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The Not-So-Savage Messiahs

Notes Towards a Defense of The New Vulgarism, with a small, fond retirement party for Auteurism.
“If images don’t do anything in this culture,” I said, plunging on, “if they haven’t done anything, then why are we sitting here in the twilight of the twentieth century talking about them? And if they only do things after we have talked about them, then they aren’t doing them, we are. Therefore, if our criticism aspires to anything beyond soft-science, the efficacy of images must be the cause of criticism, and not its consequence—the subject of criticism and not its object. And this,” I concluded rather grandly, “is why I direct your attention to the language of visual affect—to the rhetoric of how things look—to the iconography of desire—in a word, to beauty!” I made a voilá gesture for punctuation, but to no avail. People were quietly filing out.  —Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon.

“Originally, the embeddedness of an artwork in the context of a tradition found expression in a cult. As we know, the earliest artworks originated in the service of other words: the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art always has its basis in ritual.” —Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility

“We fetishize objects isolated against their background, visible to the naked eye; networks are less easily turned into myth...paeans are sung over Bugattis but not tarmac.”
—Regis Debray

Walter Benjamin noticed that under the regime of the modern, as enacted by technical reproducibility, the world had split into two realms, the old kingdom which was the realm of the aura, aesthetic distance, of cult, of ritual, etc., and the new domain which was the kingdom of proximity. He was excited about the revolutionary and liberationist potential of proximity. He took it for granted that the vertical and hieratic power structure of God/King/Artist-Priest/Aesthete would be replaced by something that looked more or less like Pinterest. If he would travel to the 21st century, he would be shocked to find that the working classes had all but vanished (their activity having moved offstage, no longer re-presentable, a subtext, an air...) and that most people were perversely engaged in the production of authenticity and aura, for objects that had none, the science of which was now called marketing. But he shouldn’t be too surprised, for he had predicted (in another chamber of his big brain) this world too: “Fools lament the decay or criticism. For its day is long past. Criticism is a matter of correct distancing. It was at home in a world where perspectives and prospects counted and where it was still possible to adopt a standpoint. Now things press too urgently on human society.”

Yes, things pressed too urgently on human society, but there was pushback. The spirit of paranoia decreed that things could indeed be too frenzied and too proximate. And things got even worse, as Benjamin predicted: “Any person can lay claim today to being filmed.” True since the days of Super 8, but there was no network of distribution that would incentivize the exhibition value of those anypersons. The viral video, the eBook phenom. The Bieber myth. To mint ones image in coinage was the privilege of kings or caudillos, now it belonged suddenly to anyone with a cellphone. Walt, again: “The distinction between author and publisher is about to lose its axiomatic character.” Boy, did it ever! The crisis of authenticity, which was also the crisis of the author who was now often allied and embedded in nefarious power structures (as always, but now in a shameless way) and this paranoia about the status of art objects affected the average person’s ability to properly receive their new hybrid and impure art stuff. They were nervous about processing their culture without an authoritarian structure. What if they made a mistake...? Would it cost them their Facebook friends?

The solution to this technological anxiety was an ideology (or because of its cultic emphasis, a religion) that we call auteurism. Auteurism would preserve a correct distance, a standpoint: “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world,” said an early auteurist. If the reactionary neo-cultic impulses were represented by marketing, the quixotic search for the authentic and auteurism, there was also a counter force that represented the forces of proximity, what we might call in today’s language the forces of vulgarity. If exhibition value was the order of the day, and authenticity no longer mattered then cultural activity would actualize in two channels which were the other, inauthentic side of the coin: virality and piracy. If the publisher and the author (the self-publisher) are one, then so are the consumer and the thief-copyist (the self-authenticator or anarch).

“The desire of the present day masses to 'get closer' to things. And their equally passionate concern in overcoming each things uniqueness by assimilating it as a reproduction.” This quote could stand as an ironic aphorism for Sofia’s movie about the Bling Ring. It is no longer enough to possess scarce luxury goods, one must steal aura from the object’s original archetypal consumers. The kids travel to a museum of celebrity consumption, explore it, take their items, and then document the taking by celebrating it as a reproduction. The Bling Ring are auteurists of the commodity fetish. What does this say about the psychic mechanisms behind piracy? Is it cultic or vulgar? Don’t answer that one just yet!

The middle path in this culture war, starts, as with many things, with André Bazin who said that you have to Look. At. The. Movie. The movie, itself. Also paying close attention to the film’s qualia-effect in you. There was no short cut. And that it’s always hard to ever see the movie. Because aesthetic prejudices have a way of hardening and making cataracts. Bazin also prophetically warned the kids against making aesthetic cults of personality (Vote For Pedro!) and against the dubious idea that progress was inevitable, which meant in practical terms that Monkey Business was better than Scarface. Bazin’s absurd cautionary position in this group of fanatics was essentially ambiguous, and he knew it. Bazin always said that there was something crucial to the genius of the system. His training as a geographer had made him a network theorist before its time. What the French cherubim despised at home, through the redemptive, mediating figure of the Auteur, they could love and idealize abroad. They saw the figure but not the ground.

