Vern Tells It Like It Is: Those Damn Vulgarians

VTILIIlogoOne Seagalogist’s perspective on the “vulgar auteurism” debate

Recently, on my FURIOUS 6 review, commenter Jeroen pointed me to an interesting essay in The Village Voice called “Fast & Furious & Elegant: Justin Lin and the Vulgar Auteurs” by Calum Marsh. A buddy of mine who is way deeper in the online criticism circles than I am had mentioned the “vulgar auteurism” term to me once before, but then I kinda forgot about it and didn’t really realize it was a thing. Now I keep seeing debate about it. I bet this is either the first you’ve heard of it or you’re sick of god damn hearing about it. But I feel like it needs to be mentioned here.

According to Marsh, “‘Vulgar auteurism’ is an increasingly popular concept in contemporary criticism, particularly among young critics. Though it’s emerged online and in print over the past several years and has yet to be granted an official definition, the term generally refers to unfairly maligned or under-discussed filmmakers working exclusively in a popular mode—filmmakers like Lin, who, despite an obvious formal command and distinctive directorial voice, are rarely discussed in a serious way.” He goes on to name Tony Scott, Michael Mann, John McTiernan, Paul W.S. Anderson, Neveldine/Taylor and Michael Bay as other alleged vulgar auteurs.
(I was actually surprised to see Mann on the list. I thought he was generally respected by the mainstream. THE INSIDER was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including best picture, director, screenplay and actor. ALI got Will Smith a nomination, Jon Voight too. COLLATERAL got Jamie Foxx his first nomination. And people fuckin love HEAT, right? I’m not sure Mann belongs in this crowd, but apparently the term started with a discussion about him, so they gotta keep him on the list.)

This “increasingly popular concept in contemporary criticism” is not without its detractors. Glenn Kenny likes to tweet stuff like “Vulgar Auteurism holds that FROM JUSTIN TO KELLY is more ‘relevant’ than THE LAST WALTZ.” Drew Hunt, in his Chicago Reader review of RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION writes, “In the past few years the auteur theory has been perverted by a new school of critics, most of them bloggers, who’ve elevated to the level of high art various studio hacks whose work can hardly be ranked with the classic Hollywood directors.” (Later he writes, “So yes—RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION is, in fact, the work of an artist. He just happens to be a shitty one.” Accurate, but probly missing the point, unless there’s a wave of writers arguing for something stronger than “maybe Anderson isn’t as bad as everybody says.”)

Marsh’s essay received some backlash, including a particularly bitter column from Nick Pinkerton at Sundance Now. Though I agree with some of Pinkerton’s larger points (like that critics in general are more open to movies like FURIOUS 6 than it sounds like in Marsh’s piece) he makes them in a way seemingly designed to rub everybody the wrong way. He’s real petty about making sure these enthusiastic young people see themselves as insignificant in the history of film criticism. To shut out me and about 90% of my readers he threw in “I try to think the best of my fellow critics’ motives, to believe that their enthusiasms aren’t spurred by sheer contrarian perversity. (Although in the case of the elevation of a piece of shit like UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING, you have to wonder…)”

A search for “vulgar auteur” on Twitter brought me to many questions about who counts as one (Joseph Kosinski? Robert Rodriguez? David Cronenberg?). @EDmanwalking asks “Where do you draw the line? Is Takeshi Kitano? Is Johnnie To? Ughhh.” The practitioners are trying to bring recognition to artists who they think are marginalized, but they’re accidentally creating a ranking of “vulgar auteur” beneath “actual auteur.” And that also shines a spotlight on the idea’s most glaring weakness: even the most establishment of the critical establishment have always worshipped directors who were at some point considered lowbrow – Hitchcock, Fuller, Peckinpah, DePalma. Eventually longevity, change and nostalgia will win out, even with salesmen like Roger Corman and William Castle.

I imagine Hunt and Pinkerton’s problem with that would be that P.W.S. Anderson is no Hitchcock or Corman. A judgment we’d all agree with. But 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 alot more new shit to say about Isaac Florentine than Martin Scorsese. I try to do both.

Reading Marsh’s piece, you can see why I felt like somebody was walking on my grave. I was reading about a supposed new movement that was pretty much exactly how I’ve approached movies since I started writing about them back in the 20th century, and how we as a community here have always seen things. Together we’ve pored over the works of Florentine, Craig R. Baxley, John Flynn, Richard Franklin, Brian Trenchard-Smith, Michael Winner, Renny Harlin, Russell Mulcahy, Mark L. Lester, Roel Reine, Rob Cohen (my fault on that one), Don Coscarelli… We beat alot of the respectable critics to John Hyams, Scott Adkins, Gareth Evans, Justin Lin, mega-acting, Kathryn Bigelow, action comprehensibility, Andrew Dominik, Channing Tatum (because of FIGHTING).

Of course for most of us it goes without saying that John Carpenter, Paul Verhoeven, George Miller, Walter Hill, John Woo, Jon Milius, Don Siegel and many other mostly genre directors are in our hall of fame, so in a way it’s demeaning to suddenly see them discussed in this separate “vulgar” category, as if they’re lower, or need to be segregated for some reason, or as if our respect for them has to be defended. No, man. The burden of proof is on the accuser is what I think. If somebody thinks this stuff isn’t worth discussing then they’re the one that has to put up the argument. Not that I’m gonna listen to them for long, because go bother someone else, buddy, we’re talking about COMMANDO.

(And by the way, if looking at Just Lin as an auteur is new, is it fair to say I’m on some HOLY MOUNTAIN third eye next level shit by writing a whole book about Steven Seagal as auteur?)

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.

Over the years my biggest mission has been to bring more thoughtful and respectful discussion to action and badass cinema. I honestly think we’ve come a long way with that. I mean, did you see the reviews that DAY OF RECKONING got? (I know Pinkerton did.) I’m proud if I’ve had any part in that evolution and I hope to take it further. But I want to encourage my fellow fans of Dolph Lundgren and what not to broaden their horizons too. I don’t believe in the sanctity of walls between high and low art, pop and arthouse, respectable and lowbrow. Alot of the best shit blurs the lines. And the lines were asking for it.

Maybe that’s our point of contention here. I don’t really see the need to preach the gospel of Justin Lin to the halls of academia and New York essayists, because what kind of a fuckin fuddy duddy doesn’t appreciate Justin Lin? I feel like there’s enough of a world out here of people who appreciate a great action movie without having to be convinced to recontextualize it as high art. I’m not gonna pretend THE RAID has some extra layer of depth to make it great. But I’m gonna scratch my head at people who can’t recognize that it’s great on its own terms. I don’t mind being ghettoized in what I’m writing about because we have different interest. I recognize that just as they don’t know UNDISPUTED II from a hole in the ground I don’t have alot to offer to their conversation about “mumblecore” or non-martial-arts world cinema. But since I do respect both and some of them don’t I figure I can hold my head high as the smarter one.

I guess what I’m saying is these VAs are Christian missionaries and I try to be a Buddhist seeking enlightenment.

I’m sort of falling into a trap by taking some sort of stance on this. As with many things in the age of the Internet News Complex, I think this whole trend has been misunderstood and blown out of proportion. From what I could gather with some googling it’s a small group of people having fun looking at directors they see as undervalued. They took the “vulgar” term from someone who was using it disparagingly, which is why it sounds like some cartoon asshole with a monocle looking down his nose and saying it with disgust. According to Adam Cook Peter Labuza, vulgar auteurs “are often, but not always, mistakenly degraded for the supposed ‘vulgar’ nature of their work.” So I guess it’s a reclaiming the word type deal. In fact, if I understand correctly it’s a reclaiming of the whole concept introduced in a 2009 Cinemascope article praising Michael Mann but lamenting “whole fleets of past and present studio craftsmen, from the competent to the questionable, being elevated high above their stations via tendentious interpretations of thematic consistency and a specious formalism that welcomes any manner of ostentatious display.”

