely terrifying believability of the snakes here (one a giant pet, the other something Thulsa Doom transforms into) is just something to be seen. Either the art of animatronics advanced into the stratosphere, or snakes are just easer to pull off. Awesome result!

The movie landed well with casting across the board. Max von Sydow as King Osric who sends Conan, Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and later Akiro (Mako) all help make a story about an angry father hiring disposable goons to retrieve a wayward daughter from a cult shine. Von Sydow eats up the scenery telling the wayward adventurers “all that remains is a father’s lover for his child.”

Let’s shout out for James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom. Filmed roughly between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi this performance chose to just put Mr. Jones on screen as the villain strutting around creating his snake based religious cult after realizing his answer to the “Riddle of Steel,” that steel is nothing compared to the hand that wields it. Good choice.

There are a few moments that play out simply on Thulsa Doom’s face that alternately show the character’s otherworldly creepiness, much like the snakes he favors. Or we get to see the charisma of the snake charmer that simply asks a follower to jump off the ledge to prove his point about the power of flesh. That the actor pretty much managed all these variations of evil, greed and contempt without breaking a sweat just speaks to your casting director. We must remain eternally grateful that Mr. Jones only used his powers for good as an actor, instead of forming his own religion…

This does bring up a quibble. Young Conan is told about the “Riddle of Steel.” Older Conan brings it up that he has to say what the riddle is or be booted out of Valhalla. I never really got to hear what Messers. Milius and Stone thought the riddle was, at least in terms of Conan’s perspective on the matter. To this observer’s way of thinking, this leaves a large conceptual hole in an otherwise great script.

At a metallurgical level, the riddle is fairly simple…add charcoal in just the right amount to the iron to get steel in the first place. Of course, we aren’t going to sit through a treatise on blacksmithing and swords, even though much know-how went in at the front end where sometimes the core of the blade was shaped differently than the edge. Sorry this whole bit is boring after a few sentences even here in the review.

The movie remains silent as to the other aspects of the riddle. So, a pseudo-Viking/samurai bushido philosophy about making the warrior worthy of his weapon that destroys the previous bronze weapons? Conan in his original conception is surprisingly well-educated as depicted in the sequences set in pre-historic Asia where he is trained with what look to be katanas without the fancy hilt decorations. He would’ve read the works of Sun-Tzu if Howard hadn’t specifically set his world before even ancient China rose out of the Stone Age. So, what is the riddle, Guys? Or is that the point, that it’s ultimately meaningless…a spiritual MacGuffin? You decide kids.

One of my favorite film composers has always been Basil Poledouris, largely because if you wanted a drums, brass and choral heavy score during the era this is who you hired. I can’t tell if the best music in the score made the scenes it was placed under, a green stew of human body parts (Yeeesh!), attacking the tower, falling in love with Valeria etc., or if the scenes were already strong and just needed music worth the trip. Either way, music and visuals knit together to make everything work. Okay, so I got bored and just wanted to see a movie from my youth the four-zillionth time to see if it held up. Yes, it does. I’m a sucker for sword and sorcery and movies that turn out better than expected. Well worth the $3.99 to rent this from Apple.

Ethical and perhaps boring…

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke.

Absolutely UN-ethical, but definitely not boring.

By the time I reached middle school in 1980, this statement about knowledge and perception was common enough that Mr. D’Amato explained it in seventh grade Social Studies (an overview class with elements of Anthropology and Archeology). He used the example of some douchebag going into the Amazon and waving a lit Zippo around among the tribesmen from whatever uncontacted society fit the hypothetical discussion. Makes total sense…if you don’t see something previously and the person showing off the magic doesn’t carefully open up his/her hands to reveal the wires, well, what else is it, but magic and likely dark magic at that?

 Over the many years since I’ve become a writer and now actually retroactively care about the things I was taught; I’ve had a lot of time to consider the statement. And start asking the questions that go over a twelve-year-old’s head. And to see how some of my favorite books and shows did amazing toe dances with the concept long before Mr. Clarke put it in writing.

My first read of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings roughly coincided with the Social Studies class mentioned above, maybe eighteen months before. Wonderful book. Great movies (even the Ralph Bakshi version that everyone else seems to have hated). And if you read closely…is it magic or technology?

Case in point. Gandalf is being a douchebag scratching the Thief Seeking Employment symbol on the freshly painted door at Bag End. Bilbo waxes quite craptologically about Gandalf’s fireworks remembering fond times when the wizard blew a lot of cool shit up at one of the Old Took’s parties. This later pays off at Bilbo’s Eleventy First (111) birthday when having Gandalf back for a command performance proves an excellent distraction for the worthy Hobbit taking the runner to Rivendell and, with a little bit of encouragement (arm twisting), leaving the Ring to Frodo.

Is Gandalf a wizard or just a really skilled chemist with a taste for pyrotechnics and showmanship?

If we judged only from Gandalf’s fire and other blowing shit up “magic,” we can’t tell. He carries Glamdring, a presumably magicked up elf blade, for all the times when there might not be enough orcs on the board to use up a spell. Does he have stamina issues where it’s just easier to cut orcs in half most days?

