In Defence of Pompeii (and the Filmmaking of Paul W.S. Anderson)

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Sure, the acting is wooden. Sure, the dialogue is atrocious. Sure, the narrative is orchestrated around a cliché love triangle that forces a pleasant female cipher to choose between the affections of a sensitive, lower-class introvert and those of a one-dimensionally callous rich dude. But how many CGI-stuffed summer blockbusters are composed this elegantly?

There are filmmakers who can make a great film out of a lousy script because during the process of translating it into images they either change what it’s about or greatly complicate its chosen subject matter (David Fincher, Tony Scott and David Cronenberg come to mind). And then there are filmmakers like Paul W.S. Anderson, who can elevate sub-par source material simply by directing the absolute shit out of it. It’s easy to defend films like Crank: High Voltage and Blackhat which initially seem to be about very little but, under closer inspection, reveal themselves to be about a lot. It’s harder to defend a film that is in thrall to some ideas that are at best naïve and at worst pretty ludicrous, but is constructed so rigorously that the very conviction of the filmmaking allows the final product to transcend the screenplay’s essential idiocy. But, damn it, somebody has to do it!

Paul W.S. Anderson is an auteur in the most classical sense, by which I mean that he seems to have little interest in being seen as an auteur. Completely unpretentious and therefore doomed to critical failure, Anderson makes pulpy meat-and-potatoes action movies separated from the pack by their super-saturated chiaroscuro colour schemes, architectural compositions, near-constant deep focus framing, and ingenious use of negative space. Aside from Michael Mann and Neveldine/Taylor, it’s difficult to think of an American director currently working within the genre that can match his formal skills; however, while those two always seem to use the blockbuster template as a means to sneak in a subversive socio-political critique, Anderson takes the genre’s conventions and archetypes totally seriously. Anyone looking for deeper meaning within his stories of clearly delineated heroes fighting against vast antagonistic systems are bound to be frustrated, and they also lack the playful self-awareness that most critics seem to favour to lighten up their popcorn flicks.

It doesn’t help that the themes that have preoccupied him throughout his career (primarily the uncritical celebration of self-determination, individualism and badass stoicism; a vaguely anti-imperialist distrust of all-powerful corporations; the belief that a person’s moral fibre can be determined by how they face their own death) are rarely explored these days without an element of irony or kitsch. It also doesn’t help that while most modern artsy-action filmmakers root their visual style in impressionism – using quick cuts, striking angles, fluid focal shifts, lens changes, gaudy colours and erratic camera movements to abstract set-pieces into smeary collages in motion – Anderson’s skews closer to expressionism: the camera largely remains still or moves across a very rigid line of movement; the editing doesn’t call attention to itself; scenes are clearly delineated into unified pockets of time; characters are often set against imposing, unusually textured backdrops that become projections of their emotional states.

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Viewed from one angle, Pompeii is a series of elaborately constructed settings carefully mapped out and then violently destroyed. In Anderson’s hands, the titular city becomes a breathtakingly dense network of tunnels and roads, filled with constrained, claustrophobic, usually circular spaces, often made up of several levels – tunnels and arenas and multi-dimensional mazes. Repeatedly, interior space is ingeniously arranged around columns and windows and marble floors, cleanly dividing the screen so that simple foreground or middle ground action is set against rich background ambient activity. Seen from above, these richly textured landscapes lent the look of dioramas or doll houses or even game boards. On a purely aesthetic level, the comparison shouldn’t be with James Cameron or Roland Emmerich but with John Ford or Manoel de Oliveira, or late period Roberto Rossellini.

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The sincerity with which Anderson approaches jejune concepts and the travails of thinly sketched characters makes him an easy punching bag (and, indeed, if this script had been placed in the hands of a similarly earnest yet lesser filmmaker like Tom Hooper, I’d eagerly join in), but Pompeii is a film of simple – even simplistic – ideas delivered with such conviction that they register with surprising power. It’s not a matter of style-over-substance but style-as-substance.

Take, for example, a short sequence that occurs roughly halfway in. Cassia and her servant/confidant Ariadne are at a gathering, where they spot Milo, who is being presented in a gladiator auction. The pair exchange glances. What’s expressed here isn’t exactly complex – physical desire rendered impossible to pursue because of class divisions. For a workman-like filmmaker, the syntax would be routine: a standard wide shot to establish space, then a few tight, complimentary close-ups to show the actors’ expressions. Yet Anderson transforms it into a sequence of rich, poetic images.

It begins as a static wide shot, the interaction of the right and back walls dividing the screen into 4. Cassia and Adriande walk to be positioned in a waist-up two-shot, both squeezed into roughly one third of the screen and positioned just right of centre. Around them is the bustling space of the room, groups of figures carefully arranged in layers that stretch into the background, framed by reefs and curtains and chandeliers and pillars. The colour scheme is made up of a dynamic array of rich yellows, deep blues, and burnished reds.

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Anderson then cuts to something like a 90-degree reverse angle, except now the two are framed from the back, shoulders-upwards, and the composition is perfectly symmetrical. In between them, we see Milo and Atticus in the far distance, staring at one another. This planimetric shot is full of complex visual parallels that draw in the eye – the matching sets of black columns, the two sets of characters, one inside of the other, the centred water fountain, the hangings lights.

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It’s at this point that Anderson cuts to a close-up: a subtly off-centre, eye-level one-shot of Cassia surrounded by large chunks of negative space. The focal length is now very small, which transforms the wall behind her into a hazy wash of blocked colours like an impromptu Mark Rothko painting.

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After some back-and-forth between Cassia and Adriande, Anderson cuts to a medium wide of Milo and Atticus. We expect this to be a POV shot from Cassia’s perspective, but it isn’t – Milo isn’t centered as an object of attention should be. The pallet is now dominated by olive greens and bright yellows. The pair are boxed in by the edges of the room, Milo framed against an intricate grid of intersecting lines that takes up a large portion of the middle ground.

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Anderson alternates between some of these set-ups for a while, before finally arriving at Milo’s one-shot. As in Cassia’s, he’s set against a flat, perpendicular backdrop nearly abstracted beyond the point of recognition. But here the composition is much more rigid and geometric, lit by colours far earthier and less extravagant. The fact that these colours are complementary is a goofy way of suggesting that they’re kindred souls through form; it creates a sense of unity between the shots, despite the physical gulf between them and the mismatch in framing (Cassia’s one-shot is an eye-level close-up, Milo’s is a slightly low-angle medium shot).

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It’s schmaltzy, gaudy and weirdly beautiful. And that’s pretty much the essence of Pompeii. In mapping a string of clichés onto the screen, Anderson invests them with a cinematic power that reaches far beyond the writing. You never get the impression that he’s aspiring to be regarded as an artiste, yet, like the best directors, he develops a unique, heightened hyper-reality world that operates according to its own self-contained internal logic and is rooted within a deeply personal filmmaking philosophy. For better and for worse, any randomly selected 5 second clip from any one of his movies could easily be identified as a product of Anderson’s imagination. And how many big-budget American filmmakers can we say that about?

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English student, filmmaker and writer for Alternate Takes, MUBI Notebook, Film International, Mcsweeney's, Senses of Cinema, Little White Lies, The Vulgar Cinema and Sound on Sight. Too crazy for boys' town, too much of a boy for crazy town.

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