In Sunday’s New York Times, the film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis filed their monthly column in which they take questions from readers. Sunday’s edition tackled summer blockbusters—whether they work as successful visual art, if there are any good titles out there, and if one big-name director in particular relishes in punishing the audience.
That last query was mine. On July 1 I saw Transformers: Dark of the Moon at a screening sponsored by the District of Columbia’s Office of Motion Picture and Television Development. I knew the movie was two hours and 34 minutes long; I knew I hated the first two installments; I knew that any film directed by Michael Bay trades on its digital explosions and curvy female leads rather than its screenplay and acting talent. But I cover the film office for Washington City Paper and here was a public event where I could see one of this summer’s major releases for free. Hell, it even made for a decently-read item on the City Paper‘s arts blog the following day.
But I couldn’t stick it out. About two hours into the movie, I was too overwhelmed to endure the last half hour. That’s right—I don’t have the faintest notion of how Shia LaBeouf and the Autobots rescued Chicago from the prolonged assault by the Decepticons. Or at least that’s what the movie seems to be about. I couldn’t quite finger a plot, or really anything remotely entertaining to hold on to. Bay doesn’t make prestigious movies, but I’ve actually enjoyed most of his previous titles. Even the first Transformers had redeeming moments. But this third chapter had none.
A few days later, I read Scott’s tweet soliciting questions for his and Dargis’ next answer column. Still seething from how awful Dark of the Moon is (and frustrated with myself for giving up—I dread the notion of walking out of movies), I submitted this question:
I’ve endured plenty of bad tent poles so far this summer — “Thor”, “Bad Teacher”, “Green Lantern”, “Cars 2″— but when it came time for Transformers: Dark of the Moon, I couldn’t make it. I left my screening with roughly 30 minutes to go, exhausted and with a terrible headache, and I hadn’t even seen it in 3-D. But between the explosions and noise turned to 11 and lack of any discernible plot, I just couldn’t take it anymore. Is Michael Bay a sadist?
So, how did The Times‘ critics respond to my suggestion that one of the most financially successful directors of the past 20 years might relish tormenting his audiences?
“Transformers: Dark of the Moon” is a smorgasbord of noise and movement with a disregard for narrative coherence and psychological credibility bordering on the insane. I’m not sure that sadism is the right clinical term for the impulse driving this spectacle, but there is no mistaking the aggression in every moment, an aggression that is entirely consistent with the film’s source and subject matter, which after all is toys.
He’s probably right. As awful as they are, Bay probably doesn’t make his movies—and especially the Transformers series—with the expressed urge to hurt the audience. Scott confirmed that these films are made without any tangible narrative. And that would be fine, or at least explicable, if Bay were some avant-garde filmmaker cranking out art films. But he’s not. The average production budget of a Transformers film is roughly $190 million; moreover, as summertime studio fare, we expect to be reasonably entertained. That the source material is a line of toys is childish, but so are comic books and children’s novels. Toys, though, are easily the most juvenile and don’t come with a ready-made story easy to adapt to the screen. Yet even among the wreckage of the first two Transformers movies, I could still identify a narrative, however flimsy.
Scott also called Bay’s style “action finger-painting with an unlimited budget and state-of-the-art technology,” something the director does with “panache and sophistication.” I’m really not some prude. I don’t mind that Dark of the Moon lays waste to Chicago. I’ll take a good whiz-bang, blow-’em-up picture any day of the week. I must have seen the visitors in Independence Day annihilate American cities four or five times in theaters during the summer of 1996, and I still watch it today when I find it on TV. Has there been a better alien-invasion movie since?
When it comes to the finger-painting, I’m not sure I agree with Scott. Yes, there’s something “dazzling, if alarming” about what Bay can do with CGI software, but I don’t think I would call it sophisticated. Its constancy—the knowledge that in every direction lies a giant space robot armed to the teeth or explosions going off like a Kandinsky piece—is depressingly heavy-handed.
