Through its complex use of multiple depth planes, deep-focus compositions, close proximity with on-screen texture, Pompeii crafts a vision of an ancient culture that can be described as hyper-haptic; in doing so, the film implicitly refutes the popular conception of 3D as gimmickry, and instead explores how the new technology opens up to new and exciting visual potentialities.
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Rejecting the centrality of the optical to most of cinema studies, Laura Marks describes “haptic visuality” as a form of cinema that deviates from the emphasis on narrative linearity and plot-driven images that dominate narrative cinema, instead focusing on an embodied form of looking that uses synaethesia to appeal to the other senses.1 Although her focus was on avant-garde and non-narrative films, she also points out that elements of the haptic can also be found in Hollywood cinema. Drawing on this theory, Ross argues that 3D technologies can be used to create a form of “hyper-haptic cinema,” which employ “the abundance of depth planes” to “provoke […] an immersive effect through which the body is located within and in relation to, rather than at a fixed distance from, the content.”2 This piece will employ a phenomenological framework that will draw on Ross’s and Marks’s theories to address how Anderson uses 3D as a means of lending the spectator an embodied perception, which thereby gives the illusion of putting them at a greater proximity to a classical civilization. Through its complex use of multiple depth planes, deep-focus compositions, close proximity with on-screen texture, Pompeii crafts a vision of an ancient culture that can be described as hyper-haptic; in doing so, the film implicitly refutes the popular conception of 3D as gimmickry, and instead explores how the new technology opens up to fresh and exciting visual potentialities.
As Sobchack writes, the overwhelming emphasis of cinema scholarship on sight as the only sense through which the spectator interacts with a film ignores the fact that sight is intrinsically related to the other senses and cannot work wholly in isolation. The vision of the film viewer, therefore, “understands materiality,” and is able to perceive “fabrics like velvet or the roughness of tree bark or the yielding softness of human flesh.”3 The viewing experience, therefore, isn’t a purely visual experience, but one that is inherently synaesthesic and bodily. Marks, building on this, argues that “it is common for cinema to evoke sense experience through intersensory links: sounds may evoke textures; sights may evoke smells,”4 resulting in a subject-object relation that extends beyond the optic. Aesthetic techniques such as the foregrounding of texture, extended long takes, and pixelation provoke a response that is primarily multi-sensory, rather than being merely optical. Although some have argued that stereoscopic image-making continues this emphasis on optical spectatorship, the immersive effect of the multiple depth planes creates what Ross describes as a “hyper-haptic” effect. During the screening of a 3D production, the multitude of visual planes, placed at various depths, encourages the viewer to perceive the screen not as a flat surface but as a malleable and dynamic one, and hence engage in a form of bodily positioning within this illusion of multidimensional space, rather than at a fixed distance from the 2D image. Therefore, the cinema screen seems to “be no longer the barrier between the diegesis and the spectator, but merely a single technological point in a system that now extends both past the screen and into the theatre.”5 While Marks conceived of the haptic image as existing horizontally across a 2-dimensional screen, the introduction of 3D image-making can be used to create new types of haptic effects. For example, the multitude of depth planes can be used to create a hyper-haptic image when there is a significant surface texture in one plane of vision that stands out, isolated, from the others. In the opening scene of Pompeii,6 for example, the camera pans across a number of rock surfaces, framed in a sequence of abstracted extreme close-ups. In each shot, the viewer’s eyes are encouraged to rest, taking in the ridges and bumps of the richly textured surface. According to Marks, when an on-screen object is placed far away from the lens, it is clearly perceptible and identifiable as a recognizable object, encouraging a rational and optical response. When an object is close to the lens, it is rendered abstract, encouraging the viewer to scan the surface texture in minute detail in an attempt to decipher the nature of the entity. As the objects are difficult to decipher visually, the spectator draws on their other senses to make sense of the image in a shared response This form of viewing is distinctly haptic, as it creates the sensation of touch, without actual physical contact occurring between the observer and the object. At the end of the sequence, Anderson cuts to a slow track out, revealing the rock surfaces to be part of a pile of human remains, immortalized in ash. The earlier abstractions are therefore contextualized spatially, transforming the image from a haptic to an optical one (Figures 1-4).7
At other times, Anderson evokes a haptic response through obfuscation. In a late scene, the entire foreground of the frame is obscured by hazy yellow smoke, rendering the figures behind it difficult to distinguish, meaning that the viewer must rely on her other senses to clarify what she is looking at. The image is thus obscured yet not completely indistinguishable to the viewer – a perfect example of Mark’s conception of an image that is rendered haptic through abstraction. ((Marks, Laura U., The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), p. 184.)) The process of distinguishing the on-screen objects and becoming oriented spatially within the mise-en-scène requires us to draw on senses other than the visual. As the smoke slowly dissipates, the viewer’s vision rests momentarily as he contemplates the imagery before us. As it clears, we see that Cassia is standing behind it, and the focus of the camera abruptly shifts focus, with her as the focal point. This transition from obfuscation to optic clarity enacts what Marks describes as a “visual violence which forces the viewer to see an object whole and distant where she had been contemplating it close-up and partial”8 (Figures 5-8).
