Monthly Archives: May 2013

On Vulgar Auteurism

Predator (John McTiernan, 1987)”

“Not so much a movement as a loose form of advocacy, it celebrates undervalued craft in critically overlooked genres, as well as the termitic properties of the best works.” Jake Cole

“[T]he term generally refers to unfairly maligned or under-discussed filmmakers working exclusively in a popular mode—filmmakers like [Justin] Lin, who, despite an obvious formal command and distinctive directorial voice, are rarely discussed in a serious way.” Calum Marsh

“Vulgar auteurism simply seems to be a way for people to intellectualise their guilty pleasures.” Craig Williams

Vulgar Auteurism, often abbreviated “VA,” is a critical outlook that’s been gaining traction (and fomenting controversy) over the past couple of years. The above quotes define it from a few different angles. I’ve been also been repeatedly pointed to Jack Lehtonen’s “Vulgar Auteurism: A Guide,” which didn’t coin the term, but—with its collection of screenshots, director names, and movie titles—seems to have helped codify its meaning. (It’s the second Google result for the term, right beneath the “Vulgar Auteurism” Tumblr that Lehtonen co-curates, which was my source for the image above.)

VA has been gradually embraced, “particularly among young critics” as Marsh notes. But it has also been roundly derided as contrarian, cliquish, and redundant, the latter because plain old auteur theory already covers the filmmakers in question. I think the truth of these charges varies, especially since VA’s practitioners are themselves anything but unified, falling all over the map in terms of the approach and quality of their writing. Some speak ardently for movies that, according to received wisdom (my bête noire), merit kneejerk dismissal; others lean so hard on the value of image-making that it’s as if coherent plotting and dialogue had suddenly become vices—symbols of a tradition de qualité that vulgar cinema has displaced. (See the eloquent Sean Gilman for more on this.)

At its worst, I believe VA writing gives excess attention to dumb action movies in a media landscape already dominated by the loud and masculine. It overclaims so insistently that I begin to sense a persecution complex on behalf of movies that are, in reality, high-grossing and well-loved. But that’s at its worst. Personally, what I’ve read on VA and its adherents’ still-developing canon leaves me skeptical but curious. Part of that curiosity is probably because of my inexperience with these movies: for the most part, directors like Tony Scott and Paul W.S. Anderson remain unknown quantities for me, so essays like Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s “Smearing the Senses” intrigue me; they make me want to dip my toes in and learn for myself the veracity of these critical claims.

My own tastes may not automatically gravitate toward these frenetic spectacles, but that doesn’t mean I can’t scour them for points of interest. Even if a movie is frivolous, stupid, or awful, it can still provide some out-of-nowhere beauty, and I love being startled in the middle of a movie I’d never call “great” by some image or another that sways me, shakes me, grabs me by the neck. At its best, Vulgar Auteurism seems to be about this phenomenon, and about doing what good critics should do: giving every movie a chance, regardless of subject matter or provenance, and examining them from different angles. Whether or not the label is necessary, that particular inclination strikes me as an absolute good.

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Color and Form

 At last, a film about the ultimate Minnelli concerns: about the spaces, physical and psychological, that humans inhabit; about the individual elements that enhance or impair our sense of self; the problems, in short, of adornment and décor.

That’s Keith Uhlich, in his really beautiful Sight & Sound article “Garlands and cobwebs: Vincente Minnelli’s ecstatic vision,” writing about Minnelli’s mental hospital melodrama The Cobweb (1955). Indeed, it’s a film more of surfaces than story, and it signposts this by being veritably obsessed with a set of drapes. Their fabric and pattern, debated across the whole of the movie, are the MacGuffins behind The Cobweb’s ornate plot, triggering all manner of love affair and power grab. This mere fact has overwhelmed many a viewer over the years, leading them to label the film instantly risible. But as Gloria Grahame says during the opening scene, in a line seized upon by critics like Uhlich and Dave Kehr, “Why do flowers have to be for anything? Isn’t it enough that they have color and form, and that they make you feel good?”

As an art-for-art’s-sake sentiment, this could (and should, I think) apply to cinema at large, but it feels especially apt with Minnelli, and especially here. Drape obsession or no, The Cobweb has color, form, wildness, and bombast, which make me feel good. It never shrinks away from the lurid or tawdry, but rather embraces them as legitimate means of expression. Between its all-star cast and sprawling CinemaScope frame, you’d expect a mid-’50s soap like this to be lurching, elephantine, yet it’s actually pretty fleet. It helps, I suppose, that Richard Widmark and Gloria Grahame play the doctor and wife at its creamy center, an offbeat leading man wed to a shrill sexpot. Their troubled marriage is where, as an opening title explains, “the trouble began…” and from whence it ripples out through a network of psychiatrists, administrators, and patients.

