Saturday, June 25, 2005

NOTES ON SUMMER ACTION CINEMA Part Three: THE MICHAEL BAY PROBLEM


Last week Slate editor Bryan Curtis wrote a “What? Me Worry?” piece in defense of the aesthetic of director Michael Bay, the general gist of which was a none-too-sly implication that those who weren’t on board with Bay’s tactics as a pummeler nonpareil in the fine, nonintellectual (he typed with a straight face) tradition of what has become known and defined, thanks in part of Bay’s contributions, as the summer movie, were flying in the face of the inevitable. Here’s Curtis:

“The apoplexy Bay's movies inspire reveals something interesting about film critics: That no matter how much they insist that they've made their peace with the summer movie, and its bullying domination of the multiplex, they can still go limp at the idea of the summer movie as an artistic end in and of itself. Bay is a pure creature of summer, a man who has no ambition other than to dazzle and pummel. As he once put it, savoring his critical infamy, "I make movies for teenage boys. Oh, dear, what a crime."

Curtis is out to get some goats with this piece, in a garrulous, nondogmatic manner, to be sure, but he’s also all about trying to position Bay as some sort of innovator who’s (here we go again) just giving the people what they want, yet attempting to fashion an aesthetic purse from what others (critics) have been conditioned to accept only as a sow’s ear— that is, the preconception of a “summer movie” as by definition beneath the realm of art. Well, if the roots of the modern summer movie can be said to extend further beneath the surface of film history than the emergence of Michael Bay, then we might see that one of the first examples, if not the first example, Jaws, is not exactly without critical acclaim to go along with its popularity. So what does Curtis mean when he writes about “the idea of the summer movie as an artistic end in itself”? Is he talking about pure sensation detached from the artistic impulse to explore character, themes and techniques designed with something other than heightened blood pressure as a desired end? If you look solely at the faintly glib conclusion of his article, you might be forgiven for thinking so:

“There are those who say that watching a Bay movie is itself like watching one long chase scene out of context, as Bay whips from one image to the next, but I think Bay is on to something. He's whittled the summer movie down to its smallest constituent parts—without the clutter of character, cohesion, or exposition.”

But it’s clear from looking elsewhere that, for Curtis, Bay’s work, and presumably its acceptance at the box office, represents the evidence that the kind of hyperactive editing and “look at me, ma!” camerawork that is its hallmark has made the transition from all-flash-no-substitute signpost to “an artistic end in itself":

“’Fast-cutting’ is seen as a hackneyed technique of music videos, not cinema. In fact, patching a bunch of quick cuts together is a massive undertaking in the editing room.” (The fact that “patching a bunch of quick cuts together is a massive undertaking in the editing room” is somehow apparently evidence unto itself that the technique is not hackneyed. Curtis never elaborates, but instead goes on:) “Moreover, Bay has a fluid, gliding camera—he's using quick cuts to create atmosphere, not to whip up false momentum.”

What the hell does Curtis mean by “creating atmosphere”? Bay applies the same frenetic editing style to every situation, be it action or dialogue based, so can it be said that for Bay there is only one “atmosphere” with which his films are imbued? And what atmosphere can be created by the excessive visual bombardment of a 30-40 cuts per minute of footage? Perhaps that of sitting on a crowded airport tarmac while sitting six inches away from and staring directly into a strobe light, which was exactly what sitting through Armageddon in a movie theater felt like to me.

But his claim that Bay uses this technique for atmosphere, and not to whip up false momentum, is the single biggest chunk of balderdash the article has to offer. If Mr. Curtis had ever sat through Bad Boys II, as I did last night, he would have witnessed the spectacle of Michael Bay creating scene after scene loaded with false momentum. The movie features one absolutely smashing (literally and figuratively) car chase involving several vehicles and a truck transport loaded with cars which the baddies unleash from the trailer and drop into traffic, causing some spectacular and rather beautiful vehicular mayhem. The scene flirts with deflation by Bay’s insistence on cutting to reaction shots from the titular bad boys (Martin Lawrence’s wide-eyed fear, Will Smith’s hooting and expressions of “extre-e-e-e-eme” excitement), but there’s no doubt the momentum in this scene is the real thing.

Unfortunately, none of the other big sequences (especially another car chase in which the obstacle du jour dumped from the fleeing vehicle this time is not other vehicles, but a truckload of morgue stiffs) measures up to the effectiveness of this first chase (which occurs 30 minutes into the movie’s incredibly bloated 145-minute running time). Each big action sequence is alternated with "hilarious" character by-play between Lawrence and Smith, which not only adds immeasurable and inessential minutes to that bloat, but effectively kills the movie’s real momentum. (As a father of two daughters, I was, however, grateful for a very inessential scene in which Lawrence and Smith intimidate a young boy coming to call on Lawrence's 14-year-old daughter. It builds up a head of comedy steam I found very funny and with which I experienced much empathy.) So each Lawrence/Smith breather is shot through with as much phony editing (which can’t serve to move the story along, because the scenes themselves aren’t designed to do so) and swooshing camerawork as the director can think to pack in, all of it intended to give the viewer the impression that something is happening when, in fact, the opposite is true.