I guess some young cinephiles said hey, good idea, let’s run with that and started analyzing Tony Scott screengrabs by the bushel.

My tastes are pretty different from these writers, but here’s why I like what they’re doing. You guys know I fuckin hate the respective styles and personalities of Bay and Neveldine/Taylor, but I also consider them auteurs and do consider their movies interesting to analyze. Maybe “vulgar auteur” could be used as a defense when discussing directors like this who you find abhorrent but fascinating. But if that was the intent I don’t think anybody would be using it for Mann. Why would anybody be ashamed of liking Michael Mann movies? No reason, unless they were the president of some kind of anti-mojito hate group. So I would say to the VAs you guys don’t have to be VAs, just keep on doing what you’re doing and be As. To the anti-VAs I’d say I’d rather see your knowledgeable rebuttal to their P.W.S. Anderson praise than a blanket attack on the very idea of spending brain time on movies like that.

It’s pretty obvious, but I’m not sure anybody’s saying it exactly how I see it: “vulgar auteurism” is really just auteurism, but being more open-minded about it than some people with a more elitist view of film are willing to. In other words it’s just common sense. Of course most of these directors are auteurs, of course some of them suck anyway. What is there to debate here? If somebody really doesn’t think McTiernan is worth discussing, that’s obviously not somebody I’m gonna spend alot of time listening to anyway, so who gives a shit? I hope these guys drop the “vulgar” pretty quick, but God bless ’em for trying to shine their critical searchlights into previously ignored bushes. There could be somebody hiding in there.

special thanks to this post by Girish Shambu for putting this in a historical context that made me feel like I understood it better. Also I liked Derek Godin’s observations on the topic.

This entry was posted on Monday, June 10th, 2013 at 1:12 pm and is filed under Vern Tells It Like It Is. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

83 Responses to “Vern Tells It Like It Is: Those Damn Vulgarians”

  1. You’re the vulgarian you fuck!

  2. For the record, somebody in these talkbacks has been on the Vulgar Auteur beat for about the last year, though he’s only mentioned it here recently.

    Also, here’s my favorite VA tumblr collage:

    Now ^*that’s*^ how you do a filmatic composition. That’s how you do subtle visual storytelling. That’s how you convey a couple-in-divorce, a hero in the background, one McClane’s prominence being brushed away by the ex-McClane though the former hovers heroically hidden behind the latter [and smiling] regardless, a microcosm of the larger narrative. That’s simply auteurism & artistry; I don’t think McTiernan minds the somewhat inappropriate adjectival add-on, “vulgar,” that bothers some others.

  3. Sooner or later I’m bound to disagree with you on something my friend, but it will not be on this day. I’ve been watching this “vulgar auteurism” thing develop from a distance, and I could swear that the entire thing started because some of these people are ashamed to admit they liked MIAMI VICE. Which is too dumb to dignify. Not only do I love MIAMI VICE but I love PUBLIC ENEMIES too. So there! As you said, there’s a gargantuan difference between Michael Mann and Michael Bay, and any theory that begins by grouping the two is a profoundly flawed one to begin with.

    One conversation I AM interested in having someday is one about the anti-auteurs, guys like Bob Clark and Michael Ritchie, guys who worked across genres and managed to make a couple popular classics which are surrounded by a whole lot of esoterica. To me that’s some fascinatingly untraveled critical terrain.

    P.S. Haven’t had much time to comment but I’m digging The Super-Kumite (as expected)!

  4. I can’t disagree with anything Vern’s posted here. Well said. A little grumpy for my tastes, but I guess that’s a fair response to Calum Marsh, et al.

    On behalf of Manniacs who apply the “vulgar” label (which I, too, dislike in this case) to some of his work, I think the biggest reason is that his films’ subject matter happens to be lowlifes, criminals, & intense professional men, who he films in a way that is overtly artsy, intentionally elevated & beautiful in a way that gets his work noticed positively by the mainstream & awards voters, but also unconventional & daring
    (in an occasionally ugly or “vulgar” manner —
    -pioneering the use of digital cameras as though engaging in a ‘fuck you, real film!’ revolution,
    -finding city-at-night compositions to be as gorgeous & meaningful as Malickian Nature Channel insert shots,
    -intentionally zooming in on somebody’s jaw or earhole as though that perspective is exactly what he wants even though no other director seems to try that,
    -and don’t forget that Mann was pretty much *the* bridge between “music video” aesthetics and conventional storytelling aesthetics. Music videos are still considered “lesser” or “vulgar” art by most mainstream critics (check how many dismissive “Ugh, this is just a fuckin’ 2 hour music video or, gasp!, a video game” sentiments you’ll find in reviews of Bay or Snyder or whomever is supposedly disreputable for being too slick & vacuous.)

  5. Knox Harrington

    June 10th, 2013 at 2:41 pm

    Goddamnit, I hate it when they come up with shit like this. It’s like reliving all those heated torture porn misunderstandings all over again.

    They come up with names like “vulgar auteur”, but can’t even provide a consistent explanation of the term.

    Since a “B-movie” filmmaker like Carpenter has for the longest time been widely considered an auteur, the term vulgar auteur surely can’t refer to subject matter or genre. So does it refer to quality? See, that would make sense. It would be a good name for people who are generally considered bad filmmakers, but who still have a unique vision (Bay being the obvious example). But then why the fuck include Mann and McTiernan (or even a mixed bag like Tony Scott)?

    Does it refer to their approach? To the personality displayed in their filmmaking? To a certain level of brashness in their work? Wouldn’t that include someone like Tarantino?

    Ah God, I hate this “debate” already.

  6. Knox Harrington

    June 10th, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    Also: Yeah, Mouth, I guess that’s the closest thing to a somewhat reasonable explanation concerning Mann’s inclusion, but it all seems so broad and uneven that there’s very little stopping us from then including Fincher, Scorsese and Leone in the mix as well.

    I think they really didn’t think this through.

  7. True confession: I didn’t get around to ever seeing THIEF until just last night. This lead me to thinking about how Michael Mann doesn’t have the respect he should as filmmaker. Sure INSIDE MAN got a bunch of nominations but is it that much better than any given Michael Mann film? No, they’re all pretty fantastic. Even though PUBLIC ENEMIES is kind of the Black Sheep of the family it’s still pretty good all things considered. Unless it’s a scathing portrayal of corruption or some shit Cops and Robbers will never get the respect it deserves. I mean, I could go off for hours talking about the choice of Architecture in every Michael Mann movie. i don’t care if his police stations never look like police stations, he’s making a visually interesting exposition scene just by having people stand in the right room. If that’s not quality film making I don’t know what is.

    Shit, I saw Argo twice and couldn’t tell you about a memorable shot but I’ll never forget the Psych Hospital in MANMHUNTER.

    I suppose the Vulgar Auteur concept holds some weight in describing Michael Bay or Nveldine/Taylor, or anyone who gleefully says fuck you to good taste and common decency, but if you start putting Mann, or Wiending-Riefen, or even Carpenter under that banner it doesn’t work because they are just good at their jobs.

  8. Shit – MANHUNTER. MANMHUNTER is of course the less popular but still engaging Turkish knock off.

  9. I’ve stated before here that I consider Mann both/either my 2nd favorite & the #2 best filmmaker of all time, behind Kubrick at #1 obviously (and ahead of either Aronofsky or Verhoeven or Rittikrai), and I generally support the Vulgar Auteur movement, so I’m in a weird position of both agreeing & disagreeing with both sides of this debate.

