13/02/2018

The Transformer Series - Bastard Cinema: An Introduction

Thoughts On: Michael Bay's Transformer Films (2007-2017)


An introduction to a new series that will explore the Bay's Transformer series.

    

Both the name 'Michael Bay' and the allusion to 'Transformers' often have clear connotations tantamount to a scoff and a joke. Characterised as gratuitously over-the-top and ridiculous, the cinema of Bay, best represented by the on-going Transformer series, is, I think it is fair to say, never taken seriously - not at all. Whilst many look down upon the Transformer films, a significant portion of people suggest that the best films of the series are tremendous fun. However, though the vast majority of people who have seen these films clearly find worth in them as entertainment, almost all commentary on Bay and the series in general is lukewarm to seethingly negative.

The common appraisal Bay and the Transformer films receive is, of course, technical; these are spectacles to marvel at and monolithic, CG projects captured brilliantly by Bay as a director. With these appraisals voiced, or just put to the side, commentary becomes highly critical. And though most audiences clearly are enjoying these films - how else could we be 5 films into the series over 10 years after the first release - it is easy to just dismiss them as nonsense. I, myself, have dismissed Michael Bay's movies as nonsense blockbuster extravaganzas. However, I never thought a movie in the series was particularly bad, and, after seeing The Last Knight, came to embrace Bay's cinema as something significant.

What I aim to do today with an introduction, but also over a series of post that explore each and every Transformer film, is build an argument in favour of Michael Bay and all of the Transformer films. I haven't seen a few of them too recently, and so cannot foresee if I will contradict myself later on by disliking a Bay film when I am suggesting now that I like and support all of them. Nonetheless, the argument I hope to build has its foundations in the realisation that Michael Bay's films and cinema aren't just a product of the Hollywood machine. If we look to the majority of Marvel films as an example of films of mass-production and the Hollywood machine, we will see that there is no directorial stamp on many of them. Recent examples such as Thor: Ragnarok, however, seem to suggest that the company is allowing directors to speak for themselves instead of being pawns that will churn out a distinctly Marvel product. That aside, whilst Marvel movies can represent the works of a machine, the Transformer series clearly isn't.

The Transformer movies belong to Bay and are the cinema of an auteur. Bay is not a true auteur if we consider the term as one that references directors who also serve as writers, producers and more. However, each and every single Transformer film is so clearly a Bay production. And with this as a fact, we come to a question of: How are we supposed to interact with the cinema of an auteur?

One of my core filmic beliefs that most will share is that you, the audience, do not get to decide, alone, what cinema is. As a result, though you may like a certain kind of film, if you are to take film more generally seriously, then you would be making a severe blunder in thinking that all films should be what you want/like. He or she who takes cinema seriously then bears a responsibility to try to understand a film on its own terms. And this takes the recognition of convention. All genres and distinct modes of cinematic storytelling have their own set of conventions, and thus you can only really appreciate or understand the films that are categorised within them through an understanding of such a system; we learn this simply by watching the films. This means that you cannot only watch action movies and then, one day, decide to watch your first romance, and be mad when the movie ends and there has been no giant car chase.

As ludicrous and simple as this explanation of film may sound, certain directors, or auteurs, build a cinema of their own with specific conventions - which is something that is easily overlooked. As a result, if you're going to watch a Tarantino film and appreciate or 'get it', you have to acknowledge that it is a Tarantino movie. The same goes for other auteurs such as Hitchcock, Scorsese, Anderson, Tarkovsky, Bresson, Ozu, Buñuel, etc. Many people who watch Bay's movies know them as 'Bay movies'. Nonetheless, most of the criticism that Bay receives comes from people comparing his films to classical modes of filmmaking as opposed to trying to understand what Bay is doing to create his own genre of film. To some degree, I then think much of the criticism that Bay receives is tantamount to derogatorily asking why all of Hitchcock's films seem to be centered around suspense, why Ozu is always shooting in wides close to the ground and why Bresson's actors aren't acting. This is not to suggest that we can't criticise the conventions that auteurs construct. We should, however, try to understand and debate conventions before we dismiss them and we should also be able to do more than just recognise Bay's conventions as a form of criticism. After all, most people will say that the cinema of Bay is just a lot of explosions, beautiful women, slow-motion, American flags, product placements, low, circulating shots, military-men, fast conversations, a thousand characters and 10 times more sub-plots, etc, and leave it as such - as if outlining the conventions of his cinema is valid criticism in itself.

The cinema of Michael Bay is, indeed, commercial. And so I understand and agree with the recognition of, for example, product placement as critique. However, there is more to Bay's cinema than commerciality. After all, isn't commercial draw, in a way, just a form of popularity that is implied to have meaning and substance by merely attracting so much attention all in itself? Maybe this isn't an entirely true idea, but, I think even the likes of 50 Shades of Grey has more to it than what we suggest. That aside, however, I also find that there is something deeper in other spottings of conventions, which are supposedly self-validating criticisms, that people draw upon; most particularly, the role of women in Bay's films. We will get into this more later on, but I think the feminist critique of especially this first Transformers - which is almost iconic as a modern example of a film that gratifies the male gaze - is incredibly disingenuous.

