Thoughts On: Transformers - Elements Of Bastard Cinema: Image, Narrative, Character


Transformers - Elements Of Bastard Cinema: Image, Narrative, Character

Thoughts On: Transformers (2007)

An identification and exploration of three basic elements of Michael Bay's Transformer films.

In the introductory post to this series, we dove into the idea that Michael Bay's cinema is one that we shall be taking seriously in an attempt to legitimise it. In legitimising the Transformer series we will be recognising the role that symbols and archetypes play in the construction of narrative meaning. As we touched on previously, however, Bay does not provide many profound answers through this series of films. He does, however, present sets of ideas which, themselves, bear depth and in turn grip my (and any engaged audience's) attention. This is not to suggest that everyone who enjoys Bay's films sees them in the way in which we will describe. I nonetheless believe that it is because of some of the details and ideas that we will explore that his cinema works at all.

There is a common idea of 'telling the right story' or telling a story 'in the right way'. This implies that we all yearn for specific messages, or truths, unconsciously. Great narratives encapusllate and manipulate these truths. And this, in my belief, is what Bay's cinema manages to some degree. But, again, whilst we aim to understand how Bay is telling the right stories, I don't believe he is telling the best stories - and probably not in the best way. Before we jump into the major elements of the first Transformer movie today, I then want to outline the bounds of this series.

The Bastard Cinema series, whilst it means to legitimise Bay's cinema, does not want to suggest that the Transformer movies are narrative masterpieces in the same realm as Kubrick pictures. Moreover, it does not want to suggest that Bay's films are free from criticism. As we picked up on previously, I think that the Transformer films are often critiqued too readily and quite weakly. There are, however, a set of arguments against Bay's films that are quite strong. A series that presents a good set of these arguments is called The Whole Plate: Film Studies Through A Lens Of Transformers. Whilst I think there is more to the Transformers films that complexifies and rebuts some of the arguments presented here, this series is an example of some solid criticism of the Transformer films unlike that which we critiqued previously - which has much to do with just recognising the conventions of Bay's cinema and leaving things at that.

Though we shall pick up on the weaknesses of Bastard Cinema as we move through these films, the main point of this series is to assume the viewpoint of the initial post. In such, we shall search for valid ways to install and reveal meaning in the Transformer films so that we understand its affecting qualities. As we then move forward with what will be a generally positive, or rather an active, view of Bay's films, the positivity and the search for addition from within (story analysis) rather than exterior subtraction (cultural criticism) of this series shouldn't be misconstrued for blindness. In recognising a solid set of arguments against Bay's cinema now, and in referencing them when necessary, I hope this remains self-evident.

Jumping straight into the first Transformer film, it is crucial to recognise that the nature of Bastard Cinema, as much as it emphasises details and spectacles, also short-hands them rather brutally. With the intro, for example...

... we are given a crucial symbol that plays a significant role in the narrative, but not a clear one. This would open us up to the discussion of bastard plots/narratives. But, bastard plots, narratives, characters, symbols and meanings are all subservient to the bastard image:

This is the quintessential Bay image: a helicopter in the sun. As we will unravel more as we move forward, light is one of Bay's key storytelling devices in that it is used to communicate prowess, power, sustenance, desperation, angelicism and more, and is also there to focus and dazzle the eye. The helicopter is a symbol of the military - one of Bay's most unambiguously revered entities. With the helicopter in the sun, we clearly have a call to a transcendent being projected; soldiers of God have taken flight.

The sun is often represented by mythology as sight and/or goodness, but also power and wrath - Horus, whose right eye was considered to be the sun, as well as Ra, who was a god associated with high noon and had the vision of a hawk, from Egyptian mythology are expressive examples of this.

With the sun as a god or goddess, or at least their embodiment, our star has come to be a symbol of omnipotence - or rather, its perceived omnipotence has catalysed its movement into mythology. Moreover, where the moon guides, the sun judges - it can be harsh, but, with Bay, it often sheds approval. With the sun's rays bathing the military helicopter - which is one of the most complex machines ever constructed; military helicopters often require around 20 hours or more of maintenance per hour of flight- we have... a cool image.

