Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Michael Bay: The People’s Auteur

This is an essay I wrote in my undergrad, and it is just about the only written thing I'm proud of from said career. It's super long, moderately academic, and what may come off as an obsession with one article by Richard Dyer was a requirement of the assignment. I do, however, have a legitimate obsession with Michael Bay that is probably unhealthy. I do legitimately love most of this movies: I think the Rock is the greatest action movie ever (and until the Bourne movies it was a wide margin), Bad Boys 1 and 2 are thoroughly entertaining, the first Transformers is spectacular while the second is a worse film BUT TOTALLY AWESOMER. The Island is a cool movie which I think would have been remembered a lot better if it had a better climactic fight scene (because that city car chase was insaaaaane), and Armageddon is Grade-A hilarity through and through. Pearl Harbor, however, is one of the worst movies ever made. That's okay though Michael: Pearl Harbor sucks, but I still love you.

Michael Bay is a name that evokes horror to film critics, yet all but one of his films have been big hits both in America and overseas. He is perhaps the most notable action director working today, much to the chagrin of many film fanatics. When you are aware that you are seeing a Michael Bay film, you can expect to see non-stop action, edited with a fast-paced cutting style. You also know that there will be multiple instances of product placement, and by the time the film concludes, good will triumph over evil.

These are just some of the things one can expect in viewing a Michael Bay movie, and they come out of the combination of his desire to be an action hero, a businessman, an auteur, and above all, a populist. Michael Bay makes movies for Middle America, and the other three elements of his persona listed here influence and are affected by these populist desires.

It is clear that Bay loves to make action films, and it is also fairly evident through interviews that he likens himself to the heroes the audience cheers for. In Richard Dyer’s Stars as Types, Bay could fit into the mould of the Tough Guy. In commentary tracks he has recorded over his films, Bay often mentions how he operates his own camera in times when he is the only person on set brave enough to do so (The Rock, Bad Boys, Transformers commentary tracks)*. He also discusses how he sees each of his movies as the making of the hero, often involving a wiser old man teaching a young boy to become a hero (Diamond), and this can be read as a way of interpreting how he sees himself as a director on each film. While this is certainly easier to apply to his earlier films, where he is learning about filmmaking from Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, Bay’s completion of later films can still be seen as a lone hero defeating the obstacles in his way before walking off into the sunset as the credits begin to roll. Bay also often discusses competition between his blockbusters and those of other directors: he talks about how he shot, on average, thirty more set-ups each day than J.J. Abrams’ 2006 film Mission: Impossible III (The Island commentary), and how Len Wiseman’s 2007 film Live Free or Die Hard (Transformers commentary) changed its release date to avoid competition with Bay’s Transformers (2007)**. His constant deflection of interview questions that probe into his personal life shows that Bay would like to be seen as the strong, uber-masculine hero, perhaps similar to Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) in Bad Boys (Bay 1995). While multiple writers interviewing Bay criticize him for not being able to open up (Hochman, Hedegaard), Bay says that he is merely guarded because he feels it is not the public’s business, and that “nothing good’s ever been written about [him]” (Saroyan).

*In discussing shooting a scene on an aircraft carrier in Pearl Harbor, Bay mentions how there was a ‘Danger Line’ or a ‘Line of Death’ that no camera person would go past because it was too dangerous with airplanes taking off. Bay grabbed a camera and went, his words, “like 5 feet past the Line of Death.”
**He also mentions how Live Free or Die Hard couldn’t get support from the US Army, but Transformers did. He has “a hotline to the Pentagon… but I guess they just don’t have the juice.”

