What the Insular Debate on ‘Vulgar Auteurism’ Says About Contemporary Movie Criticism and…

By  · Published on June 11th, 2013

What the Insular Debate on ‘Vulgar Auteurism’ Says About Contemporary Movie Criticism and Cinephilia

I’m not entirely certain, but I think I’m late to the conversation about “vulgar auteurism.” While I’m sure I’ve heard the hundred-dollar phrase at some point before, it wasn’t until this weekend that my Twitter feed became overloaded with musings about it (and the inevitable punnery – i.e., “vulgar aneurism”). As far as I can see, more has been written in an attempt to either define or dismiss the phrase (or both) than actually practice it.

After reading some pro and con pieces about attempts to assess supposedly “disreputable” films by the likes of Justin Lin, Paul W.S. Anderson, and Neveldine/Taylor, I found myself at a crossroads. I’m not convinced that the term has much (if anything) valuable to offer serious criticism, or constitutes a significant intervention within good ol’ auteurist readings. At the same time, I can’t align myself with its critics, notably their implicit or explicit dismissals of the possibility that Hollywood’s postmodern modes of address have anything to offer serious assessments of film as an art form.

Thus, in lieu of taking a side in the admittedly insular “debate” about “vulgar auteurism” (think of it as the revenge of “cultural vegetables”), that this debate is happening at all evidences several important points about both the state of mainstream cinema and the role of the discerning critic within it.

What’s Vulgar Auteurism?

Peter Labuza probably makes the most direct claim thus far. As Labuza points out, in contrast to the development of auteurism in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema or at the hands of Andrew Sarris, “vulgar auteurism” suffers from a lack of declarative literature. The moniker seems to persist ephemerally, marginally, as both a passing impression and a readymade blog tag, not as a calculated approach to discrete set of cinematic works. This is not to preemptively deride the term, but to explain the first of many reasons why “vulgar auteurism” arose in the critical sphere of 2013 rather than that of 1968.

Here’s Labuza’s thesis about what “vulgar auteurism” is/does:

Vulgar Auteurism, as I will demonstrate, is primarily interested in the image (or better yet, the screen and the surface), which can only go so far in legitimating the films and filmmakers. But for its most articulate writers, Vulgar Autueurism examines the thematic weight of those images as well, which explore new paradigms of 21st century culture.

But Labuza’s most salient and revealing point comes later. Citing Scott Nye’s analysis of Domino, Labuza writes, “Vulgar Auteurist critics seem most fascinated by the images that these filmmakers create – and perhaps not the image, but the screengrab.” The most interesting contradiction (and a self-conscious one) about this observation is the lack of investment the so-called “vulgar auteurs” themselves have in the resilience of the image. Indebted to Michael Bay and Baby Boomer categorizations of the aesthetic practices that emerged from the network formerly known as Music Television, the films of Lin, Anderson, Neveldine/Taylor, and the late Tony Scott practice montage techniques that allow one image to become erased by another simultaneous to its initial emergence (kind of like the way critical discourse works on the Internet!).

In short, any critical investment in “the image” must be severed from the oppressive collage within the film itself. What results is aesthetically compelling: a series of recovered images that would otherwise be lost in the minutiae of such films, images that occasionally display compositional elegance. Incidentally? That’s beside the point.

But it does reveal something important about critical practices and discursive constructions of a cinema worth taking seriously. In order to be closely examined, the image must be severed from time, specifically the temporality created by the filmmaker. Thus, therein lies the problem for serious assessment: a filmmaker’s temporal placement of vision, rather than vision alone. One can easily imagine that, had any of the stills of the films screencap’d by Labuza been part of a deliberately paced film (especially that image from Gamer), they might receive a different evaluation entirely. Extended (rather than abbreviated) temporality is the most definitive sign of a form of cinema that demands investment. No wonder the most recent arthouse fad/ruse/exciting development was something called “slow cinema.”

But to isolate these images is to create a fantasy that is not the film itself.

Several critics have bemoaned the fact that there seems little difference between “vulgar auteurism” (which will never not be in scare quotes) and auteurist readings proper. Labuza cites critics like Ignaity Vishnevetsky and R. Emmett Sweeney amongst those who utilize “vulgar auteurism” to argue the image’s correspondence with insurgent critical themes. Given, Labuza is skeptical of the category’s usefulness as well, but I wonder, if the artistry of the image is foregrounded over other considerations, is “vulgar auteurism” really even auteurism? Who doesn’t already believe that aesthetic finesse and, yes, fleeting beauty can emerge from even the most “disreputable” of films? Should we be surprised that both Justin Lin and Olivier Assayas possess subjectivities that can be expressed within and despite their respective institutional and collaborative contexts?

