Paul W.S. Anderson’s Afterlife

Throughout the early two thousands, Paul W.S. Anderson had the great misfortune of directing movies that made money. If his films of that era had bombed, at the very least mainstream American critics might have noticed him. Instead, Anderson was dismissed as another studio journeyman, a hack who had abandoned the promise of his low-budget debut, the stylish neo-noir Shopping, in favour of chasing Hollywood big bucks.

For his part, Anderson claimed to be unfazed, telling reporters that he made films for audiences, not for critics. It was a line he’d repeat often, and it proved to be something of a mistake. Certainly Anderson has always played to a specific viewership – he is an idiosyncratic filmmaker, and those who have followed his career for a while will be the most ready to go with him when he makes one of his bold formal leaps. But by claiming to be a populist, Anderson actively shooed the critics further away, to both his and their detriment.

In truth, Anderson is not the empty-headed hack that so many dismissed him as. Rather, he is one of the most exciting, ambitious American filmmakers of the past 40 years. Only now, after decades in the critical wilderness, is he finally getting his dues.

That reclamation project is largely being spearheaded on film Twitter, where Anderson has a committed and energized fanbase, and by members of the exploitation and cult community, many of whom have been (cautiously; gently) singing the man’s praises for decades.

For some that praise is guided by nostalgia. After all, there are those of us who were raised on Mortal Kombat – who had our first major cinemagoing expedition with Resident Evil. But there is more than that at play. Paul W.S. Anderson spent his career exploring his obsessions; honing his singular style. A lot of that work was done in the dark. Now, after two decades, the culture is finally coming around to him.

Needless to say, snobbery had a large part to play in Anderson’s initial dismissal. In the early two thousands, critics were hesitant to extend much goodwill towards directors who adapted video games for the screen, and by 2002 Anderson’s biggest hits were Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil. Indeed, his two original projects, Soldier and Event Horizon had both bombed, snubbed by writers and audiences alike.

That bias was hypocritical. The critically-adored The Matrix, released four years after Mortal Kombat, is nothing if not a video game movie. That film literalizes the tropes of gaming, turning the handing over of controllers from one player to the next into the superpower of the villain, and obsessively exploring the relationships between human beings and their digital avatars. But The Wachowskis had cleaned up their vision, presenting a version of cyber living that invited skeptical viewers in, rather than pushing them away.

Resident Evil takes the opposite approach. Kinetic and thin, that film looks like an early digital screensaver, a world away from than the green-hued and chic alleyways of The Matrix. Both films open with a thrilling, complicated action setpiece. The Wachowskis kick off proceedings with Trinity leaping through the air in a balletic kung-fu fight. Anderson opens on a montage of innocent people getting trapped in increasingly claustrophobic spaces, eventually beheading a screaming woman with an elevator door, only after cruelly suggesting there’s a chance she might make it out alive.

Which is to say, Anderson is unusually unafraid to get ugly. Mortal Kombat and Alien Versus Predator might be the best examples of that, films that depict deserts and arctic wastelands as the same kind of clean, uncluttered hellscape. There is never an attempt to pretty up horror, or to make it cool. For AVP, Anderson refuses a trademark of the Alien franchise, and deliberately doesn’t fetishize his xenomorphs. In Ridley Scott’s original and James Cameron’s sequel, the acid-blooded creatures are ornate, dripping dildos with teeth. In Anderson’s film, they are scuttling bugs, killed en masse by heroes that are more like exterminators than iron-jawed protagonists.

Of course, other filmmakers of the early thousands got dark too – even a fabulist like Spielberg was shaken up enough by 9/11 to make War of the Worlds, a movie that lingers in the dust, grit and death of invasion. But Anderson’s horror is stridently casual. He is a wide-eyed filmmaker, shooting with an unadorned clarity most common to reality television, or pornography. His camera only moves when it has to, and he only cuts to a close-up in order to show you something that you might miss otherwise.

Presumably, critics might have preferred it if he made a fuss of his violence – that way they’d be able to tell what he thought about it. Instead, he continued to shoot slaughter the way he shot everything; with a refreshing literalism. The violence in the back end of Event Horizon is so shocking precisely because it is framed just like the bloodlessness of the first act. Anderson simply keeps his mouth shut and points.

That simplicity has served him well, and goes a ways to explaining his critical reappraisal. After all, the work of some of Anderson’s contemporaries, studio favourites like Dominic Sena and Stephen Sommers, has been rendered almost unwatchable by time. Van Helsing and Swordish are actively headache-inducing, combining the kineticism of MTV cutting with the smoothness afforded by early CGI. There is simply too much of everything in both films – a visual overload that now seems clumsy and embarrassing.