    Also, it’s not so much a debate in my opinion — it’s more like it’s just a group of critics & writers trying to arrive at a proper operational definition for this term that they’ve found useful lately. It’s a term that’s kinda like a secret password to an awesome underground club — you can’t be any geek off the street, and you can’t be a Cannes-Sundance-fellating elitist, and you can’t be Peter fuckin’ Travers, (or maybe you *can* be any & all of those things but you have to have a lot more dimensions to your personality & sensibility as well) if you want to “get” Vulgar Auteurism and to contribute to its existence and its ongoing definitions. You gotta be handy with the steel to be a VA Regulator, and honestly I think the quality of the VA tumblr websight speaks for itself. Fuck words. It’s all there in the pictures. And the pictures are glorious. Just look at them and I bet you’ll “get” it. We wouldn’t sit around here and try to convince people what’s so great about Salvador Dali by chatting on a message board, would we? Fuck no, go see it for yourself and you’ll get it.

    And like Ignaity Vishnevetsky says about Paul WS Anderson:
    “Anderson is uncynical. His work is eye stuff: entertainment that rewards the viewer for watching rather than for being clever.”

    That’s all it is — visual & sensory & mood cinema that isn’t afraid to *not* reach for meta-cleverness and audience-backpatting faux-cleverness & other forms of Oscar baitism. “Rewards the viewer for watching rather than for being clever…” and doesn’t pretend like candy isn’t as good as or better than vegetables.

  10. I consider guys like Bay and Roland Emmerich and Paul W.S. Anderson and others to be “hack auteurs,” but to be fair I call them that because they were consistently shitty, instead of a more objective look at their filmatic/thematic elements. I probably should retire that term.

    Speaking of John Carpenter, what is his critical stock now?

    Also, what is the opinion on IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS?

    (That might be among his most interesting, thoughtful.)

  11. Knox Harrington

    June 10th, 2013 at 4:23 pm

    If “vulgar auteur” does include uniquely bad filmmakers, then my favourite is Troy Duffy, the Boondock Saints guy.

    Not so much his films (they’re horrible), but rather the man himself. Ever since watching Overnight, I’ve gone out of my way to get my hands on all of Duffy’s interviews or commentaries I can find. There’s just something endlessly entertaining about listening to some hotshot arrogant prick share his wisdom with the rest of the world. Seriously, this guy lives on another planet. Just listening to him will have you laughing the one moment and speechless with anger the next.

    I hope he makes many more movies.

  12. Knox Harrington

    June 10th, 2013 at 4:29 pm

    I really like In The Mouth Of Madness. My favourites will always be Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing, though. And They Live. And Halloween. And Escape From New York. Damn, he was good.

    I think he’ll be remembered the same way people remember Ali. They’ll forget about those last few bad fights and remember the great ones.

    You can’t make that many genre masterpieces and not be considered a master.

  13. Knox – The weird thing about Carpenter though is the ever evolving view of his work.

    Read the contemporary reviews for his movies post-HALLOWEEN. Most got bad reviews, yet most of them have been revived over time. (BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA and THEY LIVE were met with hostility, the latter was belittled.) Now they’re considered genius pictures. Then I remember a time when the Internet said he did nothing good after 1980s. But then you have people who defend VAMPIRES and IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS and hell, ESCAPE FROM L.A.

    GHOSTS OF MARS will stay dead, thankfully.

  14. Shit, even Halloween itself was heavily criticized and written off until a review from The Village Voice (of all places!) rescued it along with Siskel and Ebert. Carpenter is a good example to prove that “vulgar auteurism” is just plain old auteurism–here’s a guy who was written off by a majority of critics before others began to champion his work. This is exactly what those French fuckers did for Hitchcock and company a couple decades earlier.

  15. I’m not sure we should put much stock in what Peter Labuza says, by the way. I sorta like him, but… his brightness seems to have an on-&-off switch; he occasionally, almost regularly says smart things, but his handle on words & thoughts and critical faculties is not impressive. His podcast is alternately excellent & terrible. He’s more of a student than a pro, but he makes the offensive mistake of always speaking as though he is an expert even when he is demonstrably dead wrong, or of following a thread that tracks with his self-notion of authority but doesn’t mesh with the reality of his amateurness. Reminds me of a less articulate Film Crit Hulk (who gives me a raging headache every time I read or hear him), now that I think about it.

    (According to something Labuza said on his podcast before his convo with Vishnevetsky a couple months ago, Woody Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is about how great nostalgia is. . . ????!!!??? He made it sound like the film is a love letter to nostalgia. That is literally the opposite of true. Woody’s characters realize that their rose-colored glasses toward past epochs are unwarranted, and that they won’t find happiness or fulfillment by living in the past. I wanted to pull an ANNIE HALL and grab Marshal McLuhan or Woody himself to explain that Peter had no idea what the fuck he was babbling.)

    Anyway, sorry for the hatchet-rant. No offense to those I’ve disparaged, but it’s their fault for being faulty. Gotta bring it if you want my respect as a critic/writer/talkbacker/theorist/student.

    Meanwhile, I wonder if Vern doesn’t secretly dislike the “Vulgar Auteurism” movement in large part because it would mean people are finding reasons to praise the late Tony Scott. I agree with Vern on the terribleness of DOMINO, and I always found TOP GUN boring, yet I adore everything about DEJA VU. And thus I’m glad the VA weirdos have found a rationale to bring more attention & more legitimate praise to DEJA VU.

  16. I think its the age old question of whether something commercial can be art. I think Andy Warhol delivered the eulogy on those who thought it could not be.

    The thing about movies is the process where by they are made. And the Auteure idea is about directors who are essentially authors of movies, projecting their art through them. And from what I’ve learned about film making, its hard to imagine a movie like Furious 6 wasn’t passed through a lot of filters before it hit the screen and whether that process can allow a director to truly be in control of the art or how much control you would need to be said to be the Author of the work.

    So to me, its clear that a film like Furious 6 could well be art, but its not clear it could be said to be primarily the work of the film’s directory.

  17. ummm director… sigh…

  18. “Vulgar Auteur” sounds like the same kind of “Tourture Porn” horse-shit. Thank god that phrase finally went away.

  19. No, man, Vulgar Auteur has no similarity to that term at all. You’re dishonoring the inquisitive, expansive, exploratory, open-minded spirit of VAism by saying that.

    It’s not a bad thing at all. It closes no doors. It excludes no visitors or tourists. It’s the movement that gave someone like Mouth & Vern the space to not be laughed out of the planet when we said that UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING was one of the best films of 2012.

    Also it’s comprised of movies that have lots of boobs, like Abel Ferrara’s tragically overlooked nunchaku-serial-killer-stripper-cops-pimps 1984 masterpiece FEAR CITY.

  20. I should have read closer. It appears that Knox Harrington shares my views and stated it much better than I did. Ignore my previous post and read his instead.

  21. The term ‘vulgar auteur’ presupposes that the term ‘auteur’ doesn’t already cover poor or vulgar films. It does. An auteur is a director whose work bears a certain quality or signature, one that is unique. The Auteur Theory refers only to the vision, not the quality – the Bays and the Bolls of the world are and always have been auteurs.

  22. Semi-incidentally:
    At the moment, potential possible maybe sort of partial Vulgar Auteur Don Coscarelli is my pick for Best Director of 2013 for JOHN DIES AT THE END, with Harmony Korine a close-ish 2nd for VANESSA HUDGENS HUMPERS.

    I feel like Asghar Farhadi is going to be the only possible competition so far this year in that category.

    Also, here’s the best movie of 2013 so far (which happens to be very Vulgar, and happens to be very badass, and happens to be just 4 minutes & change):


    It’s called BAD MOTHERFUCKER. It’ll both sicken & cure your eyeballs.

