Originally published in Senses of Cinema issue 75, June 2015.
In perhaps the most scathing review in the mainstream media of Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) – the fourth release in the franchise in seven years – Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine suggests that the film is ultimately “dull, dumb and soul-sucking.” (1) While there’s little surprising about Travers’s reaction to Transformers 4 (he was not a fan of the franchise after its first three instalments), his conclusion reveals a great deal about how a mainstream critic reads the contemporary action film. Aside from Stanley Tucci’s Joshua Joyce, “the only fully alive presence on screen,” for Travers “the rest is all sound and fury signifying the usual Bay nothing.” (2) For the purposes of this article, I am particularly interested in this sound and fury that signifies nothing. Precisely what is this signification to which Travers makes reference? Presumably, sound and fury connotes the barrage of car chases, explosions, and the general aesthetic of chaotic destruction evident in most of Bay’s films. In the Bad Boys (1995-2003) and Transformers (2007-2014) franchises, one action sequence builds dutifully onto another, always bettered in terms of the increasingly hyperbolic action tropes. Each film concludes on a set piece of action of significant duration, drawing the audience’s attention to the set piece as spectacle, or what I would suggest is a discrete action movement within the film. By the end credits of most of Bay’s films, the spectator has been subjected to a sound and image bombardment.
For Travers, Bay’s cinema in its entirety amounts to an experience of chaos that signifies nothing. It is, after all, merely sensory bombardment. But there is something quite revealing in precisely how this “nothing” is signified. He continues: “if you want to see metal crushing metal with no purpose, logic or letup, stay at home with your X box.” (3) “Nothing” clearly connotes a formal signifying system bereft of purpose and order, a system without a logical relation connecting its various parts. This critical approach, implicit in a great deal of mainstream criticism of contemporary action cinema, draws on the field of cinema’s continuity aesthetic system built on the configuration of space and time in logical relation. (4)Bereft of the existential purpose intrinsic to a field of objects in logical (continuous) relation, for the majority of mainstream film critics, Transformers: Age of Extinction is also bereft of cinema’s long-cherished formal signifying properties, its ways of communicating to the spectator, even its expression as an audio-visual art form. A mode of cinema that signifies outside of the field of logical spatial and temporal mechanics constitutes an unreflective, undiscerning, “soul-sucking” chaos.
In this article, I want to challenge Travers’s reading by engaging a contemporary discourse surrounding cinematic continuity in the contemporary action film. Against what I perceive to be Travers’s reductive and grossly oversimplified reading, I argue that Bay’s cinema instead inscribes a sophisticated, complexly designed and deeply affecting mechanics of spatio-temporal continuity. Further, I argue that Bay’s approach to action cinema signifies not only through a continuity style, a way of cutting or framing the image through logical relations – the so-called classical montage system – but more profoundly as the expression of an experiential logic underpinning the mainstream action genre. Here I take the lead of Lisa Purse, who reads the action film as one of the dominant aesthetic and commercial products of contemporary Hollywood. According to Purse, the new action genre must be read within the context of American cinema’s “global dominance, which flows from and helps to sustain…Hollywood’s own dominance of world film markets.” (5)While film audiences are of course increasingly diverse and articulated across national, regional and global markets, the dominantspectatorial desire engaged by contemporary Hollywood’s action genre is toward perceptual and existential wholeness. I can’t explore the larger significance of such a claim within this article, however I do contend that Hollywood’s continuity style is merely one instrument within a complex industrial and aesthetic system built on that system’s enduring need to identify and predict crudely schematized – though clearly extant – global film markets.
Bay’s oeuvre is the exemplar of the contemporary studio action film commodity, affirming what I call the mechanics of continuity through narrative and image form. The Transformers franchise clearly narrativises what Purse calls the process of “becoming”, in which “the hero is, or will become, capable of overcoming the ultimate obstacle.” (6)Each film unsubtly depicts the desire of the protagonist to become something more, both through personal maturation and cosmic achievement; each protagonist ultimately saves the world from destruction. In classical film narration, this archetypal story of becoming inscribes continuity as an aesthetic and experiential logic: “becoming” literally inscribes the process of transformation and completion. As spectators, we experience (to varying degrees) the fulfilment of this narrative conflict and resolution. Conflict – or potential fractures within the continuity field – are resolved through staged processes of becoming, and the narrative as a signifying system is affirmed as a hermetic field constituted out of a set of logical narrative relations.
In a major plot point in Transformers (2007), Sam Witwicky’s (Shia LaBeouf) narrative of becoming is framed against Optimus Prime’s literal transformation (becoming) and articulation of selfhood: “I am Optimus Prime.” The protagonist’s process of becoming (incited at precisely this moment within the narrative) is thus reflected in the physical transformation of the machine. Sam fetishizes this process of becoming, desiring to engage in such a process himself, and thereby situating the spectator in this same relationship to the process of becoming. In revealing the Transformer as a digital image of attraction, (7)Bay strategically carves out a non-narrative space from the filmic whole, bringing the spectator into a fetishistic relationship to the body (actual and virtual) of the Transformer. We gaze at the body of Optimus, fetishizing his technological form (the actuality of the physical machinic form as well as the virtuality of the digital image creation), desiring the embodiment of what Wilson describes as the “hybridized object.” (8)Such motifs of transformation and becoming respond to and re-incite a desire for the continuity inherent in transforming, or becoming that which we are not.
