Expressive Esoterica in the 21st Century—Or: What Is Vulgar Auteurism?

Miami Vice (Michael Mann, 2006)
The following post was originally developed in a graduate seminar I participated in earlier this year on the state of contemporary cinephilia. I originally became interested in exploring Vulgar Auteurism after researching and talking to Ignatiy Vishnevetsky for a podcast. So for a half dozen weeks, I watched  the “canon” of Vulgar Auteurism and read every post, comment, tumblr, and criticism that had been written on the subject. What I have developed below is part of a project that I hope to bring to next year’s conference for the Society of Cinema and Media Studies. However, because Vulgar Auteurism has become somewhat of a hot debate after Calum Marsh’s Village Voice piece on the subject, I’ve decided to post a partial part of my work on the subject in order to give a full context and understanding how we can learn about contemporary cinephilia from the movement. As always, all feedback and comments are appreciated.

 

September 14, 2012 was a day of major anticipation for cinephiles that follow contemporary cinema. It was the official opening of auteur Paul Thomas Anderson’sThe Master (2012), a historical psychosexual epic shot in 70mm with two larger than life performances. However, there was another group of cinephiles excited for another release by Paul Anderson…Paul W.S. Anderson. Anderson’s Resident Evil: Retribution(2012), the fifth film in the zombie franchise starring Milla Jovovich, was released in 3,000 theaters without a single review to its name. For most critics who later watched the film, Retribution was a slog (Rotten Tomatoes describes the consensus: “[the franchise] seems to get more cynical and lazy with each film”).[i] But this set of very special cinephiles saw not just silly entertainment, but one made with as much craft and care as The Master. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, in his review at Mubi, argues, “Anderson is uncynical. His work is eye stuff: entertainment that rewards the viewer for watching rather than for being clever.”[ii] Critics disagree on films all the time, but what is going on with Retribution, and many other disregarded films of its like, is a new trend in cinephilia. Welcome to Vulgar Auteurism.

Since Jonathan Rosenbaum called cinema dead and cinephilia the next step, critics and academics have spent countless words trying to define “contemporary cinephilia.” Some of this issue, perhaps, is that defining contemporary cinephilia as a whole is an impossible task—one must encompass bloggers, democratization, torrent cultures, DVDs and Blu-Rays, mashups, podcasts, social media, and the vast amount of stuff. To better understand cinephilia, I propose that instead of making an encompassing vision, we should instead take an in-depth examination of a small sect. Certainly, the cinephiles who laud and champion Vulgar Auteurism fit that definition.

What is Vulgar Auteurism? There is currently no set definition—the term is not only extremely new, but also founded on message boards instead of coined by a major critic or theorist—so it remains only vaguely defined. The closest “official” definition comes from Mubi writer Adam Cook: “A filmmaker who works within popular culture, making films defined by qualities of mass entertainment like genre, violence, pulp, etc. that still retains a thematic and aesthetic continuity over their body of work. They are often, but not always, mistakenly degraded for the supposed ‘vulgar’ nature of their work.”[iii] At its most basic, Vulgar Auteurism is about the work of unheralded contemporary directors of “disreputable quality:” Anderson, Michael Bay, Neveldine/Taylor, and Tony Scott remain the most cited.[iv] While it can be seen in a tradition of Cahiers Du Cinema’s auteurist moment in the 1950s, as well as an extension of Andrew Sarris’s Expressive Esoterica category in The American Cinema, Vulgar Auteurism moves away from some of these properties and toward an appreciation of the image as an image. As the blogger Sean Gillman observes, “These arguments tend to focus on the artistry of the filmmakers’ image-construction over their thematic content (philosophical, political, etc) or narrative qualities (story, plot, character, dialogue, etc).”[v] Gilman is both right and wrong: 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 Auteurism examines the thematic weight of those images as well, which explore new paradigms of 21st-century culture.

Where did the term come from? No one knows exactly—it seems to have been an unconscious movement before it ever had a name. The breakthrough moment appears to have come in 2007 when the Canadian-based film journal Cinema Scope published a vitriolic defense of Tony Scott following the release of Déjà Vu (2006).[vi] The journal later published a piece on the work of Michael Mann entitled “Vulgar Auteurism,” though it certainly did not theorize the term along the lines of its conception now.[vii]In 2009, Mubi forum user John Lehtonen noticed the term being used in negative connotations on various threads, and instead flipped its meaning via his own comments on the site (which employs many of Cinema Scope’s writers). From there, Mubi andCinema Scope grew in popularity for their incisive writings on directors like Scott, Michael Mann, Bay, as well as even directors working in Direct-To-Video features, such as films by John Hyams and Isaac Florentine. All this was legitimized in 2011 by the appointment of then 24-year-old Vishnevetsky as the co-host of Roger Ebert’s At the Movies, giving Mubi an unprecedented authority to represent contemporary cinephilia. Vulgar Autuerism had its watershed moment during 2012 with a series of events that led to the term’s knowledge in the major critical landscape. The death of Tony Scott led to a series of pieces that pushed for his work to be seen in the tradition of the avant-garde. Critics outside Vulgar Auteirsm’s bastion reviewed and praised Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (Hyams, 2012), a film that was originally planned as a direct-to-video feature. Finally, John Lehtonen made a list on Mubi dedicated to Vulgar Auteurism (“Or the Scott-Mann-Baysians,” to play the Cahiers angle even more),[viii] and a Tumblr began posting images from various Vulgar Auterist films.[ix]

