There’s a current trend in critical circles that’s been taking the internet by storm in the last few weeks, creating the sort of clicks-driven feedback loop these things tend to when they catch on. The term “vulgar auteurism” is coming into vogue (you can read one very good piece on it here, and by clicking through the links in it and the articles it takes you to, can very quickly get up to speed on the topic), and honestly, this is confounding. When the trend first started making waves a few weeks back, I rolled my eyes, sighed, and hoped if I ignored it, the “new theory” would just go away. But it hasn’t, and it seems the time has come to weigh in on the subject with something that hasn’t been said yet (that I’ve seen, or at least hasn’t been said enough): So-called “vulgar auteurism” is just auteurism, plain and simple.
When the writers of the Cahiers du Cinema began developing the theory they called politiques des auteurs (meaning the politics or the policy of authors) in the 1950’s, they were rebelling against a cinematic status-quo. The industry, at the time (and especially in Hollywood) was largely run by producers, but also gave great amounts of recognition to screenwriters. Missing, in the minds of these critics, was a recognition of the central place directors hold in the creation of the film. The “auteur theory,” as it became known in the United States under the guidance of Andrew Sarris, argued that directors were often the authors of their films, the central guiding force responsible for elevating their material from standard entertainment to an art form. Directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks were vaunted as true artists for their thematic consistency, stylistic predilections, and capability to exercise stronger control over their material.
This theory took off, to the point that it has become one of the central considerations in film criticism over the last half century. When we talk about classic films, we almost always include a discussion of the director. Arguably the greatest era in American Cinema, the 1970’s, was also known as the era of auteurs, when “film school brats” like Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg took over Hollywood and imposed their vision on a variety of cinematic masterpieces.
The fairly new theory of “vulgar auteurism” makes the argument that this mode of analysis should be extended to genre filmmakers, that films of less immediate artistic merit should be taken more seriously by critics. Vulgar Auterists praise the work of directors like Paul W.S. Anderson (who directs the Resident Evil films), Michael Bay (Armageddon, Transformers), and Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces, The Grey), who they argue exhibit just as much personal vision as more lauded directors. The Vulgar Auteurists are an inclusive movement, arguing for further additions to the “canon” of directors lauded as auteurs, and I praise this effort to find good filmmaking in places many people fail to look. But they’re missing the point. Auteurism has never been about praising only great movies. Auteurism has never been about disregarding genre cinema. Auteurism has always been about the primacy of the artist, and the ability of one visionary to remake a film in their image.
When the theory was first getting its legs, Alfred Hitchcock was known primarily as a genre filmmaker. He made thrillers and horror movies, and wasn’t particularly well respected among cinephiles and critics. While vulgar auterists may argue the theory has since been co-opted by the art house, and that critics are winnowing the list of acceptable auteurs unnecessarily, what they’re missing is that their “sect” isn’t really anything new at all. Vulgar auteurists aren’t committing themselves to a new method of film analysis, they’re reinvigorating one that’s been around for over fifty years.
I’ve written a feature on auteurs and auteurism before, and in doing so, I tried to remain true to the initial theory, as a means of testing its relevance over the years. As part of that, I examined directors I considered auteurs (including Michael Bay), celebrated directors I thought were not (like Kevin Smith), and non-directors I thought fit the bill (including writers like Charlie Kaufman and Aaron Sorkin, and actors like Mike Myers). The point of this feature, and the point of the auteur theory itself, was to examine authorship and artistry in the cinema, not to analyze only celebrated directors of art films.
If the auteur theory is to survive, and even to thrive, into the 21st Century, it will do so not by narrowing its parameters, but by expanding them. This is the point the vulgar auteurists make, and on this, I agree with them (though I would like to see more work lauding underrated female directors and less-male-focused genres like romantic comedies and teen movies).. Where we part ways is simply a matter of terminology: what they call “vulgar auteurism” looks like the classic form to me, and when they hail Michael Bay as a “vulgar auteur,” it seems they’re creating a new, smaller, less respected canon where one needn’t exist. Michael Bay is an auteur, though he rarely makes a film that isn’t terrible. Joe Carnahan is an auteur (and his film The Grey should convince any film-snobs who can’t get over much of his output). Other directors who haven’t been recognized as such can and should be, and their films should be examined and analyzed in depth, as should any and all films. We should look as well to non-directors, from producers like Jerry Bruckheimer, to screenwriters and actors (look at Will Smith’s involvement in After Earth and tell me he isn’t arguably the film’s author, even above director M. Night Shyamalan). The auteur theory has never been a narrow proposition. It has always been, and should continue to be, an inclusive search for artistry in film. By trying to widen its parameters, vulgar auteurists are in fact narrowing the auteur theory and winnowing its value as a tool for film fans and critics. Only when we call a spade a spade and open ourselves up to the idea that we may find auteurs in some unexpected places will the theory regain its prominence. Come back in from the cold, vulgar auteurists. The Auteur Theory is waiting for you, and it’s adherents have kept the fire going while you were away.