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The Value of Incoherency: Taking Michael Bay’s Transformers Films Seriously

The Value of Incoherency: Taking Michael Bay’s Transformers Films Seriously

Michael Bay’s Transformers
movies are incoherent. That is not a controversial claim; I doubt many would
argue otherwise. Yet two questions remain: How do they achieve their
incoherency? And is that incoherency of any value? In this article, I will try
to answer both questions.

Before I
begin, though, I should address one objection. No doubt some readers will think
this analysis unnecessary, even ill-founded. I can already hear the following
comments being typed below: “Bay’s Transformers
movies are stupid and not really even films”; “You’re just over-thinking things”;
“You’re putting more thought into his movies than he himself does.” These
potential objections—which are commonly applied to “dumb summer blockbusters”—are
at heart arguments meant to forestall critical consideration, and imply that
popular filmmaking is devoid of craft. This article is a refutation of those assumptions.

I. Why Are Michael Bay’s
Transformers Films Incoherent?

Perhaps the most common complaint about Michael Bay’s Transformers films is that they are
rapidly cut, a complaint commonly applied to other contemporary Hollywood
movies, as well. It’s certainly true that today’s movies are more rapidly cut
than the films made a generation ago—see Barry Salt’s Film Style and Technology for more on this topic, as well as this graph:

See also this video essay, where Matthias Stork documents the rise of what he calls "chaos cinema."

But since everyone is cutting more rapidly these days, can
rapid cutting explaing Bay’s Beyhem? After all, the films of Edgar
Wright
are, if anything, more rapidly cut than Bay’s, but are nowhere near as
disorienting as the Transformers quadrilogy.

Another problem
with looking solely at editing speed is that it doesn’t distinguish between
different types of cuts—the different
uses to which cutting can be applied. For instance, it doesn’t distinguish
between cuts that occur within scenes
(intra-scene cuts) and cuts between
scenes. Nor does it distinguish between crosscutting (when the film cuts
between two simultaneous scenes), elision (when a cut is used to omit an action
or the passage of time), jump cuts (when a shot cuts to a similar version of
itself), cuts between different angles or perspectives, cuts to close-ups or
long shots, or cuts to insert shots.

In order to
understand why Michael Bay’s Transformers
films give people headaches, we need to look more closely at what’s actually
happening in the shots themselves, as well as how he’s cutting between them.

Take, for
instance, the first six minutes or so of the second film, Revenge of the Fallen (2009). I analyzed the first 380 seconds, in
which a military strike team and some Autobots assault a Decepticon. We get 133
shots, yielding an Average Shot Length (ASL) of just under three seconds (2.9).
This is very rapid cutting. And in reality, the cutting is even faster, since one
shot is twenty-nine seconds long. (Taking that out yields a revised ASL of 2.7.)

What the
ASL doesn’t tell us, however, is that this opening sequence also features no
fewer than twenty-six scenes. In
other words, the scenes last, on average, just under fifteen seconds each.

We begin in
the Stone Age, in 17,000 B.C., as some early human hunters come across alien robots.
(Already this summary sounds like self-parody, but we really do begin there: a
title tells us so.) After eighty-five seconds of watching Transformers assault cavemen
, we cut (via the main title) to Shanghai, China, “22:14 HRS – TODAY,” where
some kind of industrial accident seems to be underway. We mostly see people
being evacuated by the police. That lasts nineteen seconds. We then cut to an
interior—“PENTAGON – NEST COMMAND”—where for twenty seconds we watch military
personnel watching the situation in Shanghai (on screens, just like us). We
then cut to thirteen seconds of an ice-cream truck ambling about somewhere in
China (it passes under a bright neon sign in Chinese) and making threatening announcements.
And so on.

Yes, these
scenes are rapidly cut (the ASL of the first 143 seconds is 3.8). But consider
what else is happening besides mere cutting. In these opening minutes, we’ve been
treated to scenes set on three different continents, occurring across two
millennia. In the present day alone, there have so far been four separate
locations (the factory, a nearby city, the NEST base, and wherever the
ice-cream truck is—it’s presumably near the factory, but it doesn’t look the
same). There have also been dozens of actors. And in the next few minutes,
rather than focusing on any of those locations or actors, the film will
introduce yet more characters—the NEST strike team, Sideswipe, other
Transformers, Decepticons—and stage action across yet more locations. (As it
turns out, the toxic spill is a cover so a secret US military strike team can
attack a hiding Decepticon. How the U.S. military has gotten permission to carry
out raids on Chinese soil is left unexplained.)