On the other hand, Bazin had thoroughly indoctrinated his charges in the mystical devotions of Bazinian Realism. This was the strange idea that a model of the Millennium Falcon shot with a 70mm camera in 1976 is more real than any of the hysterical numerical interpolations in Tron.1 There was a hidden allusion here to the crisis that incarnation had precipitated in the history of images—it was OK to show the fleshly flesh of the human person, let’s say Jesus, but portraying the god’s divinity as embodied was idolatry. A very thin line, and still is. Hollywood’s idea of the idol of the screen had resurrected the iconoclastic controversy. Roberto Rossellini brilliantly solved the problem by taking a screen goddess (that is, a normal woman, with a certain technical expertise in projecting aura and keeping a part of herself secret, inaccessible) and making her into a neo-realist icon, a cosmic absurdity which neither the marriage nor neo-realism could survive. Let’s be clear, Bazin was a really smart guy. Smarter than any of the young ottomans underfoot. Smarter even than Rivette, who is pretty damn smart. They loved him. But nobody wanted to listen to him, not really, cause he was the old guy—the ponderous senex in the room. And they were young and on fire. And on top of everything, Rossellini was out there making movies, his theories were graved and lived out on film emulsions. They had no choice but to follow the Italian.2

The bureaucratic Myth of Auteurism (extolled on an ad hoc basis by all, practiced with exacting degrees of consistency by nobody) wound up proposing many things which took on a religious quality over time. Let’s call them the holy clichés of auteurism. Let me try to list them in a properly reverent tone.

1. The superstition that the director is the key player in the game of cinema. The person who must ultimately pay the house or go home in triumph at the end of the night.

2. The superstition that there is a mutual discharge of energy between a particular work and the author’s body of work.

3. The superstition that mise en scène in the film of a certified auteur is a sort of cosmic shorthand for an idiosyncratic worldview of some rapturous interest to auteurists.

4. The superstition that the camera has a revelatory truth to offer, and that some directors understand this deep in their marrows. This results in an aesthetic preference for what might be called the Rossellinian approach to film truth, and a deep suspicion and hostility for the effect and “empty” aestheticism. Auteurists also fetishize those moments (even in the most ludicrous film) where the cinema abolishes itself, a circular ideal represented in Bazin’s famous quote: “No more actors, no more story, no more sets, which is to say that in the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality, there is no more cinema.”

5. The superstition that the real work of auteurs is “subverting” the codes of genre or the banal ideologies of the culture hosting the work of art. Resistance is all.

6. The superstition that there never would be anything so deceptive or confusing as polyphony in the cinema. A warranty that what you see is what you get. Pure unmediated sensitive-tough guy authenticity. No personas, no prancing David Bowies in the manly world of auteurism.

7. The superstition that an auteur represents a sort of double excellence; not just on the plane of cinema, but also somehow in some vague but inarguable way morally great. (The person could even be a scoundrel on the level of our common humanity but redeemed by their terrifying Apollonian art. See demonic.)

8. The superstition that certain impurities (ideological, generic, laziness, imposed endings, financial, etc.) in the work are never lethal to the overall rosy scent of the undertaking.

Auteurism 1.0 is the old humanist-romantic idea. The auteur as heroically prevailing figure against the ground of the studio machine, the system. The proverbial Rager Against the Machine, the high scorer in the Zen Arcade. I don’t have to tell you, astute reader of the 21st century, that this was a bit of myth-making, naive at best, or propagandistic at worst. Well, that was why they called it a politique, which is a French word that means polemical bullshit. Auteurism drew valuable attention to ruptures in the texture of films; breathings of spirit in jobs of work. But still the anxious question hung in the air—did auteurs have any genuine artistic personality outside of that forced out of them by the structures of production? Were they just like any fabulously well paid employee manipulated to perform at maximal creative efficiency? Was authorial style just the last bit of surplus value squeezed out of the product? Maybe there was no magic to it.

Auteurism 2.0 is the Movie / Screen Oudartian structuralist juju. This was how our elders strove mightily to demystify the powerful effects of certain cinematic works of art (usually made at the dizzying heights of the studio system) while at the same time more vigorously prostrating themselves before them. But the Oudartian thing opened the door to cryptic absences as well as presences—that is, to chthonic stuff that was felt, but wasn’t technically or even stylistically there. It was a sly mysticism that one could practice safely even as a devoted materialist. Notice how that works? It’s re-mystification through de-mystification! Again, the return and recovery of cult values, through a sort of occultism. But the structuralists were right in their own way too, movies were a teeming mass of contradictory authorless stuff that you could spend years sorting out. Kinda like that White Album by the Beatles, man...

In the meantime, while the cine-structuralists and their sex-crazed Lacano-Freudian Barbarellas were gnawing over the bones of old Hollywood, something terrible happened. Filmmakers learned (usually in film schools) that they had to develop certain stylistic tics (the way the führer, never a method actor, shamelessly used to practice his gestures in front of the mirror) and repeat them; an aesthetic version of Tourette’s. And that their artistic fate depended on it. In short, they found that the world expected them to craft themselves consciously as an artistic “personality.” They hoped they were interesting. This constant striving after Authenticity through Style (a fascist slogan if there ever was one!) had a paradoxical effect. Suddenly films were made by “politicians”—glad masters of the fake authentic. And this was perfect, because at the same time, the 1970s let’s say, the studios were taken over by corporate types who knew nothing about the pictures, even less about selling them, but who exuded the same genius for the fake authentic. In Europe, the people who were now paying for art movies were ex-Baader-Meinhof or embarrassed Maoist types who believed in the gospel of the auteur only gently tempered by the mild expectation of the markets. Nobody in the 1970s would ever dare to demand JLG add some naked PLO chicks to his movie. Note that there is a profound and often grotesque difference between the auteur who keeps making the same movie over and over again and thinks it nonsense when you stupidly try to point it out, and the “fauxteur” who is condemned to do it out of his own dubious volition. The auteur is a mad, obsessive tourist who is never at home, the fauxteur is the fool who thinks they’ve gone native in the territory of their imagination.

As the movies became more milky and elephantine, criticism got more and more termitic. They barely spoke to each other anymore. Their mutual contempt was barely civil and maintained through hatefucking. Critics fantasized about Deanna Durbin movies while watching tedious Alexander Kluge films. That wasn’t the only schism. These historical incarnations of auteurism of the 1950-70s were focused rightly on the means and structures of production. The new vogue, however, was for reception. The audience was king, the author was dead. All that auteurism stuff seemed really dated and uncool. And it was. The blockbuster was the thing, heralding a new era of suspiciously enthusiastic populism. It became important to read about film grosses and talk at dinner parties about marketing campaigns for auteurist classics like Heaven’s Gate and Ishtar. This was way before Twitter and before everyone had turned into online versions of J.J. Hunsecker and Sidney Falco.