  23. Mouth – in all sincerity, it would help me if you could tell me which parts of the column you consider “grumpy.” I didn’t mean it to come across that way, especially toward Marsh.

  24. That Nick Pinkerton article is awful. Beyond useless. Can’t believe dude gets paid for that garbage. He quotes, at length, the guy I just said is a shitty writer, he ridicules the death of Tony Scott, he has the wrong opinion of UNISOL:DOR, and he makes obliquely self-important statements without realizing that the cursorily apparent finality of his idiotic, ill-informed pronouncements are utterly incommensurate with and/or have no relation to the modest goals of Vulgar Auteurism.

    What a petulant bitchass Nick Pinkerton is. I really feel like a worse person now that I’ve read his shitty sundancenow article.

  25. Like I said, Vern, I both agree & disagree with both “sides,” if we can determine sides in this fluid, multi-tiered debate/discussion.
    By “grumpy,” I might have really meant “just a little bit [rightfully] bitter,” in reference to your desire to be recognized for your groundbreaking Seagalogical studies that everyone else in the film-crit game is evidently afraid to fuck with when they incestuously link to each other’s criticisms & thinkpieces. And I just had a general sense of negativity toward all the other, lesser writer/critics/whippersnappers who are, unfortunately, responsible for defining/articulating the issue at hand (an issue that I find horribly interesting, if you couldn’t tell after like 7 posts on this page).

    Or I just had your awesome [though partly wrong-ish] THE CABIN IN THE WOODS review on my mind when I typed that.

  26. Mouth part 2: I’m not actually familiar with Labuza, but in my research I came across somebody else quoting his paper on the ol’ vulgar auteurism, and it was useful. And I don’t have a grudge against Tony Scott anymore. I can appreciate that at least he made TRUE ROMANCE, REVENGE and CRIMSON TIDE. That’s more than alot of directors do. I don’t get the worship, but it doesn’t bother me.

    Anyway, this is not a black or white issue for me but I meant to be coming down overall on the side of the VAs, just with some disagreements.

  27. Good to know. You did say that you “felt like somebody was walking on my grave,” which is a fairly “grumpy” utterance in my opinion, but that musta been a nuanced reference to the way in which the VA promoters were going about their self-promotion, and not so much a defensive statement of your own critical principles. So I get it now. It’s possible for an issue to be black/white and multi-shadily gray, it seems, concurrently & simultaneously.

    It gets even gray-er when you consider all the possibilities of designating certain of “respectable” auteurs’ works to be examples of Vulgar Auteurism. I recently did this regarding Peter Weir’s WITNESS. Dude’s a great director, nothing but safe & respectable & relatively acceptably “artsy” yet pleasantly pleasant titles on his resume, including MASTER & COMMANDER (2003), which might be one of the top 15 films of this century, but these goddamn amazing WITNESS screenshots (among many others) are *so* Vulgar in the best possible way…

  28. Great article, Vern. Everybody sees their movies differently, I got so much hate mail when I wrote that Paul W.S. Anderson is comparable to John Carpenter. So, talk about being in the eye of the beholder.

  29. It is kinda difficult to take somebody, who includes Michael Mann in a list that apparently tries to convince us that lesser filmmakers are also auteurs, serious. The guy has had a constant approach, style and theme going in most of his movies. I do kinda get where these guys are coming from. I`ve never thought of the term “auteur” as a stamp of approval. It`s a description of a filmmaker, who`s personality is constantly expressed through his art, often in reaccuring themes and statements; Paul Verhoeven, Hitchcock, Mann, David Lynch, Larry Clark, Takashi Miike, Russ Meyer etc, as opposed to the studios vision. And some directors have a very recognisable style, but doesn`t include their personal statements on life in their movies (Rodriguez, Sam Raimi, etc).

    A lot of newer directors have a constant style and choice of stories, that easily could be classified as personal, while making the exact movies that the studios want them to make; Christoffer Nolan, Bay, JJ Abrams, Zack Snyder. But having a strong style, or even making movies where their personality shine through the material, doesn`t make them auteurs, or even vulgarien auteurs, imo. None of their movies express an opinion about life. But they all express an opinion about movies and stories. Those directors are all fanboys, and their stylistic choices are all an expression on their personal taste in popular culture, or the way you make movies. They`re post-modern auteurs, making movies about movies, inspired by other movies, and with the sole statement that they are cool because they love certain kinds of movies (or pop-culture).

    Yes. They are directors that define themselves by their taste, and make movies that are statements about how cool and awesome their taste are.

    They are hipster-auteurs.

    See? These vulgarians got it all wrong and they are a part of the problem. They are defining who they are by expressing their love for pop-culture-makers. They are fucking hipster-reviewers who love hipster-auteurs! Bleurgh!

    I dunno why, but their approval of hipster-auteurs pisses me off. For once, none of the so called “auteurs” they mention are unpopular. They make blockbusters, and the audience love their movies, but they don`t include their personal views on life in these movies, like for example Hitchcock did. They don`t include statements about humanity, society or religion, like Verhoeven did. They don`t make subversive satire like Douglas Sirk did. These three examples made vulgar blockbusters, but also highly personal statements based on their view of life. They are the true vulgar auteurs. People who make movies about shit they think is cool, are not.

    (Zach Snyder is fucking awesome, though.)

  30. ps: Allright, if a hipster-auteur is a guy, who makes movies about shit he thinks are cool, is Tarantino a hipster, then?

    I would say no. Tarantino is a directors, who`s style and stories are inspired by stuff he loves. He doesn`t love it because it makes him seem cool, or defines him as a person. He loves it because he loves it. And his love for pop-culture are tools in his director-toolbox.

    A hipster-auteur like JJ.Abrams makes his love of pop-culture the sole purpose of his movies. When stuff happens in his stories, it`s to remind the audience of how much they love Star Trek or Spielberg. He doesn`t use his homages to Spielberg as tools to tell his story. Tarantino, on the other hand, uses his homage to Vanishing Point in order to turn the typical gender of the slasher movies on his head, while highlighting the contrast between movies fictional universe with reality.

    JJ. Abrams made Super 8 because he watched ET as a child and loved the movie. Tarantino made Death Proof because he watched Vanishing Point and a bunch of slashers as a child and loved them, but later realised, while making movies, that the drivers and stuntwomen portraying the victims in movies, are badass bitches. Thus, combining his love of movies with a personal statement, based on his life-experineces, while continuing a personal theme, that has been present in his work since he made movie-gangsters talk about pop culture and stuff. That´s auteurism. Flairs are not.

  31. Vern, this is a great article, and I’m glad it led me to your site. It’ll be a bookmark I visit often. As someone who semi-regularly writes with VA people, though, I do have one minor quibble: I totally agree about the dangers and marginalization of calling auteurs “vulgar,” but the term is really used to describe the writers, not the filmmakers they write about. PWSA, Bay, Scott and the like are simply auteurs, with no need for asterisks by their names. VA isn’t really a movement, much less a theory (at least, it’s just the application of a perfectly fine one.) The term really only came about as a bit of jokey branding by those who primarily use it simply to find other writers talking about the same things across the Internet. In lieu of any centralizing publication or even geographic location, it is a means of organization. Certain directors and styles pique our interests (though not to the exclusion of other cinema, I hasten to add), but to designate them as vulgar auteurs instead of just, y’know, auteurs, would be to condescend to those for whom we are passionate.

    I do have nagging issues with the term myself, mind, chiefly in how little it allows for workmen, which I would call most of these directors. I think a good metteur-en-scène is as rare as an auteur these days, and likely rarer, as directors are shooting for auteur status. I think someone like Justin Lin would be more of a workman, as his films lack the deeper involvement of, say, a Tony Scott or Paul W.S. Anderson work but, as you rightly point out, are so damned fun and well-assembled who could care? To assign any meaning to the Fast and Furious films outside their belabored, albeit warm, vaunting of the families we make would be a waste of intellectual resources. Then again, I do see bold ideas in people like Hyams, and I can’t wait to see where he goes from the two Universal Soldier movies (and, to a lesser extent, Dragon Eyes).

