Vulgar auteurism. So hot right now.
Presuming the majority of those who will read this blog post are already firmly aware of the hearty debate (or petty bickering, depending on who’s involved) currently transpiring in the world of online film criticism, I’ll forgo any unnecessary preamble and simply instruct those who aren’t in the know to first read this, and then read this.
Now that everyone’s up to speed, I’ll cut to the chase. Back when Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil: Retribution first hit theaters, I penned this piece for the Reader, in which I aired some grievances toward Anderson and vulgar auteurism (henceforth referred to as VA, as is the custom. . . I think) writ large. It didn’t cause much of a ripple, probably because VA had yet to pervade the zeitgeist in the way it has in the last couple weeks—or maybe I’m just a bad writer. I don’t know. I’m not a doctor.
Anyway, the piece has since resurfaced in this thoughtful blog entry posted by Outlaw Vern, in which the following excerpt from my review is quoted: “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.”
Spurred by this mention, and by the overall fervor surrounding the subject, I’ve decided to firmly clarify my position on VA, which is slightly less vehement today but nevertheless anchored in skepticism and irritation. I somewhat regret the hardline stance I took back then, because at the end of the day, I don’t feel any moral, ethical, or philosophical resistance toward VA. Besides, as Outlaw Vern piece aptly points out, VA practitioners aren’t necessarily trying to place the likes of Neveldine/Taylor or Justin Lin next to Hitchcock or Hawks—and even if they are, who gives a shit? After all, this whole film criticism game is only valuable when it’s subjective. The staid, inflexible canonization of, for example, the American Film Institute is probably more disadvantageous to cinema culture than VA’s irreverent, willy-nilly canonization.
OK, so—vulgar auteurists aren’t necessarily saying Paul W.S. Anderson=Paul Thomas Anderson. They’re simply saying we can (and should) discuss Paul W.S. Anderson in the same way we discuss Paul Thomas Anderson—that is, with serious consideration for his personal style. And I’m fully on board with that. In fact, I like to think I did just that in my original review.
But the thing I can’t ignore—the thing that, in my opinion, ultimately reveals VA to be superfluous at worst and cute at best—is the sheer fact that this battle has already been waged and won by critics and cinephiles ten times the likes of anyone currently going to the mattresses for or against VA. Contrary to some of the comments left on my review, I know my film history. I know that the invaluable work done by the young writers at Cahiers du Cinema, the Hitchcocko-Hawksians from whom the self-described Mann-Scott-Baysians* so conceitedly aped their name, widened the parameters of film art discourse by recognizing and analyzing the profound stylistic consistencies present in supposed studio journeymen, all while maintaining a vested intellectual and passionate interest in world art cinema and the history of cinema in general, forever altering the way people think about, read about, and most importantly, watch movies.
And I believe this democratization of quality abides by a single rule: That the director’s personality be foremost in the film. Call it a policy, call it a theory—whatever you want. It’s been the guiding principal for major film criticism ever since. It’s the single notion that proved it was possible for one to approach the work, say, Abel Ferrara and Woody Allen on an equal plane. It’s why I’ve long found it possible to regard Russ Meyer and Ingmar Bergman as equals. Even before I heard the words “vulgar auteur,” I didn’t see anything wrong with enjoying Total Recall in a double feature alongside The Mirror.
I guess that’s why I’m skeptic, even a bit miffed by VA. There’s seems to me an overriding pretense that VA is something new and cutting edge, and I’m wary of such hubris. (Calum Marsh’s thing for the Village Voice, in all its bluster and overconfidence, is indicative of most VA writing I’ve come across, though I’m of the opinion that Pinkerton’s piece is the worst offender here.) Ultimately, I do believe VA can never be anything more than a flash in the pan. Their intentions, though self-serving, aren’t inherently malicious, and I welcome open and thoughtful discussion for any and all films and filmmakers, but at the end of the day, the redundancies are impossible to ignore.
Will VA stick? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. But if I had to venture a guess, I’d say the buzz will die down eventually, if only because the Internet, the wellspring of VA whose trends and customs seem to shift on a daily basis, won’t allow it to proliferate. In other words, if cinephilia is an elementary school, vulgar auteurists are the kids with the snazzy light-up sneakers, which have an fashionably oracular appearance despite performing the same basic function of shoes have performed since time immemorial.