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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Auto-Erotic Asphyxiation: Michael Bay, Michele Bachmann, and the American Fantasy

Who is Michael Bay now? The Rock. Armageddon. Pearl Harbor. Bad Boys II. And finally, the Transformers trilogy, his magnum opus, perhaps not only for him but for every man-child, the long expectant Second Coming of Lost Time as once more we can all be children at play, building things and immediately blowing them up. The flirtations between Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler in Armageddon, the take on history and kitsch in Pearl Habor, and simply the erotic fetishizing of violence in...everything. Michael Bay creates movies for our worst impulses, making the idiot in his collective audience purr. Attending one of his pictures is like being caught masturbating, except everyone else in the room is masturbating also. It is fantasy as form. He's succeeded in creating a treasured aesthetic, as the sensibility of 1990s music videos have now become commonplace in action films. Films don't breathe today, so much as they glide down a runway in slow-mo, bullets firing behind the sheen of a perfect complexion. To complete the formula, Bay puts in sitcom humor, something the folks always finds very delightful. Explosions, cheeky laughs, Oscar-nominated actors, beautiful women, nice clothes, fast cars, rock anthems, more explosions…Sometimes it may resemble a 150-minute Axe Body Spray commercial, but one must admit they achieve their goals. Bay's movies are the epitome of glossy fashion, celluloid user-friendly models downloadable for fulfillment.

The critics snarl, as they do currently in regards to Transformers: Dark of the Moon, their words like darts falling like harmless feathers against Bay's Teflon chest. The previous film in the trilogy, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was even more hated by its critics. But it made nearly $200 million in its opening week…and the audience loved it. The same fate will hold for Part 3, I predict, as the preview audience applauded at its conclusion. Bay has pointed out the numbers to his critics before, as if to suggest their meaninglessness, their lack of a useful function in this economy, their elitism. Who are they writing for anyway? 

Before digging into the bile of my own criticism of Bay or Bachmann, I wonder about the mainstream mentality that these two have so perfectly channeled and fulfilled. The executive producer of all three Transformers films is Steven Spielberg, and didn't he also make paeans to middle American life, like E.T.

I really have never had much problem identifying with Speilberg's heroes, like Elliot in E.T. as a child, and later as an adult, Roy Neery in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Even the myriad of dysfunctions that follow his most stoical of heroes (the spiritual and family questions that are beset on Dr. Jones, for instance) allow identification. Most of all for me, there is David in AI: Artificial Intelligence, the robot who only wants to be "a real, live boy." Spielberg's most memorable protagonists are surrounded by affluence and the normal, but have a few parts missing. Take Oskar Schindler, who's a Nazi but is also, surprising to even himself, a humanitarian, and so an outsider and eccentric in his world. 

Michael Bay makes movies for the kids who made fun of Elliot and David, the well-adjusted ones with the affluent parents, the steady stream of lunch table friends, who had their lives figured out for them, from the right kind of clothes to wear to college. Again, I'm not disparaging the normal – it's what I envied, and I need to be careful here, because at the bottom of all this is, admittedly, my own resentment. And so let it be written – Michael Bay makes films for and about those people who wouldn't let me be a part of their club, and the guys who got laid before me. 

Yet so many freaks and geeks I know love Transformers, just as many who hate it. They love the way every moment is eroticized, the explosions, the loud noises, the glass hurling everywhere even though human bodies seem to stay intact (or they just kind of disappear). I wonder about history, and if Michael Bay could have been who he is now 40 years ago, when Spielberg was just beginning. The short, and possibly unexamined answer, is 'no.' Michael Bay was created by videogames, just as his film aesthetic perhaps worked to influence the course of where videogames would go in the decade following The Rock. For Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the theaters would do well to hand out videogame controllers just as they hand out 3D glasses, allowing the audience to be more immersed in the action as their fingers hit buttons and maneuver a joystick as guns blaze, swords slice, and metal crumbles. The perspective is unstoppable, allowed all access, traveling through windows and walls. This is what Bay's image does: it is unrestricted. Not in the service of story or theme (the unrestricted camera is employed in more respected films from Citizen Kane to The Tree of Life), but just for the effect.  It works well with our lazy eyes by giving us everything, outlaying so much information, titles on the screen joined with the noise of a computer farting, and even if the story doesn't make any coherent sense, we accept it. Special effects, in their persistence, are story for Bay, a point satirized pointedly by South Park ("That's not a plot – those are special effects!" "I don't know the difference.")

