There has been lots of talk online in recent weeks about a critical phenomenon called “vulgar auteurism” (V.A.), a term coined—as I just learned from Adam Cook at MUBI—by the critic Andrew Tracy. Though that coinage was skeptical, the term as well as the phenomenon have recently been embraced by other critics, as, for instance, by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, who defines V.A. as enthusiasm for a group of directors who work in what he calls “genre filmmaking” (mainly action films, but the Farrelly brothers and Jon M. Chu are there, too). But V.A. doesn’t become clear unless seen in the context of so-called auteurism itself. And auteurism, as such, doesn’t exist.
It’s an old story that has become something of the founding myth of the modern cinema: a band of adolescent bohemians in postwar Paris who watched three or four films a day, loved Hollywood movies, and wrote criticism in a little start-up magazine called Cahiers du Cinéma (founded in 1951), where they asserted that such studio directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, and Otto Preminger were the auteurs—the authors—of their movies, despite the supervisory power of production executives or the creative priority of the screenwriter. These young critics were flamboyant autodidacts who filled their reviews with references to Balzac and Dostoevsky, Picasso and Stravinsky, as they asserted that the directors whose work they loved were creative geniuses at the same level. They were known in French critical circles as the “Hitchcocko-Hawksians”; they called their idea the politique—the policy or politics—des auteurs, and even the editor of the magazine that championed them, André Bazin, was skeptical of their views.
At the same time, they wanted to make movies (some of them were already making low-budget, independent short films). Inspired by Orson Welles, who made “Citizen Kane” at twenty-five, they wanted to make the cinema a young man’s art, to fulfill grandiose dreams of artistic glory while still in their first flush of youth. And to do so, they needed to force their way into an extraordinarily clubby milieu. As they became famous for their enthusiasms, they became infamous for their attacks. That’s where the political side of their devotion to auteurs comes through: in 2000, Jean-Luc Godard told me that he and his colleagues (principally François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette) saw themselves as continuing, in effect, the wartime French Resistance—“against a certain kind of occupation of the cinema by people who had no business being there—including three-quarters of the French [directors].”
Amazingly, these young critics managed to take over the French cinema as planned, and quickly. Truffaut made “The 400 Blows” at twenty-six (and, in 1959, won a prize at Cannes for it); Godard shot “Breathless” at twenty-eight, later that year. They led an entire generation of French filmmakers who became known worldwide as the New Wave, and whose ardor for American films, or, rather, for the films of certain American directors, was reflected in their own. This trait became a mark of the avant-garde—and eventually became canonical (despite the revanchist views of such critics as Pauline Kael, whose lifelong mission seems to have been the containment of directorial individualism).
This quick and context-shorn sketch of a story that’s rich in political and aesthetic history suggests the theoretical basis for what Andrew Sarris brought over as the “auteur theory”: the recognition of art in works widely despised as impersonal commercial junk, the formation of a counter-canon that owed nothing to the educational system or to official culture, the founding of a private virtual pantheon in which the critics themselves intended to take a place. The New Wave discovered and praised the kind of movies that they wanted to make. They celebrated the directors they wanted to emulate and even imitate (and condemned those they didn’t).
But what’s missing from this positive and positivist mode of the politique des auteurs, the critical practice of so-called auteurism—and, for that matter, from its negative, polemical, political side—is its mighty struggle with the world, the cinema, and the New Wave critics themselves. The point of their criticism is not to interpret the cinema but to change it. The Hitchcocko-Hawksians did more than elbow their own way into the movie business; they established a coherent aesthetic history of the cinema that looked not to its past but to its future as a touchstone, a coming history of aesthetic fecundity. They were psychologists who penetrated to the spirit of works to find the directorial heroes from whom they would derive inspiration. But they were psychologists even more profoundly in their acknowledgment of a movie-made world, of their own movie-formed identities. The cinema was a key aspect of their experience, and they made movie madness, movie-centrism, and voracious cinephilic passion the very premise of the work of the modern director. They reinvented the cinema—and themselves—in self-consciously and personally historicist terms. To make a movie would be to reflect on the history of cinema and to find oneself within it.
