2013 has been the summer of vulgar auteurism (VA), a critical catch phrase blooming around the online film sphere. “White House Down” comes at a perfect time.
VA is a recent critical movement that seeks respect for movies (particularly action movies) that don’t scream “artsy.” Inspired by the French New Wave reconsideration of Howard Hawks and Hollywood B-movies, VA favors filmmakers working within the rules and confinements of popular studio cinema to express their vision.
For a long time, VA critics (of which I would be at least a junior member) have been a merry band of Internet warriors. Regarding them as a roving band of Tony Scott or Michael Bay enthusiasts looking for a message board sells the movement short, even if it is a little bit accurate. A movement catalyst has been a well-known 2006 Cinemascope article praising Scott––must-read for the aspiring vulgar auteurist.
I go into all this because Roland Emmerich’s “White House Down” is so much a VA thing. Channing Tatum running around the White House trying to save President Jamie Foxx from a group of terrorists is a perfectly whacked-out VA plot. On top of that, it clearly runs chapters from the Tony Scott Playbook – an action movie that looks like a lacquered painting, with an exceptional sense of light and dark (Watch the early scene secret service briefing for a taste). The editing winds together activity taking place in isolated spaces, and it playfully fictionalizes the sense of time. This is achieved in a string of effortless and elegant montages that bring little attention to themselves.
In a movie of nonstop shootouts and giant explosions, it’s funny to say gosh, what great lighting! But what great lighting! The production and set design are immaculate. You never once question whether you’re in the White House, although we presumably are not. Critics ready to harp on the movie’s seemingly proud mediocrity will also overlook the fact that a respectable cast (James Woods, Maggie Gyllenhaal, deliver credible work with outrageous material.
Put all together, “White House Down” is a tremendously fluid piece of filmmaking. But does that make up for its mediocrity? Does technical brilliance make a good film? Or is it just elevating pretty junk? This is a charge often leveled against vulgar auteurists, and it’s an important one to answer.
I turn again to Tony Scott. Beyond Scott’s playful and innovative visual sense, he was an underrated and dynamite social observer. His films, particularly later in his career reflected our increasingly fractured social landscape. “Man on Fire” is not just a visceral action film. It’s a movie about revenge vs. redemption, the conflict of the first and third worlds, with Mexico caught in between. “Domino” is an anti-biopic, a modern mythic tall tale, and a California story about the society into which we have been transforming.
By comparison, is Emmerich saying anything worth saying? It depends on the importance you place on the value of parody. Is “White House Down” an expert sends up the “Die Hard” genre? Is it, in that Godard sort of way, challenging us to use critical thinking about the images that movies sell? Or is it more about re-selling them? I’ll leave that each viewer to judge.