While Bay does exhibit some elements of a personality in the mould of a tough guy, he would probably be quicker to liken himself to a Rebel. It becomes clear through interviews and film commentaries that this is where Bay would likely want to place himself in the types that Dyer outlines. Bay often mentions how he has to fight with the studio in order to have his way on the set, notably in the case of deciding shooting locations for The Rock (1996). On his commentary track for the film, Bay details how Disney wanted him to shoot the film in Los Angeles instead of on the actual island of Alcatraz, where the film is set. Bay says that after he visited Alcatraz, he went to the studio and said that he’s “got to shoot on this island, because this island is just so fucking bitching” (The Rock commentary)*. He also details struggles with the studio about plot points and elements of his action scenes for all of his movies, to the point where he had to write a cheque for $25 000 dollars (all figures US), a quarter of his fee, in order to get a climactic action shot for his first film (Bad Boys commentary). Bay also constantly fights against the scripts he is given to work with, choosing to rewrite dialogue with his actors as production is ongoing. Bay discusses on each of the commentaries viewed how he often encourages actors to improvise, or even rewrite scenes of dialogue in order to add more humour to the picture. Specifically, he discusses how Bad Boys (1995) had a terrible script**, and that The Rock was green-lit before its screenplay was completed. In order for these films to have been successful, Bay claims, his script changes with the help of his stars were necessary (Bad Boys and The Rock commentary tracks). His addition of this improvisation throughout his films in order to make them funnier, in combination with his combative tendencies, leads Bay to mention how the studio always thinks he is out of his mind (Transformers commentary).

*This is my favourite Michael Bay quote ever.
**And was originally going to star Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz… Seriously.

Through an application of Dyer’s discussion of the Rebel as a star type, we can read these elements of Bay to be rebellious. He does oppose the system (in this case, the studios producing his films) in the ways discussed above, but he is still far from a Rebel. Outside of these elements of his filmmaking process, Bay is very much the Good Joe. He stands up to the bullies of the studio initially, but when the production of the film has been completed, he just wants to please as many people as he can. Bay is different from many directors in that he will adjust his films based on the responses of focus groups and test audiences.

One of the most important elements of Bay’s personality is his absolute dedication to Middle America*. This can be summarized in a word of advice given to Bay by his grandfather: “if you want to make money in this world, whether you make jeans or whatever, you sell to the middle of the country” (Strauss). Bay has taken this advice to heart, as his films often aim to please the average citizen, as opposed to the film fanatic. He extensively tests all of his films for focus groups, and pays attention to their every move. Bay says that when he sees multiple people get up to go to the washroom at the same time, he knows that there is a change that needs to be made to the film at that point (The Rock commentary)**. When questioned about whether this approach is hurting filmmaking, Bay responds by saying that these are the people you are making the movie for, so he should be molding the movie to fit what they desire. He discovered how much he liked to see an audience’s positive reaction to his work when he was at a screening of his senior thesis film, and “saw 350 people looking at the screen, laughing,” which helped to ignite his crowd-pleasing sensibilities (Snead). In an interview that took place at The Rock’s premiere, where the film was being screened for studio executives and celebrities, Bay states that he has “seen this movie eight times now, and this was the deadest audience I’ve seen. I like seeing this with the people I made it for, because they laugh and cheer and are much more vocal” (Diamond). Bay feels that test screenings and focus groups are vital to make the most enjoyable film possible. He also does not understand why other directors have such a disdain for these strategies: Bay feels that it is better to see scores of other people enjoy his work, as opposed to merely being personally satisfied (Sutherland). In the commentary tracks for the respective films, Bay discusses how using his focus group research to improve his films by shooting two extra scenes for Transformers, removing a shot from The Rock that audiences deemed too gruesome, as well as adding more story exposition scenes to Bad Boys***.

*I picture Michael Bay and Jack Donaghy hanging out. Pleeeeease make that cameo happen.
**This is also the reason the San Francisco car chase is in the Rock.
***Which apparently means that Bad Boys had story exposition to begin with.

In keeping with his strategy of making films for Middle America, Bay likes to make sure to keep the characters and stories of his films accessible. While this applies to an extent to all of his films, it is most notable in his most recent work, Transformers. Bay describes the story as that of the relationship between a boy and his first car (Strauss), and in the commentary for the film discusses many of the techniques used to make the film accessible. Bay shows his main character, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), in a variety of generic suburban settings, including a classroom, in order to increase the sense of accessibility. Bay states that the classroom is identifiable to everybody, because “every guy has had this experience. We have all been in this classroom” (Transformers commentary).