But Anderson, despite what his reputation suggests, always takes his time. Consider an early scene in Resident Evil. Alice (Milla Jovovich) and a ragtag team of soldiers ride an underground train to a mysterious subterranean basement. The scene is short and direct enough that we understand what’s happening; we’re descending, danger is ratcheting up.

But Anderson needs to be more precise. As soon as Alice steps off the train, James Shade (Colin Salmon) approaches with a digital map in hand. Speaking slowly, he shows us the context of what’s just happened via a short animation, a kind of moving blueprint that depicts the exact train following an exact path to an exact underground base.

When Anderson wants you to see something, he shows it to you. That was a surprisingly rare move in the early two thousands. It is only more rare now. For proof, simply compare the Tokyo fight scene of Resident Evil: Retribution, the jewel in Anderson’s action cinematography crown, with any major setpiece of the last four years.

Anderson’s showdown is well-lit; clean. Figures are defined carefully, spatial relationships only more so. No action beat is covered by more than three cuts, so although bodies move fast, you never lose track of where they are or what’s happening to them. The choreography itself is smart and engaging, of course. But it’s Anderson’s style that elevates it to another level. Alice kicks a zombie. Cut. The zombie falls backwards. Alice spins to the floor. Cut. We see the zombie she’s staring at. Cut. Alice shoots the zombie. Cut. Alice rises.

The sequence is almost diagrammatic; an instruction manual on how human bodies move. It’s also a perfect example of a filmmaking style that essentially no longer exists. In an age where action sequences are pre-rendered before shooting even starts – when the otherwise mature and robust Black Panther descends into a series of rubbery CGI men bouncing about the dark in its final act – it certainly feels like we took Anderson for granted.

Which is precisely why Anderson’s initially poor critical reputation seems so unusual. According to the mainstream critics of the time, he represented Hollywood filmmaking at its most inert and voiceless. Now, Anderson seems more intelligent, idiosyncratic and unique than any other mainstream, big budget filmmaker currently working, save for your occasional Jaume Collet-Serra. Of course, Anderson made sequels and franchises, which is still the dominant mode for big budgeted movies these days. But he made such films before big studio thinking had taken over.

Since at least 2014, directors have essentially been expected to work on expensive Hollywood projects as though they’re dropping in to make the odd episode of a TV show; like they’re assisting with someone else’s passion project. Only, that ‘someone’ isn’t a person, it’s a brand. Or, not ‘a’ brand, but ‘the’ brand, Disney, which plucks out unusual filmmakers, bars them from staging their own fight scenes, limits them with a basic lighting and colour palette, and sets them to work. Hence the formula for any young American director: make a promising indie debut, get poached by Marvel for a corporate-controlled slab of glorified TV, and then go off and make your passion project (as long as it’s not too expensive.)

Only, that’s not the formula that Anderson followed. His wasn’t a “one for the studios, one for me,” method. Instead, he cosmetically addressed the needs of Hollywood – basing his films on recognizable IP; filling them with attractive, stylishly-clothed celebrities and special effects – while not-so-subtly exploring his own obsessions.

Or maybe that should be ‘obsession’. After all, throughout his career, the man has been singularly preoccupied with the notion of identity above all else. That is the key to Soldier, a sister project to Blade Runner that shares that film’s screenwriter, not to mention a series of metaphysical worries about the nature of personhood. And that is the key to Alice’s journey over the course of the Resident Evil films.

Alice’s body and her mind are constantly co-opted, at first by the sinister Umbrella corporation, then by a virus. But hers is not just a physical struggle against hordes of zombified creatures. It is an ideological one, as she attempts to settle on a positive self-identification, refusing to be defined by contrast. She does not want to be the woman who survived the virus; the Umbrella employee who got away. She wants to exist free of the things that hurt her. Thus, the last line of The Final Chapter, a direct assertion of self, delivered in steely voice over: “My name is Alice.”

Critics missed all that. They weren’t expecting anything of Anderson thematically or aesthetically, so found nothing in either regard, choosing instead to focus on his simple, direct plotting which they called hackneyed. Of course, that was a selectively deployed standard. It was not applied to say, 2005’s The New World, released three years after Resident Evil. Both films elevate a simple story through a unity of visual form and thematic function – Malick’s film is a meditation on nature filled with images of the bucolic, Anderson’s film is a meditation on artificial spaces filled with images of sterile metal and flickering digital bodies. But only one was well-received by the mainstream critics of the age.

