Vulgar Auteurism

The idea of “vulgar auteurism” has generated a flurry of posts and discussions in Internet film culture recently. Let me offer a few rudimentary observations, and try to ask a few questions about this new term.

“Vulgar auteurism” refers to a particular contemporary critical approach that focuses attention on filmmakers working in a popular mode, especially in less respectable genres such as the action film or the horror film or the crime thriller. Directors who come up most often in discussions of vulgar auteurism include Tony Scott, Michael Mann, Neveldine/Taylor, Paul W.S. Anderson, John McTiernan and Michael Bay. Calum Marsh’s recent piece in the Village Voice provides a useful introduction to the idea, and Peter Labuza’s post offers a context and a bibliography to help track its development on the Internet over the last few years.

The first piece to introduce and discuss this critical concept at some length was written by Andrew Tracy in Cinema Scope magazine (issue #40, Fall 2009). Called “Vulgar Auteurism,” the essay was devoted to the cinema of Michael Mann with a special emphasis on Public Enemies, which had just been released. Although his piece doesn’t explicitly mention it, Tracy was clearly making an allusion to an earlier, important critical essay called “Vulgar Modernism” by J. Hoberman, published in 1982.

Hoberman’s piece was addressed to the “high-art” crowd (readers of Artforum, in which it appeared), and identified a particular sensibility and a certain kind of popular-cultural work that was low in cultural status but audacious and inventive in its use of irony, self-reflexivity and formal play (these latter were its “modernist” traits). For Hoberman, this sensibility “developed between 1940 and 1960 in animated cartoons, comic books, early morning TV and certain Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis comedies”. He dubbed Tex Avery the “Manet of vulgar modernism,” and cited Frank Tashlin as its most exalted cinematic practitioner.

Tracy’s essay on “vulgar auteurism” doesn’t share the same objective as Hoberman’s. Hoberman wants to elevate certain popular artists and low-cultural artifacts to special distinction, but Tracy wishes to express disappointment at what he sees as a general contemporary tendency to raise popular filmmakers above their proper station and admit them into the canon willy-nilly. He complains of the “auteur bloat” that results from critics over-valuing popular American cinema, pointing to the “specious formalism” of the vulgar auteurs.

What about the word “vulgar” itself? What exactly does it mean in this context? Hoberman and Tracy both use the word to refer to products of low cultural value (they are “common”) but Tracy’s usage also carries a negative value judgment about the quality of the films. For him, the vulgar auteurist frequently champions films that are not “fully achieved” and thus unworthy of the critical attention and praise being lavished upon them. However, I notice that in nearly all criticism today, the word appears to refer not to quality but to lack of cultural prestige alone. The vulgar auteurist critic wants to advance certain popular filmmakers, whose work is rarely examined carefully, as worthy of the same serious critical attention paid to many foreign or arthouse filmmakers.

Do we really need the term “vulgar auteurism”? Does it do any new work for us today?

To help us think about these questions, I think it is useful to historicize this discussion—and connect it to the first wave of auteurism in France in the 1950s. Let’s remember that the Cahiers du Cinéma critics of the time admired and championed two different and distinct kinds of filmmakers: European directors of what would today be considered “arthouse” cinema (Rossellini, Bresson, Renoir) and Hollywood directors whose work was considered “vulgar” by comparison (Hitchcock, Hawks, Ray). One could go a step further and say that the latter directors were more central to the politique des auteurs because they managed to imprint their signatures on films being made within a factory-like system of production. This made the championing of Hollywood filmmakers a political act. Since auteurism is not a “theory” of how films are made (the “auteur theory” is a misnomer) but instead a critical reading practice that foregrounds the “marks of expression” of an auteur, it carried a particularly sharp political charge when applied to vulgar work made within the strictures of an industrial system of production. I’m wondering: Is there an analogous political import or critique in today’s vulgar auteurist criticism? Or is it mostly formalist, in that it devotes its energies mostly to identifying and describing the stylistic strategies associated with particular filmmakers?

Another point of difference between classical and vulgar auteurism might lie in their oppositional programs. The Cahiers critics stood not just for a certain kind of cinema but also against one: that of the Tradition of Quality. Vulgar auteurism is contrarian because it tries to take seriously and recuperate a particular class of cinema that most critics seem to dismiss without much thought, but is it actively against certain kinds of cinema?

I also notice that nearly all vulgar auteurist writing is devoted to masculinist genres, most notably the action thriller. But what about other, less masculinist but equally low-status genres such as teen films or romantic comedies or “crazy comedies”? Do they also hold interest for the vulgar auteurist critic? Related: I’m yet to read any vulgar auteurist criticism penned by a female critic.

A final thought: I can envision at least one productive consequence of this group identity. Critics who self-identify as vulgar auteurists might be driven, united by the banner of this movement, to set about demonstrating carefully why this cinema they love is so valuable. I think what we need are concrete, detailed, persuasive arguments with supporting evidence to open our eyes to the virtues of these films. My ears perked up when Marsh, in his Voice piece, briefly alluded to Fast and Furious 6 director Justin Lin’s “sense of visual space” or the way he conveys an outsider’s sense of dislocation in Japan or the way he works with a multiracial cast. I look forward to vulgar auteurist readings that develop such points in depth. I also know that this kind of close examination is already underway. The MUBI post “Vulgar Auteurism: A Guide, Or: “The Mann-Scott-Baysians”” contains, in the middle of the entry, links to a number of interesting reviews and analyses. (They are easy to miss, marked only by exclamation points over which you need to hover for the links to become visible.) [EDIT: Here is a post by Jack Lehtonen called “Vulgar Auteurism” at MUBI that contains explanations and links to many VA writings.]

Well, I have many more questions than answers in this post, but I’d love to hear your responses to any of these thoughts, as well as any other ideas you might have about vulgar auteurism. Thank you!

* * *

Links to recent reading:

— I’m most honored to be part of a group of ten “guest scholars” (along with Christian Keathley, Adrian Martin, Laura Mulvey, Victor Perkins, Lesley Stern, Kristin Thompson, and others) in the new issue of The Cine-Files, the online journal of the Savannah College of Art & Design. The issue is devoted to “Mise-en-scène”.

— Peter Wollen’s classic Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969) has been released in a BFI Silver edition. The book has a lovely foreword by David Rodowick that is structured in the form of a letter to Wollen. The new edition includes all the essays on individual filmmakers (Fuller, Renoir, Rossellini, Hitchcock, Sternberg, Kubrick, Malle, Godard and Boetticher) that Wollen wrote for New Left Review under the pseudonym Lee Russell between 1964 and 1967. At the BFI site, there is an excerpt from a “conversation” between Wollen and Lee Russell.

— At Cineaste: the latest installment of “Film Criticism: The Next Generation,” which includes interviews with Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Adam Nayman, Genevieve Yue, and several other young critics.

Jonathan Kahana on the ethnographic documentary films of Ogawa Productions, the subject of a retrospective at Anthology Film Archives.

Dennis Lim rounds up the Cannes film festival at Artforum. Also, a Cannes roundtable at Film Comment with Gavin Smith, Amy Taubin, Marco Grosoli, Kent Jones, Alexander Horwath, and others: parts one and two.

Cahiers du Cinéma top 10 lists for the last 50-plus years.

David Hudson rounds up some Allan Dwan news, including links to the recently released, downloadable collection of essays edited by David Phelps and Gina Telaroli, and details of the MoMA retrospective. Also: David collects a couple of fascinating posts on Serge Daney by Laurent Kretzschmar and Stoffel Debusyere.

— From Jonathan Rosenbaum: A tribute post to the recently deceased filmmaker Peter Thompson; and an introduction to and interview with Thompson.