    But again, love this article, and thank you for being one of the people who gave (and give) the sort of films that have given me such pleasurable surprises their first real exposure. I imagine it doesn’t please you to know so, but you’re probably responsible for me ever coming to these movies and falling so hard for them. I can’t wait to peruse your archive and see what else you’ve written.

  32. Wow, what a big surprise that the link I posted resulted in such a measured and intelligent response. I’m also honoured by the namedrop, thanks Vern.

    With this op-ed, you show that you are still ahead of the curve in your approach to criticism. Suggesting that the ‘vulgarians’ should drop the ‘vulgar’ hits the nail on the head to me, as does the observation that auteurs like Hitchcock and Peckinpah went through a similar discourse decades ago that the modern ‘VAs’ are going through today.

    Way to cut through the bullshit once again!

  33. I kind of don’t see what the controversy is here. Some filmmakers are vulgar. Some are auteurs. Some are both. This does not preclude them from being simply auteurs. It’s just a subset inside the larger group. It’s just a handy little tag, something to think about, to get a discussion going. It’s only when somebody tries to codify it, to make rigid borders between regular ol’ auteur and vulgar auteur, that it becomes controversial and people get a bug up their ass about it.

    I guess when you try to take away the movies that critics love to shit on they have no choice but to shit on each other. I’m not sure if there’s anything less interesting than critics critiquing other critics. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here watching and interpreting and taking seriously whatever the hell I damn well please, much like I’ve always done.

  34. Auteur theory, vulgar or otherwise is all bullshit. Wasn’t auteur theory started by bloody Francois Truffaut? Films are a collaborative affair, they’re too massive an undertaking to be otherwise. Look at film noir, one of the guys largely responsible for that look was John Alton (see ‘Painting with Light’) a cinematographer. So the films he helped shoot that defined that style, is he the auteur or is the director who had the good sense to let him do his job? I don’t know what it is about people that they have a need to identify one person as the ‘talent’. All the films John Woo made, if he’d had to use a different team, or different actors, or different locations, but the same script, would they still be the same? We’ll never know, but if one can’t say for definite that it would like one can say for definite that a particular painting is a Rembrandt no matter what it depicts, then the supposed art – in this case movies – cannot really give itself over to auteur theory. The whole of auteur theory, to quote Shakespeare “…it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

  35. Sure, film is the most collaborative medium there is, but there’s always a captain steering the ship. All the craftsmen and technicians on a crew are given a mission statement to fulfill by their director. I mean, just to give an example, it can’t be just a coincidence that Woo’s movies all have similar themes and motifs. The movies might not have been exactly the same if key personnel had been switched out (and his Hollywood career is a good case study for your insistence that the auteur theory doesn’t work in the Hollywood system) but I’m pretty sure they’d still be about loyalty among men and have doves and two-fisted gunmen flying all over the place. The production process might be a meat grinder, chopping up and homogenizing everything that passes through it, but the director is the grate on the other end that determines the vague shape the sausage ends up as.

  36. Auteurs was originally a description of a director who made movies as art. And when I use the word ART, I mean a subjective expression of your perception of life.

    Trauffaut introduced the idea that entertaining movies made under a studio could be art, if made by a director with a strong personal vision and theme. If all entertainment, that is competently put together, can be described as art, or the work of an auteur, then the words loose their meaning.

    I guess the problem is that art or auteurism is suddenly words that means quality. That´s bullshit, imo. There is good art, bad art, good auteurs, bad auteurs, great directors and bad directors. Having great car chases in a franchise about cars doesn`t make the director an auteur. But it does make him an great action director.

  37. Knox Harrington

    June 11th, 2013 at 11:14 am

    I don’t know if there’s a controversy here, Majestyk. I just don’t know what the hell “vulgar auteur” means.

    I thought I did, but then Michael Mann was listed as one and Mouth showed us shots from Weir’s Witness and now I don’t have a clue. Why is Mann a vulgar auteur? Why isn’t Fincher or Scorsese or Tarantino or Refn or Leone? Or are they? In which case, what the fuck?

    Like I said, I don’t think these guys really thought it through, and now it became a thing and suddenly they have to back up their “theory”, but they can’t. Or maybe they can, in which case I’m more than willing to listen and learn what the hell they’re talking about.

  38. Um, since corporations are people, can we someday visit the theory of Asylum-as-auteur? I mean, there’s a rich consistency in all their films, be they mockbusters, scyfy fodder or the occasional theatrical release.


  39. On my first day at university back in the mid-nineties, the film lecturor took a potshot at the recently released Die Hard With A Vengeance, using it as an example of ‘the type of film we won’t be discussing here’ to many chuckles from the smarty pants dicks in the lecture theatre.

    I got much satisfaction later that term when the assigned textbook (Film Art, a great read) dedicated half a page to the cinematography of Die Hard 1.

  40. It’s like Jake just said:
    “The term really only came about as a bit of jokey branding by those who primarily use it simply to find other writers talking about the same things across the Internet. In lieu of any centralizing publication or even geographic location, it is a means of organization. Certain directors and styles pique our interests (though not to the exclusion of other cinema, I hasten to add). . .”

    like what I said upthread: [Vulgar Auteurism]’s a term that’s kinda like a secret password to an awesome underground club with ongoing definitions.

    It’s not much different in structure or operational effectiveness as what this websight sometimes refers to as Outlaw cinema, or BADASS CINEMA, or The Films of Cinema, or like when Vern refers to his Nicolas Cage studies — he’s probably not literally cracking open academic texts & reading every word of every Cage interview & every E!news report that mentions Nic Cage and learning what hospital Nic Cage was born in, but we know what he nebulously means when he uses the clear term “Cage Studies.”

    It means he compares performances & identifies trends in certain movies he likes or finds interesting, discovering a cohesive sensibility along the way, as he did with Seagalogy. And now, thanks to his initially hazy, slowly unfolding efforts and thanks to years of sharpening his definitions and getting Fred Topel to incept the phrase “mega-acting” in Cage’s mind, someone like me is able to regularly use a phrase like “Cageian mega-acting” or “Seagalogical” and apply those terms to something seemingly unrelated to the source material. And thus I consider these concepts to exist as their own separate chapters of a canon (which reminds me of Vern’s THE LOOSE CANON, which is another ongoing effort to define something that might never have a crystal clear definition).

    VA achieves the same thing — you can identify certain directors, certain movies, certain scenes, certain still compositions that possess an unforced dirtiness or sloppiness that is accidentally beautiful,
    moments that could serve as photographs or murals but for the off-putting fact that the shot also contains a cocked firearm or a grizzled Tom Berenger or a woman half-undressed, in poignantly kinetic repose,

    or you can identify certain directors, like Paul WS Anderson or John Hyams, who are all the time setting up elaborate or striking bits of symmetrical art direction in service of genre movies that will be inevitably shit on by most critics who often gush over the same kind of elaborate bits of symmetrical art direction in a film by, say, Kurosawa.

  41. So I guess all this means is that when I left the theater on opening day praising Resident Evil: Apocalypse for being the Citizen Kane of Video Game Movies, I was ahead of my time?

    Like Vern, I find many flaws in this school of thought. This is no different than having critics who grew up on Famous Monsters praising horror films that the previous generation stuck up their noses at. Appreciating great trash, to steal a quote from Kael is nothing new. Putting a label on it, especially one that doesn’t quite make sense like “vulgar auteur” is silly.

