Why ‘Pompeii’ Doesn’t Blow

REARVIEW: Why the critically maligned box office flop is the latest evidence for Paul W.S. Anderson's rise to the top tier of vulgar auteurs

Pompeii Film Review

History suggests that it took about six hours for Mt. Vesuvius to bury Pompeii in a thick coat of lava and ash. It took most critics even less time to bury “Pompeii” the movie in volcanic invective, resulting in a woeful 28% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an only slightly more encouraging 41 on Metacritic. Meanwhile, the vox populi has spoken, leading to a dismal $10 million opening weekend (against a reported $100 million budget). But look closer and, like those flailing limbs jutting out from the real Pompeii’s petrified in-situ corpses, a few persuasive dissenters can be heard amid the dismissive din. They douse the violent inferno with enthusiastic praise for the movie’s action sequences, for its use of 3D, and above all for its director, Paul W.S. Anderson. And they are not wrong to do so. Welcome to the cult of the vulgar auteur.

Of course, one can scarcely talk about “vulgar” auteurism without first pausing for a few words on auteurism itself, that keystone notion of 1960s cinephilia, coined by Francois Truffaut as “la politique des auteurs” in his seminal 1954 Cahiers du Cinema essay and later imported to America by Andrew Sarris in his 1962 article, “Notes on the Auteur Theory.” The word “theory” was famously Sarris’ invention, and it instantly tainted the discussion with an academic air that would prove, for some other critics (most notably Pauline Kael), the equivalent of waving red in front of a bull.

It’s only fitting, then, that the notion of “vulgar auteurism” also has its roots in a certain amount of misappropriation. When the term was first coined, by the Canadian critic Andrew Tracy in a 2009 essay on Michael Mann, he defined it as the habit of some critics and film buffs to elevate “whole fleets of past and present studio craftsmen, from the competent to the questionable … high above their stations via tendentious interpretations of thematic consistency and a specious formalism that welcomes any manner of ostentatious display.” In other words, auteur theory run amok. As it happens, this was exactly the sort of thing Cahiers co-founder and Truffaut mentor Andre Bazin was been worried about from the start, cautioning in his own writings on “la politique des auteurs” about the dangers of an “aesthetic cult of personality” that would predetermine certain films to be good simply because they were made by designated “auteurs.”

But perhaps because it’s just so damn catchy, “vulgar auteurism” quickly evolved from a warning into an affirmation, picked up by a loosely connected group of young critics and bloggers as a mantle for ferreting out directorial “authorship” in the most disreputable basements and back alleys of contemporary cinema. This repurposed vulgar-auteurist stance has been addressed at length in essays by the critics Ignatiy Vishnevetsky and Calum Marsh, and is the guiding logic behind Christoph Huber and Mark Peranson’s 2006 canonization of the late Tony Scott, and two lengthy Village Voice essays that appeared within a few weeks of each other in the fall of 2012: critic Nick Schager’s assessment that “John Hyams Is the Best Action Director Working Today” and Nick Pinkerton’s celebration of “The Bigger and Better Mousetraps of Paul W.S. Anderson.”

The latter article was occasioned by the release of Anderson’s “Resident Evil: Retribution,” the fifth entry in the long-running (and highly profitable) post-apocalyptic zombie franchise (of which Anderson has directed three), which arrived in North American cinemas on the very same day as the more outwardly respectable “The Master,” directed by Anderson’s generational contemporary and near-namesake: Paul Thomas Anderson. For the contrary-minded critic, the confluence was irresistible: “The master, of course, is not P.T. Anderson, but rather Paul W.S. Anderson. The movie of the moment is ‘Resident Evil: Retribution,’” Pinkerton declaimed with impish brio before going on to champion the latter Anderson as “a crackerjack director of swashbuckling/chop-socky/demolition derby/prison-break movies” who “can barely be bothered with motivations or subtext, but give him a booby-trapped corridor, a hair’s-breadth escape, or a tactical assault, and he’s off to the races.”

Reading that, some may have heard echoes of the critic Manny Farber, whose lively 1957 manifesto “Underground Films” similarly argued for the merits of action-movie directors like Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, William Wellman and Anthony Mann (all concurrent favorites of the Cahiers crowd) above and beyond those of Oscar-lauded prestige-picture makers like Fred Zinnemann and George Stevens.

“The action directors accept the role of hack so that they can involve themselves with expedience and tough-guy insight in all types of action: barnstorming; driving; bulldogging,” Farber wrote in his inimitable hardboiled patois. “The important thing is not so much the banal-seeming journeys to nowhere that make up the stories, but the tunneling that goes on inside the classic Western-gangster incidents and stock hoodlum-dogface-cowboy types.” Of Wellman, he noted that the director’s “lean, elliptical talents for creating brassy cheapsters and making gloved references to death, patriotism, masturbation, suggest that he uses private runways to the truth, while more famous directors take a slow, embalming surface route.”

At the time, Farber worried that the audience for such films was drying up, and that the action directors were doomed to obsolescence — or, worse, to making above-ground “A” pictures that didn’t suit their particular skill sets. Today, of course, action pictures of one sort or another are almost all Hollywood makes (though one doubts Farber would have lauded today’s comicbook moviemakers for “saving the American male on the screen”). But you hardly need to be an industry insider to realize that movies like “Pompeii” and Anderson’s previous “The Three Musketeers” aren’t afforded anywhere near the same level of respect by the press or public as the latest Marvel- or DC-branded opus. Though their budgets may be larger than the “B” movies of yesteryear, Anderson’s films are clearly declasse, released with a touch of embarrassment even by their own distributors (who rarely bother to screen them in advance for the press), and, despite their considerable technical prowess, somehow out of place in today’s state-of-the-art multiplexes. If ever there were films tailor-made for the derelict movie palaces Farber termed “itch houses,” these are them.