— At the Belgian journal Photogénie: Tom Paulus on Demy, Bresson and Soderbergh; Katja Geerts‘s piece “The Promised Land: Drift, Cinephilia and Photogénie”; and a call for papers for the first issue, which is titled “Just The Facts — A New Realist Cinema?”.

— A terrific video essay, “What is Neo-Realism?” by kogonada at Sight & Sound.

— The latest (“Green”) issue of NECSUS journal features Barbara Creed on film theory, animals and boredom; Sean Cubitt on anecdotal evidence; Jonathan Beller on advertising (and the “advertisarial”); an interview on “greening media studies” with Toby Miller and Richard Maxwell; and more.

pic: Tony Scott’s Domino (2005).

Comments (64):

  1. Thomas Prieto

    June 6, 2013 at 9:25 pm

    As always, this post was a great read! I've followed vulgar auteurism for a few years now and I think you perfectly captured its central ideas. I'd like to make a couple recommendations that should help ease your concerns about the lack of a female presence in vulgar auteurism.

    One of my favorite vulgar auteurist critics is Sara Freeman. She is a big proponent of filmmakers like Michael Mann, John McTiernan, and the Farrelly Brothers. Her latest project is a blog called Mission: McTiernan, which can be found here:
    She conducted a great interview for Mubi earlier this year with John Hyams, which can be found here:
    Finally, she has a great blog called The Celluloid Angel, which can be found here:

    Also Tina Hassannia has a great project called vulva auteurism that is devoted to less masculine low brow genres such as romantic comedies, including wonderful films like Amy Heckerling's Vamps. Hassannia's vulva auteurism tumblr can be found here:

    P.S. Thanks for directing us toward Signs and Meaning in the Cinema. I'll have to give that a read sometime soon.

  2. Brian Doan

    June 6, 2013 at 9:29 pm

    Girish, I think you are correct to note the historical redundancy of "vulgar auteurism" as a term, given the valorization of Hitchcock, Fuller, Hawks, etc., by the original Cahiers writers (Glenn Kenny and Matt Zoller Seitz have made the same observations over on Twitter). I think to the extent that this thread of auteurism has been sometimes been effaced or overlooked in subsequent academic deployments of auteurism (favoring the arthouse thread you note), the gesture of talking about Michael Bay or Justin Lin as auteurs provides a useful reminder of how radical it was in the 50s to think of now-canonical directors like Hitch in that way. And while these aren't exactly the directors I'd want to spend MY life writing about, it can sometimes lead to breathtaking work that makes me want to go out and re-watch a bunch of films; for instance, the best formalist example of a vulgar auteurist reading I've seen so far is Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's of Tony Scott:

    I think a problem with the Cinema Scope piece is its favoring of a rather strange binary between, as it says at one point "a subversion nor a culmination of the popular medium," and its perjorative reading of VA as "but an eccentric tangent straggling away from it." Well, maybe, but this language unwittingly echoes the criticisms of the original auteurists (who were, after all, called "Young Turks," and not in a positive punk rock way), and seems resistant to the idea that a lot of the most interesting new critical models are often seen as derangements of conventional wisdom, accepted categories or "eccentric tangents strangling away." Whether or not Va is that it seems too early to say, but if it helps us to see pop cinema in a new way (and yes, I would love to see it extended to romcoms and also musicals), I think it's all to the good.

  3. steevee

    June 6, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    Without wishing to endorse the whole vulgar auteurist canon (Michael Bay and Paul W.S. Anderson seem pretty dreary to me), I think it's a creative response to contemporary Hollywood, especially in a cultural climate where critics like David Denby give the impression they've locked themselves in an apartment with box sets of BREAKING BAD & MAD MEN DVDs only to leave when Paul Thomas Anderson or Kathryn Bigelow makes a new film. It also strikes me as a response to a critical environment that often ignores form and visual style – that said, it seems to me that many of Tony Scott's fans ignore the right-wing politics of some of his films. I look forward to vulva auteurism.

  4. Bobby Wise

    June 6, 2013 at 11:16 pm

    I've also followed the vulgar auteurist debate over the past few years with interest. I ridiculed the stance at first on the basis of the directors that they chose to champion. Maybe part of this resent was because my favorite "vulgar" film directors were ignored. After time and reflection, I now think it is pretty hard to argue against the principle that certain films and directors do not need to be dismissed out of hand, that we should not only sanctify self-conscious art cinema. Arguing over the term vulgar auteurism, its value, who created it, and so on is probably a red herring. I remain unconvinced about the worth of some movies by Bay, Scott, et al, but I also remain unconvinced of the worth of some of the shit that the Cahiers gang held up to light and seduced themselves to believe was amazing art. However, the polemic, the principle behind these passions has use.

    I was inspired to throw my hat into the ring with some vulgar auteurist writing of my own, in defense of one of those personal favorites I feel has been overlooked (particularly in the rush to "canonize" people like Hyams and Lin). If anyone is so inclined, feel free to have a look at the article here:

  5. Filipe

    June 6, 2013 at 11:31 pm

    I think the main problem with the Vulgar Auteurism debate is that it is a discussion fought in rather vague terms. Are we talking about a certain group of films or we are talking about some critics? That is not the same thing and every time I see the discussion about VA it seems to shift from one to other with little distinction. It doesn't make things easy that very few critics seems to identify themselves with the idea directly (for instance, a lot of Ignatiy Vishnevetsky writing can be described as such, but one can as easily say he is a writer that has some similar interests to VA crowd), so one can pretty much pick and choose VA criticism according to one own interests.
    Personally I'd say almost every filmmaker on the masters part of that canon list is worth taking seriously (which is very different from saying they are all great), but there is something a bit dispiriting in how narrow it is not only in being very much action oriented but Hollywood exclusive (I'd still don't know how any vulgar auteurist canon don't starts with Takeshi Miike). It's also probably worth pointing out that not every Vulgar Auteur is the same, Tracy's article deals with Michael Mann, a filmmaker with enough cultural value to be president of last year's Venice jury that is a long away from Neveldine/Taylor. Going back to beginning of American auteurism and quoting Sarris "one goes nowhere making films like The Brothers Rico" and I'd say any critical support going to someone doing good work in anonymous genre material like John Hyams, has to at least help them a bit on getting funding on stronger material. I do worry the narrowness of focus might make it a bit to self-defeating, the vulgar auteur critics could probably use take a good look on the work of someone like Christoph Huber who often champions similar films but make they feel more connected to cinema as whole (and the Ferronians are named after a very good forgotten vulgar auteur no less).
    As an aside, I must say that as a foreigner the entire discussion about VA feels very American to me. Treating genre films seriously (not just something like Crank, but also a film like Down with Love) has always been such a natural part of film writing for me that the idea that one has to think about a concept like Vulgar Auteurism and then fight for it is very distant. I remember when a couple of months ago twitter had a VA discussion and Adrian Martin (a critic so generous towards popular cinema that he is one of two living Anthony Hickox fans I know) asked what we were talking about it and it was clearly the whole discussion was very distant to him too and last week when Callum Marsh’s VV piece come out a former editor of mine told me “I thought that’s what I’ve been doing this past 15 years”, so I guess that is far from exclusive reaction.

    On a different not let me also second Thomas recommendation of Sara Freeman who is a very smart and perceptive writer that shares a lot of interests with the VA crowd.

