Army of Milla: Resident Evil and Modern Auteurism

Part Three: Resident Evil and Classical Auteurism
“This is one of the problems in resolving arguments between auteurists and anti-auteurists: the two sides can never agree entirely on what is good and what is bad.”
— Andrew Sarris, “The Auteur Theory Revisted”
The first part of this series looked at the notion of Vulgar Auteurism, a loose accumulation of ideas and attitudes that have become increasingly controversial in the internet film critic community over the past year or so. I have some reservations about the movement, if such an amorphous body can even be called that, namely its potential over-emphasis on formalism and complications arising from the self-applied word ‘Vulgar” (itself a repurposed pejorative, used initially, as far as anyone can tell, in a negative context by the critic Andrew Tracy in a Cinema Scope piece on Michael Mann, excerpts of which have been reposted in the wake of the clamorous twitter controversy stoked by Calum Marsh’s use of the concept in his Village Voice review of the latest Fast & Furious movie a couple weeks ago), which is both ahistorical (because auteurism has always examined the “vulgar”) and self-contradictory, because it accepts the high-low division of art it ostensibly is opposing.
These reservations in side, I wanted to see the theory in action, so for the second part of this series I decided to look at the work of Paul WS Anderson, specifically his Resident Evil films, of which he has, so far, written five and directed three, in the hopes of uncovering an auteur hidden in the ghetto of a ghetto, the video game adaptation subset of the action movie genre. What I found was a clean visual style, skillful action editing, and a referential approach to genre cinema, one that relies on twisting and repurposing many of the films and tropes of the past 50 years, which, along with the films’ approach to their characters as fungible and disposable, creates a coherent, if paranoid picture of the late-capitalist, digital world. The question remains, though, is that enough to call Anderson an auteur? Is a distinct visual style combined with recurrent thematic concerns all it takes to earn that label? And if so, does that mean the Resident Evil films are, for lack of a better word, good?
To try to answer these questions, I’d like to return to Andrew Sarris and the founding documents of auteur theory. Now, Sarris was not Moses and The American Cinema is not holy scripture (though it can seem that way when described by some of its early adherents). In fact, written into the very DNA of the theory is the fact that it is never complete, that there is never a final word, that everything is always a subject for further research, including the nature of the theory itself. And it may very well be the case that the Vulgar Auteurists are not thinking specifically of Sarris’s ideas or methods at all, but some other formulation of the theory (like François Truffaut’s or Peter Wollen’s) or maybe not even Auteurism at all, that they could just as easily be Vulgar Formalism or Vulgar Lacanianism or whatever else happened to catch the ear and stick. I do think that there is value to be gained by examining Anderson through the lens of Sarris’s method, however, even if it ends up helping me understand Sarris more than it helps me understand Mubi.
In Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962, Sarris lays out the three general premises of the auteur theory. The quality of the film and its director will depend on which, if any, of these three criteria of value they meet. The first is the technical skill of the director:

A badly directed or undirected film has no importance in the critical scale of values, but one can make interesting conversation about the subject, the script, the acting, the color, the photography, the editing, the music, the costumes, the decor, etc. That is the nature of the medium. You always get more for your money than mere art. Now, by the auteur theory, if a director has no technical competence, no elementary flair for the cinema, he is automatically cast out from the pantheon of directors. A great director has to at least be a good director.

