Last Friday, while attempting to write yet another lengthy post about the London Film Festival, I was repeatedly distracted by Twitter. This is nothing new. However, one of the people I follow whose name escapes me now (sorry) linked to an article posted on the film discussion site The Auteurs. I’d heard of it before but stayed away as I thought it had something to do with the dreary Luke Haines band, but in fact it’s a nice way to completely waste hours of your time, rating and “favouriting” movies to create a Profile for yourself, complete with representative movie still selection so you can have an iconic image next to your name (I went with Gene Hackman in The Conversation). It was pleasantly pointless, though I did take enormous pleasure in giving Slumdog Millionaire and Happy-Go-Lucky one star each, and Kung Fu Panda the five stars it so richly deserves. Take that, Sight and Sound subscribers.
The article that directed me to this site via Twitter was this lovely little prose poem half-heartedly giving Michael Bay some credit while referring to “fascism” and suchlike. This is possibly the only even vaguely positive critique of Bay’s work I’ve seen on the Internet that hasn’t been written by a teenager with an apostrophe allergy, and as such deserves to be preserved in amber. It might never happen again. As I said earlier this year, my opinion of Bay is torn between fascination and revulsion, the latter becoming more pronounced after the casual (but no less odious) racial insensitivity of Transformers — with the breakdancing jive-talking African-American parody known as Jazz getting killed in the final act, as is sadly the norm in movies — “transformed” into the full-on indefensible racial stereotyping of Skids and Mudflap. Shades of Caruso reader and former Transformers fan Lindywasp (one of her noms de Net) once sent me a very passionate disavowal of the sequel after an upsetting experience at a screening where the audience went from excited to silence once the extent of the caricature settled in. I was concerned by Bay’s decision before, but after reading her heartfelt condemnation, I became furious.
Though I’ll not be able to think of Bay without thinking about that incredible cloth-eared arrogance, I have still long been fascinated — as Daisyhellcakes can attest, having listened to me go on about it at length — by his public persona as the Fratboy DeMille, a man who stomps around like an over-excited teenager while making canny backroom deals for profit points, keeping the cost of his (sill expensive) movies down with obnoxious product placement, and buying effects houses such as Digital Domain. This bravado is ripe for parody, most brilliantly by the faux-Twitterer Fake Michael Bay (sample tweet: “Dammit, if I had a dollar for every time I dropped my iphone out of a helicopter doing a barrel roll…”), though I suspect he’s in on the joke.
Even more fascinating to me than Bay the Man/Douchebag is that signature style of his. Like haphazardly edited two-hour-long trailers, his films are plot-light endurance tests; a relentless swarm of images that he hurls at the audience, seemingly not caring why image B must follow image A. As long as the barrage of glowing, flashing, swirling pictures and the cacophony of multi-tracked sound effects keeps audiences pinned to their seats, Bay seems to think “Job done!” and then returns to his swanky Bay-Cave to drink Crystal and watch Total Wipeout. Is this good filmmaking? Hell no, and as I’ve attempted to explain before, I would never be able to argue that it was (though Danny Boyle’s similar everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach wins critical approval and Oscars). However, he does create an experience that no one else has the studio backing, the technical know-how, and the obnoxious confidence to be able to pull off.
Examples: Transformers ends with a city being pulverised, complete with epic firefights on a main street that totals buildings and blows up cars. The destruction-gasm setpiece in Pearl Harbor — a wretched film of enormous ethical dubiousness — contains the single most expensive shot caught on film, which is ghoulish, wasteful, and logistically impressive all at the same time. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is capped off with a huge scene where an Egyptian village gets mashed into the ground, pretty much (I’m sure it was not a real village, but if it’s fake he still managed to get it built before blowing bits of it up). He shows aircraft carriers getting split in half as if it ain’t no thing. These are stereotypically big and dumb crowd-pleasing moments that I’m sure Eric Rohmer’s fanbase would consider utterly vulgar, but they look impressive in slices. It’s not in Bay’s interest to coral these images into a coherent narrative other than “Man go from point A to point B while the world explodes.” It’s enough for him to hint that there is a goal that his heroes are trying to achieve, and as long as it seems there is some kind of forward momentum while he stages bravura visual orgasms containing complicated visual and physical effects, that’s enough for him.
Again, I’m aware that this is not technically artistically valid on a large-scale level, but on a micro-level, I cannot look away. Every dumb populist miscalculation like his nasty treatment of women, or his blindness to the wrongness of using racial stereotypes for stupid lowest-common denominator jokes, or his infantile reliance on slapstick and screaming instead of nuance and character growth, or any number of other admittedly dreadful habits, run parallel to his facility with composition. There are so many shots he has created that make my eyes wobble with pleasure that I cannot forget them. His reliance on patriotic button-pushing aside, he can create stirring moments just through imagery in a way that would probably make propagandists salivate. That ability to capture an emotion through manipulative visuals, aided by the pounding music of Hans Zimmer or Steve Jablonsky, is unparalleled. He truly is Leni Riefenstahl with a baseball cap and a collection of sports-cars in his Beverly Hills mansion.