  6. Jason LaRiviere

    June 7, 2013 at 12:23 am

    As to the "political import" of VA that Girish alludes to, I'm skeptical. I could see it possibly emerging but it is certainly absent in much of the fan-boy discourse that has made up the VA bibliography so far. One could make a case of the radical potential of the aesthetics of these films in a way similar to that of Steven Shaviro's discussion of "post-continuity" in POST-CINEMATIC AFFECT(he doesn't use the term "vulgar auteurism"). That is to say, endorse a politics of accelerationism: The only way out is the way through. Be as radical as reality itself. Have the courage of your anti-humanist convictions. Translate to politics of the recent #Accelerate manifesto into a politics of cinematic aesthetics

  7. Anonymous

    June 7, 2013 at 2:46 am

    I've been saying for years that Andy Milligan was an auteur if anyone was. His films are as vulgar as they come

  8. Joel Bocko

    June 7, 2013 at 3:42 am

    I'm mildly intrigued but also rather weary of this whole brewing discussion/debate.

    Frankly, the whole concept of "vulgar auteurism" seems decadent in a way that speaks ill of film culture, trendy yet trivial: as if some critics are suggesting that the significant films of the moment are these mega-blockbusters: "let's re-orient the conversation around them so we don't feel irrelevant." When in fact this kind of postmodernist justification of stylish, expensive vapidity (popular in its reception, but ultra-exclusive in its production) only seems to highlight mainstream cinema's increasing irrelevance to the cultural conversation and contemporary developments in technology and culture, in my opinion.

    More illuminating discussions could be had, I feel, on the subject of online/viral potential for filmmaking and distribution. To me, the significant benchmarks of the moment are what's being done (or more accurately, since the area's relatively unexplored outside of comic novelty, what COULD be done) with digital means on YouTube & the like. "Vulgar auteurist" movies may bring in the dollars, but do they play any significant part in the national conversation as earlier popular movies – from Gone With the Wind to Star Wars – did? Do they really add anything to the evolution of film or do they just doodle on existing patterns with gigantic markers? Critics like Richard Corliss (whose piece from about 4 years back could be considered a significant water-mark for vulgar auteurism, though I don't think it's ever referenced as such) seem to locate the future of film's relevance in a realm ever-more exclusive and elitist (its populist appeal, itself largely a result of marketing monopolies, notwithstanding) at the very time when the tools of production and means of distribution are becoming more democratic than ever. I wonder why this is.

    Anyway, at this moment I've more of a general impression than a concrete counter-argument outlining the sorts of conversations we SHOULD be having about cinema if it's to remain relevant as both an adventurous form and a popular medium. Consider this an initial notation, with hopefully more coherent objections to be lodged further down the line.

  9. Peter Nellhaus

    June 7, 2013 at 5:07 am

    I would say that confining the discussion to English language film is limiting as it overlooks many other filmmakers doing interesting stuff in the realm of popular cinema. Currently reading Re-Agitator which sheds light not only on some films by Takashi Miike that I was unfamiliar with, but also about the state of film production in Japan. Interesting to read how Gozu, which played at Cannes, was originally intended as a straght-to-video production. Of course I may have shot my auteurist credentials to hell by arguing that the critically reviled Sector 7 is the Korean monster movie that Howard Hawks never made.

  10. Otie Wheeler

    June 7, 2013 at 6:39 am

    Johnnie To is a foreign director whose work in a factory-like mode of production is hugely important to the VA crowd. I think the conversation is only going to expand in that regard.

    If VA stands against something, isn't it unspoken but clear? The chaos cinema of Nolan/Greengrass; the bludgeon-you-w/sound-design Marvel approach; the sadism of Haneke/von Trier/Noe/Refn. But I don't find that sort of opposition productive; it's dogmatic, and as a form of taking sides, it reduces rather than enlarges the debate. Truffaut's attack on the Tradition of Quality was borne of an ambition that the VA critics I know lack.

    To me, a potential revelation of VA is that the standard narrative as it has been fed to us, of a Hollywood that fell off after the collapse of the studio system only to briefly peak all over again with the Movie Brats and just as quickly fall away worse than before, may be hogwash; there's great work being produced commercially but mainstream critics are doing a poor job of identifying it. Vishnevetsky seems to be taking the lead in changing that.

  11. Adrian

    June 7, 2013 at 10:23 am

    Vulgar Auteurism = Nerd Heaven. Some things about it are very obvious: it's mostly male (although I am glad to learn of Vulva Auteurism), mostly American, mostly action genres – with the implicit 'theory' that ESSENTIAL cinema is speed, action, violence, gunfights & explosions. What a retrograde, conservative idea. It's also mostly contemporary, mostly mainstream cinema (of the very expensive, blockbuster variety), and hardly based on even a cursory reading of the history of film magazines: it's pure Internet-eternal-present stuff. Seen from a symptomatic angle, VA is not merely the 'nerd uprising' of mainstream taste; it is very clearly (consciously or unconsciously) a revolt against the 'World Cinema' movement. No need to bother chasing the latest Apichatpong when you can run home to John McTiernan!! VA has nothing to do, really, with cinephilia, film festivals, or serious critical research. But its obverse acclaim of 'the popular' is just a cover for the easiest, most available, slickest and most mainstream pleasure.
    Of course, from a more generous angle, you can rightly say that VA has been around a long time, at least 60 years – the discovery of unsung directors is what Luc Moullet was doing when he championed Gerd Oswald, what Ado Kyrou did when he unearthed dozens of filmmakers we still don't know well today; what good critics like Filipe or Christoph Huber are doing today – but their reference-points are wide, vast and knowledgeable. Every VA exponent needs to read and memorise Filipe's 2002 FILM JOURNAL text "The New Auterism: Auteurism in the Marketplace Age" ( he was already on to McG 11 years ago, but he was evoking him 'in the same breath' as Kiarostami !! All these critics were never fixed on invoking 'the popular' (always a giveaway word!) or 'the mainstream': they were attune to topics like 'aesthetics of the B Movie', which is the movement that reclaimed Ulmer, Fuller, Joseph Lewis … In VA, it's the Auteurism, the critical method that is vulgar, not the the auteurs and their culture (don't call Michael Mann vulgar ot his face, he's aiming for Immortal Art!!) – it's auteurism reduced down to the simplest 'vision + signature style' equation, and it betrays itself with old-fashioned pronouncements about 'visual style' and 'film as a visual art' (news flash: sound arrived over 80 years ago at the movies!). And the invocation of 'the vulgar' – like 'trash' – runs the big risk of merely enforcing the same old taste categories: I am all for expanding the definitions of taste (and of Art), but the exclusive worship of 'kinetic action' is not going to win any Revolution. And how silly, finally, that we have names like Spielberg on VA lists, but no Mojica Marins (VAists like their 60 million dollar movies better than the 60 dollar ones) or dozens of other visionary filmmakers worldwide.

  12. Adrian

    June 7, 2013 at 10:59 am

    PS Also, VA exponents need to face the ugly fact that, if they have a high profile spokesperson anywhere, it's surely the Great Contrarian himself, Armond White. This is surely enough to put anyone off Vulgar Auteurism! 'Born in flames' it ain't.

  13. Fredrik Gustafsson

    June 7, 2013 at 11:15 am

    The fact that Michael Mann is regarded as among "vulgar auteurs" (are they called that) shows how strange the concept is since he is a highly regarded filmmaker, what with Heat, Insider and Ali. The proponents of vulgar auterism also claims that it concerns itself only with new, contemporary filmmakers and films, but Mann has been at it since the 1970s. When I tried to discuss the concept on twitter the other day I asked about Don Siegel, and was told that he couldn't be included because he was classical and that the themes should be contemporary, about networks, alienation and digitalisation. I then asked about Claire Denis and Wong Kar-Wai, but was told that they too were classical. (So apparently anything besides Michael Mann and Tony Scott is classical.)