The unrestricted film image, where the camera eye reformatted by the graphic designer is allowed to go anywhere, gives us limitless space, as the spatial is no longer necessary. The first Transformers film from 2007 was an awful spectacle showcasing the worst of blockbuster special effects, because of how relentless it was to not be boring. But the special effects aspect of filmmaking, geared to satisfying the popcorn-fisted instincts of viewers, was less exciting than tiresome. The pursuit of not being boring proved  boring because the noise – aural and visual – worked to create numbness: too much sensation, too little reflection. 

There is no lull in videogames. It is all stimulation, all the time. Your eyes and fingers work away on the controller as your mind works itself into the screen, becoming one with the digital embodiment therein, killing other virtual bodies, collecting virtual money, and saving virtual women. If you die, you always get another life. When the game's over, there is fulfillment, accomplishment, rest, and a happy ending as order is restored – until the sequel comes out, and the villains also miraculously resurrect. This is how Bay's films operate--without the benefit of using your own hand-eye coordination with a controller--and it is why they are so successful with their intended audience (I want to note how prescient Bay was with the Transformers villain, Megatron, who is dropped in the ocean: the enemy to freedom anticipating the fate of Osama Bin Laden). His genius is being able to densely put so much into his images, knowing precisely what that audience will respond to – just as Michele Bachmann knows what her political base responds to. If you insult it, you are an elitist. Both Bachmann and Bay, as far as ideology goes, thrive purely in the realm of abstraction: Freedom vs. Tyranny in Transformers being the simple theme, where the Good take on the Bad – and the Bad have no motivations beyond simply being, well, bad.

The characters here are not human, but rather waxwork versions of humans. This is particularly applicable to women, and it is Bay's portrayal of women that I find most troublesome, even more than the militarism that makes his pictures look like recruitment films. Megan Fox, the female lead from the first two Transformers, was a "tough" mechanic chick, but functions as a fulfillment of male fantasy. It is Bay's intention that she should be a one-note character, because it's that channeling of the collective teenage fantasy that he's after – and he succeeds. Fox's replacement in Dark of the Moon, Victoria's Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, is even more "perfect," and so empty. (And in real life, apparently does not talk back; Fox was fired for her negative comments about Bay – specifically, comparing him to Hitler).

In Dark of the Moon's excess, there is a kind of momentous absurdity that I found appealing, along with special effects set-ups that I admired, such as the human protagonists trapped in a wavering Trump Tower. Even so, it left me with a "not so fresh feeling" later on, and I couldn't help but feel a little used the next day. To his credit, Bay has almost altered his abominable aesthetic in many cases, at times seeming to emulate Christopher Nolan's recent summer films (Inception, The Dark Knight) more than his own work. The film's prologue juggles history, revealing how the Kennedy Administration started its race for the moon because of an alien Autobot spacecraft that crashed there. I was surprised by the amount of restraint Bay was employing during this prologue, and I took notice to how he was thinking of those cameras filming Apollo 11 while it was happening. Michael Bay was being self-reflexive about his own technological spectacles.

And then – well…immediately following the prologue, we see Rosie Huntington-Whiteley's ass in close-up, the commissioned Top 40 rock score singing along. This is Sam's (LeBeouf) girlfriend, prancing around in his apartment, getting ready for work. One of his transformer pets chimes in, "What a gorgeous box." The prologue gives way to latent porno. Dark of the moon indeed. Bay's film launches into its admittedly interesting commentary on men's desire for women, something that began in the first picture, where Sam's first car, the Autobot Bumblebee, seems to compete with Megan Fox for his erotic fixation. At the conclusion, the Autobots, statesmen of progressive and immortal technology, preside benevolently over the planet as Sam and his hot girlfriend lay on top of Bumblebee's hood – a perfect amalgamation of sex and technology, women and cars, the two things men love to talk about most.