In other words, they were a bunch of university-type guys (and almost all of them were men), fitted by temperament and background for study and scholarship, who ran away to join the circus. But along the way, they studied the circus as it had never been studied before, and, when they got into the show, incorporated the results of their critical study (and even its very practice) into their routines. (The New Wave was greatly influenced by German Romanticism, and one of the keys to their cinematic adventure is Goethe’s novel “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship,” the story of a young bourgeois who joins a travelling theatre company.) The great paradox of the politique des auteurs is that it was a repudiation of respectable culture—but their disreputable passions were widely received as respectable. Their aesthetic hedonism soon became both a cornerstone of the ardent young intellectual’s self-definition and the main line of academic cinema studies. What started as a vehemently anarchic movement, energized by dropouts and grungily self-marginalizing graduates, got picked up by good students and grad students and systematized, normalized, turned into a sort of career path, as much for professors as for directors.
But the dispassionate, professorial mode is as remote from the spirit of the New Wave and its politique des auteurs as is the encyclopedic taxonomy of directors. Thanks to the Hitchcocko-Hawksians, everyone has long known that Hollywood harbors artists. Their counter-canon has become canonical (“Vertigo” was recently voted the greatest film of all time), and all serious critics look carefully at Hollywood movies. Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Terrence Malick, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, and many other celebrated directors of the day are also industry insiders whose commercial success is irrelevant to the appreciation of their originality.
And this, in part, is the background to V.A.: although there’s a widely recognized group of artistic luminaries in Hollywood, there are other, maybe odder, and still-despised corners of the movie business where the distinctive artists haven’t been widely acknowledged, and many of them are found in action filmmaking, which critics overlook because of its low overt intellectual content and perhaps their own revulsion (whether visceral or moral) to gory violence unleavened by Tarantino-esque dialogue and irony. V.A. is a cinematic limbo game of “how low can you go” in recognizing cinematic art in the medium’s overlooked works. (These films, to put it practically, are those that almost never receive year-end awards, whether the Academy’s or those of critics’ groups.) It’s a movement that doesn’t seek to repudiate the canon but to expand it, as Vishnevetsky writes:
…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.
Though the merits of Hollywood genre filmmaking went widely unacknowledged by American critics and by the industry sixty years ago, they are now commonplaces—which is exactly why the system today is the home to radical cinema, with directors working in modes that are less subordinated to genre and more conducive to a thoroughly original and personal mode of expression. This is an age of aesthetic extremes, whether in the demotic blandishments of mass entertainment or the gravity and austerity of the art houses’ so-called slow cinema—but neither style or mode has priority over the other. Neither is the guarantor of art. Jacques Tourneur (who, though born in France, spent almost his entire career in Hollywood) and Terrence Malick may have much in common, but Tourneur could never have made as overtly radical a film as “To the Wonder” in Hollywood, with name actors, in the nineteen-fifties. There is now little need to trawl recondite corners for the most unfathomably fantastic aesthetic extremes, because many of them are nearly mainstream, and the mainstream makes room for them as it formerly didn’t and couldn’t. Despite the intermittently exhilarating cleverness and consistent narrative flamboyance of John Hyams’s “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning,” which I was tipped off to by tweets from Vishnevetsky and others, it’s a movie of hints and possibilities, of occasional inventiveness punctuating a long drone of banality, the work of a major riff-ripper, not of a free and total creator. That movie, for all its surprises, hardly holds a candle to Malick’s extremes, or those of Wes Anderson or Miranda July.
In opposition to the constipated naturalism of the art-house consensus—whether the one that prevailed sixty years ago or that of today—crudeness has an intrinsic merit, and it’s easy to detect the same impulse behind V.A. and Godard’s decision to dedicate “Breathless” to the B-movie studio Monogram Pictures. Getting rid of prejudices—acknowledging that there’s no such thing as intrinsically good acting or cinematography or direction, but only the evidence of artistic inspiration—is as great a discovery for critics as for filmmakers. From the start, Godard repudiated the false merits of so-called production values, but he invested the film not with the elements of the usual Monogram movie but with a rich and complex collection of high-art references, intellectual divagations, and documentary-based techniques, all held together by an aesthetic philosophy that owed more to Sartre than to Hawks. His praise of cheapness and scruffiness wasn’t in the service of those qualities but of the virtues of the grandest, greatest art and ideas he knew. The hat tip to the gangster genre served to embody his most intimate emotions and personal experiences—and, for that matter, to suggest the way that those very intimacies had become tied up, for better or worse, with the experience of moviegoing.