    If vulgar auteurism is about contemporary testosterone-driven films disregarded by the critics, than yes, it might be a reasonably valid subheading to just plain auteurism, but if Michael Mann is a prominent part than I don't know what the point is. And, well, I don't know what the point is anyway, because why should it be only about new films, and not about dismissed films from any age? Or is that "vintage vulgar auteurism"?

    On a side note, a better use of the term vulgar auteurism might be for those that study the films of directors such as Frank Tashlin.

  14. Steven Rybin

    June 7, 2013 at 11:17 am

    Perhaps VA has been with us as long as 1918, when Louis Aragon wrote poetically, of some 'old American adventure films,' of the way cinema could bestow magic upon 'a table with a revolver on it, a bottle that on occasion becomes a weapon, a handkerchief that reveals a crime…'" And he wasn't just talking about some automatic effect of cinema (photogenie) because the essay this passage appears in ("On Decor" – I am quoting from Richard Abel's anthology, pgs.166-67) turns into a rather auteurist defense of Charlie Chaplin that was likely very vulgar in its original context ("Fully to appreciate, say, Chaplin's 'The Vagabond,' I think it is indispensable to know and love Pablo Picasso's 'Blue period' paintings…")

    Aragon was also a major figure in Surrealism and the French Communist Party. It will be interesting to see if contemporary VA can find a similar political use (perhaps its 'vulva variation' is the answer).

    (Aside: As noted above, Michael Mann seems old hat for this discussion. Adrian Martin was writing about him in '92, and Richard Combs likened him to *Kubrick* in '95.)

  15. I.L.

    June 7, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    On a positive note, VA is doing good work revealing the talent hidden in the bog of direct-to-video production (John Hyams, Dolph Lundgren movies). But I think its strong affinity with American blockbuster cinema (Michael Bay, Tony Scott) seems to have created a methodology that shuts out all those less respectable genre films from all around the world. On one level, VA holds in high regard “kineticism” — “speed, action, violence, gunfights & explosions” as Adrian said — so melodramas and rom-coms are possibly left out from its view, unless these genres too are filled with “kineticism” such as Johnnie To’s great rom-coms, leaving no room at the moment for South Korean tearjerkers for instance. Also one of VA’s tenets is according to Marsh a “sense of visual space”, which I take to mean an eloquent mise-en-scene, expressive arrangement of figures in space, something other commercial films such as Nolan’s or Greengrass’ lack, but what about genre films from around the globe that don’t care for eloquent mise-en-scene, these vulgar pleasures made from a zero-budgets boasting everything that opposes VA’s “sense of visual space”, such as Adrian’s beloved TEENAGE HOOKER BECAME KLIING MACHINE. So I think VA’s values of “kineticism” and “sense of visual space” (this is just a sketch of what I think VA holds as values; I’m sure there are other more intriguing ones, like the gargantuan irony in Neveldine/Taylor) has aligned it with Big Money: films that have the big budget to shoot car chases, explosions, gunfights, etc., as well as provide finance on CGI, dollies, tracks, etc. — needless to say, most of these films come from Hollywood, America. If one of VA’s orientations is to lift up less respectable genres, then I think it ought to consider those genre films that cannot afford big budgets but all the while creating novel types of cinematic effects, and to go back to the beginning I think VA’s focus on direct-to-video is right on this track.

  16. I.Q. Hunter

    June 7, 2013 at 2:41 pm

    Excellent post. On the other hand, we could do with some work on definitely not-vulgar arthouse auteurs like Bela Tarr and Haneke that treats their films as industrial generic products in relation to particular audiences rather than as works of art. That would be fun.

  17. Unknown

    June 7, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    I don't know if she would necessarily call herself a "vulgar auteurist," but it was Gina Telaroli (proponent of Bay, Paul W. S. Anderson, etc.) who co-edited the Notebook's great dossier on Tony Scott last year alongside Danny Kasman:

  18. Thomas Prieto

    June 7, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    David, thanks for mentioning Gina Telaroli. I'm disappointed in myself for forgetting to mention her in my post about female critics and vulgar auteurism. I've greatly enjoyed her work on Tony Scott, Allan Dwan (I've greatly enjoyed your work on this and other things as well!), and Michael Mann, including the great video artwork called Amuse-guele #1: Digital Destinies.

    Adrian, you make some great arguments against vulgar auteurism. However, I would debate your line about how vulgar auteurists would encourage you to stay home and watch McTiernan instead of going to watch Apichatpong. Most of the great critics I know that can either be considered vulgar auteurists or have dabbled in it (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Sara Freeman, Gina Telaroli, Ben Sachs, David Phelps, Otie Wheeler, Phil Coldiron, Calum Marsh, etc. [even Dave Kehr is a big Paul WS Anderson fan]) would probably argue that you should see both the McTiernan and the Apichatpong. All of these critics have pieces advocating art house and classic Hollywood films. Their goal is not to argue that action films are better or interchangeable with art house films. Rather they are arguing that we should open up our critical viewing habits to include not just art house films, but also low culture films. This means, for example, devoting as much critical thought to John McTiernan as to Apichatpong Weerasethakul, which is very different from saying that you should skip the latter in favor of the former.

  19. steevee

    June 7, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    A few minor points: vulgar auteurists aren't mindlessly championing all action cinema, or all blockbusters. To pick a few examples, James Cameron, Zack Snyder, and Bryan Singer are missing from their canon. Also, not all their faves are Hollywood royalty – Neveldine/Taylor and John Hyams certainly aren't. In the case of Hyams' UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING, critics (not necessarily vulgar auteurists) are responsible for it finding an audience beyond people who watch direct-to-video action films regularly.

  20. Fredrik Gustafsson

    June 7, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    "they are arguing that we should open up our critical viewing habits to include not just art house films, but also low culture films. This means, for example, devoting as much critical thought to John McTiernan as to Apichatpong Weerasethakul, which is very different from saying that you should skip the latter in favor of the former." Thomas Prieto wrote.

    But isn't that exactly what auteurism has been doing all along? In what way is VA any different from "classical" auteurism?

  21. Sean Gilman

    June 7, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    One of the primary difficulties with discussing Vulgar Auteurism is that its proponents have thus far refused to define it in any coherent way. We outsiders can't even agree if it's a Vulgar form of Auteurism, implying a new variation on an old critical theory (perhaps with the formalist focus Adrian Martin refers to), or an Auteurism of the Vulgar, the use of an old critical theory to explore certain kinds of filmmakers (the distinction between "Vulgar" and "Classical" Auteurs Frederik Gustafsson was met with on twitter).

    The name is an attention getter, which makes sense given that it's the repurposing of a pejorative, but is it anything more than that? It seems to me that when all the discussion around your critical movement is about what the name means (every article on the subject seems to start with "What is Vulgar Auteurism?", the movement isn't doing its job, which should be identifying and discussing interesting filmmakers and films.

    To that end, I think Peter Labuza's essay is a step in the right direction, trying to identify thematic and formal connections among some of the directors Vulgar Auteurism has shown the spotlight on (namely Anderson, Scott, late Mann, Neveldine & Taylor, and Hyams). Most of the VA writing out there right now consists of fragments of reviews of individual movies, or the screenshot-based tumblr. I'd like to see a broader focus, both of the movement as a whole and of the careers of the directors they're writing about, from the VA critics (if anyone out there actually identifies themselves as such). Perhaps the new Vulgar Auteurism blog while provide such an outlet someday.