The long dead Bazin was right again: increasing cultural bourgeoisification had decreed that every commercial movie be a Super Western, with its own decoder ring and built-in rationale for watching it. It had come to pass. The sort of film “that would be ashamed to be just itself, and looks for some additional interest to justify its existence . . . in short, some quality extrinsic to the genre and which is supposed to enrich it." This craze for enriched movies (which sadly continues to this day), naturally meant the bitter exile of actual genre movies, which moved from the big screen to Beta & VHS and cable. They were movies that were so cheap and scuzzy it did no one any good to talk about them. Movies directed by people like Sid Furie and Sheldon Lettich.

Coincidentally, with the corporate sponsored populism of the blockbuster era came a very loosey-goosey triumphalist Auteurism 3.0 practiced by wild-eyed amateurs, proletarians who, taking their cues from the directors’ own ministries of propaganda and the promotional materials of the White Elephantiasis Industry, now understood that even they could make power projections into the souls of contemporary filmmakers, burning down the walls as they made dangerous Icarian flights into enriched mise en scène. Auteurism had lost the battle but won the war. All termitic impulses were hygienically sanitized. Auteurism 4.0 is more or less what we have now. A small gang of aging fundamentalists notwithstanding, it’s the metastasis of 3.0 vectored through the megaphones of the Ain’t it Coolers and Rotten Tomatoes, to the ominous hobnail click-track of rabid fanboys, the Hitler Youth of the Media Industrial Complex. Woe to the fool who doesn’t buy into the Chris Nolan mythos. The fascist cult of the audience now feeds itself on the authenticity-jargon of the Auteur.

I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t actually know any vulgar auteurists; but that doesn’t mean that some may not turn up in the future. Like the Jetsons. When they do, hopefully what follows will give them some aperçoos at dinner parties hosted by the Sith Lords of Auteurism.

But first, take a few minutes to watch this little interview with the spiritual father of vulgar auteurism, Seijun Suzuki, as he lays out the main principles of the doctrine. Strangely enough, he’s not an American.

Here are some of the funniest lines:

  • “So there was no hope of making an artistic film from the script.”
  • “The critics say films have to have a social commentary or a humanitarian point of view, and that is that. But what I was aiming for was how to make a movie entertaining. So I tried a lot of different ideas and styles to accomplish that.”
  • “I think there is no fixed time and space in a movie. That is, in normal movies they take care to show time and space. But in my films spaces and places change. You can also cheat the time with the editing. It might look funny, but it cuts.”
  • “That is the strength of entertainment movies, you can do anything you want as long as those elements make the movie interesting.”
  • “To surprise them with the effect. That was my goal. I believe that film should surprise the audience—that’s entertainment.”
  • “I was covering up the weakness of the Cinemascope frame with that effect.”

Now a real auteurist knows that Suzuki’s empty Warholian pronouncements about his artistic life are really a protective pose. The more he denies a method and a worldview, the more it must be real. Because on some level, the extra-textual statements of a filmmaker must severely gratify the vanity of the auteurist who has chosen him or her as a pet. This is an important criterion in distinguishing the vulgar auteur from the fauxteur. The latter will constantly be talking about what it all means. When cornered like a badger and made to discuss a particularly empty effect, the fauxteur will dissemble and come up with some really poetic stuff. The vulgar auteur takes professional pride in the absolute emptiness of their effects. This is the sort of thing that makes even the most disciplined auteurists bristle with resentment.

Let me try to outline, with honest sympathy, what I see as the preferable early beatitudes of vulgar auteurism:

  • Entertainment. The vulgar auteur affirms the legitimate essence of the ideology of entertainment. He doesn’t do this ironically, or wink. That is the secret meaning of Suzuki’s insistently impolite chuckle at the goofball interviewer’s very earnest naive-auteurist questions. Vulgar auteurs imply that there is something fundamentally unserious about movies. This sets them automatically at odds with the burning seriousness of cinephiles, academics in film studies, and even with people who might naturally be vulgar auteurists. Since the iconoclastic crises of the 7th and 8th century, most people need to know (that is, be told) what something means before they can look at it. That is why there will always be job security for critics. Since Adorno and Horkheimer, the recipe against the society of the spectacle has been to double down on strained seriousness, or to wash the tears away with in-joke fatalism, as if that would make the mediaboliques wither and go away. Call me crazy, but isn’t always the case that the flagrantly unserious movie is more destabilizing to the totalitarian schemes of The Cinematic? Wasn’t that always the upstart Hollywood’s golden secret? To push carnal absurdity to the point at which you had to take it seriously...and beyond.
  • Speed, Lapses in Taste. The knowing deployment of bad taste and excess of all types, violent or not (including the aesthetizing of Virilian picnolepsy—i.e. glitch consciousness, the disappearance of continuous blocks of experienced time through speed) as a creative strategy no better or worse than any other. The anything goes baroque you see in a playful embryonic form in Suzuki, comes to roost in McG (the old McG who isn’t a classicist) or Neveldine/Taylor. Classical film structures were designed to be hyper-mnemonic, mnemnophilic—films were meant to live and distort themselves in mental echoes and decay in memory. Despite the occasional neo-classical flourish in blockbuster or epic cinema, its pictorialism is tonally inert, deadened, already counting on your jagged immemory. Why is this? Art was a sort of external memory for particular cultures, an emotive record of disasters and triumph. The cultural exception, the opposite of data. “Just as the art of the Greeks was geared towards lasting, so the art of the present is geared towards being worn out,” said old Walter Benjamin. That is why it is next to useless to stick a strong, emotionally charged image in a modern movie—its likely to come off as a bum note. A disastrous cluster of strong images paced correctly will inevitably alienate the audience by jarring them out of their picnoleptic trance that now needs a total environment, beyond their ritual pilgrimage to the crypt of the multiplex. We humans are now doubled with a hypertrophic exo-memory called the Internet which now performs defacto the functions of art, forgetting, and culture. At maximal efficiency, that is, instantaneously. This is the cinematic mode of memory, neither mythic nor tragic, which by analogy with the impartiality of the film camera, is better, more artful, by being inhuman. Is the utopian art of no-where really necessary? Have “cultural” processes moved beyond art? Beyond even culture? Beyond human memory? Benjamin can have his radical democratic access to the new baroque archive, but he also has to give up the possibility of history, his arcades and his Marxism with it.
  • Potlatch. It is not surprising that the piracy of digital images and sounds (try stealing the old kind sometime; it involves work and agency that can’t be offshored to the little gremlins in one’s computer or the network) is viewed as a moral disaster for the capitalist system of image production, and for art in general. In the old days, a pirate was a non-state actor. But in practice, it was not so easy to tell which country was sponsoring the black flag. Piracy, in the culture industry gloss means inauthentic, not authorized, not “director approved.” It subscribes to the commercial jargon of authenticity that underwrites auteurism. The cyber-grifter turns the game around and says if my copy is inauthentic, then so is yours. But the phenomenon of piracy (today’s synonym for hyper-proximity) is really a symptom of neo-tribal practices, of gift exchange and potlatch. That’s what Benjamin meant when he said that the future of art was politics (what we call these days The Social Network), and the future of aesthetics was war.

