By Kent Jones
Bigger, faster, louder: Kent Jones on asteroids, egos, and the secret of Michael Bay's excess
Don Siegel's mastery aside, the shoot-outs and standoffs in Madigan and Dirty Harry, sequences that once seemed complex and kinetically charged, are now notable for their stark, not to mention quaint simplicity. Stop to compare them with any modern action sequence and you might just get a lump in your throat. Action cinema has taken the strangest journey since Siegel's heyday, following an urge toward total, near-hallucinatory confusion and stasis (also present in art films like Dancer in the Dark or Philippe Grandrieux's Sombre). I get a big kick out of the film school-lubricated smart-asses who talk the standard line about how dialogue is for the theater, while movies are meant to move, to be fast and not slow. In fact, Hollywood's $100-million-plus extravaganzas of metal projectiles, burnt-orange firebombs, and monumentally lit actors minting gold-plated puns are the very opposite of fast: with rare exceptions (Speed, Mission:Impossible 2), the flurry of images, actions, and sounds leaves the viewer adrift, weightless, thoughtless, with no sense of distance or direction. Whereas speed in cinema, the impression of motion, requires the weight of a Steadicam-free camera, not to mention plain old spatial orientation. If you're going to feel the speed, you need to know where you're going.
The common theory among cinephiles is that the Stephen Hopkins, Jan de Bonts, and Tony Scotts of this world are preternaturally impatient and mindlessly hyperactive, which seems ridiculous when you consider all the calculation behind their films. An acquaintance of mine pined for the clarity that Hawks would have brought to the asteroid-drilling scenes in Armageddon, a crowning achievement and my one 100 percent guilty pleasure. Indeed, there are long stretches during those scenes when I had no idea who or what was doing what to what or whom, when the screen was awash in an ocean of hurtling rocks and bodies, white smoke jets, scowling faces, asteroid fissures, uncoiling cables, heavy machinery, and, most delightfully of all, bullets sprayed from a gatling gun. Me, I sat there blissfully immobilized. Some have characterized Armageddon, as well as the director's preceding film, The Rock, which contains some almost equally spirited assemblages, as a punishing experience. On the contrary. I found it lulling, almost tonic. For a brief instant I was transported into a state of altogether pleasing mindlessness.
Bay's ruthlessly maximalist approach to the job of filmmaking has less to do with the destruction of a cherished old idea of cinema than the construction of a whole new one. It's comforting to think that the current vogue for spatial and temporal dislocation is the result of historical amnesia crossed with some viral form of ADD, nothing a good dose of Allan Dwan and Raoul Walsh wouldn't cure. But Bay, whose Armageddon DVD comes with an endorsement from his old film-school professor Jeanine Basinger, is no naïf. He and his brethren, both in and out of the Jerry Bruckheimer camp, are like real-estate developers, erecting new, cheaply fabricated commercial buildings in place of older buildings that have gone out of style. They know their history, but they live by the bottom line.
History will undoubtedly prove Bay to be the prize racehorse on Bruckheimer's stud farm. Let's face it: Tony Scott may have been in the avant-garde of his own moment, and his bravery when he made Beverly Hills Cop III ("I decided to take a risk and up the violence") won't soon be forgotten. But he is more restrained than need be in his presentation of male swagger. I also detect a note of decorous restraint in his use of explosions, a narcissistic addiction to clarity in his action sequences. And, I'm sorriest to report, the British-born Mr. Scott is less than 400 percent uninhibited in the flag-waving department—he could take a lesson or two from Roland Emmerich and profit nicely.
Whereas Michael Bay—ah, Michael Bay: the mere mention of his name evokes a veritable paradise of splendiferous hyperbole, rampant triumphalism, and "privileged angles" (his own words). Male swagger? You would never have imagined that one man could get so much of it into a single film (reaching its apex with the glorious moment when Bruce Willis gives the following instruction to his Armageddon crew: "Let's chew up this iron bitch!"). Explosions? Bay uses them the way that Bresson uses doors—liberally. Clarity? By Bay's lights an outmoded concept, fit for nursing homes. And flag-waving? My hand has flown to my heart just thinking about it.
You don't have to know the stories about Michael Bay's North American landmass of an ego to get a clear picture of the man. You needn't have listened to his nasal voice on the commentary track for the Criterion Armageddon DVD, lovingly discussing his "style." Few filmmakers have revealed themselves so fully through their work. Bay is the filmmaker par excellence for the age of the CEO as hero—he is the Jack Welch of cinema, downsizing narrative coherence and capitalizing on his audience's urge toward mental statelessness, a renunciation of the ability to effect change in the world, let alone follow a story, or even an action. What other filmmaker is as mindful of his responsibility to his parent company's stockholders? What other filmmaker would have the guts to wonder aloud (on that glorious commentary track) why Kodak sends you a case of Korbel instead of Dom Perignon when you shoot over a million feet of film? Or to recall the moment when he screamed at his line producer to "get the fuck down here right now, because we've got a big fucking problem"?
Here are some of the secrets to Michael Bay's success.
1) If It Works, Do More of It.
Why end just every fifth scene on a note of triumphant uplift? Why not every scene? Why reserve that special Morning in America burnish, painstakingly cultivated amidst the drudgery of making commercials, for special moments? Why not apply it to the overall visual scheme? And if a villain is going to be strung up by his feet, don't do anything so mundane as having him dipped into a pool of water. Instead, have your big star douse said villain's pants with a flammable liquid, set his feet on fire, and then drop him into a pool of really dirty, chemically tinged water.
2) Don't Waste Your Time Reinventing the Wheel.