Here we hit a snag in the case of a writer-director like Paul WS Anderson. Sarris was writing during the late studio era, hoping to promote directors who stood out under the mass production conditions then at play, where the director had relatively little control over the various other crafts involved in the production of a motion picture (though that can be overstated: Hitchcock, Hawks and Ford, for example, were very rarely directors for hire with no say in the construction of the scripts they filmed). But 50 years later, the studio system seems an aberration, a mere blip in the history of cinema. In the modern era, films are assembled from the ground up, with the director often involved in every step of the process. This is not always the case, of course, but typically a director has more power over the total shape of a film now than they did then. With a director who writes their own films, one can hardly separate the script from an evaluation of their work as a potential auteur. And in Anderson’s case, his scripts are uniformly weak. While their very genericness may be spun as a virtue, or at least seen neutrally as an elegant structure allowing a wide latitude for cinematic play, it’s harder to justify his dialogue, which is functional at best and at worst, as in his Three Musketeers adaptation, sounds like a greatest hits mix of 80s action movie clichés. Additionally, his Resident Evil films are plagued by long stretches of exposition, growing longer with each successive film, most notoriously a ten minute break in the action of the fifth movie, which, following a spectacular opening shot and beautifully styled action sequence, brings the film’s momentum to a crashing halt. So, while his technical skill as a visual director is impressive, the fact that he is unable to create convincing dialogue puts into question whether or not he meets this requirement.
Sarris’s second criterion of value is the distinguishable personality of the director. It is this premise that tends to be conflated with the theory as a whole, and as well is often the most misunderstood. To put it simply: all other things being equal, the personal film is the better film. Given the choice between two equally terrible (or mediocre, or great) movies, the film that expresses something personal to its creator is the superior work, because personal expression is a value in art in and of itself. Auteurism as a method is an attempt to discover an auteur’s personality by looking at as much of their work as possible, and in as many different ways, sifting through the influences of studio, genre and collaborators to find the auteur’s core vision of the world. It is always in search of more evidence, and this is its most noble attribute: Auteurism is always open-minded.
Again, however, Sarris conceives of this personal core in visual terms due to the production standards of his time: “Because so much of the American cinema is commissioned, a director is forced to express his personality through the visual treatment of the material rather than the literary content of the material.” This partly serves as a justification for examining “vulgar” content: if it’s only the visual form that the Auteurist is interested in, the quality of the subject or its verbal and narrative expression is irrelevant. But it also serves the polemical purpose of forcing the critic to examine a film in visual terms, to look at the totality of the cinematic product rather than focus on its more literary aspects. Americans, even professional film critics, are reasonably well-trained at analyzing plots and themes and subjects, while often lacking much more than a rudimentary understanding of visual aesthetics. In conceiving of directorial personality as primarily a visual expression, Auteurism seeks to redress that imbalance, to create a criticism of the totality of a film. It is somewhat disheartening, then, to see auteur status so often defined as simply coming from the repeated exploration of certain themes and subjects. For this reason, the Vulgar Auteurist’s focus on form over content is a welcome addition to the critical discourse. But, as Sarris wrote “Auteur criticism is a reaction against sociological criticism that enthroned the what against the how. However, it would be equally fallacious to enthrone the howagainst the what. The whole point of a meaningful style is that it unifies the whatand the how into a personal statement.”