    When I began reviewing movies on my blog, I tried to approach lowbrow movies as if they were highbrow movies and vice versa. This approach didn’t always work so now I use it only on special occasions, mostly because it’s kinda juvenile, but it’s fun.

    But you know, I like all kinds of movies. I like talking about all kinds of movies. I’m not ashamed to enjoy a bad movie. A bad movie might make me laugh as hard as a legit comedy. And to me a laugh is a laugh. It’s all the same in my book. I am not ashamed to say I enjoy a PWS Anderson movie. And you know why? Because it may be an enjoyably junky movie, but it takes me away from my problems for 90 minutes (81 if I don’t watch the credits). If that’s a crime, I’ll do the time.

    Only a person that can’t openly enjoy a PWS Anderson movie based on its own merits NEEDS to put a label on it to justify being entertained by it. And that’s just sad. I just call it “Watching Movies”.

  42. Thanks Jake, I appreciate the insights. So do I understand you correctly – the people writing about this could call themselves vulgar auteurists, but would not call the directors vulgar auteurs?

    As I wrote in the essay, I sort of got the feeling that alot of the articles I was getting my research from were making a bigger thing out of it than the actual writers who started out. Sort of like the so-called grunge scene in Seattle in the ’90s.

    Mouth – maybe I’m not using “somebody’s walking on my grave” correctly. I just meant it like when people say their ears are burning because someone’s talking about them or that sort of thing. I didn’t mean they were killing me and disrespecting my legacy.

  43. Vern: That’s correct. Vulgar auteurists often invoke certain directors as touchstones, but the auteurs themselves are, well, auteurs. I won’t say that the term vulgar auteur hasn’t been used by VA people, but if it has it would almost certainly be in the early stages of that term existing. I know that when I write about PWSA, Zombie or whomever it is only on the merits of their craft and what that craft might communicate, not their “vulgar” credentials(?). The hay-making may succeed in dispensing with the term, at least; I have no attachment to the term, only a weariness of the strawmen that have been burned with it etched into the bodies. Since it’s largely succeeded to help some writers find each other, I imagine it will fade out with time. As ever in the unyielding tedium of critics’ internal squabbling, I’d rather just be talking about fucking movies.

  44. My understanding of Vulgar here is not that its offensive material, but that it’s commercial material, intended to maximize dollars by giving an audience what they want.

    So the central question is if you as a director can be delivering an artistic vision while pandering to an audience. I can see why not, but I think in some cases it just so happens that a director has the same interests as his audience and his artistic vision just so happens to be one that is or becomes popular.

    So with something like Furious 6, was the director thinking, “This is so awesome I love it!” or “People will think this is awesome and tell all their friends about it.” Its sort of a question of intent rather than outcome. With more traditional Auteur directors its pretty clear they were not making a film to make anyone but themselves happy. With a Vulgar Auteur its harder to pick out vision from calculated decision.

  45. At the end of the day, do we really need these labels? I kinda understand it a few years ago, when people still felt they had to justify their love of “trash cinema” in such a way that they could still discuss Citizen Kane with any credibility. But haven’t we all come to the conclusion that a film is a flick and vice versa? Does my deep and abiding love of Shaw Brothers flicks invalidate my opinions on Battleship Potemkin?

  46. Two updates from people mentioned in this column:

    1. I stupidly credited Peter Labuza for a quote that was actually (quite clearly) him quoting Adam Cook. I fixed it but kept the link to Labuza’s piece where I saw the quote. Sorry, Peter.

    2. Drew Hunt, whose RESIDENT EVIL review I quoted, felt he should clarify his opinion about VA:


    Sorry if I dug up an old pain in the ass thing you were sick of explaining! That review came up in my research and seemed relevant.

    And thanks everybody for all the retweets and stuff, the response to this piece has been gratifying.

  47. My afternoon comment response to Knox & Jake remains stuck in PRISM purgatory, it seems. Always knew Vern & clubside Chris worked for the NSA.

  48. Knox Harrington

    June 12th, 2013 at 9:58 am

    Thanks for the reply, Mouth. I appreciate the effort and hear what you’re saying.

    I have to be honest, though, I still can’t figure out why certain directors or films qualify and others don’t. You showed us those frames from Die Hard and Witness as examples, but I’m convinced that those are not examples of “happy accidents”. To me, that looks like basic mise-en-scene. Simple, intentional communication through images and movement. It’s what a director does.

    I understand what you’re saying about guys like Paul W.S. Anderson. But to me it seems pretty obvious that, even though he’s a pretty shitty (but sometimes entertaining) director, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t know how to compose a good shot or incorporate some sloppy visual subtext into his films.

    I read that piece by Drew Hunt that Vern gave us a link to, and liked what he had to say, but was again dumbfounded when he came up with the term “Mann-Scott-Baysians”. Why the fuck is Mann herded with Scott and Bay? That’s like me saying Lean-Zombie-Duffyian. Guess which one doesn’t fit.

    I think that’s the one thing that just completely bewilders me about Vulgar Auteurism (or rather the Vulgar Auteurists). I don’t know how they choose their subjects.

  49. You’re right.
    Personally, I don’t consider Justin Lin part of VAism at all. His inclusion doesn’t feel right to me at all. Nothing in his works fits the aesthetic that I have in mind when my mind is struck by VAism or ponders VA. Lin is too upbeat & “pop”-y, too prone to include bad jokes & cheesy musical cues & cheesy montage. If he were Vulgar, more [or some] people would have died in the awesome vault-dragging sequence in my beloved FA5T.

  50. Maybe I am wrong, but it is my understanding that the term vulgar auteur is not a label assigned to a film maker because of the content of their work but because of the commercial (vulgar) nature of the films they make. I believe the term is meant to give credit to film makers who are known for commercial genre films as artist and auteurs when the term auteur is usually limited to more artsy or highbrow filmmakers. Many people believe that a true auteur is an artist that operates free of the concern of financial restraints or need for profits and the restrictions of genre, their sole goal and purpose is to create art. However, the commercial way most films are financed, produced and distributed works at odds with the idea of the auteur as an artist and the freedom they should poses as the author of the story. The structure, themes and codes of genre can also be considered limiting to the auteur as an artist. A vulgar auteur is a film maker that works within the commercial film system and the rigid and coded nature of genre film making but is still able to express their voice and function as an auteur by playing with the themes and codes of the genre they are working. By that definition Bay, Carpenter, and Mann would all be vulgar auteurs.

  51. Mouth, based on the definition from my previous post I would say Lin is a vulgar auteur.

  52. Knox Harrington

    June 12th, 2013 at 11:27 am

    But Mann doesn’t generally make super-commercial movies. Heat, The Insider and Ali weren’t designed blockbusters, the way something like Iron Man 3 is. The closest he ever came was Miami Vice, and that was still more like Heat than a Fast & Furious.

    If you can include Mann, then surely Spielberg or Cronenberg should be included as well. And 95% of all filmmakers, for that matter.

  53. – charles

    I think I get it know, but it still doesn`t make sense. John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk, Sam Peckinpah, Paul Verhoeven and the Warchowski-siblings all made big budget movies for the studio, while managing to include personal statements and themes. They are rightfully perceived as auteurs, but could easily fit your description as “vulgar” auteurs as well. The new so-called “vulgar” auteurs doesn`t bring anything personal to their movies, except for style and what content they think is cool. If that qualifies you as an auteur, then Buttmans constant use of handheld digital camera and white trash teenagers makes him an vulgar auteur as well.

  54. Y’all still aren’t picking up on the nuance of what Jake & I & others have been saying. There’s no such thing as *a* Vulgar Auteur, no such thing as a person who is a vulgar auteur. It’s more of a concept, less of a label. It’s a term that evokes, describes, or alludes to a sensibility, a critical reaction to sensibility, or a critical reaction to a separate critical reaction. It’s a not merely a category of people, artists, or sub-artists.
    And it’s not quite firm enough or established enough to be a full-on independent school of thought.

