Ex­plod­ing the myth of Michael Bay, in whose films there is more than meets the eye

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CULTURE - By ROB­BIE COLLIN

Michael Bay wants you to know that, what­ever you may have heard else­where, the death of cin­ema is not his fault. Or at least, that’s the only pos­si­ble way to de­code a scene near the start of Trans­form­ers: Age of Ex­tinc­tion (2014), in which the el­derly owner of a derelict pic­ture palace be­moans the state of cin­ema these days, be­fore pin­ing for the Hol­ly­wood ex­trav­a­gan­zas of yore.

“The movies nowa­days, that’s the trou­ble. Se­quels and re­makes, bunch of crap,” he sniffs, be­fore ges­tur­ing to a poster for Howard Hawks’s El Do­rado (1967), with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. “I love that one,” he adds, then mist­ily rem­i­nisces against a back­drop of cob­webbed pro­jec­tors and reels: “You know, folks used to come from miles around to see the danc­ing girls with the big cha-chas.”

From the di­rec­tor of The Rock (1996), Pearl Har­bor (2001) and five Trans­form­ers films to date, this is rel­a­tively sub­tle stuff — but both his point and its tar­gets aren’t hard to fig­ure out. Hawks’s El Do­rado was both a se­quel and a re­make: it was the sec­ond in a se­ries of three neari­den­ti­cally plot­ted west­erns by the great film­maker in which sher­iffs vie with bands of out­laws to re­store or­der on their turf.

All three are hefty con­sid­er­a­tions, run­ning from be­tween a squeak un­der two hours to al­most two-anda-half, and make break­neck tonal swerves, from ac­tion to com­edy, ro­mance, tragedy and out­right spec­ta­cle, in a seem­ing at­tempt to give his au­di­ence the max­i­mum chunk of movie for their buck. (As for the cha-chas, if you’ve seen Gen­tle­men Pre­fer Blondes, you’ll know Hawks’s stance on those.)

Bay isn’t call­ing him­self the new Howard Hawks — or at least, I don’t think he is. But he’s slyly draw­ing at­ten­tion to the fact that all the things for which he’s reg­u­larly con­demned — the sheer scale and bom­bast of his films, their mad jan­gle of moods, the tongue-lolling de­pic­tions of women, the set-pieces so ex­trav­a­gant they’re inches from ab­strac­tion — have in fact been the stuff of proper cin­ema since time im­memo­rial. Bay just does it all big­ger, louder and sleazier than any­one be­fore him.

Which brings us to his box-of­fice record: $3.8 bil­lion world­wide and count­ing for the Trans­form­ers fran­chise alone (with the fifth en­try, The Last Knight), plus com­mer­cial suc­cess on al­most ev­ery other project (even his rel­a­tively small-scale 2013 crime ca­per Pain & Gain made al­most $90 mil­lion).

These aren’t the num­bers of a film­maker who’s killing off the cin­e­matic ex­pe­ri­ence: in fact, in the face of the stream­ing rev­o­lu­tion, Bay’s films may be play­ing a sig­nif­i­cant role in shoring it up.

And that’s ex­actly as it should be. Bay’s films only make sense in the mul­ti­plex, where the grand­est pos­si­ble screen and loud­est pos­si­ble sound sys­tem let you soak up ev­ery de­tail of his trash-max­i­mal­ist aes­thetic. Watch Trans­form­ers in your liv­ing room and you ex­pe­ri­ence about 40 per cent of it, tops. The full pic­ture re­quires the kind of au­dio­vi­sual rig that could oblit­er­ate the walls of Jeri­cho.

Crit­i­cal per­spec­tive

De­fend­ing Bay from a crit­i­cal per­spec­tive is, shall we say, a lonely call­ing. In a video re­view of the sec­ond Trans­form­ers film, Re­venge of the Fallen (2009) — that’s the one with the De­cep­ti­con called Dev­as­ta­tor, who has tes­ti­cles made from de­mo­li­tion balls — the BBC’s Mark Ker­mode spent 40 sec­onds word­lessly bang­ing his head against an air con­di­tion­ing duct.

The Guardian’s Peter Brad­shaw likened 13 Hours (2016), Bay’s film about the diplo­matic siege in Beng­hazi, to “play­ing Call of Duty for 72 hours straight — only with­out the sub­tlety and in­sight.” And the Tele­graph’s Tim Robey sug­gested that Pain & Gain, for all its ul­tra-low-an­gle shots of its mus­cle­bound leads, might as well have been shot by “a dog on a skate­board”.

