Transformers 3: The artistic merit of Michael Bay

There’s a string of words you probably never thought to see together.

A few weeks ago I got a sneak peek at twenty minutes of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the third entry into Michael Bay’s increasingly loud franchise. At that time, I said that, based on twenty minutes from the climactic “destruction of Chicago” scene, that I thought TF3 would be “big and dumb and loud”. After seeing it over the weekend, it is in fact big and dumb and loud, with an emphasis on dumb. What’s most interesting about TF3, though, isn’t the plot (because there almost isn’t one), or the characters (because they’re little more than cardboard stand-ups of what Bay thinks real people are like), or even the visual effects (because they’re as elaborate and over the top as one expects in a Michael Bay movie). No, what has evolved from TF3 is an interesting discussion about Michael Bay and his status as an auteur.

Quick rundown on the movie: Yes, it’s better than TF2. Yes, Shia LaBeouf carries this monstrosity of entertainment capably. Yes, the characterizations are incredibly stupid. Yes, it’s too long. Yes, the autobots standing around talking is still the silliest thing you’ve ever seen on film. Yes, it’s very loud. No, you don’t miss Megan Fox (she got fired, remember?). Yes, that’s because Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley isn’t completely awful—she’s a bad actress but she’s as watchable as Fox ever was and bless Rosie’s little heart, she’s just trying so gosh darn hard it’s difficult to pick on her too much. She wants so badly to be not the worst thing in the movie (that honor actually goes to Ken Jeong). Yes, the box office of this movie has been insane. No, Michael Bay is not a good director no matter how well he frames a shot.

Which brings us back to the question of Michael Bay, Auteur. It’s a legitimate question. Bay does have, after all, a recognizable filmmaking style. 360-degree pans, sweeping chase scenes, big explosions, zooms. Seriously, does any filmmaker like pans and zooms as much as Bay? But for me, being a true auteur goes beyond just having an identifiable style. Lots of filmmakers have identifiable styles and I wouldn’t call them auteurs. The only true auteur working today is Christopher Nolan, who is, somewhat shockingly, a big fan of Michael Bay (Nolan’s longtime collaborator, cinematographer Wally Pfister, makes fun of him for this). So while I don’t think Bay is a true auteur—someone please explain to me his raison d’etre beyond “shit blows up”—I do think it’s a legitimate question to be asked, for Bay isn’t without artistic merit. It’s just that what he does offer as a craftsman is so overshadowed by laziness and douchebaggery that it’s nearly impossible to take him, or anyone who defends him, seriously. Let’s break this down.

First, to the merits. Bay really does know how to frame a shot. Big, epic, Cecille B. DeMille type shots. Only Steven Spielberg (executive producer of the Transformers movies) and James Cameron come close to having the kind of scope Bay has. Even Nolan, who can go for the big visual, doesn’t make his bread and butter on scopey shots but on tight close ups and smaller-space sequences (Inception’s zero-gravity hallway fight or the Joker hanging out of a car while driving). Turn off the sound and remove your logic chip and Bay really is making quite pretty films. …And that’s about where his merits end. Because everything else about a Michael Bay movie is troubling at best, degrading at worst.

Take his jingoism, for instance. Lainey texted me over the weekend that she was offended by TF3 and hated it, saying it was xenophobic. I said the movie wasn’t xenophobic—it didn’t promote the fear of foreign people—but that it was jingoistic, asserting that America is the best and death to the rest! There is a lazy, cheap shorthand that Bay employs to identify his heroes and villains and that is that the bad guy is brown. He even goes so far as to have the half-flayed shell of Megatron going around decked out in a scrap of cloth worn as a head scarf, not unlike you see on some Al Qaeda/Taliban fighters (which, five-story-tall Megatron thinks he can hide under a binkie? Really?).

But in this, I don’t think that Bay is either alone or the worst offender. Jon Favreau employs a similar tactic in the Iron Man movies and Spielberg is the worst offender of this jingoistic shorthand—check out Saving Private Ryan then watch Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and tell me you don’t detect a difference in attitude and sensitivity regarding the good guys and the bad guys. Quentin Tarantino played on this shorthand to great effect in Inglorious Basterds, which is why I think that movie worked so well. Audiences recognized the inherent silliness of such a filmmaking technique when it was framed with extreme cartoon violence. I did kind of bust Lainey on this front—I asked if it was okay for Captain America to employ the exact same shorthand (which they do) because Cap is fighting Nazis and everyone hates Nazis. Her answer? Yes, then it’s fine.

