Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii (2014) blew me away. Judging the trailer and posters, one does not expect a masterful film, nor even a reasonably good film. 3D, CGI, and romantic melodrama rarely appeal to higher artistic sensibilities, and I for one have yet to be swayed by the present cinephile movement known as ‘vulgar auterism’. In the past, I have learned to appreciate, after much debate, the spirit of vulgar auteurism and the sincerity of its ideals. Though I am not an advocator of the movement, I cannot deny that there is some truth in its values.
Vulgar auteurism recognizes those films which have been wrongly dismissed for supposed low-brow qualities by critics and audiences who see the use of socially inappropriate images, CGI, saturation of colours, hyperbolization of reality, exploitation of history, and unapologetic sense of personal creative indulgence as cinematic flaws, as wrongs, as non-art. VA celebrates these qualities as they fall in line with the original teachings of the French New Wave filmmakers and Cahiers du cinema writers, such as critics turned filmmakers Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, Rohmer, and Chabrol, and critics Andrew Sarris and Alexandre Astruc, who claimed that a film ought to be the consequence of a filmmakers (author’s) unique personal vision and creative endeavors. In fact, they believed not only that this ought to be true, but that empirical evidence suggests that great films share the common quality of fitting this rubric. They celebrated American auteurs such as John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, amongst others, and set out to do the same for French cinema.
While films described as works of vulgar auteurism do not have the ‘casual’ aesthetic (Bordwell) of the French New Wave, or the classicism and social politeness of historically celebrated American fare, they do highlight many of the qualities deemed artistically pure by the auteurist approach of film criticism. For example, the films of Paul Verhoeven and Paul W.S. Anderson, to name a few, are certainly unique and one might easily distinguish a work as belonging to one or the other. This is due to a perceived personal viewpoint which the directors imprint in each of their films. Certain motifs, themes, and aesthetic choices are uniquely driven by the director’s authorship.
Naysayers of vulgar auteurism reject the notion on the basis first that perhaps auteurism itself is a flawed approach to film criticism, and second by suggesting that a creative or personal imprint is not grounds to declare a film’s positive value. I have long considered auteurism to be one of the most compelling and valuable film perspectives, as I often choose to watch films based on the director, knowing what might be in store for me. There is no arguing that the works of Bresson, Mizoguchi, or Hitchcock could hardly be mistaken for the works of anyone else.
In spite of accepting the notion of vulgar auteurism, I have never truly connected to a film considered part of the vulgar auteurist cannon until Pompeii. I watched Showgirls with the words of Adam Nayman in mind, but could not connect. I enjoyed Gamer thanks to Steven Shapiro’s Post-Cinematic Affect, but remained aware of its flaws.
As I am not part of the vulgar auteurist movement, I can only presume my accuracy by saying that VA wants viewers to alter their perspective of what is ‘correct’, by showing that supposed vulgarity or inappropriateness of images is not a sign of low-art but that it is only perceived as low-art due to our socially imbricated understanding of what is on-screen acceptable and typical of art and what is not.
Pompeii has extremely few qualities which would allow comparison to a classic film, to a masterpiece, to a ‘good film’, but this is exactly what it is. It is a modern classic, a masterpiece, and most certainly a ‘good’ film. The use of 3D, CGI, saturated colours, and hyperbole might easily be perceived as shallow or superficial on first glance, but there is a certain genius behind how these qualities support an ecstatic and artistically valid work of art. As a supporter of verisimilitude and a lover of realism, it comes as a bit of a surprise how strongly I recognize the artistic validity of this easily dismissable ‘commercial’ film which is anything but. For one, it didn’t even do well in the box office and boasts low ratings across the web.
For a period film, historical accuracy is often celebrated as a great achievement, and the lack of accuracy a critical weakness. This is a common view, and it is a wrong one. First of all, film is crafted and as such is always fictional; even a documentary will have certain inaccuracies. Secondly, history is often wrong. Human history is literally based on hearsay. Things were written, perhaps inaccurately; things were translated, perhaps inaccurately; things were retold, perhaps inaccurately, and things became regarded as history. And for some reason we believe the history books as if science, as if guidebooks of absolute truth.
Rather than play this game of historical closeness, and failing like every film which attempts to be ‘historically accurate’, Paul W.S. Anderson rejects history and unapologetically creates a fictional story which constantly makes reference to its own artificiality. Affective images (emotionally affecting stills), saturated colours, and the hyperbolization of reality are features of its imaginative aesthetic, of a unique and auteur-driven vision of a fictional world: an artificial play which generates much genuine human emotion. Love is its content, from the love of Milo and Cassia to the brotherhood of Milo and Atticus. Hyperbole is its syntax, from the superhero-like Gladiators to the dramatic mise-en-scene full of orange fire and red blood. And whether Roman, countryman, slave, or master, all becomes one under the sun of a flaming fucking volcano.
90/100 – Amazing