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.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “On Vulgar Auteurism

  1. Interesting piece. I’ve been seeing this term pop up a lot lately, and it’s kinda been rubbing me the wrong way, for the reasons you list above I think. To the extent blockbuster films have aesthetic value, I don’t think some semi-pretentious term needs to be invented to cover the phenomenon. And to the extent that this term is apologia for the massive hype machine already surrounding these movies, it smells suspiciously like nervous critics desperately chasing after fading relevance.

    It’s not so much the existence of films like, say, Fast 6 (which I haven’t seen yet and don’t have much of an interest in seeing) that annoys me as the disproportionate attention they receive; what is in effect .001% of “the movies” (and indeed, still less than 1% if we limit the category to “entertainment films with mass appeal”) gets discussed as if it’s the only game in town – and increasingly moviegoers start to believe this (particularly young moviegoers; I’ve had some facepalm conversations with kids about 9-10 years younger than me in the past year). The immense potential of cinema gets shriveled into one tiny potentiality.

    We hardly need aesthetic critics jumping on the bandwagon too. Unless, of course, the films actually are worthwhile and this exercise in bad faith was for nought. I suppose I won’t know any time soon.

  2. Roger L

    For what it’s worth I think genre films are where some of the more transgressive ideas can be sneaked by. (Should Clover’s “Men Women and Chainsaws” be considered the beginning of this movement?) This should not be bundled in with or dismissed as an apologetic reaction to “guilty pleasures” or mitigating the hype machines (although we’ve all heard versions of “But it’s Joss Whedon, so something else must be going on.”).

    The works do tend to reveal much about the industrial context in which they are created/consumed (Nolan’s Batmans, assuming they can be considered “vulgar” and genre pieces, will be revealing about this time we’re currently in. Tarantino is on the cusp of this as well, investigating “dismissed” genres from the ’70s in a high-art kind of manner). A genre piece or “dumb action movie” is able and allowed to do different things with narrative and take potentially interesting shortcuts or risks – if the filmmakers understand and exploit such options. (Again, see Clover, Jeffords’ “Hard Bodies” and even Linda Williams.) (I’m not sure Paul W.S. Anderson is the best example of all this.)

    Keep up the great work!

  3. My biggest problem is that is indeed redundant. The entire point of the original auteur theory was noting the authorial signature of certain directors making commercial movies within the Hollywood system. It has since been somewhat corrupted, I think, but there’s nothing new or different to noting the authorial signature of Tony Scott than there was of noting the authorial signature of John Ford, aside from a simple and reasonable argument that Ford is indeed a better director. That aside, however, does nothing to alter the basic assertion made in the theory itself.

  4. I’m about where Neil is, in that I don’t think this term is especially useful. Auteurism already covers the same ground, auteurism does not necessarily imply that an auteur is delivering fantastic material (only that the auteur’s voice is unmistakable and singular), and it was created as a term to defend films that were dismissed by popular criticism. It’s especially odd to see names like Spielberg, Mann, and Carpenter included in the same list that includes Neveldine/Taylor and W. S. Anderson. I suppose that’s part of the point – to shock readers with the conflation and guarantee attention – but the former trio of filmmakers strike me as artists that were and (in the case of Spielberg and Mann) still are valued by both popular audiences and a large number of the criterati. The term feels too nascent and easily-applied. Is the point of VA that form supplants content, or that content is impeding respect for the form? Moreover, is there an advantage to the non-committal, tedious storytelling approach of a W. S. Anderson? If the dialogue, exposition, and narrative beats are irrelevant to his parade of images, why bother? If they aren’t, why be so vapid with that part of the process?

    Thanks for posting this article. Excellent thoughts and helpful links.

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