What is Vulgar Auteurism? If a May 24 primer in the Voice Media Group’s New York City paper is any indication, it’s a shameless attention grab. A critical tool of any use? Not so much.
Yet all the world, or at least all the world’s editors, love a catchy tagline. So it was with the brief and fearful reign of Mumblecore over everyone but audiences, so it was in the days when media-savvy critics-turned-filmmakers launched the French Nouvelle Vague, whose architects “Vulgar Auteurists” frequently cite as predecessors. And now Vulgar Auteurism, a vaguely-defined idea whose moment of critical mass has arrived nevertheless, enters the conversation, despite the fact that no persuasive argument has yet been made for why the phrase should be vitally necessary to modify old, fuddy-duddy Auteurism.
The aforementioned VMG article is a mini flyweight hardly worth stepping in the ring with. It posits that “classical auteur” is “a designation still typically reserved for revered foreign and arthouse filmmakers, from Olivier Assayas to Jia Zhangke,” which is not true. It ballasts its rhetorical points with an abundance of scare quotes (“serious,” “unserious,” “pure”) It advances not one persuasive argument for the filmmakers it alleges to advocate; Justin Lin is praised for his “formal elegance,” while we’re told that his Fast Five “imagines Brazil as a multicultural mecca, and it remains one of the precious few Hollywood blockbusters to wholly embrace the racial diversity of its cast.” (The fact is that Hollywood doesn’t care much about any color but green, and checklist pandering does not a celebration of diversity make.) Even more galling is the assumed attitude that the VA position stands alone against a vast, unsympathetic critical conspiracy to marginalize and underrate the products of industrial filmmaking. The fact is that we live in a post-monocultural world, and it is very easy to find like-minded individuals who share any niche proclivity, whether aesthetic or sexual. The numbers, meanwhile, do not bear out claims of a highbrow conspiracy: Fast & Furious 6, which we’re assured is scorned by critics the world over, currently stands at 61% at Metacritic, above The Great Gatsby (54%), and within striking distance of arty jazz like Simon Killer and Post Tenebras Lux.
Of rather more use in grasping the VA phenomenon is the timeline sussed out at LabuzaMovies.com by proprietor Peter Labuza, which tracks the brotherhood’s historical development. It begins with the candidacy for the canonization of Tony Scott, which apparently swirled out of Canada like a Nor’easter in 2006 and only gained force from Scott’s subsequent suicide, as he died so that Vulgar Auteurism might live. The simultaneous release of P.T. Anderson’s The Master and Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil: Retribution is the movement’s Lexington and Concord moment. Your humble author wasn’t above seizing the moment to expound on the oeuvre of P.W.S.A., though I did so according to pretty standard auteurist terms.
Such half measures just don’t cut it. According to the VMG call to arms, the VA subscribers are “Much like the Young Turks of the French New Wave, who aimed in their Cahiers du cinéma writing to bring critical appreciation to Hollywood filmmakers widely considered unworthy.” Labuza, likewise, links VA to the “tradition of Cashiers [sic] Du Cinema’s auteurist moment in the 1950s, [and] Andrew Sarris’s Expressive Esoterica category in The American Cinema,” which Sarris reserved for, in his words: “the unsung directors with difficult styles or unfashionable genres or both. Their deeper virtues are often obscured by irritating idiosyncrasies on the surface, but they are generally redeemed by their seriousness and grace.”
The comparison becomes less persuasive when one recalls that Sarris’ Expressive Esoterica included not only action directors of the sort celebrated by VA, in kind if not in quality—Budd Boetticher, Andre de Toth, Don Siegel—but also a dramatist and master of precisely-calibrated mise-en-scene like Robert Mulligan, a women’s picture specialist like John M. Stahl, a tawdry satirist like Frank Tashlin, and the hard-to-pigeonhole Allan Dwan, whose sprawling career spanned from cinema’s infancy to its middle-age. (Dwan’s unruly oeuvre is the subject of an online dossier that appeared this week. Selflessly compiled by Gina Telaroli and David Phelps and hosted by the Spanish journal LUMIERE, its appearance is a bright spot for civilized cinephilia in dark days when vulgarians run amok.)