Bay’s extreme patriotism is also present in this film, as it is in all the others he has made. The cars that are used in the film for the Autobots and Decepticons are American-made, and there is extensive glorification of the military throughout the film. Bay’s work generally depicts the military in such a positive light that he is able to use military equipment and vehicles before other filmmakers. He even has what he describes as “a hotline to the Pentagon,” which he has earned because Bay makes the military “look good when I do my movies” (Transformers commentary). In the climactic battle, everyman Sam and the army meet up to do battle in tandem with the Autobots, at which point Captain William Lennox (Josh Duhamel) has to convince Sam to help them fight. After Lennox says to Sam, “you are a soldier now!” the audience watches the transformation of the everyman into a mythical action hero who defeats a villainous 50-foot tall robot.

Not only are Bay’s films themselves both patriotic and populist, but the way he runs his set is as well. He prefers to do his action scenes with real stunt people whenever possible, as opposed to using computer generated imagery. Bay likes to use these stunt people in order to keep his films more realistic, but also so that he can keep more stunt people employed (The Island commentary). He also details how he has had the same crew in place since he shot The Rock, and that they have become “like a family” (Bad Boys commentary). In his dedication to these working people of America, Bay even went so far as to give up 30 per cent of his fee for Transformers so that he could shoot in the United States (Transformers commentary). Dreamworks wanted to shoot in Canada and Australia, but Bay felt an intense loyalty to his crew, and that he needed his Los Angeles crew and stunt workers to make the film properly (Sutherland). He furthers his argument by saying that he believes “American movies that portray America should be made in America” (Saroyan). So far, this dedication to the hard-working people of Middle America has worked out for Bay, and it is unlikely that he will change his strategy as long as these films continue to turn large profits.

Bay makes no secret of the commercial goals of his films: the first paragraph in his press-kit biography claims that he has “won nearly every award bestowed by the advertising industry” (Burns). Bay was the youngest director to ever have films gross over $1 billion at the box office (Saroyan), and to date his films have grossed over $3 billion (Schembri). His former producing partner Jerry Bruckheimer states that Bay has learned how to be a shrewd businessman from his time as a director of commercials, in that Bay has to listen to what his clients say, and also be involved with the profitability of the commercial and making sure the budget does not run over. Bay’s clients, however, are now heads of major motion picture studios, and his films are shot on a much bigger scale than his commercials were (Snead).

Michael Bay’s career has also been heavily influenced by factors that originally occurred in Hollywood in the 1970s. The death of the studio system allowed for the restructuring of studios into media entertainment conglomerates. This allowed for more blockbusters to be greenlit: there were now more ways to offset losses, and big productions could also be spun in order to make money through a variety of ancillary markets (Hall 165). This made big productions a safe risk for studios, and they started to be seen with more frequency because of this. Through Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1976), studios learned how much money could be made with the risk of a bigger budget film, so long as it is aggressively marketed. This has changed the way films are made in relation to an audience, for now returning the investment on the film requires drawing in the largest audience possible (Corrigan 88). Bay is fully aware of these elements of the films he is making, and his films take these factors into consideration from before production even begins. Scott Renshaw argues in a review of The Island that the modern blockbuster is a place where Bay can sell a variety of products: a kiss, a chase, or a consumer product. Bay wants to sell his movie to as much of America as he can, and he keeps his target audience in mind at all times because of this. He often makes reference to a time when he was working on The Rock where one of his screenwriters, Jonathan Hensleigh, mentioned it was odd that Bay would take his target audience into consideration. Bay’s reaction to this is to say, “if you’re given sixty million dollars you had better fucking know who you are selling it to.” (The Rock commentary, Diamond, Snead).

And selling may be what he does best. From the moment he begins work on a project, Bay is already formulating ways to market his work. He discusses on the commentary for Bad Boys how he convinced Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson to hire him over another, older director because Bay already had ideas of how to sell the picture to a mass audience. He also wanted to make sure that moviegoers were thinking about Transformers over a year before the movie was released: in the first week of production Bay had the idea to create a teaser trailer in order to create awareness (Transformers commentary). He also blames his only domestic failure, The Island (2006), on a marketing campaign devised by the studio as opposed to Bay himself (The Island commentary).

