27
Mar
2011
Whose Film Is It Anyway?
Michael Bay
Jordan
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

"I know you're new to the whole human experience, but there is one universal truth: you never give a woman your credit card!"-James McCord (Steve Buscemi), The Island

Michael Bay is a name not to be thrown out likely in circles of cinephiles. Widely disliked, and occasionally passionately despised, he is a director serious movie fans prefer to either dismiss or deride. In fact, I have often heard news of the commercial success of one of his films heralded as a sign of the end times of film as an artistic form. I did not choose to do a column on Michael Bay because I like his movies (that is certainly not the case), nor did I make the decision lightly. Some of his movies run nearly three hours, and, especially in the case of Pearl Harbor, that can be a torturous experience. I wanted to do a column on him in an effort to make a point about the auteur theory I don't think I've communicated so far: it does not take quality into account. A director is called an auteur not because they make consistently good films, but that they make films that are consistent. In fact, in the early days of the theory, it was a common practice to examine a director's worst films to see if the technical elements, personal flourishes, and thematic concerns remained consistent even if the film wasn't very good. And so, in a flurry of masochism and to illustrate the point as best I know how, I have undertaken to peer beneath the smooth, shapeless veneer of Michael Bay's films and examine them for the consistency that would be required to call the man, easily among my least favorite directors, an auteur.

I want to look at three aspects of his films, all shockingly easy to identify if you've watched any or all of them, and from those make the argument that Michael Bay should be considered an auteur, even though he should also be considered a manipulative, shallow, childish and misogynistic hack. That last point is probably as good a place as any to begin our examination of Bay as an auteur. For a man that traffics in blockbusters packed with gorgeous women and what I'm sure he would call "sexually charged situations," Bay is surprisingly, even disconcertingly timid about the down and dirty practice of (dare I say it?) the sex. To Michael Bay, women never seem to become actual characters with actual motivations. In one of his films, women are objects: you can ogle them, sure, but you aren't really supposed to have sex with them.

This is laid out very clearly in the Bad Boys series. The first one has Tea Leoni, whose best friend is a hooker she accompanies on a job and sees murdered (perhaps because she engages in the most shameful practice in a Michael Bay film), in a constant parade of shockingly short skirts and high heels. Objectified to an insulting degree throughout the movie, Leoni never actually has sex in the film. In fact, no one does. It is constantly referred to that Will Smith's Mike Lowery has a lot of sex and is a total playboy (because that means he's cool, right?) but we never see him have sex, nor is it implied that he has any during the movie. And his partner Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) just complains for the whole run time about how his wife never has sex with him. Burnett's wife is one of my least favorite cinematic tropes (and one I have ranted about before), the shrewish wife who is so horrible to her husband there is no way he would ever stay married to her. Not only does she withhold sex from him, she does it because he has to work late. In Bay's view, women are there to get in the way of you doing cool shit with your bros, not to actually have a real relationship with.





In Bad Boys II, super-player Mike Lowery has an actual girlfriend Syd (Gabrielle Union) but seems to only want to make out with her. And even that is too much for his partner, who just happens to be Syd's brother. A subplot of the film is how angry Marcus gets at Mike for dating his sister. Fortunately, by the end of the movie he has made peace with the incredibly chaste relationship. This trend is almost perfectly exemplified by a scene in Bad Boys II where our heroes admire a dead woman's fake breasts. The only nudity you will see in a Michael Bay film comes removed from any worry that you might actually have to have sex afterwards. The only time the two characters seem to be comfortable discussing breasts is once the woman possessing them is dead and they can be lewd over her corpse.



Whether they are pregnant wives left to worry about their adventurous husbands, like Vanessa Marcil in The Rock, sheltered daughters torn between their love for Dad and their desire to actually have an adult relationship like Liv Tyler in Armageddon (she's also left on Earth while the men, and one shockingly de-sexualized woman go to blow up the big asteroid), or stuck doing a "woman's job" like nursing until they get knocked up by a protagonist like Kate Beckinsale in Pearl Harbor, the women in Bay's films are caricatures at best, and objects the rest of the time.



Michael Bay deals with relationships like he's a 14-year-old boy guessing what they might be. He's too horny to deal with women as actual people, so the idea of them as naked objects takes over, but he's also too immature to have put thought into what he might actually do if a willing girl showed up naked on his doorstep. Girls are still things of fantasy; dealing with them as sexual beings in and of themselves is uncomfortable if not just icky. Bay may be most like Lincoln Six Echo, Ewan McGregor's character from The Island. He likes Scarlett Johansson obviously and from the very beginning, but because he's a clone, his sex drive and knowledge of the act has been completely removed, so his attraction to her remains stunted and chaste for most of the film's run time. He literally doesn't know what sex is, which seems to be the best position for a Bay protagonist to be in (to be fair, McGregor and Johansson do actually have sex by the film's end, but only right before he leaves her to go blow up some shit, in spite of the fact that she is a better fighter).



