September 18, 2012
It was a banner weekend for Paul Andersons, as Paul Thomas Anderson and Paul W.S. Anderson topped the specialty and worldwide box office. As PTA’s vaultingly ambitious The Master has understandably dominated the cultural conversation, I wanted to create some space to discuss the ever-workmanlike W.S. One of the few directors to fully embrace 3D, creating dazzling depth effects on half the budget of most Hollywood spectaculars, he’s an endlessly resourceful stylist. Despite this, W.S. has long been one of the worst reviewed directors in the United States. One of his staunchest defenders has been New York Times film critic Dave Kehr, so I went to see Resident Evil: Retribution 3D (rated 30% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes) with him at the Regal Union Square in Manhattan. Afterward we sat down and had an informal chat about Paul W.S. Anderson’s work and career. [Warning: Spoilers Ahead]
RES: So you were first impressed by Paul W.S. Anderson by seeing Shopping (1994) at the Toronto Film Festival?
DK: I’m pretty sure that’s where I saw it. British punk movie, big rock score. Stylistically, it’s not as accomplished as his later work, but the elements are there. It’s all nighttime, it’s all glare and chase sequences that move into the next one. And the people who consider themselves the last representatives of humanity in a corporate world.
RES: Yes, his villains are always the ultra-privatized, corporate overlords.
DK: The classic figure, right. I interviewed him once [you can read the 2002 NY Times interview here], and he was a very affable guy, and was startled that anyone would want to talk to him. It was really an effort to track down his publicist, because he had given up on getting recognition years before that, even.
RES: Once he made Mortal Kombat (1995), he became associated with video games, which was just considered trash.
DK: No more serious consideration necessary, the guy makes video game movies. And he’s still making cheesy video game movies…
RES: But excellent ones!
DK: Yeah. And he’s seen a lot of movies. Who he reminds me of is Fritz Lang. I’m pretty sure I asked him about that, and he said, “oh yeah, love him.”
RES: The connection with Lang is with his use of geometric figures?
DK: All the underground stuff, worlds within worlds, imagined conspiracies. In particular the space used in Resident Evil: Retribution (2012), the geometry and symmetry.
RES: Also similar is the puppet-master, a Mabuse-like figure.
RES: Umbrella Corporation in Resident Evil, Joan Allen in Death Race (2008)…
DK: The sinister boss figure hovering over all these people, and making them move and jump around. In the Resident Evil series, I guess it’s the computer, the Red Queen.
RES: It’s the corporation itself, a faceless entity.
DK: Yeah, it has its own life.
RES: It’s the entity that makes them jump around, but it’s how Anderson shoots this jumping around that makes him special. How would you describe how he shoots action?
DK: It’s hard not to think of the musical. It’s so perfectly choreographed. It reminds me of the first Hong Kong stuff in the 70s, with a real sense of exuberance in action that you haven’t seen in a long time. Real physical action, not just shooting guns at each other. Jumping off of buildings…
RES: While shooting guns…
DK: That came a little bit later, but what I’m thinking of is Tsui Hark’s Peking Opera Blues (1986). I don’t know if it stands up now. That style has been so overdone to the point of absurdity.
RES: Well, Hark’s Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011) was rather disappointing.
DK: Wasn’t it? I turned it off. So much CGI…
RES: Yeah, even with their weapons. And that’s the thing with Anderson’s films. There is tons of CGI, but they’re also very physical…
DK: He never gives you the sense that he’s faking it. The stunt choreography is really good. He clearly has a personal interest in that stuff. Getting to Budd Boetticher – the way people fight each other in Paul Anderson movies, it’s that kind of psych-out thing that Boetticher does. Through dialogue, through intimidation. It’s like a chess game, they’re anticipating each other’s moves. The fun is in seeing the twist at the end – how Milla Jovovich really out-thought the other person.