Perhaps there is another reason the critics were not trained to pick up on Anderson’s preoccupations. Identity is a key theme of queer cinema, and the overwhelmingly straight, white and male critical body of the early thousands missed that one everywhere it popped up.

Indeed, the camp and the kitsch are all over Anderson’s filmography. His Death Race is one big fetish object, Pink Narcissus set in the desert, and a film obsessed with human bodies and the things that can be done with them. Pompeii, ostensibly a heteronormative romance about love that spans hundreds of years, can’t keep its eyes off everyone but its two leads. And then there’s Resident Evil, which introduces Alice via a protracted, bathroom-set flashback sequence so heightened and melodramatic to have been pulled straight out of Douglas Sirk.

None of that caught the critics’ eyes. They were blind to it in the way that any group of white men of a certain age are blind to things. Not that they ignored it; they simply didn’t even know that it was there.


Of course, there’s a degree of irony to the timing of Anderson’s long-awaited critical second act. The very things that make him special – his reliance on ugliness; his idiosyncrasies and flourishes; his campness – are the very things that Hollywood has broadly turned its back on.

Since putting his longest-running, highest-grossing franchise to bed with Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Anderson’s projects have grown infrequent. More than that, they’ve grown significantly less successful. Pompeii was something of a critical flop; Origin, the YouTube Red TV series that Anderson partially directed was cancelled after one season.

He’s not done, of course – there is another project on the horizon, an adaptation of the Capcom video game franchise Monster Hunter. But a kind of Hollywood filmmaking is done; a breathless, unique, sometimes ungainly kind of filmmaking that Anderson represented the very peak of.

So maybe it was wrong to suggest that nostalgia isn’t at the heart of the Anderson revival. To watch his films – to appreciate them, as so many now do – isn’t just to bear witness to technical mastery, or a singular vision, or a thrilling queerness. It is to bear witness to something that is gone, to a style of cinematic language slowly going extinct. Anderson is not special because of the legion of imitators that he inspired. Anderson is special because there might not be anyone left in a position to be inspired by him.

Larry Fessenden: “My despair at humanity’s vast hubris and short-sightedness is the subject of all my films”

Depraved, like most of Larry Fessenden’s films, starts out as a story that you definitely know: a tormented man named Henry (David Call) assembles a pile of dead bodies and — with a jolt of electricity — brings the mess of flesh to life.

So yes, this is Fessenden’s Frankenstein picture, and like James Whale before him, the New York-based auteur has a lot on his mind about the nature of mortality, art, and the existential terror that comes when you’ve replaced gods with scientists.

But unlike Whale, Fessenden doesn’t have to worry about rushing to his big final setpiece. Fessenden gets to the burning mill eventually, of course — or at least, his version of it — and one of the great pleasures of the film is guessing when it will click into the grooves of Mary Shelley’s story. Yet, for the most part, the film is remarkably bloodless. It’s almost painterly, as Adam (Alex Breaux), the reanimated monster at the heart of the film, visits art galleries, discovers drugs, and is slowly introduced to the pleasures and pains of life. Which of course, is the other Fessenden trademark: a constant sense of surprise.

Depraved has enough to say about the nature of art — and the people who fund it — that it can’t help feeling autobiographical, at least in an oblique sense. But this is no navel-gazing work of self-obsession. Instead, it’s a remarkably open-minded film, one fascinated with people, and ultimately convinced, despite everything else, that they can be good.

The resulting film isn’t just one of Fessenden’s most astounding projects. It’s one of the most unexpectedly extraordinary American movies of the last ten years. That sounds faintly ridiculous to say of a film that opens with a brutal murder and closes with a ten minute climax of pure, fiery destruction. But hasn’t that always been the magic trick of Larry Fessenden? Stripping the recognisable of its parts, until suddenly everything is new, and fresh, and wonderful.

It’s a masterpiece, basically. I talked to Fesenden about it.

Joseph Earp: I know you’ve said in an interview before that America is having “a crisis of masculinity.” Do you think that notion informed Depraved, which is a film that deals a lot with what ‘masculinity’ might actually mean?

Larry Fessenden: I might have said “America,” but maybe it’s a lot of cultures. What I mean to say is that in order to survive in a precarious future, I believe humanity is going to have to adopt a stance of humility and cooperation, qualities that are considered weak and even feminine — but qualities which I think embody real courage. Run-away capitalism and narcissism have infected human interaction and left us vulnerable to environmental and social collapse.  Anyway, whether I’m right or not, that perspective informs the themes I have drawn in Depraved.

JE: Henry is, I think, one of the most sensitive and sympathetic creator characters in the history of Frankenstein cinema. Was it important to you that he lose the arrogance and assuredness that other iterations of the creator role can sometimes have?