    Even the destruction of state secrets (ask Debord, when you destroy one secret, you manufacture the rationale and the apparatus for a hundred more) as practiced under the ideology of WikiLeaks, is a potlatch made possible by digitality. Even though there are accidental profiteers (Kim Dotcom, YouTube, Assange, Putin’s security apparatus, news agencies) the economy of piracy is another classic bubble. Its based on attributing esoteric or fetish values (i.e. auratic ones) to quasi-objects that can’t be experienced or possessed without first copying them. You can look at a secret as a process of historical revelation. First something is a secret, in an auratic state like the coy movie goddess, subject to ritual, something that requires the creation of additional, costly secrets (as in the famous case of Enigma) then it passes through a process of historification as determined by the historians of the state, then eventually it becomes proximate, common knowledge. Control over the transition from ritual or cult value (aura-distance, that which belongs only to an aesthetic elite) to what Benjamin calls exposition value or transportability (that which belongs to all) is also what the ancients called Art. And sometimes the most (or even the only) interesting thing about a movie is the way the filmmakers hand the cult-vulgar slider over to their audiences to fiddle with on their own.And obviously, that means espressività takes a hit in relation to communicatio. We don't currently have an established language to talk about the ways in which things move anaesthetically—like ghosts passing through walls, leaving no trace. Vulgarians will have to step it up.  

    A secret on a network is no such thing, so if digital instantaneity destroys the possibility of secrets, likewise also the possibility of art. At least art as we know it. Thus the need for sentimental transmission of perishable holy objects in parallel to machine channels, for systems of aesthetic delay, of which auteurism is a primitive example. So we go from the artwork that travels to you to an artwork that (potentially) is everywhere, instantaneously, at once. But even Pantheism still needs the specificity of shrines.
    As film loses its radiant material objects, no doubt fresher compensatory rituals of fetishism will proliferate. Vulgar Auteurists will often officiate at these secret rites, whatever they may be. 

  • The iconographism of the digital glyph. There is something inherently flat about a digitally composited image, even and particularly if it is in 3D. It is anti-cycloramic, no matter how much illusionism is brought to bear. Even compositions in depth have a popped-out quality that makes the connection between the iconographic pop style and subject of certain movies depressingly literal. “The evil art of painters...” has crept back into the realist paradise lovingly nurtured by auteurism. Iconoclasm will surely follow. What Benjamin and Bazin both saw as the essence of the photographic cinema, its inhuman (godlike) impartiality toward phenomena under light is now hybridized and made subject to mortal corruption.
  • Other-Directed Surrealism. A proudly bogus surrealist impulse that is less about the old school oneiric (a politically radical spiritualism which drifts its psychic liberational violence alchemically into the world of objects) and more of a cheeky way of being true to the shocking discontinuities that come with mediated experience. This new type of surrealist has no interest in mining his own psychic material for booby traps, but to help the viewer enjoy their symptoms of cultural dissociation. The intention is therapeutic rather than confrontational. This sort of film, strictly speaking, doesn’t exist yet in its full flower, but I am thinking of something that is half Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi and half Scream or the mad films of The Asylum. A film that is about the artful interpenetration of pop cultural material with/as a totalizing environment. A Film Socialisme without Godard, but still after Warhol.
  • Pharmacological Agenda. Vulgar auteurs know that the antidote to the poison of dizzying, paralyzing speed and systemic violence is: more speed, delivered by with a certain elan of blur. And the ability to pause. Bazin for sure would have hated the exemplary productions of vulgar auteurism. He called baroque art a “convulsive catalepsy,” a beautiful formulation which is also a Virilian conception before its’ time. That particular quality of frozen/freezing motion—the “bad” shutter angles of Saving Private Ryan or The Matrix’s cubist balletics, or the zero-one, zero-one jitter of the GIF—is the New Age’s adderalled counter to the Kurosawa/Peckinpah goth-romantic aestheticism.
  • The Return of Genre. The hypothetical vulgar auteurist fishing around in disreputable (American, Globalist, Masculinist, Politically Hopeless) genres would necessarily have a healthy Bazinian respect for the much-abused yet beautiful integrities of genre. A respect that is in some ways an extension of the filmmaker’s stance and engagement vis-à-vis his or her chosen genre. Auteurism is the eternal puer’s approach to that most puerile centenarian of arts. The auteur is always fighting something or other, forever engaged in battle against systemic evil; the film must be coming apart at the seams. The auteurist wants some of that reflected heroism. Genre is tradition, it is hidebound, compromised, it is senex energy. You respect it at your own risk. It will break you. If enriched cinema thrives on the smears of genre impurity, the holy grail for a vulgar auteurist is a spartan generic form that yields something new in its purity. For example, our vulgar auteurist is probably—or definitely—gonna take Cat Chaser3 or Driller Killer over New Rose Hotel or that weepy end of the world Al-anon picture. This next idea is important, so I will put it in a banging font:


They create a secret space, the only space that allows for a crypto-auteur to flourish in the classical way. Because what does auteurism still mean in a world where Scorcese can win an Oscar or two for directing a sweaty A-movie remake of a perfectly okay HK genre movie, or Haneke can remake his own dumb movie and make it even “smarter”? Almost nothing, really. But when Ferrara made some straight-to-video or underground piece of shit, before he was the Great Abel Ferrara, before Nicole Brenez wrote her nice book about him, properly theorizing him with metaphysical anointments; then, way back then, you could call him a vulgar auteur.

Once people (European Union types or the Japanese, usually) start throwing money at you because you’re a genius, it is safe to say it's pretty much over. A vulgar auteur raises money from dry cleaning heirs or the 'Ndrangheta or what have you. You can see on the screen that the money is dirty. Hopefully, I shock no one by implying that there is a certain stock market for art, and that the highest tiers are guarded zealously by bureaucratic or academic gatekeepers. But that isn’t to say that this administrative layer is somehow redundant. It is absolutely necessary for the historical transmission of the revealed texts of cinema (whether it continues to be is another question; let us bow prematurely to the algorithm!). Much of the work of auteurism (aside from narrating the heroical heroism of the romantic/modernist “bad” boy) is clearing for the sake of revelation. A game of recuperation from ideological or other impurities. So what does one do with a director that doesn’t give a fuck about subverting genre or culture or ideology, or any of those value-recuperating activities that signify the official auteur’s holidays in the disreputable? What does one do with the not-so-miserable Unsavage Messiah who doubles down termitically on the area-essence and energy of the material?4 Sometimes we forget, but what an artist does, at least traditionally speaking, is not move her thing into an conveniently pre-existing stream of discourse (the vast number of celebrity counterexamples of a culture of tribal or political art notwithstanding), but rather makes the world revolve around the absolute particularity of their object, if only for a moment. This has been known to happen even in the obscure backwaters of genre cinema.

The card-carrying vulgar auteurist would also live in a world that is post-Warholian which means recognizing that movies are not just bits of real presence coaxed out of artifice, not just signs and ideology, but also images whose pleasure can be experienced in other ways than just sequentially in a theatre. That is, in glorious flatness. Or in a screen shot. Frozen. On a tiny screen. The vulgarian is or should be deeply concerned with “the rhetoric of how things look.” This would be a contrasting mild rejection of auteurism’s historical obsession with Real Presences, both of actors and authors. Vulgar auteurs may sometimes practice inauthenticity through style. For them, it is not verboten. Speed Racer is not the same sort of movie as The Sacrifice. For Tarkovsky a movie is a life or death proposition, a moral compact with the world. In this way, it’s not particularly perverse to claim middlebrow fave Michelangelo Antonioni, post-Red Desert, the master of surfaces and crepe psychology, as the other chief spiritual father of VA. The Oberwald Mystery should rank high in the VA canon. It’s a movie that Rossellini would never have made.

Our hypothetical vulgar auteurist is a trinitarian who'd also dispute that Sarris’s three hierarchic circles of heaven—the technician, the stylist, and the auteur—are anything but the same circle, and, heresy of heresies (I am shuddering as I write these words), that the technician might now be the supreme person in the divinity of the auteur. It’s no accident that the Tom Swift of the Cinema, James Cameron, is also a scientist-oceanographer. As digitality has proletarianized the consumer of images and de-mystified film-making, systems of production have had to engage in a flurry of shock and awe, technological warfare (IMAX, 3D, 4K, 8K and so on) against the encroachments of digital guerrillas and the proximities of the new cinema of attractions.

So when Ignatiy Vishnevetsky asks (I am obscenely paraphrasing here) to what extent, due to the provisional nature of digital imaging, is “production” now really a question of post-production, and asserts that much of the creative work comes as a sort of pleasurable deferral (elevating the Senex endgame and short-circuiting Puer’s visionary inceptions) or multiplicative strategy of playful options exercised rather than willful decisions —color, exposure, framing, green screen, testing, reshoots, etc.—that will be the sort of question that vulgar auteurists of the future should profitably ask and try to answer. Benjamin pointed this out too: film was the anti-eternal art that was perpetually subject to improvement—“The finished film is the exact antithesis of the work created at a single stroke...images that... can be improved in any desired way in the process leading from the initial take to the final cut.” Grandpa’s auteurism celebrated all that was “baked-in,” as they say in the sleazy argot of the post-houses, while the modern digital film object has a protean half-life in spite of the things that the director did or didn’t do on set, until the last choices or afterthoughts are nailed down. But that’s the problem with the creaky old language of the craftsman, right? Nothing is ever nailed down. Everything is just a slider away from being something else. Is it too much to say that this digital becoming entails new aesthetics of the network, and of Latourian hybrids and quasi-objects—and that maybe criticism should investigate? Or perhaps we should keep acting as if nothing unpleasant has happened.