I’ll ad­mit I chuck­led at all three of these re­views, and also that the kind Knight TheLast of cin­ema-go­ers who take an in­ter­est in what crit­ics think would prob­a­bly far rather read well-turned anti-Bay barbs than spir­ited if prob­a­bly fruit­less de­fences of his work like this one. But I’m star­tled by just how speed­ily Bay’s di­rec­to­rial style is of­ten dis­missed as worth­less or ir­re­deemable, or his in­flu­ence picked over in ex­clu­sively neg­a­tive terms.

“Crit­ics of­ten look at movies through one par­tic­u­lar frame­work,” Lorenzo di Bon­aven­tura, a pro­ducer on the Trans­form­ers fran­chise, told me last week. “It doesn’t have to be just about sto­ry­telling, or char­ac­ter — though, by the way, Michael has very en­dear­ing char­ac­ters in his movies. He’s push­ing for­ward the cin­e­matic ex­pe­ri­ence. The rea­son I’m in film is movies like Deer Hunter and Apoca­lypse Now, but I’m not go­ing to judge those films in the same way I would Trans­form­ers.”

“Ev­ery sin­gle thing he puts on screen is worth see­ing,” said Matt Hol­loway, who co-wrote The Last Knight with Art Mar­cum and Ken Nolan. “And when you work with him, it re­ally is a Michael Bay film. It’s his movie. If any­thing came close to some­thing he’d al­ready shown peo­ple, we had to try again.”

“It could be some holdover from the 1990s,” spec­u­lated Nolan. “Tony Scott was con­sid­ered a mere shooter com­pared to his brother Ri­d­ley the artist, but if you go back now and watch Man on Fire and Spy Game, those are amaz­ing movies. He was do­ing crazy s___.”

In fact, on the re­cent Alien: Covenant press tour, Sir Ri­d­ley came out swing­ing for Bay, de­scrib­ing the Trans­form­ers fran­chise as “dig­i­tal mas­ter­pieces”. “That’s hard to do,” he Trans­form­ers: The Last Knight; said. “And peo­ple may laugh or love it. I ad­mire it be­cause I haven’t got that pa­tience to do that. But he’s got the kind of brain that makes it work.”

Ac­cord­ing to the cin­e­matog­ra­pher Wally Pfis­ter, Christo­pher Nolan is also an ad­mirer. “There are the movies out there that he loves and I hate,” he said in a 2010 in­ter­view, around the re­lease of the sec­ond Trans­form­ers film. “I’m not a big Michael Bay fan. Chris loves Michael Bay’s movies. And so I’m al­ways like, ‘Come on, dude!’ But he sees some­thing in it, and I don’t see it.”

It’s easy to pic­ture Nolan — an early cin­ema buff and an ob­ses­sive when it comes to so­lid­ity and scale — be­ing wowed by Bay’s trade­mark low an­gles, which put the viewer on their back in a po­si­tion of re­cum­bent ease, like a Ro­man em­peror wait­ing to be fin­ger-fed his next grape. Bay keeps his cam­era close to the ground be­cause it makes ev­ery­thing larger than life — lines of per­spec­tive are more dra­matic, while fast-mov­ing ob­jects can reach the cam­era from the hori­zon in a mat­ter of heart­beats.

The tech­nique re­minds me of the gas-sta­tion paint­ings made by the great Amer­i­can pop-artist Ed­ward Ruscha in the 1960s — stark, blar­ing, cheese-wedge struc­tures, some licked by flame, all of which dom­i­nate the frame be­fore di­min­ish­ing to a pin-prick. Ruscha said in a 2013 New Yorker in­ter­view that the paint­ings had been in­spired by silent cin­ema: “You know those movies where a train starts out in the lower-right cor­ner and grad­u­ally fills the screen? The gas sta­tion is on a di­ag­o­nal like that, from lower right to up­per left.”

Com­po­si­tional tricks

Bay de­ploys the same early cin­ema com­po­si­tional tricks to the same ends. If you’re in doubt, look at the out­ra­geous mo­tor­cy­cle se­quence in Buster Keaton’s Sher­lock Jr.: those on­rush­ing hair’s-breadth misses on the rail­way line and busy road are Bay­hem seven decades be­fore the fact. It’s easy not to no­tice the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­cause Bay’s cut­ting is so fran­tic, but taken in iso­la­tion, ev­ery shot has a dis­tinc­tive vis­ual logic and also (again, com­pletely se­ri­ous) an au­teur sig­na­ture: you know you’re watch­ing bona fide Bay, rather than the work of his nu­mer­ous im­i­ta­tors, within about 10 sec­onds.