LF: I chose to portray Henry as broken by the system that sends men and women into unjust wars and expects them to return to society undamaged. I wanted to try a different angle on the Frankenstein creator character where he was motivated by a desire to right wrongs he couldn’t control. It doesn’t mean he is justified, it simply explains his behavior somewhat. I conceived of a separate character, Polidori, who is motivated by greed and selfishness, to suggest that much of creative inspiration is high-jacked and exploited by lesser figures in society’s endless pursuit of profit.

JE: The shots that depict Adam’s synpases firing are so beautiful and effective – they reminded me almost a little of the work of Stan Brakhage. What point in production did you seize upon that idea?

LF: I am delighted you mention that. There are many layers in the creature’s mindscapes and one layer was directly influenced by Brakhage’s work. In fact the imagery was created by James Siewert, who animated meticulously sliced blocks of melted crayons. Our process was extremely tactile and I feel Brakhage would have approved.

JE: Would you ever return to shooting on videotape?

LF: Absolutely. I love the power of format, be it film, video, low res, hi-res. In fact while we finished Depraved in 4K, I introduced grain and even film scratches as a nod to the cinematic texture in which Frankenstein films reside. And the film is about art and memory and I was not shy about reminding the viewer of the medium that carries these stories.

JE: There is a sometimes underdiscussed political element to your films, I think; a critique of humanity’s exploitation of the environment and the blindness to climate change that’s implicit in Beneath and The Last Winter. Do you ever approach writing a script out of a political concern first and foremost, or does the critique come about as a sort of byproduct?

LF: My despair at humanity’s vast hubris and short-sightedness is the subject of all my films. These are self-critiques as well, so I do not see myself as preaching. My stories are usually personal. I do not set out to make a political statement, but if a viewer can’t help but extrapolate a political message from my portrayal of people behaving badly, I say bring it on. The personal is the political.

JE: Do you think that environmental collapse is inevitable?

LF: Environmental collapse is already happening. And make no mistake the earth doesn’t care. It is humanity and all the cool animals and trees that will suffer. The world doesn’t care if it’s a hot rock over-run with roaches and plastic. But what fools humans have been. Environmentalists are humanists, they want a livable planet. It is preposterous how the debate is framed in so-called modern societies, jobs vs. environment. Who is believing this shit? It is corporations and profit for the few vs. dignity for the many. There has been a struggle for hearts and minds going on since the 60’s. Read Silent Spring or Small Is Beautiful. Guess who lost?

JE: What’s the last great book that you read and the last great film that you saw?

LF: I read a lot of non-fiction; hard to highlight a single book. I guess I will say Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s a best-seller so maybe not an insightful choice, but it gives a bird’s eye view of the history of humanity that I enjoy, creating an objective, existential view of our progress and making some unexpected observations about things like the power of narrative and that wheat is the most successful species on the planet because humanity is dedicated to its cultivation, we are its slaves… Fun stuff.

Last great movie? That feels like a trick question. I recently watched M by Fritz Lang, Paths of Glory by Kubrick and Django Unchained by Tarantino. Those qualify.

As for good movies, last year I loved Mid90s by Mr. Hill and I saw Godzilla: King of the Monsters in 3D yesterday. That was fun.

I liked the movie At Eternity’s Gate with Willem Dafoe and the new Jarmusch movie ‘cause I’m in it. And I liked Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot and the TV series Fosse/Verndon. Movies are to be enjoyed but a truly enduring film? Rare. Also, I like monster movies so I can watch Jurassic Park movies any time. Doesn’t mean I would advocate for them. Just like watching monsters.  

JE: Tell me something you’ve never told an interviewer before.

LF: I don’t know if I like show biz any more.

Love is a kind of death: the cinema of Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s dream was to win the Oscar for best director, and be ugly on the front cover of Time magazine. He achieved neither. Instead, from 1969 to his death from a cocaine and barbiturate overdose in 1985, he made some 40 ground-breaking films, acid-laced melodramas that were about love, and trauma, and politics, and cruelty. With his films, he once explained, he was trying to build a house. Some films were walls. Others made up the floor. Others still were the windows, big and clean enough to let the light in.

What all his films share is the same complex, cock-eyed view of love. Growing up around parents who could barely tolerate one another in a Germany ravaged by the Second World War, Fassbinder spent his adulthood telling interviewers that marriage should be abolished and feverishly writing and directing films about lovers who inflict great pains upon each other. “I was lucky, growing up in a family where close relationships didn’t exist,” he once told the New York Times. “Today I’m kind of happy about it. It makes me freer than people in general.”