Three-dimensional features utilize a range of unique ontological devices to immerse the viewer in an on-screen world, the most significant of which is negative and positive parallax. Negative parallax occurs when the stereoscopic vision works to create the illusion that objects are reaching out of the screen and into the auditorium, while positive parallax occurs when depth construction creates the impression of extended depth within the screen. The visual aesthetic of Pompeii is largely constructed around positive parallax, which is used to craft elaborate landscape shots. Striking effects are created when this technique is combined with negative parallax to heighten the overlap of visual planes within the on-screen environment. Tom Gunning terms the trompe l’oeil as an effect in which “the realism of the image is at the service of a dramatically unfolding spectator experience, vacillating between belief and incredulity.”9 This, as Weetch argues, is at the heart of 3-dimensional cinematic storytelling, as the multiple depth planes more accurately replicate the multi-planar nature of human vision, while simultaneously foregrounding the immaterial nature of cinematic spectacle.10 One such sequence occurs in Pompeii as Cassia and Milo are watching the destruction of the Colosseum (Figure 9). Anderson’s camera assumes their perspective: positioned in the middle-ground of the frame is the Colosseum; in the foreground, dots of ash gracefully float toward the ground. Due to the nature of the sequence, the spots of ash make an ideal object for a negative parallax effect. This creates a strong link between the experience of the characters and that of the viewer. They appear to be physically approaching and surrounding the members of the audience in the cinema just as they float around the two characters. The ash shards seem to take on a material quality as they move across the foreground of the frame, thereby forming a concrete link between the space of the spectator and the diegesis of the feature. Unlike in the 2D haptic film, however, the negative parallax effect heightens the nature of the on-screen objects as immaterial properties. Hyper-haptic 3D cinema, therefore, operates through a double logic, as the viewer is encouraged to sense “the material aspects of the content” while simultaneously being reminded of the “way in which it is not solid or graspable.”11 The process therefore asks the viewer to oscillate between being absorbed in the images and experiencing a distant awareness of their artificial construction.
The scene in which Milo is introduced similarly mobilizes hyper-haptic 3D effects to inform the experience of the viewer. As Milo is introduced, he appears in the centre of the frame, in wide shot, the camera observing him from a slight low angle. He’s in the foreground of the frame, receding slowly into the middle-ground, and the light exposure renders him a silhouette. Our perspective is aligned with that of the character, but his positioning in the frame does not allow the viewer to see what he is looking at. The position of the camera, at roughly head-height, allows us to become immersed in this past environment as if we were a character within the space, creating the sense of immediacy through hyper-haptic visuality that Ross describes. Our restricted vision, combined with the large chunks of negative space, however, creates a sensation of unease. As Milo walks closer to the entrance, we see more of the gladiatorial arena but not enough to fully satisfy our gaze. Anderson then cuts to a reverse angle, and Milo is now framed in medium-shot, from the torso up. The shallow depth of field encourages haptic visuality by decreasing deep-focus space and obscuring the background. Milo is looking toward a sight off-screen, but, as our view is restricted, we are led to focus only on his torso. Anderson renders the action in slow-motion, placing an even greater emphasis on the character’s physical properties. As Rushing argues, the hero’s physicality serves as an expression of his masculinity, with the skin, framed prominently, being transformed into a spectacle for viewer consumption, hence offering the viewer “a specifically tactile invitation.” The primary focus of the frame is a “massive body sheathed in skin that is hairless, tanned some variety of golden brown, and often oiled.”12 This expansive surface of skin places the male hero in the traditionally feminine position of being looked at, with its tangibility being “erotic, fetishistic, and feminine.” However, the distinctly tactile body texture of the masculine hero is a material expression of his virile strength and valor, with his exposed torso representing the “invincibility of his skin,” not “its vulnerability.”13 Anderson’s use of multiple depth planes creates the illusion that Milo is stepping out of the screen toward the auditorium, further communicating a sensation of touch between the viewer and the prominent musculature. Milo’s chief qualities are thus conveyed on a purely formal level (Figures 10-12).
