By Steven Boone
Have you ever been subject to someone in a position of authority who denied you a basic adult right, as if you were a child?
Of course you have. It’s a universal frustration we’ve all experienced at one point or another. In One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, a guy named Charlie Cheswick wants his cigarettes. He’s a voluntary patient at a mental institution in 1963, and the ward supervisor, Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), serenely refuses to let him have his smokes. She’s been punishing him in this manner for a while now, and he’s nearly fed up. Adding fuel to the fire, fellow patient McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) asks other ward mates to let Cheswick bum a smoke.
Cheswick loses it. “I don’t want his cigarettes, or his, or his, or his….” He turns his fury back to the nurse. “I want my cigarettes, Nurse Ratched! What gives you the damn right to keep our cigarettes piled up on your desk and to squeeze out a pack only when you feel like it, huh?” He’s in a rage of understandable frustration (and nicotine withdrawal), but Nurse Ratched exploits the situation by remaining inhumanly calm, making him look like the unreasonable crazy man that violence-prone attendants standing nearby are all too happy to believe he is.
“That’s just wrong,” said a young man standing next to me, staring up at the movie and shaking his head. “Give that dude his cigarettes.” We were gathered at an outdoor screening in midtown Manhattan, part of Bryant Park's summer movie series. On the giant screen, Charley Cheswick, played by the great character actor Sydney Lassick, continued to throw a tantrum (“I ain’t no little kid! I want something done! I want something doooonne!”) until McMurphy rushed over to the nurses’ station, put his fist through its thin plate glass window, and grabbed a carton of Lucky Strikes. The crowd, at least a thousand strong, erupted in applause. McMurphy shoved the carton into Cheswick‘s arms, but it was too late. Attendants dragged him away. Nurse Ratched won this round. Boooo.
There would be a lot more applause, catcalls and dismayed head-shaking from this Bryant Park movie crowd, which was Standing Room Only that night. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, an allegorical drama adapted from Ken Kesey’s novel, played like a non-stop thrill ride. Originally released in 1975, it’s the most thrilling summer movie of 2011.
The park was packed, in part, because the movie was free. HBO, apparently out of the kindness of its corporate heart, shows free classic films in Bryant Park every summer since the early 90s. But what struck me was how the place stayed packed, standing room only, for the film's duration. I was standing alongside the great lawn in the middle of the park, where I could see the multitude staring up, barely blinking—and, at times, crying, grinning madly in unconscious pantomime of Jack’s ridiculously charismatic smile; or resting a head on the shoulder of a loved one. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest doesn't let you look away. How does it do this?
Surely, Michael Bay knows. He didn’t direct Cuckoo’s Nest. Milos Forman did that when Bay was 10 years old, playing with toy cars and army men. Bay's new film Transformers: Dark of the Moon apes a basic understanding of why people flock to the big commercial movies. We don’t seek escape so much as communion. In theaters, strangers come together as at church, to experience something that spells out what fears, strengths, joys and frustrations we have in common. You can’t get an “amen” in your living room. The Transformers movies genuflect toward this phenomenon by building their tale around an Everyman hero who overcomes everyday humiliation and adversity in the manner of Buster Keaton or Peter Parker. The plots may be about an endless battle on earth between good shape-shifting robots (The Autobots) and evil ones (The Decepticons), but the heart of the franchise is likable Sam (Shia Leboeuf). Previously, Sam struggled to get out from under his loving but suffocating parents and maintain a relationship with an affectionate love doll (Megan Fox). This time he faces the same struggles while going through a mortifying recession-era job search and tending an even more affectionate love doll (Rosie Alice Huntington-Whiteley). What young soul, in Cairo or Austin, can’t relate?
Or so Bay seems to think. It’s clear that the director assumes we've developed some kind of relationship with Sam over the years. All Bay heroes are the kind of simple, red-blooded American boys that McMurphy encouraged virginal Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif) to be in Cuckoo’s Nest, the kind who “oughta be out in a convertible bird-dogging chicks and banging beaver.” Except that Sam’s coming of age across three deafening Transformers movies has been like watching American Graffiti staged during the Battle of Fallujah. Despite Bay’s clear intention to bring us all together, there is no communion to be found here. All of the Transformers films are oppressive wonders, but I was impressed by how Bay left me so little with which to dull my pain this time around.
Granted, the entire series is nonsensically plotted and crammed with the kind of humor shared between Marines sitting in adjoining latrine stalls, so what was I expecting? Bay has, from the start of his career, demonstrated that his attention span lasts about .000005 seconds. The man has no concept of suspense or accumulation of detail. But the previous entries at least had a few majestic one-off images and fragments of montage that suggested that Bay’s connection to Steven Spielberg transcended the simple executive producer/director relationship. The shots of rollerblading Decepticons or somersaulting tanks in Bay’s work grooved like Spielberg in pure showman mode. But Dark of the Moon says: Enough of that shit. It is one clanking, crowded, homely image after another, in what is supposed to be a simulation of three dimensions but looks more like one of those faux-holographic Jesus cards you find in religious bookstores. Vehicles perform a lot of gymnastics that defy physics here, but this Real-D thingamajig makes them seem more toy-like than even CGI can guarantee. One potentially astonishing shot of soldiers free-falling in winged flying suits looks like a bunch of dolls dangling on fishing wire. Transformers: Dark of the Moon cost $150,000,000.
But the real horror in Dark of the Moon is the way it expresses a newfound ambition in Bay, one that surpasses even Armageddon and Pearl Harbor in devouring history, space and time. Here Bay recruits for his purposes CGI effigies of John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Obama; flesh-and-blood master thespians Frances McDormand, John Malkovich and John Turturro; the real Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Fox News crusader Bill O’Reilly, NASA and, as usual, a large swath of the military industrial complex. Megan Fox, the franchise’s signature eye candy, is not in this one because, according to gossip, Spielberg fired her for comparing Bay to Hitler in a press interview. Dark of the Moon tells me the comparison is apt, but only in the sense that Bay has a truly amazing ability to bend armies to his infantile will. Sitting in the dark, staring up at Dark of the Moon through flimsy Real-D glasses, I felt as if we were all being jumped by a vicious street gang or recruited for terrorism. The theater became a cattle car to certain doom. Michael Bay will be President of the United States one day, you mark my words. Or at least governor of California.
If we last that long, that is. Dark of the Moon seems to herald a definite end of the American empire, delivering, amidst a third-act frenzy of rockets and robot breakdance-fighting, one-liners that cut deep. “We are all working for the Decepticons now,” says Patrick Dempsey, as a slimy tycoon who sells us all out to the rogue Transformers, Lex Luthor-style. Like Avatar and the Star Wars prequels, this flick somehow critiques megalomania and totalitarianism while making vigorous, sweaty love to them. We are all working for the Decepticons now, and with Nurse Ratcheds like Bay denying us our cigarette while pretending to want only what’s best for us, 1975 seems like a lost planet.
Steven Boone is a film critic and video essayist for Fandor and Roger Ebert's Far Flung Correspondents. He writes a column on street life for Capital New York and blogs at Big Media Vandalism. You can follow him on Twitter.