My point is this—yes, Bay is a jingoistic storyteller. Yes, that’s a lazy and cheap way of framing a story. Yes, it’s morally questionable. Yes, it’s probably bad for our society. Yes, it’s just a movie and we should lighten up but the fact is this shit SELLS and that’s a little concerning when you consider what that says about us. BUT. Bay is hardly the only filmmaker doing this, now or in the entire history of cinema. Thirty years ago the shorthand way to establish a villain was to say, “Oh, he’s Russian”. Thirty years before that it was, “Oh, he’s German/a Nazi”. This has been around a lot longer than Bay. On this front, I don’t excuse him but I do say, this particular issue goes a lot further than just Michael Bay.

Where I do not give Bay any kind of pass, the problem I identify as uniquely his own and the reason I think that, no matter how technically proficient he is, he is a bad filmmaker, is his utter tone deafness to stereotypes and characterizations. Bay took a huge amount of flak for Skids and Mudflap, the “minstrel bots” from TF2. They had offensive, pidgen accents (not unlike that other lightning rod of insensitivity, Jar Jar Binks) and existed solely to provide cheap, humorless comic relief. No one likes Skids and Mudflap. They were so hated Bay had to promise not to bring them back, and he didn’t. What he did do was replace them with the Wreckers “Roadbuster” and “Leadfoot”, a pair of British autobots. If it’s possible for an autobot to be drunk, it’d be the Wreckers. Roadbuster is a fat Scottish bot with a kilt and Leadfoot’s Cockney accent is unintelligible. Which, of course. Cockney people and their accent that’s just so darn hard to understand! What Bay did was remove one offensive stereotype and replace it with two others. He totally missed the point. Tone. Deaf.

Another Bay-exclusive problem is his treatment of female characters. This is the man who is famous for defining his women by the degree at which their backs are arched, but in TF3 he offers up Frances McDormand as Charlotte Mearing, an NSA security chief (I think, I was never quite able to figure out who she was supposed to be). McDormand is a great actress and here’s a female character with some brains and power who doesn’t have to rely on her looks. So what does she do? Nothing. She stomps around and flaps her arms at Optimus Prime but ultimately she stands on the sideline watching as the men around her rush into action and/or take charge (John Turturro’s Agent Simmons ends up doing her job). So again, Bay has missed the point. A token “smart female” actually makes things worse, since it acknowledges that Bay is aware of the criticism but doesn’t actually care enough to really do anything about it.

My final issue is exclusive to TF3. I don’t remember seeing a Bay film before with so much aggressive product placement. Maybe it says something about me and my priorities, but that actually bothered me more than anything else in the movie. Lenovo, Cisco, Nike, Target, Amp Energy Drinks, Arrowhead—the product placement was so blatant it made me flinch every time it happened. Also wince-inducing was Ken Jeong’s utterly pointless part—don’t tell me all of that information couldn’t have been discovered by Sam (LaBeouf) stumbling across an old file. We didn’t actually need Jeong making an idiot of himself.

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5 thoughts on “Transformers 3: The artistic merit of Michael Bay

  1. Totally agree with your points on the robot wearing head scarf. Not only the robots are transformable, they are also the best travelers, prepared wherever they go.

    As much as I hate Dempsey’s character here for being so evil without enough motive, I also found Ken Jeong’s part to be so annoying. I think Bay should’ve cut his and John Turturro’s part and the movie could be half hour shorter.

    But then, we should stop thinking about his movies because what he does with his movies is not contributing to cinema, but rather to the movie industry and business in Hollywood. Now Shia Labeouf can move on from being the Transformers guy to more challenging roles.

  2. But was it better than the first Transformers? I haven’t heard anyone say that it was. I was surprised I even liked that one, so I see no reason to see this one.

  3. Annie

    Not sure I get your point about Bay being jingoistic rather than xenophobic. You tell us he doesn’t promote the fear of foreign people, and then proceed to describe how all the bad guys are brown and wearing headscarves?.. seems like you’re shooting your own argument down!

    1. The difference lies in the laziness/silliness of the visual coding Bay is using. It comes across as SO SILLY that it isn’t scary at all. Xenophobia is about irrational fear, but jingoism is about making everyone else look stupid and less than while puffing yourself up to the max. That’s what TF3 is. The difference is a little like porn–you know it when you see it.

  4. Phaedra

    You’re nicer than me. I labeled it a big pile of crap. We put it on last night. 20 minutes in I questioned whether there was a plot. Yes, laugh at me. I tried tuning out to read my book instead. Finally my boyfriend turned it off and there was still an entire HALF hour to go. What I got out of it while reading was it was loud and it was stupid.

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