The obvious challenge to this claim of continuity in Bay’s cinema, and my focus in this article, is in the composition of the action image, and more specifically, the use of cinematic montage to construct spatio-temporal fields. Against story-based processes of becoming, on one level, the Transformers franchise exemplifies what Matthias Stork has recently called “chaos cinema”: an image field built of “rapid editing, close framings, bi-polar lens lengths, and promiscuous camera movement.” (9)In this chaotic visual mode, Bay’s images are obviously deployed for visceral effect as well as logical storytelling. Sequences are often cut so frenetically as to disorient the spectator within the visual and sonic field. Image relations often deliberately break continuity, fragmenting a hermetic field into a series of abstractly related parts. In action scenes, Bay will often break several of the basic rules of spatio-temporal continuity, such as cutting “across the line”, or cutting through unmotivated framing (mise en scène). Bay’s soundscapes are often mixed for visceral effect, blending diegetic and non-diegetic cues in an undifferentiated sound field. How then are we to make sense of what I am calling an aesthetic, existential and commercial logic of continuity when deployed in such a seemingly haphazard, unreflective way?
For Stork, as for Travers, the signification of cinema in its classical, elegant form is a matter of classical continuity style, and such values of continuity apply equally to images and narrative structures. But while I argue that the Transformers franchise is an emphatic demonstration of mainstream cinema’s fixation on image-continuity, I read the continuity system beyond the traditional spatio-temporal field deployed in the majority of film analyses. Simply put, continuity is more than a matter of the spaces and times contained within a film image. As several theorists have recently argued, continuity is also contingent on processes of perception and reflection, which is to say that cinema contains several continuities rather than a denotative continuity field in its entirety. (10)As spectators, we have the capacity to infer continuity within fields of radical image discontinuity. In this model, continuity is experiential; it is a phenomenological field over and above a rigidly articulated aesthetic field. In my analysis of the image-field in Bay’s Transformers franchise, I conceptualise the system of continuity not only as a dominant logic of story and image, but also as a perceptual and affective field bringing the spectator into contact with a complexly articulated cinematic world.
Framing Continuity: Beyond the (Purely) Aesthetic
In the majority of discussions of cinematic continuity, the term continuity refers to an aesthetic system, and by extension, a logical relation between space and time in a moving image. (11)In such models, continuity is explicitly an aesthetic representation, contriving a hermetic field of space and time through an extremely complex, intricate film style. How this style is constituted in image form has been covered extensively in film studies. (12)In summary, the continuity style is based on a relation between film images and narrative content approximating the perception of ordinary life, which is experienced by most people as “continuous” rather than fragmentary. Our sensory perception moves from one image to the next, contriving an imagistic field as whole; in our conventional encounter with the spatio-temporal field of physical life, the environment presents in its deterministic and contained fullness. As Berliner and Cohen have argued, “classical editing devices [commonly called the ‘Continuity Style’] exploit and accommodate the cognitive processes people use to perceive the physical world.” (13)This physical world is made continuous on film by a contrivance of staging (mise en scène), cinematographic and editing (montage) techniques. Film images are cut to other images to provide the simulation of the continuous spatial and temporal environment we encounter in the physical world. With its basis in a phenomenological realism, the continuity style came to dominate cinema from as early as the second decade of the twentieth century, where it was formalized within the industrial context of the Hollywood studio system. (14)In contemporary film production, and quite outside of the evolution of technologies of production, distribution and exhibition, the majority of film production schools teach the continuity style as the basis of cinematic form.
The continuity style is anchored in a particular approach to film as a technological and aesthetic form. In the rigidly dichotomous model of classical versus chaos cinema offered by Stork, classicism is defined as a formal method that is “patient and meticulous…in theory, at least, every composition and camera move had a meaning, a purpose, and movies did not cut without good reason.” (15)The aesthetic of continuity is coherent only if every element functions within a deterministic whole. Stork employs quite a similar approach to Travers to distinguish between a classical formalism and a chaos cinema (in a very real sense, a formless formalism). Classical mise en scène is founded on a motivating purpose within the diegetic space; editing, similarly, serves the hermetic field of the diegesis. By logical relation, allmaterials contained within the diegesis are rationalized within the continuity assemblage. The relation of one image to the next is also not as important as the relation of montage (image relation) to the whole, the complete spatio-temporal image environment. For Stork, classical continuity explicitly keeps the viewer “well oriented…action [is] always intelligible no matter how frenetic the scenario.” He draws on the cinema of Sam Peckinpah, Steven Spielberg and John Woo to ground continuity in a formal aesthetic image composition in which “precision in terms of camerawork, editing and staging is key.” (16)
In turning to contemporary cinema’s chaotic style, Stork’s video introduces a number of action films, but focuses explicitly on Bay’s Transformers (2007). In the chase sequence depicted in the video excerpt, Optimus Prime and Bonecrusher do battle on a freeway. It is one of Bay’s more elaborate action sequences in the film, and quite striking as a formalist composition. Stork’s voiceover offers: “Commercial films became faster, overstuffed, hyperactive.” (17)For Stork, the sequence is exemplary of an aesthetic that “trades visual intelligibility for sensory overload.” (18)Further, “chaos cinema directors aren’t interested in visual clarity…the new action films are an audio-visual warzone.” (19)In the rigid opposition between an aesthetic of “visual intelligibility” and an aesthetic of “sensory overload,” the distinction between a classical and chaos style in Stork’s model now becomes clear: classicism elegantly composes spatial environments within a continuous field in which the image, any image, is always in a process of relating to the spatio-temporal whole. While Peckinpah’s highly expressive montage at the conclusion of The Wild Bunch (1969) provides a frenetic sense of images in jarring relation, for Stork, it is the spatial field as whole that renders The Wild Bunch an emphatic continuity film. Montage in the classical style composes (and, in a literal sense, composites) the image world in a phenomenological simulation of the physical world. In this sense, Stork’s model is astutely classical, drawing on a long history of classical compositional aesthetics. (20)The chaotic mode, on the other hand, describes a formalist method that primarily engages the senses. It bears little to no relation to the visual, sonic, or more generally speaking, spatio-temporal field of the cinematic diegesis.