The friction between Sam's new girlfriend and his car is now much more pronounced, and it will climax with a wedding proposal where a Decepticon scrap functions as an engagement ring. The erotic attachment to technology makes a lot of sense for Michael Bay. His aesthetic reminds me of a man flexing, then photographing and tweeting such images of himself. He gets off on technology and its possibilities. The "gorgeous box" of which the comic-relief Transformers spoke could refer to a mechanical invention or an organic vagina. The catch is that in Bay's films, the women are far from organic, and if they are nuanced women, they are bitter shrews contemptible of their femaleness. Sam's nemesis is his girlfriend's rich boss, Dylan Gould (Patrick Dempsey), who collects classic cars – and has a female staff of seemingly cloned ladytrons. He points to one car and mentions how it's "built to echo the body of the ideal woman." Bay's women are as mechanically constructed as his Transformer robots are, or as the $200,000 automobiles flashing through the frame.

And yet on the other side, you have CIA Director Charlotte Mearing, played by the great Frances McDormand, who seems to be modeled on Hillary Clinton. She wears pants, talks straight, does not smile in a comely fashion, and, well, looks like a real person. More than twice in the film she accosts her male underlings: "Don't call me ma'am." "You're a woman, aren't you?" one of them asks. With this statement, we are assured that Bay's depiction of women here is not a subliminal or unconscious thing. The woman in his film who is powerful by virtue of her intelligence – and not at all by her looks – is herself a machine, as Mearing talks about protocol and paperwork, which "separates us from the animals." Strangely, while Bay's unreal and beautiful model women – who seem to be everywhere – are all too eager to issue romantic and sexual gestures, Mearing is a cold heartbreaker, having broken-up with the film series' special forces nut, Simmons (John Turturro). Even at the end of the film, when the world has been saved and Simmons grabs her for a big end-all smooch, her smile drops quickly and she commands her men to arrest him. Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, the attractive Christian Conservative female crusader, find their most enthusiastic audience among - if not other Christian Conservative women - older white men. They embody that attractive good-wife fantasy, headstrong and active but fully in support of an older set of mainly patriarchal values, and feminism does not apply to them. They too are virtually male fantasy constructs.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon's endearing misogyny is rampant. Though we do not see much trace of female robots, the villainous Decepticon Shockwave terrorizes our heroes with a shape-shifting cross between a snake-phallus given a toothy-vagina mouth (work with me here), ripping through civilization and the best things men have created for us (Mearing is meanwhile responsible for much of the bureaucratic stupidity that will put characters in danger). And then there is a teleportation portal to the Transformers' home of Cybertron, that will give passage to the villainous Decepticons as they land on earth and take over, which, in a Gigerean or Cronenbergian sense, resembles a huge, robotic clitoris.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon has a good message for us young men: work hard and harness your tools, so that you can take care of your beautiful women and keep them securely in your grasp. Sam's problem is that he's out of college and can't get a job, while his underwear model girlfriend is paying the bills. This puts him in a realm of uncertainty – most pronounced when he meets the flirtatious Gould with his car collection and infinite wealth. Sam's parents remind him of his responsibilities as a man, mom offering him a self-help book, She Comes First, and dad adding, "Happy wife, happy life."

Michael Bay, who has that aforementioned erotic attachment to filmmaking, and so to technology as his pictures are technological monuments, has then accomplished the male's dream of amalgamating a man's ideal woman with his ideal tools. He's a garage logician able to keep his women satisfied and eternally beautiful in the comfort of narcissistic prosperity – and to criticize his films for their reactionary arcs is then to criticize prosperity (or to "punish it," such as we hear a lot today). To be subservient to the woman is like being trapped in a job – the "life sucking abyss" described by Sam's effeminate boss (John Malkovich), and then echoed in Shockwave's vulva dentata. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is perfect for the new social Ayn Rand enthrallment, where pity is decried. To act with sacrificing charity only results in the pitiful lemmings below your sinking boat, pulling you into their den of doom.