It is unclear to me, at this time, if Paul WS Anderson meets this second criterion of value. There are recurrent visual schemes in his work, specifically in the cleanliness of his action editing and his placement of individuals within spaces both vast and small, each conveying a sense of entrapment. However, his Death Racemovie has none of the visual charm of his other 2000s movies, exchanging bright whites and vibrant colors for a dingy sepia-gray. As a writer, he consistently shows a suspicion of power figures, with a paranoid vision of corporations run amok pulling the strings of his victim protagonists. And he also evinces an unusual interest in mixing his generic forebearers, as in the way his Resident Evil films each seem to have a model in a previous example of action cinema, or the way he grafts steampunk onto Dumas, or modern conspiracy theories about Egyptian and Central American religious architecture onto the mythology of a pair of 80s sci-fi series. But these preoccupations lie only on the surface of his films. They are nods to meaning rather than explorations of ideas. Anderson skillfully reflects the shiny surface of post-modernity, but doesn’t seem interested, as yet, in diving into its depths. The last Resident Evil movie, however, which twists the series upon itself in new and unusual ways, shows that he may be preparing to plunge.
The third criterion of value Sarris delineates is the most mysterious and the most troublesome. He calls it “interior meaning” which is vague enough, but then ascribes to it the even vaguer concept of mise-en-scène, which he unhelpfully defines as the indefinable quality a great director gives to their picture, the “Lubitsch Touch” as a critical concept. As best as I can figure, the third premise is a relational one. Sarris talks about it lying in the tension between a filmmaker and their subject, which opens up a few possibilities. Interior meaning could be described as the difference between a kung fu movie directed by Chang Cheh and a kung fu movie directed by Lau Kar-leung: find the differences and you find the special something each director brought to their otherwise generic, vulgar material. I don’t think Anderson meets this standard, because I don’t see much tension between him and his material. He has at times approached a transcendent visual artistry (the opening sequences of the fifth Resident Evil film come to mind), but too often his film evince little more than above-average action filmmaking. His paranoia is relatively common in science-fiction and so rather than creating a unique and personal vision of the world, Anderson’s films can more rightly be described as competent treading of well-worn terrain. His last few movies, however, show potential, and so I’m unwilling to write Anderson off as an impersonal filmmaker. Perhaps he has it in him to perform the auteurial jujitsu necessary to turn the generic qualities of his movies into virtues, into a truly compelling and original statement about the world and/or the cinema itself, merging the blankness and fungibility of his characters with the schematic structures of their worlds and the interchangeability of their dialogue to say something truly meaningful. But I don’t think he’s made that complete a filmic statement yet.
And so we are led back to the question of evaluation. Is Paul WS Anderson an auteur, and are his movies any good and are these questions related? My answers are not quite, sometimes, and yes and no. A more formalist critic than me might have different answers to those questions, but I remain unconvinced that the flaws in Anderson’s approach to story, dialogue and character can be compensated for by a facility for coherent action and cleanliness of visual space. In two separate reviews, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky refers to Anderson as “unpretentious” (of Resident Evil 5 at Mubi and of Soldier at the AV Club), which is both true and another way of saying his movies aren’t very deep because he isn’t trying to be deep. There’s nothing wrong with that as far as it goes, the problem is that it doesn’t go very far. But Auteurism isn’t a binary system, where a director either has “it” or doesn’t. Sarris’s conception of film history in The American Cinema is of an auteurial spectrum, with the greatest directors, the ones who have most fulfilled the premises of the auteur theory, in the Pantheon at the top with a descending series of lesser categories below them (the categories are loosely designed, more an organizing principle than anything else, but still a useful construct for elucidating differences between types of filmmakers). If Anderson’s chief virtue is that his films are enjoyable and unpretentious, then he belongs in the Lightly Likable category, the denizens of which Sarris describes as “talented but uneven directors with the saving grace of being unpretentious.” Some of the directors in this category include Henry Hathaway, George Sidney, Mitchell Leisen, Mervyn LeRoy, Busby Berkeley, Michael Curtiz and Delmer Daves. Not bad company at all (some of them I’d place even higher, naturally) and certainly a group held in greater esteem than Anderson is, with his routine Rotten Tomatoes scores in the 30% range.
I’d like to end with a postscript on Sarris’s final criteria. It seems to me that interior meaning can more tantalizingly be conceived as lying in the relation between a critic and a film, in the ways that certain films affect certain people in undefinable ways. The task of the critic is to find some way to communicate that indefinable experience. The auteur theory is not a theory of film, it is a theory of film criticism. It is a method for understanding what we value, why we value it and a means of expressing those values. In 1977, Sarris wrote:

[…]interior meaning, a term that gave me a great deal of trouble at the time, but one that has since come to define what all serious film criticism seeks to discover. Auteurism has less to do with the way movies are made than with the way they are elucidated and evaluated, It is more a critical instrument than a creative inspiration. Peter Wollen has suggested the hypothetical nature of the enterprise and I will go along with that. The cinema is a deep, dark mystery that we auteurists are attempting to solve.

Army of Milla: Resident Evil and Modern Auteurism

Part Two: On the Resident Evil Movies

Part One of Army of Milla looked at Vulgar Auteurism and some issues surrounding the current discourse on low-prestige action films. Here in Part Two I’ll take a general look at Paul WS Anderson’s Resident Evil series, in search of evidence that Anderson might rightfully be considered an auteur.

1. History
Resident Evilbegan life as a video game series produced by Capcom for the Sony PlayStation, initially premiering in 1996 and achieving both popular and critical success. The games are seminal in the “survival horror” genre, a subset of the action game wherein “the player is made to feel less powerful than in typical action games, because of limited ammunition, health, speed, or other limitations. The player is also challenged to find items that unlock the path to new areas, and solve puzzles at certain locations. Games make use of strong horror themes, and the player is often challenged to navigate dark maze-like environments, and react to unexpected attacks from enemies.” The process of adapting the games to film began in the late 1990s, with George Romero attached to write and direct. The producers were, however, unhappy with the script Romero produced and brought in Paul WS Anderson who wrote an entirely new script and signed to direct as well.
Anderson had experience with video game movies, as his 1995 film, the decent but more or less ludicrous Mortal Kombat (an adaptation of the popular fighting game) had turned out to be a surprise hit, despite all expectations and the presence of Talisa Soto, star of some of the most disastrous films of the last 25 years (even her best film, License to Kill, was the movie that nearly ended the James Bond franchise). His next couple of films (1997’s Event Horizon and 1998’s Soldier) had failed to capitalize on that success and Anderson found himself back in the video game ghetto, barely a step above direct-to-video land in the Hollywood prestige hierarchy. Things had gotten so bad for Anderson that he’d had to start crediting himself with his two middle initials to distinguish himself from the later-starting but now more famous writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. The first Resident Evil movie was a hit, grossing just over $100 million, and Anderson went on to write the next four films in the series, each of which has been poorly reviewed (they range between 21% and 34% on rotten tomatoes) and commercially successful, with the last two films grossing over $200 million worldwide and the series as a whole approaching $1 billion in global box office. Anderson also directed the first, fourth and fifth films in the series, with the second and third films directed by Alexander Witt and Russell Mulcahy, respectively. Anderson passed on directing those to write and direct Alien Vs. Predator and Death Race. At present, Anderson is at work on the script for the sixth Resident Evil film, which he will also direct. Due to be released in 2014, this will reportedly be the final film in the series.
2. Structure and Setting
The five Resident Evilfilms each feature the same basic story structure. After an opening action/suspense sequence, there’s a long bit of exposition after which the plot proper begins. Each movie involves the main characters being trapped in a confined space from which they must escape while evading a variety of monsters. This escape takes up the bulk of the running time (so to speak), as the group is winnowed down to a few survivors left to face the film’s ultimate villain in a final battle. After the battle, there’s a short epilogue with a cliffhanger that sets up the next film in the series. This is a classic design, especially for action films, and you can find versions of it throughout film history, from Griffith shorts to Indiana Jones.
Anderson has suggested that his propensity for trapping his characters in small spaces may have something to do with his upbringing in coal-mining country, but I wouldn’t put too much stock in such biographizing as a general rule. Despite their confinement, Anderson often films his characters as dwarfed by the architecture that surrounds them, trapping them in another way within an immense space.
Each film is set in a unique environment: the first in an underground laboratory, the second in a city at night, the third in a Western desert, the fourth in an urban prison and the fifth in an undersea base which itself contains multiple unique environments. More on this later.
3. Characters
The main character of the Resident Evil films is Alice, played by Milla Jovovich. She’s a new character for the films, not appearing in any of the early video games. Alice is the only character to appear in all of the films, and we see almost everything through her eyes. In the first film, she’s suffering from amnesia, but eventually we learn that she was the head of security for a secret underground research laboratory run by the Umbrella Corporation. Umbrella is the primary villain of the series, though it’s incarnated differently in each film. In the first and fifth films, Alice is opposed by a homicidal computer system, the Red Queen. In the second film, as the zombie-creating T-Virus spreads through Raccoon City, the local military and government that has sealed the city off hoping to contain it, condemning millions to death. In the third film, the villain is a mad scientist, Dr. Isaacs, played by Game of Thrones’s Iain Glen. In the fourth film, it’s Umbrella CEO Albert Wesker (played by Shawn Roberts). The cliffhanger at the end of the fifth film has Alice joining forces with Wesker at the White House to fight both the computer and the zombies.
Alice is aided in each film by a rotating cast, most of whom are eaten by each film’s end. The major supporting characters include Michelle Rodriguez as Rain (first and fifth films), Ali Larter as Claire Redfield (third, fourth), Sienna Guillory as Jill Valentine (second, fifth), Oded Fehr as Carlos Olivera (second, third, fifth) and Mike Epps as LJ (second, third).
The characters are fungible. Death is not necessarily the end for them, as cloning plays a major part in the series. The fifth film is populated with evil versions of characters that had died in earlier movies. As well there is much genetic experimentation. At the end of the first film, Alice is taken captive by Umbrella and injected with the T-Virus, which we learn in the second film gives her superpowers while it turns her compatriot Matt Addison (played by Eric Mabius) into a monster (Nemesis). While fighting Wesker at the beginning of the fourth film, those superpowers are taken away, turning her back into an ordinary badass action hero. He returns them at the end of the fifth film.
This has a flattening effect on character psychology. The films place little emphasis on backstory or motivation. We know very little about Alice, and the supporting characters are as broad as possible. Like the story structure, the characters are literally generic. This particularly suits Jovovich’s strengths as an actress. Her appearance is vaguely alien, or at least superhuman, and her supermodelity makes her more expressive physically, with her body and with her face and eyes, than she is verbally. The films don’t require her to create a character with a complex psyche, rather she’s a perfect vehicle for plot delivery and audience identification (always based on fantasy).
