The Earth Speaks: A Conversation on Paul W.S. Anderson's "Pompeii"

Critics John Lehtonen and Neil Bahadur discuss the fiery inferno of awe, love and morality that is Paul W.S. Anderson’s “Pompeii”.
John Lehtonen, Neil Bahadur
Paul W.S. Anderson has continued his explorations in 3D cinema with his latest film, Pompeii. It’s a simplistic love story in the vein of Titanic, two mismatched, class-divided lovers contrasted against one of history’s worst natural disasters. The story concerns a Celtic gladiator named Milo (Kit Harrington), who witnessed the slaughter of his family by the Roman Empire, under the command of Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland). Soon, after being spotted as a promising business prospect for Pompeii’s gladiator games, Milo is sent to the titular city. While on the way, he first meets Cassia (Emily Browning), the melancholic (by way of Kate Winslet in Titanic) daughter of the wealthy class. After arriving in Pompeii, Milo meets fellow slave and gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and they soon become friends, bonded by their captivity. Corvus, now a senator, arrives in Pompeii to broker a land deal, and with all the players now arrived, it becomes a waiting game, as Vesuvius boils and rumbles towards the inevitable.
Pompeii is an elemental film: water and fire, earth and wind, love and vengeance, CGI and practical effects. Everything is honed to simplicity. The narrative is impossible love and lingering hate. Anderson has always worked with large, broad strokes of emotion, as far back as his debut Shopping (1994), which sees two youths struggling against a grim industrial world and their own self-destructive tastes. His Resident Evil: Retribution (2012) is as close as he’s come to a complex film, elegantly maintaining layers of illusion. In contrast, Pompeii is his most simple yet, and also his most moving. Friendship has been a bedrock of his work since the beginning, and here, when we find Milo, Cassia, and Atticus in longshot against volcanic ash and flames, we find yet again another band of Anderson heroes (friends) yet again stranded but strong in a world dominated by oppressive systems of government and business. But Anderson is not one for despair, it’s all about the struggle, the beauty of the fight. Pompeii is the “disaster film”’s odd man out, a film of rapture and humanity.
Neil Bahadur and myself delved deeper into Paul W.S. Anderson's methods through an email dialogue on Pompeii.

NEIL BAHADUR: To conventional eyes, Paul W.S. Anderson is everything that a great filmmaker shouldn’t be.  He makes video game adaptations, completely disregards traditional aspects of plot and character development, and his action scenes are so exceedingly stylized and choreographed that they cannot remotely resemble traditional human movement.  But because prevailing attitudes in regards to cinema tell us that we should listen to a film, not watch one, we miss the huge steps that Anderson takes.  Unlike many of the honored directors of the contemporary cinema, Anderson shows us that a film should be experienced, not heard, and to those not blinded by the fallacies of modern filmmaking, Anderson proves himself to be among the most impressive of visually attuned directors. That being said, commending Anderson’s work simply because of this would run the risk of discrediting the great complexities of everything else. His films are littered with characters who are in many ways the last citizens of humanity and of a moral compass, anda hatred of corporate entitiesso prominent and drastic that it resembles the most radical of Marxist theory. Anderson’s new film Pompeii is a massive culmination of these ideas.  Pompeii is also a film defined by conviction.  Unlike Anderson’s previous films, there is a romantic element which, heretofore unseen in his movies, now becomes the primary focus, and being so sincere in its ambitions, Pompeii becomes a profoundly moving film.  
JOHN LEHTONEN:Pompeii feels both alien and inevitable in his cinema. None of Anderson's prior films are so deeply gestural as this; here he reduces romance to purely physical terms. Exchanges of glances, or the offering of a hand. Yet it feels entirely anticipated in his cinema. Resident Evil: Retribution and The Three Musketeers [2011] revel in bodies in motion, the grace of people within the director's rigorous lines. Pompeii fittingly reduces this to the bare essentials, for his first romance in proper.
