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