(Not that Jovovich isn’t a good actress. I was a big fan of her performance in Luc Besson’s Joan of Arc movie The Messenger, though I think I might be the only one.)
4. Visual Style
There’s a bit more variation in visual style as you would expect from a series with multiple directors but only one writer. The three directed by Paul WS Anderson evince his clean, uncluttered approach to set design and action editing, with a clear focus on bodies moving in space. The fourth and fifth films especially make extensive use of slow-motion, the ‘bullet-time’ style popularized by the Matrixfilms. The second film, by longtime Ridley and Tony Scott assistant director Alexander Witt and the third, by Highlanderdirector Russell Mulcahy, are much more in the ‘intensive continuity’ style of modern Hollywood action films, which uses the kinetics of rapidly cut together shots of body fragments and empty space as a proxy for the intensity of physical action, and thus tends to create spatially incoherent fight scenes. The third film also uses a grainy, sepia-grey color palate similar to PWSA’s Death Race and Marc Neveldine & Brian Taylor’s Crank: High Voltagethat looks particularly ugly next to the sleek whites and blues of Anderson’s films.
The first film makes extensive use of security camera footage, motivated as the POV as the Red Queen computer system. Trevor Link makes a compelling case for this as a study of voyeurism and political power in an essay at his website. That thread isn’t much explored in the later films, though the concept of the Umbrella Corporation as an entity reaching into every aspect of our lives is somewhat there. Yau Nai-hoi’s Eye in the Sky from 2007, produced by Johnnie To, is I think more successful and nuanced at analyzing surveillance culture through use of different film stocks representing the various ways we are spied on in public.
5. Referentiality
The Resident Evilfilms, with their schematic plot structures and generic characters are the perfect vehicles for movie references. The structure allows the films to be set in almost any kind of environment, and Anderson utilizes them to essentially chronicle the last 50 years or so of action and suspense cinema. The references begin with the first shot (repeated in each of the first three films), an extreme close-up of Milla Jovovich’s eyeball, from which the camera slowly pulls away reveling her collapsed body in a bathtub, shower curtain draped around her. It’s the inverse of one of the concluding shots from the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Where that camera spirals into Janet Leigh’s dead eye, Anderson spirals out. What we’ll get is a story of life after death: literally as the dead come back to life but also life after the death of civilization, the twisted clone lives of the dead side characters, and the indestructibility of Alice herself, never more evident than in the beginning of the fourth film, when she storms Umbrella Headquarters backed by an army of Alice-clones. We see Alice die again and again and again.
Each film in the series has a specific model from genre film history. The first is a variation on Alien, with a small group of people trapped in a confined space against an enemy they don’t understand being manipulated by a shadowy corporation and a computer that doesn’t place much value on human life. The second film recalls Escape from New York, where Alice and her companions must traverse an overrun and locked-down metropolis to rescue someone (in this case the daughter of an Umbrella scientist as opposed to the President in John Carpenter’s film). There are also hints of George Romero’s Land of the Dead, with the city walled off from the zombie hordes while the elites escape. The third film takes place after the virus has spread, destroying civilization and much of the planet itself. It’s a desert world where fuel is the most important currency and gangs of survivors attempt to caravan to a promised land. In other words: it’s The Road Warrior. The fourth film begins with the attack of the Alice-clones, shot in a cleanly digital bullet-time with the Alices dressed in the all-black cat-suit Carrie-Anne Moss sports in The Matrix. The film’s middle section takes place in a prison where a group of survivors is surrounded by zombies, recalling Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. The fifth film presents the most complex set of references: it’s based on the Resident Evil series itself, going about as far as sustainable down its own rabbit-hole.
Opening with a gorgeous action sequence played in slow motion and backwards as the credits role, then replayed forwards, the film quickly plunges Alice into a massive undersea Umbrella base. Within that base are the aforementioned clones of the characters from previous films, as well as a series of unique environments: the Raccoon City of the first film, a sequence set in Tokyo (replayed and expanded from the fourth film), and the ultra-white Umbrella hallways seen in most of the other films. Unique to this film is a normal suburban world, complete with an Alice clone who thinks she’s a typical housewife with husband (a Carlos clone) and daughter. This world is then ravaged by zombies in an experiment run by the Red Queen. This is the only time we ever get to see Alice leading anything like a normal life. The plot of the film more or less follows that of Aliens, with Alice joined by a team of soldiers to rescue a little girl, her clone child from the suburban simulation. It ends with a confrontation straight out of Ice Station Zebra, with each side facing off in an Arctic wilderness: Alice and the surviving soldiers vs. a now super-powered and evil Michelle Rodriguez clone and a brainwashed Jill Valentine.
Watching most of Paul WS Anderson’s films, this kind of referentiality is what strikes me as his most distinctive trait. Almost all of his films are based on an existing, and very popular, property of some kind: Death Race is a straight remake of the 70s cult classic Death Race 2000, The Three Musketeers is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the Dumas novel, albeit with a wildly anachronistic twist, Alien Vs. Predator is a movie based on a game based on two series of movies. The latter I think gives a clue as to Anderson’s approach to genre and story, as the mythologies of these sci-fi classics are melded with actual historical mythology and some contemporary conspiracy theories about ancient history. The film posits that the pyramids built in Egypt and Central America were built by aliens, and that humanity participated in ceremonial sacrifices there. These aliens were the Predators and the sacrifices involved the Aliens. There’s a seamlessness to the way Anderson passes from one mythology to the other, with the way he adapts and bends previously created material to build his own unique mythological world. It’s somewhat akin to the way a backwoods preacher has a limitless supply of bible verses at his disposal for use in any situation. Except for Anderson, the bible is genre cinema.
The question remains though, is there enough evidence to call Paul WS Anderson an auteur? He has a unique approach to story and character, with a distinctive visual style and appears to be exploring interesting and personal thematic territory. But is it art? I’ll attempt to answer that in the next and final installment of this series, Resident Evil and Classical Auteurism.

