Understanding Michael Bay’s Cruel Joke

Michael Bay’s “Transformers”

What to do about a director like Michael Bay, auteur—or perpetrator, depending on how you look at it—of blisteringly macho movies like “The Rock,” “Armageddon,” “Pain & Gain” and of course, the numbingly profitable “Transformers” series (the latest of which sold US$104 million in tickets last weekend)? If there’s a measure of critical respect in inverse proportion to box office success, then Bay stands head and shoulders above his contemporaries. He is singularly reviled and successful, and in that distinction he demands thoughtful appraisal of some kind.

Robbie Collin, chief film critic of The Telegraph, gives that a shot this week in this column. He claims, rather hyperbolically (is there any other way to talk about this director?), that Bay is not just an interesting filmmaker, but perhaps an exceptional one too.

The numbers are skyscraper high because Bay’s films are some of the few that offer a mass audience something that box sets and video games don’t: they’re awesome, in the word’s proper sense, and the cinema is where you have to see them. Like it or not, he is the most important director working in Hollywood today.

The trick to understanding Bay is not dismissing him. Any common-or-garden nitwit can, and frequently does, point a camera at girls, cars and carnage, and call it a movie. Not anyone can take those three elements and turn them into a film that can fill cinemas for weeks. Bay’s detractors often grouse that he has nothing to say: what they mean is they’ve heard what he says loud and clear, and don’t much care for it.

His films are unashamedly patriotic (heroes stand proud before fluttering Stars and Stripes), militaristic (conflict solves problems, diplomacy always fails) and materialistic (everything that’s shiny and expensive is fetishised to the point of parody). ‘When it started, America was just a handful of scrawny colonies,’ says Wahlberg’s character in ‘Pain & Gain.’ ‘Now, it’s the most buff, pumped-up country on the planet. That’s pretty rad.’

This is admittedly deeper consideration than most people have given the director’s flagrantly shallow work, but it only just scratches at that surface. Collin’s contention that Bay purveys goods that dismissive film fans find gauche has some truth to it, but it’s hardly the whole story.

The Killer of Belief

It’s not just that the content of Bay’s work offends us, though it does. It’s that the very existence of them as winning enterprises—as things that people out there want—is offensive too. Few other directors so blatantly confound our compass of aesthetics, of good taste, of morals, even. We’re confused (and pummeled into submission) not just by the words and pictures he shoots, but in the fact that he makes them at all, and that they continue to do gangbusters at the box office. These are things that are not supposed to happen.

When work so terrible sells so wildly, we all have to ask, “Why, God, why?” if only to square our own places in the universe, to reassure ourselves that there is some kind of logic or order or justice out there. Bay’s work essentially upends our belief systems, makes us question the rules that we live by, and wonder if it’s all a cruel joke.

The wonderfully insightful Film Critic Hulk gets this. In fact, in this typically in-depth and brilliant essay, he contends that Bay is in on the joke himself.

[Michael Bay] obviously could not give less of a shit about these films, right? But he’s so clearly tapped into something here and it might be why he keeps coming back. Think about it: the first transformers might have had a Spielbergian nugget of functionality (a boy and his car and whatnot) which was probably responsible for launching a super-franchise. But after the writerless/rudderless/purposeless second film went on to be just as popular, Bay perhaps saw the cruel joke of it all better than anyone. That joke being that a scriptless, paceless, ugly, nonsensical, boring and immoral piece of garbage can go on and make gazillions of dollars all because of the right set of conditions. Heck, the Transformers movies are not only critic-proof, but actually dependent on critic-skewering for reverse psychology…

Because what it absolutely proves is that all the studios are right not to give a shit about art or meaning or story or fuck-all of anything. They’re right to chase I.P. And envision the 30-second commercial of a robot riding a dinosaur and trust that we’re nothing but an audience of Beavis and Buttheads eager to devour it. And in turn it makes critics into a bunch of finger-waving ninnies trying to suck the fun out of everything. Which means both reactions prove them right. It’s a no-win scenario. A zero sum game. And Hulk is really starting to think that Bay understands this (and he very much might). A place where he can put in all the grossest stuff that erupts out of him, all in the most artless shell imaginable, all to a collective shrug. That just means ‘Transfourmores’ is nothing but a long elaborate joke on all of us. A litmus test to see if any of us are even aware of the shitty messages in these films and whether or not we even care about them. Which in turn works as just another litmus test asking how many critics seem to even recognize it? Most seem to just be like, ‘It has better logic’ and/or, ‘It’s less boring than…’ and whether or not Bay is delivering this message to us via a sociopathic expectation, or through Machiavellian-like clarity for manipulating our basest instincts, he’s getting at the truth:

This is what we actually want.

There is no denying it. Which just means that, whether we’re aware or unaware of it, these films are the bile of humanity reflected back at us. Something that invariably brings out our worst possible selves. The audience that loves it. The audience that hate-loves it. The audience that loves hating it. The audience that goes out of morbid curiosity. The audience that joyfully laughs at the nihilism of it all. And even puts Hulk’s into a space full of boundary crossing assumptions of the mind behind it all… It’s all wrong. It all only serves to exacerbate what is mind-blowingly cynical about life.

I’m so depressed now.