  22. Filipe

    June 7, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    One thing I take from most VA affiliated writing is a very welcome desire to return to a more formalist take on mainstream cinema. The other side of it is that as some have already pointed here this formalism mostly appears tied to a taste from a certain intensity that is much more likely to appear in a film by Justin Lin than a film by Mark Waters (to remain inside American cinema). Not that this is a new development, when I got interested in Hong Kong Cinema in the late 90s I remember always having trouble explaining to people that I was equally interested in UFO tearjerkers and Cinema City lowbrow comedies as I was in the usual Tsui Hark/John Woo/Jackie Chan stuff. But it is a tendency in certain western cinephilia than feels highlighted by VA writers. Still, it seems that there is some self-awareness about this, Christopher Smalls new blog The Vulgar Cinema second series of posts was on the Farrelly Brothers and that felt like a very conscious decision to get away from usual VA material.

    I disagree a bit with Adrian when he posits it as a movement against world cinema, I don’t believe there is really any conscious desire to pick McTiernan over Apichatpong, but I do think the often narrowness can allow to such a reading. That is one of reasons I think they work in a vein that is very different from Armond White’s whose writing is more into either/or mentality and who also seems to approach the genre films he defends from a more humanist perspective that I don’t think shows in the VA writing much. I’d say it’s less a statement against world cinema as it is an attempt to take the expression auteurism away from being an exclusivity of festival cinema discourse or a marketing ploy to sell someone like Nolan. Also worth noticing how blurry the lines can be, the same Cinema Scope that made a point last week to put excerpts of Tracy’s negative article on their site, also had Paul WS Anderson (one of VA main cause celebres) in their top 50 filmmakers under 50 issue.

    The whole discussion does suffer for a lack of a more clearly historical perspective. I get the feeling one are supposed to see VA starting in the less prestige genre auteurs of 70s like John Carpenter and Walter Hill, but I fail to see why that is the starting point instead of Tashlin or Aldrich. This lack of clarity leads to a lot of confusion: if one goes back to Andrew Tracy’s CS piece, I’d argue he is mostly making a point against what he seems as the overvaluing of certain strain of self-important American genre cinema (Mann, Eastwood, late Bigelow, etc.) in some more highbrow circles than against VA s the idea developed this last couple of years. There’s nothing really that radical about praising Public Enemies and treating it seriously is far different from given such treatment the Resident Evil or Crank series. But that distinction seems often lost in VA writing itself

  23. Anonymous

    June 7, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    It's surprising that a defense of mass, or popular if you will, taste would be discarded on the grounds of using a formal style "bubbled up" and sealed by popular criticism. Whatever it may be, "vulgar auteurism" at least seems to be very honest – more or less in its ends and thoroughly so in its means. On the one hand, it's "contemplating" a very formalist type of cinema with very formalist critical tools; on the other, it's mimicing quite closely the popular and, yes, for some reason (for some other reason?) highly regarded way of looking at films through the image-lens (a look at a Bordwell post on any day could leave you gasping for words).

    It's surely intentional when it reverses the question "Why should this film/director be taken seriously?" into "Why shouldn't it/he?" And, coming from a critical milieu of (canon-)name-dropping and mise-en-scene deconstruction, this is a valid question. The other less explicit, and I suspect unintentional, question is on the very practice of criticism per se. In an age where long prose (and long thinking) is back-alleyed by the hurriedness of article-thinking, anything can be argued with the right dose of zeal and inventiveness: Hitchcock can back up Mann, and Bresson – Haneke or what have you. It's not (only) VA's method that is "vulgar", this method – if you (can) look at it honestly – is the predominant method.

    Marc Blaug, a very good historian of ideas, more famously known as a historian of economics, once wrote: "Great theories, in economics as in other subjects, are path-dependent, to use popular recent jargon in economic history, that is, it is not possible to explain their occurrence without considering the corpus of received ideas which led to the development of that particular theory; had the body of received ideas been different we would have arrived at a different theory at the culmination of that development. In other words, without the history of economics, economic theories just drop from the sky; you have to take them on faith." Frankly, I don't see why I should take either Michael Bay or Claire Denis on faith (or, taste, as the film jargon would have it). Saying that either has a better formal style or canon-pedigree is equivalent to dropping them from the sky. Shedding a light on their historical and social trace in the present is a different matter. And rare in both "vulgar" and "decent" auteurism alike.


  24. Peter Labuza

    June 7, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    Thanks for the linkage Girish, and for centering what needs to happen in the VA debate, which is basically a stronger statement on what makes these films different from anything else. This is the part I’ve been working on that was sort of hinted at but probably not well articulated in the essay I posted, which is how a lot of these films are dealing with screen and screen culture. In an email back and forth, someone to me noted that except for maybe Spring Breakers, these are the only films that are really engaging with contemporary pop culture. But more than that, I think a lot of these films deal with life in a network society, avatars, and our relationship to screens and video game logic. Not all of them of course (Bay seems the major exception—for all his stylistic difference, his narratives are very classical), but many of them seem to be confronting these issues while also working as Hollywood product.

    This is why I’m somewhat ambivalent about your comment, Adrian, because I don’t think any of the best VA critics are ignoring world cinema (I think Ignatiy has a good tweet the other day that said it’s not “B over A,” but “A but also B”. I think VA just gets more traction because if I write about African Cinema, which I did do a lot over the last few months, no one pays attention. I write one time about VA, and everyone goes nuts. And I'm way more interested in seeing Meakong Hotel than Resident Evil 6. In my piece, I mentioned that cinephilia is always pushing toward the margins and that means not only going to the depths of rare and obscure classic films and contemporary films, but also the ones that might sneak under our noses because they seem like films without anything going for them. That’s why I tried to contextualize my blog post more about the idea of image-appreciation/investigation, not just simple contrarianism (and I think the people who write about this best are writing about these very differently than A. White – he seems much more interested in the amorphous brand of humanism he refers to, and also in going back to “B over A.).

    I’m skeptical of VA to an extent, and I don’t think everyone writing about the various film directors are particularly articulating themselves well enough, but I think there is something of merit in most of the films in the “canon” worth discussing, and not at the point to wholly dismiss the “movement.”

  25. Brian Doan

    June 7, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    "These critics work embarrassingly hard trying to give some semblance of intellectual respectability to a preoccupation with mindless, repetitious commercial products…

    I daresay… the new breed of specialists know more about movies than some people and could serve at least a modest critical function if they could remember that art is an expression of human experience. If they are men of feeling and intelligence, isn’t it time for them to be a little ashamed of their “detailed criticism” of movies like River of No Return?…"

    Absolutely loving this vital conversation. I've been thinking about these passages from Pauline Kael's "Circles and Squares" because I think the broader debates around VA– including the language of response to/against it–sometimes feel like an echo of Sarris/Kael in '63. I don't feel about Lin, Scott, or Mann the way I do about Hawks or Ray (although I like some of their films), but I think it's good to remember the moment when people didn't feel that way about the first mode of auteurist idols.

  26. The Wolfman's Razor

    June 7, 2013 at 8:51 pm

    As it stands, VA can often just feel simply like action auteurism and not much more. And it's this narrowness of focus that I find most frustrating about VA. Vulgar Auteurism at its crudest (or most vulgar, I suppose) often feels like Pauline Kael's caricatures of the original American auteurists–cinebros in love with their own cleverness at intellectualizing their affection for the titillating nonsense of their own youth.

    But that's only VA at its worst. At its best, VA provides a framework for investigating the dismissed, appreciating the unappreciated, and finding pleasure where you've been told by the midcult (your Thomsons, your Denbys, your shitty movie reviewer in the local paper) not to tread. If, so far, VA has been overwhelmingly preoccupied with the masculine form of action cinema, perhaps that's only a first step. And if Vulgar Auteurism doesn't add much to Auteurism 1.0, maybe it doesn't need to. It's still a useful bulwark against complacency, the dull proclamations that "they don't make 'em like they used to."

