Film Quarterly

Busby Berkeley Wins the War

Nothing of Value

Nothing New Under the Sun

What's the Score?

Facelifts and Heart-falls

Blockbuster Building Blocks

Rick Altergott
"IMAGINE AN EYE unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye that does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of Green? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can that eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color."

--Stan Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision

"I don't get hung up on continuity too much." --Michael Bay

In the last few years, when he hasn't been curled up with The Great Books, critic David Denby has devoted a lot of space to decrying the current state of movies. In Denby's dire scenario, Hollywood, lured by the greater profits available in foreign and ancillary markets, has moved itself toward action and spectacle--stuff that plays better in Bangkok than Bangor. The result is a new breed of filmmaking, indifferent to character or even logic, that replays over and over the same action tropes, so that they have assumed a purely formal meaning, like the cherubs and folded drapery in bad religious paintings.

Are movies today more concerned with empty spectacle than before? More important, can it be stated so categorically that what is happening is indeed a bad thing? It may seem obvious that the testosterone-fueled blockbusters of the day are inferior to earlier movies about boys and their guns, but the history of popular film criticism is rife with overlooked, dismissed, or out-and-out reviled movies becoming appreciated by succeeding generations of writers. If we credit Denby with identifying a new type of action film, one driven solely by the formalistic concerns of making each shootout, explosion, and silly one-liner louder and more impressive than the last, technically we've still gotten no closer to proving such films are a blight on the movie screen. Do today's action films abandon character? Plot? Coherence? Maybe today's moviegoers no longer need them.

"Do what you do, only faster."

--Joe Pantoliano in Bad Boys

It is easy to find awful, unspeakable films that run purely on the rush of sensation. Assassins, Joel Schumacher's Batman films, the current, dismal Gone in 60 Seconds (this last one being all the more annoying as it trashes the memory of the fine, extremely cheap, and exciting original--a film that really understood how many plot holes an audience will swallow so long as things keep moving). But there are many superb ones as well: the whirling MTV action/romances of Wong Kar-wai or the mournful frenzy of John Woo's best are only the most obvious examples. Closer to home are the still-breathtaking extended set pieces that appear in even the most mediocre De Palma effort, and Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear, a generally disliked film, but perhaps the director's last great hurrah, so chaotic and surreal (the lovemaking scene plays like an underground art film; the parade is terrifyingly banal) that its time is sure to come.

And then there is Michael Bay.

Bay moved from directing commercials (most famously, the very funny "Got Milk?" spot with the Aaron Burr enthusiast unable to claim his prize) to making three huge commercial hits: Bad Boys, a loud, callous Martin Lawrence/Will Smith team-up, grossed $140 million worldwide; The Rock, with Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage, earned $325 million; and the flagrantly unrealistic and absurd Armageddon made $500 million. Critics have universally despised these films, and not without cause. They are witless, reckless, and illogical. When it comes to action chops, Bay isn't even from the same planet as a pro like Cameron, or, to keep it in the (former) family, Bigelow. These movies not only flaunt every reasonable expectation of believability and internal consistency, they make no sense. Edits seem random, every rule of film grammar is tossed out the window, and the headlong rush of movement forward is all. In any generally understood sense, these are incoherent, badly directed movies.

$140 million. $325 million. $500 million.

So there's no question that whatever it is Bay is doing, it works. Which is fascinating, because by all rights it shouldn't. Commandment No. 1 for action filmmakers has always been to not needlessly confuse the audience. In all the movies mentioned a few paragraphs ago, no amount of slam-bang pyrotechnics is allowed to obfuscate the relevant information of each shot--who is standing where, who has a gun trained on whom. In Bad Boys, a lengthy scene with our two heroes running after the bad guys fleeing in an SUV focuses solely on Will Smith for the longest time. Lawrence is completely ignored, until one of the villains--no idea which one--shoots out the window of a taxicab. Bay then cuts to Lawrence for the first time in the entire sequence, and as he hears the shot and circles around, the camera whirls about him from a low angle (the director's favorite shot); suddenly Martin's only a block away from all the action, leaping to slow-motion battle over a parked car.

Another example: In Armageddon, there are two space shuttles attempting to complete the mission. Caught in a stream of debris from the asteroid, one explodes, and of all the people I've ever asked, nobody knew which team had bought it until after the scene was over. Of course, Armageddon also straight-facedly posits that, in less than a day, its cast has left an offshore oil rig and dispersed throughout the United States, Ben Affleck having even started up a new company in the interim.

"At the time? Stanley, you said it seven and a half seconds ago."

"Well, gosh, kind of a lot's happened since then."

--Vanessa Marcil and Nicolas Cage, The Rock

"I had to train everyone to see the world like I see the world," Bay states in the DVD commentary to Armageddon. That world is apparently one of disorienting edits, mindless whip pans, and rack focuses that leave the background in a blur to reveal the barrel of a gun. Colors are treated with equal exaggeration: Entire scenes are lit in deep blue or green with no discernible source for the reflection. It is an anarchic, irresponsible vision, despite all the macho, patriotic chest-thumping.

And this is why critics are wrong to dismiss Bay. He's steadily proving himself to be one of the most interesting--I choose the word carefully--figures in American film. Bay doesn't have talent (he is in fact crushingly untalented) yet audiences around the world have no trouble following him. Which brings him to the brink of abstraction. "Film is so forgiving," Robert Altman told his editor on M*A*S*H; splice any two shots together and they'll match. Bay brings this avant-garde pranksterism to full fruition, constructing big-budget Hollywood films with big-name casts that hang together on a nearly intuitive level. We the audience practically become co-creators of the film, which is so poorly constructed that organizing the disparate elements is left up to us. And I think Bay knows this: According to one fan website, his upcoming Pearl Harbor is being filmed so that its eventual DVD release will allow viewers to reconstruct the film using the Multiple Angles feature. Not for one or two major scenes, but throughout.

In the past, film syntax as disjointed as Bay's would be relegated to basement screenings, along with Brakhage and Bruce Conner shorts, who despite their more personal idioms and infinitely smaller budgets share with Bay the same headlong thrill of the moment, the same refusal to dawdle over or organize their material. Now such rapid-fire momentum, and the concomitant disregard for where you have come from--forget about what you just saw, that's in the past, hey, look at this!--is immediately legible to anyone. It's true, Pace Denby, that Michael Bay may well be the death of well-made cinema; nevertheless, if the readiness of so many people to create their own movie out of the scattered images Bay sends out is any sign, then maybe it's about time.

This article was inspired by many talks, drunken and sober, with Bradley Steinbacher.