Tuesday, July 3, 2007

"Why Does Michael Bay Get to Keep On Making Movies?"

"I miss you more than Michael Bay missed the mark when he made 'Pearl Harbor'. I miss you more than that movie missed the point, and that's an awful lot, girl."

So go the lyrics of the quintessential love song featured in Team America: World Police. Oh, how knowing that song is. It expertly sums up Michael Bay in a mere matter of words, yet its observations run much deeper.

Although Michael Bay has become a punching bag of critics and "serious" moviegoers, he has an undeniable presence in contemporary mainstream moviemaking. In just over a decade making films, Bay's trademark slow-motion intensity and perfectly formed explosions have become a staple in American cinema. So influential were Bay's early films (e.g. Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon), in all their guns-blazin', jingoistic glory, that Bay's unchanging directorial touch in recent films comes off more like a parody (see The Island). It seems that ever since Bay applied his skills to a historical tragedy in the disastrous Pearl Harbor, he has fallen from glory with the American moviegoing public, including the likes of his most ardent fans. Nonetheless, his presence remains strangely powerful in spite of his recent box office disappointments. Sure, his movies are plugged with multi-million dollar ad campaigns, but so are many other films whose directors seem to fade into oblivion. Even those that dislike Michael Bay often love to hate him. And despite that Jerry Bruckheimer has moved on, another somewhat prominent producer by the name of Steven Spielberg has taken Bay under his wing and may likely be the person responsible for upstarting his career once more.

Bay's latest film, Transformers, releases to cineplexes today, and I must admit that I am curious to see it. When I saw the trailer for Transformers, I wasn't surprised to see Bay's name attached, since it appears to have all of his trademark styles, i.e. extreme lighting around actors' faces, shaky close-ups, slow motion upward looking shots of intimidating characters). I tend to dislike sameness in visual style, but there is something really fascinating about la cinema de Michael Bay that I can't quite put my finger on. It's easy to label him as childish or immature, and peg his movies as consisting of little more than incoherent action, but I think there's more to it than that. Something separates Bay from the legion of imitators his films have spawned and even the filmmakers who have influenced him, namely Tony Scott. Maybe it has something to do with his unique image in American filmmaking being so strong even though it has undergone so many changes in such a short amount of time. Or perhaps the massive orgies of violence he orchestrates echo something deep-ridden within our collective unconscious. I think it's probably equal shares of both. But no matter how much critics and movie lovers loathe to see the phrase "a Michael Bay film," there is something to his visual style that remains interesting, if not praise-worthy in the traditional sense.

In short, Bay embodies everything big, simplistic, naive, and bloated about Hollywood blockbuster moviemaking. When he first emerged on the movie scene under the tutelage of one Jerry Bruckheimer, he exhibited a flair for melodrama, high intensity action, and pure movement that was, dare I say, enjoyable in films such as Bad Boys and The Rock. Both movies were sensory overload, but their energy level and quick pacing made them fun. Yet they always walked that line. It's as if Bay was a ticking time bomb, having made two decent action films and then just waiting for just the right story to unleash what he had barely avoided thus far. That opportunity came with Armageddon, one of the most assaulting, painful movies these eyes have seen. Bay demonstrated with this movie that his particular abilities of cinematic movement and sensory overload were delicate and could easily blow up (large pun intended) in his face if not provided the proper boundaries. Unfortunately, Armageddon may as well have been called "Bay Unleashed." The majority of the movie consists of stuff blowing up framed by shaky compositions or perfectly composed shots (depending on the level of visual effects) of city-wide destruction. Either way, it was stuff blowing up, and lots of it. Low and behold, the movie made millions and Bay was crowned the king of the modern action blockbuster.

Then came along Pearl Harbor. Thinking that he could probably take on anything that passed his way, Bay ditched the "asteroids destroying Earth" plot in favor of depicting one of the greatest slaughters in human history. This didn't seem in-line with the spirit of his last three films, all of which featured ludicrous plots, each of which Bay took more seriously as he made them. With Pearl Harbor, he'd be dealing with very delicate material and potentially character-driven drama. As anyone who has seen the movie likely knows, Bay showed for all the world that his gift was not with creating drama. His quick-paced editing may work for frenetic action sequences, but it doesn't hold up well in dialogue-driven scenes which deature sad looks on actors' faces. Fortunately, for him, there was still much to blow up, which he unleashes in the action centerpiece of the movie. Never had I anticipated such horrible death and destruction as I did with Pearl, since clearly the film builds anticipation of the Japanese attack and it wants us to enjoy it. When the movie finally got there, Bay once again went all out for about 30 minutes, creating as much carnage as the PG-13 rating allows.

The best review of the film I read was written by none other than Roger Ebert, whose remarks about Bay's ineptitude at drama and filmmaking in general remain some of the most memorable journalistic film criticism I have read. Ebert said of the film:

As for the raid itself, a little goes a long way. What is the point, really, of more than half an hour of planes bombing ships, of explosions and fireballs, of roars on the soundtrack and bodies flying through the air and people running away from fighters that are strafing them? How can it be entertaining or moving when it's simply about the most appalling slaughter? Why do the filmmakers think we want to see this, unrelieved by intelligence, viewpoint or insight? It was a terrible, terrible day. Three thousand died in all. This is not a movie about them."