    I'm still something of an agnostic here, for a few reasons.

    1.) Some of the Vulgar Auteurism I've seen can feel like a vulgarized form of auteurism. Not all personal aesthetics are created equal. The fact that Michael Bay or M. Night Shyamalan has a unique aesthetic does not mean its necessarily worth celebrating. BUT they are worth investigating, especially since they've been roundly dismissed for years. And I fully support that investigation.

    2.) The narrow focus is a real problem. The sooner VA broadens its scope to include comedies (with the exception of the Farrellys), horror (with the exception of Zombie who is essentially an action director anyway), romance, teen movies, "chick flicks," etc., the more appealing it will be. After all, auteurism "discovered" not only Hawks and Hitchcock, but also Minnelli, Sirk, and McCarey.

    3.) A corollary to that point — VA's testosterone-heavy focus gives it a real boy's-club vibe. And it's not as if cinephilia has been an especially inviting world for women, anyway. Perhaps this is starting to change, and thanks to Thomas Prieto for pointing out some female VAs, which provides some interesting potential paths.

    4.) The focus on formalism masks an absence of politics in VA criticism. The reason a lot of these directors — McTiernan, Bay, Bigelow — were dismissed or rejected in the first place is because of the strong undercurrents of conservatism in their works. I think these dismissals are often unfair, but the correct response, in my view, is not to ignore the political implications of these directors but to engage with it.

    If Vulgar Auteurism (whatever it may come to mean) is to provide a meaningful and lasting contribution to cinephilia, it is going to need to broaden its scope. And so, pursuant to that goal, a few subjects for further study (definitely not definitive):

    Peyton Reed
    Eli Roth
    Tom Six
    Amy Heckerling
    Nora Ephron
    Rowan Atkinson
    Greg Mottola
    Penelope Spheeris
    Todd Phillips
    Jake Kasdan
    David Gordon Green

  27. girish

    June 7, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    Thank you SO much, everyone. This comments thread is enormously educational and thought-provoking.

  28. girish

    June 7, 2013 at 9:14 pm

    Ignatiy Vishnevetsky posted a few helpful tweets this afternoon:

    "Vulgar auteurism isn't about venerating Tony Scott (more a crossover figure anyway), it's about appreciating Hyams, Antal, Florentine, etc."

    "Also: thinkpieces all focus on the action stuff, overlooking vulgar auteurism's appreciation for dance movies, studio comedies, etc."

    "Discussion focused on handful of essays, ignores folks doing real vulgar auteurist legwork: @CelluloidAngel, @JohnLehtonen1, @CJRoy89, etc."

    "If you want a real seminal vulgar auteurist text, here it is…" [He linked to Sara Freeman's interview with John Hyams at MUBI.]

  29. Bobby Wise

    June 7, 2013 at 10:29 pm

    Wow. Pinkerton went all out. "A mini flyweight hardly worth stepping in the ring with." Also love the Poochie image. I have to agree with most of his arguments. It's going to take a whole lot of vulgar writing to convince me that "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3" is good or even worth paying as much attention as would merit a sleepy airplane viewing. It seems these vulgarists need some strategic planning. "Miami Vice" instead of "Heat"? "Rollerball" instead of "Predator"? "Transformers" instead of "Bad Boys"? Talk about wasted ink.

  30. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

    June 8, 2013 at 12:54 am

    With apologies to Adrian, I think he is making a straw man argument; the Vulgar Auteurism he describes simply doesn’t exist.

    And with apologies to Nick Pinkerton, his piece seems more informed by a grudge against his former employers at the Village Voice than anything else. The “new” Voice is a chintzy knock-off of the beloved old Voice; VA, therefore, is presented as a chintzy knock-off of Sarrisite / Bazinian auteurism—the new Voice’s “Poochie moment,” per the illustration. Never mind that VA has absolutely nothing to do with the Village Voice…

    Before we continue arguing about VA’s merits, let’s talk about what it actually is.

    The name itself is misleading. VA isn’t a separate critical framework. It isn’t a counter-canon.

    In reality, VA is a loosely affiliated group of young cinephiles and critics. In Sarrisite terms, it’s more concerned with Expressive Esoterica than the Pantheon; nearly every thinkpiece about VA has focused on Tony Scott and, for some reason, Michael Bay (who isn’t actually that big with the VA crowd), but the bulk of VA activity actually focuses on directors like Paul W.S. Anderson, Jon M. Chu, John Hyams, Nimrod Antal, Isaac Florentine, Roel Reine, the Farrelly brothers, Neveldine & Taylor, and Russell Mulcahy. VA is also interested in performance, especially when it’s applied to action stars.

    VA has two missions. The first is to mount convincing arguments in favor of figures it sees at major but undervalued: John McTiernan, Abel Ferrara, Walter Hill, etc. The second, larger mission involves exploring and analyzing the directors listed in the above paragraph.

    It’s true that VA is largely concerned with “American cinema,” though not with American directors (Anderson is British, Reine is Dutch, Antal is Hungarian, Florentine is Israeli, etc., etc.), American actors, or even with American-made films.

    Rather, it’s concerned with how the great traditions of American cinema—the things we value about Hawks, Joseph H. Lewis, Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, and so on and so forth—have survived in present-day genre filmmaking. This is why John Carpenter is such an important VA figure: he represents a link between classical Hawksian style and the formalism of the great contemporary genre filmmakers.

  31. Unknown

    June 8, 2013 at 2:19 am

    As a member of the previously mentioned blog The Vulgar Cinema ( I would like to officially state that the intent of the blog was to expand VA into areas outside of the usual action oriented films most writing is focused on. I've seen a lot of comments asking for something to fill that void and I hope we can do something about it.

    Hell, we even have the previously mentioned Sara Freeman and Jack Lehtonen (creator of that VA mubi list) as writers.

  32. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

    June 8, 2013 at 2:30 am


    VA deals with a lot of action movies, many of which are violent; in most cases, depictions of violence are dealt with in formal / expressive rather than narrative / psychological terms. Violence is inherently “unreal,” and therefore does not occur in the narrative space of the film, but rather within its style.

    Injuries take on a special meaning. Because of its formalist slant, VA tends to fixate on bodies and depictions of bodies; in some ways, it could be said that VA deals more with “bodies within the frame” than characters. A fictional person is first and foremost a “depicted body”—it represents the body of the character, but also the capital-b Body as a subject.

  33. Steven Shaviro

    June 8, 2013 at 2:45 am

    I am far too old to be part of any Vulgar Auteurist group. But for the record, everything Ignatiy says above makes total sense to me. And indeed, it is thanks to Ignatiy and some of his fellow VA critics that I have come to watch, and to appreciate, the films of such directors as PWS Anderson, John Hyams, and Nimrod Antal.

    (Though I will say that I was already convinced of PWS's brilliance from seeing his first feature, Shopping, when it originally came out in 1994).

    And also — I am on record in praising the brilliance of Neveldine/Taylor (though I used several quotes from Ignatiy to help make my case).

    I also think that Abel Ferrara is the greatest living American director, bar none.

  34. Peter Nellhaus

    June 8, 2013 at 4:01 am

    I'm going on record to state that I liked Paul W. S. Anderson's version of The Three Musketeers. Lester's version is still my favorite, but I'm still hoping Anderson can do his sequel.

    And while he's not American, I highly recommend the films by and starring Thailand's Petchtai Wongkamlao. Joyfully vulgar and very much an auteur.