RES: Like in the opening of Retribution, Milla grabs a chain and lock, and works a number of variations on how she uses it in attacks. I did read that interview you did with him, and I remember he mentioned that he comes from a family of coal miners, explaining his fascination with claustrophobic spaces.
DK: Even when there are exteriors in his films, they turn out to be interiors. [In Retribution what looks like Tokyo, NYC and Moscow turn out to be an underground testing facility built by the evil Umbrella Corporation.]
RES: Each entry in the Resident Evil series has a very specific sense of place. The first was an underground labyrinth, the second an urban hellscape, the third a version of the West, and the fourth is the Western coast of the U.S. In Retribution, Anderson devises a plot where he can jump between these differing spaces.
DK: Although he does add the suburban section here. It’s fun to see her in normal clothes, playing at playing the mom. Then when she straps on the S&M gear, it’s very satisfying.
RES: Yes, the suburban sequence is really poking fun at traditional family drama, or even sitcom scenarios. It acknowledges the artificiality of genre constructions right up front.
DK: He really lays it on thick, with the deaf child. A perfect Spielberg suburb that turns out to be a deliberately unreal nightmare. These stock figures are actually trying to kill you.
RES: He shows these stock characters as stock – disposable. Even the little girl, who is the emotional center of the movie, is presented as fake, a clone with imprinted memories.
DK: Yeah and the little girl realizes it too, that Milla is not her mommy. I’m trying to visualize the scene where they see the cloning room. Are there any male characters there?
RES: No, I don’t think so. You see the clones of Milla, Michelle Rodriguez and the girl. Which goes to show how subordinate the male characters are in this film, they don’t even get decent clones.
DK: You hear complaints about there being a lack of action films with women, well, this is one of the most successful series out there, and it stars a woman. There are no compromises here, it’s just not a big deal at this point, in the Resident Evil world.
RES: What did you think of the use of 3D in this one?
DK: Great. It never seemed arbitrary, it always worked. I like all that stuff in the white prison cell, the geometrical form, the Umbrella design, it looks flat until something pops out. It just has stuff you don’t see in other movies, including the lighting, backlit scenes with one or two lights. He doesn’t fill the frame the way Cameron does. Cameron has to have something going on in every corner of the frame. Anderson seems to be aware that, 3D isn’t just putting everything in one frame, it’s directing like as you would a normal film. Anderson knows how to put those shots together so it doesn’t feel disruptive, isn’t jarring. You need good solid old-fashioned match-shots on action. Where a lot of 3D directors get hung up is, they’re just framing every shot for what it is, and not thinking about what comes after it. It gets irritating after a while, with depth-of-field changing left and right.
RES: That’s what causes people to get headaches…
DK: It does for me. It pains me watching that stuff. I can’t help trying to put it together in my head.
RES: You saw The Avengers (2012).
DK: Every shot is just a guy shooting, with no sense of who he’s shooting at or chasing after. There’s just no relationship between this action and that action. It’s either complete in itself or it’s forgotten by the next shot. So it’s not about the logic of how you fight an army of 12 invincible zombies and get out alive, which has a certain amount of plausibility in the Anderson because the strategy is there, the athletic abilities are there, the ballet-like quality of moving through the air… It feels kind of serene in a way. It’s always so cool, she just knows how to execute it.
RES: You can see people thinking in Resident Evil: Retribution…
DK: Yeah, she’s thinking down the line – look at this person, what’s he going to do, how am I going to react.
RES: What do you think about his use of slow motion?
DK: It’s kind of a cliché since The Matrix (1999) but I find it pretty effective. It exaggerates, or brings out those qualities more. And I really enjoy seeing whoever that stunt-person is doing her flip three times through the air. You want to savor that moment. I can accept it as part of the conventions now.
RES: At least of the new conventions, it adds clarity to movement rather than muddying it. What about that opening scene, of the action scene rendered in slow reverse motion. It’s gorgeous, although it seems like Anderson and his crew are just fucking around.
