Where do I begin?
For as long as I can remember having opinions about films, not just movies but films, I can remember having an opinion about Michael Bay. And for most of that time, my opinion was thus – hack. I felt like Jerry in every episode with Kenny Banya. People kept talking about how great Armageddon was, and I’m like “What? No movie with Ben Affleck can be good. Plus, it doesn’t even make sense! If you blew up an asteroid it wouldn’t split into two clean halves!” My cousin tries to get me to watch Bad Boys and I shrug it off. Martin Lawrence? Really?? Transformers comes out and it’s all my friends can talk about. Come on guys, Shia LaBeouf? Come on. How can a car transform into something that’s taller than a two story house?!
And so on. Michael Bay came to represent, in my mind, everything wrong with modern mainstream cinema. In my mind, he was the Anti-Spielberg, sucking the soul out of blockbuster entertainment and replacing it with big explosions, hot babes, and more dutch angles than Eddie Van Halen’s guitar. (Can you imagine what the man who told Carol Reed to get a level for his camera would think of even the tamest of Bay’s films?) He was the stooge of the Establishment, who care only about getting butts in seats, pocketing the cash, and laughing all the way to the bank. And naturally, as their lapdog, he got to take a fair chunk of that cash for himself.
Now to understand the mindset that produced such an intense hatred of a man whose films I had only seen out of the corner of my eye at lame parties, consider the following. First, around the early 2000’s I turned hard against the Bruckheimer empire. Up until that point, Bruckheimer only meant good things to me. He produced what was my favorite non-comedy on TV (CSI, the original with Will Petersen), as well as Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, which was the moment that it first occurred to me that Johnny Depp was really awesome. But at some point, and I don’t remember when, I just started hating Bruckheimer and anything he was involved in. I don’t know why, and if there is a rational explanation then it’s probably pretty stupid and rather petty.
Second, in high school I was starting to get into film. You know, not just movies, but film, cinema, mise en scene, montage, The Criterion Collection, Citizen Kane, etc. And a lover of film, a “cinephile” if you will, cannot be associated with the likes of Michael Bay. The man makes two and a half hour commercials for crying out loud! There is no art! There is no regard for framing or composition, no consideration given to where the camera is and what it means.
Or, to put it another way, I was a snob, the kind of film lover that makes people avoid genuinely great movies like Citizen Kane. I once saw a clip of Siskel and Ebert and some other film critic (who I’ve come to refer to as “1980’s Bosley Crowther”) talking about Star Wars on some news show. 1980’s BC was wearing something that made Peter Bogdanovich and Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes look like dirty white trash. He talked like he wound up a film critic by misfortune – he seemed to despise the medium, the lack of “moral value” and the existence of fun. It was almost like a film critic version of Animal House, and Siskel and Ebert, who when united were a force to be reckoned with, seemed to truly enjoy making the man look like the blowhard he was. I tell that story to say this – it is possible to completely miss the point, and when it came to Bay I was missing the point.
Over the years I lightened up a lot. But that hatred of Bay, rooted more in things incidental to the man and his movies, stayed with me. I actively avoided his movies and quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) judged those who praised them. But then something happened – three things actually.
The first thing was a man named Nicolas Cage. Let me get this out of the way – Nicolas Cage is a living legend, one of the true treasures of American culture, and maybe the best actor of the past 50 years. If not best, then most interesting. So in my all consuming quest to watch every movie he’s been in (a plan I abandoned ten minutes into Stolen), I eventually came to The Rock. Spoiler alert, I loved it. So now I’m in a critical tail spin – how can I like a Michael Bay movie!? What’s wrong with me?
The second thing was another man, improbably also named The Rock. I’ll save my controversial opinion on The Rock (there is no Dwayne Johnson, only The Rock) for later, but in a similar scenario to the Cage thing, I eventually had to get around to Pain And Gain. It helped that it was on Netflix instant. I loved it too. What was happening to me?
The third thing was not a man, but a movie and a very long 4th of July. My plan was only to go to the theater and see The Fault In Our Stars, but after that showing I just felt right being at the cineplex. And what better way to celebrate America’s birthday than to go and see a 164 minute ode to destruction, robots, and Marky Mark? So I did, and this is where the story gets scary – I liked that one too. I went in expecting a train wreck (and if memory serves there might literally have been one of those), but I was legitimately entertained, and not in an ironic way. So yeah, before you read further, know that I’m the guy who liked Trans4mers.
Now this isn’t going to be a great big ol’ Michael Bay lovefest. As a director, as a visual storyteller, he’s got undeniable flaws. But what I hope to illustrate is that he does have strengths, he does have a style, and he does have a cinematic voice. He is a visual storyteller with a strong sense of the medium and how to entertain. He is an auteur. And like any auteur, his movies reveal something about himself and show me something about myself.
And that’s the other thing – this is as much about me as it is about Mike. (I’m calling him Mike from now on.) It’s about who I was when I watched his movies for the first time, and then later for the second time. It’s about how I’ve changed the way I watch movies, the way I think about the movies I want to make, and about the way I live my life.
Up next, The Rock, and how Michael Bay made the most thought provoking action movie ever.