What is the most notable about these critics is that many of them are not solely writing about these derisive action films: Vishnevetsky has written on the late work of Jean-Luc Godard as much as the late work of Jean-Claude Van Damme. R. Emmet Sweeney writes substantial posts on lost Hollywood classics. Mubi is better known for its support of contemporary world cinema (often films that only make it to festivals). Cinema Scope often features long articles on the avant-garde. Like Cahiers writers, the Vulgar Auteurist critics are not just a series of fanboys who want to watch things explode, but take “film art” very seriously.

But what is the “art” of Vulgar Auteurism? Again, Vulgar Auteurist critics seem most fascinated by the images that these filmmakers create—and perhaps not the image, but the screengrab. Vulgar Auteurism’s most ardent critics seem to base their primary interest in these films on their aesthetic values, often admitting to the short coming of other cinematic elements. On Tony Scott’s Domino (2005), blogger Scott Nye writes, “It’s electric and invigorating, constantly abandoning any notions as to what Scott could be trying to ‘say’ with it in favor of some very pure expressionism.”[x] Calum Marsh, viewing Day of Reckoning, notes a similar trend: “Its aesthetic influences, which range from David Lynch to Gaspar Noé, all but guaranteed the film’s elevation from the slums of B-movie obscurity to some kind of vulgar-auteurist master class, where a surrealist action niche nobody asked for could suddenly be filled.”[xi] And Fernando F. Croce notes Michael Bay’s “aesthetic is a steroidal distillate for those pleasure-seekers sitting in the dark, and in Bad Boys II (2003) the peddler seems bored with his own heady substance.”[xii] Certainly, Vulgar Auteurism relies too heavily on the pause button: the ability to rip images from their original narrative context and give them their own meaning outside of the film itself. The aesthetic of the image can be striking—hues of orange and blue crashing against each other, intensely symmetrical frames, highly striking uses of focus—but often it means removing the image from what is being represented in the image.

Perhaps then, one should not give Vulgar Auteurism the credit it aspires toward if it is only a series of aesthetic values, truly embodying a “vulgar” attitude by refusing to engage in any substantive matters. Writing on Tony Scott, Adrian Martin questions what substance can be derived from his images:

Scott’s highly cultivated way of achieving his jazzy effects frequently courts contradiction, paradox, and generally impossible conceptual constructs as a way of ‘thinking through’ any hot topic at hand—but always nestled within, and chafing against, various solidly (sometimes depressingly) conventional Hollywood narrative models, through-lines, mythologies and ideologies.[xiii]

However, I find myself somewhat skeptical that all films that fall under Vulgar Auteurism are necessarily vapid and airless, and one can only find qualities within their own aesthetic predilections. As much as Vulgar Auteurism seeks to remove form from substance, form is inevitably tied to substance—critics that attack Vulgar Auteurism focus on the vapidity of their narratives, but I would argue for many of these directors, their textual issues are being worked through the image, which begins to take on the narrative and thematic weight in unexpected ways.

One excellent example would be the work of Neveldine/Taylor. On their surface, films like Crank: High Voltage (2009) and Gamer (2009) look ugly, misogynist, racist, indulgently violent, inarticulately edited, and frankly morally objectionable. But imbedded in these films are a societal critique not too far from Jean-Luc Godard’sWeek-End (1967) or David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983). Their films play the line between parody, exploitation, and auto-critique, without ever exposing a moral center to give the spectator an easy access point. In this way, their films are perhaps the best example of Vulgar Auteurism: each image feels ripped from a new approach to filmmaking that betrays any classical notions of what makes a “good movie,” but instead uses contemporary cultural influences (video games, MTV, Internet porn, and more) to redefine how films can view society. Their shots and editing choices, free of any classicism in their montage, allows the images to become saliently inventive and perplexingly original. The images thus work through their critiques of decadent societal norms in the most deranged way possible. Vishnevetsky writes that Gamer “is ugly, stupid, full of bad music and bad costumes, but it could be no other way. I wouldn’t trade it for a dozen ‘well-shot,’ ‘well-written,’ ‘carefully edited’ movies.”[xiv] To not enjoy watching a Neveldine/Taylor film is perhaps part of their point (High Voltage ends with a burning Jason Statham flipping off the screen, perhaps a “Fuck You De Cinema” to Godard’s “Fin De Cinema”), but to dismiss their films entirely would seem somewhat specious—something new is happening here.