It is puzzling to have the famous words of Spock from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan given a completely different context here – especially considering that Leonard Nimoy does the voice! The turn-coat Sentinel Prime has made a deal with Megatron and the Decepticons because, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." You'd think that Sentinel had made a deal to tax the richest 2% of earners in order to help balance the budget – which is an affront to freedom. The "milk of human kindness," that feminine attribute, is done away with in Transformers in favor of pure will, strength, and prosperity. A funny example is Simmons, now wealthy, who is interviewed on The O'Reilly Factor (and is a self-described "big fan"). Simmons says of Gould (who has made his own deal with the Decepticons), "Rich bastards. I used to hate'em. Now it's…." and he shakes his head, as now he's one of them. Freedom, as Optimus Prime makes clear, "is everyone's right!" The Decepticons (who were linked with the Obama Administration in the second film) are so the bringers of socialist, feminist tyranny, who will make slaves out of all 6 million of us, destroying the landmarks of capitalist glory (such as the Trump Tower) and our nation's heritage (the Lincoln Memorial).

What becomes a little frightening in Transformers, from my "milk of human kindness" effeminate male progressive liberal humanist perspective, is how sadistic the Transformers become in their heroism. Optimus Prime has done away with pity or the will to identify with his enemies. Where is the logic in that, after all? Pity makes no sense. Kill them. Stomp them out. Take the battle to them! And rip their heads off. Even when the beaten Sentinel Prime, Optimus' former leader and mentor, comes to understand defeat, Optimus does not hesitate for a moment in blowing the older Autobot's head off. Twice. It's great that Michael Bay can once again show us what being a man is all about.

This is the kind of stuff that gave me that "not so fresh feeling" of feeling used. I reiterate that the female imagery in Transformers makes me think that it is not accidentally featured here, and Bay truly does have some personal statements he wants to make in response to his critics. He knows that the audience will criticize him, but he's like Simmons grabbing Mearing, smooching her and willingly going to jail for it. He smiles and winks, knowing that we all like it. And most of us, evidently, do like it, even against our better judgment. This film will be a huge success, as most of Bay's films are. It's about prosperity and prosperity will always win – certainly as human beings become more mechanically inclined and concrete-thinking. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a Dark Age Black Mass, reflective – even with a degree of antagonism to art – of the current mindset as the most deeply felt independent film. And this is frightening. 

Michael Bay and Michele Bachmann give the crowd what they want: fantasies and agelessness, along with cruel death to enemies of freedom, though no one can really define "freedom." The sadism of Optimus Prime disturbs me, but he's not too different from a post-modern, Cyborg Age representation of John Wayne, a symbol of a bygone age that so many people believe is lost. Conveniently, Wayne was just hilariously paid homage to by Citizen Bachmann on her campaign trail, as she spoke of Wayne's place in Waterloo, Iowa, when in reality it was the serial killer John Wayne Gacy who was that town's brief celebrity citizen. This is the nihilism of the ghost years in our Information Dark Age: In the films of Bay's opposite, Michael Mann, the filmmaker has deep concerns about the cloudiness of human identity where the cop and criminal collapse into one frame and the hyperreal impact of the brave new world steals away our spirits. In Bay and Bachmann, Freedom, Sadism, and Tyranny are all similarly confused, but we dwell blissfully in the illusory ether bits of the videogame fantasy.

1 comment:

  1. Intellectually fascinating.

    You make me want to see this "so bad it's good" aberration, in the same way that Travels in Hyperreality makes me curious to visit Disneyland as an aficionado of postmodern architecture.

    Thank you for writing such an thorough and wry deconstruction.