  55. So, the point is that certain directors are not recognized as auteurs, cause they make blockbusters for the studios? If that`s the point of vulgar auteurism, then these critics doesn`t know what the word auteurs mean, or how the new french wave changed the perception of what an auteur can be.

    My point stands, though. If they believe that Bay and Lin are auteurs, then they don`t know the difference between style and subtext.

  56. Knox Harrington

    June 12th, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    So Vulgar Auteurism is… nothing… and everything.

    Yeah, I’m out.

  57. Knox & dna, I want to be clear I am not saying I endorse the idea of a vulgar auteur I was just trying to explain the concept as I understand it. Also please understand that it is a concept that as Mouth pointed out is still in its infancy, and still being defined. I think this debate all comes down to what your definition of an auteur is and how you use the term. Stephen Neale describes an auteur artist as someone that is “free of the constraints of commerce and of the conventional and formulaic nature of commercially oriented aesthetic forms”. That is not a judgment on the skill of the artist, it’s a criteria for judging the terms on how art is produced and consumed and how that impacts a filmmaker’s ability for their own voice or vision to come through in their art. I think you can be a lousy film maker and still be considered and auteur. Using Neale’s definition you could argue that Tommy Wiseau was functioning as an auteur when he made THE ROOM. Saying Wiseau functioned as an auteur in crafting THE ROOM doesn’t mean I am giving him any credit for his skill as an artist or film maker. I am only acknowledging that he is the author of THE ROOM and he made it independently of the commercial studio system and it is undeniably his unfiltered and unique vision. On the other hand a skilled filmmaker like John Woo would be considered a vulgar auteur because most of his films were produced and crafted as part of a studio system (in HK & the USA) that is designed to manufacture product for masconsumption and is les conducive to allowing a film maker the freedom associated with the term auteur. However not all big budget or commercial film makers are vulgar auteurs. For example I think Bret Ratner is a good example of a technically competent commercial film maker that wouldn’t be considered a vulgar auteur. He is a competent craftsmen, but he is a hired gun doing a job and his work lacks the personal voice/vision associated with an auteur. Yet John Woo would be considered a vulgar auteur because despite working in a similar creatively limiting commercial studio system and genres of film he brought something new to the genre and a personal voice/vision to his work by how he plays with and presents the codes and themes of the genre he is working. Film makers like Spielberg and Peckinpah are auteurs, but both have functioned as vulgar auteurs at times when working on more commercial projects (JURASSIC PARK, CONVOY).

  58. – charles

    I mostly agree (except with the part that not working for a studio automatically makes you an auteur), but Hitchcock, John Ford etc has been acknowledged as auteurs since the sixties, so arguing that studio-directors can be auteurs, is a fifty year old debate.

  59. The original Paul

    June 12th, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    Well I’m glad I’m not the only one to immediately have thought of John McTiernan and Paul Verhoven when reading that essay that was referenced in “F&F6″‘s comments. I count “Hunt for Red October” as one of my favorite films, and there’s a little-known flick called “Die Hard” that nobody seems to have heard of but is actually quite good and you should probably check it out at some point.

    And as for McTiernan, well, ages ago he made this trilogy of sci-fi B-movies. There was one starring Arnie that was pretty bloody and featured all of these freakish psychic guys and a chick with three boobs, then there was the one about the cop who became a robot after he got shot, and of course there was the “Aliens”-inspired bug hunt movie starring the girl who gets drilled in a hot tub in “Valentine”. Give it another twenty years or so, these movies will start to get some of the credit they deserve.

    Then of course there’s Carpenter, who’s acknowledged to be a fairly skillful maker of horror movies and who openly drew a lot of inspiration from a western-genre director of long-acknowledged if limited talent, Peckinpah. Who can say what time will do to their respective reputations? It might even be said, some day, that Peckinpah’s most bleak and nilhilistic films showed a darkness of the human soul that few other directors have attempted, let alone captured. Some day.

    But until that day comes, be thankful, my fellow Vern-ites, that there are still films that get the praise they deserve, the day they are released. Films that open to overwhelmingly positive critical receptions, getting five-star reviews from all of the major film magazines, attracting huge numbers at the box office. I refer, of course, to films like Michael Bay’s critically-acclaimed historical masterpiece, “Pearl Harbor”, and the work of visionary genius that was “The Phantom Menace”. Let us all be appreciative that there are some films we can just all agree on.

    I guess what I’m saying is this: we can say what we think, we can decide what we make of what others think, but in the end it’s only history that will prove the true judge.

    And Vulgar Auteur-ism? Seems like a laudible enough goal; but in the end is it just another way of creating a divide between imaginary “groups” – in this case the highbrow and the lowbrow, who as Vern points out aren’t as easily separated – or is it a way of uniting us, of bringing much-needed recognition of lowbrow films to the eyes of critics who wouldn’t normally consider them? Honestly I think it’s too early to tell. Like any group in the world there’ll be the elitist excludering and there’ll be the enthusiastic welcoming, and in my opinion the gap between these two schools of thought is a heck of a lot wider than the gap between “highbrow” and “lowbrow”.

  60. I don’t like labels at all, either, Vern — especially when it’s some sort of new movement to legitimize a niche pursuit like badass cinema. Hopefully, after finishing reading your (well-written and thoughtful) post about “Vulgar Auteurism” I’ll never read or hear the phrase again, ever.

  61. dna, I was not trying to say that if you work outside the studio system you are automatically an auteur. I am sorry if that came across in my post. You will have to forgive me, it is hard for me not to generalize when trying to boil down a large idea like vulgar auteurism and properly explain it with my limited writing ability. You can still make an independent film and not be considered an auteur, and you can make an indie genre film and still be considered a vulgar auteur. The idea is a true auteur works without constraints so you are getting their voice unfiltered. However, genre can be just as limiting as the commercial nature of the studio system (I was trying to convey that in my previous post, sorry if it was unclear). The idea is that film genres have their own rigid set of themes, codes, and structure attached to them, so if I am making a romantic comedy or martial revenge film there are touchstones, themes, and codes in both genres that I am expected to adhere to. Having to work within the frame work of a genre goes against the idea of unfiltered artistic freedom associated with an auteur. That is why someone like Don Coscarelli would most likely be considered a vulgar auteur, because despite working outside of the studio system he makes genre films.

    At the end of the day the term vulgar auteur exists for the same reason I have trouble trying to explain the idea in simple terms. As both Jake and Mouth pointed out the idea of a vulgar auteur is not a fully formed concept, it is evolving. It is not meant to ghettoize film makers who work on genre films or within the commercial studio system. It is short hand or code for a large idea for people to use when discussing the idea of commercial genre film making as art and how that relates to existing auteur theory.

  62. Mainstream writers are jacking your points all the time. Check out the new issue of N Plus One for an article about “Sadomodernism.” It’s about Haneke and other European filmmakers’ need to make their audience suffer. Basically what you said in your “Amour” review.

  63. – charles

    Again, Douglas Sirk, Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Peckinpah and John Ford are all recognised as auteurs today. And they all made genre-movies for the studios. Would you call them Auteurs or Vulgar Auteurs (or however you use this phrase)? The same point could be made for George A Romero, Spielberg etc. Or how about De Palma? Even Tarkovsky was under the studios (or russian governments) control. No filmmaker works without constraints. I like your point about genre being a sort of constrain, but I didn`t think that anybody today actually thought that genre-directors couldn`t be auteurs. I mean, even a porn-director like Radley Metzger is percieved as an auteur in some circles. Well, by me, anyway…

    On the other hand, if Mouth is correct, then the vulgar auteurism-expression are simply used by reviewers who wants to discuss “popular” cinema on the same terms as art-house-cinema, and not as an description of the filmmakers they discuss. If that is the case, then Trauffout, Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, Quentin Tarantino and Outlaw Vern are actually the original vulgar auteurs?

