“If Justin Lin fails to qualify as classical auteur—a designation still typically reserved for revered foreign and arthouse filmmakers, from Olivier Assayas to Jia Zhangke—he certainly qualifies, instead, as a vulgar auteur. "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.”The piece, as well as others of vulgar auteurs, lists filmmakers like Michael Mann, Tony Scott, Michael Bay, Neveldine/Taylor, Paul W.S. Anderson, Jon McTiernan, Nimrod Antal, Walter Hill, John Hyams and others.
I have a few problems with the whole “vulgar auteur” theory. First, how the hell does Michael Mann qualify? He’s been an acclaimed director since Thief (1981), and probably entered auteur territory around the time of Heat (1995). Since then all of his films – The Insider (1999), Ali (2001), Collateral (2004), Miami Vice (2006) and Public Enemies (2009) have all gotten serious consideration by film critics – and a number of Oscar nods as well. Can anyone clearly explain how exactly Mann is “unfairly maligned or under-discussed”?
Which brings me to my bigger problem: What the hell is the difference between Vulgar Auteurism and regular Auteurism? Wasn’t the whole point of auteurism when the theory first came about to celebrate filmmakers whose work was being “unfairly maligned and under discussed”. Isn’t that why the proponents of the theory discussed the work of Howard Hawks – whose resume could look like the work of a hack to those who don’t look closely, as he made everything from screwball comedies to war movies to westerns to film noir to musicals and everything in between? The proponents found the connective tissue – both visually and thematically – that linked his varied work that made Hawks greater than say, Sam Wood. The same is true for auteur favorites like Samuel Fuller or Edgar G. Ulmer who toiled in B movies. Or on the likes of John Ford, whose films weren’t “just Westerns” or Hitchcock who made more than “just thrillers”. This list goes on and on. In short, I don’t think we need to call them vulgar auteurs, when plain old auteur will do just fine.
I am not sure if all the directors listed really qualify as auteurs however. Personally I thought Walter Hill, like Mann, was already an auteur (hell, the interviewed him in Film Comment when Bullet to the Head came out this year). Jon McTiernan could also very easily qualify, although I would like to see someone really make a case for why he’s an auteur, and not just a skilled action craftsman. I need to see of Nimrod Antal’s work to see if he qualifies – but what I saw in Vacancy (2007) and Armored (2009) didn’t strike me as the work of an auteur. I haven’t seen any of John Hyams movies (including two Universal Soldier sequels), so I’ll remain silent on him. I’m not sold on Paul W.S. Anderson either – and I’ve seen much of his work. I’ve seen all four of Neveldine and Taylor’s movies - and hated all four – so maybe I’m not the best judge either, although I will say I don’t see much there beyond a penchant for shaky camera work to the point of incoherence that connects the Crank movies to Gamer and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. I want to see more of Justin Lin’s work outside of the Fast & Furious films before I make that call. I’m not saying that none of these guys are auteurs – just that I’m not fully convinced they are.
But Michael Bay and Tony Scott are undeniably auteurs – vulgar or otherwise. To hear some people question that is ridiculous. Regardless of what you think of either director, it’s undeniable that there films represent a consistent body of work – ones that have visual hallmarks, and have thematic consistency from film to film. Being an auteur doesn’t necessary mean you’re a good director, at least not to me – although I would argue Tony Scott is, and Bay, at least in Pain & Gain, can be. Every auteur has people who hate them – but just because you may dislike, say, David Lynch, doesn’t make him not an auteur. I’ve always hated Korea’s Kim Ki Duk – but I’m not about to make the case that he isn’t an auteur. He’s s just a shitty one.
In short, I don’t think we need the so called new theory of “vulgar auteurism”. If the subject matter is all that it takes to be a “vulgar auteur” rather than an “auteur” than couldn’t Sam Peckinpah, Quentin Tarantino, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Brian DePalma or Dario Argento – all unquestionable auteurs – be considered “vulgar auteurs” as well. We don’t need a “new” theory called Vulgar Auteurism because Auteurism already covers it.