The most disturbed of these is Steven, who’s being treated by Widmark’s Dr. McIver. He’s played by John Kerr, who’d star the following year as another sensitive youth in another Minnelli movie, Tea and Sympathy. But he’s much more agitated here as an oedipal, sometimes suicidal young artist who gets out his resentment and self-loathing through loose, color-streaked paintings of hospital life. (In reality, they’re in the signature style of David Stone Martin, credited on the film as “graphic designer.”) In Steven, Minnelli fuses the film’s ideas about mental illness and the creative act, about the latter as both liberating and dangerous in its intensity. Pacing around the colorful ‘Scope boxes that make up the Castlehouse Clinic, Steven could be the more overtly sick brother to Jim Stark from Rebel Without a Cause, released just a few months later.

Like Rebel, The Cobweb uses melodrama to diagnose the soul sickness of 1950s America; both films also make prominent use of staircases as psychological symbols. (All this said, it should come as no surprise that producer John Houseman even pursued James Dean to play Steven, only for him to balk at the pay.) Stairs, rooms, drapes with floral patterns… it’s as if the characters and their mise-en-scène are, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s last words, fighting a duel to the death, and one or the other has to go. As if the clinic’s furnishings had become as sick as its patients. Minnelli always had such facility for smearing beauty across the screen, for shooting sets and actors just as Steven paints the clinic, and The Cobweb isn’t shy about the duality of these images: surfaces can be beautiful, but they can also devour you and never let you go.

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Link Dump: #92

Felis catus is your taxonomic nomenclature,” wrote Data of his cat Spot. “An endothermic quadruped, carnivorous by nature.” That’s right: this week’s kitty is the adorable tabby from Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show I recently wrote about. The show’s cast members had wildly differing opinions about Spot, but I just love that spacefaring kitty. And now, links!

A few recent search terms: “mmm cunt,” “sensual asholes.dvd” (which I’m sorry to say cannot be purchased from this website), and “pelicula ratas gigantes asesinas,” which is Spanish for “giant killer rat movies.” Like The Food of the Gods, maybe?

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Arrivederci

The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series takes a trip to Venice this week for David Lean’s bittersweet romance Summertime (1955). My favorite shot from the film is a simple one. To set the stage: less than ten minutes of movie are left, and Katharine Hepburn’s wistful American tourist has an announcement to make. “Listen, Renato,” she tells her Italian beau, a gentle man played by Rossano Brazzi. “I’m leaving today.”

This two shot, lasting roughly two minutes, contains the whole of their final conversation. “I shall always love you,” confides Renato, leaning toward her. She gives a little rolling nod and tries to stiffen her jaw, tears quickly pooling in her eyes. “Yeah,” she sighs, and the syllable has unexpected gravity thanks to her inimitable New England accent. This is a very tight shot, but Hepburn shifts whatever would normally be said with body language into her face, which is rigid, then loose; distraught, then opening into a melancholy smile.

All the while, water ripples in the canal behind them. These surroundings are quiet and out of focus, keeping all our attention on the couple in the foreground, but still the water and brick pillars linger as a reminder of of the Venice she’s about to leave behind—and as the hypotenuse of a loose right triangle that further tightens the shot’s emphasis on its actors. This shot isn’t showy, but it is beautiful. It advances the plot and showcases Hepburn’s acting while still providing us something rich to gaze upon. This is how you stage a break-up: with visual modesty and minimal fuss.

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Punch Drunk

John Larch in The Phenix City Story | Brian Keith in 5 Against the House

Modern Gothic vehemence… a chilling documentary exactness and an exciting shot-scattering belligerence.

That’s Manny Farber in his essay “Underground Movies,” describing some tendencies found within Phil Karlson’s filmography. I think I’ll add abrasiveness and angularity to his pool of nouns as well. Each one of them is immediately apparent in The Phenix City Story (1955), which may be Karlson’s magnum opus and which is also the subject of my most recent column over at Movie Mezzanine. I’m especially fond of that “modern Gothic vehemence”: Karlson’s movies are forceful, like a boxer’s glove coming toward your face in 3D, the full power of a heavyweight artist behind them. (They’re kin to the films of Samuel Fuller, whose own novel The Dark Page was actually filmed by Karlson as the 1952 newspaper noir Scandal Sheet.)