This style
is consistent across Michael Bay’s work. Bay is rarely content to allow one
storyline to play out with interruptions. Instead, his preferred method is to keep
scenes short, and to cut between simultaneous actions, which are usually taking
place in wildly different locales. His most recent Transformers film, Age of
Extinction
, recalls Revenge of the
Fallen
in that it presents, in short succession, an opening prehistoric
sequence (this time featuring dinosaurs), then contemporary action set in the
Arctic, Texas, a derelict cruise ship, and a secret CIA headquarters. We are thus
rapidly introduced to numerous characters (whose precise relationships with each
other are sketchy at best). Their scenes rarely play out to completion.
Instead, Bay starts the scenes only to interrupt them, cutting elsewhere, then
cutting elsewhere. The helpful titles that appear onscreen, informing us about new
locations (“THE ARCTIC”), are so cursory they might as well not exist. (One
doesn’t need a title to distinguish “THE ARCTIC” from “TEXAS”—but these titles
do announce that a new scene is starting, a fact that might otherwise be
unclear.)

Compounding
this interruptive storytelling further is Bay’s tendency to include multiple scenarios
in the same scene. In Age of Extinction,
we get an early scene where Mark Wahlberg’s conflict with his teenage daughter
is repeatedly interrupted by his assistant’s jokey attempts to get a robot
butler to deliver him a beer. A more sincere moment is thus juxtaposed with
more absurd humor. Similarly, the fight scene at the opening of Revenge of the Fallen is occasionally interrupted
by the comical antics of the two Autobots comprising the ice-cream truck, Mudflap
and Skids.

It would be
easy to describe Bay here as a frantic, hyperkinetic man-child with ADHD, and leave
it at that. But if we take these films seriously, and consider Bay’s direction
intentional—or “up to something”—then we have our first insight into his
aesthetic. He prizes juxtaposition, and his goal is to disorient the audience,
unable to tell where the action will jump to next, or whether it will be
dramatic or comical. The narrative, then, remains lurching, unpredictable. All
we can say with confidence is that whatever comes next, it will most likely be dramatically
different than what we’ve already seen. Bay’s cinema is one of constant
difference.

 

Even when we do settle on an action, it isn’t always a given
that we’ll understand it. As with narrative, Bay uses compositions
inconsistently. At times, his Transformers
films feature striking and indelible imagery. Age of Extinction is filled with shots that linger in the mind long
after the film has concluded: Mark Wahlberg and his daughter backlit by the
setting sun, the silhouette of an abandoned gas station, Wahlberg standing
beside a rusted train, vertiginous shots of a cramped apartment complex in Hong
Kong (actually Detroit—an impressive bit of production design). And there are
many others. Bay’s films are sometimes beautifully, even poetically shot.

But the
operative term is “sometimes.” Elsewhere, Bay seems entirely unconcerned with
clarity of image, and it can be difficult to discern what is happening
onscreen. For every crisp slow-motion shot of a helicopter whirling below us,
or a motorcycle leaning precariously to take a corner, or a bevy of sinister-looking
government agents exiting sinister-looking cars, there are just as many shots
in which the viewer doesn’t know where to look, or what they are even seeing.
This tends especially to be the case when the Transformers are transforming,
and fighting one another in their robot forms. (Critics have likened them to junkyards
either having sex or exploding.)
The Transformers robots, good and bad, tend to be uniform in color, made up of countless
moving parts, and not always that distinct from the backgrounds of their shots.
Compounding this further is the continuously moving camera, which constantly
alters the composition. See, for instance, the lengthy shot in Revenge of the Fallen where Ironhide initially
transforms. It’s  twenty-nine seconds
long, but the lack of cutting does not make the action any more coherent.