BAHADUR: Gestural is key here.  Whereas before in Resident Evil: Afterlife [2010],Retribution,and Musketeers there were these kind of hyper-Sternbergian compositions of layers upon layers, in Pompeii Anderson moves into a much “simpler” mode of directing: people and landscapes, and yes, the extending of hands, the meetings of eyes, and the poses in silhouette which take place before these landscapes.  It’s something more akin to John Ford or Roberto Rossellini than Josef von Sternberg or Fritz Lang, to whom some have compared him.  The only time we actually do see something similar in the director’s previous works (in a aesthetic sense), is when Milo and Atticus return to the gladiator arena and they go to the ruins of the bottom level.  It’s the corridors of the first Resident Evil and Event Horizon [1997]—among other Anderson films—but even this is different.  It’s much more classical, ovals instead of rectangles. In typical Ford or Rossellini form, tunnels and roads lead to new beginnings. But at the same time, they are claustrophobic and terrifying. 
LEHTONEN: As has always been the case with Anderson, architecture dominates and imprisons, but here it becomes emotionally oppressive; consider the way Anderson’s use of 3D makes Cassia’s balcony an enclosed space, rather than a window to the outside world. The pillars, the curtains. If I recall correctly, only one shot actually displays what a character is seeing from that vantage point. Like the many sterile rooms Milla Jovovich finds herself trapped in in the Resident Evil franchise, we find space imprisoned. Unlike those sterile rooms, in Pompeii the spaces are emotionally dynamic, something rather like the obviously placed bird cage positioned frequently in frame. A simple symbol, possibly contrived, but Pompeii is a film of simplicity and contrivance interacting fruitfully with space and color. Cassia's family mansion, set between Vesuvius and the town of Pompeii, can become anything: a prison, a gaudy spectacle, a place of personal tragedy. Each prominent space is made dynamic.
BAHADUR: Anderson’s love of movement and architecture converge in such a fascinating way here:  human motion and natural landscapes versus man-made structures.  The outstretching of a hand to another person can dominate an entire composition. Even more striking though, is how Anderson films “natural objects” like tree branches, weeds, dust, water, and smoke. (And I think the film has to be seen in 3D to fully experience this.) Describing the volcano’s eventual eruption as nature overtaking all man-made structures is much too feeble to properly describe what is being seen.  We have never seen dust fall from cracks in roofs or walls like this before.  It’s a strange thing to do, to mix the oldest, most elemental things we have with the newest technology available.  As a result, while we know we’re seeing water, fire, dust, etc.,  it doesn’t feel like we’re seeing those.  It feels like we’re seeing new, unrecognizable forms.  The film takes things which have been taken all too much for granted in cinema and makes us feel like we’re seeing them for the first time again.  Early on, when the young Milo is captured by slave traders after sleeping under a tree, branches, and specifically one branch over Milo, overpowers the entire composition(s).  I have no idea why Anderson would choose to do this, but nevertheless it’s awe-inspiring: design overpowers all dramatic elements. The same is true of the wide-shot where we see grown-up Milo and the rest of the slaves being taken to Pompeii. Tall grass completely averts our eyes from the narrative and is saying something like, “Look at us!  Grass!  Look how much more important we are!”  It too radiates awe—I find, anyways.  But to go back to Anderson “making things look new again,” one could possibly apply this to the film's narrative as well.  Complaints have been lodged about how “clichéd” it is, and indeed the story is extremely simple, and it’s so classical in trajectory that it almost goes beyond archetype.  But what’s so incredible is how genuine it is.  This is some kind of pure, unadulterated faith—perhaps faith in idealism, something so rare in pretty much anything since maybe Michael Cimino (and that grass shot looks like something right out of Heaven’s Gate!), people free of modern-day neuroses. An older couple can have a rocky relationship throughout the film then suddenly be found dead holding hands, 20th century dramatic logic be damned.  Anderson is as much of a moral revolutionary as he is a cinematic one.  
LEHTONEN: Anderson’s moral faith is grounded firmly in action, action against hopeless odds, massive, dominant forces. It’s the choice to fight that makes his characters beautiful and moving. The certainty of death in Pompeii becomes a release, as the characters’ world has become thoroughly dominated by a totalitarian will. Rather than a suicidal notion, it’s a graceful one. They don’t die in despair, they die with dignity. It’s almost Anderson’s zero point. All of his characters fight, but in Pompeii we see it in macrocosmic terms: they fight honorably against evil, but inevitably death takes us all. This puts the fight in relief; we see with clarity that the struggle defined them. Atticus’ freedom is won before he’s killed, hence his final words: “I die a free man!” Milo, Cassia, Atticus—they have all died with meaning. They’ve defined themselves against the forces seeking their oppression.
