Saturday, April 27, 2013

Michael Bay Retrospective

What can be said about Michael Bay? According to a number of film critics and fans, he is everything that’s wrong with cinema today. According to box office numbers and general audiences, he’s one of the most dependable filmmakers to turn to for old fashioned popcorn movie escapism. I’ve always sided with the former, but it’s hard to deny the amount of influence Bay has had over mainstream cinema. With the release of his tenth film, Pain & Gain, it’s time to take a look at Bay’s primary influences, what makes him unique as an artist, and why it’s still OK to hate his work anyway.


Bay first made a splash as a music video director, and it’s still easy to be impressed by his videos for Meat Loaf’s “I Would Do Anything For Love” or the Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself” even as they share many of the same characteristics that make his films unbearable. Bay’s approach of sensation over everything jives well with MTV-appropriate videos because A. they’re in 3-4 minute increments, and B. he doesn’t have to have his often gorgeous shots cohere to form a story. Bay was recruited from his successful days as a music video/commercial director by Jerry Bruckheimer, and it’s easy to see why: he is the logical successor to Bruckheimer’s previous prize horse, the late Tony Scott.

Like Bay, Scott specialized in super-slick, often beautiful compositions mixed with rapid-fire editing and action. Defenders of both directors could contend that the two are impressionists working within the action genre, men who blended images together to create sensory experiences in their car chases and shootouts rather than reality-based scenes that one could follow. I’d refute that argument with a brusque “there’s no tension to an action scene if I can’t tell what’s going on”, but it nonetheless shows a certain amount of craft even if one finds it counterintuitive to what makes an action scene great. Bay also follows Scott’s interest in hyper-masculinity. One can easily see the seeds for the Bad Boys movies in Beverly Hills Cop II and The Last Boy Scout, or for Pearl Harbor in Top Gun. Bay just happens to take Scott’s excessive style to an even more in-your-face extreme (until one takes late-period, particularly loony Scott films like Man on Fire and Domino into account).

Bay is also highly influenced by three great Hollywood action directors that came before him: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and James Cameron. Bay paid his most noticeable tribute to Spielberg with the Dreamworks-produced Transformers movies, in which the younger director at least tries to capture Spielberg’s suburban wonderment and sense of awe. Bay was also no doubt influenced by Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, in terms of both style and a decision to mess with color saturation for certain scenes, when he made Pearl Harbor, even if his proudly jingoistic and pro-military film can’t capture the nuance of Spielberg’s films.

One can just as easily trace Bay’s interest (not to mention countless others’) in gargantuan-sized blockbusters from early viewings of George Lucas’ Star Wars. Sure, Lucas has a much, much better sense of cinematic rhythm than Bay (at least in his early works), but Bay undoubtedly borrows much from Lucas’ interest in large scale spectacle, not to mention the director’s sense of maximum kineticism, his fascination with sleek, shiny machines, and his wonderful gifts for composition. Bay also takes two notable thematic flourishes from Lucas: his frequent use of a storyline about a protagonist wanting to do something truly great (see The Rock, Transformers, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor), taken from Star Wars and American Graffiti; and his unfortunate tendency to rely on racial (and, in Bay’s case, sexual) stereotypes for humor. In regards to the latter tendency, Lucas’ humor seems borne out of a certain amount of obliviousness, where Bay’s is more unapologetically in-your-face. If you have a problem with it, it’s your own damn fault.

Bay’s link to James Cameron comes for a shared interest in eye-popping stunts and spectacle combined with an unabashed love for macho, often blue collar heroes. Armageddon’s “oil workers save the world” plotline is like a dumbed down, overcranked version of Cameron’s The Abyss without the social agenda. Bay’s first bid for artistic credibility, Pearl Harbor, follows Cameron’s template for Titanic, i.e., take a real life tragedy and throw in a love story to give it some sense of structure, though Cameron was obviously more successful in this regard. Cameron and Bay share a distaste for certain authority figures, and while Bay’s is more adolescent and nihilistic than thoughtful (not to mention less critical of military matters), Cameron has seen enough of a kindred spirit in his fellow orchestrator of explosions to say that he’s studied Bay’s films and “reverse engineered” them. Now if only Bay could reverse engineer Cameron’s sense of structure and learn something from it.