DK: Was it in the last film? No it wasn’t.
RES: It’s a continuation, picking up where Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) left off. I don’t know what the point of it was, but I certainly enjoyed it.
DK: I also appreciated the recap at the beginning, because at this point, after five of them, I forgot exactly how it all got started.
RES: Although it’s not really a series where you have to know the mythology to enjoy it. Another thing I love are those architectural blueprint shots, which shows you where all of the characters are. Anderson is obsessed with letting you know where you are.
DK: He also does that in Event Horizon (1997). It’s important to know your position in space for a coal miner… I wonder if those are the same matrixes they used to model the CGI. Well, the Moscow stuff, I guess that was real location footage.
RES: Yeah, there was a second unit in Moscow
DK: The White House didn’t look all too real though…
RES: I’m sure they tried to get permission to shoot at the White House.
DK: Yeah, they called them up. “-I’m the producer for Resident Evil Part Five, we’d like to stage a zombie holocaust. –We’ll get back to you.”
RES: It’s interesting that they shot real locations and in the movie they made them into virtual places. Usually that works in the reverse direction. What are your pantheon Paul W.S. Anderson films?
DK: They’re all pretty good. He keeps getting better. Retribution is the smoothest and most satisfying. It does not feel monotonously fast. And it’s really tight. Every scene flows. And that’s exactly what Joss Whedon can’t seem to do. “Alright, that number’s over. We have two to three minutes of sarcastic banter between thinly sketched characters before it’s time for the next number to start.”
RES: This feels like the ideal Paul W.S. Anderson movie, plucking from everything he’s done before…
DK: You think it will convince people he’s got talent? [laughs]
RES: If one person is converted, we’ve succeeded.
DK: They don’t have press screenings for his films.
RES: And that’s not going to change.
DK: It’s not like that audience is going to respond, “hey, this got a great review in the Times! Let’s go see Resident Evil 5!” It’s funny how people get that label of being schlock directors. I don’t know what he did to deserve that.
RES: It’s just received wisdom. His name has become shorthand for schlock.
DK: Yeah, but is he Uwe Boll or something?
RES: It’s the subject matter.
DK: But Christopher Nolan became an international star directing comic book movies.
RES: Yeah, but Anderson does video game adaptations, there is a difference. Comic books have risen in cultural capital the last couple of decades. Not so for video games. Roger Ebert says video games are not art, so Paul W.S. Anderson is out. He’s out. People always forget how Hawks and Hitchcock were regarded as vulgar entertainers in their day.
DK: It seems like that lesson never gets learned. Each generation of critics blows it in their own way.
RES: Not that I’m saying Paul W.S. Anderson should be compared to Hitchcock…
DK: Well, he’s at least Far Side of Paradise at this point. [laughs] Maybe he’s Gordon Douglas. Anderson is not able to make the number of films Douglas was – Douglas could make five movies in a year, and Anderson makes one every two years, and he’s incredibly prolific for today. He has a little studio system set up now. He has a star, a franchise…
RES: It’s one of the great director-actress duos of our time…
RES: Len Wiseman and Kate Beckinsale – that’s the B-team.
DK: C-team. That’s bad because they bring out the worst in each other. She’s a fun light comedienne but terrible in action movies. I don’t know what Wiseman is good for actually [laughs].
RES: Any final thoughts?
DK: Well, it’s just such a pleasurable, kinetic experience to be moved through that. You don’t feel assaulted, irritated and beat up by a movie. It’s a movie that respects your intelligence, and has put some thought into how it’s going to work. It’s not one damn thing hitting you in the face after another. That’s just stimulation, lights flashing, sound going off, CGI crap falling on top of everything. If you get people hopped up and stimulated then maybe they’ll think it’s entertainment, but it’s not. I’m a grumpy old man.
RES: Justifiably so. What does that make me then?
DK: Well, I was a grumpy young man too.