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Some Refined Discussion About Vulgar Auteurism

Some Refined Discussion About Vulgar Auteurism

In recent weeks, there have been a slew of articles about something called “vulgar auteurism,” described by critic Calum Marsh in a contentious article for The Village Voice as the celebration of “unfairly maligned or under-discussed filmmakers working exclusively in a popular mode.” His primary example is Justin Lin, the “vulgar auteur” who brought a smart eye for action, a multicultural cast, and a deft hand with dense continuity to the “Fast & Furious” franchise.

Marsh’s piece of criticism drew plenty of criticism of its own, including a particularly pointed response from SundanceNow‘s Nick Pinkerton. Very few days have gone by since Marsh’s Voice article where I haven’t seen at least one fight break out on Twitter about the implications, meaning, or value of vulgar auteurism (or “VA” for short, because vulgar auteurism takes up a lot of precious space in a medium of only 140 characters). 

Ben Kenigsberg wrote a brief consideration of Pinkerton’s piece that we published on Criticwire last Friday, but mostly I’ve avoided wading into the fray about this issue, in part because I’m still not entirely sure how vulgar auteurism is different than good ol’ fashioned Andrew Sarris-style auteurism (which was also about championing directors who were “unfairly maligned or under-discussed”), and in part because a lot of it just seems like different critics attacking each another, and that’s not something I’m all that interested in doing.

For both of those reasons, I particularly enjoyed Vern’s take on the ongoing VA imbroglio at his website, OutlawVern.com. Vern’s been writing about disreputable action filmmakers since before the turn of the century; he even penned an entire book about Steven Seagal. But rather than claim some young whippersnappers are horning in on his territory, he approaches the matter with openness and curiosity. Here, he describes what he finds appealing about auteurism, vulgar or otherwise:

“Auteurism (to me, at least) isn’t just about ranking and canonizing, it’s a way to look at a body of work instead of one isolated movie. To say that Stephen King is an author isn’t to say he’s equal with Charles Dickens. My interest in writing about movies isn’t just to say which ones are the best. I like to analyze them, I like noticing themes and motifs across a career. It’s fun. I’m not contrarian, it just happens that the directors I’m most attracted to are often the disreputable ones, and of course to find something worth study in movies that have been brushed off as disposable can be more exciting than in ones that have already been put under a microscope. There’s a lot more new shit to say about Isaac Florentine than Martin Scorsese. I try to do both.”

I have to imagine this is the appeal of Justin Lin or Paul W.S. Anderson for a lot of vulgar auteurists: they represent uncharted territory. Criticism beyond the good/bad, thumbs up/down model is about discovering movies, sharing them with others, and trying to understand their secrets. There’s not a whole lot of discovery at this point with the films of Orson Welles. Vern wrote a whole book about Seagal; I could easily (okay, not easily, but painfully and arduously and badly) write a book on Arnold Schwarzenegger. That doesn’t mean I think Schwarzenegger is an artist of the caliber of Orson Welles* — it just means i think his films are interesting and worth exploring, and maybe a little smarter than they’ve been given credit for by others.

I like some of the filmmakers who get labeled as vulgar auteurs — Neveldine/Taylor, Nimrod Antal, Walter Hill, John Hyams, Paul Verhoeven — and dislike others. I guess my thing is: I just don’t want to limit myself to them or to anyone else. Here’s where Vern has another perfect comment to share:

“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.”

Exactly. I like movies. I like criticism. I want Godard and Van Damme. I want Sarris and Kael. I want critics who are omnivores, who’ll go anywhere and see anything. If y’all start a movement dedicated to championing omnivorous criticism, you can mark me down as a charter member.

Read more of “Vern Tells It Like It Is: Those Damn Vulgarians.”

(*Although now that I think about it there are some interesting parallels between “The Lady From Shanghai” and “Total Recall.”)

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