Alleyways in Phenix City and 5 Against the House’s Reno

In addition to The Phenix City Story, I recently watched Karlson’s 5 Against the House (also 1955) which is thankfully much milder. No child murders or bloody mass beatings here; just four college buddies goofing around, two of whom served together in the Korean War, and one of whom was psychologically damaged by the experience. As a prank, the friends plot a brilliant heist on a Reno casino, intending to return the money later—but Brick (Brian Keith) is slipping into psychosis due to his post-traumatic stress, and he has other plans. 5 Against the House starts out as a lightweight comedy of Eisenhower-era male bonding, which makes its descent into mental illness and very real noir danger that much more gripping. Brick’s a reluctant villain, and his friends are reluctant heroes; no one thinks they’re in a crime thriller. The normal turns into the abnormal so quickly that you hardly notice at first.

Richard Kiley in The Phenix City Story | 5 Against the House’s parking garage climax

This, I think, speaks to one of Karlson’s greatest directorial strengths: he seems to coax brutality out of the everyday. His are blue-collar movies; sloppy, smudged, fashioning a world you can imagine living in before he blows it all to hell. John Payne’s ex-prizefighter in 99 River Street (1953), for example, has real relationships that he needs to balance with the bitterness seething inside him. The residents of Phenix City have homes and families they don’t want to endanger. Maybe this is the “chilling documentary exactness” Farber spoke of. His movies reek of tabloid sensationalism, but that never keeps them from being uncomfortably plausible. They’re like a full-page spread of crime scene photos snapped right in your own backyard.

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Quelle Beauté!

I finally went on a podcast! Host Andrew Robinson asked me onto Movies You Love to discuss a movie I love, and I selected Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). You can listen here. I babble for almost 80 minutes about Cocteau, surrealism, fairy tales, dysfunctional families, and the magic of the movies. It’s painful for me to listen to it—“Do I really sound like that? Do I ever not preface a statement with ‘sort of’? Christ, stop saying ‘ummm’; get to the fucking point!”—but I suspect you’ll enjoy it more than I do. If you’ve ever wanted to experience me prattling on about movies in audio form, enjoy!

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Straight Down the Line

Inviting me to select my favorite image from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), as The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series has done this week, is a little like asking that I single out my favorite limb. I’ll make the choice eventually, sure, but it’ll be a reluctant one and involve lots of nervous glances from hand to foot and back again. What I’m trying to say is that Double Indemnity is an unusually beautiful film noir, shot by cinematographer John Seitz as a tapestry of shadows and key lights—a lustrous labyrinth of insurance offices and Venetian blinds leading “straight down the line,” as Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatale repeatedly puts it.

But, well, the challenge is to pick one shot, so I picked one, and it’s at least pretty emblematic of Wilder and Seitz’s technique throughout the whole of the film. See, for example, the inventive patterns in which they’ve scattered light across the frame, drawing our eyes straight to the space between Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. The lighting supplements the actors’ already white-hot chemistry, suggesting a downward sloping line from his face to hers and a region of the screen that’s buzzing with sexual magnetism. Mere seconds before this, MacMurray was pacing the room, going on and on in voiceover about how “the hook” (read: his own cock) was pulling him toward her,

so at 8 o’ clock the bell would ring and I’d know who it was without even having to think, as if it was the most natural thing in the world…

And there she is, lit up like a vision from heaven (or elsewhere). The curls of her blond wig are shimmering and her body assumes an irresistible pose beneath that heavy trench coat. This is her about to cross the threshold into his dark bachelor pad, about to make the relationship between them more than just one of flirtatious salesman and client. It’s the seed of her anklet blossoming into adultery, and murder.

I suppose that’s why this shot—which, incidentally, lasts a full minute and fifteen seconds, this image emerging roughly in the middle—calls out to me: it’s so tentative, so teeming with potential. Double Indemnity is like the tale of the scorpion and the frog if it were about two scorpions trying to ferry one another across a river, and this is a shot of those deadly predators, each sizing the other up, separated only by a doorway. A couple other details I enjoy here: the shadow of the rain outside, barely visible on the seat of MacMurray’s pants; and that picture of a bare-knuckle boxer just to the right of the door.

Three more similarly framed prints grace the wall above his couch, and while I’ve never been able to fully integrate them into my reading of the film, they suggest to me an antiquated notion of brawny masculinity. Perhaps they hint at a kind of visceral thrill that MacMurray’s Walter Neff, this bundle of machismo and libido stuffed into a white-collar job, is pursuing whether through his relationship with a married woman or his attempt to “crook the house.” Those boxers, always lurking in the background, could signify the primal man lurking inside the skin of a mild-mannered insurance salesman.

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