While “grace” was the greatest virtue Sarris could find in a film, “vulgar” was his favorite pejorative. The American avatar of auteurism as practiced by the critics of Cahiers and Movie, Sarris was dedicated to furthering the mission of his European predecessors: Equipping the open-minded viewer with glasses to see the elegant ideas and genuine artistry at work beneath the surface in superficially lowbrow entertainments, while diligently separating the exemplars of craftsmanship from, well, Sam Wood. The VMG piece rejects Sarris’ definition of vulgarity for a faux populi stance: “The ‘vulgar’ part of vulgar auteurism doesn’t refer to crudeness,” its author writes, “but to commonality.” But the point of Sarris’ project, and Cahiers’, and Movie’s—was not to celebrate vulgarity per se, either in the sense of crudity or commonality, but to point out that refined and rare feelings existed within common, demotic texts. Auteurism elevated the movie to the level of art, which the film critic was expected to be conversant with; the addition of ‘vulgar’ implies the critic naughtily hunkering down at to the lowest-common-denominator level. It stinks of smarmy slumming, like the ubiquitous cop-out descriptor “batshit.”
Auteurism in any manifestation has generally been a sausage-fest, which Pauline Kael alluded to in her “Circles & Squares” essay, identifying what she saw as the “sex and glamor and fantasies of the high school boys’ universe” of Only Angels Have Wings. Elsewhere in that notorious broadside against Sarris, she deplored the collector card auteurists who flocked to “the kind of action movies that the restless, rootless men who wander on Forty-Second Street and in the Tenderloin of all our big cities have always preferred just because they could respond to them without thought.” Vulgar Auteurism seems no different, though I have located an evident VA partisan called Sara Freeman at the blogspot The Vulgar Cinema, which has been running a symposium on the Farrelly brothers—artists so despised by the mandarins of criticism that their Me, Myself, & Irene was relegated to the cover of Film Comment in 2000, and written about by proto-Vulgarian Kent Jones, who also addressed VA fave Michael Bay around the same time. (I am willing to bet that most card-carrying vulgarians didn’t yet have their driver’s licenses when Armageddon came out, and thus may earnestly believe in the novelty of their position.) And while Labuza has it that Vulgar Auteurism was “founded on message boards instead of coined by a major critic or theorist,” one critic has written about and praised many of the movement’s benighted figures—Bay and Neveldine/Taylor and W.S. Anderson, for example—a critic who, whatever you may think of him, is a figure of undeniable import. I am speaking of Armond White, who apparently has been disinvited from the VA party because bashing White is something of a tradition among milquetoast young journos looking to take a stand on something without fear of reprisal. I wonder if White hasn’t been namechecked in this discussion, or nominated as the Father of Vulgar Auteurism, only because he can’t be of any use to anyone’s career.
Behind Vulgar Auteurism, as it is currently defined, a false tautology exists: Because the Cahiers auteurists championed despised or déclassé filmmakers, many of whom worked through the conduit of the Hollywood studio system, it follows that the Vulgar Auteurists are natural inheritors to that tradition, rescuing the despised or déclassé filmmakers of their day from the hoity-toity double-domes. While, generally speaking, the “That which has been is that which will be” of Ecclesiastes 3:15 is a helpful way to view life, it shouldn’t be taken absolutely literally. The quantity of brilliance in the world probably doesn’t greatly vary from generation to generation, but this doesn’t mean that brilliance will predictably follow the same channels, any more than that the cinema of today, in its popular and rarified forms, occupies the same cultural position it held in the postwar world.
Let us accept as fact—which I do—that at one point a number of world-class geniuses of visual narrative art were convened in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, USA, working as studio craftsmen in the medium of genre filmmaking. Let us also accept that a group of intellectuals decoded their artistry, which had been otherwise overlooked because of cultural snobbism. Just because it happened in 1947 does not necessarily mean it’s happening in 2013. Yet rather than attempt to find the new channels into which genius is flowing today, Vulgar Auteurism wants to re-enact the certifiably heroic moment of film culture. One can understand why the young critic would want to believe that each weekend will bring a fresh masterpiece—the Internet needs such inexhaustible enthusiasm to generate content fodder! It is my belief, however, that the middle-range of American genre moviemaking is much poorer than it was during the “auteurist moment” of the Cahiers critics, and certainly that Hollywood’s dab-handed adherence to dramatic unities, which led Eric Rohmer to trumpet the postwar period as “The Classical Age of Cinema,” has long fallen by the wayside.
The explosion of time, space, character, and screen geography in many a contemporary blockbuster is no problem for the dedicated Vulgar Auteurist. Labuza makes one very pertinent point: “Vulgar Auteurist critics seem most fascinated by the images that these filmmakers create—and perhaps not the image, but the screengrab.” “The death of Tony Scott,” Labuza continues, “led to a series of pieces that pushed for his work to be seen in the tradition of the avant-garde.” He is referring to Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s “Smearing the Senses: Tony Scott, Action Painter,” and “Inner Image Collage (for Tony Scott),” a short eulogy and photo spread prepared by MUBI’s Daniel Kasman, which appeared in issue 54 of Cinema Scope magazine, in which stills from Man on Fire were arranged across two pages, to underscore their resemblance to frenetic avant-garde compositions.