Again and again we return to the mountain, as Anderson is anything but subtle. A CGI Vesuvius is our focal point, and it speaks. The film isn’t quite divided between melodrama and calamitous event like many history or disaster epics. Cameron’s Titanic may begin at the bottom of the sea, but the film’s first half is largely independent of history. A couple of its lines of dialogue may speak to future disaster, but narrative roams free, for a time. History and pageantry are separate. In Pompeii, however, the earth communicates, threatens, insists its presence. Again, Atticus: “It is the mountain. It grumbles from time to time.”
BAHADUR: Moving back to the beginning of the movie, the battle scene where the adult Milo is introduced is remarkable. Before the fight begins, the two slave traders overlook the gladiatorial arena, another instance of Anderson’s high-above manipulators, like the Red Queen or Shang Tsung in Mortal Kombat [1995].  In the middle ground of that shot, instead of seeing the arena, we just see a sharp, pointed gate.  Objects, lines even, tell us all we need to know.  We can hardly see the arena itself in the master shot.  Then when Milo finally is introduced the magic starts to happen.  He bounds up the frame in silhouette, while another gate opens: it too in silhouette.  Gates like these appear all throughout the film, and reduces Anderson’s obsessions with lines and the intricacies of space to its most basic form.  We need nothing further to tell us that we are in an oppressive milieu.   It’s easy to laugh at Milo once we see him from the front, his abs in full force, until we see what he’s being cut against. He’s pitted against metal masks with no eyes. Anderson even cuts to a shot of a single strange bladed weapon which reminds us of violence that we cannot put a name to.  In contrast to these abstractions, Milo is the classical hero of German romantic paintings. Strange man-made contraptions put in opposition with the human body. In contrast to the overtly-studied movements of the armored warriors, Milo moves like a dancer. He reminds me of Matahi from F.W. Murnau’s Tabu.
LEHTONEN: The director has achieved reconciliation, between the elemental aspects we’ve been discussing, and the artifice of CGI. It’s something miraculous, life and resonance from fakery. It’s key to the art since its inception, the achievement is old and new simultaneously. One feels like he’s been building to this for years. In a way it feels entirely appropriate that this follows Resident Evil: Retribution. The previous film was images, fakes ad infinitum, peeling away layer by layer. And what do we arrive at, what’s beneath it all? The answer is here: emotions, the Earth.
BAHADUR: The Earth hangs over the entire movie. I think when Anderson first pans up from Pompeii to the volcano, it’s not fear that he’s trying to convey, it’s awe.  Structures made by humans, and then structures not.  Anderson’s even mentioned in interviews how the destruction should at once be devastating yet beautiful (I am paraphrasing here) so the fiery rocks erupting from the volcano often overtake the frame, becoming specks of light. Or the tsunami resulting from the eruption: its really not terrifying at all.  It just strikes awe, you simply watch it, experience it.  I think this reaches its apotheosis right after Milo has rescued Cassia; they hide in a doorway and Cassia exclaims, “Why would the gods let this happen?”  Astonishingly, Anderson stops the movie, and lingers on the fire and rocks falling from the sky.  Milo and Cassia too stop what they’re doing and suddenly a small shaft of light comes down and sparks from the fires move upward. Anderson just stops the film to linger and appreciate all the things which come from the Earth and not from the human (or appreciate his own, virtually untouchable at this point, mise en scène). It’s an astonishing moment where we experience a kind of grace the exact way the characters in the movie do. Fire can be beautiful. Perhaps relishing his own ability, one could maybe surmise that above all things, the reversed side of oppressive structures is, for Anderson, visual gratification.  
LEHTONEN: A disaster film of miracles. As Anderson has stated, he’s in it for populism. Big emotions, thrilling events, making the audience at large feel something. It isn’t morbid and sullen, it isn’t about the death of multitudes via CGI, it’s quite simply about love and people.
BAHADUR:Pompeii is formulaic, cliché, and completely genuine.  Not unlike a fairy tale, love and the earth triumph over all, slaves and princesses collide, and all social structures collapse, not because Anderson sees these values as a fantasy, but recognizes them as an ideal.


DialoguesPaul W.S. AndersonColumns
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