When Godard had Jean-Paul Belmondo identify with Humphrey Bogart in “Breathless” or gave Michel Piccoli, in “Contempt,” a tic of Dean Martin’s from “Some Came Running,” he was making explicit the notion that he and his protagonists defined themselves in terms of the movies they watched. It was no arm’s-length act of criticism but a self-assertion, with all the bravado and the sense of inadequacy that it implied. These slight and urbane men lionized the physical courage and erotic adventure of rough Hollywood heroes in movies that they loved—but those roughhouse movies were far from being all that they loved. The Hitchcocko-Hawksians were also fans of Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, Ida Lupino (Godard may be the first critic to have recognized her directorial artistry), Stanley Donen, Frank Tashlin, and, for that matter, Kenji Mizoguchi, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Max Ophüls, Roberto Rossellini, Jean Renoir, Ingmar Bergman, Joseph Mankiewicz, Douglas Sirk, George Cukor, and other directors who weren’t mainly identified with works of male physical heroism. They didn’t just see themselves reflected in actors, in action, or even in directors and direction; they saw themselves in the art of filmmaking.
One of the most fascinating things about the advocates of the politique des auteurs is that—contrary to the often-repeated assertion of their advocacy of directing alone, in terms of abstract visual patterns or habits—they understood intuitively what history has in fact revealed: strong directors are ones who exercise significant control over their screenplays, and who come up with good ones. Despite what the credits may say, it was Minnelli, not the screenwriter, who came up with the great morning-after scene in “The Clock”; Nicholas Ray, not his screenwriter, who cleared the set and, working with Bogart and Gloria Grahame, came up with a new ending for “In a Lonely Place.” When Godard wrote with ardent enthusiasm about Hitchcock’s “The Wrong Man,” he more or less delivered a multi-page plot summary; when he praised Mankiewicz’s “The Quiet American,” he wished that the direction had been more fiery, but still named it, thanks to the writing, the best film of the year.
In 1962, Godard said, in an interview in Cahiers, “I am for the politique des auteurs, but not just anybody. Opening the door to absolutely everyone is very dangerous. Inflation threatens.” Three years later, he spoke against the very notion of mise-en-scène, of direction in terms of pure visual style, and said, regarding cinephiles, “Now that they have understood and acknowledged the American cinema, they don’t want to know anything else…” The single most bewildering line I’ve read on the subject of V.A. is from Matt Singer, at Indiewire, who echoes Vern, the mononymic critic. Vern: “There’s a lot more new shit to say about Isaac Florentine than Martin Scorsese. I try to do both.” Singer: “There’s not a whole lot of discovery at this point with the films of Orson Welles.” There sure is; they pack mysteries and majesties, inventive delights and depth of character, that put Welles on the level asserted, at the very start, by the young energumens of the politique des auteurs—that of a Michelangelo or a Dostoevsky. Nothing less is at stake.
The advocates of V.A. do a great service in recognizing that Hyams and P. W. S. Anderson bring a wider range of inventiveness to their material than do, say, Michael Haneke and Olivier Assayas, and in implying that they would likely have made a far better movie out of “Skyfall” than Sam Mendes did. But, in terms of the absolute values of cinema and of art, that’s a pretty low standard. And the high-flown romantic rapture in the name of art, which is the grand mythic core of the very idea of the cinematic auteur, or, for that matter, the author in literature, is the dream of the complete and total achievement. It’s too grand and historic a passion to be considered vulgar, even ironically.
The cinephilic enthusiasms of the French New Wave weren’t just all-consuming, they were self-consuming: in raising the cinema to the height of the other arts, they also outlined the limits of their own cinephilia. In “Histoire(s) du Cinéma” (the first two episodes of which will be screened at French Institute Alliance Française on July 2nd) and elsewhere, Godard has represented his devotion to movies as a quasi-religious self-sacrifice. The pleasures of V.A. seem altogether too cheerfully painless—except, perhaps, in the long hours spent watching some of the movies in question.