Credit: Paramount Pictures

When Everything is Reclaimed: Isn’t All Auteurism Vulgar?

Blaise Radley

Imagine, if you can, a film beyond the realms of reclamation. The photography neither symmetrical enough to appease “One Perfect Shot” fetishists nor consciously ugly enough to sate the ascetic wants of the avant-garde. The budget not low enough to be applauded as bootstrap-pulling nor high enough to be vouched for as unfairly disregarded. And, most importantly, featuring no ageing, esteemed director around whom die-hard fans can rally screaming “late style!” 

Where reclamation once only applied to uplifting overlooked outings from fringe filmmakers, now the most common subjects of reclamation are works of popular cinema. It’s telling that few filmmakers have been subject to more reevaluations than Michael Bay, patron saint of maximalist action and diametrically opposed critic-to-audience scores. Once described as “the crassest hack in the business” by Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, Bay is a director who inspires snobbish revulsion with the same ease that he generates yearly reappraisals. Even this publication venerated him in Volume 1. Regardless of his merit as a filmmaker, he’s become a poster child for unthinking poptimism. 

Bay’s qualities have been subject to relitigation even before Roger Ebert proclaimed Armageddon (1998) “an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense and the human desire to be entertained”, but his modern critical standing can be traced back to the vulgar auteur movement of the early 2010s. As defined by Callum Marsh in his foundational piece on the movement, vulgar auteurists sought to bring new attention to “unfairly maligned or under-discussed filmmakers working exclusively in a popular mode”. The intention was to widen the scope of contemporary criticism to include serious engagement with oft-dismissed genre filmmakers, particularly those with large bodies of mainstream work such as Tony Scott, Michael Mann, John McTiernan, and our beloved Bay. As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky put it, “Vulgar auteurism is about expansion, not rejection.”

Much like late-stage capitalism and the inevitable heat death of the universe, however, constant expansion isn’t always a good thing. The need to find ever more unlikely works to place under a magnifying glass has created a quagmire of zero sum discourse, where no film is bland enough to be ignored. A movie is scarcely released to bemused shrugs than it is reclaimed on social media; the vapid steadicam soirée of Babylon (2022, Chazelle) redeemed in a procession of four screenshot Twitter posts the moment it hit VOD. Ironically, the rabid defence of major studio releases now carries the same underdog ethos as independent filmmaking. Stating that an archetypally milquetoast studio release like The Menu (2022, Mylod) lacked artistic value is reframed as mean-spirited by Anya Taylor-Joy stans and Ali G Indahouse (2002, Mylod) apologists. God forbid anyone hurt the feelings of some entertainment executive, mopping up their adrenochrome tears with crisp dollar bills. 

That’s not to say the canonisation of Bay et al is the problem. Rather, it’s the symptom. When auteur theory was first proposed by the critics at Cahiers du Cinéma, it was intended as a rebuttal to the readiness with which contemporary studio directors like Hitchcock, Hawks, and Ford were overlooked, reframing their expansive filmographies as cohesive artistic statements. By segregating modern mainstream auteurs as vulgar—a term Marsh intended to indicate commonality rather than lack of taste—the floodgates have been opened for all manner of tripe with no visible creative fingerprint to be granted armistice. We’ve reached a status quo where a film like Tron: Legacy (2010, Kosinksi), disregarded by critics and ignored by audiences, isn’t just the subject of cultish fandom—it’s garnered enough cultural cache for a direct sequel to enter production over a decade later. Meanwhile, its for-hire director just released a Netflix bomb and Best Picture contender in the same year. 

The point remains that so-called vulgar auteurs are auteurs by any other name. Certainly Bay is. His signature style—dynamic camera movement accentuated by quick cuts, a complex, layered mise-en-scène, and a penchant for telephoto lenses that compress the foreground and background—is present in nearly every frame, regardless of whether he’s shooting dialogue or action. In the mode of Kafka or Dickens, Bay has even lent his name to a superlative adjective, the “Bayhem” of his constantly escalating shoot-outs standing tall amongst countless imitators. What sets Bay’s work apart is a pervasive misanthropy that fundamentally complicates our enjoyment of his bloody fireworks displays, from the barely-blinked-at civilian body count of Bad Boys II (2002) to the loud-mouthed burlesque of the American dream in Pain and Gain (2014). Good or bad, it’s this internal conflict that makes Bay worthy of such repeated analyses. 

Therein we find the misapprehension that set this critical framework in motion: that to be called an auteur is to be given a stamp of approval, and therefore auteurs who focus on “lowly” genre fare must be delineated and separated from their well-esteemed arthouse cousins. Since “vulgar” has been poorly defined, it’s as liable to be used to describe a shoestring-budget direct-to-streaming B-movie as it is the explosion pornography of Bay. It carries with it a sense of guilt on the part of the viewer, implying that the film in question can’t stand up to the scrutiny of traditional study. Moreover, it suggests that any opposition is narrow-minded or somehow punching down, even when the film in question is a multimillion dollar product. The remit of reclamation has been extended beyond elevating maligned works to avidly defending blockbusters from any dissent, a rhetorical imperative premised solely on the “Let people enjoy things” meme.