The hypothetical vulgar auteurist will no doubt still hunt for directors working in liminal areas where they have the least—that is, the most—freedom. That part is a game for the filmmaker. A diligent engagement with the abstract imperatives of “entertainment” is a good way to avoid the existential calamities that plague self-conscious auteurism (cf. Scorsese, Rolling Stones, Silence). So, for example, Wakamatsu is your classical “tortured” auteur—the angry commie making enriched pinku eiga against the status quo. The man who tosses off Princess Raccoon is wholly other than this. This is another essential VA quality—a sort of cinematic dandyism: the sense of pleasurable, effortless production without any artistic agony that might be marketable. Or praiseworthy. There is always “less” to say about unconflicted seeming work.

Auteurism is an orthodoxy of the avant-garde, dedicated to sacred canon building in the age of its mechanical reproducibility. Fundamentally, vulgar auteurism, or whatever they shall call it, is about watching and really seeing, and showing care for the movies of people who precisely don't have auteur status. The hopeless, the unheroic. There is an obvious honking contradiction in the celebration of marginal filmmakers as marginal. But that doesn’t mean that the protective impulse that comes from chancing upon something secretly beautiful isn’t laudably present. So the term VA is fundamentally wrongheaded, if not an oxymoron. Because after all, once a filmmaker has been properly “authorized” then there is no chance of their work being seen in its actual, ugly and hairy phenomenology. For all its focus on film style or figural analysis, auteurism is essentially anti-phenomenological. It keeps finding the same things over and over again, to no one’s surprise. The film must be approached through the treacherous symbolist lens of auteurism, which may mean: seeing the work as more finished, and thus consistent with other parts of the oeuvre (and the canon) than it really is; making allowances for good faith stored up by years of excellent works of a certain type beloved of auteurists; downplaying the network that gave birth to the work; pure sentimentality on the part of the critic or viewer, etc., and so on.

The puer energy of Auteurism is finally getting a little long in the tooth. It’s a baby boomer. Let’s hope it ages gracefully, like the rest of them. In the meantime, somebody needs to watch these movies (and other stuff) until and if ever their authors make their IPO on the cultural stock market. That seems to be a valuable service that vulgarians of all stripes have always offered the public at large. There are always gnostic gospels to be found in the cinema. So, then: Onward, Vulgar Bazinians?



1. Realism for Bazin is the reverse shot on the world that sustains, nourishes, cancels out the fiction. It is also the impossibility of a thing, filmed truly, ever becoming a sign. Bazin is like Pavel Florensky when the Russian talks of the correctly painted ikon as a window into spiritual reality, into the “permanent noumena of things.” They both share the same descending anti-illusionist super-realism: “For the task of painting is not to duplicate reality, but to give the most profound penetration of its architectonics, of its material, of its meaning. And the penetration of this meaning, of this stuff of reality, its architectonics, is offered to the artist’s contemplative eye in living contact with reality, by growing accustomed to and empathizing with reality, whereas theatre decorations wants as much as possible to replace reality with its outward appearance [...]” An example of Realism that Bazin would surely appreciate is the way that Glen Canyon never successfully masquerades as the holy land in Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told -- the American desert southwest can’t be anything but itself.

2. Alternative history: if Bazin had lived and written for another ten years, Auteurism as we know it would simply not exist. The father/son combo of Bazin/Daney would be unstoppable.

3. For example, in Brenez’s book on Ferrara, Cat Chaser is briefly disposed of as unrecuperable; but listen to exactly why, it’s beautifully telling: “The polemical fiction promised by the nightmare prologue comes to be transformed into a sordid genre film.” In other words, not necessarily that the author has gone missing, but that the author one desires has gone missing, lost in the hell of genre. Genre is to auteurists what daylight is to vampires. They are children of the night.

4. So, for example, the Crank movies seem like natural VA material, but Gamer is already moving well and fatally into enriched territory. Christophe Gans would be classic VA/VB. Tarantino, the very paradigm of your enriched wonder bread man. 