Ebert captures the essence of a Michael Bay film in his description of the action, and that is the festishizing of violence, cinematic bodies, and nationalism. He doesn't fetishize these three elements individually so much as in unison with each other. Bay's slick images of violence, destruction, sweaty bodies firing guns, and red, white, and blue is what makes some of his films so striking, memorable, and continually prominent, if not always in a positive way. I wouldn't dare comment on such a massive ideological issue such as the effects and implications of American nationalism, suffice to say that Bay expertly politicizes his movies to pander to the unconscious desires of the general moviegoing public. Pearl Harbor likely failed for more reasons than being poorly made in every sense of cinematic and narrative style. The film represents an odd combination of Bay's worshipping of fantastic violence and a syrupy tone of faux-reverence for something that is very real in America's history. Hence, that movie feels more like mass-produced cinematic equivalent of fast food that it is.

A few short years after Pearl Harbor, Bay returned to his roots with Bad Boys II, Or did he? Yes, he has made a film with all the slow motion shots in the world of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence wielding handguns, yes we have hellicopter chases over water, yes we have incoherent, overly long action sequences. But where this was somewhat enjoyable in a guilty kind of way in the first film, it is excruciating in this sequel, which seems more a sequel to Armageddon than Bad Boys. No doubt, Bay fetishizes violence, death, and flying bodies through the air once again in Bad Boys II, but even that is only pleasurable in moderate amounts, right? ... And just like that, Bay's skill for making sweat-saturated bodies, gun violence, and destruction so enjoyable backfired when he supposedly "went too far." Suddenly, so many moviegoers and critics looked so unfavorably on Michael Bay (as his box office numbers in recent years show), as if we hadn't been enjoying the action films of his and others for the past 20 years, as if we have never slowed down while behind the wheel to observe the carnage of an auto-accident. That is one of the many reasons that I am more than curious ro see Transformers, as well as see how it fares with the American moviegoing public with whom Bay has been so estranged for the last several years.

His films may be juvenile and increasingly overstuffed, but Michael Bay's abilities to depict mass-violence so desirably should not be ignored. Occasionally, they can result in films that are pleasurable to view, if shamefully so. Nevertheless, Bay's images somehow tap into a greater unconscious feeling that both attracts and repulses audiences to/from not just his films, but violence as a greater idea. His melding of nationalism, violence, and bodies in slickly packaged images that ooze of the products they promote is endlessly fascinating. As spectators, we are both ashamed and overjoyed with the success of Michael Bay.

If Transformers tanks, then his career may tailspin and he will forever be remembered as the action director with one of the most successful decades in Hollywood and nothing more. But if it turns to box-office gold over this Fourth of July weekend (which it likely will), then Bay can rest easy knowing that he can safely blow stuff up for the next 10 or 15 years. And we'll either love it or love to hate it; either way, we'll love it.


PIPER said...

I have been a longtime hatta of Bay. I used to work with a commercial director who did some CSI work with Bruckheimer when the Bruckheimer/Bay partnership was tight. I spent on evening in LA bagging on Bay and he wouldn't have any part of it. In fact, he told me to quiet down. It was kind of creepy and funny at the same time.

I agree with you that Bad Boys and The Rock weren't that bad and as action goes, they were big fun. But after that, something went away or maybe Bay got a bit too big for his britches. I often compare Bay's quick upcoming in Hollywood with Eli Roth's quick surge in Horror. It never ends up good.

Anyway, I saw Transformers yesterday and as I wrote in my post today, it's important to remember that Bay was one hell of a commercial director. It's no surprise that his shots looks so pretty. But if you watch his more recent movies, they are very commercial like. A series of pretty vignettes that amount to nothing.

And as far as violent-glorifying directors go, I think nobody does it better than Verhoeven. Nobody does an action sequence better than Bay, though. There were a few minutes in Transformers that were really amazing. But the characters and the story are terrible. And I'm just not going to resign myself to accepting that we must give up story and acting for action. We can have it all. Die-Hard proved it so.

Ted Pigeon said...

Sounds like an interesting experience you've had with Bay, Piper. Unfortunately, I did not get around to seeing Transformers over the holiday (I saw Ratatouille instead), and surprisingly enough, I still am itching to see it. There's something painful-to-watch yet attractive about the trailers. I can't quite figure out what it is. The movie looks like a Bayified piece of movie product, complete with exaggerated caricatures, the typical perfect-bodied leading lady who Bay has cars break down for so as to stage shots of positioning her arching body to open the hood. You know what I mean. Yet, like I grapple with in my post, there is still something attracting me to this movie. Maybe its the very things I'm talking about, the surface level superficiality that I am so critical of. But just because I'm aware of it, that doesn't make me above it I guess. Nor do I really want to be... completely at least. Still, it's hard not to feel a little guilty being turned about by Bay's images. And that's what is so interesting.

As for your point about Verhoeven, I think you're exactly right. Nobody makes mindless action so damn desirable. Total Recall and Starship Troopers are movies in which the violence is so high, exaggerated, and fetishized that I find them interesting on blood-spewing and dismemberment alone. Yet Verhoeven uses these in-your-face details and tells interesting stories with them.

The master of violent images, in my mind, though, is David Cronenberg, who finds a strange, abstract, and primal connection between violence and sexuality in his images, not as incongruent but as congruent. No one can imbue images with fear, desire, grotesqueness, and eroticism all at the same time like him.