Certainly it’s true that relationships in Fassbinder’s films often fall apart due to the absence of cruelty, not the introduction of it. In Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, a 60-year-old window cleaner named Emmi falls for the titular Ali, a young Moroccan man, and is forced to overcome the discrimination and racism of her close-minded neighbours. She does, rather nimbly. It’s only when the world around her accepts the relationship that things sour. When her neighbours move on from their prejudices, Emmi takes on the mantle of tormentor herself, bullying and needling her young lover. She parades him about like a show pony, inviting her friends to feel his muscles; to stroke his skin. When he shirks away, she dismisses him. “He has his moods,” she sighs. “It’s his foreign mentality.”

“[Fassbinder] felt that relationships unavoidably have a power struggle at the core of them as two people establish their dynamic; and that the fear of losing love once you have it is tied to the fear of life’s other inevitable conclusion, death,” explains Eric Allen Hatch, a film critic, one-time director of programming for Maryland Film Festival, and one of the brains behind Baltimore’s soon to be launched non-profit video store, Beyond Video. “In that sense, coming to terms with mortality would make someone more capable of real love, because they wouldn’t then damage and pervert love in their fearing the loss of it.”

That melancholia was not artifice, either: Fassbinder lived his life with the same bleary-eyed intensity and destructiveness with which he made his films. “We could almost reconstruct him from the DNA embedded in his films,” Hatch says. “He lived his life hellbent on converting his every thought and feeling into vital cinema.”

The budget for Fassbinder’s post-war melodrama The Marriage Of Maria Braun was blown out by the cash he demanded from his longsuffering producer, Michael Fengler, so as to support his taxing cocaine habit. He drank and smoked to excess; years later his muse, Hanna Schygulla, told The Guardian he smelled and looked like “a rebel filled with angst”. He’d often start his day on set asking for ten Cuba Libres, nine of which he’d slurp down, and one he’d save for throwing at his crew. And his lovers, both men and women, were often as passionate and prone to occasional bouts of violence as he was.

“Whenever two people meet and form a relationship, it’s a question of who dominates whom,” Fassbinder once told Cineaste magazine. One of his lovers, El Hedi ben Salem, attacked three people with a knife, ended up in police custody in France, and committed suicide in his prison cell. Another, Armin Meier, took his life a little under a month after he and Fassbinder broke up.

“You get the sense from his work that this is a person that’s both experienced and (especially, it seems) caused great pain in relationships,” Hatch says. “There’s something cathartic about seeing extreme feelings expressed and explored honestly, knowing someone else has been to these very dark places. But he doesn’t just show them to us… Behind our tears or dropped jaws or dark laughter, we might learn something about ourselves and how to treat other people better.”

Many have called Fassbinder cruel. The critic Kent Jones described his films as “blunt instruments”, and it’s true they often have a kind of elegant sadism to them. The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant, which Andrew Sarris somewhat reductively described as being about the “problems of lesbians”, is a tangle of unpleasantries; in a baroque, decadent bedroom, the young Karin spurns fashion designer Petra von Kant, who in turn spurns her put-upon assistant Marlene, a white-faced punching bag who has been so bullied and belittled as to be rendered mute.

And in Fox And His Friends, the deeply naïve titular hero, played by Fassbinder himself, isn’t safe from disrespect even in death. “One gets the sense that [Fassbinder] wanted a revolution to bring about a better world,” Hatch says. “But sadly, he simultaneously seemed to believe people are too deeply flawed to build that better society.”

Fassbinder’s endings are often abrupt. Characters explode; sometimes literally. They pivot on their heels and act in new, surprising ways: Petra promises Marlene she will change – that she will be kinder, better – only for Marlene to pack a suitcase and leave. His lovers hurt each other in ways so new and unusual as to resemble genuine breakthroughs.

His endings are rarely happy. But despite their morbidity, and despite the claims of cruelty that have dogged his legacy ever since his death, underneath it all, Fassbinder always leaves room for some lopsided, emaciated form of hope. He was an optimist, albeit of the most bitter, resentful sort. Love, for Fassbinder, is cruelty. Love is a kind of death. Love is violence, and trauma, and pain. But sometimes, love is a reprieve.

Ali: Fear Eats The Soul ends with Ali in hospital, suffering from a burst ulcer. The doctor, his face blank, speaking in the clipped, affected tone common to so many of Fassbinder’s characters, warns Emmi that even if Ali fully heals, he’ll be back in hospital again soon. Ulcers are common to foreign workers, he says. He’s probably right. But Emmi doesn’t listen. She goes over. Holds Ali’s hand. And she stays there, looking down at him, till the screen fades to black.