Let me preface this by saying that Michael Bay has not only never made a good movie, he’s basically a bad director. And yet, I have a real affection for him. Probably more than I do for any other crappy director. And here’s why.
Michael Bay’s movies are stupid. Many of my most beloved movies require a lot of suspension of disbelief. Part of the beauty of cinema lies in being taken to a totally illogical place and believing every minute of it. A guy hears a magic voice and doesn’t see a doctor about it—instead, he tears down his corn crop to build a magic baseball field. Sure, I’m down!
But when it comes to Bay, it starts to get a little sketchy. You can pretty much see the excited eighth grader, wide eyed, explaining his ‘badass’ movie idea. ‘But then, an asteroid is going to destroy the earth, so they send a ragtag group of oil drillers to burrow a nuclear warhead into the center of it, because the smartest man in the world says it’s the best idea, because of something about a firecracker and ketchup bottles.’
In the hands of a better director, maybe. But I doubt it.
On the Criterion commentary for Armageddon, the fucker literally says (I’m paraphrasing, but barely) ‘they took us on a tour of NASA and it was so dull I had to sexy it up’. That kind of brash insanity almost makes me think the guy is a plant—a conspiracy concocted by hipsters to give them evidence that Hollywood really is a fluff machine. But you gotta love it. Do we really need to hear more stories about how in awe Ron Howard was of the hard-working men and women at NASA? Or about the expert teams that so skillfully took James Cameron to the ocean floor to move shit around in the Titanic? If Michael Bay wants to sexy up NASA, be my guest.
But again, the guy really is the epitome of Hollywood cheese, from his chiseled jaw and coiffed long hair, to that sports car driving smirk plastered on his Fabio-esque face. You just know he’s yelling at people on set through the bullhorn. A tyrannical dictator with lowly assistants carrying Cokes and only blue M&Ms around on a platter—five feet away at all times, and no eye contact.
But ultimately, Michael Bay’s movies don’t suck because the stories are so stupid—although that certainly doesn’t help. They suck because his auteurism shoots itself in the foot.
There’s no question that Michael Bay is an auteur, in fact his movies are probably more visibly recognizable than any other auteur in history. The problem is, his style doesn’t lend itself to any kind of reality, drama, story beats, or really anything. Dramatic dynamic range is sucked away by fast cutting, cutting that happens during both simple dialogue scenes and ‘high octane’ action sequences.
“Actors have often noted that he places more importance on visuals than on his characters and actors. He is also known to do very few takes of intimate character-driven scenes, as he prefers to spend more time on action sequences and visually-interesting moments.” – IMDb Trivia
And that’s really his trademark, the fast cutting. Fast cutting, insanely vibrant color, and hyperactive camera movements. His average shot length is about 2.5 seconds—which is less than half that of a traditional movie. What’s interesting though is that despite the high cut rate, I suspect that to the layperson his movies are less stylized and more accessible than your average Tony Scott flick. Underneath the stupidity, Bay’s movies are actually very well constructed. His camera movements are much more bombastic and visceral than anything in any Scorsese movie, but they aren’t as distracting. Scorsese is a genius, and this is not a value judgement, but my point is that Scorsese’s style is more visible because he uses jagged editing and varying compositions during dialogue scenes, whereas Bay’s style is usually masked under intense action sequences where they are more hidden. And therein lies Bay’s particular genius. His action sequences are so well designed you are often left feeling as though everything that preceded was somehow organic, despite being absolutely insane. And if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a trillion times—the more invisible your style, the better your movie.
The real problem is that his style never lets up. I suspect it’s because he’s bored by his expository scenes, and why not? They aren’t the point of the movie. They’re a trivial necessity that serve as downtime between action scenes.