Army of Milla: Resident Evil and Modern Auteurism

Part One: On Vulgar Auteurism
In recent weeks I’ve been trying to catch up with the works of a number of contemporary action film directors, filmmakers who’ve been labeled by a small subset of the critical world as ‘vulgar auteurs’ for the quality of their movies and the low repute of the genres they work in. The main text for Vulgar Auteurism appears to be this post from, which consists of a rough categorization of the filmmakers (inspired by Andrew Sarris’s lists in The American Cinema), followed by links to some writing about some of their films (the links only show up as exclamation points whenever I look at it, not sure if that’s my computer error, their internet error or entirely intentional for some reason that escapes me)[Note: Since this was written, the mubi folks have responded to some of the criticisms of Vulgar Auteurism by revising this post, adding a definition, readable links and revising the proposed list of directors. Here is a web archive link to the original post.]. There’s also a Vulgar Auteurism tumblrthat is pretty much nothing but screen captures, making the non-verbal argument that within these genre films lies a genuine (visual) artistry. As yet there doesn’t appear to be all that much writing about these directors in general, in even the short form that follows the lists in Sarris’s book. Mostly the arguments for their auteur status can be found within reviews for individual films. These arguments tend to focus on the artistry of the filmmakers’ image-construction over their thematic content (philosophical, political, etc) or narrative qualities (story, plot, character, dialogue, etc). This Formalist focus somewhat undermines the VA critics polemical stance in favor of makers of low genre film: auteur status comes from the high art sheen (the techniques of mise-en-scene) the directors impose on low material while the actual content of the films is ignored or even ridiculed, thus accepting the art-mainstream-vulgar division the movement is ostensibly opposing. See for example the review of Paul W. S. Anderson’s 2012 film Resident Evil: Retribution by Ignatiy Vishnevetsy:

Anderson’s work may not have a lot of narrative substance, but his visual sensibility is so well-developed that it often doesn’t matter; form is substituted for theme. Composed in crisp visual shorthand, Anderson’s movies are about images: strong, stoic-faced women meting out violence; characters executing somersaults through the air; tiny figures venturing into vast, foreboding spaces.
It’s certainly a lot of fun, though not exactly profound. A lot in the way of characterization and development gets sacrificed to make Anderson’s style work; his movies tend to be about stock characters talking in clichés in familiar situations—and, unlike the work of a Pop / camp fetishist like Roland Emmerich, it’s all done with a completely straight face. Anderson’s latest, Resident Evil: Retribution 3D, takes this even further: it’s his most generic movie, in every sense of the term. In certain ways, it’s also his ballsiest and most playful.