Why is this image cool? In essence, it is because we are seeing a symbol of achievement and great complexity, a military helicopter, which itself is being projected as a saviour, or vessel of saviours (this contrast greatly with the perspective of helicopters during the Vietnam War), being, quite literally, embraced and illuminated by the seemingly approving eye of a sun god. Feeling this harmony, we then inherently sense that we are looking at something... cool.

I push to this level of analysis because this kind of shot will be seen throughout the Transformer films, and often with similar implications. Bastard images of this kind scream by at a constant rate, and though we feel their impact, we often only understand their meaning subconsciously. But, with the bastard image being everything in Bastard Cinema, we have to understand that Bay is always searching for the coolest shot possible before anything else. He often breaks continuity completely, which is not too important in Bay's films, just to get to the end of a day and a nice sunset. For example, here is one shot...

... and here is one from a few seconds later...

There is no point in debating if these two shots are meant to be from the same time of day, just like there is no point trying to sort out Eisensteinian montage. You feel the impact and the intellectual weight of the different kinds of montage by Eistenstein; his manipulation of space and time are always subservient to this, and so the viewer is to put aside his deconstruction of time and continuity as to understand his editing. The same, we shall find out, occurs in Bay's montage. He cuts to the money shot, often binding estranged spaces together through sound - an ongoing conversation for example - to provide a bastard, impactful image.

So, it is after finding the coolest shot that Bay will find the coolest, most compelling subjects - beautiful women, shining metal, giant swords - to clash and explode with ultimate teenage ecstasy. We can get into more details of what all of these entities are later, but I mention this before all other analysis because there is such a distinct hierarchy of bastardisation in Bay's films. We must then feel images and their meaning - especially those that jump out at us as particularly Bayish - before reading scenes around them. Or, we must see characters and plots as building blocks of Bay's bastard images - which, as we will know from the previous post, essentially takes grand, archetypal symbols and present them with maximum effect so that they appear illegitimate.

Illegitimacy, as we are already seeing, is then Bay's main tool for affection. And this itself reflects a society that disavows their dreams, that knows of no sun god or goddess and certainly doesn't take them seriously, but nonetheless perceives things flying in the sun to hold power. From this contrast between screaming archetypes and deaf audiences comes little dialogue, just a spectacle that maybe hopes to spark something.

Putting aside the bastard image for a moment, we have to come back to...

... The Cube. If we are to understand the narrative of the first Transformer movie, and Bastard Cinema in general, we will have to recognise and then toy with the bastard hierarchy. In such, though everything comes back to the image - which is given all the time and focus - we have to be able to cite the significance of what are generally bigger moving parts of narratives. With The Cube as a major plot point and a bearer of most of the meaning in this film, we have to hold onto it despite the fact that Bay cites the entity and then quickly dismisses it.

The story that we are told over the above image is one that we have all heard, and that has been told and played out, countless times: the fall of a kingdom via corruption. In essence, the major rift between Decepticons and Autobots is their view of life. The Decepticons only value their own lives. The Autobots value all life.

Humans have struggled to learn and instil into societies the idea that, in essence, the Autobots are correct. Many religions then describe the human body and soul as a temple of god, and often all life as sacred. With life as sacred, but death being apart of all life - we must, for example, kill and destroy to eat, we must hunt, we must pull vegetables from the earth and fruits from the trees - the worship of life itself is paramount with its destruction being minimised where possible by necessity. Because we are then alive, we must not just treat one another with the respect this doctrine suggests, but elevate one anothers' lives. Because we must take forms of life to live, we must appreciate and pay respects to the process of exchange - this is what something such as a prayer for a hunted animal, or a grace at a dinner table, is supposed to symbolise. Both of these mechanisms are meant to prevent societies from becoming the descendants of Cain; anarchists who destroy the world with their selfishness. The Decepticons follow in the footsteps of the apocalyptically selfish. The Autobots are the great saviours. The Cube, or the collective soul of the Transformers, the AllSpark, is life itself.