Against Vulgarianism

As you can see, it’s difficult to have a conversation about even the most basic terms informing “vulgar auteurism” without buying into several of the reductive assumptions it demands: that there is a binarizing hierarchy between, say, art cinema and B-action films that dominates the logic of contemporary critical discourse; that movies like Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning or Bad Boys II must be “redeemed” or “legitimized” in order to warrant serious critical analysis; that signature styles of filmmaking have been practiced overwhelmingly by directors of “serious” films; that there isn’t a giant blurry bridge between Hollywood and not-Hollywood, between anti-hegemonic and conventional filmmaking; that expecting an action movie to also be very good is a strange, alien practice within cinephilia.

Thus, attempts to dismantle “vulgar auteurism” have inevitably fallen into greater traps than those devised by the term itself.

Nick Pinkerton’s piece on the subject deftly demonstrates how auteurism has already done much of the work promised by “vulgar auteurism,” including its stake in the “vulgar.” But this concluding moment struck me:

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.

On the one hand, Pinkerton’s observation speaks to the inevitable hangover in writing about film on the Internet: what is the proper dividing line between expressing a love for film and becoming a functionary for an industry? No wonder The Dissolve is making waves by simply declaring that the timing of its content won’t be wholly dictated by studio calendars. More power to you. Furious 6 already receives disproportionate coverage by default, so why contribute to that further by constructing a category that seeks to frame it as a misunderstood, unduly maligned cinematic object?

On the other hand, Pinkerton’s critique still assumes, conversant with practices of “vulgar auteurism,” that so much Interweb ink spilled unduly “elevates” popular cinema – that, in effect, the search for possibility requires the critic to redirect valuable investigative tools best utilized elsewhere. For instance, Pinkerton dismisses outright the possibility that the cast of the previous two Fast & Furious films constitute a notable exception to Hollywood’s overwhelming and systemic practices of racism, answering the potential for assessment with a plead for wholesale irredeemability.

In a sense, Pinkerton’s “nothing to see here, folks” reaction is something of a benevolent rhetorical trap set up by assumptions embedded in “vulgar auteurism” (gawd, I’m sick of typing that word) itself: Pinkerton willfully assumes the role of the type of critic that “Vulgarians” see themselves as reacting against. Despite his ode to André Bazin’s “All films are created equal,” he becomes the straw man.

So let’s break away from this circular logic altogether, shall we? Perhaps it’s best to think of “vulgar auteurism” and its corresponding debate as a consequence of classical auteurism rather than a new development of it.

The Auteur After Auteurism

Samuel Fuller’s ‘Pickup on South Street’ (1953), a ‘vulgar’ film beloved by auteurist critics

Yes, the Cahiers tradition of the auteur theory attempted to recover (in part) popular Hollywood directors from the limiting strictures of the “Tradition of Quality.” But as a result, many of those filmmakers (Ray, Ford, Hawkes) became canonized, no longer guaranteed erasure by orthodox critical practices. Assembly line commerce was no longer assumed to be exclusive to individualized artistic expression. This was the 1950s. The auteur theory has since become internalized, co-opted, integrated back into the fetishizing mechanisms of mass-produced, mass-market filmmaking. It’s why you see “The Visionary Director of 300” advertised in the trailer for Watchmen, or why M. Night Shyamalan’s name is nowhere to be seen on ads for After Earth. The popular notion that a director’s presence constitutes a certain type of vision is hardly new. After all, where would Hitchcock be without branding?

Directors all across the “quality” spectrum fashion themselves as auteurs. Whether or not Pinkerton sees anything worth writing about about in, say, Tony Scott’s films (let’s not forget this man directed The Hunger), it doesn’t seem impossible that the filmmaker saw his own development of a hyperkinetic aesthetic in (at least) vaguely auteurist terms – which would, in turn, hardly make “vulgar auteurism” criticism against-the-grain.

Certainly advertising and self-branding cannot demonstrate or demand the types of rigorous critical reading practices requisite of the auteur tradition, but the point is this: we are far removed from the moment in which any type of auteurism in the wake of auteurism can be situated as a sort of “rescue.” By association, certain filmmaking practices cannot be assumed incompatible with auteurist reading practices by their associations or presumed quality alone.

A quote by some critic feller named Verne has made the rounds in this debate. He says:

One thing I hate in this kind of debate is when somebody starts turning it into a one or the other type of choice, you either get Tony Scott or you get Terence Malick, and you can’t have both. That’s for chumps and nitwits. A narrow view like that signals a boring person. Like I always say, a well-rounded person is open to a Jean-Luc Godard and a Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Cinephilia is often a personalized taste-making practice that takes place outside presumed canons, so that doesn’t necessarily mean that one, by default, be open to both Van Damme and Godard to be a “well-rounded” moviegoer. But that point aside, this cultural omnivorousness is certainly fitting for the era of Netflix and VOD, technologies that not so much instantiated but realized the dismantling of low/high distinctions of film as art. This quote represents an ethos for a form of cinephilia that didn’t – couldn’t – exist in Bazin’s heyday. Verne assumes that the “choice” fallacy is prevalent, when in fact “vulgar auteurism” and its surrounding discourse is an extraneous attempt to justify cinephilic practices that already widely exist.