Dargis, who admitted she hasn’t seen Dark of the Moon (though she probably will at some point having seen all of Bay’s previous work), had this to say:
I don’t believe that Mr. Bay is a sadist, an intentional one at least, but he’s nuttily entertaining, and the “Transformers” are essential viewing of a perverse kind simply because they are the apotheosis of a type of contemporary industrial filmmaking, one that combines commercialism (aimed at young viewers) and militarism (the same). Mr. Bay is nothing if not consistent in his ideas and his frenzied visual style (fast cuts, crazy-quilt angles, a fractured sense of space).
Again, I agree with about half this answer. If it’s possible to make a snobbish statement about Michael Bay, here it is: I very much enjoy his earlier work. The two Bad Boys films are frenetic and insane, brimming with just as many lens flares and helicopter shots as any Transformers entry, but are relentlessly fun. And Bay’s second movie, The Rock, is not only his best but one of its genre’s, too. The storming of Alcatraz, a car chase through San Francisco, and the mission to stop a gang of rogue Marines are delivered with gorgeous, well-timed brutality. And as a character piece, as much as any summer action tent pole can be a character piece, The Rock is one of my favorites. I can’t think of a better punchline to a pre-combat scene than Sean Connery’s delivery of “Winners go home and fuck the prom queen.”
Yes, Bay can be a “nuttily entertaining” auteur, but he doesn’t always deliver. His 2005 film The Island was one product placement after another presented as a pastiche of Logan’s Run. When the lights came up, it was easier to remember the names of the advertised brands—X-Box, Cadillac, Aquafina—than those of the characters.
But product placement isn’t Bay’s only crutch. He is, as Dargis points out, one of the U.S. military’s favorite filmmakers with whom to collaborate. His concepts of military readiness and capabilities are always imaginary, but consistent in their unyielding belief that American soldiers will defeat all enemies, earthly and extraterrestrial.
If, as Scott writes, Bay’s skill is conjuring “achievements in visual form,” he hasn’t shown us anything in Dark of the Moon that he didn’t in the first two Transformers. It’s just more of that pointless finger-painting, which after three movies is getting tiresome and less imaginative, not more.
But I’ve had problems with the Transformers movie franchise for a while. Two years ago, on a now-shuttered blog, I ranted about Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
It’s fruitless to argue with the financial success of the Transformers film series. Bay, PG-13 porn auteur that he’s become, owns a successful formula of explosions, cleavage, and cheap dialogue. My main gripe—one shared by many critics—with Revenge of the Fallen was in two supporting robot characters named “Skids” and “Mudflaps”, referred to in the film as “twins.” With their slip-and-fall physicality and jive-turkey slang, they were a throwback to Amos ‘n’ Andy, if Amos and Andy had gear shifts and fan belts. Revenge of the Fallen was an expensive epic of cheap popcorn thrills bogged down by a minstrel show.
When Dark of the Moon opened, some critics praised the new installment for dropping the blackface robots; others, like Scott, appeared satisfied simply by the fact that the third Transformers film is not the second.
I think my own reaction was much closer to that of Roger Ebert, who found that even with the racist overtones of the last film’s supporting CGI cast removed along with the wooden Megan Fox (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is a newer and prettier model, but her function—be leggy and breathy—is exactly the same) the Transformers series reached new lows with Dark of the Moon. Ebert called Dark of the Moon ”one of the more unpleasant experiences I’ve had at the movies.”
Me, too. In Bay’s universe, Ebert writes,”one special effect happens, and the[n]another special effect happens, and we are expected to be grateful that we have seen two special effects.” It’s all pretty insulting.
Not to be entirely anti-blockbuster. There have been nearly as many good tent poles this summer as bad. Bridesmaids and Horrible Bosses were hilarious and unapologetic; X-Men: First Class and Super 8 were quite engaging thanks to their engaging characters and pleasing stories, however simplistic; and even though I loathed the Transformers’ destruction of the Chicago skyline, I found the razing of Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 thrilling. “Size and season don’t make movies bad — filmmaking does,” Dargis wrote.
But getting back to my original question, do I still think Michael Bay is a sadist? Probably not. But he’s moved on from the bloody spectacles of his earlier movies to animating a cherished collection of boyhood toys. He doesn’t mean to harm the audience; those explosions are there for our fun.
It just wasn’t any fun for me.