Special Dossier edited by Bruce Bennett, Leon Gurevitch and Bruce Isaacs
Michael Bay occupies a curious place in contemporary culture. The films he has directed, including the Transformers franchise (2007-2014), the influential action vehicles, Bad Boys (1995) and Bad Boys II (2003), and the World War II effects epic Pearl Harbor (2001), are culturally visible, aesthetically striking and instantly identifiable examples of the state-of-the-art transnational film super-production. Yet, despite the fact that Bay has been directing and producing films and TV programmes for over twenty years – directing eleven feature films to date and grossing over $5bn in the process – he remains an under-researched figure in the context of academic film criticism. Bay has developed a distinctive and influential style, but, in part because of the commercial orientation of his output, his films are generally cited as dismissive shorthand for the aesthetic and financial excesses of contemporary commercial film production.
The popular image of Michael Bay is that of a puerile pyromaniac, obsessed with explosions and military-industrial technology, and it is a promotional image that he appears happy to encourage. Orson Welles once recalled that his initial impression upon visiting RKO studios in the 1940s was that they were ‘the biggest electric train set a boy ever had’. It seems that Bay regards the contemporary Hollywood film set similarly, as a giant playroom, but he approaches it like a destructive child, gleefully smashing and setting fire to his toys and scribbling over the walls. Bay’s own production teams refer to the director’s style of filmmaking on set as a unique experience of ‘Bayhem’, but what becomes clear in a close examination of his work is that this public persona of the crass, impetuous and unreflective director disguises a systematic and well-judged approach to the business of film-making in an increasingly globalized context.
This collection is not an attempt to ‘put the record straight’ on Michael Bay by arguing that he is an unrecognized auteur, or that his films are overlooked masterpieces; instead, it aims to address a gap in the scholarship of contemporary Hollywood cinema. For all the public derision and scholarly dearth of attention, Bay is an extremely powerful figure within the field of contemporary Hollywood film and media production. There are very few directors that have the opportunity or the skills to manage film projects on such a large scale, and films such as the Transformers series are situated at an interesting industrial and commercial crossroads in Hollywood. For instance, Bay’s films offer us a case study of the ways in which cinema is undergoing transformation through the complex process of media convergence, sitting as they do at the intersection of cinema, television, advertising, gaming and product design.
In order to address some of the most important dimensions of the cinema of Michael Bay, this dossier assembles a cross-section of scholars who work on contemporary cinema, popular cultures, and new media. Crucially, it argues that a critical engagement with Bay’s cinema and its formal and commercial mechanics is essential to an understanding of contemporary Hollywood style, spectatorship, production processes and the development of cinema technology in a ‘post-cinematic’ era.
For Bruce Bennett, a close analysis of the $130m action film Bad Boys II reveals the key stylistic and thematic features of Bay’s cinema. Discussing such features as narrative structure and spatial organization, cinematography and editing, and the film’s self-reflexive irony, he argues that Bad Boys II is a systematic exploration of inter-related modes of excess in terms of circumstances of production, style, narrative economy, and thematic focus. Bad Boys II demonstrates the way that Bay’s films are marked by a distinctive ‘aesthetic of excess’.
Undertaking a media archaeology of the influences that shape Bay’s Transformers franchise, Leon Gurevitch tracks almost two centuries of industrial spectacle from the machines-in-motion exhibitions of the Victorian era through to the numerous twentieth-century commercials that demonstrate a continuing fascination with the dazzling spectacle of mechanical transformation. As a result, Gurevitch argues, the Transformers series acts as a requiem for both the American automobile and American visual effects industries, each of which have been hollowed out by the forces of neo-liberal global capital, and each of which constitute the ruinous backdrop against which the franchise is played out.
Bruce Isaacs reads the Transformers films against the grain of the majority of film criticism and scholarship; whereas Bay’s aesthetic is commonly associated with a haphazard and contemptuously careless style of editing and cinematography – a ‘chaos cinema’ to use Matthias Stork’s phrase – Isaacs argues that the Transformers films in fact recuperate the aesthetic values inherent in the classical continuity system. It is precisely this conflation of the old and the new in Bay – a continuity ethos foundational to ‘High Concept’ Hollywood production transformed by a radically innovative stylistic palette – that affirms Bay as one of the very important filmmakers of the contemporary Hollywood era.
Lisa Purse’s article identifies a ‘rotational aesthetic’ underpinning Bay’s elaborate staging of action sequences. She brings a subtle reading to the myriad ways in which Bay’s cinema not only stages complex action through a rotational motif, but also reflects a deeper material history of machinic movement. For Purse, the drive toward rotation as active movement speaks to larger desires surrounding cultural progress and evolution. Underpinning her article is the provocative claim that such machinic materialities align with ‘wired culture’s evolving awareness of the ubiquity of digital interventions into cinema’.
Finally, Brian Baker offers a close reading of one of Bay’s less frequently noted works, the dystopian science fiction film, The Island (2005). Like Gurevitch, Baker examines Bay’s work in relation to Jonathan Beller’s influential Cinematic Mode of Production, arguing that The Island is symptomatic of a new production culture that turns spectacular attention into labour. Baker proposes that The Island provides a self-conscious articulation of the attention economy through a narrative that continually returns to the way in which spectacle is utilized in aid of converting spectatorship into labour.
All of which brings us full circle.
When we began this project, Bay was busy with post-production on Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), the colossal fourth installment in the franchise (with a fifth rumoured to be in preproduction). The subsequent release of that film to predictable critical disapprobation but to a return of $1.1 billion at the global box office is an emphatic demonstration of Bay’s significance within the context of contemporary global media culture. Transformers: Age of Extinction was the first Hollywood movie in history to generate more revenue in a ‘foreign’ territory (namely, China) than within America itself. Unnoticed by many, this film’s reception marks a pivotal industrial and economic moment in which Hollywood truly came of age as a transnational industry beholden to revenue streams (and therefore commercial considerations) far beyond America’s traditional national borders. In this respect it is clear that a close examination of Michael Bay and his films is crucial for our understanding of the changing aesthetic, cultural and industrial status of cinema as we move into the post-cinematic era.