There’s nothing particularly new about critics finding art in disreputable places. The first generation of Auteurists made compelling arguments for the artistry of filmmakers working in such vulgar genres as the musical, the Western, the war movie, ‘women’s pictures’ and the crime melodrama (gangster films, police procedurals and films noirs). And often those arguments rested on the director’s creative use of filmmaking techniques in order to convey ideas about the world and about cinema itself (think Fritz Lang’s geometric compositions, Douglas Sirk’s mirrors, Josef von Sternberg’s otherworldly clutter, Vincente Minnelli’s reds, Howard Hawks’s medium shots and so on). But rarely did those arguments rest on the complete dismissal of the ‘content’ of the films. In fact, the autuerists took the radically egalitarian stance of treating low content exactly the same as high, and were therefore open to finding profound insights in the most vulgar places (John Ford’s vision of American history in all its sweep and contradiction or Charlie Chapin’s melancholy humanism). The ideal is for the auteur to have a complete artistic personality, where the form and content of their films combines to express a unique and compelling vision of the world. The classical auteurist project continues today as film and television work by directors like Joseph H. Lewis or Edgar G. Ulmer continue to be unearthed and re-examined. (This is the kind of analysis we were attempting on the They Shot Pictures Johnnie To podcast, To being a director who would certainly be categorized as a Vulgar Auteur if that group wasn’t (for some unknown reason complaining about which is beyond the scope of this essay) confined merely to filmmakers working in Hollywood). In all but a few rare cases, form without content is just as incomplete as content without form. I’ve yet to see this kind of comprehensive study of most of the filmmakers Vulgar Auteurism champions.
I don’t want to overstate this complaint. I haven’t read close to everything put out by the VA critics, so it’s certainly possible I’m misreading them or just missing the pieces where they make exactly the arguments I’m looking for. It’s also true that analysis of visual style is woefully rare in film culture, so the fact that they focus on it at the expense of plot-and-theme analysis has value in and of itself by helping to turn the conversation toward unexamined possibilities in film criticism. Beyond that, it may be the case that these directors just don’t have much going for them aside from their images: that the texts of their films really are empty and the only way they have of expressing an artistic vision is through their images (‘form is substituted for theme’), that they are simply not complete auteurs in the sense Ford and Lang were. It’s also the case that the most under covered filmmakers are also the ones with the smallest body of work: it’s simply too early in his career for a comprehensive analysis of John Hyams, for example, whereas there have been lengthy studies of VA favorites like Michael Mann and Paul Veerhoeven.
That said, I think the world needs a more comprehensive look at Paul W. S. Anderson’s Resident Evil films, one that recognizes not only the artistry of Anderson’s image-creation, but also the unique qualities of the world he’s constructed over ten years and five movies, a hyper-cinematic world where genre film tropes are given mythological status and ingeniously reworked and varied, a paranoid world of shifting surfaces, mad scientists, homicidal computers and omnipotent corporations, grounded only by the implacable presence of Milla Jovovich. They amount to a remarkable cinematic achievement, regardless of their dubious generic and source material, but is that enough to call Anderson an auteur and if so, does that make his movies, for lack of a better word, good? These are the questions I’ll try to answer in the next parts of this series.

On Some Objections to Auteurism

“You are at least watching here a filmmaker with a vision, with a style, making bold choices. I’d rather watch that any day of the week than something else that maybe hits more conventionally satisfying notes. ”

— Adam Kempenaar, Filmspotting #436 in 2013
Putting auteurism in a nutshell

“The second premise of the auteur theory is the distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value. Over a group of films, a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serve as his signature. The way a film looks and moves should have some relationship to the way a director thinks and feels. This is an area where American directors are generally superior to foreign directors. Because so much of the American cinema is commissioned, a director is forced to express his personality through the visual treatment of material rather than through the literary content of the material.”

— Andrew Sarris, Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962

“Paradoxically, however, the personalities of modern directors are often more obscure than those of classical directors who were encumbered with all sorts of narrative and dramatic machinery. The classical cinema was more functional than the modern cinema. It knew its audience and their expectations, but it often provided something extra. This something extra is the concern of the auteur theory.”

— Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema in 1968

Criticisms of the Auteur Theory, or Auteurism, of which there are legion, tend to make a few simple mistakes, of which this is certainly not a complete list.

1. They get the causality backwards. For example, this formulation from the wikipedia entry:

Auteur theory holds that a director’s film reflects the director’s personal creative vision, as if they were the primary “auteur” (the French word for “author”). In spite of—and sometimes even because of—the production of the film as part of an industrial process, the auteur’s creative voice is distinct enough to shine through all kinds of studio interference and through the collective process.

The correct formulation should be: Auteur theory holds that if the director’s personal creative vision is distinct enough to shine through studio interference and the collective process, then that director can be considered an auteur.