Bay is, at the end of the day, a pop culture junkie with a great eye and an exasperating love for excess. Bad Boys is every buddy-cop movie ever, but with every element (the cigar-chomping, short-tempered chief; the mismatched sloppy/neat cops; the ridiculous villains; the huge car chases) filtered through his more-is-more aesthetic. The Rock and Armageddon take a number of images and references to cinematic masterpieces (from Pulp Fiction to Dr. Strangelove) and turns them into something for the lowest common denominator, all while taking Roland Emmerich’s disaster-movie obsession and somehow make it even more bombastic. Transformers is a talented, crass craftsman getting a chance to play with the world’s biggest train-set and showing just how well he can make things go boom, story be damned. He’s the American who looked at John Woo and decided that the crazy bastard wasn’t going far enough.

STYLE: Why it’s distinctive, and why it’s still OK to hate it

Many have called Bay one of the worst directors in the world. I wouldn’t be inclined to argue against that term so much as adjust it- he is one of the worst visionary directors in the world. The man has extraordinary talent in a way that the Brett Ratners, Roland Emmerichs, and Joel Schumachers of the world don’t. He is one of the few directors dealing with large-scale spectacle in a way that’s consistently successful with audiences. He has recognizable characters, themes, and stylistic flourishes. Most importantly, Bay has great eye for composition. If one pauses his films at any moment, they’ll end up on a beautiful image. Look at the offices in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the ecstasy-driven club in Bad Boys II, or any scene in space in Armageddon. All of these films look gorgeous on pause. The problem is what happens when one hits the play button and those images are blended together with his needlessly frenetic editing style.

It’s not a new criticism. While Bay’s action scenes are undoubtedly the main drawing point to his films, they’re still over-edited to the point where it’s hard to tell what’s going on, much less to care. Certain bits might be clear (the building just blew up, and now the one robot is beating up the other one), but how those moments connect couldn’t be less clear. Bay isn’t stupid- he’s getting the effect he wants, and that effect is mass chaos, carnage, and destruction. It’s less a case of incompetence and more a case of someone who’s more interested in effect than storytelling, which is a problem considering that filming action scenes is as much about storytelling as anything else.

Where someone like James Cameron makes very clear objectives in his action scenes (Sarah and Reese have to escape the police station to get away from the Terminator), Bay’s action scenes rarely have clear endpoints. Even in something as simple as a chase, Bay makes it difficult by never giving a clear idea as to the spatial relationships of the participants. Good luck telling just how close Nicolas Cage is to capturing Sean Connery in the car chase from The Rock, and that’s perhaps Bay’s best movie. Film theorist Bela Belazs felt that one could use bizarre angles so long as they had a purpose and the audience could still orient themselves. That’s my take on Bay’s use of editing: rather than going the Paul Greengrass route where there’s usually an objective shot that clarifies what’s happening beyond the chaos, Bay’s work is little more than chaos incarnate, storytelling be damned.

Storytelling tends to be a major problem with Bay’s film in general. Ignoring blatant logic problems in Armageddon (you can’t train drillers to be astronauts), Transformers (wouldn’t it be more effective for the Decepticons to just bring an onslaught on most of the world rather than wait and hide?), and Bad Boys (Martin Lawrence has to pretend to be Will Smith because…?), Bay’s patently stupid plots could easily be ignored if he would just blaze ahead with them and tell them concisely. No dice: Armageddon, Bad Boys II, and the Transformers movies are needlessly bloated to 2 ½ hours each, with Bay too focused on making everything awesome to establish a cinematic rhythm.