  35. Fredrik Gustafsson

    June 8, 2013 at 9:04 am

    Of what has been said so far on the subject I feel that VA's use the same tools, have the same purposes and use similar terms as the old auteurists. So in that respect vulgar auteurism is just auteurism. However, it seemed for a while that the films and filmmakers were of a particular kind, contemporary, action films that did not get good reviews, but that these critics felt were good enough to be written about and that these filmmakers might be called "vulgar auteurs". And so if "vulgar auteurism" just means "the study of filmmakers that are called vulgar auteurs" then it is no longer an attempt to re-invent the wheel.

    This will of course lead to a lot of fighting over which filmmakers should be treated as "vulgar auteurs". What do John McTiernan, John Hyams, Paul W.S. Anderson, Tony Scott, Michael Mann och the brothers Farrelly have in common? Some are box office hits, some are not, some are highly regarded by critics, some are not, some are fairly new, some have been at it for decades. If Walter Hill and John Carpenter are to be mentioned, then why not Don Siegel? The more filmmakers that are included under the banner of "vulgar auteurs" the less meaningful the banner becomes.

    In the Vulgar Auteurism tumblr that Ignatiy linked to Sam Fuller is included, so apparently it isn't only about contemporary cinema either.

    However, if "vulgar auteurism" is about a particular way of looking at films (as seems to be suggested in some comments), then any film or any filmmaker should be fair game, Bergman as well as McTiernan.

    Finally, I'm unhappy with the term "vulgar" because it sounds like an acknowledgement that the films and filmmakers under discussion are in same ways different, which I think is wrong. McTiernan when he is at his best (which for me is Die Hard, Red October, Thomas Crown) is really very good, and the word "vulgar" suggests that he is somehow different from other filmmakers, when he's not. Is anything gained by putting him (and others) in a box called "vulgar auteurs"? Wouldn't it be better to just call him an auteur?

  36. Adam Cook

    June 8, 2013 at 9:23 am

    It's best not to look at the filmmakers as "vulgar" but to see VA as the label of a critical movement that champions under-appreciated and/or vilified directors of artistic merit.

    The tumblr, which I co-author, but is primarily operated by John Lehtonen, Kurt Walker and others, is a broad exploration of VA, an ongoing search, that does not limit itself to the VA pantheon. It's not a guide to the canon but an aesthetic mapping of VA and its influences and relatives. Lehtonen's list as linked above is the stricter guide.

    More to come soon on MUBI…

  37. Fredrik Gustafsson

    June 8, 2013 at 9:54 am

    Thanks Adam. But when you say "a critical movement that champions under-appreciated and/or vilified directors of artistic merit" do you mean then that any filmmaker, regardless of when he or she was active, and regardless of style and content, is eligible? Or do you mean to say "a critical movement that champions under-appreciated and/or vilified contemporary directors of artistic merit who mainly do action, horror and comedy".

  38. gt

    June 8, 2013 at 3:15 pm

    I should first admit that I didn't really read this post or most of the comments but it was pointed out to me that my name was mentioned and I thought I'd chime in about a few brief facts.

    1) I definitely don't consider myself a "vulgar auteurist," seeing as I've actually read very little about it. In all honesty I work a full time plus job, beyond doing all the other things I do, and there just isn't enough time in the day to read/think/watch/make things about actual movies/directors and to also do the same with film criticism itself. I'm happy to leave that to others.

    2) I do indeed love Tony Scott, Allan Dwan, William Wellman, Michael Mann, John Carpenter, and many of the other directors whose work I have examined through my dossiers, video work, and other editorial projects. And more important than my loving them, I think they all have complex bodies of work that are deserving of discussion (which is why I have done so).

    3) I did read Nick Pinkerton's article and putting all the VA stuff aside, I hope the one thing everyone took away from it is that they should do everything in their power to check out the recent work of Ken Jacobs, especially what he is doing with 3D.

    4) I am a female. (and a young one too boot!)

    Otherwise, I just wanted to thank Thomas Prieto for his kind words and Girish for linking to the Dwan dossier!

  39. Justin

    June 8, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    I'm also dubious as to what vulgar auteurism adds to the conversation. As Frederick stated, there's little to differentiate it from the Cahiers/Sarris brand of auteurism. When Ignatiy says, (I'm paraphrasing) "It's not B over A, but A plus B," I can't help but think B is A. Also, no disrespect to Adam & co., but if that tumblr is the best introduction to vulgar auteurism it would seem to validate Labuza's suggestion that vulgar auteurists value the screengrab above all else.

  40. Adrian

    June 8, 2013 at 6:48 pm

    Ignatiy, every fascinating thing you say about VA being about bodies in frame, bodies in space, the cinematic depiction of bodies, Bodies with a capital B (and not psychological characters) makes me think it is merely a flash, streetwise new American name for … figural film analysis !! You Americans want to appropriate everything ! (Just kidding.) Seriously: one of the great productions of that 'French school' was a special issue of ADMIRANDA in 1996, called "Fury". It is feast of articles (with titles like 'Aesthetic of Nitroglycerine'), interviews, detailed shot analyses and juicy frame-enlargements (pre-screenshot era!) devoted to … Ferrara, Carpenter, Jan DeBont, McTiernan, Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Tsui Hark, John Woo, and much, much more. 17 years ago, mark it! And there is a very decent pile of books and festival catalogues, from all over the world, devoted to some of these directors. VA seems not to know much of this, and thus reinvents the wheel – clunkily.
    When I made my crack about VA's 'reaction against World Cinema', I of course did not mean that excellent critics like you, Dave Kehr, the CINEMA SCOPE crowd, Steven Shaviro, or a host of others, literally refuse to watch Apichatpong movies and the like – I know you've all written about items of World Cinema very well indeed. I'm talking about VA as symptom – and, of course, everyone hates to be told they are acting symptomatically, because it divests them of their ego-fantasy of Sovereign Free Will. But VA as a social phenomenon is a symptom, I persist in thinking this – all critical and cultural movements are, in their specific times and places – and it's just sheer blindness to ignore this thought altogether. And – to return to just one plank of this symptomology – the (general) all-Americanness of the VA fad is something to be deciphered, surely – it's not enough to just say 'we are updating Sarris' AMERICAN CINEMA', because that begs the question: why, in our expanded globe of cinema in 2013, would we we (you) want to do this, beyond the simple fact that Americans, in general, love talking only about other Americans? (Even the 'lists of articles' offered in VA postings as critical/intellectual ballast tend to this all-the-way-USA trip). The ideal (of figural film analysis, for example!) is to forge deep links between all the different types and times of cinema, in an expanded 'history of forms'. When you (for example) compare Tony Scott with Brakhage or abstract art, OK, that's a good example. But it's just a start, and many others have already gone much further down this road. VA's impulse seems to me reductive, myopic. And sending us to a Tumblr site which is just a bunch of screenshots does not clinch your argument, one bit!

  41. steevee

    June 8, 2013 at 8:13 pm

    I'd love to see VA open up to Johnnie To, Takashi Miike, Stephen Chow, and Bollywood, and as it develops, I think it will. But the narrowness you perceive in its taste still seems to presume that VA critics only watch Hollywood films from the past 30 years, which just isn't true. What may be true is that critics in other countries have covered similar ground – Americans tend to be monolingual, and if they read French film criticism, it's often limited to Cahiers du Cinema and Positif. That doesn't mean that VA critics can't extend upon the work Nicole Brenez and others have done on the body.

  42. Adam Cook

    June 8, 2013 at 9:44 pm

    Fredrik: Yes, they're united by the supposedly dubious (primarily genre) spaces they occupy in the cinema landscape. There is also some sort of link to the rise of digital (not just as means of filmmaking, but viewing, etc.). Formal expansions, critical lagging, inadequacy of auteurism as it stood, too comfortable and too distanced from its origins.