As always,
though, Bay proves inconsistent. In Age
of Extinction
, there is a long slow-motion shot wherein Bumblebee
transforms into his robot form while flying over a bridge. His three human
passengers fly out and tumble through the air, only to be caught by Optimus
Prime, who then crashes through a tractor trailer. All of the action in the
shot is completely discernible. The viewer is also given plenty of time to
study the image. Elsewhere, one can barely get a sense of the action, which
registers simply as—action. Throughout, the viewer can never predict when such
clarity will appear. Nor can they predict how Bay will shoot a scene: he
alternates freely between deep and shallow focus, and constantly varies his uses
of lighting, lenses, angles, and more—all without any apparent rhyme or reason.

Another
difficulty posed by Bay’s films is that one often gets the feeling that a scene
or shot is missing. Part of this is due to his tendency to delay exposition
(which is itself unusual in Hollywood filmmaking). As we’ve already seen in Revenge of the Fallen, we only gradually
learn what’s happening in terms of the overall action. We receive information
elliptically, and in fragments, and we often receive misinformation. Only gradually can we piece together the whole
picture, and then we might have to revise as we go: “OK, so there’s been a
toxic spill of some kind in Shanghai. Oh, no, that’s just a cover story—the
U.S. military is up to something. Oh, it’s actually a secret strike force. Oh,
and some Transformers are there—Ironhide, for instance. Oh, and Sideswipe is
also there. Have we met them yet? I can’t remember. Oh, there’s Optimus Prime!
As well as some other Autobots I don’t think have been properly introduced. I’m
not sure who the Decepticons are, though. Wait—didn’t this movie open in the
Stone Age?”

Similarly,
in Age of Extinction, there is a
scene involving a Transformer that disguises itself as an Oreos vending machine—at
least, I think that’s the case. I can’t claim to have noticed it when it was a
vending machine. But after it transformed, Oreo ads were still clearly visible
on its body. Mind you, I was watching the film pretty carefully, but I cannot
tell you who this Transformer is, why it transformed, or what subsequently happened
to it. I remember only that the film cut to it at some point, and then the
creature disappeared.

Another
strategy that makes actions difficult to follow is Bay’s tendency to portray complex
actions as montage sequences, which make heavy use of elision. This is hardly
uncommon in Hollywood cinema, but in the Transformers
films, one can rarely predict which sequences will receive this treatment.
Thus, Mark Wahlberg’s character’s effort to infiltrate Stanley Tucci’s research
facility is something of a blur. First, Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) uses a stolen
drone to scan a man’s ID badge. Then he has Bumblebee somehow create a replica.
All of this happens very quickly, in a flurry of shots presented with little
explanation. Then, Cade and his daughter’s boyfriend, Shane, drive Bumblebee to
the lab. (They bicker on the way, once again juxtaposing broad comedy with tense
action.) Spatially, it isn’t clear where they are, or why they are trying to
break in. Before, Tucci’s facility seemed to be in downtown Chicago; now it
seems to be in a more rural location. The discrepancy is never resolved.

Cade and
Shane manage to get inside the base. Some slapstick ensues as Bumblebee takes
offense at a sinister replica modeled on him. Then Cade and Shane get separated
somehow, Cade gets captured, and the other Autobots break in to rescue him. And
Kelsey Grammer’s evil CIA operative is there, for some reason. All of this transpires
with the logic of a dream, not unlike the scene in Inception where Dom Cobb explains to Ariadne that although one
might remember being somewhere while dreaming, one never remembers how they got
from point A to point B.

Even when the
viewer can discern the underlying plot logic—the character’s motivations, their
objectives, and their plans to achieve those objectives—it doesn’t always make sense.
Here Bay differs from most Hollywood cinema, which is typically founded on
carefully and repeatedly communicating such information to the viewer. (In Inception, for instance, it’s perfectly
clear that Dom Cobb is performing one last heist in order to be able to see his
children.) To this end, Hollywood films traditionally provide each character
with a clear role: they either aid the protagonist, or oppose them. For his
part, Bay often includes characters whose function is entirely unclear. While I
wasn’t unhappy to see Sophia Myles and Li Bingbing in Age of Extinction (they even get a scene that, while fleeting,
allows the film to pass the Bechdel Test), their presence is extraneous at best.
Their scenes could be cut, and the end result would hardly be any different.
But the same is true of many of the characters, including most of the
Transformers. Even Shane, once he rescues Cade and Tessa, does little more than
act as a thorn in Wahlberg’s side.