People have this stupid thing where movies like Transformers aren’t ‘supposed’ to be good, or are somehow deserving of a pass when they’re bad, because they’re just ‘entertainment’. That’s dumb, because all art is just ‘entertainment’. What’s entertaining about great art is its craftsmanship and ability to subdue you into the bliss of being overtaken by something. Action movies or comedies or whatever aren’t allowed to be fluff—if they’re fluff, they’re bad movies. Indiana Jones is proof positive that action-adventure can be transcendent. ‘High art’. The bar has been set. If Transformers isn’t as good, or at least original or refreshing in some way, then it sucks.
Anyway, with the bar that high, it’s no wonder that most movies suck, Michael Bay’s obviously included. However, it’s hard to ignore his blatant stylistic tendencies. And as a movie nerd, it’s certainly interesting to follow.
My first experience with Michael Bay was Armageddon, which I saw in the theater with my parents the day before I got my braces. Armageddon is an effective study at how well generic movie tricks work at making you cry. It’s almost like how in music, ‘minor’ equals sad and ‘major’ equals happy. That’s a reductive statement, and not always true, but when done the right way (or you could say wrong, there are no rules) it works. In movies, just have a dad sacrifice himself for his daughter, have her cry, and put sappy music under it. The whole movie can be retarded and I’ll probably still get misty. It’s effective emotional pandering.
One interesting thing about Armageddon though is the cast. It’s like a who’s who of indie actors, and is actually Ben Affleck and Owen Wilson’s big break. You have to put yourself back in the time—creating an ensemble made up of Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Michael Clarke Duncan and the aforementioned duo is pretty remarkable. And like any auteur, he certainly has a stable of actors he dips into time and again, with Buscemi, Stormare, Duncan, and Ed Harris showing up in other films.
My theory is that Bay, smartly, populates his pictures with great and distinguishable character actors because his movies are littered with small roles that need to be instantly identifiable, and because he won’t have to pay too much attention to them on set. He has to worry about the hugeness of the next explosion—he can’t be concerned with character motivations.
Bay’s best movie is his most recent and most modest, Pain and Gain. Ordinarily in his movies, it’s the story that’s bad, but surprisingly, in Pain and Gain, the story is pretty good, and it actually matches his style. Bay’s bombastic, beach babe, big dick, macho, glossy, commercial style makes sense when applied to a story about a few meathead body builders that want to become big shots in some kind of Scarface-y American dream fantasy scenario. The ultimate flaw is simply the length and overuse of narration. The story is so interesting, I’d rather just see it play out than listen to Goodfellas-style commentary from the protagonists. It makes sense that such an inept storyteller as Bay would drop the ball on a movie with a good story though. You can tell Bay feels uncomfortable without an action beat every ten pages, and expectedly, milks every opportunity he can to overdo the action scenes it does have. But again, this approach actually makes sense in a universe of over the top, larger-than-life characters. The problem is I don’t think this was intentional, but instead, just an ironic accident. Since all Bay’s movies look the same, Pain and Gain being no exception, you get the sense that no matter what the story, Bay will simply go through the motions. This is obviously where Bay’s ineptitude is exposed. He is, ultimately, a shallow and bland filmmaker that routinely makes very boring movies that are only as good as their scripts. And since those scripts are sitcom jokes surrounded by crazy action and Danielle Steele romance, they all suck.
Transformers is a franchise based on a cartoon. And Bay shouldn’t be adapting things, which is why the Transformers movies are his least fun movies. (Well, except Pearl Harbor—nobody should ever watch or even want to watch that thing.) The problem with Transformers is its familiarity in the culture. Bay is actually better when he’s being ‘original’. Armageddon and The Rock may be stupid, but at least we haven’t seen them before in any other context. By doing something with provenance, Bay is locking himself into further predictability, and that’s never fun—especially for a guy who essentially makes two-hour coke parties (generally done off of strippers butts—ever notice how all his fucking movies have an obligatory stripper scene?)