This formalist approach to continuity has been developed most influentially by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, for whom the classical style is not only the basis of an earlier and contemporary Hollywood, but which also serves as a template for the dominant mode of spectator engagement. In Bordwell’s enormously influential essay on “intensified continuity,” rather than constituting a break with the classical style, he argues that contemporary Hollywood cinema makes this style all the more emphatic. (21)Yes, film images are composited out of more rapid editing, or increasingly perspectivized through bi-polar lens lengths, but this merely amounts to an intensification of the formal aesthetic style that governs the classical mode. For Bordwell, there is certainly not the destruction of classical technique in contemporary cinema that Stork sees as destructive of the classical style per se. In Bordwell’s formalist model, what Stork perceives as chaos merely brings the spectator more emphatically into a classical relation to the spatio-temporal field: the spectator cognitively engages the field in new ways, through new image conventions.
While this debate over classical style and its basis in spatio-temporal continuity has marked a major outcome of studies of contemporary film aesthetics of the last decade, both Stork and Bordwell derive their models from a specifically formalist approach to cinematic signification. That is, classical continuity and chaos are conceptualized as modes of representation, image outcomes derived from a technological and aesthetic approach to film style, and more specifically, film montage. Continuity is limited to a function of the spatio-temporal field built out of film form. Bordwell offers expansive analyses of the change in shot lengths in the era of intensified continuity. He mentions the increased use of bi-polar lens lengths, and especially filmmakers “exploiting the extremes of lens lengths within a single film,” or a “camera that is likely to prowl even if nothing else budges.” (22) Stork adopts Bordwell’s model, but rejects the notion of an intensified continuity for a formal chaos, or the perversion of classical style. But quite surprisingly, neither writer reflects on the logic of continuity from the point of view of the spectator. In each model, the spectator is a generalized field, a cinematic subject that encounters continuity precisely as it is modelled in the aesthetic system. Continuity is something that is cognitively received rather than creatively encountered, or even creatively fashioned by the spectator. There is continuity or chaos only as predetermined by the technology and aesthetic form of cinema, which will cue the response of the spectator in instrumental ways. We could ask, therefore, do spectators experience continuity in the same way? Does an image set in a continuity relationship to another (a process of montage) generate the same perceptual and affective encounter for all spectators? To return to Stork momentarily: what is it about the Transformers sequence excerpted in the video that strikes the viewer as especially chaotic? Accompanying the voiceover – “commercial films became faster, overstuffed, hyperactive” – is a series of images in logical relation building to the encounter between Optimus Prime and Bonecrusher. Yes, the action is hyperbolic, but hyperbole merely connotes an exaggeration of that which already exists. Bay clearly employs rapid editing, a prowling camera, and several jarring jumps in perspective and angle. And yet the sequence as a whole maintains a phenomenological order. The character relation between Optimus Prime and Bonecrusher is clearly established; the relation between Optimus Prime and Sam Witwicky (the film’s protagonist) is also clearly established. The dramatic action is thus ordered and purposive, prompting the spectator to infera spatio-temporal continuity within the frenetic, even formally chaotic image assemblage.
The sticking point here concerns the definition of continuity. Precisely how does the experience of continuity materialize within a film sequence? If situated within a formalist aesthetic mode, to some degree, any departure from the continuity of the spatio-temporal field constitutes a perversion, or even a wholesale destruction, of that field. Any shot edited outside of a conventional perceptual continuity amounts to chaos. I have argued elsewhere that the cinema of Paul Greengrass depicts just such a spatio-temporal indeterminism in which shot and cut formulate an “indeterminist montage.” (23) We could argue similarly of Eisenstein’s intellectual montage, which was explicitly designed to intercede in the continuity field of common perception to political ends. But Bay’s image in Stork’s video excerpt materializes as an emphatic continuity field precisely because continuity is not purely a technological or aesthetic value; it is not purely a matter of compositional form. Rather, the phenomenology of a continuous field of the image encapsulates the spectator’s highly subjective relationship to that image.
In Stork’s video, the figure of Optimus Prime in glorious digital motion, an impossible special effect in the film, resonates through a complex textual itinerary incorporating the history of the Transformer as a Hasbro toy line, as well as its lineage through a series of animated television and film texts. (24) While the spectator is at times disoriented by breaches in classical continuity style, these fragments of images are composited into a broader and richer perceptual field encompassing an array of preceding text and image forms. Surely the digital image – Optimus Prime in fluid transformation – always already encompasses thatimage from which it is derived, a non-specific, discursively formulated textual lineage – an aesthetic field animated by, among a range of other things, sensorial memory. In Stork’s excerpt, the cut from a low-angle slow motion shot to the interior of the car carrying Sam Witwicky and Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox), a montage element, enfolds the spectator within a narrative field encompassing the relationship between Optimus Prime and the film’s two protagonists. As spectators, some of whom engage both the physical materiality of a Hasbro Transformer toy and the digital cinematic image, we simply do not require the constant affirmation of continuity style (continuity as instrumental montage) to infer the continuity intrinsic to an experiential field.