 Macguffins or objectives aren’t introduced until two-thirds of the way into the movie (Transformers, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen). Comedy scenes and action scenes go on too long with no real purpose (any film, but the car chases and “Martin Lawrence does schtick” bits in Bad Boys II are particularly egregious). Many of those scenes are thrown into the movie with no rhyme or reason except, well, he wants to do a comedy or action scene now (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is chock full of these). Bay is particularly bad at maintaining a consistent tone, as he’ll blend ostensibly serious sequences with terrible comic relief or underscore an apocalyptic sequence with a slightly downbeat pop song.

Still, his movies look great, right? Right, but how he makes things look great is still often disconcerting. His films all have an impressive, constantly moving camera, a sleek orange and teal hue that sexualizes every image, and a tendency to try to make every image larger-than-life and in-your-face, particularly in the case of the notoriously excessive Bad Boys II. But one can’t maintain that without A. undercutting the effect by giving everything the same tone and feel, and B. making one wonder exactly what one is being asked to salivate over. Bay’s love for near-mythic hyper-masculine subjects (tough dudes, explosions, big ass cars) and sexy girls in skimpy clothing goes beyond the “all in good fun” argument when it’s presented with such bombast and sledgehammer style. With almost every Bay film, there’s a moment where his audacity overcomes the questionable material- the long tracking shot through a stripper-filled club in Bad Boys II, the explosion-fest of the rocket liftoff in Armageddon, Nicolas Cage’s final fight in The Rock- but it’s mostly exhausting and irritating.

Pearl Harbor, Bay’s worst film, is particularly troubling in what it fetishizes. The whole film has a corny postcard feeling to it that Bay uses as a way to sell the romance angle, but he doesn’t drop that look for the actual bombing sequence. The film still looks downright pretty as soldiers fall into the water, drown, and get torn apart. Bay tries to play with color saturation in the hospital sequence, where Kate Beckinsale and other nurses try to save soldiers’ lives, but it backfires, feeling both A. unearned by a stupid movie, and B. still too much like a soft focus action sequence. Bay makes action porn, all explosive money shots and excess. That aesthetic, while irritating, is perfectly harmless when he’s fetishizing carnage in Transformers. It’s downright reprehensible when he’s luxuriating in the carnage of a national tragedy.

And then there’s the unrepentant sexism, racism, and overall crassness of Bay’s films. Anyone who’s ever seen a Michael Bay film could cite an example of Bay’s questionable sense of humor or view of women. Black people are hilarious, sassy, and jive-talking (Armageddon, Bad Boys II, the buck-toothed twins in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen)! Gays and Europeans are silly and weird (The Rock, Armageddon, Transformers: Dark of the Moon)! Gay panic is funny (Bad Boys, Bad Boys II)! Women are either skanks (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Bad Boys) or sexpots meant to be idolized from afar or chastely romanced up close (Transformers, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor)! Threatening to rape/attack a 15-year-old kid is hilarious (the single ugliest scene in Bad Boys II)! Bay has an unrepentantly crass and vulgar sense of humor, but one should take the same measured tone here as when one looks at his approach to action. He has an unabashed love for stupid, hateful things, but he’s skilled enough that branding him as stupid is too reductive.

THEME: What’s this Alpha Male jackass getting at, anyway?

There are plenty of recurring tropes in Michael Bay films, though some feel incidental rather than central. The peripheral love stories in Armageddon, The Rock, Bad Boys II, and the Transformers movies show Bay’s interest in sex on film as purely adolescent. He’s more interested in leering than actual follow-through, which is usually used as either A. an aside, or B. something that feels like it’s there to appeal to another demographic. It’s rather telling that Bay hasn’t had much in the way of high-profile relationships the way many of his contemporaries have. The dude just isn’t interested in that mushy shit.