Kevin Smith has a pretty great rant about Transformers. He asks a very appropriate and sensical question—why can’t Transformers just be twenty minutes of robots fighting? That valid question is basically everything I’ve been saying here in easy to swallow pill form. The answer is because years of arbitrary standards have forged a marketplace where expected movie length is 90-150 minutes. These running times are not based on anything having to do with the quality of the art form, but unfortunately, on marketing strategies. A great movie could be thirty seconds or five hours—the idea that they have to be around 90 minutes is ludicrous, and unfortunate, since many movies would benefit greatly from being about 30 minutes shorter (conversely, The Big Lebowski would benefit from being twenty five hours long).
If movies were allowed to be lengths that would make them good instead of lengths that fit them into time slots, Michael Bay might be a much better filmmaker. Imagine a world where Michael Bay is an iconic avant-garde filmmaker who makes twenty-minute CGI masterpieces filled with explosions and robots fighting. By cutting out all of the dialogue scenes in each one of his movies, you’d essentially be straining out the dumb parts, and you’d be left with a hyper-kinetic, super-intense, visceral masterpiece. Because again, unlike other action directors, Bay’s staging and scene construction is not lazy. It’s flashy and over the top, but it actually does enhance the action. Compare any sequence in a Bay film to one in either of the Bourne sequels—handheld, passionless messes with no tension or direction. Bay’s action is flowing and energetic, with a clever blend of compositions, tracking shots, camera movements, all swirled together in a cohesive way. His color palette is saturated, vibrant, and beautiful. And if Transformers was allowed to be twenty minutes, it would basically just be some swirling colors, explosions, and hectic sound design. It would be the most epic art film of all time, and a bizarre masterpiece of exuberance and energy. Instead, it’s over two hours of plop, and then sometimes a robot blows up or does something racist (that’s what people have said, I have no idea).
Bay not only has a vision of how to construct a scene, his vision is deliberate and based on a high level of cognizance of filmic editing. To design sequences like he does, you have to be able to visualize how your compositions will cut together in your mind:
“I write my own action. There’s a scene in The Island, a highway chase where a pile of train wheels fall off a truck and smashes into the oncoming cars. That thought came to me as I was driving next to a truck carrying rail wheels. My mind is very fertile, so I’m like, ‘That’s very dangerous!’ I sent someone out to do research and found out those train wheels weigh a TON each.” – Michael Bay
Hell, he even believes in his crappy art enough to do this: “In Bad Boys, Bay paid $25,000 (one quarter of his fee) for the climax explosion scene. The initial shot was made impossible by a rainstorm, and the production company refused to pay for another try.” – IMDb Trivia
To make Bourne 2, your idea for action sequences has got to be, it’s handheld, he’s gonna run that way, follow him. It’s ironic, because in the Bourne movies the intent of the handheld style is to make the audience feel as though the events are really happening. The handheld camera mimics the verite style trailblazer by newsreels. Kubrick famously used this style many times, most notably in Dr. Strangelove. William Friedkin also utilized it in The French Connection and even refused to tell his DP the blocking so he would have to follow the action as it happened.
Back then the style was effective, not only because it was new but because it was executed in the same way as the footage it mimicked. Nowadays, its nothing more than a lazy stylistic trick, and its overuse has made it not only generic but a telltale sign of a total bankruptcy of ideas.
That’s why when you reflect back on action movies of the last 30 years or so, Michael Bay’s work really stands out. He essentially invented the modern action movie and created a genre in and of itself—the really bad Hollywood action movie with way too many explosions.
Michael Bay’s movies suck in every way possible. From the easy, hollow one-liners to the obligatory stripper scenes to the outlandish premises and needless over-the-top sexiness. They’re big, they’re on steroids and crack and cocaine, and they’re the epitome of MTV-style fast cutting, low-attention span shit. Their one saving grace is those twenty minutes of action in each one that can be siphoned out and held up up with the the likes of Scorsese and Cameron, and appreciated for the masterpieces they are.
Every few years, for fifteen minutes, Michael Bay is Andy Warhol.
“I make movies for teenage boys. Oh, dear, what a crime.” – Michael Bay