At Minas Tirith, the White One was seen behind the wall working up a big one. Yes, villains do blow up on a regular basis through the course of the story. But once we start re-reading these passages with this question in mind…grenades prepared in advance and kept in a hidden pouch or great and terrible magic that coalesces hydrogen out of the air ready for a spark? That I suppose is up to the reader. FYI, Saruman sends a fairly small orc on a kamikaze sapper mission to take out the drainage culvert at Helm’s Deep with a barrel of black powder.

To be fair, Gandalf’s real magic seems to fall into the Leadership, Strength of Character and Morale categories. This is harder to dismiss, especially when given various halo and light effects in the movies.

Have a king wasting away from having to listen to the kind of advisor that only maybe certain unpopular presidents could love? Send in the wizard to do the long-distance exorcism and fistfight leaving Saruman a little roughed up on his tile floor.

Need to buy time for everyone else as they run out the back door? Well, there were quite a bit of bright white lighting cues anytime Gandalf stood up to the really bad monster. Harder to dismiss as fakery and people did have more hope…for a time. Yes, he bats about .500; the Balrog killed him and the Witch King of Angmar decided to pick the fight later on better terms.

Fakery. As I got older, I realized that Mr. Clarke had the beginnings of wisdom, but not the end of it. How much of the example of the Zippo in the Amazon depends on the actions of a stage illusionist, possibly an unscrupulous one? Someone who knows how to hold the lighter so the less advanced observer can see the Behold, I Make Fire trick without seeing the metal lid to the lighter or burning one’s fingers.

Gandalf is a showman. The description of practically having a Beavis & Butthead sense of – “heh, heh, coooool!” – when it comes to blowing up his fireworks gives it away. This means he also knows how to palm a lighter or, more to the point, a firebox. This means he knows how drive eyeballs over here, while – “ignore the man behind the curtain!”

Let’s take a few other examples from our shared narrative database. Moses? Direct line to God, or a cranky magician with a better local calendar than the Egyptians? Various waterways that presumably went blood red during the Plagues have gone crimson since…iron ore deposits stirred up and red tides being the main explanations. To be fair, the one good argument for Work of God is the except in Goshen rider to most of the middle Plagues. Yeah, how do you pull that off without a lot of help that still might not exist in current technology? I’ll get back to you when someone burns the trick for the next Fox Special, “Breaking the Magic Code Pt. 5003, Egypt.”

Do you get more out the swarm simply knowing when the locusts are due and timing the pitch to Pharaoh (your half-brother) accordingly? And did he make up some mumbo jumbo about lamb’s blood on the lintel and the Angel of Death to provide cover for a small dedicated team of guys with nothing left to lose running around the countryside putting the First Born to the sword? We weren’t there and the rest is simply what we choose to believe.

Mark Twain understood Clarke’s Law a hundred years before its publishing. He has his protagonist in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court blow up Merlin’s Tower with black powder, lightning rod and outguessing the next storm. The rest was all about – “I need several days to prepare the spell, Your Majesty.”

And convincing Merlin to vacate. Really? It’s a good idea to bunk out for several days while some pipsqueak newcomer says he going to level your house? That alone suggests the con-artistry of the average stage magician. Hell, it’s straight up performance art!

Clarke’s Third Law also comes into play in the average Star Trek episode where a Prime Directive violation becomes inevitable and must be managed instead of avoided. The character that made the mistake opens up his/her hands and shows the box, tells what it does, apologizes for the intrusion, but only to the smart local who seems like they understood the most. Essentially, Captain Archer/Pike/Kirk/Picard/Sisko/Janeway shows off the cigarette lighter…

“See here, my good man, this is a cigarette lighter. It makes fire.” Opens lid. Flicks striker wheel. FIRE. Awe. “This wheel thingy is made of flint. There is a flammable gas held in this cotton part. Spark. Fuel. Air. And…” “Fire, Boss.” “Right, fire. Now the lid also…” SNAP CLOSED. “…takes away the air. Would you like to try it?” “Yes, Boss.” “Okay, there’s a little bit of a trick to it so you don’t burn off your fingers, but it’ll take a couple seconds to show…”

Ah, the wonderful ethics of Star Trek. On the downside, there are almost no stage magicians and other showmen left in the Federation. It shows in the ugly civilian clothes common to all the shows, until recently.

The Continuing Mission also gets us to ask the really good corollary question to Clarke’s Third Law – is there a point where the observer is sufficiently advanced that instead of believing in magic, they simply go looking for the wires or the cigarette lighter?

Looking for the wires turned Ardra the Mighty into a joke when Picard’s team uses his distraction of the arbitration hearing to find her starship. One more con man scratched off.

This ethic of “it’s not magic, we just haven’t found the wires” runs all throughout Picard’s dealings with Q. Go back to the episodes. How many times does Picard just ask Q to drop the stupid showmanship and theatricality, usually with a non-verbal cue? In one episode, Q claims to be God. In another later one, Q backtracks to “I knew him.” Neither time does Picard seem very much impressed and asks Q to get to the part where he says what he wants. He’s found too many cigarette lighters in his time.