Although
what Wahlberg’s Cade is trying to accomplish is itself unclear. Also unclear is
whether he’s making progress toward his desired outcome. As viewers, we might
broadly understand that Cade wanted to infiltrate Stanley Tucci’s character’s company—but
why? He obtained information, but we could have been given that information by
Tucci and his assistants, who had already provided us with lots of information
regarding their enterprise. Finally, the Autobots come crashing through the
facility’s front wall, rendering Cade’s infiltration moot. All that really
happened was that we changed locations.

 

Overall, the Transformers
films give us the sense they’re being made up as they go along. (I’d say they
were like The Lego Movie in that
regard, but the plot of The Lego Movie
is actually more straightforward and coherent.) I frequently suspected that the
screenwriter of Age of Extinction, Ehren
Kruger, while writing the earlier scenes, had no idea what would later happen
in the film. When the later scenes arrive, it feels as though the screenwriter had
forgotten what occurred earlier on. The scripts come across as first drafts, hastily
scrawled out and never revised. What’s
lacking is a sense of the whole
. Time and again, priority is given to whatever
is happening at the current moment. While the scenes may be bound loosely by a narrative,
the films are collections of scenes, unpredictable and arbitrary. And I doubt
Bay wants it any other way. Kruger has claimed that “When
you’re talking about aliens, robotic machines which disguise themselves as
vehicles and animals, you start to make your peace with the idea that logical
sense doesn’t have to be the be-all, end-all. It needs to be amazing fun for
the audience. They need to be swept up, and be promised that they’re going to
see things that make it worth spending money on a ticket.” The film is pure spectacle,
constantly striving to outdo itself. That is to say, because making a movie
takes time, the Michael Bay on day 90 of the shoot is trying to outdo the
Michael Bay of day 20. Given this approach, it’s hardly surprising that Bay’s films
turn out to be constantly evolving animals.

It’s also
why character intentions tend not toward the subtle and complex, but toward the
broad and vague: so-and-so wants to stop something, or kill someone, or make
money. The characters also sometimes suddenly shift motivation without warning:
the Optimus Prime of Age of Extinction,
who earlier wanted to defend humans, now wants to kill them and flee planet
Earth. More than anything, the characters often give the impression that they
are children, acting entirely impulsively. They feel very strongly whatever
they are feeling at the moment. Even the Autobots tend to squabble with one
another.

On the rare
occasions that we do see long-term planning, it tends not to make sense. For
instance, Stanley Tucci’s scientist is a Steve Jobs parody. (The IMDb tells me
his name is Joshua Joyce, but I’ve blanked on whether the film ever conveys
that fact. Surely it must have? But I don’t remember it. It’s possible I was
too captivated by Tucci’s performance: he was a total delight to watch the
entire film, and I thoroughly enjoyed all the Jobs- and Apple-like imagery,
even if I didn’t understand what Bay was trying to communicate with it.)
Anyway, Joyce wants to design his own Transformers for the military (which he
and Grammer will be able to control). He attempts to replicate Optimus Prime
(for some reason), but his robot keeps shifting to look like Megatron. Joyce complains
loudly to his employees about this, wondering why it keeps happening. Later in
the film, it’s revealed that Joyce stole the technology at least partly from
Megatron’s head; after that, it’s revealed that the resulting robot, Galvatron,
is indeed Megatron in disguise. Well, Megatron hardly need be a “Decepticon” in
order to reactivate himself, given what a dunce Joyce is. The characters, to put
it simply, are buffoons.

But they are deliberately made buffoons.
I never get the impression that Michael Bay thinks his characters clever,
either. They are clowns, just clowning around. Even they seem to feel the need
to remind themselves of what it is they are doing—hence their tendency to
announce their intentions or goals very clearly. Their declamations, like
everything else, tend not to matter. At one point late in Age of Extinction, Optimus Prime commands some of the humans to
take a bomb over a bridge and out of the city (Hong Kong). Much action ensues,
but the characters never actually cross a bridge, or leave the city. Nor do
they seem to be trying to even do that—they’re just driving and running about. Elsewhere,
the villainous Lockdown, having learned that Optimus Prime has escaped his
capture, orders his robotic servants to return his spaceship to Earth. That
much they do. Lockdown then activates some kind of humongous magnet, which he hovers
over Hong Kong, sucking up all manner of metal objects, then dropping them. Why
does he do this? In Man of Steel,
when General Zod does something similar, we may be vague on the specifics, but
we understand that he’s trying to turn Earth into a New Krypton. Here, however,
Lockdown’s scheme is unclear. The viewer could be forgiven for thinking that Lockdown
is searching for the seed bomb, especially since a blue light on the bomb is
flashing, and Joshua Joyce has declared (somehow) that a homing mechanism has
been activated. Lockdown soon catches our heroes, and starts drawing the bomb
toward him. But Lockdown wasn’t concerned with the bomb—he was instead hunting
Optimus Prime. But the Autobot leader, all this time, is well outside the city,
subduing the Dinobots.

