Now and Then: The Transformation of Michael Bay to Sunday Hangover Auteur

by Matt Brennan
October 3, 2011 3:48 AM
3 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood

Occasioned by the DVD release of Transformers: Dark of the Moon last week, and a few too many drinks Saturday night, Matt Brennan’s “Now and Then” column celebrates director Michael Bay, Sunday hangover auteur. Trailers below:

Maybe the most distinctive quality of Michael Bay’s screeching, explosive, jostling film style — one that has changed over the years only in accordance with the size of his budget — is that they don’t actually play that well on the big screen. Sure, they garner added force from the dark theater and the surround sound. But the pummel-you-into-submission aspect, the way the noise and editing and digital overdrive shatter any sense of aural or spatial continuity, is only exacerbated at the movies. On the big screen there’s no place to hide.

Thompson on Hollywood

Admittedly, peer pressure and summer rain are usually the only things that get me into the cinema for a Bay movie. In any other situation, my ten bucks seem better off devoted to getting ice cream, or paying someone on the street to yell in my face. On a fuzzy Sunday when all you want to do is lay on your couch, though, the films’ smooth, almost unconscious forward propulsion is satisfying, even soothing. No commitment is required to watch a Michael Bay film: they are the one-night stands of the cinema.

Take The Rock (1996), Bay’s inversion of the “escape from Alcatraz” model, in which Nic Cage and Sean Connery infiltrate the island prison to combat domestic terrorists threatening San Francisco with nerve gas. It’s a film I’m always delighted to find on cable. Because it’s so reliant on the geography of secret passageways and escape hatches, Bay limits his cutting to what’s necessary. Volume turned down a notch, it becomes a great cat-and-mouse game, heavy on suspense yet wryly written. Sneaking around to avoid detection, contained in small, dim spaces, Cage and Connery achieve a tense quiet, without trickery or forced technique.

The Rock, despite some silliness about the “real” killer of JFK and a villain straight out of every 80s action flick, is Bay’s best work. Yet even those movies that mistake seizures and panic attacks for thrills and chills, like the two Transformers sequels, make a better impression on the small screen. Unless you have a fancy stereo system, the sound is muffled, and thereby less destructive of brain cells and eardrums. The very fabric of the televisual experience, with happenings beyond the frame that can pull you out of the movie, mitigates the feeling that the Transformers films are composed largely of jumbled visual and narrative information. I still don’t get Transformers. I’m not quite sure what they are, or why they’re here, or what they have to do with Shia LaBoeuf, and that’s after more than seven hours of storytelling. But on a plush couch with periodic naps, I can survive them.

I can’t say the same about Pearl Harbor, the exception that proves the rule. The purpose of the film, I suspect, is Bay’s self-conscious Spielberg moment, an interminable take on the 1941 attack that has none of the raw emotion and pure fear of the virtuosic opening to Saving Private Ryan. Pearl Harbor devotes about as much time, however, to the saccharine Ben Affleck - Josh Hartnett - Kate Beckinsale love triangle, which as both narrative convention and character arc is a sorry excuse for romance. Watching Pearl Harbor, I was reminded that television and a hangover can hide a general lack of taste that seems glaring on the big screen. As for Bay telling a good love story? I may have to start drinking again to make that one fly.

[Transformers: Dark of the Moon photo and trailer courtesy DreamWorks; Pearl Harbor photo and trailer courtesy Touchstone Pictures; The Rock trailer via ThomThomson/YouTube.]

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3 Comments

  • dan | October 10, 2011 1:48 AMReply

    Bay's all around problem is that he tries to stuff in too much. The best action directors can make their movies lean and mean. Individual scenes or sequences in Bay's films work well, even very well, but watching his films in their entirety is a chore.

  • Brian | October 3, 2011 4:30 AMReply

    Ditto. TF3 in Imax 3-D was the only positive 3-D experience I've had in the modern era. Plus, I enjoyed the movie's sense of humor. I laughed a lot at the antics of the three Coen Bros. actors in the cast: Frances McDormand, John Turturro and John Malkovich. Bay's sense of humor was also prevalent in the first TRANSFORMERS movie, which I also enjoyed on the big screen. And I must say I grinned a lot during PEARL HARBOR at an advance screening. But those are the only Bay films about which I have anything positive to say.

  • Anne Thompson | October 3, 2011 4:19 AMReply

    I know what you mean about Bays' past work, but I have to say that watching Transformers: Dark of the Moon in IMAX 3-D was transformative. It knocked my socks off. Not the acting or the storytelling--but the amazing spatial action sequences, especially in the air--seriously, they rival Avatar.

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