So, as “Pompeii” was imploding over the weekend, Anderson’s loyalists were understandably taking to the ramparts to sing its praises. Writing from his new perch at the Sundance Now blog, Pinkerton extolled the movie’s extensive gladiatorial combat scenes: “While skipping around the action to break it into glimmering facets, P.W.S.A. keeps motion flowing fluidly, rhythmically, with both combatants and key spectators, action and reaction, ever before the viewer.” Meanwhile, in the New York Times, critic Miriam Bale said, “Mr. Anderson displays his mastery as a director in the sword-fighting scenes. The camera glides and tilts in exact counterpoint to the thrusts of the knives, as if a bloody ballet.” And over at Film Comment, R. Emmet Sweeney afforded special praise to the 3D cinematography of longtime Anderson collaborator Glen MacPherson, writing that “the foreground sheets of ash are the most enveloping particulates since the windswept desert sand in Roy Ward Baker’s 1953 ‘Inferno.’”

The last is an especially interesting comparison, in that the British-born Baker was himself something of an auteurist test case — a polymath genre director who worked his way up the ranks of the British film industry from teaboy to director, spent a few years in Hollywood in the 1950s (where he did “Inferno” as well as the Richard Widmark/Marilyn Monroe vehicle “Don’t Bother to Knock”), and eventually returned home to make perhaps his best and best-known film, “A Night to Remember,” about the sinking of the Titanic. Few (including, by all accounts, the director himself) considered Baker more than a skilled gun-for-hire, but the British critic Raymond Durgnat saw something more, writing that Baker was “an auteur whose spiritual attitude, a kind of fair-minded pessimism, precludes open revolt and it precludes acceptance.”

Now, chances are that when you turn around to shush those rude patrons yapping away behind you during your screening of “Pompeii,” it won’t be a conversation about pessimism and precluded revolt that you’ve interrupted. And in fairness to Anderson’s champions, most of them praise the director not on any highfalutin philosophical grounds, but rather for his spatially coherent action sequences staged with a minimum of the shaky-cam aesthetics and nerve-jangling editing that have become the dominant m.o. of the post-MTV Hollywood blockbuster. Or, as Pinkerton deftly puts it, “the too-common hurly-burly that’s meant to disguise the fact that there was no scene there in the first place.”

These partisans will also generally allow that Anderson could benefit from better scripts, which may be especially true in the case of “Pompeii,” whose characters are drawn in very broad strokes of doe-eyed innocence and demonic evil and speak dialogue that’s flatter than those Vesuvius-smote ruins. But as a friend (who also happens to be an Anderson fan) wrote to me in an email shortly before I headed off to see “Pompeii” myself, “I wish we had more critics who understand that movies are not the same as scripts.” And indeed, it’s distressing how little contemporary film criticism (the writers cited here being the exceptions that prove the rule) concerns itself with the actual work of a director — the choice of angles, spatial arrangements within the frame, movement of actors, duration of shots, cutting patterns, etc. No less alarming is the outsized praise heaped on “event” films like “The Avengers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” that may benefit from clever scripts, but lack so much as a single lasting image.

Call them underground filmmakers, vulgar auteurs or what you will: Every generation has its directors who toil in relative critical obscurity during their most productive years, only to earn prestigious museum retrospectives and lifetime achievement awards in their senescence. In the 1960s and ’70s, that was true for the unsung craftsmen of Hollywood’s storied “golden age.” Today, it holds for 1980s genre specialists like John Carpenter, John Flynn, Walter Hill and William Lustig. Twenty-odd years from now, it may be the case for Anderson and other deserving vulgar auteurs du jour, including a few not already mentioned here: Nimrod Antal, Justin Lin, Jim Mickle, David Twohy.

“Pompeii” may not be Anderson’s best work. It lacks some of the snap of his “Resident Evil” movies and “The Three Musketeers,” with its magnificent climactic battle between two enormous airborne galleons. (Nothing in any of the “Pirates” movies can touch it.) But it moves at a clip, never hangs heavy with pretense, and features at least one sequence that is as good as anything Anderson has done: the flood waters of the Bay of Naples rushing into the doomed city with tsunami-like power, pushing back the fleeing residents, all staged in elegant wide shots that accrue a devastating beauty and power.

What “Pompeii” lacks most is Anderson’s frequent leading lady, Milla Jovovich, who has been his filmmaking partner for a dozen years now and his wife for five, and who was revealed by the “Resident Evil” movies to be a surprisingly nimble physical comedienne, able to hold her own with the boys and usually one step ahead of them, Sigourney Weaver by way of Rosalind Russell. There might be, in their future, a great romantic comedy in the Blake Edwards mold, if only there were a Blake Edwards around to write it. But typecasting in Hollywood applies to directors as much as actors, and so Anderson seems likely to spend the foreseeable future making his industrious big-budget B-movies, including a promised sixth “Resident Evil” tale. The moviegoers of the world could suffer far worse fates.