Action sequences also provide Anderson with an opportunity to create haptic sensations. One such example occurs in the final stretch of the film, as Cassia and Milo flee the volcanic ash on horseback. The motion is frantic, and is captured through a handheld camera, which drastically obfuscates our orientation. This frantic motion – relating to the action within the diegesis of the film as well as the movement of the frame itself – encourages viewers to perceive the action as if they were a character positioned within this space, experiencing the destruction of the city of Pompeii in an immediate manner. In the first shot, we see the two characters in profile (Figure 13). The camera is positioned at head-height, and the viewer is encouraged to perceive the action through the perspective of the characters, yet the camera does not assume a subjective position. Instead, the viewer’s distanced positioned is mediated through the multiple layers of depth, the foreground of which is marked by kinetic motion, while the background plane remains relatively static. The obscuring light from the ash cloud further abstracts the image, overpowering the composition and disorientating the viewer. This is heightened as Anderson cuts the axis and frames the characters frontally in a quick insert shot, to emphasize Milo’s emotional intensity (Figure 14). The film then cuts to a very wide shot, with the horse framed very small within the centre of the frame, moving from background to foreground, and the viewer becomes aware of his spatial positioning within the on-screen environment (Figure 15). The 3D screen heightens the potentialities of the visual field, however, as it offers the viewer multiple ways to interact with its shifting planes of visual depth. In Figure 15, for example, the viewer can choose to either focus on the ash cloud consuming the landscape in the background, placed very deeply in non-screen space, or to align themselves with the characters in the middle-ground. The next cut abruptly shifts across the axis again, and the characters are now framed in a medium-wide shot, at a 45-degree angle, as Milo falls off the horse and stumbles to the ground (Figure 16). The effect is one of haptic visuality through the blurring of an image, as Sobchack described; optically, the image is hard to define, but it is not wholly indistinguishable. The viewer experiences this sequence as haptic vision, as he must draw on other non-optical senses to orientate himself within the visual space within the diegesis of the feature.
Since the popularization of the 3D format in the late 2000s, a rise in the public consciousness no doubt helped by the advancement of stereoscopic digital technologies, has largely been disregarded as a gimmick employed by filmmakers for reasons of economic opportunism. As my reading of Pompeii has sought to demonstrate, however, the medium offers up new possibilities for image-creation that can enrich a film’s aesthetic expression, and alter the viewer’s perception of a past civilization. My analysis of Pompeii has explored the various ways in which stereoscopic effects work in relation to audience positioning, thus making the case that 3D images can be mobilized to produce an overabundance of tactile affect which is vital to Anderson’s construction of a classical world.
Pompeii, dir. Paul W. S. Anderson (USA: Sony Pictures, 2014)
Barker, Jennifer, The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).
Koepnick, Lutz, “Herzog’s Cave: On Cinema’s Unclaimed Pasts and Forgotten Futures,” The Germanic Review: Literature, Culture, Theory, 88:3 (2013), 271-285. 280.
- Marks, Laura U., “The Memory of the Senses” in The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), p. 213. [↩]
- Miriam Ross, “The 3-D Aesthetic: Avatar and Hyperhaptic Visuality,” Screen, 53:4 (2012), p. 386. [↩]
- Sobchack, Vivian (1992), The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. 133. [↩]
- Sobchack, Vivian, “What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh,” in Carnal thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), p. 56. [↩]
- Ross, “The 3-D Aesthetic,” p. 384. [↩]
- Pompeii, dir. Paul WS Anderson (USA: Sony Pictures, 2014). [↩]
- Screenshots taken from the Entertainment One 2014 UK DVD release. [↩]
- Marks, Laura U, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), pp.184. [↩]
- Gunning, Tom, “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the Incredulous Spectator,” in Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film, ed. Linda Williams (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995), p. 117. [↩]
- Weetch, Owen, “The Expressivity of Space,” in Expressive Spaces in Digital 3D Cinema (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p. 12. [↩]
- Ross, “The 3-D Aesthetic,” p. 392. [↩]
- Robert A. Rushing, “Skin Flicks: The Haptic Peplum,” in Descended from Hercules: Biopolitics and the Muscled Male Body on Screen (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2016), p. 110. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 125. [↩]