I wish to build on the model of Berliner and Cohen, who argue that continuity, in both cinema and the physical world, requires an active parsingof the environment to make sense of sensory stimuli. (25)The world, whether in image or physical form, is a fragmented field assembled through cognitive processes. Continuity is thus not intrinsic to an image, but occurs only through the active cognition of the physical world by the spectator. Against the notion of passive perception, Berliner and Cohen suggest that, “while active perception and classical editing provide the raw data of perception, [the] brain must still process the data in order to make it intelligible.” (26)Implicit in this very important formulation is that experience requires the active interpreting of the sensory environment. Thus, on a very basic level, the formalist model of continuity is profoundly limited in coming to terms with how the phenomenon of continuity materializes within the film image. How does the brain make sense of these images? Can this cognitive sense-making be conveniently cordoned off from the broader regime of experience? Surely how I interpret a discontinuous cut – for example, a line-cross in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (Il conformista,1970) – materializes as more than the formal technological and aesthetic content of those two images in relation. Moving beyond this formalist model, I ask: how does the spectator’s subjectivity “composite” the sensory field, inferring continuity or discontinuity, order or chaos, in terms of the specificity of thatunique encounter?
In the following set of analyses, I argue that the Transformers franchise deploys what I call a discursive continuity style through image, narrative and the extra-textual signification of the film. This model of continuity incorporates the formalist models of Stork and Bordwell, but it also draws on the very important principle persuasively argued in Berliner and Cohen: that an image founded on continuity always already incorporates within its heuristic field the processes of perception. (27)I take this formulation one step further by suggesting that perception is built on the discursive interpretive field encompassing spectator and image. The sensory field in Bay’s Transformers franchise incorporates therefore not merely image and story, these building blocks of a formalist film analysis, but the extra-textual field of cinema’s discursive operation through complexly articulated industries and cultures. In this model, I read any expression of continuity within the phenomenological field of American mainstream action cinema as what Tanner Mirrlees has called Hollywood’s “imperial film commodity.” (28)
Inferring Continuity Across the Cut: Chaotic Style as the Perception of “Wholeness” in Transformers (2007)
The visual and sonic field of Transformers is motivated by a desire for spatial revelation rather than obfuscation; all elements of the spatio-temporal field are directed toward the sensory experience of space, and objects within space, rather than toward sensory stimulation as an experience in itself. Each action sequence is framed in relation to the revelation of bodies within space, and in almost all instances, bodies moving freely through space. Engaging the frenetic action of the several set pieces in Transformers, culminating in the half-hour audio-visual barrage on a city street, is thus not to engage a spatio-temporal field devoid of continuity, but to encounter complex, densely populated spaces carefully framed within a spatio-temporal whole. While Bay has clearly adopted the fashionable action film aesthetic founded on an unstable frame, rapid discontinuous cutting, and a barrage of noise loosely related to a visual source, each set piece of frenetic, disorienting action is punctuated by a sequence of relative stability: a lowering and stripping back of the sound layers, a relatively stable, frequently character-motivated point of view, and the lengthy, distended revelation of what I call impossible images: digital special effects compositions framed in relation to the pro-filmic space. In the Transformers franchise, and particularly in the first film, such digital effects exhibitions are almost always depicted in a wide/extreme long shot, in relatively stable framing, held at some duration (frequently in shots exceeding five seconds), and frequently in highly expressive slow-motion sequences. We see such careful framings of digital compositions in relation to the military base in the first Transformer attack, the desert village of the second attack, the freeway confrontation between Optimus Prime and Bonecrusher, and the visual and aural maelstrom of the city street in the concluding sequence.
In the first Transformer attack (6:02-8:54), (29)Bay’s approach to editing certainly approximates aspects of Stork’s chaos style. The average shot length (ASL) across the sequence is 2.7 seconds. There are a number of frenetic, disorienting movements within the sequence, notably after the Transformer begins its attack. Bay covers the fleeing of the army personnel with a hand-held, jittery style, frequently whip-panning to shift from one field of action to another. Points of view are interspersed with seemingly random shots of destruction: tanks cascading through the air, structures exploding (providing focal points within the space but clearly undifferentiated from the whole), peripheral figures fleeing the scene with little sense of spatial directionality.