Bay’s films are influenced by capitalism to such an extent that the designs of the robots in Transformers were rushed along by toy manufacturer Hasbro. The company needed to have finished designs so that they could begin production on the toys in order to have them completed for the film’s release date. Bay also accepted $3 million from General Motors in order to use their models for the films robot combatants (Transformers commentary). He justifies this by saying that these methods give him more money that he can use to spend onscreen, and that he does not consider this him “whoring out” the movie. Bay feels that this is a fair compromise: he receives money that he can use to make his film better, while the advertiser benefits by having their products shown as fantastical heroes (Schembri). Bay feels that in the real world, brand-name products and advertisements are everywhere, so it only makes sense that they should also be in Hollywood films (The Island commentary)*. These commercial and populist elements stand in stark contrast to the way many traditional auteurs would feel about filmmaking, but this does not keep Michael Bay from joining their ranks.

*Of course, the original Xbox ads in the Island were outdated within a year of the movie’s release, and many of the other companies in the movie have had stylistic overhauls. Note to Mike, this defense does not apply to movies that take place in the future.

The auteur theory existed long before film studios began to see the profits that could be made with blockbuster films, but when the aforementioned shift to the New Hollywood began, marketers brought an altered version of the auteur theory along for the ride. The concept of the auteur states that the director is the authour of the film, and that the film represents their creative vision*. Timothy Corrigan argues that if this theory is still alive in today’s Hollywood, it is bound tightly with the celebrity industry (82). The director’s name and star image is used to sell the film just as much as, if not more than, its lead actors. Michael Bay is in this group of their directors, as the trailers for his films from The Rock (1996) onward have included either a voiceover stating that he directed them (The Rock, Armageddon), or text declaring him as the director (Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys II, The Island, Transformers). This naming of Bay as the director helps to both promote the film and attach a sense of authourship to his films as a collective. Foucault argues that the name of an authour, in this case Michael Bay, is also used as a description (105): saying a film is directed by Bay also says that it is “from the director of Pearl Harbor,” or any of the other films Bay has directed. In this manner, “the name seems always to be present, marking off the edges of the text, revealing, or at least characterizing, its mode of being” (Foucault 107). This marketing strategy adds to the narrative image of a Michael Bay film. The idea of his films, being that of a shallow action picture, is known by the audience as it is being sold to them, and this helps contribute to the preconceived notion the audience develops before they see these films (Ellis 30). This explains how critics are unable to put their preconceived notions of a Bay film aside to review a new work: they are constantly reminded by the new text that it has been created by an authour whose work they have viewed before.

*I don’t know if I like the auteur theory. While it definitely makes nerdily discussing movies easier in many respects, film is a collaborative medium. So many people have their hands in a film that I don’t like seeing one person get all the credit. While I agree the director (or the screenwriter for that matter) probably adds more to any given movie than anybody else, there are plenty of little (or huge) things that anybody from a costume designer to a set designer can add to the movie. That being said, if I ever direct a good movie, GIVE ME ALL THE FUCKING CREDIT!

Perhaps the mention of Michael Bay as an auteur would not sit well with many film fanatics and critics, but Bay has certainly been identified as one. In reading almost thirty reviews of his films, it is clear to see that Bay is singled out in every one of them, and in reviews of his later films, Bay is consistently discussed more than his star actors. Corrigan discusses how The Godfather (Coppola 1972) gave critics pre-conceived expectations for how to judge future films by Francis Ford Coppola (94), much in the same way Bay’s previous films influence critics’ opinions of his new works. Of course, this is done contrarily to how Coppola’s are judged, in that critics expect trash out of Bay as opposed to high quality filmmaking. This offers a preconceived notion of what a film by Michael Bay will entail: there will be explosions, quick cuts, and little in the way of plot and character development. These auteurs have their work overshadowed by their name (in Bay’s case though, perhaps only to critics).

Michael Bay, through the marketing of his films, has been named, using Corrigan’s terminology, as a sort of commercial auteur, or a star director (91). Bay is now prominently mentioned when discussions of his films occur in the media, and in a recent Entertainment Tonight piece from the set of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) Bay was a higher priority over the star power of actor Shia LaBeouf (Steines). Bay has even starred in a Verizon FiOS commercial in which he spoofs his own image by setting off explosions while walking around his house (Verizon).

