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Bay-watch: The hunt for meaning in the films of Michael Bay

It’s easy to hate Michael Bay. Not dislike him, not be irritated by his terrible films, but flat-out despise the guy, with a level of vitriol normally reserved for child molesters and Joe Francis. For anyone decrying the state of modern cinema and its emphasis on flash over substance, Bay is the perfect symbol of a world gone mad, phenomenally successful for seemingly all the wrong reasons, and arrogant about that success to an infuriating degree. “I make movies for teenage boys,” he says to the critical community that rails against his work, and it’s a proud affirmation of an aesthetic that has no interest in ever growing up.

I’ve never been a fan. I’ve always found Bay’s movies to be the cinematic equivalent of nails down a chalkboard made of Styrofoam. (I don’t know how that would work, but if it did, it would be awful.) Part of it is the editing, and part of it is the way Bay makes everything glazed and slick, as if his camera lenses are made of diesel oil and all the camera operators are strippers. But mostly, it’s Bay’s complete disregard for stories. A Michael Bay movie may have the illusion of a plot, but the more control he has over a project, the less his movies make actual sense.

But Michael Bay also makes unmistakably distinctive movies, movies whose style have helped make him one of the world’s most consistently successful directors and a critical punchline. Of the nine movies Bay has made, eight did tremendous business at the American box office. Even more importantly, they all became events. Love ’em or loathe ’em, you know when a Michael Bay movie (or MBM, as no one likes to call them) is coming out, and if you’re at all inclined, you’ll be damned sure you see it opening weekend.

Of course, MBMs aren’t the only event movies to hit theaters every summer. So what distinguishes, say, Armageddon, from any of a hundred other big-budget disaster epics? Is there anything that makes The Rock stand apart, or that connects Bay’s body of work, apart from the visual onslaught and contempt for common sense?

In short, can we hold our noses for a few minutes and dare consider him an auteur? Can we find a way to get interested in the technique and the obvious artistic (yeah, I’ll go that far) decision-making process behind an MBM, without regard to its actual merit as art? I think we can. It’s fascinating to watch a strong will imprinting itself on celluloid, no matter how off-putting the result may be. You can call Bay a hack, you can call him manipulative, cheap, callous, and shallow, but his movies are definitively his. Others may worship at the altar, but nobody else has captured that particular Bay magic.

I spent the last week or so watching (and in some cases, re-watching) MBMs, trying to work out what makes them stand out. What surprised me is that it’s actually easier to connect the dots than I’d imagined. There are definite thematic elements holding together the MBMs, and while those elements aren’t all unique to Bay, it’s important to take them into consideration.

1. Authority sucks.

Bay goes to great efforts to justify his leads’ actions, and how heroic those actions are when compared to the cowardice of bureaucrats and their obsession with rules and laws. His first film, Bad Boys, has Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as cops trying to catch some crooks who boosted drugs out of a police evidence locker. But just as important as catching the bad guys, Smith and Lawrence need to clear their name with the dreaded Internal Affairs. See, they’re just doing their jobs and being true to themselves and keeping it real on the streets, but The Man wants to hold them down, and not even their whiny, ineffectual boss (an overwrought, under-funny Joe Pantoliano) can save their asses if they don’t find the missing stash.

The threat never really goes anywhere (in MBMs, hardly anything ever does) and the potential charges never make much logical sense (see previous parenthetical), but the idea gets introduced, and in an MBM, that’s the key. Plots aren’t important. It’s the implication of plotting that matters, and a reliance on certain basic concepts to hold that implication together for the running time.

In The Rock, the premise is set in motion by the hated bureaucrats. Because some greedy politicians refused to pay benefits to the families of soldiers who died during black-ops missions, Ed Harris decides to take over Alcatraz, point some deadly bio-weapon missiles at San Francisco, and wake those sons of bitches right the hell up. If the dead soldiers had gotten the respect they deserved, none of this would’ve happened. Plus, the only man with any working knowledge of Alcatraz is Sean Connery, a British spy locked away by the U.S. government to prevent him from revealing all sorts of naughty secrets. (If you’re wondering whether Roswell and Kennedy’s assassination get a mention, go get yourself a cookie.)

The clearest example comes in Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen, where an arrogant, glasses-wearing official dares to bust up a completely reasonable military-Autobots task force that’s managed to defeat some Decepticons, while also racking up incalculable property damage and putting thousands of civilian lives at risk. The official carries orders directly from President Obama, and it’s only through the clever efforts of a college freshman that the evil White House learns its place. Notably, while Bay has a hard-on against government, he has a hard-on for the military; there’s a distinction in all MBMs between the people who give the orders and the ones carrying out those orders, and there’s no question where his loyalties lie. (The department heads in Pearl Harbor get off easier than most, probably because they were all real and possibly dead, but even then, a wheelchair-bound, polio-stricken Roosevelt has to physically stand up before his cabinet to convince them to stop being pussies.)

2. Women, sex, and the spaces between.
Michael Bay is surprisingly conservative when it comes to the ladies. As Nathan Rabin pointed out in his Bad Boys write-up, in spite of Tea Leoni in an endless series of high heels and short-as-an-anime-character’s skirts, there’s no sex, and the only real potential for sex we see is between Lawrence and his put-upon wife. This becomes even more obvious in Bad Boys II; Smith now has his own girlfriend, but they barely go beyond making out, and Lawrence’s brief dalliance with Ecstasy has him acting goofy around the chief and nothing else.