The first Transformers movie is entirely focused on the AllSpark as the giver of life; what's more, the AllSpark as the essence of a society. And so what this film attempts to be about is humanity coming into contact with another alien culture and learning from its history by aligning with, and supporting, its good side; the side that understands the value of life. This is then why the Decepticons want to take over all human technology with the AllSpark - but, this is a powerful and deeply intriguing idea that we will return to in another post.

Before pushing on in the narrative, you will notice that Bay mentions this deeply archetypal story and The Cube with Optimus Prime's opening exposition. But, because this is apart of the bastard plot, it isn't given much screen time. Why?

The sequence of narratives, their plot and how they interact with theme and character, are the most obvious tools through which meaning is expressed. The image, on the other hand, is a powerful tool, but is also the most complex element of cinema to break down step-by-step as the story is given to us as images are often minor citations; cinema doesn't really have the time or patience to be 24 paintings a second. Bay wants all story to be cited, he doesn't want it told, so that he can elevate his imagery to the highest level possible. Why? Because Bay's images almost are 24 paintings a second; each and every frame of CG is its own construction. Whilst he knows we can never appreciate this, part of his directorial strategy is to have us recognise his images as great spectacle. On top of this, Bay's films then seemingly are a reaction to something we discussed previously. All stories have been told before. Why does Bay need to delve deeply into the archetypal story above when he could just cite it, and we could feel its presence in the form of emotion derived from an abstract recognition of importance in the opening? Bay has us believe that the AllSpark is important and that is enough; he has pretty much done his job with this image alone...

... and so he moves on. This is a statement, one that suggests that this is an illegitimate story; this is not trying to be a true and pure son of, for example, biblical tales. Why would it try to be when, arguably, so few people in modern society do?

In a strange respect, Bay's cinema is very much so a modernist phenomena as, like the works of Joyce or Beckett, it centralises intertextuality of some kind as a narrative technique. Bay is then somewhat like Joyce because, to understand Joyce, you seemingly have to have read and heard about everything that Joyce has (this is why I've never got past the first chapter of Ulysses - that, and I'm weak inside). It seems that maybe Joyce was a little more intellectual than Bay, but, they nonetheless work in a similar manner. Bay, like Joyce, references another text as a means to invite (or appropriate) all of its meaning into his own text. This is exactly what he does with the opening above. Bay and Joyce are also seemingly connected by their fascination with the unconscious. This is where they seem to be entirely distant, too. Bay seems to be fascinated with unconscious meaning, unconsciously. Joyce, one the other hand, seems to be fascinated with unconscious meaning, consciously. Such is a key, underlying characteristic of Bastard Cinema and the reason why narrative, symbols and meaning are hidden by the shadow of bastard imagery; Bay wants his meaning kept in the dark, just like so many cinema-goers do.

The next key element of Bay's cinema that we come across is character...

Sam... how do you describe Sam? Sam is, in essence, Shia LaBeouf before his ventures into art house films, before the "Just Do It!" thing and before all the other performance art stuff; he's the kid from Evens Stevens that has grown up just a little bit. Bay inserts this hyper-glitchy man-child into his narrative and dares him to take a hero arc. Sam is also the 13-year-old kids that are suppose to make up the core audience of this film put into the body of a young adult; he is us, the audience. It is then Sam who characterises what we have called the 'bastard audience' (ourselves). We shall return to this idea, however.

As we all know, Sam doesn't last too long in the Transformer series, and nor does Mikaela. When we look at the first Transformer film, we can imagine that Sam is being set up to change gradually over many films. This would explain why his arc is quite flat. However, the third movie completely messes up all character arcs established in the first two films before seeing them stopped dead. This is both a positive and negative. What we lose during the hard cut between the second, third and fourth films is the potential for unfolding bastard characters who could carry meaning continuously. What we gain, however, is an insight into how little Bay actually thinks of characters. For Bay, it seems that characters and actors are at the very bottom of the pile. Bresson didn't let his actors act. Bay let's his actors think they're acting. But, the truth is, characters are objects inside of a frame that help build bastard narratives and, more importantly, bastard images for Bay. (A rather demoralising realisation for Megan Fox we can imagine). Most characters, especially the male and female leads, are then entirely interchangeable. The men are man-children, the females refuse to be their mothers, and that just about sums it up. The question brought into all of the Transformer films is then: How do you become a man? We shall later discover if this question ever bears any fruits.