One of his favourite shots is a con­voy of ve­hi­cles ham­mer­ing to­wards us on that same, Ruscha­vian di­ag­o­nal. Whether by in­stinct or de­sign, he knows how to com­pose a shot — maybe ev­ery shot — for max­i­mum vis­ual in­ten­sity. Even when he’s just blow­ing up a build­ing (or a Trans­former, or any­thing else), his ex­plo­sions don’t tend to be form­less fire­balls, but Ro­man can­dle-like vec­tors of sparks, bring­ing dy­namism and per­spec­tive to the un­fold­ing chaos.

In­ten­tion­ally or oth­er­wise, Bay is a le­git­i­mate pop-art au­teur with an un­mis­take­able vis­ual sig­na­ture — you know you’re watch­ing bona fide Bay, rather than the work of his nu­mer­ous im­i­ta­tors, within about 30 sec­onds — and one of his favourite shots is a con­voy of ve­hi­cles ham­mer­ing to­wards us on that same, Ruscha­vian di­ag­o­nal.

Whether by de­sign or in­stinct, he knows how to com­pose a shot — maybe ev­ery shot — for max­i­mum vis­ual in­ten­sity. Even when he’s just blow­ing up a build­ing (or a Trans­former, or any­thing else), his ex­plo­sions don’t tend to be form­less fire­balls, but Ro­man can­dle-like vec­tors of sparks, bring­ing dy­namism and per­spec­tive to the un­fold­ing chaos.

For more on Bay’s vis­ual lan­guage, watch the video es­say ‘What is Bay­hem?’ by the critic Tony Zhou, which bril­liantly analy­ses Bay’s other vis­ual trade­marks, in­clud­ing the or­bital close-up that’s been around since his de­but fea­ture Bad Boys (1995). That tech­nique helped Bay turn his then merely sit­com-fa­mous lead Will Smith into a movie star: he sold him to cin­ema-go­ers like a fizzy drink, in glis­ten­ing slow mo­tion in the beat­ing sum­mer heat.

Per­haps this is why Bay’s shoot­ing style ap­pals so many crit­ics: it lends it­self to ma­te­ri­al­ism and mil­i­tarism, two creeds that of­ten go hand-in­hand with low­brow art, and are nearuni­ver­sal crit­i­cal turn-offs. But Bay’s work shame­lessly buzzes with both: blue-col­lar hero­ism solves prob­lems, diplo­macy al­ways fails, and ev­ery­thing shiny and ex­pen­sive is fetishised to the point of car­toon­ish­ness. In short, his films feel Amer­i­can — and mod­ern-day Amer­i­can, to be ex­act.

“When it started, Amer­ica was just a hand­ful of scrawny colonies,” says Mark Wahlberg’s char­ac­ter in Pain & Gain, a Mi­ami gym freak whose pur­suit of the na­tional Dream in­volves kid­nap­ping, ex­tor­tion and tor­ture with sex toys. “Now, it’s the most buff, pumped-up coun­try on the planet. That’s pretty rad.”

What’s more, Bay’s vi­sion of a rad Amer­ica — su­per-sized, steroid­pumped, self-par­o­dic — is one that trav­els. Trans­form­ers: Age of Ex­tinc­tion made al­most a quar­ter of a bil­lion dol­lars in the US, but sig­nif­i­cantly more in China, where the film’s third act is set. Even the pseudo-ro­man­tic epic Pearl Har­bor (2001) — Bay’s only truly hor­ren­dous film, which was de­scribed by Dick Cook, a for­mer chair­man at Dis­ney, as “one of the most dif­fi­cult shoots of mod­ern his­tory” — was a 4.5 bil­lionyen hit in Ja­pan, with only a few ju­di­cious ed­its and di­a­logue tweaks.

“I met this guy in Bali who lives in a hut with a tele­vi­sion, and he loved The Rock,” Bay said in a 1998 in­ter­view. “That means some­thing, doesn’t it?” Damn right it does. The world wants to buy what he’s sell­ing.

Hol­ly­wood mu­si­cals

Per­haps tellingly, Bay’s film-school grad­u­a­tion project was an ad­vert: a 90-sec­ond spot for Coca-Cola set on an Amer­i­can air­craft car­rier on V-J Day, no less. He grew up with the first-gen­er­a­tion block­busters of Ge­orge Lu­cas and Steven Spiel­berg — as a 15-year-old, he took a sum­mer job at Lu­cas­film, fil­ing sto­ry­boards for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

And at col­lege he was a sworn ad­mirer of Hol­ly­wood mu­si­cals, that genre which hap­pily breaks all laws of nor­mal hu­man in­ter­ac­tion for spec­ta­cle’s sake. ( West Side Story was ap­par­ently a favourite, and the in­flu­ence of Jerome Rob­bins’ film on the Trans­form­ers se­ries — again, com­pletely se­ri­ously — is ex­plored in Zhou’s video es­say.)