Creating new and interesting characters is okay for the French, but why bother when you have the money to spend on stars who have already appeared in other movies playing characters that suit your needs just fine? It only gums up the works. Let Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, Steve Buscemi, Ben Affleck, Owen Wilson, Ed Harris, Billy Bob Thornton, and the rest of them simply keep on doing what they've already done so well in other people's movies. Less work for you, less work for them. In this case, less really is more.
3) If You Can Imagine It, You Can Do It.
Don't fret about plausibility—it only gets in the way (after all, Hitchcock counseled against it). At the climax of the "celebrated" chase sequence near the beginning of The Rock, Bay keeps an exploding trolley car in the air for a breathtakingly lengthy interval before it falls to earth and almost crushes Nicolas Cage. Why a trolley car should explode after crashing into a car, or how its conductor could survive, are of no concern to anyone. It doesn't matter. Any more than it matters why the Armageddon crew has that gatling gun up there in space. It's there because it gives the viewer that much more. That it actually happens to be there because the market research indicated that vehicles with big guns make for cooler toy tie-ins is immaterial—this is one of those rare moments when the realities of business and the demands of a personal vision are one.
Why is Armageddon Michael Bay's finest hour? Why is it superior to Bad Boys, The Rock, or Pearl Harbor? The first is simply too small a vessel to contain the grandeur of Bay's talent (about Pearl Harbor, more later). As for The Rock, it has its fans. But I'm sorry—a renegade marine general stealing three biochemical warheads and carting them all the way to Alcatraz so that he can train them on San Francisco and thus obtain leverage to extract reparations from the government for the families of the unheralded fallen heroes of Desert Storm just isn't grand enough. Nothing less than a team of macho oil drillers sent into space to detonate a nuclear device in the core of an earth-bound asteroid, thus averting the extinction of humanity, will do. It's a joy to watch Bay enlarge on certain themes and motives he's previously explored in The Rock, his first mature work. Rather than just one expert thrown into perilous conditions, Armageddon has a team of them. And whereas the girlfriend-waiting-in-the-control-room is nothing more than an afterthought in The Rock, Liv Tyler's girlfriend-waiting-in-the-control-room in Armageddon is a geyser of love and devotion. The Rock girlfriend is merely sad when the decision is made to abort the mission and bomb Alcatraz (thus setting off the biochemical warheads anyway?- See Secret #3). In Armageddon, when the decision is made to abort the mission and detonate the nuclear device by remote control from earth, Liv Tyler actually knocks over Billy Bob Thornton and screams, "That's my family up there!" (It must be gallantry that keeps him from screaming back, "That's my species out there!") Moreover, since it's not just piddly San Francisco but the entire world that's at stake, pretty much anything goes in Armageddon: you get asteroid fragments leveling New York, Shanghai, and Paris with digital splendor; you get an orgy of lustily full-bodied playacting from the cast, with some genuinely amusing gallows humor from Buscemi and an attempt at an actual performance from Thornton; you get strippers, you get a treasure trove of final goodbyes and heroic sacrifices, you even get a heavy quotient of "real people" from around the world, in the kinds of images you see on Sunday morning commercials for financial institutions, where the atmosphere always seems to have been pumped with air freshener ("I love the feel of these shots," murmurs Bay on the DVD). And, of course, you get the gatling gun.
Where could Michael Bay possibly go after Armageddon? Speaking for myself, I would have been satisfied with nothing less than a team of astrophysicists led by Stephen Hawking (Matt Damon) sent back in time to the Big Bang, using a new, untested piece of equipment to neutralize a black hole that threatens to destroy the universe, as Liv Tyler, Angelina Jolie, and Winona Ryder watch from the control room. Unfortunately, he's taken the more predictable course of reducing the scope of his ambitions and shackling himself to history. "It must be said that this lacks the élan of Armageddon," whispered Gavin Smith as we watched Pearl Harbor together, and I could only nod in agreement. Pearl Harbor is Bay's least personal film, simply because it is his most restrained. The editing is slowed down to a trot, and the imagery has the stately look of a commemorative stamp. Most disappointingly of all, the action is, generally, all too coherent. Bay manages a few flashes of chaos and disorientation during the actual bombing, and I did perk up a little when I realized that I had no idea who was on which boat. But these proved to be nothing more than fleeting instances.
I have no desire to add my voice to the chorus of critical disapproval that's already greeted the film. As Bruckheimer himself put it so eloquently, "We made it for people, not critics." I will only say that the change-up from lusty, romantic, fashion-glossed, boy's life-adventure yarn, to Saving Private Ryan-like memorial solemnity, and then back again, makes for an all but indigestible cinematic meal. All I wanted was to ooh and aah over the swelling metal, the flying bodies, and the torpedo-POV shots, but I was hampered by the weight of history. I will add that Josh Hartnett is no Ben Affleck. And that Kate Beckinsale, far too subtle an actress for Bay/Bruckheimer, is no Liv Tyler—her girlfriend-waiting-in-the-control-room scene is a complete bust.
As I watched the sorry spectacle of Pearl Harbor, I kept longing to get back to the asteroid, where Michael Bay has enjoyed his greatest triumph thus far. Like Tony Scott, who stumbled into a fascinating, strangely disquieting form of airlessness with his long-lens doodlings in Revenge or The Fan (watching those films feels like being whiplashed through a series of vacuums), Bay has bullied, hectored, and assaulted his way into something exciting: a singular, abstract mental image buried deep within all of those colliding images and sounds, some kind of digitally generated, platinum-lined gateway to nirvana. I look forward to much, much more of the same. Some have complained that Bay's budgets are too high. I think they're too low. Just imagine what this guy could do with a billion dollars, NASA at his beck and call, and the state of Arizona at his disposal.