Vulgar Auteurism

June 11, 2013


As a Johnny-Come-Lately to such things, I thought I would weigh in on The Great Vulgar Auteurism Debate of 2013, which has blown up in recent weeks amongst cinephiles on social media and across the film blogging world, where everything has probably already been said on the subject.  This blow up was as inevitable as World War I, and as the Young Ottomans posted about the Resident Evil franchise, the Empires were bound to clash.  To extend the shaky metaphor, Calum Marsh’s piece in the Village Voice was the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, and since then all hell has broken loose, just as long as we define “hell” as a few vicious subtweets, a pretty harsh article by Nick Pinkerton, and a number of even-handed, thoughtful comments and blog posts, not the least of which are from Peter Labuza and Girish Shambu.  This is, however, a problem of terminology more than anything, and though I shan’t redress that particular issue (as Will Young once titled a song, “Who Am I?”), I’d like to explain my thoughts. 

So where to begin?  Well, Nancy Meyers is as good a place as any for my money.  If you’re unfamiliar, Nancy Meyers is one of the pre-eminent writer/directors of adult-oriented romantic comedies working today.  She started as a writer of things like Private Benjamin, Baby Boom, and the Father of the Bride remake (superior to the original, for my money) before moving on to directing her screenplays with her remake of The Parent Trap and onto original works like What Women Want (which Wikipedia tells me was the highest grossing film ever directed by a woman for a time), Something’s Gotta Give, The Holiday, and It’s Complicated.  For my purposes, auteurism is a framework for consideration more than a stone cold fact separating the artists from the hacks, so in my mind, she is most definitely an auteurist.  At the very least she deserves a great amount of consideration for her exploration of gender roles through the decades, from Goldie Hawn in the military to Diane Keaton as the newly Hollywoodized Type A Career Woman trying to deal with motherhood to Mel Gibson as a chauvinist pig being able to read women’s thoughts. I’m not saying I agree with her conception of gender roles in the modern era, or what they should strive to be, but they’re widespread and worth considering.  Even more than just themes, she does have a particular visual style that, though not terribly showy, does favour a certain production design and class setting that, though somewhat typical of modern romantic comedies, is also in some way very distinct.  Her characters (generally a little neurotic but people often behave like adults, a la Jack Black in The Holiday), her situations, her settings, and her interests mean that I can turn on a film and tell that it’s Nancy Meyers within minutes.

Now, I have a certain admiration for her for making these watchable, sometimes-terrible but at least competently made films with moments of real enjoyment here and there.  Even more so I appreciate her desire to write aging characters as romantic comedy leads, where they actually do have discussions about getting older and the changing definitions of happiness that go along with it.  All that said, she is one of the premiere advocates of a relatively narrow form of feminism that almost all Hollywood romantic comedies fall into.  Her work, as well as many others in that genre, focuses mainly on upper-middle class lifestyles whilst ignoring pretty much every class lower for fear that it might be too depressing.  These are ‘aspirational’ fantasies, after all, and it wouldn’t do for people to be bummed out by the actual difficulties of life in late capitalism (this is one of the reasons I am such an admirer of Bridesmaids).  In The Holiday, Kate Winslet’s character works at a publishing company and yet lives in a storybook English cottage, while Cameron Diaz cuts movie trailers and, of course, lives in a massive Hollywood mansion.  Awaiting each of these women as they trade houses for a time is the perfect man for them, and though not without some level of charm, there’s a level of irksome privilege at work here.  That level of privilege is part of Nancy Meyere’s auteurism, however, but it’s not the only part, and it is certainly not unique.  Virtually every romantic comedy that comes out of Hollywood trades in this same economic comfort zone, where the biggest problem is usually that the woman is “too successful” and as such can’t find “the right man” or have time for him or a family.  They work in swank offices for magazines or in a successful, upscale boutique bakery rather than a grim mid-level management job at a desolate office park or at a chain restaurant in the suburbs*.  They live in nice houses and apartments with plenty of space, are generally comfortable with money, and it seems that the only purpose of the feminist movement was to allow women the freedom to engage in capitalism at a higher level.  Those issues are separate from any individual auteur, but are prevalent in the genre, certainly since the 1990s.  All of this is worth discussing and should be examined more, and yet if I were to use the term “rom-com auteurism” it would be totally inadequate.  These trends are symptoms of a studio system and an economic climate that favours aspiration and makes large assumptions about what women want to see.  Trends are different from individualist artistic ambitions, and as such “vulgar auteurism” doesn’t make a lick of sense to describe what this wave of critics wants to discuss.