Well, the
characters are buffoons, not unlike the villains on children’s cartoon shows. People
can complain that Bay has not respected the original Transformers source material, but watching his films, I am often
reminded of screeching, didactic characters like Megatron and Starscream. (I’m
also reminded of Cobra Commander, Destro, and Serpentor. I loved these shows as
a child because I loved the way their villains bickered and sneered.)

At times, the
characters’ declamations stop being logical, and become farcical. For instance,
Hound tells his human friends (this is a paraphrase), “I’m going to cover you.
And if I stop covering you, that’s because I’m dead. But don’t worry, because
that won’t happen.” The dialogue is absurd in its unnaturalness, and in its commitment
to articulating exactly what Hound intends to do at the present moment. (Oddly,
Hound later gives up, having run out of ammo, and needs to be urged by Cade to
continue fighting. I guess he didn’t consider that contingency!)

Of course,
the Transformers’ voices are recorded by celebrities in sound booths somewhere—Hound
was voiced by John Goodman—and it’s all looped in later on, in editing. In this
regard, the Transformers films are no
different than any other CGI-laden blockbuster. But little effort seems to have
been taken to integrate the looped dialogue with the action. Instead, it frequently
sounds disconnected, even arbitrary. As Hound whirls around, firing his guns, John
Goodman declares, “I’m a fat ballerina who takes names and slits throats!” Elsewhere
he intones, “I’m a wicked warrior robot!” Why does he say either? Who knows?
The lines—many of the lines—are entirely arbitrary;
Hound could say anything, or nothing. Inconsistency and abstraction rule the
day.

Lest this
sound like I’m knocking Michael Bay’s sensibilities, I actually find myself in
awe of them. I’ve read enough about Bay to know he prizes improvisation and
impulsiveness and energy and action. Empire
Magazine
’s Age of Extinction set
visit report, for instance, stressed repeatedly that his working method is to
rip up whatever he’s planned and invent something new on any given day. The end
results certainly seem evidence of that.

All of the
elements that I’ve described contribute to the sense that these films exist only
in the present moment. Each scene lives and dies independently of every other
scene. (It should go without saying that there is little continuity between the
films themselves.) At times, it seems as though the characters themselves cannot remember anything that has
happened to them previously, as though they are living without memory. They
(and the viewer) are caught in an eternal present, in which they can neither remember
nor anticipate anything.

Any one of
these elements, taken on its own, would be disorienting. Taken collectively,
they represent nothing less than a furious attempt on Bay’s part to disorient
the audience, and to lay waste to the confines of reason, logic, coherency, and
continuity. He assails it on several fronts at once. Despite all the elements I
have described, I haven’t come close to exhausting Bay’s varied strategies. Age of Extinction, for instance,
includes a flashback at one point (narrated by a character who appears
precisely for that purpose, then disappears). Why? Why not? At other points,
actions are depicted first going one way, then another way, then another way
(e.g., left, right, left). The whiplash effects are not accidental: they are edited
together in flurries presumably designed to discombobulate viewers. I should
emphasize that this is not a failure to abide by the principles of standard
continuity editing: this is a direct refutation
of those principles.

“What’s
going on?” Cade Yeager shouts at one point, giving voice to what the audience
is undoubtedly thinking. We must conclude that the only person who really knows
is Michael Bay, who is essentially amusing himself. His aesthetic could be
described as “chaos reigns.” The most surprising moments in the film aren’t the
parts where things fail to make sense, but when the movie suddenly settles down,
and becomes like any other film—for instance, the odd scene where a White House
delegate visits Kelsey Grammer and his boss. For once, a whole, uninterrupted
scene plays out in steady, stable, clear shots. Bay even mostly keeps to one
side of the 180-degree line. Perhaps he threw the scene in for the sake of
contrast?

