I don’t know what to make of Michael Bay.
Though I’ve never been a particularly big fan of his movies, I have been looking forward to “Pain & Gain” because of its crazy-but-true story and the promise of a performance from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson outside his usual stoic macho action typecasting. In spite of delivering on both, I was more than a little conflicted about the finished film; which is, in true Michael Bay fashion, excessive, hyperbolic, and defiantly stupid, with a dash of tasteless, possibly-offensive-but-definitely-juvenile humor. Looking at the wider reaction, it seems the rest of the critical community is just as conflicted as I am; on Rotten Tomatoes, the film’s currently pulling a 47% approval rating. It, like most of Bay’s work, is extremely divisive.
While reading and thinking about Michael Bay, I watched the new episode of Badass Digest, featuring a dangerously drunk Devin Faraci talking about Bay’s career with Ain’t It Cool News’ Jeremy Smith and the Los Angeles Times‘ Amy Nicholson. They consider a question I, and I think a lot of film critics, share: how in control of his instrument is the guy? Obviously from a visual standpoint, Bay’s immensely talented. The guy has an undeniably unique and often captivating style; you can spot a Michael Bay movie in a matter of shots by the way they look and move. To me, there’s no argument: he’s an auteur with a definitive aesthetic, even if that aesthetic might best be described as “BIG METAL THINGIES GO BOOM.”
Still, Bay’s facility with story is so unbelievably clunky, and his frequency to stereotype (if not outright mock) minorities, women, and gay people is so tacky, that it makes the bad in his movies outweigh the good in a way that turns his strengths into perceived weaknesses — because they make all that style look empty and even mean-spirited. But even if it looks like no thought goes into his work, Bay’s productions are complex affairs. Pulling them off requires skill and, yes, even some brains. So what gives? Is Bay an idiot savant or a savant of idiocy?
In that episode of Badass Digest, you’ll see Smith defend Bay and some of his films. Here’s what he says:
“He’s an incredibly skilled filmmaker. He’s got a great eye; he always has. I mean don’t forget that this guy was one of the great commercial directors of the ’90s. He directed the celebrated… Aaron Burr milk commercial.”
For Michael Bay to make his movies the way he does, one of two things need to be true: either Bay is totally unaware his humor is crass, insensitive, and sometimes offensive, or he’s totally aware his humor is crass, insensitive, and sometimes offensive — and he doesn’t care. Smith argues that contrary to some of the onscreen evidence, Michael Bay is no dope. Let’s assume he’s right.
In that case, is Michael Bay the internet troll of filmmakers? Is he deliberately being provocative just to piss us off and get our attention?
If you look at Bay’s work as a producer, it seems to bear a strong strain of trolling. Bay tends to involve himself with popular franchises and then remake them in ways that are commercially successful and creatively antagonistic. He produced polarizing but profitable remakes of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “The Amityville Horror,” “Friday the 13th,” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” Fans complained; Bay carried on. Next up, he’s rebooting the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and this time he’s not even waiting until the film comes out to enrage its fanbase. Bay already announced that he wants to ignore the whole “mutant” component of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and turn them into warriors from an alien race (of turtles, I guess). Turtles nerds were incensed.
Bay likes to goad fans in interviews too. Earlier this week, he apologized for the editing of his disaster movie “Armageddon,” saying it was made under an extreme time crunch as his visual effects supervisor suffered a “nervous breakdown.” His comments got picked up and recirculated on social media (asteroid nerds were incensed). Then Bay rescinded his apology and claimed he’d been misquoted out of context. More arguments ensued, and so did plenty more publicity for “Pain & Gain.”
At this point, Bay is clearly aware of the criticism he receives — he mentions it specifically in that Miami Herald piece that includes his (non)-apology for “Armageddon”‘s editing. Which means the he-just-doesn’t-know-any-better excuse is getting flimsier and flimsier. When Bay surrounds his heroes with gorgeous, idiot strippers, or makes Johnson’s character deeply homophobic (which, as /Film‘s David Chen points out, was not an element of the original articles that inspired the movie), it’s increasingly likely that he’s really doing it to get a rise out of us.
Trolling on the Internet is more than a way for misanthropes to kill time; for many, it’s a business model. You know the old expression “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar?” It doesn’t apply on the web, where you always catch more flies with horseshit, the nastier and the smellier the better. Taking a deliberately oppositional stance is a great traffic driver; the only thing people share on social media more frequently than articles they love are articles that set off their sense of moral outrage.
Michael Bay, who I’m starting to suspect is stupid like a fox, seems to understand that approach, and applies it more successfully than just about anyone else working in Hollywood. How to get his movies — which are basically designed to appeal to no one over the age of 21 — into broader conversations? Push some buttons. Get people talking. It doesn’t matter if you watch a movie or hatewatch a movie; the admission price is still the same. Either way, it’s the audience’s pain and Michael Bay’s gain.