Fast & Furious & Elegant: Justin Lin and the Vulgar Auteurs

Fast & Furious & Elegant: Justin Lin and the Vulgar Auteurs

Justin Lin may strike some as out of place in the pantheon of contemporary auteurs. The Taiwanese-born American filmmaker, best known for having directed Fast Five and its sequel, Fast & Furious 6, makes unabashedly populist blockbusters for mainstream audiences—hardly the purview of a "serious" artist.

His films, wafer thin in narrative and thematic conception, concern themselves principally with street racing and bank heists. His camera, more functional than expressive, remains trained on glistening bodies and the expensive cars they drive, his highest aspirations clarity and expediency. And the dialogue, scripted now three times by Cellular's Chris Morgan, is delivered in short expository bursts and winking one-liners, an action movie's bread-and-butter. In an exchange typical of Fast Five, U.S. Marshall Hobbs (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) tells a local police chief that he needs two things to get the job done: "One: I need a translator." And what, the chief responds on cue, is the second thing? "Stay the fuck out of my way."

For all their narrative clunkiness, Justin Lin's films have a striking formal elegance. His four Fast films, in particular, forgo the frenetic rhythms and incomprehensible editing that have come to define the last decade-plus of action cinema, opting instead for clean lines, simple compositions, and a deftly conveyed sense of visual space. In set pieces he values lucidity over noise and disorder, presenting even the wildest spectacles—including hauling a four-ton vault through the streets of Rio or swiping luxury cars from the side of a moving train—as refreshingly legible. The refinement with which he presents his films about professionals and platonic relationships is veritably Hawksian. Lin approaches filmmaking like street racing: Efficiency and control are not substitutes for style—they are it.

Filmmakers like Justin Lin, who, despite an obvious formal command and distinctive directorial voice, are rarely discussed in a serious way.
Filmmakers like Justin Lin, who, despite an obvious formal command and distinctive directorial voice, are rarely discussed in a serious way.

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.

Vulgar Auteurism proposes that despite their commercial intentions and frequent lowbrow sensibility, such filmmakers deserve to be regarded as artists producing coherent bodies of work. It calls for critics to evaluate a film like Fast Five with the same care and attention to style or motifs as one would with a film like Holy Motors. Much as we are willing now to treat the films of commercial craftsmen like John Ford and Howard Hawks as works of bona fide art, perhaps we ought to embrace the best contemporary mainstream craftsmen and to recognize the personal value in art made for a mass audience.

Vulgar Auteurism values work traditionally neglected by critics and academics, championing multiplex hits like Lin's and also low-budget genre fare, B-movies, action blockbusters, slashers. Instead of Michael Haneke, Wong Kar-wai, or Terrence Malick, it hails Tony Scott, Michael Mann, and John McTiernan. Last September, when most critics were busy unpacking Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, vulgar auteur Paul W.S. Anderson gave us Resident Evil: Retribution, an intriguing film about identity and representation (and zombies).

Though it can sometimes seem unduly contrarian, vulgar auteurism is not about rejecting the old guard in favor of some frivolous new; this is not a project founded on nonconformity for its own sake. It isn't about reevaluating work that's underrated so much as finally thinking seriously about work that isn't thought about much at all. The problem it aims to correct isn't that good movies have been called bad, but that interesting movies have been ignored. At its heart, the intentions of vulgar auteurism are pure: to treat "unserious" cinema seriously. That is a noble pursuit.

Like many loose-knit movements, few within it would describe themselves as adherents. But it only requires thinking critically about films that might not lend themselves so readily to the effort. Vulgar auteurism recognizes Miami Vice and Predator as potential masterpieces. In Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's piece on the late Tony Scott for the MUBI Notebook, Déjà Vu is explored in terms of impressionism and abstraction; he calls Scott "a painterly filmmaker: at first an expressionist—prone to outsize lighting schemes and camera movements—with Pop Art tendencies, and later an impressionist whose style was more abstract than figurative."

As part of Cinema Scope's special issue celebrating the Top 50 filmmakers under 50, Adam Nayman praises the "satirical sharpness and Rabelaisian extremity" of Neveldine/Taylor, the duo behind the Jason Statham action vehicle Crank, declaring them "tacky masters of the juvenile and the Juvenalian." A filmmaker like Michael Bay may not be great or even under-appreciated, but his body of work is singular and distinctive enough to be worth thinking about as a whole. If the purpose of auteurism is to study artists whose films display consistent stylistic and thematic qualities—filmmakers with a clear sensibility, in other words—then the purpose of vulgar auteurism is to apply this same approach to artists making less obviously personal or "pure" work.

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I believe decades ago these modern day action directors would be described by the far more accurate phrase 'talented hacks'. Someone directs an action sequence or series of where a viewer can surmise what is going on and they're suddenly maligned artists? These are directors for hire: Lin's Fast series makes money, end of story. McTiernan's Predator & 1st Die Hard were well made genre films; Tony Scott could've made them, no beat skipped. Mann has a personalized point of view, skill, ability to slow down narrative but a problem with natural sounding dialogue, though I don't hang around with criminals or cops. Miami Vice was critically maligned in some circles for 2 reasons: lack of irony towards its 80's TV counterpart & something Anuj touched upon, the lack of blockbuster box office numbers combined with internet movie review blogging proclaiming something an artistic failure based upon its financial success (the Heaven's Gate syndrome). I remember in '91 seeing The Last Boy Scout with a buddy at Christmas: everything blew up real good & slick; it was enjoyable on its own terms. It was deemed a failure. Why? Numbers. It was the SAME type of formula action film Scott had made since Top Gun, with a darker more cynical tone (perfect for the holidays). It's just that nowadays Tony Scott flash looks like restraint next to Michael Bay's hyperactive incomprehensibility.  Seeing The Master last fall reminded me that films with this deliberate pacing would not appeal to the gamer/comic book/mall culture that are now running Hollywood. There are too many remakes to remake.

Anuj 1 Like

'It's important to recall that the "vulgar" part of vulgar auteurism doesn't refer to crudeness, but to commonality; it argues against the notion that the only films worth talking about are those designed for an arthouse audience.'

Film criticism as well as larger discourse around film itself has addressed this issue around seventy years ago. It seems the only novelty here resides in nomenclature, not in approach, for if you wish to apply the tenets of auteurism (which at any rate, this new front presupposes is a perfect approach and therefore, can safely be used as a foundation to sprout another tentacle on its body) to directors who are usually thought of as trashy, overtly mainstream, makers of enfranchised films or directors-for-hire, why do you even need a new term? What you state in the excerpt above is so obvious that that it needs to be stated in 2013 is strange in itself. Why? Because the gist of the present affair is: 'Take every movie seriously, for it may reveal conscious design/merit.' The fact is, every serious critic already knows it. Unfortunately, vulgar auteurism, even if inadvertently, seems to rally against the callous approach of only tabloid reviewers/mainstream journalists who function through fixed prisms of judgment (all arthouse is great, all mainstream is bad, etc.) In that, it is preaching to the converted, or to the deaf.


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