 


II. Is There Any
Value to Bay’s Incoherency?

It is often said that Bay’s films are an assault on the
viewer, and I agree. But they are also assaults on classical unity and formal
coherence. Bay proves entirely consistent in his inconsistencies, which can
hardly be accidental. It is to this end that he includes extraneous characters,
actions, settings, and scenes. It is to this end that he jumps rapidly across
time and space, and elides actions and explanations. It is to this end that he varies
his means of shooting shots and scenes. His desired goal is to produce
mishmash. His films are, in a word, anarchistic.

In this
regard, Bay seems unlike most Hollywood directors. But he reminds me of other
artists. Indeed, he reminds me of a pertinent debate in art, one that has
existed for nearly one hundred years, if not longer. That debate is: what role
should form play in art-making? Is it an aid? Or a hindrance?

Over the
past hundred years, many artists have come to distrust not only form, but the usefulness
of thinking and analysis in making art. Indeed, many have come to distrust
consciousness itself. According to this argument, art should be produced wildly,
impulsively, spontaneously, embracing immediacy and impact, and rejecting the
censoring effects of conscious deliberation. Art should be done, not thought about, and certainly not planned out. This
anti-rational impulse has become fundamental to much of what we call
avant-garde art, having been explored by traditions as varied as Dada, Futurism,
Surrealism, Viennese Aktionism, chance operations, happenings, conceptual art,
performance art, and more. Michael Bay is akin to those artists who believe the
function of art to overwhelm the audience, battering away at inhibition and the
tendency toward conscious rationality. Batter away, and then batter some more,
until the audience, exhausted, is left with nothing but his or her unguarded
emotional response. (This is why the films must be so interminably long.)

Here many
readers are no doubt scoffing and rolling their eyes at my daring to mention
Bay’s name amidst such august company, but I will stand by my argument: Bay’s
films make more sense when you consider his aims in this light, and his
strategies as attempts to struggle out of the grip of rational coherence. Mind
you, I’m hardly claiming that Bay is the equal
of, say, André Breton, John Cage, or Sol LeWitt; such a claim would, at any
rate, be impossible to prove or deny. Instead, I am arguing that, like many 20th
Century avant-gardists, Bay is antagonistic toward classical tradition, formal
unity, and rational sense-making, all of which he envisions as fetters on his creative
abilities. To restate this position very bluntly: thinking too much about art
harms the art. And like those artists, Bay prefers the ad-hoc, the incidental, the
capricious, the impulsive—the arbitrary. His artistic temperament is Protean,
and changes from moment to moment. If he remade any one of his films tomorrow,
it would turn out totally differently, depending on how he felt that day.

Because of
this, while it is possible to analyze Bay’s films objectively—we can examine
them, and state what he has done (as I’ve tried to do so here)—any attempt to objectively
evaluate them is, quite frankly, a waste of time. In the end, the films are
arbitrary, and any decision made is as good as any other. There is no whole
that the parts are looking to for guidance. Instead, they are fleeing from the whole.
Each part, each moment is an expression of how Michael Bay felt at a given point
in time. As such, it’s impossible to say how the films could be “improved.”
(Those who wish they were more coherent are entirely missing the point.) In the
end, all that matters is that they have a disconcerting effect on their audiences.
Was the viewer appalled? Excited? Battered beyond good sense and reasonable
manners? That is all that matters to Michael Bay. His opponents’ complaints—“I didn’t
understand it,” “I was exhausted.” “How the hell does this guy keep getting to
make movies?”—are, rather than valid criticisms, evidence of his success.

The question now becomes: What is the value of such an art? Which
is also to ask: What is art’s relationship with formal unity, rational thought,
and conventional notions of good or bad? As already stated, this question is at
least a century old. It will have to suffice for me to claim that, for good or
for ill, Michael Bay has aligned himself with the camp that argues against
form, against reason, against conscious control.