And yet the phenomenological experience of this sequence – even the directionless barrage of destruction – is anything but discontinuous, anything but fragmented. Indeed, I would argue that Bay’s style is continuous in precisely the mode indicated by Berliner and Cohen of perceptual continuity of the physical world: the sequence contrasts, and strategically punctuates, movements of disoriented action with movements clearly designed to stabilize perception of the spatio-temporal field. Here continuity is less a matter of formal image aesthetics – the continuity style realised through mise en scène, cinematography and editing – than in negotiating the perception of continuity by the spectator. In the juxtaposition of relative chaos and relative stability, the spectator undergoes what Berliner and Cohen call a “mental transformation” in which she “transforms incomplete information into a mental model of space.” (30)Applied to cinema, this psychological principle of perceptual continuity “can, by exploiting the reconstruction process, trick the perceiver into seeing continuity.” (31)Bay strategically negotiates an aesthetic style founded upon rapid camera moves and restless, unstable camerawork with the elemental desire of the spectator of Hollywood’s mainstream action cinema for spatio-temporal, narrative and existential continuity – what I am calling global Hollywood’s projection of wholeness. (32)
Berliner and Cohen argue that “it should come as no surprise that changes in movie images across cuts do not much disrupt our experience of spatial coherence.” (33) Of course, the principal model of continuity utilised by Berliner and Cohen is the classical Hollywood continuity style, and the authors offer a close examination of George Cukor’s MGM studio classic, The Philadelphia Story (1940), to support their argument. But what happens to perceptually inferred continuity in a contemporary action genre film style founded on ever more frenetic, viscerally charged action, greater stylistic extremes in lensing and camera work, and larger, less obviously differentiated fields of action? Precisely how is this continuity realised? In my opinion, continuity in such chaotic aesthetic fields is even more emphatically realised, approximating an experience of Bordwell’s “intensified continuity” of the contemporary Hollywood film. Perceptual continuity in Transformers is strategically (and emphatically) maintained through the juxtaposition of what I call action spaces and contemplative spaces. While action spaces are formulated through the affect of cutting – literally cutting the field of vision as a sensory charge – contemplative spaces are populated with bodies in relation to space, providing the spectator unencumbered perceptual access to that space as a continuous spatio-temporal field. This negotiation of chaotic, viscerally-charged style within a perceptually continuous spatio-temporal field is a signature of Bay’s action cinema aesthetic.
In the first Transformer attack, Bay sets up the inciting incident of the arrival of an identified military helicopter. The sequence builds a conventional set piece through the parallelism between the helicopter and the drama involving the sequence’s protagonist, William Lennox (Josh Duhamel). While the ASL is a fairly “chaotic” 2.7 seconds, the sequence builds perceptual spatio-temporal continuity through a series of contemplative spaces: at the point of revelation of the Transformer, the image holds in a medium-long shot, then dollies in just as the helicopter begins to transform. [Figures 1-3]
The shot is held for seven seconds, a noticeable, felt duration within the sequence. At this point, the shot is merely a revelation of the Transformer; a close-up on the face of the pilot ripples with digital code, inserting the object into a digital image itinerary familiar to audiences of films like The Matrix (1999). However, the cut from the revelation of the Transformer opens the image into a long shot and a left-right track behind a densely populated image field: vehicles and soldiers preparing for the confrontation. [Figures 4-9]
The low-level of the track further emphasizes the objects in relation to space as the shot strategically now obscures the spectator’s view from full visual access to the Transformer; partially obscured, the spectator instead perceives the Transformer only in relation to the objects situated in various spatial planes blocking the frame. In shifting from the close-up revelation of the Transformer to the wide angle, Bay effectively reveals the object a second time, but the Transformer is now strategically focalised within the spatio-temporal field as whole. The two-shot montage association stitches the revelation of the digital image into its pro-filmic environment, thereby establishing a continuous spatio-temporal field incorporating the Transformer and the environment of the surrounding military base.
Such contemplative spaces abound in Bay’s style, and are most emphatic in the first Transformer’s film. After the attack on the base, the sequence moves into a frenetic concoction of action images. However, again, the sequence re-affirms, or re-composes, spatial continuity through interspersed contemplative spaces: a wide shot in depth of the Transformer clearly situated within the entire field; this image reveals the Transformer as an aesthetic image of attraction in relation to the surrounding field. [Figures 10-12]
Indeed, the attraction of the image derives from the strangeness of Bay’s impossible digital composition juxtaposed with a relatively familiar, even compositionally clichéd, military base mise en scène. Movements of tight, frenetic cutting are strategically rationalized through wide shots in expansive depths of field. Such contemplative spaces interspersed throughout the sequence are achieved through depth of field, duration, and very often, clearly oriented lines of sight, frequently signified through a character’s point-of-view perspective of the spatial field.
In the second Transformer attack, again utilising a very basic spatio-temporal parallelism, Bay establishes an emphatic continuity over and above the experience of chaotic action. Now in the desert, the Transformer attacks a group of marines, allowing Bay free access to his signature hyperbolic image of action. As in the first attack, framing, camerawork, lines of movement within the field, even wide shots of action, are frequently unstable and disorienting. [Figures 13-15]
In this sequence, the juxtaposed contemplative space is perceptually opened for the spectator through a parallel comic interlude, a narrative device Bay frequently uses in his films. The frenetic action sequence is juxtaposed with the striking stillness of a cut to a call centre operator. [Figures 16-17]
The spectator is both released from the disorienting, assaultive action, and provided the duration of a parallel sequence through which to infer the perceptual continuity of the spatio-temporal field of the desert action sequence. Again drawing on Berliner and Cohen, I would argue that the contemplative space compels the spectator to search for coherence in the spatio-temporal field of the action sequence, appropriating the eye-line point of view, frame stability, and clarity of sound from the parallel sequence in the call centre. Indeed, as an opening into a contemplative space, I read the comic interlude less as a narrative unit than as a ‘framed insert’ into the larger action sequence movement. The stillness of the comic interlude is incorporated within the spatio-temporal field, functioning as creative montage in formulating a continuous experiential field. In this sequence, as in the first attack, the spectator does not require the clarity of continuity style. Rather, Bay’s frenetic action, subject to both continuity and discontinuity cuts, is sublimated by the spectator within the spatio-temporal field of the whole.