And yet, despite this facility with imagery — perhaps the one thing I think even his detractors should accept, even if really really really grudgingly — he is treated like the Boogeyman. Numerous people accuse Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen of being the worst film of the year. Granted, it’s not very good, but I’ve seen far far far worse movies released this year. Just a cursory flick through the Auteurs site sees a number of forum threads based around hating him, including Why is Michael Bay on Criterion?, Is Michael Bay the worst director of all time?, and Reasons to *HATE* Michael Bay. The thread NAME THE FILM MAKERS YOU THINK SHOULD RETIRED OR SHOULD NOT BELONG TO THIS INDUSTRY AT ALL is filled with calls for Bay’s immediate withdrawal from the film industry. I get the feeling that this is a running joke, though it is borne of genuine frustration at his movies and his success.
They’re not the only ones who dislike him, of course. Mainstream critics are revolted by his movies, and even on a site oft-visited by the people you would think comprise his most ardent fanbase (Ain’t It Cool News), Bay is treated like a pariah. “Damn You Michael Bay” is a long-running Internet joke that has become a mantra. Bay hatred appears to be reflexive, the last word in an argument. Why accuse any other filmmakers of crimes against decency? Isn’t it obvious that Bay is the worst of the worst, representing everything that is debased and evil about modern cinema? He’s an unpleasant man with poor taste who appeals to the slack-jawed yokels and the hoodies and the youths with their popcorn and their knives and their mobile phones and suchlike and so on and so on etc. ad infinitum.
He’s the Hitler of films. Mike Godwin postulated that the overuse of mentioning Hitler in online arguments was sadly inevitable (“As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”) Well, I reckon that there is another law we can accept as fact by now. “As an online discussion about film or culture grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Michael Bay approaches 1.” I don’t think this law should be associated with my real life name, which doesn’t have the Ooomph that “Godwin” has (that’s the kind of name that belongs in front of the word “law”). Therefore I propose we refer to this as Burke’s Law, named after the TV series from the 60s that was revived in the 90s. Why Burke’s Law? Because I always hear that phrase said in the same way as in the 90s title sequence, i.e. with this voice…
…and there is nothing more awesome than that. Sex up that show title, Sexy-Voiced Lady. (Here’s the first part of a full episode, just to show it in amazing context.)
So yeah, whenever a discussion about sucky film directors inevitably begins to focus almost exclusively on the vapidity of Bay’s destructo-porn epics, feel free to mention Burke’s Law. If Bay is what people think represents the true nadir of modern filmmaking, that’s up to them, but if they’re not willing to expand their search to other far less talented individuals out there, then I just can’t take them seriously. I see Dr. Uwe Boll get mentioned a lot, and he’s certainly a candidate. He’s made a shit-ton of laughably awful movies in the past — many more than Bay — and he has now tried to make himself seem classier by making a film about Darfur. However, he’s filming real rape victims re-enacting their own rape for his camera. Making fun of his shitty output suddenly doesn’t seem so funny.
If we’re going to talk about directors who create deafening, poorly storyboarded and edited action scenes that substitute crashing, clashing cacophony for flow and plot momentum, how about Stephen Sommers? He combines Bay’s inability to understand the clear, unambiguous narrative progression of a movie or an action scene with a flat eye for visuals, as evidenced by the busy but tedious G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra? Or Rob Cohen, a man who has yet to make even a half-way decent action movie? Though I’ve not seen his most recent movie — Fast and Furious — I did endure Stealth (where some of the best visual effects ever committed to film were wasted on a farrago of galactic proportions) and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, which actually managed to be the worst film in the Mummy franchise. It takes a special kind of witless hack to out-Stephen-Sommers Stephen Sommers. I’d rather watch a Bay action scene than something by either of these guys any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
I’d also like to make the case for Robert Luketic, who keeps pumping out the most artless dreck, seemingly with no understanding of what cinema can do. His last three films were lifeless committee-borne crowd-pleasers that couldn’t even be bothered to do anything pleasurable, rendered even more unbearable by being presented in a lifeless cavalcade of wretchedly awful compositions. As a bonus they also featured either reductive, retrograde gender-politics (Monster-In-Law and The Ugly Truth) or ethnic white-washing (the utterly worthless 21). Or what about Jon Avnet, aka the modern day Ed Wood? His last two movies — Righteous Kill and the incredible 88 Minutes — were among the most catastrophically misjudged movies I have ever seen, made by someone without a single artistic bone in his body. It’s so bad that I suspect he doesn’t even understand the scripts he adapts. No matter how hard he tries, he will never be able to come up with a single memorable or inspiring image in his entire career. Not counting this one with Leelee Sobieski taking aim, that is.
If you’ve thought long and hard about it and have come to the conclusion that Bay is less talented than these directors, or that he represents something far greater than just bad filmmaking (i.e. he’s a mascot for the debasement of the culture at large), or that his Platinum Dunes production company is committing a terrible crime by making bland remakes of great horror movies, or that the compositions I love are just ugly but shiny commercialised parodies of actual art, or that he’s the worst kind of patriotism-spouting pro-military arrested adolescent, or even that he’s just an obnoxious douchebag (James Cameron without the brains or the talent), that’s perfectly understandable. I’m cool with that, if you show me your calculations. But don’t just say, “Michael Bay is the worst director ever” because that’s the accepted wisdom. That’s not film criticism. That’s letting someone else do your thinking for you.