The People’s Auteur

Published on May 3rd, 2011

Here’s Part 2 of Alex’s semi-epic breakdown of Michael Bay’s career. Part 1 can be found here, and Part 3 will be posted next week.

Michael Bay makes no secret of the commercial goals of his movies: the introduction of his own press-kit biography even claims that he has “won nearly every award bestowed by the advertising industry,” and you had best believe he’ll win the rest of those sons of bitches before too long. And if Bay cares about winning any awards for his film work, they’re certainly not the Academy Awards; I think he prefers the endorsement of the MTV Movie Award Moon Man to that of Oscar. But this mass appeal commercial approach isn’t so much Bay’s fault as it is that of similar directors who came before him.

The 1970s were a crazy time for Hollywood, and not just because everybody started getting really into blow. The death of the studio system lead to the restructuring of studios into media entertainment conglomerates, which in turn lead to allowing for more blockbusters to be green-lit. There were now more ways to offset your losses and ancillary markets opened up new methods to earn revenue, so there was less risk in throwing a lot of money at one film. In 1976, Jaws taught studios just how much money could be made by taking a risk on a bigger budget film, so long as that movie was aggressively marketed. This eventually changed the way modern blockbusters were made in relation to an audience, because now recouping the budget means you have to appeal to the largest audience possible. Bay is fully aware of these elements of his type of filmmaking, and his films take these factors into consideration long before production even begins. In a piece about The Island, film critic Scott Renshaw wrote that the modern blockbuster is a place where Bay can sell a variety of products: a kiss, a chase, or a consumer product. Since Bay wants to sell his movie to as much of America as possible, he keeps his target audience in mind at all times, and he has no qualms about it. Screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh mentioned to Bay he felt it was odd that Bay would take his target audience into consideration. Bay’s reaction to this was to say, “If you’re given sixty million dollars, you had better fucking know who you are selling it to.”

And selling might just be what he does best. Once Bay starts working on a project, he is already formulating ways to market his work. He even convinced Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson to hire him to direct Bad Boys over another, older director because Bay already had ideas of how to sell the picture to a mass audience. Presumably, Bay said the movie would be easier to market if it were starring Will Smith as opposed to the star of High School High.

Again, Bay doesn’t think there is anything wrong with this approach. When General Motors pays him $3 million in order to use their models as the Autobots and Decepticons, Bay argues that this is money he can now add to the film to improve the film’s general awesomeness. And if any of GM’s money contributed to more of this Bay-hem, I’m all for it. Bay feels that since our real lives are filled with advertisements, our film environments should be as well (of course, the original Xbox ads in The Island were outdated less than a year after the film’s release, so maybe someone should tell Mike that this doesn’t apply to movies that take place in the future). These commercial and populist elements stand in stark contrast to the way many traditional auteurs would feel about filmmaking, but that shouldn’t keep Bay from joining their ranks.

For those that were too busy learning useful things to take post-secondary film classes, the auteur theory states that the director is the author of any given movie, and that the film represents said director’s creative vision. This is such a popular theory that it tends to come up in most semi-serious discussions of film: when you compare a director’s previous film with their current work, you are essentially agreeing that you believe in the auteur theory. However, the auteur theory is widely exaggerated. Film is a collaborative medium, and any director not named Ridley Scott would be quick to acknowledge that. While the director (and/or the screenwriter) typically have the most creative influence on a movie, somebody like a costume or set designer can end up having a monumental role. The idea that Transformers is precisely what it is like to exist inside of Michael Bay’s brain for 144 minutes is absurd. We all know that none of the women would be wearing shirts if that were the case. But the basic point of the auteur theory makes sense: the most prominent voice on the film makes the majority of the decisions, so it’s fair to generalize that Bay’s films represent Bay. The auteur theory is still very much alive in filmmaking and criticism, if only as a way to contextualize a movie to an audience.

Timothy Corrigan has written about how the director’s name and star image is now often used to sell a given movie as much as, if not more than, its lead actors. All of Michael Bay’s movies since The Rock have been marketed using his name prominently in the trailers, be it through voiceover (in the 90s when voiceovers weren’t considered corny yet) or by putting his name on screen in all its lens-flared glory. One would assume that Shia LaBeouf is a bigger star than Bay, but none of the Transformers movies have sold LaBeouf’s name as hard as they have Bay’s. Naming Bay as the film’s director not only helps to promote the movie, but it also attaches the sort of auteur theory concept of collective authourship to his work. The naming of the well-known director now becomes a description of what to expect in the movie: when you see that a movie is from the director of The Rock and Armageddon, your first thought is probably not that you’re about to watch a sequel to Under the Tuscan Sun. The idea of Bay’s movies, that of an ostensibly shallow action movie, is known by the audience as the film is sold to them, which helps contribute to preconceived notions the audience develops before they see these movies. The constant presence of the auteur theory, even as a promotional tool, helps to create more auteurs. And Bay is the auteur of destruction.

Critics in general really don’t care for Michael Bay’s work, save for The Rock and a few fans of the first Transformers. Part of this negative response comes from Bay’s position as an auteur: not only does it give the mass audience an idea of what to expect from a film, but critics as well. Critics expect to hate Bay’s films before they see them, just like they expect to like a Christopher Nolan movie before they see it. These auteurs will end up having their name overshadow their work, which leads to critics being surprised when Transformers doesn’t suck, or critics being shocked when Nolan eventually makes a shitty movie. Michael Bay, through the marketing of his movies, has become a sort of star director. When discussions of his movies occur in media, he is always mentioned, and even in Entertainment Tonight pieces from the set of Transformers, Bay gets more screen time than any of the actors. He’s famous enough to hilariously make fun of on South Park and Robot Chicken, and he’s even famous enough to star in a Verizon commercial spoofing his own image.

In discussions of Bay’s films, little has been done to deconstruct the meaning within them. Bay is undoubtedly positioned as an auteur, but if you were to ask a film fan about the underlying ideology of his movies, said fan would reflexively cough and make a bad joke like “selling Pepsi!” or “just because it’s a Transformers movie doesn’t mean you have to find more than meets the eye in it.” I don’t have to find the latter; Shia LaBouef actually says it to Megan Fox during the movie. And that’s just it: Bay’s films position themselves as such absurd pieces of entertainment that nobody analyzes much beyond the surface, except to perhaps offhandedly say that they are everything that is wrong with modern American culture. But by looking at Bay as an auteur and analyzing his films as such, there are far more interesting ideas in them than you might think.



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