It was not so long ago that I first heard the term ‘vulgar auteurism’ and wondered what people were talking about. Now that I have read up on some of it – though by no means all – I have an uninformed word or two to say about it.
Vulgar auteurism is the recognition of directors not usually accepted into the cinematic (critical) canon as auteurs, but who nonetheless possess all the pre-requisites for classification in that pantheon of directors that include Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Howard Hawks, among many others. Vulgar auteurism is an effort to expand the cinematic canon, accepting genre filmmakers as worthy of critical praise and, presumably, study for their artistic merits as well as their entertainment value. Unsurprisingly, the theory has already singled out particular directors for study. These, according to Ignatiy Vishnetsky – vulgar auteurism’s poster boy and greatest advocate – include Paul W.S. Anderson, the Farrelly Brothers, John Hyams, Jon M. Chu and, at times, both Tony Scott and Michael Bay.
That’s the basic argument of vulgar auteurism as I understand it. It has grown into an otherwise expansive theory, as these theories tend to do, and I don’t intend to tackle the whole concept here. But from what I’ve read of it thus far, I would like to ask one pertinent question:
What’s the point?
Vulgar auteurism bases itself on the auteur criticism pioneered by the Cahiers du Cinema critics way back when. Auteurism has since become a catch-all for film criticism. Thanks to the French critics and their subsequent acolytes, both in criticism and in filmmaking itself, auteur theory became a go-to explanation, a way of reading cinema that is both attractive and, forgive me, just a little bit lazy. Most contemporary film discussions have stripped auteur theory of any nuance it once lay claim to. It is a useful but somewhat outmoded form of criticism. It’s barely even a theory, as some have pointed out, but a critical approach, and one that can only really be applied to a handful of directors. Yet it has been vaunted by many critics, and we can barely discuss a single film by Malick or Scorsese without slipping into an auteurist approach.
If there are already problems with auteurism itself, I see even more with its offshoot. Why create a new name for what is basically an auteurist approach? While I will grant that Michael Mann and the Farrelly Brothers are not exactly taught in film studies programs the country over, there is no reason NOT to apply auteur criticism to their work, if it can be so applied. The only difference is the critical and academic acceptance of them as auteurs. Rather than slapping a new label on them as an excuse to examine them, why not simply argue for their inclusion as auteurs, if you have so much to support your theory?
The name of vulgar auteurism also troubles me, as it is both a celebration and an excuse. Vulgar has been used to mean popular, genre filmmakers, but also filmmakers who appeal to the ‘vulgar’ – that is to say, the mainstream public. While I have my own suspicions about the tastes of American movie-goers, I think that for any critical theory to take on a pejorative (and negative) connotation for a theory is not only condescending, but critically foolish. It’s a reclamation of a word before it even needed to be reclaimed. The very labeling of ‘vulgar auteurism’ declares that these directors are not worthy to be considered under the main canonical distinction of ‘auteur’ – they need their own critical category because they are far too popular for serious critics to take them up. This would seem to be the opposite of what vulgar auteurism claims as its project. It is a critical ‘slumming it’ that has within it the seeds of high-brow condescension.
Granted that the Cahiers critics had a political perspective – they stood against the ‘Tradition of Quality’ that was the name of the game in post-war European filmmaking; granted also that in the strictest sense, auteurism has helped to define what we now view as canonical. But vulgar auteurism seems to ignore, or at least turn a blind eye to, the fact that the Cahiers critics were deliberately taking on the ‘vulgar’. Hitchcock was a genre filmmaker. The gangster films so lauded by Jean-Luc Godard were low-class ‘social problem’ films. These directors were entertainers first, working in the Hollywood mainstream, producing films that appealed to the ‘lowest common denominator.’ They were popular filmmakers. So arguing for an inclusion of Justin Lin, of Fast and Furious 6, is not far fetched when it comes to auteur theory. By drawing a distinction, it seems that vulgar auteurism argues for an otherness – and again we return to the notion condescension. Implicitly, these filmmakers cannot be classed with Hitchcock and Hawks. Why ever not?
For a lot of young critics to levy the claim that they have invented, or helped to pioneer, a new form of criticism that will challenge the canon is just … boring. It’s been done before. It was done by the very people who subsequently entrenched themselves in the canon. And it does not seem to bring us anything new.
Once more, criticism threatens to grow exclusionary. Personally, I believe that we need to break down the canon, not add to it. Find theories that open new ranges of cinema to the critical gaze, rather than trying to reconcile contemporary ‘trash’ with outdated modes of critical discourse. If you truly believe that Tony Scott’s work deserves deep critical study, then formulate a thesis and prove it. This isn’t rebellion or even change; it is the induction of pet filmmakers into a club that critics created in the first place. Perhaps there are other aspects of vulgar auteurism that bear examination, and in the future I may change my mind. But at this point, at the most basic level, I once more ask: what’s the point?
I recommend checking out these two articles for differing opinions on vulgar auteurism:
- http://girishshambu.blogspot.com/2013/06/vulgar-auteurism.html#c8908708538589399142 – includes an extensive comment by Ignatiy Vishnetsky