Transformative Mysteries II

After venting the old irony spleen on Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen a few days ago, an astute reader (thank you Bernard) pointed me toward another account of the film feigning similar stupefaction.  In her post  Michael Bay Finally Made an Art Film, Charlie Jane Anders deftly examines the movie as a blockbuster braiding of male anxiety and id-driven spectacle, framed by the longstanding avant-garde quest for the irrational sublime.  Anders' piece (written a year ago when the film first came out) starts from the basic premise that T2:ROTF is so horrifyingly bad that it must actually be secretly brilliant; moreover, this "brilliance" can only be gleaned through intensive analytical labor on the part of the critic.  Her reading opts for a bit more unity (at least critically) than mine, but basically they are very close in tone and voice.

Those familiar with Greg Taylor's excellent book Artists in the Audience will recognize this gesture.  Feigning ignorance and bafflement in the face of the terrible has been a staple of what Taylor calls "vanguard criticism" since the 1950s.  Reading Anders' case for the "art film" status of T2:ROTF right after my own attempts to riff on the movie's "philosophical complexity" served as another personal reminder of how "film criticism" works in genres every bit as conventional as the cinema itself (with all kudos to Anders--her piece is much better written, two days after seeing the film in an actual theater no less. I would have still been soaking my eyeballs in saline).  But the similarity between the two pieces also made me think about why the films of Michael Bay in particular inspire such loathing within a certain formation of "film culture."  Moreover, what is it about the "Bay aesthetic" that makes ironic mystification such an attractive critical response?  In other words, why is it so fun to argue (ironically, of course) that Bay's films are somehow "brilliant" when clearly, painfully, they are not.

Hollywood grinds out several "bad" movies every year, some of them appallingly so. Within this vast and admittedly subjective grouping, most critics will further distinguish between the "good/bad" and the "bad/bad."  For example, while I feel T2: ROTF is truly an abomination, I have real affection for Roland Emmerich's 10,000 BC (2008)--a film that is arguably just as ridiculous and made by a director commonly linked with Bay in alarmist accounts of the popular cinema's ongoing descent into becoming little more than direct stimulation of the brain stem.  Perhaps it is simply a matter of nostalgia, an appreciation that Emmerich chose to resurrect one of the cinema's most patently absurd genres, and did so long after everyone else had realized that movies set in the Neolithic era are inevitably and instantaneously hilarious. Bay's films don't really look backward, which is perhaps what makes them so threatening to critics. They may not be THE future of the cinema, but clearly they speak to certain dominating aspects of that future.  At some point Bay's film's may be more accessible as "camp," but for now they feel so cinematically "Other" as to seem vaguely evil--"ahead of their time" perhaps, but a "time" that many would prefer not visit (an era when T7: Megatron and the Chamber of Infinite Explosions is playing next to Ass, the mythical Oscar-winning comedy featured in Mike Judge's sadly prescient Idiocracy).  For many cinephiles (myself included, I guess), Bay's films are the Decepticons of the cinema--seemingly ordinary movies that in fact conceal the very forces that will ultimately conquer and destroy everything that once made the movies enjoyable.   

Why has Bay in particular been singled out for such scorn?  The background in advertising certainly doesn't help, either in terms of his reputation or as an actual influence on his strategies as a filmmaker.  For most lefty aesthetes (which comprise the largest pool of film critics), advertising is the ne plus ultra of artistic whoredom.  While many will make allowances for someone like Michael Gondry in that his ad-work is "groundbreaking" and "edgy" (almost as if they are art experiments that just happen to help move products; or more to the point, they move products by selling an affiliation with the taste of the ad's aesthetic), Bay's work is more in the "shock and awe" school of radical mystification, the kind of spots that seem to take "commodity fetishism" as a blueprint rather than as a critique.  His Chevy "Car Carrier" ad is exemplary in this respect, demonstrating also that Bay is much more talented at directing objects than he is subjects.  No wonder The Transformers films have taken over his creative life.

When applied to feature filmmaking, Bay's emphasis on the fast-moving "hard sell" typical of advertising has had a profound impact on the look and pacing of his films.  Consider, for example, the first shot of Megan Fox in T2: ROTF.  Understanding that Fox is to supply the film's sex appeal for adolescents of all ages who love cars and chicks (and especially chicks in proximity to cars), Bay introduces his leading lady sprawled across a motorcycle wearing a tank-top, cut-off shorts, and cowboy boots. In case we still don't get the message that Fox is SEXY, SEXY, SEXY, Bay has her thrust her ass up in the air to signify that either she or the bike is about to get mounted (and given the premise of the series, who's to say what will fuck whom?  Here I think we have to proceed from Freud's assertion that all dreams of machinery are ultimately about the genitalia--a point elaborated on by his student Victor Tausk, who speculated that boyhood fascination with magical machinery is linked to the somewhat uncanny hydraulic mysteries of the erection.  Actually, we need go no further than the logic of the Transformers franchise itself to understand that she's giving some lucky Bot here a Prince Albert or a Henna tattoo on his shiny metal glans).