  64. The original Paul

    June 13th, 2013 at 10:12 am

    “Excludering”. Damn, I was tired when I wrote that.

  65. Here’s the N+1 article I was talking about:


    “The sadomodernist uses cruelty perpetrated on-screen to terrorize his audience, whom he dares: Look at this. Aware of the possibility that we might enjoy his dubious spectacle too much, the sadomodernist may also punish us, as Haneke does, on the level of form. He uses gestures of self-reflection to make us recognize our complicity in whatever horrible thing he has staged, and, at the same time, withholds the pleasures afforded by continuity editing and psychologically identifiable characters moving their stories through clear chains of cause and effect.”

  66. dna, I think we are on the same page. I am just making sure I am doing a decent job of explaining the concept of the vulgar auteur. I have been reading a book about the films of Johnnie To that is relevant to this discussion on VA because it explores the concept of what an auteurs is and how it relates to commercial genre film making. The book argues that even though To has had a prolific career as a commercial genre film maker that spans numerous genres from comedy to romance, and of course action that he is an auteur working within the structure and codes of the various genres to explore recurring themes and ideas that are important to him. There is one part in particular that made me think of how Vern applied the auteur theory to the works of Seagal in” Seagalogy”. The book I am reading looks at the concept of how it is considered by some that genre films are so structured and coded that they don’t need the voice or vision of an auteur to be effective, and can be made by any competent craftsman. This perspective views genre films less as art but more as a product for consumption. However, this perspective also opens the door for how Vern applies the auteur theory to Seagal. Since the director is not the auteur in Seagal’s films it creates the opportunity for Seagal to bring his own personal themes and motifs to his work and function as an auteur even if he is not the director.

  67. Charles

    Well, I gues we agree, and if this “new” movement actually inspires other reviewers to treat movies as art regardless of their genre, budget and popularity, then I`m all for it.


    That`s a good article, but a shame that the author tries to define several unrelated filmmakers, with careers spanning over forty years, as sadomodernists.

    Generalising is fun though. I`m already planning a long post about the new wave of “hipster auteurs”. Or Hipteurs, as I like to call them.

  68. What I learned from this comment section is that nobody can agree on what the fuck vulgar auteurs even is.

  69. Terrance malick and tony Scott are two of my favorite directors…

    I actually think that you’ve hit upon a major new angle in the auteur theory, Vern. Previous writings have almost always been about the director as auteur, but I think your approach is more useful and truthful; the alpha personality of a film is the Auteur. For example: Eddie Murphy is certainly the auteur of most of his films since the nutty professor. They carry themes, ideas, motifs and a continued worldview.* granted, segal is a better example because not all of Murphy’s films are auteur pieces: nutty professor 1 & 2, holy man, life, the pj’s, pluto nash, i spy, norbit, and meet Dave are all Murphy auteur pieces, whereas bowfinger is

    *a self-loathing, closeted black man, in my opinion.

  70. Terrance malick and tony Scott are two of my favorite directors…

    I actually think that you’ve hit upon a major new angle in the auteur theory, Vern. Previous writings have almost always been about the director as auteur, but I think your approach is more useful and truthful; the alpha personality of a film is the Auteur.

    For example: Eddie Murphy is certainly the auteur of most of his films since the nutty professor. They carry themes, ideas, motifs and a continued worldview.* granted, segal is a better example because not all of Murphy’s films are auteur pieces: nutty professor 1 & 2, holy man, life, the pj’s, pluto nash, i spy, norbit, and meet Dave are all Murphy auteur pieces, whereas abowfinger is a Steve Martin auteur piece. And haunted mansion, showtime, shrek, imagine that, 1000 words and a few others were for-hire work.

    I’m getting off topic now, but the point is that not only is Vern the best, most reliable film critic currently living, he has already made a major contribution to film theory that will become more accepted and respected over time. Granted, I Donno that ivory tower types will necessarily credit Vern with this new field, but it’s coming.

    *a self-loathing, closeted black man, in my opinion.

  71. Shit. Never mind, there was a book from 1975 about Cagney as an auteur. Oh well.

    Still, mega-acting changed my view of movies forever.

  72. I think the term vulgar auteur is supposed to refer to the definition of vulgar as, “of or relating to the common people or peasant class.” It’s not a pejorative. Although, given that almost no one knows what vulgar means in a literal context, it’s perhaps not the best term, even if it does draw a pretty clear picture for me.

  73. Thanks, but you’re gonna have to write that Eddie Murphy book, ’cause I sure as shit ain’t doin it.

  74. dna: Agreed. My main takeaway from the article is that Hanneke rejects Hollywood contrivances because of the way Hitler’s film buddies’ used those techniques. He’s distrustful of cinema’s ability to manipulate and propagandize, and makes you complicit in all of the bad stuff he depicts. So his cinematism is reacting to fucked-up history. Anyway, sorry to get off topic. I like it when I read other writers address what Vern has written about long before.

  75. The original Paul

    June 14th, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    Also I seem to have confused McTiernan with Verhoven. Blinkin’ heck. This is why you shouldn’t post on the Internet when you’ve been up for 36 hours straight.

    How’s it possible to treat a movie *not* as art? I know some critics can be condescending to “genre movies” and popcorn fare, and I also know of the particularly obnoxious breed that analyzes movies according to the “Box office formula” without actually saying anything about the movie. Surely those guys are in a very small minority though?

  76. Knox Harrington

    June 14th, 2013 at 1:16 pm

    Charles, what’s the name of that book on Johnnie To that you’re reading.

    I’m in the mood for some good film literature these days. I saw an interview with Tarantino recently in which he said that he’s gonna quit filmmaking soon and spend the majority of his time writing film essays and criticism (can’t wait until the day when he finally publishes. Every movie geek alive is gonna buy that book).

    So yeah, if anyone knows of any good reading out there, please let me know. It’s difficult to find stuff that isn’t horribly academic or self-involved, and since most filmmakers don’t really write about cinema a lot, it tough to find anything that is like I imagine Tarantino’s writing is gonna be.

    I’m really not in the mood for biographies on filmmakers. I’ve read enough of those. But anything good on film appreciation or the filmmaking process itself would be very welcome.

  77. Motherfuckers always trying to ice skate uphill.

  78. Knox, “Director in Action: Johnnie To and the Hong Kong action film”. It is not bad but it is pretty dry and academic. I am not sure if it is in print, I bought it as a digital download from amazon and it was pretty cheap. It sites David Bordwell a lot.

  79. Interesting column, Vern. I’ve not come across the “vulgar auteur” theory before, but it seems rather needless. There are three basic criteria that need to be met to be considered an auteur- a significant body of work (can’t be an auteur with just one film), a recognizable style, and a reoccurrence of themes or motifs. That’s it. Someone else may have pointed this out already, but a director doesn’t have to be any good to be an auteur, they just have to be identifiable as the primary creative force behind their movies. One could easily make a case for Ed Wood being an auteur, he just happens to be a really bad one. On the flip side, there are plenty of perfectly good directors who would not qualify as auteurs. Attaching vulgar to the term just gives elitist critics ammunition to further demean films they don’t see as valuable.

  80. Knox:

    Bambi vs Godzilla by David Mamet is pretty awesome.

  81. Knox Harrington

    June 16th, 2013 at 10:35 am

    Thanks, Tawdry.

    I’ve been meaning to read Mamet’s stuff for a while now. He’s one of my favourite screenwriters. I’ve heard good things about Three Uses of the Knife and Bambi vs Godzilla. Will definitely give them a shot.

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