Fast & Furious & Elegant: Justin Lin and the Vulgar Auteurs
Thursday, May 23, 2013 at 4 a.m.
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.
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.
Justin Lin may be a Hollywood director working in a popular mold, but close readings of his films makes it clear that he is imparting a personal imprint. His Tokyo Drift configures Japan as a fully realized, lived-in space visited by an outsider, the film's sense of dislocation not unlike Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. Fast Five, likewise, imagines Brazil as a multicultural mecca, and it remains one of the precious few Hollywood blockbusters to wholly embrace the racial diversity of its cast. These are valuable elements of films that have been widely dismissed as vacuous and trashy. Vulgar auteurism means respecting such films enough to give them the careful evaluation they deserve.
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. Much like the Young Turks of the French New Wave, who aimed in their Cahiers du cinéma writing to bring critical appreciation to Hollywood filmmakers widely considered unworthy—and from Alfred Hitchcock to Samuel Fuller, their efforts have since been vindicated by history—it is the task of the vulgar auteurists to find the value buried in films we otherwise think of as trashy, unsophisticated, or obscene.