What Vulgar Auteurism Gets Wrong


Over the last few weeks/months, a movement has risen from the internet only to find itself at the very core of one of the hottest debates among cinephiles in quite some time. Known lovingly (or mockingly, if you’re one to do that) as Vulgar Auteurism, a handful of film critics/bloggers have become fixated on the works of directors ranging from Paul W.S. Anderson to John Chu, and where they as filmmakers stand within the annals of film history. With main figureheads being the likes of Tony Scott and, particularly, John Carpenter, the movement has become both appreciated by those seeing it as finally giving just due to previously under appreciated filmmakers like the team of Neveldine/Taylor and absolutely despised by those who see it as either redundant or nothing more than genre movie fan think pieces with one overlying theme.

However, as a piece of film criticism, the formation of the Vulgar Auteurism theory is nothing if not a complete upheaval of the entire idea of Auteurism from which it derives its name.

First up, what is Vulgar Auteurism? Here’s what one of its major players, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, describes it as:

“In reality, VA is a loosely affiliated group of young cinephiles and critics. In Sarrisite terms, it’s more concerened with Expressive Esoterica than the Pantheon.” Therein lies the theory’s main flaw: the idea of being an Auteur is inherently non-qualitative.

In many ways Vulgar Auteurism only exists to further ghettoize the filmmakers for which it proclaims admiration. At the very outset admitting that these filmmakers are “underappreciated” and prescribe to more genre-centric ideals, the idea of being a director under the banner of Vulgar Auteurism is startling.

According to Andrew Sarris’ definition of Auteur Theory, the theory “claims neither the gift of prophecy nor the option of extra cinematic perception. Directors do not always run true to form, and the critic can never assume that a bad director will always make a bad film. Obviously, the auteur theory cannot possibly cover every vagrant charm of the cinema.” Furthermore, the very root of Auteur Theory avoids going the route of qualitative label. In its simplest form, Auteur Theory posits that an “auteur” is a filmmaker so assured in his abilities, that he is able to bring his vision, his stamp, to a motion picture. Could any other filmmaker on the planet make this type of picture?

Take Rob Zombie for example. Mentioned in this Mubi piece about Vulgar Auteurism as one of its major filmmakers, this undermines the fact that Zombie is almost the exact type of filmmaker Sarris and his contemporaries thought of when coming up with the idea of Auteur Theory. A film like Lords Of Salem is in no way a “great” film. The plot is inconsequential and incomprehensibly obtuse, the performances are campy and over the top, and there is little to no true emotional center. However, the sense of vitality given to the film by the director is absolutely breathtaking. Given this picture and much of his previous live action film, Halloween 2, one can not only see clear influences from the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky, but that Zombie has become as singular a filmmaker as there is in today’s horror cinema. In other words, a Rob Zombie film looks like nothing else on this planet. And it certainly doesn’t look like any other film being made by a less singular and auteurist a filmmaker. Paul Verhoeven isn’t giving us a House Of 1,000 Corpses. And Zombie certainly doesn’t have a film like Black Book or Starship Troopers in his bones.

Or the likes of Neveldine/Taylor. Their brazen appreciation for handheld camera work and kinetic photography, no filmmaker(s) on this planet make films that look or sound like a Neveldine/Taylor picture. The icy cold design work and slow motion photography of a Paul W. S. Anderson is exactly in that wheelhouse. Hell, the VA Theory’s biggest idol, Tony Scott, may very well be one of the most interesting examples of auteurism in film history. There are very few filmmakers that, when a picture of theirs arrives on screen, is as clearly from their hands that a directing credit isn’t even needed.

However, that idea is, again, not a qualitative statement. Where Vulgar Auteurism goes wrong is in the assumption that an auteur is a director that only makes “great” pictures. Singular pictures that feel as though the filmmaker is getting his or her vision across the screen as only he or she could? That is what an auteur is. Let’s stop acting like an auteur is only a filmmaker with critical renown. Vulgar or not, if a director has the ability to give us their purest vision on screen, so much so that it’s a completely singular aesthetic, they are just what the likes of Truffaut and Sarris were thinking of.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.

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