Because I mentioned objects previously, I have to take a step back and note that, when I speak of 'objectification', I am not always criticising a film. In a separate set of posts, I have delved into 'objective impressionism'. To simplify, this is the idea that objects can be affecting agents in a film. Characters, when objectified, can become tantamount to MacGuffins; things that simply trigger a plot point or spectacle. Many of Bay's minor characters are MacGuffins of this kind. However, his centralised characters form a pantheon of object-archetypes. This means that we're never made to feel their subjectivity and individuality as true characters, or even subject-archetypes, instead they are pawns; illegitimate incarnations of a set of archetypes we have seen many times before. And this isn't necessarily a terrible thing.

The game Bay plays in his Bastard Cinema is comprised mostly of good guys, bad guys and fools. He determines who is good, who is bad, and who is some place in between with sacrifice as a measuring tool. Such an idea has been embedded profoundly deep into Western society by the domination of Judeo-Christian mythology. We need to only think of Christ as the archetypal tragic hero of the bible to see that sacrifice is pretty much the core of the biblical philosophy. Though an endless amount of books can be, and have been, written about this (in both a positive and negative light), the crucial takeaway from this broad philosophy seems to be that meaning is found in sacrifice. To sacrifice yourself to something and someone worthwhile and greater than yourself is to admit that you, as great as you can possibly become, mean very little as a singular unit. It is only by giving what makes you great away that you can induce a positive feedback loop that may one day find its way beyond the firmament. And, in such, we have the evocation of the transcendent; ultimate meaning and truth.

The ultimate good guy who guides people towards ultimate meaning and truth is the sacrificial saviour because they essentially want to raise everyone up before giving them their last breath so that they can be propelled further up. The ultimate bad guy is the nihilistic destroyer who wants to bring absolutely everyone down before destroying themselves and any possibility of positive change; they mean to annihilate the lie of ultimate meaning and truth. As you could piece together, the Autobots are all trying to be sacrificial saviours of the greatest degree. The Decepticons, on the other hand, want the annihilation of everything but themselves. The closer to defeat they come, however, the more likely it is that they will try to destroy everything--including themselves.

Fools follow either of the mentioned parties with the hope that they will one day gain access to, or learn the truth about, ultimate meaning and truth. Fools with their heads screwed on straight, fools like Sam, follow the good and attempt to live up to it. Corrupted fools, on the other hand, are more likely to follow the Decepeticons or inadvertently aid them. And such defines the four major categories of object-archetypes in Bay's Transformer films. There are the good guys: the sacrificial saviours, the Autobots. There are the bad guys: the nihilistic destroyers, the Decepticons. There are good fools: humans who help the Autobots and/or oppose the Decepticons. And then there are corrupt fools: those who help the Decepticons and/or oppose the Autobots.

With these four character types, Bay doesn't ever need character arcs - at least, not strong ones. Fools always seem to be fools in the Transformer films in particular. Sometimes the status of good guys and bad guys is questioned, but characters are pretty stagnant elements of Bastard Cinema. And this seems to reflect one of its major principals: Bastard Cinema is for bastard audiences. Why should characters, especially the fools that represent us, change when, we, the audience, have disavowed our dreams? Whilst our idols and demons struggle for legitimacy, Bay has our own projections of self wander quite aimlessly; they leave as they come into narratives, quite like audience members leave as they come into the Transformer films.

However, by witnessing the subtle struggle of Bay's object-archetypes, we can see them, and ourselves, change. Understanding can lead to legitimisation. And so this is what we will continue to strive after in the next part on the first Transformer film where we will (hopefully) take what we have established in this post and see it play out across the entire film.

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1 comment:

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