The freeway confrontation Stork excerpts in his video essay perhaps best approximates the chaos style, yet here again, the image of disorienting action is always contextualized within the spatio-temporal whole. Rapid editing and a particularly aggressively moving camera are rationalized within the field through establishing shots, wide-angle shots in expansive depths of field, and Bay’s highly expressive use of slow motion. The sequence plays out a marvellous, self-reflexive negotiation of contemporary action aesthetics. Bay utilizes his chaotic style derived through trial and error from the Bad Boys franchise. In a signature style, he frames vehicular chases for radical discontinuity, an aesthetic mode derived from the car-film genre. Framing chaotic car chases is certainly not original to Bay, nor, indeed, to the so-called post-continuity era of the action film. In a film like Mad Max (1979), George Miller breaches continuity through expressive cutting far more radically, and to far greater visceral effect, than Bay has managed in either the Bad Boys or Transformers franchise.
In the freeway confrontation, discontinuous editing is perceptually rationalized through the exhibition of action images held in duration. Again, Bay juxtaposes a montage of chaotic action with an insert framing the action within the whole. As in the action sequence in the desert, a series of frenetic cuts are juxtaposed with wide-angle depths of field, bringing the frame to rest. But in this sequence, the contemplative space within the chaotic action is all the more emphatically composed through the use of slow motion. [Figures 19-22]
Slow motion rationalizes the perceptually disorienting frames, cuts, and soundscapes, revealing the image within spatial surroundings at greater length, providing an extended perceptual duration. Slow motion in depth fixes on the action image, but now, in emphatic depth and duration, the action image is inscribed in relation to the spatio-temporal field; slow motion brings the image into an emphatic relation to spatial and, particularly, temporal continuity. A similar use of slow motion was pioneered within mainstream cinema in The Matrix’s (1999) bullet-time, in which impossible motion was made perceptually “continuous” through the use of extreme slow motion. (34)
In the final sequence of Transformers – a framed action set piece of twenty-four minutes’ duration – Bay constructs a number of contemplative spaces breaking the action. Such inserts include cutaways to parallel narratives (for example, the drama involving Secretary of Defense, John Keller (Jon Voight) at Hoover Dam), and moments of respite from the attack of the Decepticons in which the central characters strategize their defence. Two distinctly contemplative spaces are opened within the action through isolated character movements within the spatio-temporal field. In the classical narrative trajectory toward resolution, it is fitting that such perceptually orienting “journeys of becoming” should be undertaken by the film’s two protagonists, Sam and Mikaela.
Each journey functions as the affirmation of a spatio-temporal continuity within an extended action sequence of great complexity, denseness, and chaos. In a familiar narrative device, the protagonist is isolated from his community – Sam must set out with the cube to ensure that it does not fall into the hands of Megatron. This journey is strategically shot in depth of field, and framed in relation to the chaotic action that swells now as background to the continuity and aggressive directionalityof Sam’s narrative foreground. [Figures 23-26]
In the series of densely populated images depicting Sam’s passage along the street, the spectator infers an overarching continuity beyond the sensory chaos of the action images in the background. Sam’s trajectory toward resolution (and thus the affirmation of continuity) is narrative (his journey brings the dominant narrative field to fulfilment), symbolic (his journey completes the process of transformation, or becoming), and imagistic (his journey stabilizes the chaotic frame composited now as a continuous field).
Another contemplative space within the sequence is perhaps more imaginative: the second protagonist, Mikaela, despairs at the imminent victory of Megatron and the potential destruction of the human race. The camera cuts into a tight profile angle as she rests her head on the steering wheel of her truck. [Figure 27]
The contemplative space is opened through a lowering of the sound – a partial muting of the cacophony of the action within the surrounding field – and, in a shot of noticeable duration, she re-energizes, rediscovers her will, and re-joins the battle against Megatron. As the truck roars off with renewed verve, an instrumental hard rock track suddenly bursts over the isolated soundscape internal to the truck, encapsulating Mikaela’s journey along the street within the contemplative, insular field of the sound-image. The soundtrack, in a literal sense, “contains” Mikaela’s journey along the street. The track hermetically seals the journey as a contemplative space cut off from the surrounding cacophony. Again, Bay’s chaotic method in framing, cutting and populating image fields is perceptually rationalised through a juxtaposed sequence (an insert) in which the spectator is provided access – and time – to contemplate, and perceptually infer, the continuous spatio-temporal field.
In this set of analyses, I have attempted to demonstrate that Bay’s chaotic action style remains firmly grounded within a spectatorial mode of engagement founded on continuity. While I have anchored my analysis firmly within the text – Transformers (2007) – I would contend that contemporary action cinema as a more diversely articulated genre negotiates an aesthetic imperative toward what I have called existential wholeness. This is simply to argue that scholarly and critical discourses surrounding cinematic continuity – and increasingly, the lively speculation on various “post-continuities” within new media regimes – must engage the phenomenology of continuity as it plays out in industrial, aesthetic and global commercial film contexts.
