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Why Michael Bay should be taken seriously: One fan’s spirited defense of the controversal filmmaker

Why Michael Bay should be taken seriously: One fan’s spirited defense of the controversal filmmaker (photo)

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By Travis McClain

If Internet discussions are any indication, the consensus on “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” is that the entire world is lining up to see it, but no one over the age of seven will admit wanting to see it. These kinds of polarizing, hyperbolic contentions are nothing new to discussions about commercial art. The goal, it seems, is to please enough of the public to make money , but not so much of the public that the work is enjoyed by (gasp) the masses. Forum threads in which people are openly excited to see the movie are compelled to qualify their enthusiasm with remarks insisting that they have low expectations (if they have any expectations at all). It’s as though going to the theater to see this movie will be intellectual slumming, so we need to know that they’re different from the mindless sheep who don’t realize how vapid these films are. Michael Bay is a timely microcosm for exploring some of the themes of modern film discussion.

The box office tells us that Bay is at the top of the heap in contemporary cinema, but any conversation with cinephiles eventually suggests that he is some kind of second-class filmmaker. His films, the argument goes, fail to aspire to anything beyond a series of escalating fireballs. This accusation — though admittedly fair — takes on a tone of disdain because it so often comes from the segment of film aficionados who worship at the altar of the auteur theory. The “di-rec-tor,” as we’re told, is single-handedly responsible for crafting a film and therefore entitled to all glory for the successes and scorn for the failures. Ergo, because Michael Bay’s filmography is comprised exclusively of popcorn action flicks, it’s evidence that he is not a “serious” filmmaker.

I concur with William Goldman, who famously blasted the auteur theory in his “Adventures in the Screen Trade” by rightly pointing out that film is a collaborative medium. Yes, it’s true that a director’s job is to marshal the various departments and pass final approval of their work, but he or she can only approve or disapprove of what is devised and submitted to them. I have an innate admiration for writers, but is it really a defect of Michael Bay’s that he has no writing credits? Aside from the obvious issue of financing, a film can only exist if there is a screenplay. Sets, costumes and props must all be designed and created to realize the imagined story of the screenplay. Do we fault a director for not also creating those things themselves? Of course we do not. That would be unfair and absurd. It’s not their job as director to do those things.

So if we reject the idea that a director is solely responsible for everything we see on the screen — which we should reject, as there are countless talented, hard working people who are responsible for what we see — and we are willing to concede that it is unfair to expect a director to do specific jobs, then we must assess a director for what he or she really does. Ultimately, the director’s task is to execute the production of a film. For my money, there may be no one in Hollywood in the same league as Michael Bay and my first piece of evidence is “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”

It made a fortune and seemingly everyone hated it for being a convoluted mess, and I don’t need to rehash any of that. What is often overlooked in the discussions about that film, though, is how unlikely was its production. Consider that Paramount set a release date before they even had a story in place, and then before anything was written came the writers’ strike. Upon its resolution, screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman were sequestered in a hotel room and handed in pages at a time as they were written. Those pages were eagerly taken by all the other departments, who need to find shooting locations, secure permits, design costumes, sets, props; actors had to be cast and learn their parts.

All of this took place in far less time than a film of its scale really needed. The CGI effects were so ambitious that one of the Industrial Light & Magic animation computers overheated and was fried, and the effects were still being created up to the last minute before the film’s premiere. Yes, there was time to discuss and refine the story, but far less than was (obviously) needed. Shooting began on June 2, 2008 and the film opened on June 24, 2009. I’ll readily concede that “Revenge of the Fallen” is flawed, but rather than crucify Bay for it, I would expect any “serious” cinephile would stand in awe of the fact that he managed to meet Paramount’s unreasonable deadline with a finished product. I suspect few of his peers could have succeeded with such an ambitious production schedule and so little time.

For all the admiration of artistry within film, there seems to be a discontinuity about appreciating the sheer logistics of making a movie of the scale on which Bay operates. How you can know the distinction between a cinematographer and a director of photography, but not be astounded that Bay gets these kinds of movies made with so many people involved — particularly stunt coordinators and performers and effects units — makes no sense to me. Until, that is, I consider the auteur theory. We’re not interested in what a director really does. We just want to idolize the ones who oversaw the production of the films that resonate with us. Bay’s films may entertain us, but they do not challenge us to leave the theater and re-examine ourselves or our world. Ergo, they are an inferior form of storytelling and Bay must, by extension, be a second-class storyteller.

I’m reminded of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. Paul Johnson once wrote that, “Mr. Fleming has no literary skill, the construction of the book is chaotic, and entire incidents and situations are inserted, and then forgotten in a haphazard manner.” Sound familiar? For his part, Fleming insisted that he was a “writer,” not an “author,” and that “The target of my books lay somewhere between the solar plexus and the upper thigh.” As it turns out, there was plenty of room on the book shelves for Ian Fleming’s unskilled chaos alongside works that sought to change the world by affecting its audience. Fleming was right not to apologize for his works, as is Bay today.

It may be tempting to think that any idiot could make a fortune just stringing together scenes of sex and violence in a book or following a car chase with a gun fight and an explosion with a massive fireball. Ian Fleming and Michael Bay may make it seem obvious and easy, but there have been countless imitators who have failed to enjoy their level of sustained success. To date, only one Bay film was a box office failure in the United States (2005’s poorly marketed “The Island”). If you think it’s easy to consistently win over that many people, send an e-mail to the White House and ask President Obama how hard we can be to keep happy.

More importantly, there’s nothing wrong with trying to please the public. This case was made most clearly by Preston Sturges through “Sullivan’s Travels.” Of course, I don’t need to summarize that film for you serious cinephiles but for the casual movie viewer, it’s about a director known for making lighthearted comedies who feels inadequate and sets off to make a dramatic picture. He takes off to live as a homeless bum for research into misery, and by the end of the film he learns how important it can be to the public — many of whom are already miserable — to just get away from it and laugh for a couple hours at a movie.

So long as my stupid Crohn’s-infested guts cooperate, I intend to go see “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” the night it opens. I dig watching robots beat the snot out of each other, and I feel confident going into the movie that Michael Bay will have approved a final cut that throws lots of fun stuff on the screen and moves at a brisk pace. I can go back to exploring Ingmar Bergman’s filmography and the religious symbolism of Persona later. Enjoying a Michael Bay film doesn’t make me a poseur when discussing Bergman, but turning up my nose at Michael Bay on principle does make me a pretentious snob.

What are your own thoughts on Michael Bay? Chime in below or on Facebook or Twitter.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.