The real attraction to Bay’s films? Masculinity, in whatever form it should take. Bay is the ultimate modern Alpha Male, one interested in dudes with guns doing awesome things rather than character relationships. Many of Bay’s films have dual male leads- Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in the Bad Boys movies, Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery in The Rock, Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck in Armageddon, and Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett in Pearl Harbor. These films are often focused on the bond between these men, but the actual details of how they feel about each other are glossed over as they bond over a shared love for action. Smith and Lawrence quarrel in the Bad Boys movies, but it’s all solved when they can get together and shoot the bad guys. Connery and Cage are at odds in much of The Rock, but if they band together against the bad guys, all problems can be solved. Willis and Affleck’s father/son relationship is strained until they have to band together to save the world from an asteroid in Armageddon. Affleck and Hartnett hate each other for a brief period in Pearl Harbor, but it’s solved as soon as they have a shared target in the Japanese air force. In Bay’s world, solutions come from violence and testosterone.

As a man who loves masculinity, Bay idealizes the working class. Lawrence’s character in Bad Boys is supposedly from a working class background, even though he rarely has to deal with working class problems. Smith’s character, on the other hand, is a trust-fund baby who has to repudiate his privileged background and reach for something more real- a job in the police force. The Transformers movies give Shia LaBoeuf’s Sam a supposedly lower-middle class background while still giving his family a nice house and Sam plenty of nice things. Armageddon makes the heroes blue collar oil workers rather than the brainy astronauts. One could easily find Bay’s view of the working class condescending or ignorant of the truth, but it’s more an romanticized view of the working class where they’re both down-to-earth and without the serious problems that they’d have in real life. Sometimes they might have to sacrifice themselves (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor), but more often that sacrifice turns out to be a test before they save the day (Transformers trilogy, The Rock). Bay would have a world where the working class can solve anything, and that might be one of the reasons his films have caught on with a mass audience.

Similarly, Bay idealizes the military. The heroes of The Rock are capable men of violence with codes of honor, and Ed Harris’ military-based villain is a good man who’s been pushed too far. The men of Pearl Harbor are unambiguous heroes. The gung-ho military men of the Transformers films, while comically underdeveloped, are present at the end of every movie, having played a major role in the final battle. Bay’s view of the military is oversimplified to the point of being insulting, but like his idealization of the working class, it’s also highly effective in appealing to mass audiences.

At the same time, Bay has a huge problem with authority. Where the villains are usually typical movie bad guys (gangsters, evil forces, enemy militaries), authority figures are usually incompetent, untrustworthy, or ineffectual. That’s not uncommon among great blockbuster filmmakers (one can find this within the works of Steven Spielberg and James Cameron), but Bay’s view is too broad and adolescent to be satirical. Really, it’s just a matter of authority figures being dumb. The government agents of The Rock and Armageddon make situations worse and often risk the heroes’ lives. Joe Pantoliano’s police chief in Bad Boys is a shouting buffoon who can’t do what the heroes do. The ineffectual liberal presidential advisor of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen had many mark Bay as a conservative filmmaker, but he doesn’t have a very positive view of the government of the Bush-era Transformers, which blatantly disregards the rights of Shia LaBoeuf’s hero. He’s not a political filmmaker. He’s more of a nihilistic anti-authoritarian.

At the end of the day, Bay isn’t interested in boundaries of any kind. One recurring theme is indicative of who he is as an artist: the ineffectual hero forced to take action. Bay’s former Wesleyan professor Jeanine Basinger described him as a quiet, polite, talented student whose brash films showed his bad boy personality. Bay has since transitioned to being an overtly confrontational filmmaker on and off set, known for yelling at his crews to get exactly what he wants. One can see signs of Bay in LaBoeuf’s protagonist of the Transformers trilogy, a meek, constantly stuttering boy who finally becomes more active and heroic as the series goes on. Then there’s The Rock, in which Nicolas Cage’s gee-whiz goofball becomes an ass-kicking hero by the end, going from making nonsense pronouncements of “Zeus’ butthole!” to actually swearing by the end. Gaining that sense of masculinity is all-important to Bay. It might be sickening on an ideological level to most critical viewers, but one shouldn’t mistake him for a charlatan pandering to man’s worst instincts. Whether one finds his sincerity exhilarating or infuriating, he means every bit of it.
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