One reason most "tasteful" critics find Bay appalling is that his "style" is so exceedingly obvious.  The introduction of Fox's character here unfolds much like a late-night spot for the Sham-Wow, so hysterically overloaded with signifiers of sex appeal as to become laughable (all that's missing is some form of testimonial, perhaps a cutaway to a guy's eyeballs popping out a la Tex Avery). The "objectification" of Fox is in itself extremely obvious.  But this "objectification" goes beyond simply making her a slab of meat on display (I mean, really, who would care about that anymore?); it also renders her--like every other "character" in T2:ROTF--a functional object, or perhaps more accurately, a cog that simply takes its place in the overall schematic of the story.  As befitting a director who makes movies about trucks that turn into robots and robots into trucks--all rendered with a clean, hypervisible attention to each detail of the transformation--Bay's movies do little to disguise, nuance, or even delay the functionality of each individual "part."  Establish that Megan Fox is the sexy girlfriend.  Check.  Moving on.  

Again, many directors can be rather ham-handed when it comes to supplying story information (especially "exposition," which as many critics have lamented appears to be a lost art in Hollywood).  But Bay further inflames critics, I think, by linking this exceedingly obvious narrative style to an equally transparent ideological agenda.  Early in T2:ROTF, for example, a government weasel arrives at the military base that houses the heroic Autobots.  He brings a warning: Perhaps the Autobots have outlived their usefulness on earth.  Perhaps the Autobot program will have to be shut down.  Orders from the President.  In effect, he arrives on scene to indulge the conservative fantasy of the bureaucratic liberal wussy, one hopelessly out-of-touch with the tremendous sacrifices made by our military and their awesome robot friends (later he gets thrown rudely out of an airplane with only minimal advice on how to use his parachute).  Annoying, but not inexcusable--after all that's just one of the many stupid stereotypes Hollywood occasionally trades in to generate some semblance of narrative conflict.  But what makes this character particularly egregious is our later discovery that he serves, not a "fake" President or even a thinly disguised Presidential type, but President Barack Hussein Obama himself.  Imagine: you've just paid ten bucks to see Optimus Prime kick Decepticon ass, but apparently the socialist leader of Kenya does not want you to have that pleasure.  Sorry kids.  Just more reasons to vote GOP.

There is little doubt, meanwhile, that historians looking to understand the debacle of the Bush administration will turn to Armageddon (1998) as a key text for unpacking the delusional ideology of conservatism at the threshold of the 21st century.  From Bruce Willis hitting golf balls at environmentalists from atop a deep sea oil rig to his clutching an American flag as he "defeats" the evil-doing asteroid, Armageddon is nothing less than the final hallucination of American exceptionalism, perhaps the only post-9/11 film to be made before 9/11. 

Which leads to another question that haunts the critical class.  Is Bay's excessive obviousness as a director a sign of "incompetence," or is it instead a more sinister strategy of right-wing cynicism?  Staying with Armageddon for a moment, one of the astronauts selected for the dangerous task of asteroid destruction is "Chick" (Will Patton).  Shortly before leaving on his secret mission, he visits his ex to let her know he might be gone for a while.  A small boy comes out on the porch.  It's Chick's son, but the boy doesn't know it.  The ex tells Chick he needs to stay away for the boy's sake.  A single scene, no more than a couple of minutes in length.  Needless to say, this "story line" vanishes once everyone is in space looking to blow up the asteroid.  Cut to the final scene.  The surviving astronauts return home victorious.  Everyone has a loved one to meet them...except for the lonely Chick, who looks around the tarmac wistfully.  But then, from behind a pick-up truck (!), out dashes his son--an American flag emblazoned across his chest--running to meet the man who he now knows is his Dad. Chick's ex is there too--a family restored.

From the perspective of basic narrative competence, the film has come nowhere near "earning" this moment of overblown emotional theatrics.  Bookending set-up and payoff in single takes may work well in comedy, but we typically require a more sustained engagement of "dramatic" issues in order to feel adequately "vested," making this "story line" either unbelievably underdeveloped or, worse, horrifyingly cynical (and here we can drag in the film's screenwriters as well, including J.J. Abrams!). Here too is a source of critical exasperation with Bay.  In allowing this farcical reunion to reach the screen, does he not know what he's doing?  Or, more disturbingly, does he know exactly what's he's doing?  Does he understand that American consumer-viewers in particular will uncritically fall for sentimentalized horseshit every time, no matter how threadbare, craven, and yes, OBVIOUS its presentation? 

Which returns us, finally, to the question of irony.  Why do so many critics feign stupefaction in response to Bay's films, sarcastically hailing them as avant-garde art or as enigmatic philosophy?  Perhaps it's because most critics (again, of the lefty intellectual variety) feel so profoundly alienated from Bay's sensibility--both at the level of form and content--that they genuinely ARE stupefied by his movies, and so they cloak that utter disbelief in the nervously disaffected laughter of irony.  For me, T2: ROTF  is so confused and confusing as to join the ranks of those films that "fail" so spectacularly in terms of conventional filmmaking that I can only suspect it is succeeding at something else.  Just what that something else is remains anyone's guess. Which makes me extremely nervous, and thus sarcastic. 

Consider the alarming facts:  The Transformers began 25 years ago as a cartoon series specifically developed to sell toy action figures to ten-year-old boys.  As of 2011, there will be three motion pictures costing over 600 million dollars bringing this "world" (and its more ineffable "worldview") to the screen in live action form. That reality in and of itself may be the most terrifyingly dystopic science-fiction premise I have ever encountered.

I certainly don't understand how a terrible movie based on the sadistic fantasy life of prepubescent boys made over $400 million dollars.  Do you?

Whatever the ultimate explanation, it can't be good, either for the cinema or for whatever world cinephiles think they still live in. 


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