This simple misunderstanding explains the logic behind the “what about screenwriters?” objection. Not only is auteurism not necessarily confined to directors, it quite often recognizes the work of producers (Selznik, Thalberg, Bruckheimer), screenwriters (Hecht, Goldman, Kauffman), actors (Lloyd, Marxes), even production designers (Menzies). Jonathan Rosenbaum even posits four different auteurs for Taxi Driver, the director, the screenwriter, the star and the film’s composer. The point is not that the director necessarily is the source of a given film’s creative vision, it’s that when a film does show evidence of a personal creative vision, often, but not always, the source of that vision will be the film’s director.

2. They assume the theory is a definitive statement.

Auteurism is an analytical approach to film history. It’s not the only one, and it’s not the only interesting or valuable one. Because an auteur’s personal creative vision can often be obscured by the collaborative process, commercial or generic demands, studio interference, or various other noise, the best way to find evidence of the presence of an auteur is to watch as many of their films as possible. Auteurism is inductive, always in search of more evidence and never satisfied.

To make a simplified example: An auteurist does not deductively assert “Johnnie To is an auteur. Johnnie To directed this set of movies. Therefore everything about these movies reflects the personal creative vision of Johnnie To.” Instead, an auteurist takes the set of movies and compares all the elements within them. Say there are nine films, all directed by Johnnie To. An auteurist would note that Set One is three films co-written with Wai Ka-fai, Set Two is three collaborations with director/choreographer Ching Siu-tung, and Set Three is three written and directed by To himself. Johnnie To’s personal creative vision would be found not just in Set Three, but in certain elements found in Set Three that also pop up in the films within Sets One and Two, whereas the stamps of the other two potential auteurs could be inferred from the absence of certain elements in the sets of films they were not involved in. If cartoonish stunt-work only appears in the Ching Siu-tung films, then that is evidence for Ching’s auteurist signature. If complex plot twists leading to a spiritual epiphany occur only in the Wai Ka-fai films, then that is evidence for Wai’s auteurist signature. And if character doubling, game-playing and images marked by bright white lights within dark shadowy spaces occur in all three films, then that might be evidence for Johnnie To’s personal creative vision.

3. They assert that the Theory commits the Intentional Fallacy.

This inductive approach is how Auteurism avoids the Intentional Fallacy. It proceeds first from the evidence of the film(s) to develop a theory of auteurial personality, not from a theory of auteurial personality to analysis of the film. It is impossible to truly know what is in the mind of anyone else, so intention is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter why Kenji Mizoguchi uses so many long takes, why he thinks he uses so many long takes or why he says he uses so many long takes. It’s the role of the film critic to come up with a theory of what, if anything, Mizoguchi’s long takes mean, and what effect, if any, they have on the film and/or on the viewer. And it takes an auteurist to note that Mizoguchi uses a lot of long takes in the first place.

These studies can be exhaustive and exhausting. For an example of the kind of evidence that can be accumulated through studying an auteur’s career, check out the website maintained by Mike Grost. Here’s his page on Raoul Walsh. This is the raw material of auteurism, not speculative psychologizing of personal biography.

4. They say it amounts to snobbery. This is a two-pronged objection.

A. It elevates the art house above the mainstream.

Sometimes this may be the case, but this is hardly the necessary consequence of auteurism. It’s an easily refuted objection, given that the original auteurists were denigrated as “Hitchcocko-Hawksians” for their elevation of mainstream genre filmmakers like Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock to the status of great artists, to the same level, or higher, than prestige filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman or Stanley Kramer. This is how Vertigo, a film received, when it wasn’t panned outright, as a mainstream genre picture of little interest to “serious” filmgoers, over 50 years came to be recognized as one of the greatest films ever made (and is now enshrined as such for the next 10 years by the Sight & Sound poll). The purpose of the theory is to discover artistry within the mainstream or without, whether high-, middle- or low-brow. This is why the name of the recent movement Vulgar Auteurism strikes me as redundant. By seeking personal creative visions within the works of mainstream action and genre cinema, these critics aren’t creating a new, ‘vulgar’ form of the theory, they’re just being auteurists.

B. It is esoteric and obscurantist

It is true that an auteurist will often value the lesser well-known, less “successful” films of a auteur’s career. This is not necessarily out of belligerence, but rather because it is often in these lesser works that the auteur’s personal creative vision becomes more evident, and because autuerism takes it for granted that demonstrating a personal creative vision is a value in and of itself. Thus can a film fail to meet all the conventional standards of “success” and still have value if it shows that personal vision. Which is exactly the point that Mr. Kempenaar made at the beginning of this post.