These resemblances are, to my thinking, superficial at best, for there is such a thing as earning your aesthetic. Last weekend I attended a program of work by Ken Jacobs that played at the Museum of the Moving Image in honor of his 80th birthday. The bill included Jacobs’ recent Cyclopean 3D, which is composed of still stereo images shot from two very slightly different angles, creating an illusion of depth and dimension through jittery, strobing effects. An autobiographical collage and a major work, the film is subtitled “Life with a Beautiful Woman,” a reference to the filmmakers’ wife and muse, Flo, whom he met in 1961. “I make these movies, and I hope they’re alive,” Jacobs told a scantly-populated room after the screening, “And that’s resisting this big, crushing death that’s impressed upon us. And that’s the most I can do.” Cyclpean 3D embodies “the tradition of the avant-garde” as I am familiar with it. And while Jacobs’ endurance and curiosity and life-force and love shines through in his work, what I have seen by Scott—the heroic, ruggedly-individualist artist who left his third wife and twin adolescent sons by bailing off the Vincent Thomas Bridge—seems rather more emblematic of “big, crushing death.”
Perhaps I am being unfashionably Manichean in my polemicizing. “Another point of difference between classical and vulgar auteurism might lie in their oppositional programs,” wrote Girish Shambu in a recent blog post interrogating the VA party line. “The Cahiers critics stood not just for a certain kind of cinema but also against one: that of the Tradition of Quality.” Not so with the Vulgarians: “Vulgar auteurism is about expansion (‘A but also B’), not rejection (‘B instead of A’),” tweeted Vishnevetsky as the online brouhaha about VA reached fever pitch. Per the VMG writer, “Vulgar Auteurism calls for critics to evaluate a film like Fast Five with the same care and attention to style or motifs as one would with a film like Holy Motors.” Such a clarion call would certainly be of great use had Andre Bazin not already provided the elegant and self-evident guideline that “All films are created equal.”
A couple of years ago I interviewed Dave Kehr, a self-professed adherent to Bazin’s pronouncement, and auteurist working very much in Sarris’ classical humanist vein. Kehr had the following to say about the not-yet-proclaimed Vulgar Auteurs:
“The directors who really rub me the wrong way right now are people like Tony Scott and Michael Bay… these kind of macho guys who go out there and do a million shots and beat up the audience with them… I have seen some people defending Tony Scott, like the Cinema Scope guys have kind of adopted him as their favorite Hollywood director, I think just out of sheer perversity, because… I don’t see anything in those. It’s just trash to me, one shot after another, it’s just nonsense. But he does have his little following.”
I try to think the best of my fellow critics’ motives, to believe that their enthusiasms aren’t spurred by sheer contrarian perversity. (Although in the case of the elevation of a piece of shit like Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, you have to wonder…) When I read the likes of Vishnevetsky’s “Smearing the Senses” and Christoph Huber and Mark Peranson’s “World Out of Order: Tony Scott’s Vertigo,” I must believe that their authors are speaking for the greatness of Scott out of a real sense of conviction, however incapable I am of agreeing with or even comprehending the arguments therein, however much I would have, retrospectively, preferred to have thrown the money I spent seeing Domino and The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3 out the window of a moving cab instead.
Writing of Scott for Cinema Scope in ‘06, Huber and Peranson offered that “his themes and structures cry out for old-school auteurist appreciation,” which they proceed to outline, and which is all that is necessary. Useless as tits on a bull, however, is changing out “old-school” for “Vulgar” in that equation. The catchphrase Vulgar Auteurism is the product of a film culture that has, with or without its own knowledge and connivance, been contaminated by PR, which not only dictates what is deemed important in daily and weekly coverage—today the agenda is set by ad revenue, not critics—a transparent attempt to build a brand. Ironically adopted by the champions of commercial directors turned feature filmmakers, Vulgar Auteurism is pure publicity, a “reboot” of auteurism, a revitalization of the franchise. It’s Extreme Auteurism, Auteurism Strikes Back, Auteurism 2.0, Auteurism Uncut (Now with 50% more vulgarity!) It’s a clueless kiddie fad with a mayfly lifespan. It’s Pogs. It’s a “Harlem Shake” video. It’s a Fido Dido t-shirt, and you look stupid wearing it.
Nick Pinkerton is a regular contributor to Sight & Sound magazine and sundry other publications. He lives in Brooklyn, NY. Follow Nick on Twitter @NickPinkerton.