Paths of Movement + Dynamic Sequences, 1913 | Transformers: Dark of the Moon, 2011
Film, the most sensory of the arts, is probably the best-equipped to present movement. It has a unique combination of music’s temporal toolkit, painting and sculpture’s visual toolkit, literature’s narrative toolkit, and dance’s physical toolkit.
Movement is one of the great challenges of art. From The Iliad, which has been beautifully defined as a work about “the human spirit [...] as modified by its relation to force,” to Debussy’s Engulfed Cathedral, a non-representational description of the vertical motion of a building sinking and rising out of the ocean, a great deal of art across all media and all eras strive to fabricate motion without actually moving the observer. And if film is the most intuitive for presenting movement, action film, with its implicit promises, is the most intuitive approach within the medium. Just as the existential novel is the story of the human spirit navigating metaphysics, action cinema, just like The Iliad, is the story of the human body navigating time and space.
Great (or at least vital) action, from Die Hard’s annihilation of architectural space (I don’t praise much about Die Hard but this is definitely a plus for it) to 300‘s development of the fluid freeze frame, refines how we process space and time. But, of course, cinema is incomplete. Motion can only be suggested, not reproduced (with the exception of awkward jerky theme park rides). You don’t really get hit when Rocky does, of course—and you don’t really jump off that building with Sergeant Riggs. That distance between reality and presentation means filmmakers must translate physical sensation into aesthetics, and hey—that’s where art lives.
I’m always interested in the way filmmakers seek to bridge the distance between our experience of sitting quietly and their presentation of danger. James Cameron, a techie at heart, often emphasizes small tactile details like the rattle of metal or the porcelain crunch of a skull. By pulling us into the physical heft of his world, we’re primed to absorb its motion as our own. Alfonso Cuaron and Darren Aronofsky often rely on long, virtuoso shots that eliminate dimensional distance by aggressively pushing past our subconscious expectations of what is ‘possible’.
Michael Bay is one of the best in the world at depicting motion, and the Transformers series, for all its storytelling incompetence, may be his masterpiece in this regard. The series, particularly Transformers 3, are all in theory a battle between good guys and bad guys, each named and catalogued with action figures and stats. But unlike the pedantic Pacific Rim—which is an accountant’s analysis of a fight—Transformers, in practice, throws all that away and becomes essentially a long series of swirling lights and noises. It’s the explosion of color through time. It’s beyond the infinite.
A lot of people before me have pointed out a Cubist influence to the transformation sequences in the Transformers movies, and they’re right—Bay throws away Euclidian perspective like the Cubists did. But I want to define that more tightly—these films are not just Cubist, they’re examples of a specific branch of Cubism called Futurism. Transformers has made Michael Bay a Futurist. Here’s why:
Unusual approaches to motion were a constant concern in early 20th century art, and in some of the Transformers action sequences Bay seems to segment space like the great Abstract Expressionist Wassily Kandinsky:
Kandinsky was also passionate about music, and his Synesthetic sense of sound and color’s combined ability to express a “hymn of that new creation” speaks to Bay’s quest for an alien soundscape to accompany the Transformers. I always get the sense that, if Bay had his way, the robots would never speak—the films’ best sequences reduce their utterances to strange, inexpressible, inhuman chirping and whirring and wub-wubbing.
But Kandinsky was deeply concerned about using art to nourish the soul, and that’s where he and Michael Bay part ways. Kandinsky spoke of the worth of an empty canvas over most paintings, and as his life went on he narrowed his focus, trying to capture small and purely spiritual concepts. The Transformers movies go the other way.
Futurism, like Abstract Expressionism, developed in the wake of Cubism. It formed in Italy, where a handful of pre-Mussolini artists declared that they rejected the stagnation in their turn-of-the-century culture. They advocated demolishing museums and cultural ruins, a proposal that they never quite had the guts to follow through on, but that the cinema of Michael Bay literalized. Like Michael Bay, the Futurists were vaguely fascist, but mostly just impatient.
There’s a musty juvenilia to the whole Futurist thing—not unlike the He-Man Woman Hater’s Club, their historically recorded mission statement was “to glorify war” and hold “contempt for woman,” but, unlike The Little Rascals, they mostly all got themselves killed in World War I in the process.
Still, for all their adolescent posturing and drag-assing, they did manage to pound out some truly beautiful works of art before coming to moronic ends (one of the longest living Futurists, incidentally, was the warmonger Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, true to the old rule of thumb that the easiest way to avoid dying in battle is to convince younger people to do it for you). “We declare,” their 1909 Manifesto went, “that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.” Their sculptures are probably the most striking example of this—human figures burning through time, trailing limbs like a compressed view of Nude Descending a Staircase. “We want to glorify the beautiful ideas which kill,” they said, filling canvas after canvas with dynamic automobiles and airplanes frozen in eternal motion—or eternal speed, as they characterize it: “Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed.”
Eternal, omnipresent speed is the name of the game for Michael Bay. His strong directional lines and z-axis-crossing establishing shots have always carved speed out of stillness. He uses lines and color to create horizons and walls in action. He seized the opportunity a cast of robots offered him, using their grotesqueness to create motion in faces. Compare Umberto Boccioni’s Dynamism of a Man’s Head with the dynamism of the head of a Transformer. Split, cubed, locked in multiple perspectives and angles all at once, frozen in eternal, omnipresent speed:
Dynamism of a Man’s Head, 1913
Look here at how he and Tullio Crali express the tense stasis in the speed of freefall:
Before the Parachute Opens, 1939
Or how he and Boccioni time and again dice a moving figure into separate grotesque panels:
Synthesis of Human Dynamism, 1913
Giacoma Balla makes danger out of speed, and speed out of circles:
Speed of a Motorcycle, 1913
But Luigi Russolo make danger out of speed, and speed out of “V”s:
Dynamism of an Automobile, 1912
Like Fortunato Depero, Michael Bay crowds portraits with hard lines crossing through his subject:
Martinetti, Patriotic Storm, 1924 (detail)
And like Giacomo Balla, Bay expresses manmade light as a dynamic consuming wave, quite apart from anything like sunlight:
Street Light, 1909
Balla’s study of the flight of swifts, Paths of Movement, sums up for me the whole of Futurism. It’s too much information given at one time, an overwhelming stream frozen forever, every phase of its motion eternally taking place at once:
Paths of Movement + Dynamic Sequences, 1913
It’s the eternal, omnipresent speed in its purest form. It’s the beauty of speed, the glorification of violence in its purest form – a liberating, rash, ridiculous soaring. The sort of violence that becomes a pre-adolescent’s concept of war.
“They will crowd around us,” Marinetti’s manifesto continues, “panting with anguish and disappointment, and exasperated by our proud indefatigable courage, will hurl themselves forward to kill us, with all the more hatred as their hearts will be drunk with love and admiration for us. And strong healthy Injustice will shine radiantly from their eyes. For art can only be violence, cruelty, injustice.”
So it is for Michael Bay, who, more than anybody, has found a way to glorify the beautiful ideas that kill.