There are some sentences buried in here that I liked. They made me question some of my assumptions a little, for a minute there. If they were all the piece consisted of, I would consider reading them again, and printing them out and taping them to my wall, and perhaps putting them in birthday and get-well and Chanukah cards for my fellow hard-leftist cinephile friends. But it is such a shame about all those other sentences that do things like compare filmmakers to Hitler, or don’t mean anything in particular but try to exude some spectral vapor in the general direction of a possible idea, or insistently use the word “puer,” which I can’t imagine anybody else ever looking at and thinking “You know, now that I think about it, I’ve really been giving short shrift to ‘puer,’ and should incorporate it more often into my communications with the outside world.”
Hitting the right buttons (tho no epithet/hashtag for Death of the Author?), but curious how you’d align all that with this (Leo Steinberg, 1968)— “But something happened in painting around 1950—most conspicuously (at least within my experience) in the work of Robert Rauschenberg and Dubuffet. We can still hang their pictures—just as we tack up maps and architectural plans, or nail a horseshoe to the wall for good luck. Yet these pictures no longer simulate vertical fields, but opaque flatbed horizontals. They no more depend on a head-to-toe correspondence with human posture than a newspaper does. ‘The flatbed picture plane makes its symbolic allusion to hard surfaces such as tabletops, studio floors, charts, bulletin boards—any receptor surface on which objects are scattered, on which data is entered, on which information may be received, printed, impressed—whether coherently or in confusion. The pictures of the last fifteen to twenty years insist on a radically new orientation, in which the painted surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature but of operational processes. To repeat: it is not the actual physical placement of the image that counts. There is no law against hanging a rug on a wall, or reproducing a narrative picture as a mosaic floor. What I have in mind is the psychic address of the image, its special mode of imaginative confrontation, and I tend to regard the tilt of the picture plane from vertical to horizontal as expressive of the most radical shift in the subject matter of art, the shift from nature to culture. …The all-purpose picture plane underlying this post-Modernist painting has made the course of art once again non-linear and unpredictable. What I have called the flatbed is more than a surface distinction if it is understood as a change within painting that changed the relationship between artist and image, image and viewer. Yet this internal change is no more than a symptom of changes which go far beyond questions of picture planes, or of painting as such. It is part of a shakeup which contaminates all purified categories. The deepening inroads of art into non-art continue to alienate the connoisseur as art defects and departs into strange territories leaving the old stand-by criteria to rule an eroding plain."
David: That story about the history of art being also the history of ever improving mimesis always begs the question — but why ever make images of stuff that exists? It’s totally idiotic if you stop even for a second to think about it, like, in a “scientific” way. It only makes sense if you believe that making an image of something either gives you power over that thing (like the santo you can bury in the field until it intercedes to facilitate your bidding) or is a fetish for your own power that you displace and liberate into the fetish object so then it can be transferred back to you. In other words, images are always about magical thinking. And images “of nature” are really images “of culture” in disguise. And vice versa. Back to the “art world” for a second — is the connoisseur really alienated by the post-duchampian carnivalesque? Are they confused by the people coming to bathe in the eyes of Marina Abramovic? I’d say no because they know that the pilgrimage structure of the faithful to the art (religious) event is still solid. It’s AMMA for the downtown set. It’s an emblemating art work for the moment. The genius of the thing is that the artist diffuses her power by seemingly making the art experience about the co-participant, and it doesn’t hurt that the event can be reproduced and be fertile. The thing seems totally ripe for parody. Now what strikes me as unique about the digital-as-carnival right now — is that it is TRULY a disorienting or carnivalesque experience — a border-crossing situation that has a potential for interesting creative tensions between official art and private idiosyncratic imagemaking. The moment may not last, naturally.
“Auteurism 2.0 is the Movie / Screen Oudartian structuralist juju.” I stopped at this sentence. Uncas, have you ever read an issue of MOVIE from anytime between 1962 and now? Are you aware that they were opposed to “the ideology of SCREEN” (that was the title of a massive Andrew Britton article they published in the 70s), which explicitly takes Jean-Pierre Oudart’s suture theory to task? Also, with Oudart & company, we are already beyond ‘structuralism’ per se. It helps to get these historical things right if you’re going to spray polemic everywhere. I felt like I was re-reading Chris Dumas’ De Palma book, oh the horror !
Mon cher Adrian: You’re right. That IS a grotesque conflation. It will certainly be fixed or explained away by my editors after my death at the hands of my enemies. These are busy times and every one needs reasons to stop reading. Unlike other authors, I am happy to provide them, as part of a delegitimization strategy. If you should continue to read, I’m sure you will find the others.
Absolutely, Uncas. Never let a bit of serious reading get in the way of a delegitimisation strategy!
Adrian: Here’s my advice in exchange (being momentarily very serious)…instead of dealing with these glib distortions on a case-by-case basis on the internet (a fools errand, as you well know) — you should write the definitive “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” of the 70s Theory Wars. You are the very man to do it! I wlll buy a copy, and I will read it. I’ve a sixth sense about these things. Ask anyone.
Uncas – thanks for the thought-provoking article. I’ve enjoyably read through this piece a few times by now. In my not-that-scholarly opinion, I’ve always thought of auteurism in relation to Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday life – in other words, Art is what happens when you are busy doing something else. The early auteur studies appeared to pursue this. And since then, in general, film studies, as analyst, pores over the case history of a filmmaker, who may or may not have any interest in receiving analysis in the fear that, like a tightrope walker, thinking too much about you are doing will make you stumble. Both sides to me have a valid attitude, albiet towards very different goals. One is studying current strains of culture and ideology transformed through a subject’s actual everyday activities, and the other is trying to produce (often for a living) in the midst of each day’s consuming obstacle-overcoming. The filmmaker doesn’t “need” analysis to act, but then again critical work does provide a larger viewpoint with which to understand and appreciate the multiple layers of culture inherent in everyday actions. The problem (I think this is your gist) comes when when the subject, after listening to the analyst, begins to fake “Freudian slips.” Too many “Important” films fall into this category – and every “canon” director has made at least one. To me, attempting to manage all the levels of possible meaning that your work might contain ends up an attempt to eliminate the “unknown” within it – a way of turning on all the lights in the house to “know” what is going on. But that “unknown” is the very area that the reader could join you in the process of breathing life into the work. A “fake Freudian slip” film essentially no longer requires an audience. It is only concerned with talking about itself. And it now seems like the massive amount of “image management” that the Internet has introduced into our lives only exacerbates this tendency. Is the “vulgarness” you champion a refinding of a lack of control? Is the question how to plan how not to have a plan? But despite the expanse of digital horizons, it doesn’t seem to me as if film, Art, or any of our media is headed towards less control, but rather towards a greater (and now global) centralization . We can be cinematic explorers, as filmmakers or critics, but we are more and more like astronauts tethered to mission control. Will we be unable to return home if we cut loose?