    Adrian: That ADMIRANDA issue sounds amazing, and indeed like a predecessor to VA. Would love to get my hands on it.

    Go easy on the Tumblr, when we created it the idea was to "search" or "investigate" what we had intuitively identified as VA. I think Ignatiy is right in saying it is the perfect *introduction* to VA sensibilities, not a concrete argument but an aesthetic journey of sorts. Lehtonen's list as it stands now is where that journey has arrived. Now it's time for the hard part!

  43. yusef sayed

    June 8, 2013 at 11:12 pm

    I second Adrian's recommendation of the Admiranda issue, 'Fury', which last year I was very pleased to discover is still available from Institut De L'Image, Aix-en-Provence. They were very helpful in helping me get hold of a copy after I contacted them. If anyone is interested in obtaining it, you might well be in luck by starting here. French text only, but even if you don't read French the layout, variety of contents and text styles are pretty inspirational for anyone thinking of approaching film writing in different ways. It's definitely worth it. (Also, nice to see a rich discussion here at Girish's again!)

  44. I.L.

    June 9, 2013 at 3:25 am

    Could VA’s narrowness with regards to American films, at the expense of World cinema, come from its strong emphasis on what is undervalued and underappreciated by critics? Because (I assume) the critical mainstream usually comes into contact only with American films, films with the advertising dollars, and seldom with World cinema due to the inequalities in film distribution, so World Cinema, since they are not even discussed by the mainstream, does not have the blessed opportunity to be reviled, ridiculed, dismissed by critics — hardly a chance for them to be the undervalued and underappreciated fodder for VA. Instead the picture we get of World Cinema, handed down to us by the critical mainstream, are those High-Art masterpieces, film festival winners, arthouse pictures, stuff that VA (sometimes rightly) doesn’t focus on (unless somehow the mainstream squeezes in Takashi Miike or a Bollywood film in their discussion).

    On another note, could VA’s investigation into and sometimes championing of American masculine action films be partly because these are the films that are the most despised by the American critical mainstream? Where I live (Philippines), the critical mainstream here usually dismisses local rom-coms, while the local action films are given better treatment here (since they’re so few action films in the Philippines nowadays) than American action films do in the States, methinks. Then again, as far as I know, there aren’t that many people willing to champion the local rom-coms, like VA champions its action films. I don’t believe VA is contrarian, but I wonder how much of it is tied to what is currently being championed and disparaged by the critical mainstream, whose position changes as the years go by thus making it a somewhat slippery notion. Who knows, in the next ten years action films will be championed and hagiographic biopics dismissed, will there be at that future moment a VA that will investigate into and champion these biopics?

  45. Filipe

    June 9, 2013 at 5:23 am

    Somehow seems fitting to tie this weeks two major critical discussions. Sarris on 1962:
    "A. Seen any movies lately?
    B. Mostly odds and ends.
    A. Like what?
    B. Like Loss of Innocence, The Interns, Light in the Piazza, View from the Bridge, Tales of Paris, Safari, Panic in the Year Zero, Jessica, Boys’ Night Out, Woman They Almost Lynched,
    Walk on the Wild Side.
    A. Let’s stop right there. You’ve made your point.
    B. These are all relatively unimportant films, most of them quite vile, and only one of them with the slightest auteur interest.
    A. You mean Lumet’s View from the Bridge?
    B. No. Dwan’s Woman They Almost Lynched.
    A. You’re being perverse again.
    B. I know, but there’s nothing to be done about it.
    A. All right. Be a martyr. What’s the verdict on Woman They Almost Lynched?
    B. The jury is still out. After all, this is Republic, 1953, with a lot of has-beens Joan Leslie, Audrey Totter, John Lund, Brian Donlevy. The action is set in a border town, half in the Union and half in the Confederacy. The James and Younger boys are still running around with Quantrill’s raiders. Joan Leslie, a refined lady from back East, inherits her brother’s gambling casino after said brother is shot by John Lund, who is really a Confederate intelligence officer working as foreman in some nearby lead mines. Lund kills with admirable reluctance, because Joan’s brother only wants to shoot hard-drinking, fast-living Audrey Totter, who has deserted
    brother to be Quantrill’s woman. It would take too long to explain why Audrey Totter and Joan Leslie have a showdown on Main Street or why Miss Leslie is almost lynched when she tries to save Lund.
    A. Or why you worry about the picture at all.
    B. I know, but there is something refreshingly frank about Dwan’s treatment of this material. I can’t decide whether it’s a question of vitality or vulgarity, but either way, this is not the kind
    of lazy or jaded film-making one usually expects in the lower depths. The trouble is it’s hard to find anyone comparable to Dwan working on this naive pulp level, and so I have to reserve judgment.
    A. Some of the French critics treat Dwan as Griffith’s ghost.
    B. But in a very marginal conception of his career. The French always seem to be most fascinated by those directors engulfed in the damnation of necessity. If Dwan is Griffith’s ghost, and Ulmer is Murnau’s ghost, what to do with the total Dwan-Ulmer output, which is more often ghastly than ghostly by any conventional stand ards? It is on this level that the auteur theory is most vulnerable to the charge of idiocy. The critic is placed in a delicate position. If he recommends Woman They Almost Lynched to the lay audience, he creates a false expectation of eyepopping art. To fully appreciate Dwan here, one must be able to perceive what a hundred other directors on Poverty Row would have done with this silly material, and this is difficult for the average moviegoer, who tries to see only the most essential films. Thus there is little point
    in arguing Dwan’s case too strenuously, but somewhere, sometime, a reader may stumble on a minor Dwan film and remember vaguely that Dwan was worthy of a little attention despite his low estate, and the film might then burst into the pleasurable spectrum of tarnished creation. I have “pulled” Dwan on unsuspecting friends with gratifying results."

  46. Matt

    June 10, 2013 at 3:30 am

    Michael Mann is not on the Mubi link you provide. In fact, where did you get the title: "The Mann-Scott-Baysians". I bring up this point because Micheal Mann shouldn't make the list. There is a very big difference between the type of films that Michael Mann makes and the kind that Michael Bay and all the other other director's on the list make. But the concept / theory is definitely interesting.

  47. girish

    June 10, 2013 at 3:52 am

    Matt, in the last couple of days, since I put up this post and we had this discussion here, John Lehtonen has revised his original "Mann-Scott-Baysians" post and retitled it. I think the old post is gone. I do wish there was an archived version of it somewhere for reference purposes…

  48. girish

    June 10, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    Ah, thank you for this, Peter!

  49. Ted Fendt

    June 10, 2013 at 9:57 pm

    Perhaps some American vulgar auteurists should get me to translate some pieces from that ADMIRANDA issue to deepen the English-language world's understanding of what's already been done in the field…

  50. girish

    June 10, 2013 at 10:25 pm

    A brilliant idea, Ted …

  51. Adrian

    June 11, 2013 at 12:13 am

    Pass the hat (for Ted) and stoke the ammunition !

  52. Cody Lang

    November 1, 2013 at 9:18 pm

    Yes Ted that would be much appreciated. My French is very poor. Takes me an hour to read one article from Cahiers du cinema.

  53. Otie Wheeler

    November 28, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    Ted Fendt followed through on his offer to acquire and translate article(s) from that '96 issue of Admiranda that Adrian Martin cited. First up is an article by Martin Barnier on McTiernan's Predator; you can read it at The Vulgar Cinema.

  54. girish

    November 28, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    This is great: thank you for letting us know, Otie! I will make sure to publicize the news in the next post I put up.

  55. Cody

    January 5, 2014 at 3:50 pm

    Thank you so much for translating and posting this article. Very, very, very much appreciated.

Comments are closed.