In Defense of Michael Bay: Yes, Really

In Defense of Michael Bay: Yes, Really

Jun 28, 2011

Michael Bay

I am not a fan of Michael Bay.

Like many movie fans -- okay, movie snobs -- I went through a hardcore anti-Bay phase at one point, declaring him the worst filmmaker working today and one of the worst directors of all time. Armageddon? Garbage. Bad Boys II? Indefensible and incomprehensible. Pearl Harbor? A genuine offense to every man who lost his life on December 7, 1941. It was easy to hate Michael Bay and his filmography, and his consistent success gave me every opportunity to decry the human race. Why was this stupid man allowed to make such terrible, stupid films? And why were people flocking to see them? Cue stress balding.

Now, a handful of years have passed and I've grown older and, hopefully, a little wiser. I'm still no fan of Michael Bay, but after taking a step back and a deep breath I find myself looking at his work and not frothing at the mouth. In fact, I can't help but admire the man: his movies may not work for me at all, but I find his work consistently fascinating and perhaps, maybe, worthy of study.

There seem to be two myths floating around these here internets concerning Mr. Bay. They are as follows:

1. Michael Bay is stupid.

2. Michael Bay is a bad filmmaker.

The first one can be instantly suspended. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the filmmaking process can tell you that filmmaking is hard. Not just difficult, but an ongoing, daily uphill battle that threatens to sap your strength and spirit at every turn. Completing any movie is a miracle. Completing a $300 million effects heavy blockbuster featuring fully CGI characters, dangerous stunts and live explosions going off around your expensive cast is an ordeal, a trial by fire. It's simple, really: you don't direct films as big as Transformers without being an intelligent filmmaker ready to think on his feet and push things through. Bay's films may be dumb, but the man himself is not. He's a technician of the highest caliber. Dumb people aren't capable of directing productions like this. It really is that simple.

That leads directly to the second point: whether you like his movies or not, Bay is by no means a "bad" filmmaker. Bad filmmaking implies bad performances, shoddy effects, lousy cinematography, inconsistent editing and what-have-you. Bay's film may be frantic, stupid and cut at a pace that is capable of giving a migraine to even the most seasoned moviegoer, but they're slick and professionally made. His actors tend to give passable and often amusing performances (with a few notable exceptions, granted), the effects in his films are always top-notch and his scenes are well-lit, eye-catching and even gorgeous at times. His wild camera and fast-paced editing go hand-in-hand to create an incredibly specific style and are obviously specific creative choices, not bad filmmaking. Whether those specific creative choices actually work is a decision that lies in your hands.

Unlike studio work-for-hire hacks, when Michael Bay makes a movie, you know it's a Michael Bay movie. A Michael Bay film truly reflects its creator and whether you like him or not, Bay is an incredibly unique voice and one of the few non-generic directors consistently working in the blockbuster arena. Play a random ten-second clip from any of his films and his style and voice are immediately evident.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Michael Bay is an auteur in the truest sense of the word.

Okay, but what is Bay's voice trying to say?

If you delve into Bay's filmography, you'll start seeing the reccurring themes and trends. He has a definite fondness for blue-collar types and the working class, even going so far as to send roughneck oil drillers to space in place of highly trained astronauts. This goes hand-in-hand with how he embraces patriotic imagery (to an often hokey degree): in Michael Bay's films, the American Working Man always triumphs, often in slow motion while the stars and stripes wave solemnly in the background. Pearl Harbor may be a disgusting disaster of a movie, but it's difficult to deny that Bay recognizes and appreciates the enormity of the event. In true Bay fashion, though, the film adds a fourth act depicting James Doolittle's successful raid on the Japanese mainland, because America always wins in Michael Bay films. Always. There was a time when I thought Bay's on-screen rah-rah patriotism was simplistic pandering, but it's been consistent enough for me to believe that every frame of it is honest. After all, America's been good to Michael Bay -- the entire country turns out to see his films.

Bay is not shy about putting his fetishes on display for the whole world to see (the casting of every female character in all of his movies should tell you exactly what kind of woman Bay is attracted to. Fellini did this, too) but there is only one thing that Bay's camera lingers over with more dolly tracking, slow-mo lust than California supermodels: military hardware. Bay's patriotism extends past the flag; the man loves the United States Armed Forces. His early career as a commercial director becomes evident whenever he turns his lens toward a tank or an aircraft carrier (or one of those aforementioned supermodels). He makes these weapons of untold destruction look good -- he makes 'em look sexy (once again, those same adjectives apply to the busty, fake sorority girls that Bay is obviously in love with). Bay loves things that go boom and he loves to not only put soldiers front and center in his films, he likes to romanticize them. Bay is one of the few directors who consistently gets the United States' military to actively participate in his films because he does a fine job advertising for them.

All of this culminates in Transformers, which features walking, talking weapons of mass destruction. The Transformers themselves aren't snobby space aliens: they're just average joes, down-to-earth working guys who break dance, talk in slang and pee on people they don't like. Two of Bay's interests have merged into one bizarre beast: military hardware and blue collar bad-ass have become one.

Why is Bay so fascinated by the military, blue collar toughness and seemingly unattainable women? Until the definitive Michael Bay biography is written, I can only speculate, but his own films seem to provide a clue. Another reccurring motif in his work is the nerd who rises to the challenge, the dork who overcomes his bumbling ways, fights alongside the tough-as-nails soldiers in the climax, and wins the heart of the girl. Look at Nicolas Cage in The Rock or Shia LeBeouf in the Transformers films: both find themselves in way over their heads, but rise to the challenge in the end, doing more than they ever thought they could. Sure, this is a standard Hollywood cliche, typical Hero's Journey stuff, but I like to think that Michael Bay is that nerd, the gawky young guy who was never that tough and never got the girl, who perservered, worked hard, and is now in a position of real power, running a massive movie set, setting off timed explosions and taking home as many runway supermodels as he pleases. In other words, Michael Bay has fulfilled the dream of most, if not all, American males.

For someone whose films I don't particularly care for, I've thought a lot about Michael Bay. His work is big, bold, and unafraid of wearing its heart on its sleeve. it's also loud, irritating and dumb, but it's a fascinating kind of dumb, a dumb that could only be made by someone pouring his heart and soul into his work. Unlike so much Hollywood product, I watch a Michael Bay film and I see a one-of-a-kind voice at work. Granted, I kinda' despise that one-of-kind voice, but it dares to stand out, to say "Look at me! I'm directed by Michael Bay!"

I expect that I'll hate Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but I'm going to see it anyway, just like how I'll end up seeing every Bay film. I don't know he did it, but the man has his hooks in me in a serious way: I just can't resist the allure of the auteur.

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