Conclusion: On the Mechanics of Digital Continuity
Bay’s mechanics of continuity are deployed throughout the Transformers franchise. Each film constructs a cinematic diegesis founded on narratives of becoming and accessible, ultimately orienting spatio-temporal environments. As a global commodity, Transformers functions as a brand for consumption and recycling. Deploying a film style increasingly pervasive in the genre of action cinema, its compositional logic is toward the continuity of aesthetic form and existential experience. In his excellent study of Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (2006) as exemplary of a “post-cinematic affect,” Steven Shaviro identifies a contemporary image production ethos founded on “the excessive, overgrown post-cinematic mediasphere.” (35)While Shaviro is not talking about the digital image per se, he is clearly describing a digital image production and reception mode underpinning this “post-cinematic mediasphere.” Shaviro seems to be building on Lev Manovich’s speculations on the language of new media forms a decade earlier, in which Manovich argued that digital image production fundamentally altered the regime of film montage, emphasizing spatial simultaneity rather than continuity, a spatial (database) rather than temporal logic. (36)This is one radical possibility of “the digital turn,” theorised by Manovich in 2001 and picked up by Shaviro, now with the fullness of another decade’s evolution of digital image systems behind us. But in the decade following Manovich’s thesis, it has become clear that Hollywood, in the main, has forged a very different path. The possibilities of an avant-garde digital image for Manovich and Shaviro tend toward radically different image experiences: toward new modes of affect generated through new production styles and methods, and new industry formations. For Shaviro, “not only does Southland Tales not follow the method of dialectical montage; it also doesn’t follow Hollywood continuity rules for organizing a narrative in such a way as to maximize narrative flow and impact”. (37) In this model of ‘digitality’, digital films like Southland Tales not only point a way forward, toward an encounter with new images and image experiences, they also distance us from the classical, continuity-inscribed past.
I have argued that the cinema of Michael Bay presents us forcefully with the alternative: digital cinema’s emphatic affirmation of the past. This is a new media industrial practice upholding Hollywood’s continuity system as one critical aspect of a dominant industrial, aesthetic and commercial logic. If Bay’s last three instalments of the Transformers series demonstrate any departure from that model, it is toward the exponential increase in the use of digital production, distribution and exhibition methods. Transformers (2007) revelled in the novelty of the digital special effect: the seamless transformation of the machine as a process of narrative, symbolic and digital-image becoming. Bay’s astonishing image-revelation in 2007 was of a Transformer. But the digital attraction of the Transformer in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) and Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) is more complex in form and movement; in digital production and exhibition, it is more seamlessly and invisibly integrated into digital spatio-temporal fields. There is less emphasis on the Transformer as an object in relation tophysical space, than on the digital cinematic space in itself. This stylistic realignment in the franchise has occurred through digital technology’s increased capacity for perceptual realism within densely populated digital image environments. (38) In this way, Bay’s signature style is emblematic of a pervasive logic underpinning the production of the contemporary mainstream digital image.
Bay’s aggressive digital turn has afforded the creation of highly complex, densely populated synthetic environments while maintaining narrative and image fields founded on the perception of continuity. In Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the stakes are raised in a final battle at the foot of the pyramids: modern and ancient technologies come together in Bay’s digital image exhibition. The digital effects are larger and more complex, but less clearly differentiated within spatial fields. ‘Chaos’ (to recall Stork’s dismissive terminology) in the two instalments registers less obviously as a system of montage than as an aesthetically innovative design template incorporating a profusion of digital materials within each cinematic frame, in a sense, taking over the frame. In the action sequences in Revenge of the Fallen and Dark of the Moon, the digital image of attraction is rationalized not within an actual space, but within a digital environment as whole. These are cinematic fields that, contrary to Shaviro’s new media images that “both multiply and break down entirely,” (39) function as an amorphous digital space in which pro-filmic and synthetic environments are seamlessly integrated into a digitally continuous whole.
Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) allegorises precisely this digital phenomenon, drawing our attention to a cinematic image in a process of becoming. The shadowy corporation, KSI, headed by Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), has learned the secret of the Transformer’s capacity to change: the mysterious element dubbed “Transformium.” Joyce holds a lump of amorphous white matter in his hand as it transforms of its own volition, declaring: “we can change anything into anything.” [Figure 28]
One can’t help reading into Joyce’s megalomaniacal statement of intention the subtext to Bay’s own experiments with spatio-temporal fields in the Transformers franchise from 2007-2014. These are films that demonstrate an astonishing aesthetic and technological virtuosity while affirming the phenomenological continuity (the perception of wholeness) underpinning the mass cultural cinema-going experience.
In his recent study of digital spaces, William Brown suggests that, “by showing space and all that fills it as a single continuum, as opposed to a space fragmented by objects, digital technology suggests the inherently connected nature of those objects and their surroundings.” (40)I would argue that this “inherently connected nature” is fundamentally a question of spatio-temporal continuity in its complex perceptual and affective fields. Against the radical possibility of the digital image as a “discretized object,” (41) Bay recuperates the commercial imperative of Hollywood’s global image commodity form, now all the more emphatically realized through digital technology’s capacity “to change anything into anything,” to become anything it wishes. That a Hollywood franchise such as Transformers ultimately affirms the existential allure of spatio-temporal continuity reveals again the systemic and profoundly historicalfoundations of an extremely large and global Hollywood entertainment industry.
This article has been peer reviewed.
1.Peter Travers, “Transformers: Age of Extinction [Review],” Rolling Stone (2014). http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/reviews/transformers-age-of-extinction-20140626.