Curtis finishes off this section of his piece by quoting one of Bay’s professors at Wesleyan, Jeanne Basinger, as saying that rather than using rapid-fire editing to “create atmosphere,” what Bay is really doing is attempting to “introduce something like abstract expressionism to the $150 million blockbuster.” Would that be anything like a professor trying to assign some dubious artistic rationale to a former student’s methods in order to minimize her own embarrassment?

For Curtis, there is an implication that, within a few generations, Hollywood will have, through its various processes of cannibalization of previous pop culture iconography and methodology, produced a director who knows nothing but “the grammar of blockbusters—the bastard son of Top Gun’s Maverick and a velociraptor.” What he doesn’t seem to see, or at least accept, is that a summer movie need not be, by definition, divorced from character, cohesion and exposition in order to achieve some reductive transmogrification into artistic expression-- Batman Begins ought to be evidence enough of that, and there’s reason to hope that Land of the Dead and even War of the Worlds might also fulfill that hope. Those who hold these beliefs might also hold that Curtis’ prognostication has already seen fruition, and that Michael Bay has already achieved that Maverick-velociraptor hybrid status. It’s never clear through what Curtis writes whether he thinks this is a bad thing or not, but he’s certainly for embracing Bay’s deconstructive aesthetic approach, which is simply a glib way of saying that it just doesn’t matter, albeit a bit wordier than a shrug and a “who cares?” There’s the definite implication that those who would worry about such things are almost exclusively calcified dinosaur critics who just aren’t on Bay’s wavelength the way most paying audiences are. (Does anyone really still hold to that old saw about paying audiences voting with their dollars? And if they do, how about asking them what they thought on their way out of the cineplex?)

Strangely enough, my viewing of Bad Boys II instilled a faint ray of hope for Bay’s next project, the upcoming sci-fi thriller The Island. My aesthetic objections to the Bay movies I’ve seen have been pretty much consistent across the board-- The Rock, Armageddon and Bad Boys II all featured the same aggravating editing, the overwrought, insistent camerawork, and a certain approach to character that could be described as “crude” or “rendered in broad strokes.” But my objections otherwise have been either script-based-- the screenplays for The Rock and Armageddon were almost pathologically averse to common sense and believability—or attitude-based—if two-thirds of the allegedly charming interaction between Lawrence and Smith had been cut from Bad Boys II, as well as some of the redundant action (and any first-year film student could have probably done the job to effectively tighten up the pace), Bay might have had a snappy, 105-minute action film on his hands instead of the lethargic clunker into which the movie devolves.

Yet The Island is his first job out from underneath the Jerry Bruckheimer umbrella, and it boasts the promise of genre sophistication that his other movies, generously speaking, have not. And anyone who wouldn’t trade Ben Affleck, Nicolas Cage, Josh Hartnett, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence for Ewan MacGregor, Scarlet Johannsen, Steve Buscemi, Djimon Hounsou , Sean Bean and Shawnee Smith, well, you probably think Michael Bay’s trying to inject abstract expressionism into $150 million blockbusters and is onto something with this whole whittling the summer movie “down to its smallest constituent parts—without the clutter of character, cohesion or exposition” business.

Divorced of the hip-hop, bling-bling bullshit bravado of the Smith-Lawrence show and the jingoism and visual mayhem of Armageddon, I think The Island has, if it’s got anything like the frenzied smackdown theatrics of that first car chase in Bad Boys II up its sleeve, a real chance to be Michael Bay’s first good movie. But that said, if it is it won’t be because I’ve suddenly bought into this business of Bay and others like him fragmenting audiences’ attention spans with eyeball-crushing edits and deafening sound in search of that great, awesome thrill-ride movie experience. It’ll be because Michael Bay finally figured out a way to put that prodigious ability to stage action to the service to telling a story worth telling in a manner that tells it well. Consider my mind open and my fingers crossed.

2 comments:

blaaagh said...

If all that quick cutting worked for me, to create excitement or suspense, I wouldn't have any objection to it--but it just gives me a headache and annoys me. If the way it's edited is noticeable, not to mention irritating, to a viewer, then it's not good editing, in my humble opinion. (Unless you buy into the suggestion that he's creating some new kind of bold art by deliberately challenging your way of watching movies, which is one of the least believable suggestions I've heard in some time). And yes, as you point out, in "The Rock" and "Armageddon," the credibility factor is so low that I find myself losing all involvement in the thing. I finally watched "Pearl Harbor" about a year ago, desperate for something to see while my wife was off at school, and I thought it had some decent stuff, as far as the staging of the action goes--and some not-bad work by the actors. It's plenty corny and silly, though, and drove me crazy with how modern and untrue to the period much of the dialog and behavior were. It'll take some convincing to get me to bother with another Michael Bay movie...and I LOVE summer movies in general.

Thom McGregor said...

I have disliked, perhaps even hated Michael Bay in the past. I don't recall ever being more annoyed in a theater than when I saw "The Rock." What was I doing there? I can't remember! But I have to, nay, need to hold out hope for "The Island." I can't help it. Ewan!