Why do we need Vulgar Auteurism? Certainly, in the age of contemporary cinephilia, it seems more difficult for any film or filmmaker to remain undiscovered by someone, and perhaps the movement’s critics are pushing their searches to, well, their vulgar limits. There are a few important points to note: many Vulgar Auteurist critics do not limit themselves to only the work of contemporary directors, but often point to the work of 1980s and 1990s directors like Paul Verhoeven, John Carpenter, John McTiernan, and Kathryn Bigelow as the major predecessors. However, most of these directors have either entered mainstream appreciation or, even worse in their views, academic appreciation—they can no longer be “claimed” by the margin. So Vulgar Auteurism pushes to the limits of where cinema is being made (especially now the straight to DVD market, today’s equivalent of Republic Pictures), sifting through Hollywood’s least-respected films to discover something they can claim as their own.[xv] Cinephilia has always been founded on the idea that being on the margin is always better than the center, and Vulgar Auteurism simply is the next step of that.

More power to them, I would argue. A personal note here: I began this project because I became acquainted with many of these writers via social media and emails, and decided to explore what they found so immensely pleasurable in these films. I began skeptical, and leave a halfway convert. I found myself transfixed by the motions and symmetries in Anderson’s films, the digital fluidity in Mann’s late work, the abstract editing of Scott, and the heaviness of existence in Hyams. I perhaps saw more in these films—textures relating to network societies, new forms of space and time, digitally modified identities and avatars—than most Vulgar Auteurist critics would even admit. Each film I saw had something worth discussing, unique paradigms that other films of the last 15 years of cinema have only addressed in the most mundane of ways. Each film built on the medium’s history, those that came before it, while pushing it toward the future.

More than the films itself, Vulgar Auteurism shows how cinephilia continues to thrive in new ways—not through the intake of cinema, but on outtake: a pushing forth of new meanings and ideologies onto the rest of film culture, coming from the most unexpected of places. Whether its legitimate or not, is up to the individual.

[i] Rotten Tomatoes, “Resident Evil: Retribution (2012),” Last modified Sept 30, 2012,http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/resident_evil_retribution/.

[ii] Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, “Notebook Reviews: Paul W.S. Anderson’s ‘Resident Evil: Retribution 3D,’” Mubi Notebook, Sept 17, 2012, http://mubi.com/notebook/posts/now-in-theaters-gamer-neveldine-taylor-usa.

[iii] Adam Cook to Mubi online forum, June 2012, Vulgar Auteur Rankings, http://mubi.com/topics/vulgar-auteur-ranking?page=1.

[iv] While it is mostly American action films, there are a few exceptions—notably, the comic work of the Farrley brothers and the work of Hong Kong director Johnnie To.

[v] Sean Gilman, “Army of Milla: On the Resident Evil Movies and Modern Auteurism” The End of Cinema (blog), April 16, 2013, http://theendofcinema.blogspot.com/2013/04/army-of-milla-on-resident-evil-movies.html.

[vi] Christopher Huber, and Mark Peranson, “World Out of Order: Tony Scott’s Vertigo,” Cinema Scope, no. 29 (2007): 36-39.

[vii] Andrew Tracy, “Vulgar Auteurism: The Case of Michael Mann,” Cinema Scope, no. 40 (2009): 25-30.

[viii] Jack Lehtonen, “Vulgar Auteurism: A Guide Or: The ‘Mann-Scott-Baysians,’” Mubi, September 2012,http://mubi.com/lists/vulgar-auteurism-a-guide-or-the-mann-scott-baysians.

[ix] http://vulgarauteurism.tumblr.com/

[x] Scott Nye, “Tony Scott in Stills,” Rail of Tomorrow (blog), Oct 8, 2012,http://www.railoftomorrow.com/2012/10/tony-scott-in-stills.html.

[xi] Calum Marsh, “Blu-Ray Review: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning,” Slant Magazine, Jan 17, 2013,http://www.slantmagazine.com/dvd/review/universal-soldier-day-of-reckoning.

[xii] Fernando F. Croce, “Three Takes #4 Michael Bay’s ‘Bad Boys II’,” Mubi Notebook, Apr 22, 2013,http://mubi.com/notebook/posts/three-takes-4-michael-bays-bad-boys-ii.

[xiii] Adrian Martin, “Start Me Up,” Mubi Notebook (blog), Nov 26, 2012, http://mubi.com/notebook/posts/start-me-up.

[xiv] Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, “Now in Theaters: ‘Gamer’ (Neveldine / Taylor, USA),” Mubi Notebook, September 8, 2009, http://mubi.com/notebook/posts/now-in-theaters-gamer-neveldine-taylor-usa.

[xv] There are plenty of directors who are certainly not considered vulgar auteurs that direct action films: Rob Cohen, Brett Ratner, Joel Schumacher, Uwe Boll, McG, and Zac Snyder remain adamantly outside the conversation.

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