(*) I just want to give a little shout out to the late Nora Ephron, who traded in many of these tropes with intelligent ease, and who was smart enough to feature a boutique book store in You’ve Got Mail being forced out of business by a powerful chain store.  It’s a fluffy romantic comedy that doesn’t deny the realities of corporate power in modern America.

Why bring up Nancy Meyers and romantic comedies when Vulgar Auteurism trades solely in B-Movie action pictures?  Well, partly just to tip a hat at the male-skewing nature of the whole business – something pointed out already elsewhere, though worth repeating again and again.  Partly because I watch a lot of rom-coms and love them dearly, even though I hate most of them.  Mostly, however, because I think the trend of upper-middle class characters dealing with a limited idea of female liberation in romantic comedies is what is worth investigating, and that’s not down to “auteurism”.

It’s easy to be taken in by a distinctive visual style.  Peter Labuza correctly draws attention to the visual-heavy nature of vulgar auteurism criticism (even more astutely he uses the word “screengrab”), and I’m reminded of Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (one of the leading lights of the VA critical momevent) talking about Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and how one must take the movie away from Michael Bay by freeze-framing moments and appreciating their compositional grandeur.  Coming up with “vulgar auteurist” might be a simple way to discuss the trend, but the word “auteurist” is troublingly meaningless here.  Visually these directors are very distinctive, but what connects Paul W.S. Anderson, Neveldine/Taylor, Tony Scott, and Peter Hyams is not a mode of auteurism (which is necessarily individual) but the development of technology and culture.  They tend to make what can be described as “vulgar” films – they are often tasteless and ham-fisted, with no ear for dialogue and no brain for characterization, and certainly no interest in plot sensibility, but the vulgarity is not what makes them interesting.  What makes them interesting is their embrace of digital technologies, from the expensive (Bay, with his huge effects budgets) to the cheap (Neveldine/Taylor and their pro-sumer cameras), their ramping up of the sensory overload – usually to make up for the lack of a coherent script – and the sheer brain-batteringly stupid violence that comes with it.  They’re filmmakers for an ADHD generation, and that should be investigated thoroughly.  Their compositional work should be applauded and discussed, sure, but that is separate from ‘vulgarity’.  Their work often displays rampant consumerism in the modern age, whether it is the promotion of it (Bay’s Transformers films) or ambivalence towards it (Gamer), and that aspect should be discussed separate from ‘auteurism’.

Nick Pinkerton began his diatribe by mocking ‘mumblecore’ because it’s an easy target, but there’s an argument to be made that there was (is?) something a movement happening there.  Several of the leading lights of the group have acted and worked on each other’s films, and they’ve shared casts and crews.  The Nouvelle Vague could be considered a movement because of similar reasons.  But Andrzrej Bulawski is significantly different than Joe Swanberg, the same way Godard was different from Truffaut.  They are all individually (arguably, at least) auteurists (“individually” is crucial here).  They were also part of what could be described as a “movement”, in that there was a recognition of each other and a drawing from the same creative pool.  Really, though, mumblecore is defined by its mode of production and the resultant aesthetic, as well as the subject matter that generally involves the self-absorbed ennui of hipster 20-somethings.  “Vulgar Auteurism” is not quite a movement in the sense of creative forces drawing off each other, but it’s certainly a product of new technology and a certain draw towards particular cultural trends that heavily influence this new aesthetic.  The visuals and the content need to be considered and investigated, and the term “vulgar auteurism” only hampers the discussion.  This isn’t the reassessing of filmmaking greats like Hawks and Hitchcock who were previously shunned by “respectable” cineastes – for one thing they made completely good films and not just visually interesting ones.  This is about tracking and discussing a mode of 21st century filmmaking that is distinctive and of its time, and the way in which it departs and reflects on the culture it is borne out of is important.  That term is not only inaccurate, it only really serves to troll the imagined critical establishment.



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