In this
regard, however, we should note that Michael Bay is a wholly remarkable
filmmaker, one who has succeeded in doing something that few other artists have
achieved: he has made blockbusters out of challenging films that arguably bear
more resemblance (and more kinship) to avant-garde art than they do to
traditional Hollywood fare. As the cliché goes, Hollywood movies are made by
committee, and are bland and predictable and safe, wholly familiar. They want
nothing more to be liked, and will never risk offending their audiences. But somehow,
and despite the modern studio system, Bay’s films are loud, obnoxious, violent,
crude, unpredictable, unbearable. They are experimental and impulsive. Whether
they are great works of cinema is not for me to say. But they are without doubt
the works of a true auteur.

Do people
like his movies? That is, do people like Michael Bay’s incoherencies? Certainly
they like them well enough that each film earns hundreds of millions, even billions,
at the box office—which suggests a final point.

It’s common
to hear educated filmgoers and critics complain about Bay’s Transformers films. Here is one
example
, and here
is another
. But I believe that those very viewers who complain the loudest are
enjoying Bay’s films the most. Indeed, I’m reminded of nothing so much as the
way certain filmgoers often revel in “bad” movies, works of z-grade cinema that
are, as the saying goes, “so bad they’re good.” The joy in watching those films
often amounts to seeing the normal, predictable, stale conventions of
filmmaking get turned on their heads. Why did Tommy Wiseau make The Room the way he did? Who can really say?
But obviously the man didn’t know how to make a film “the right way.” So does
that make The Room a great movie?
Hardly—but it is an immensely enjoyable film to watch, and to laugh about with
friends. Anyone who has seen The Room
knows that the pleasure lies wholly in sharing it with friends, all the while
commenting on how bizarre Wiseau’s filmmaking choices are.

Bay doesn’t
inspire laughter in quite the same way as Wiseau, but he does inspire incredulity. Like a lot of z-grade
filmmakers, Bay is making the movie up as he goes along. One can hardly believe
what results: “Is that a robot with giant testicles?”
So if you won’t buy my claim that Michael Bay is a kindred soul to the
avant-garde, perhaps you’ll find more tolerable my claim that Michael Bay is, effectively,
the highest profile z-grade filmmaker currently working. Indeed, he’s raised
z-grade cinema to the level of the commercial blockbuster.

Bay
presumably knows “the right way” to make a film, and his movies are hardly
incompetent. (Age of Extinction features
many marvelous moments, shots, and scenes.) Instead of making incoherent messes
because he knows no other way to make a film, Bay makes incoherent messes
because he can, and because he wants
to
. His incoherence, his unpredictability, is the very value of his films.
And I think that’s precisely what audiences are lining up to see, whether they
admit it or not.

A.D Jameson is the author
of three books:
  Amazing Adult Fantasy (Mutable Sound, 2011), Giant Slugs (Lawrence and Gibson, 2011), and 99 Things to Do When You Have the Time (Compendium Inc., 2013). Other
writing of his has appeared
at
Big
Other
and HTMLGIANT, as well as in dozens of literary journals. Since August 2011 he’s been a PhD student at the University of Illinois at
Chicago. He is currently writing a book on geek cinema. Follow him on Twitter at
@adjameson.

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Comments

MT

"Hackneyed" is certainly the right term to describe his imagery.

I'll concede his overall aim is to disorient, sure. But the attempt at making every shot as dynamic as possible, as if the film were some feature-length music video, comes off as…I dunno, garish?

If Bay were to remake one of his own movies, it'd be a different animal completely. However, I'm positive you could find some stylistic similarities between the two.

There's a recent video on Vimeo called "Bayhem" that articulates a lot of interesting points.

Ron

Wow, talk about psuedointellectual writing styles. I don't think I've read an essay that had the line, "It is to this end…" since I was in 8th grade.

Lewis Rungay

Absolutely fantastic article! As an academic I've frequently had to defend my love of Bay's work to a whole host of individuals ready to throw out the hate with no substantial thought or originality. This article comes closer than anything I've ever read to the truth of why I adore his films.

Jay

"Age of Extinction is filled with shots that linger in the mind long after the film has concluded … Bay’s films are sometimes beautifully, even poetically shot."

Really? Poetic? Really?? None of the images lingered in my mind and the images you cite here all struck me as crass and hackneyed, albeit as polished as an advert for the latest Audi.

Steve Gregoropoulos

J. Joyce huh? Now I want to see it…

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