Beyond these numerous and more minor topics, one of the key criticisms of Bay's cinema that I want to challenge is the idea that his films are meaningless and dumb. A key mantra of this blog, which any regular readers would have heard about much before, is 'if it affects you, it means something'. And it's this philosophy that has encouraged me to explore Bay's films after seeing The Last Knight and not just liking it, but almost loving it. In short, The Last Knight really struck me, and so I had a tremendous time with it. However, whilst the action sequences amped me up, as do all of Bay's action sequences, when I began thinking of why, I was again struck by how deeply core archetypes are ingrained into Bay's films. Most will spot the archetypal elements of Bay's cinema and see them as commercially exploitative, cliches or tropes, but, I think this speaks down upon general audiences more than anything else. If we are to take what affects us seriously, I think it is important to ask what the affecting materials mean and then try to judge how that meaning is manipulated, presented and voiced - and so this is a key element of what we shall be doing in exploring Bay's films.

As we move forward, we shall discover that there is subtle meaning in the Transformer films if you understand what it is that Bay employs to tell his stories. And thus, we can explore their subtext and find a lot of worth. However, hand-in-hand with the assumption that Bay's narratives have meaning, we also have to take into account his style and its purpose. In short, I think that Bay is something of a genius because he presents a somewhat meaningful form of cinema in a manner that is reactionary to the idea of a blockbuster and modern art itself. In fact, we can grow to think of Bay's cinema as, to a degree, a narrative equivalent to the pop art movement of the 50s and 60s.


In some respects, pop art was a movement that opposed fine art by appropriating popular media and suggesting that it could be art itself. Bay's cinema is similar to pop art because it takes popular and traditional forms of narrative storytelling and blows them up into a spectacle that we are supposed to consume as we would every other blockbuster. Bay is not pop art, however, for the fact that his work is not as satirical as that of the original pop art movement. In such, Bay's cinema is not about irony and rebellion, rather, it has attempts within it to be genuine - as we will find out through exploring its meaning. There are traits of satire deeply embedded into Bay's cinema in the form of, for example, his comedy. However, whilst Bay uses satire, his cinema does not oppose classical cinema like pop art opposed fine art.

The general style of Michael Bay is one which we shall see to be of a 'Bastard Cinema'. The essence of Michael Bay's films then lies in the question of: How are we to tell stories that we've all heard before? This question manifests on numerous levels in Bay's Transformer series. Not only do the Transformers already have their own stories and worlds as action figures, comic books and T.V shows that are to be retold, but the stories that Bay wants to tell operate with paradigms that are thousands of years old. And the latter is actually a difficult predicament for all art to rise to. If one has even a basic knowledge of the history of storytelling and art, of mythology and folklore in particular, you will discover that the stories we have been telling for thousands of years are all retelling something that has been told before countless times. It is easy to discover this and, in despair, fail to see the point in art and storytelling now that we have amassed so much of it. This despair isn't necessary, however.

In discussing the idea of a narrative singularity, we suggested that, though all stories are made of a collection of repeated tropes and archetypes, the core truths embedded in these recurrent features are complex enough to grant a constant re-articulation in the hopes that something new, something even more true, will come of it. This is then what all art does when it tries to tell the same old story yet again, or even tries to disguise the fact that it is doing just that. Michael Bay's cinema, just like any form of storytelling that bears its own conventions, is a distinct attempt to both tell the same old stories in a new way and disguise this fundamental goal. Bastard Cinema is one of the few modern mainstream modes of storytelling that is doing this in a radically and uniquely stylised manner. Whilst great stories are told brilliantly by mainstream cinema - The Planet Of The Apes and the Harry Potter series are perfect examples of this - Bay is one of the few mainstream directors who is actually playing with classical modes of storytelling in a highly distinct and successful manner.

What is it that Bay's Bastard Cinema then does? The answer is in the name. Bay's cinema perceives the act of storytelling by mainstream cinema as an illegitimate event. Whilst Bay himself has not said this, we can see it in the way in which his cinema tries to exhaust archetypes and tropes of classical cinema by blowing them up to their greatest, kitschiest extreme. Bay's films are then often the bastard children of great narratives about sacrifice, love, great kings, honour and integrity. And this cinema is for what I believe to be a bastard generation and society of people.

Having come so far removed from mythology, spirituality and theology as literal truths over the last few centuries, many modern societies are functioning upon narratives that they believe are lies; we have disavowed from our dreams. Our societies all know of grand mythological tales, rituals and practices, but we do not often abide by them. As many a 'wise' observer has suggested, instead of worshiping at a temple, we then worship technology, and instead of following prophets and heeding their words, we watch T.V and pay attention to the social media feeds of celebrities. I am not of the belief that the transformation of societies towards this is inherently bad. However, in bastardising ourselves, seeing ourselves, or even that which that has come before us, as illegitimate - and so ultimately older mythological/spiritual ideas as only a shade of truth in comparison to material, objective truths - we have forgotten, to some degree, the meaning that they held.

It is the loss of meaning - which may well be the result of the bastardisation of modern narratives and the disavowal of their meaning - that many see to be the flaw of societies that are highly advanced, but nonetheless plagued with obesity, addiction, anxiety, depression, loneliness and so much more. Bay is no prophet of a new age and a provider of grand solutions, and neither am I, but I believe his cinema represents our times, which seem to be quite troubled in regards to meaning and a connection with transcendent truths, by contrasting bastardised imagery, characters, tropes and story-lines with the inherent meaning that they carry.

Taking cinema seriously, I believe, could be one cure among many for lives lacking meaning. By finding the meaning in what affects us, we start to take ourselves, and our lives, seriously. We become real, thinking, autonomous human beings by doing this. Bay's cinema screams out to be taken seriously - both in the way it is constructed and the way in which it is received. This series will answer the Bastard Cinema's call and thus we will legitimise Bay's cinema as art as a way of legitimising the modern blockbuster and the bastard audiences that consume it.

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