Eddy: I think that everything you’ve written is pretty much on the money. Artists will always solve their freedom issues, somehow, on the fly. The “problem” (if it is a problem) seems more on the audience’s end — they are using art in more proximate ways, ways which almost make the “artist” irrelevant. Yet another reason for the demise of the Auteur-image. If the internet fosters other-directed “art” — art that tends towards the slogan, the image-slogan, the robo-riff, originality/novelty will register first as noise in the system. Eventually (rather quickly in the hall of mirrors) the defamiliarized becomes a commonplace. Consumers are paradoxically very savvy and jaded — choice stupefies — and they will seek out comforting interactive channels that will be managed outside of the traditional aesthetic categories. The new meaning of “popular art” will be that which drives the public deeper into solipcism. Or not. With every new proletarianization come fresh opportunities to break out of the groove.
Perhaps authenticity isn’t the best yardstick with which to beat a pseudonym. Uncas—Abramovic: think the metahistory here is the manufactured aura of staring the sage of conceptual art in the face against the zeitgeist clichés that teens can’t pay attention for longer than a click, that everyone, faces buried in phones, is forsaking physical reality for virtual shadowlands. When you accept the clichés, the stock of the most common glances will of course be overvalued, as slowness tends to be by film critics: the genius, as always is the genius of blockbuster shows from King Tut on, is negotiating unreflective non-art for the masses with all that aura of rarity. Only one person can do it at once time and place; anybody can do it anywhere, any time. But my question was how your declaration about digital woof-and-warp is or isn’t so far from Steinberg’s declaration in 1968 about recent art: the flatness; the shift from (Bazinian) ontology of content beyond the medium itself. Not a question of representation per se or even Nature—lazy term—in sense of flowers and trees, but as a new art that is no longer a reproduction of othered content, but itself an infinitely reproducible reproduction, itself depicting little more than its own production. Think Steinberg is intuiting that the supposed chasm between abstract expressionism and pop might be bridged here quite easily through Johns: the art can only depict what is intrinsic to its medium, and by pop, only extend factory/consumer/military industrial production from which such principles arise… Art as a continuation of manmade processes that no longer process anything than their own images—hence the exclusion of all things “natural.” In many ways the vulgar auteurism you’re talking about, while extending somewhere from your Scott/Richter thesis way back, seems a lot closer to work Ken Jacobs is doing with digital with open inspiration from Ab Exers than, say, Paul W.S. Anderson, who probably has the cleanest sense of lines since Lang. Saying that Nature can ever stand for itself seems dubious at best (Adorno: “Nature, as something beautiful, cannot be copied. For natural beauty as something that appears is itself image. Its portrayal is a tautology that, by objectifying what appears, eliminates it.”), but saying that Culture stands for itself seems like the entire point. I wonder if you’re not attacking Vulgar Auteurism for its Warhol side and lauding it for its abstract expressionist side—my question is how the qualities you’re describing and perhaps fantasizing are significantly (signifyingly) different from, say, Rauschenberg, Johns, even Pollock… I chose the Steinberg essay almost randomly, because I like him, but Greenberg or Shapiro probably would have been as good.
David: It’s not a pseudonym. It’s a heteronym. Which makes it totally authentic!! I feel like I’m probably going to fail to answer the question again. But I’ll try. First off, I think that despite the obvious marketability of such a “new situation”, Nature is not so easily disposed of, even & especially if its a fiction. It’s the heavyweight champ paradigm of human history. Does human culture even exist without opposition to the “Itself” of Nature? Nature is Change, Terror, Fate and Death. All things that we struggle collectively against. That’s Bazin and the mummies, right? Art/Tekhne is a struggle against Nature. You might need to change the name of that thing (to something more ecologically stupefying, like maybe Giant Speedy Kung Fu Panda, perhaps) but you’ll still have IT around, at least as weather disaster porn and the heat death of the sun. It’s a very useful way to harness human energies for production. And we’re still using that abstraction in our neo-colonialist Johnny Quest to save the planet (that is, ourselves in the first world) from our former, more primitive selves in the third world. At the very least, we’ll continue to be totally schizophrenic in our thinking about Nature. For me what’s crucial about “old art” is its destructibility and/or perishabililty. Art is our double; that’s why its a great loss to lose the reminding metaphor of (movie) projection, it’s what Cherchi-Usai says: everytime you watch a movie you have to destroy it a little bit. That scarring, sometimes fatal, is the essence of art. Museums have to spend lots of money on bullet proof glass and citadels of textual material written by professional theorists to protect the art from potential iconoclasts who want to get “closer” to the art a la Temple of the Golden Pavillion. Right now cultural material in digital form has reached its ultimate potential — its no longer “like a currency” — it IS currency. That’s why revisiting even good modernist ideas about art seems totally pointless to me (I’m sure I can be talked out of it) Steinberg is fine, but he’s talking about what is now a historical situation. Its time to take Benjamin seriously. Lets look at what happens when the “materials” of art are simplified down to speed and light. How is novelty produced with these slippery qualities in the totalitarian sausage-casing of the digital. Now if anything is art-like and perishable in this moment, its probably networks, the network which coalesces around a hybrid of cultural and social activity, lives out its life span and then becomes an artifact, a ghost town, a sign not necessarily of failure per se, but of organic processes in the evolution of these hybrids. The new perishability. Now back to Vulgar Auteurism. Its valuable less as a meaningful rational concept, but more in its oxymoronic glory. Its the paradox of the moment. Vulgar never meant taste, even when it did. It meant close. It meant proximate. And Auteurism means Cultic, which means Distant. I honestly don’t have a way in which electronic images SHOULD proceed. Like everyone else, I’m just curious to see. I’ve tended to focus on the AbEx side of it (for me Pop/Warhol is AbEx with “real” images (maybe that is what Steinberg is saying — musique concrete as opposed to the Schoenberg of rad-trad AbEx) because its the most visible, emblematic part of the equation. One could easily turn the thing around and say digitality is about the hyper-real (Zidane, Post Tenebras Lux, 60P) that is, about de-familiarization through saturation of detail. There is more than one way to embrace this particular paradox.
I want to go on the record as saying that I find this essay completely incomprehensible, but that I really do feel it’s because I’m just not well-versed enough in theory to understand it. I think if I had read my Delueze and Guattari and Lacan, etc. I would have really enjoyed this. But I didn’t, so I can’t. Like I said, this has nothing to do with Uncas or his style or his complete lack of concern whether or not punters like me can understand what he’s talking about. This is all on me. It sounds like it’s a very interesting essay, though.
the only thing “vulgar” about VA is the copious bucketfuls of sweat expelled in the production of maximal snark and incomprehensibility.

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