Yet Bad Boys II also has a scene where Smith and Lawrence admire a dead woman’s fake breasts. It’s a perfect distillation of Bay’s basic perspective on gender relations: Women are either objects you want to think about fucking, or they’re the girlfriends/wives who stay at home while you go out doing crazy shit. Women in MBMs tend to hang back and suffer, from Vanessa Marcil, Nicolas Cage’s pregnant wife in The Rock, to Liv Tyler, who does double duty as Bruce Willis’ daughter and Ben Affleck’s girl in Armageddon. Scarlett Johansson spends most of The Island getting lugged around, especially once Ewan McGregor decides to be an action hero, and Kate Beckinsale in Pearl Harbor does some nursing, but serves largely to be tastefully lusted after and eventually knocked up by one of the film’s two heroes.

There’s been a shift in this dynamic in Bay’s last two movies. In the Transformers films, Megan Fox remains surprisingly involved for a Bay heroine; she fights robots, dates the hero, and has an investment in usual relationship models. (Instead of marriage, she wants Shia LaBeouf, lead character and commitment-phobe, to say, “I love you.”) But she’s also far more objectified than Bay’s other female leads. One of the most recognizable shots from the first film has Fox bent over the hood of a car, stomach gleaming, talking about engines while the sunlight coats her in a lazy, sweaty haze. In the second film, she’s introduced bent over, ass in the air, straddling a motorcycle like an extra from David Cronenberg’s Crash.

Both scenes are Maxim-style sexy; pin-up poses simultaneously pornographic and laughably adolescent. For all his endless fetishization (and everything in an MBM is fetishized, even down to the L.A. smog), Bay rarely seems comfortable with actual sex. His movies exist in a world of perpetual teenage frenzy, where the thought of naked girls is primary, but the actual mechanics of what to do should a willing one arrive on the scene are far too complicated to contemplate. Fox doesn’t represent a huge leap forward for the director, but at the very least, she shows us what he’s been striving for all this time—a pretty girl who’s a little slutty (but not a lot), with a tough, kick-ass exterior, and who deep down just wants to be loved. And by “loved,” we mean some hugging, tongue-kissing, and maybe a little light petting.

3. Quantity over everything.
This is the key. It may seem obvious, but get past the reflexive eye-roll, and it’s easy to see why Bay has been successful for as long as he has.

Take The Rock. Conventional wisdom names it as Bay’s “best” movie, largely because it has a good central hook, a strong cast, and a relatively restrained directorial style. (Heavy emphasis on “relatively.”) But watch it now, and it’s easy to see the real Bay fighting to get free. Even before our heroes make it to Alcatraz, there’s an assault on a military base, a bomb scare at Nicolas Cage’s office, and most ridiculous of all, an apocalyptic car chase through the streets of San Francisco, as Sean Connery struggles to evade the FBI long enough to meet the daughter he never knew, apologize to her, and then get back to the business at hand. The scene between Connery and the daughter (played by then-unknown and currently unremembered Claire Forlani) isn’t bad, but the chase is ridiculous, with no point other than a series of loud noises, wrecked fruit carts, and, of course, explosions.

It’s easy to call that sort of setpiece gratuitous, but in an MBM, the ridiculous action scene is a reason in and of itself. Audiences and critics alike have lambasted Bay for the made-up-on-the-spot storylines of the Transformers movies, but really, those loose scenes, connected less by logic than by subconscious desires, are the best expression of Bay’s intentions. Anyone going to an MBM expecting good writing is there for the wrong reason. A perfect MBM would be nothing but action scene, sentiment, action scene, hot chick, action scene, sentiment mixed with hot chick, etc, without getting bogged down with the troublesome need to make coherent sense. Bay started his career directing music videos. Really, he’s still making them: sequence after sequence that aims for the adrenaline glands and that part of your heart that still cries at Hallmark commercials.

Take The Island, Bay’s lone flop, relatively speaking. The first half stands out largely because it’s nothing like a typical MBM. Viewers meet characters and spend time with them in sequences that follow some perceivable concept of time. The camera stays largely in one place. (Motion is a key element in Bay’s work. If nothing’s happening onscreen, it damn well better look like something’s happening.) There’s an effort to catch viewers off-guard, and some scenes even have subtle layers of irony. Then the heroes leave their body-farming clone home and venture into the real world, and one ’splodey chase scene later, all bets are off. Conventional wisdom would point to the film’s second half as being the reason it failed, but it’s the other way around. Michael Bay isn’t designed to make well-paced, thoughtful thrillers. It doesn’t suit him. He’s better off doing what he does best.

It’s bombastic, it’s mind-numbing, it’s like getting bashed in the head by a teddy bear with a chainsaw—and it gets people in the door. When you go to see an MBM, you know what you’re getting, and furthermore, you know you’ll be getting a lot of it. Nearly all of Bay’s movies hit the two-hour mark, with many running over, and that isn’t just wasteful, sloppy filmmaking; it’s also ensuring that customers get their money’s worth, and more. That’s no small thing these days, when a two-person night at the movies can run $40 dollars or more. Considering that the combined gross national product of any number of small countries most likely went into making your average MBM, that 40 bucks seems like a bargain.

There’s this one shot in every Bay flick, usually seen in the trailers. It’s a low-angle, swooping camera move that frames the heroes, always looking upwards, in the center of the action till they nearly fill the screen; and because of that low angle, they look more important then regular humans. Like gods, somehow, albeit very silly, mouth-breathing gods.

Watching Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen, I waited for that shot, and when it finally came, I nearly cheered. ROTF is, by any sensible measurement, a lousy piece of work. But it has a personality behind it. That personality is childish, shallow, and has some definite issues with women, but every time Bay frames up those giants staring to the heavens, I don’t have a doubt in my mind that the son of a bitch means it. I sort of wish I could mean it too. Because sometimes the shit gets real, and that’s when winners have to fuck the prom queen, since fate rarely calls on us on a moment of our choosing to stop a giant asteroid from killing everyone we love.