What has yet to really be defined however, is what aspects of Bay’s films can be traced back to the auteur theory. In his Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962, Andrew Sarris details how he feels that the three premises of the auteur theory can be visualized as three concentric circles. The outer circle contains the technique and casts the director as technician, the middle circle is the director’s personal style, and the inner circle is where the meaning of the film is found (563). Bay’s films are, at their most basic, certainly identifiable as films, proving that he is at least a competent technician in the creation of his films. He also clearly has a personal visual style: Bay’s films are all use quick and plentiful edits, feature plenty of swooping camera movements, and will end in a climactic battle between the hero and his foe. Bay even has multiple camera shots that are like his signature on each film. Each of his films features a shot where the camera begins behind a character at waist level and tracks around until the audience is looking the character in the face. In addition to this, Bay’s films will feature at least one shot of a large aircraft seen flying towards the camera as the sun is setting behind it. When discussing the third of Sarris’s concentric circles, however, it becomes slightly more difficult to think about Bay as an auteur.

As outlined earlier, Bay is not shy in his position as a populist filmmaker. He does not try to include much in the way of interior meaning in his films, for he is merely concerned with the audience enjoying themselves. A consistent theme in his films has been the aforementioned use of male-to-male relationships, and the tension that can come through in these relationships (Diamond). These male-to-male elements of his films are where Bay encourages the most improvisation from his actors, and often the audience’s response to the film relies on the relationships between the audience and these characters. While critics generally do not like Bay as a director, they seem to have no problem discussing how the skill and charisma of his actors can still engage the audience (Ebert, Brodeur). Does Bay not have a hand in making these characters likable? It may be the actors saying the lines, but it is Bay who is encouraging them to improvise, and then participating in cutting the best takes together in the editing room.

Another way to read Bay’s films is to use them as a metaphor for problems within contemporary American society. These films are empty, hollow, and filled with advertisements, much like the modern Americanized culture we find ourselves living within. In a review for Transformers, Max Burke writes that the film represents “Michael Bay’s America in 2007: if you find it depressing and vacuous, then you have not paid enough attention to the devolution of American culture.” Burke continues to say that the film, like all of Bay’s films, reflects the superficiality and selfishness of modern American culture. While this is not a positive interior meaning for a film to have, it does give Bay something to add to his status as an auteur: his films accurately represent the society that they are created within. These films also represent the continuing expansion of the blockbuster that began in the 1970s. Bay’s strategies towards creating a large profit for the studios financing his films have both worked to advance blockbusters in the realm of profit generation, as well as create problems for filmmakers who want to have their smaller films seen. Studios rely on these tent pole films, being those that have significant production and marketing budgets, to quickly return a significant profit. These films are the most valued of a studio’s production calendar, and smaller films are often treated as merely ways to fill gaps before the next tent pole. As such, studios show less affection for a director of a smaller film, as opposed to Bay, who they adore for creating such big returns. The fact that Bay continues to make these films helps to contribute to this blockbuster culture, as well as continue to shrink the number of smaller, more intimate pictures. Bay mentions that he continues to worry that big movies are going away (Saroyan), but he is helping to ensure that they do not. He also makes continuing reference to a smaller film he would like to make, entitled Pain & Gain, and mentions it in many of his interviews dating as far back as to the release of Armageddon (Saroyan, Hochman, Schembri, etc). Bay states that he just keeps being offered blockbusters, so he never gets around to making it*. However, does he doubt his skills in making a smaller picture? Perhaps he worries that he would be making a film that not everybody in his focus groups would rate as “excellent.”

*On his blog, when he announced that he was returning to direct Transformers 3, the last sentence of his post was “Pain & Gain shoots immediately after.” I really hope it does, if only out of curiousity.

Michael Bay is an interesting figure in Hollywood. His films are loved by studio heads, and generally by Middle America as well, but despised by film critics. Bay’s films signify the death of cinema to many critics, but that is not completely the fault of Bay. His films are born out of the birth of the New Hollywood, and Bay’s populist and commercial approach to filmmaking is merely another facet of how cinema has changed. Whether or not this change is a good thing is another issue, but Bay cannot be solely blamed for it, for there were plenty of other factors involved long before Bay ever directed a film.

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