It’s no coincidence that the ceaseless reclamation of mainstream cinema has occurred during the largest stylistic drought in Hollywood history. When auteurism was first proposed, auteurs were noted for their ability to break from the house styles of each studio; Paramount’s arty, sophisticated dramas; Warner Bros’ cheap, flatly-lit weepies. Eighty years on, and the autocratic regimes of Netflix and Disney have changed the industry prerogative from filmmaking to content creation, where blanket coverage is king and quantity is quality. Netflix openly specifies that “90% of a program’s final total runtime be captured on approved cameras using the following capture requirements”. Suddenly, style breaks of any kind have become a rare commodity. 

Anyone who’s seen an effects-heavy picture in the past decade implicitly recognises the predominant style of this cinematic era; every film shot in a series of medium wides and medium close-ups that lack any compositional intent or thoughtful lighting, blocking reduced to ensuring actors are somewhat visible when the CGI hangover descends. The Post-Whedon blockbuster isn’t only bloated with quips, it’s televisual. Against such competition, Bay’s set pieces, once demonised as everything wrong with the trajectory of American filmmaking, stand out as statements of craft that are as influential as they are idiosyncratic. His 360-degree hero shots—in which the camera rotates on a fixed axis around a focal point as the character(s) break through the frame vertically, staring into the middle distance—have been parodied, paid tribute to, and straight up ripped off. What’s more, his style is constantly evolving to meet the new scope of digital production techniques.

Much has been made of Bay’s ballet of dive-bombing drones and multi-perspective car rolls in AmbuLAnce (2022), but his most obvious refutation of predominant style remains Transformers: The Last Knight (2017). The set piece that ends the first act—one that, in a characteristic moment of self-aware commentary, starts out in a junkyard—features a short scene where two giant robotic dinosaurs burst out of the tarmac in slow-motion, flipping a series of military vehicles in the process. Bay cuts rapidly between a helicopter perspective shot, a fixed-camera-angle behind the turret of a gun mounted on one of the cars, a close-up from inside a vehicle, and a handful of medium wides of the chaos (some low angle, some high), all at different speeds, all shot on different cameras, all in different aspect ratios. Like it or not, Bay’s work carries a consistent intention behind every spray of dust and sparking exhaust.

It’s the clarity with which that intention shines through in a tentpole production that makes Bay’s work worthy of reclamation, rather than a generalised poptimism. And yet, anything that deviates from predominant style is now read as worthy of aggrandisement, making zealots out of every strand of cinephilia. The “arms wide open” philosophy of vulgar auteurism has been sullied, and enjoying Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022, Daniels) is no longer optional. The Daniels’ exaggerated rendition of predominant style, delivered in the same register as Marvel albeit with the mild flare of a mid-00s music video, has won them immense plaudits, both on the awards circuit and with their legions of sausage-fingered social media stans. That one half of the Daniels ended up reprimanding the more pernicious elements of their fanbase speaks to their bemusing vehemence. No-one gets angrier about the implication that their taste is shallow than the modern Hollywood glutton. 

When Andrew Tracy coined the term vulgar auteurism in his 2009 article, “Vulgar Auteurism: The Case of Michael Mann”, the usage was explicitly pejorative. As he put it, “[Vulgar auteurism] is one of the defining traits of latter-day cinephilia, with whole fleets of past and present studio craftsmen, from the competent to the questionable, being elevated high above their stations.” There’s an irony that even the concept of vulgar auteurism itself has been reclaimed, especially since its initial usage speaks so specifically to our current situation. The purpose of vulgar auteurism was never to insulate pop culture from critique—quite the opposite. Even the most fervent Bay-head would acknowledge his potential shortcomings as a filmmaker; his puerile visual humour, his constant leering at women, his exhausting maximalist-at-all-costs style. But it’s those same recurring facets that make him worthy of discussion. 

The vulgar auteurist’s reclamation of Bay & Co may have been valuable in drawing academic attention to otherwise vilified filmmakers, but it simultaneously reduced the cultural conversation to “Is X good or bad?”, limiting the critical apparatus at play. Rather than indicating that all mainstream media is worthy of reevaluation, Bay is one of the few exceptions that proves the rule: that contemporary popular cinema is an artistically-bereft, producer-driven crapshoot. Instead of meeting films on their own terms, vulgar auteurism’s descendents demand that rushed studio products be met with all-inclusive praise, words like “fun” and “entertaining” acting as unimpeachable rebuttals. It’s a stance that only raises the value of the work to elevate the individual, turning cinema into an extension of ego. Fortunately, the lesson for any nascent reclaimer is simple. The next time you encounter someone who doesn’t like the latest two star big-budget misfire, try bringing yourself down to its level rather than lifting it to yours. You might find the elevation difference isn’t as big as you thought.