There is a slight shift in this in Bay's last two movies, the first two installments in the probably endless Transformers series. Megan Fox actually gets to fight giant robots, date Shia LaBeouf (apparently she wants that), and care about being in an adult relationship (though by the definitions of the film, that means she wants LaBeouf to say "I love you"). As a counter balance to this nebulous progress, though, she is objectified far more than any other female lead, from being bent over the hood of a car in the first film to being even more bent over a motor cycle in the second one. I could probably write the rest of this column on the downright creepy state of arrested development Bay seems caught in when it comes to relationships, but instead, let's look at some other signs of his stunted growth.





Michael Bay, like many a rebellious teenage boy, has trouble with authority figures. In Bad Boys, its internal affairs, who apparently wants to investigate our heroes for some vague and never really defined reason. Because this is a Michael Bay movie, the investigation never goes anywhere and what would be investigated is never really defined, but that isn't really the point. Bay's movies don't have plots so much as they have some idea what a plot should look like; they are less concerned with conflict than with the fact that if somebody doesn't start shooting at somebody soon, things might get boring. And if there's one thing Bay never wants, it's for a movie of his to get boring.



In The Rock, the whole plot is set in motion because Ed Harris' army man decides to take over Alcatraz and hold San Francisco hostage in order to extort the government out of money they didn't pay to the families of soldiers who died on black ops missions. Sure, Ed Harris takes 80 hostages and threatens to release biological weapons on a huge city to get what he wants, but this is only because Uncle Sam and all the greedy politicians in Washington refused to pay money to the families of dead soldiers. So who is really the bad guy? Also, John Mason (Sean Connery), the man who has the knowledge of Alcatraz needed to stop Harris, is a British spy illegally detained by the government because he knew too much.



In Armageddon, the only reason the world isn't completely destroyed is because Bay's heroes are a rag tag bunch of criminals and misfits who just won't follow the rules, man. At one point, the President orders some general (Keith David, always fun to have around) to detonate the nuke on the asteroid, in spite of the fact that every scientist in the room is saying that will only kill everyone they sent up there and then ensure the destruction of mankind. Fortunately, head of NASA Billy Bob Thornton is a rebel who cuts communications to keep the bomb from detonating. Later, leader of the drill team Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) has to strangle the shuttle's pilot (William Fitchner) for a while to keep him from blowing everybody up. The government, in Bay's view, is full of selfish and stupid bureaucrats who will ruin everyone's fun unless they are stopped. Even in Pearl Harbor where Bay has to go easy on the government because he's constrained by reality, the polio-stricken and wheelchair bound Roosevelt has to literally stand up to force his cabinet to realize the severity of the attack.



The final tendency I want to discuss probably seems obvious, yet still needs to be laid out as a consistent aspect of Bay's films: the "more is always better" approach he takes to making them. One can say a lot of terrible things about Bay's movies, and I have, but the charge it is most difficult to levy against him is that his movies are boring (with the exception of Pearl Harbor, because Jesus that movie is long and boring). His movies are over-stuffed with action to the point of sheer gluttony. The Island plays out like a two hour long chase scene, with barely enough time for exposition between all of the car chases and exploding helicopters. Before things even really get going in The Rock (which is my pick, if forced, for Bay's best movie, a nearly meaningless distinction akin to picking out the rotting food that tastes the best) we have an attack on a military base, a bomb scare, and an insane and ridiculously long car chase through the streets of San Francisco that has so little to do with the actual plot, it might have been thrown in there because Bay realized the movie would be too short without it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-PCs8V7nLg



Michael Bay is so successful, in my estimation, not because he makes good movies (he clearly doesn't) but because he makes consistent movies. When a Michael Bay movie is released, if you go to see it you know exactly what you'll get. You know there won't be any plot to speak of, sure, but you also know you'll see scantily clad women, gun fights, car chases, and explosions. And perhaps just as importantly, you know you'll see A LOT of all of that. Bay makes terrible movies, and though I've never met the man personally, an analysis of his work tells me he's probably not a great human being. He's immature, simplistic, misogynistic, shallow, and by all measures, a hack but his movies are absolutely and completely his. The mind behind Armageddon, Bad Boys, The Island, and Transformers may be a simple one, but what it puts up on the screens is a personal expression, whether we like it or not. Michael Bay's movies have personality, even though that personality is one that I fervently dislike and wish didn't exist. I don't love any of his movies (though I can definitely say that some are more enjoyable than others), but I see why so many people do. You know what you're going to get when you see a Michael Bay movie, and he delivers it so consistently, it is impossible not to consider the man an auteur.

Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

Note: Whose Film Is It Anyway? will go on indefinite hiatus after these final three installments.

4/10:Aaron Sorkin

4/24: Christopher Nolan

5/8: Notes on the Auteur Theory in 2011

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