The fi­nal puz­zle piece is the film­mak­ing cli­mate into which Bay grad­u­ated in the mid-1980s. In his mid-20s he directed ad­verts and mu­sic videos and was spot­ted by the pro­duc­ing team Jerry Bruck­heimer and Don Simp­son, who’d worked with the di­rec­tor Tony Scott on Top Gun (1986) and Days of Thun­der (1990). (Like Bay, Scott had started in ad­ver­tis­ing.)

Bruck­heimer and Simp­son gave the then-29-year-old Bay his big break with Bad Boys, then came back for more. He re­paid them with The Rock (1996): ar­guably his best film, full of the pro­fane, jab­ber­ing di­a­logue and fire­work car­nage that would be­come his call­ing cards.

“Losers al­ways whine about their best. Win­ners go home and f--- the prom queen,” Sean Con­nery’s griz­zled ex-con­vict ad­vises Ni­co­las Cage, as the duo try to in­fil­trate Al­ca­traz. When Con­nery spoke the line he was 65 years old, and it’s pre­sented with­out irony. It might as well be the film’s moral.

Ar­maged­don (1998), which came next, was an all-star bore, al­though it beat its smarter twin, Mimi Leder’s Deep Im­pact, at the box of­fice. But Pearl Har­bor (2001), his first at­tempt at a ma­ture film, made him a laugh­ing stock de­spite its com­mer­cial suc­cess. Roger Ebert, in one of the mas­ter critic’s dri­est pans, de­scribed it as “a two-hour movie squeezed into three hours.”

Af­ter his at­tempt at go­ing se­ri­ous was mocked, Bay turned ni­hilis­ti­cally flip­pant. He bounced back like a bazooka shell with Bad Boys II (2003), his crass­est film to date by far, which fea­tures a car chase in which dead bod­ies spill out the back of a run­away morgue van, and a scene in which Smith and Martin Lawrence’s love­able heroes var­i­ously ogle and des­e­crate corpses on an un­der­cover trip to a mor­tu­ary. (The se­quence was mim­icked in this sum­mer’s fea­ture re­boot of Bay­watch.)

That’s more or less the register Bay has been work­ing in since. Many would ar­gue that made him an odd choice to cap­tain a fran­chise based on a chil­dren’s car­toon and toy range, and his high-pro­file feuds with two of its orig­i­nal stars, Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox, only helped ce­ment Bay’s rep­u­ta­tion for dumb abra­sive­ness. But DreamWorks’ ini­tial ap­proach was made by Steven Spiel­berg him­self, who thought — en­tirely cor­rectly — that Bay’s ado­les­cent sense of hu­mour would un­der­mine the grandios­ity of the premise just enough for it to click with the mass mar­ket.

For a flavour of how things might have oth­er­wise panned out, look to Guillermo del Toro’s Pa­cific Rim (2013): a wildly su­pe­rior gi­ant ro­bot film, but one which was made with a heart-on-sleeve earnest­ness and strug­gled to con­nect with western au­di­ences (though it fared far bet­ter over­seas). That’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween $411 mil­lion and al­most four bil­lion dol­lars to date.

What’s more, the Trans­form­ers­verse is free from the pan­icky post­mortems that have be­dev­illed the DC Comics fran­chise: these films are turn­ing out ex­actly as they’re sup­posed to, and con­nect­ing with their au­di­ence on the lizard-brain level in­tended.

In short, Bay’s do­ing lots of things right, with a hit rate other block­buster di­rec­tors would kill for. Isn’t it time for crit­ics to fi­nally swal­low their pride and look a lit­tle more closely at what they might be?

When you work with him, it re­ally is a Michael Bay film ... If any­thing came close to some­thing he’d al­ready shown peo­ple, we had to try again.”

Matt Hol­loway, co-writer of


Op­ti­mus Prime and Bum­ble­bee in Di­rec­tor and Ex­ec­u­tive Pro­ducer Michael Bay greets fans dur­ing the film’s China World Pre­miere; Laura Had­dock as Vi­viane Wem­bly and Mark Wahlberg as Cade Yea­ger; Is­abela Moner plays Iz­abella and Jer­rod Carmichael plays Jimmy.

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