4. For a useful overview of continuity aesthetics, see Tim J. Smith, “The Attentional Theory of Cinematic Continuity,” Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind 6:1 (2012): 1-27.
5. Lisa Purse, Contemporary Action Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011: 170.
6. Ibid., 33.
7. Leon Gurevitch, “The Cinemas of Transactions: The Exchangeable Currency of the Digital Attraction,” Television & New Media 11:5 (2010): 367-85.
8. D. Harlan Wilson, “Technomasculine Bodies and Vehicles of Desire: The Erotic Delirium of Michael Bay’s Transformers,” Extrapolation 53:3 (2012): 350.
9. Matthias Stork, “Chaos Cinema: The Decline and Fall of Action Filmmaking,” Press Play (2011). http://blogs.indiewire.com/pressplay/video_essay_matthias_stork_calls_out_the_chaos_cinema.
10. Todd Berliner and Dale J. Cohen, “The Illusion of Continuity: Active Perception and the Classical Editing System,” Journal of Film and Video 63:1 (2011): 44-63. See also Greg M. Smith, “Continuity Is Not Continuous,” Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind 6:1 (2012): 56-61. Smith’s inquiry is specifically into “how actual audiences assemble a succession of onscreen images into a coherent narrative occurring in diegetic time and space” (56).
11. For this orthodox approach to cinematic continuity, see Gustavo Mercado, The Filmmaker’s Eye: Learning (and Breaking) the Rules of Cinematic Composition. Boston: Focal Press/Elsevier, 2011: 6-16. Mercado’s method addresses filmic composition in stylistic terms, reflecting on film as a formal compositional field. Perhaps the seminal formulation of an aesthetic of continuity underpinning Hollywood’s image and narrative style remains David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
12. For a useful coverage of the continuity system, see David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013: 232-255.
13. Berliner and Cohen, op. cit., 44.
14. For a discussion of the continuity aesthetic in the early work of D. W. Griffith, see Jacques Aumont, “Griffith – the Frame, the Figure,” Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker. London: BFI, 1990: 348-49.
15. Stork, op. cit.
20. For a very useful discussion of art classicism and the emergence of various post-classical art styles, see Omar Calabrese, Neo-Baroque: A Sign of the Times. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1992: 17-22.
21. David Bordwell, “Intensified Continuity Visual Style in Contemporary American Film,” Film Quarterly 55:3 (2002): 16-28.
22. David Bordwell, The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006: 127.
23. Bruce Isaacs, The Orientation of Future Cinema: Technology, Aesthetics, Spectacle. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013: 73-78.
24. Harlan Wilson reads Transformers (2007) as an “extrapolation of the Hasbro toy line and subsequent cartoon series.” See Harlan Wilson, 348. In addition to Bay’s franchise, the Transformers entertainment brand has materialized also as an animated feature film – Transformers: The Movie (1986) – a long running set of TV Series from the mid-1980s to the present, tie-in novellas and comics, and the toy line from which it all began. Bay’s franchise therefore represents both a continuation, and to some extent, a strategic re-articulation of a discursive textual lineage.
25. Berliner and Cohen, opt. cit., 46-47.
26. Ibid., 52.
27. Ibid., 59.
28. Tanner Mirrlees, “How to Read Iron Man: The Economics, Geopolitics and Ideology of an Imperial Film Commodity,” Cineaction 92 (2014): 4-11.
29. Transformers [DVD], Two-Disc Special Edition. Paramount, 2009.
30. Berliner and Cohen, op. cit.,52.
31. Ibid., 53.
32. See David Bordwell, The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. Describing one increasingly pervasive framework for the classical narrative arc, Bordwell suggests that, “the hero enters a ‘special world’ of trials, allies, and enemies. Eventually the hero approaches the ‘innermost cave’, the arena of a supreme ordeal. After winning, the hero returns to everyday life transformed” (33). Similarly, Robin Wood reads mainstream fantasy, adventure and action genres as expressions of “the capitalist myths of freedom of choice and equality of opportunity, [of] the individual hero whose achievements somehow ‘make everything all right’…” See Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan...and Beyond. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986: 147. Elsaesser reads such narrative and ideological systems as fundamental to the existential bond between spectator and screen within the majority of Hollywood films of the classical period; following Bordwell and Thompson, I would extend this field to include the contemporary Hollywood era. For Elsaesser, the classical Hollywood ethos is in significant part defined as “the living out of an emotional impulse or psychic drive accompanied and paralleled by a deepening of moral awareness, a growth and progress in the hero’s consciousness, such as the audience can infer it across action, setting, symbolic objects and iconography.” See Thomas Elsaesser, The Persistence of Hollywood. New York: Routledge, 2012: 93.
33. Berliner and Cohen, op. cit., 58.
34. Bob Rehak, “The Migration of Forms: Bullet time as Microgenre,” Film Criticism 32:1 (2007): 27.
35. Steven Shaviro, Post Cinematic Affect. Washington: Zero Books, 2010: 67.
36. Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2001: 322-26.
37. Shaviro, op. cit., 73.
38. Stephen Prince, Digital visual effects in cinema: the seduction of reality. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2012: 31-37.
39. Shaviro, op. cit., 74.
40. William Brown, Supercinema: Film-Philosophy for the Digital Age. New York: Berghan Books, 2013: 2.
41. Bruce Isaacs, op. cit., 258-262.