The common school of thought towards movies tends to be that there are only two ways to judge a movie. The first, and clearly the most common, is to legitimately like or dislike a movie for whatever reason. The second way, which has steadily grown in popularity since people started seeing the hilarious awesomeness inherent in stuff like Road House, is to “watch a movie ironically;” unfortunate phrasing that basically means watching an apparently serious movie as a comedy. When judged through these criteria, Michael Bay’s films can be appreciated in many different ways. When taking his work seriously, The Rock is a success, as it provides great characters, incredible action, and the interesting idea of where James Bond could be at the age of 60. These same judgments show that Pearl Harbor is a complete failure because of its painful three-hour running time, terrible dialogue and Cuba Gooding Jr. However, if you look at Armageddon as a source of accidental hilarity, it is a rousing success. Armageddon might be one of the funniest movies I have ever seen, but it’s enjoyable qualities are much different than those of The Rock.
When we think about movies historically, rarely is the best movie of a given year also the most memorable. In our Rocky podcast, James and I discussed how Rocky was nowhere close to the best movie released in 1976, but it is infinitely more culturally significant than Network, Taxi Driver or All the President’s Men. When I watched the best movie of 1977 again recently, I was watching Annie Hall, not Star Wars. It is rare that the best movie of any given year is also the most culturally memorable: the most recent was 2008’s The Dark Knight, and I’m still not sure that Wall-E isn’t a better movie. Before that, you likely have to go back to 1974 when The Godfather Part II was released, but even that year also saw Chinatown and The Conversation. Michael Bay has never made the best film of any given year, but his films are always culturally relevant. Bay’s identity as the current poster boy of big budget popcorn movies leads to his position as undoubtedly one of the most famous directors in the world, and this role comes with advantages and disadvantages. Many people will judge his movies without seeing them, or review them more negatively than they should, based solely on what they feel Bay represents. Conversely, being such a public figure, making fairly populist films and having studios willing to throw millions of dollars at Bay effectively buys his way into the collective psyche, contributing to a constant state of cultural relevance.
In an even broader historical context, decades in Hollywood are typically fairly easy to sum up in a film or two. The Graduate shows the movement toward the Hollywood Renaissance of American auteurs that was important in the late 1960s, all while prominently featuring the music of sweater loving pop stars Simon & Garfunkel. The 70s can be summarized with The Godfather and Star Wars: Francis Ford Coppola’s film was a box office success while still falling in with the auteur-driven Hollywood Renaissance, and George Lucas’ signified the true beginning of the blockbuster culture that would drive future decades. The 80s offers broader choices in its basic representation. Pick any Spielberg blockbuster, any John Hughes teen movie, and any Stallone/Schwarzenegger film that has them seen with a gun more often than a shirt and there’s your decade. Forrest Gump, despite its decade-spanning narrative, had the two elements that composed most of the 90s: light-hearted treatment of serious issues and Tom Hanks. The Matrix clearly and entertainingly questioned both authourity and the nature of reality, themes that would become prevalent in a number of movies, big budget and otherwise, in the 2000s. These movies function as representations of 10 years in filmmaking by reflecting what was relevant in film and society during the decades they were made, as well as giving an indication of what was coming in the years that followed, if not socially then at least in filmmaking.
Looking back at the past decade or so, Avatar is the most obvious choice for a film that represents where the future of filmmaking is headed. But James Cameron’s films are rarely thematically interesting; the ideology of his films always seems to be a decade behind the technology. Michael Bay’s films, particularly the Transformers series, are often just as modern in their ideology as they are in their CGI advancements. Bay’s movies are boisterous, violent, at times unintentionally funny, airbrushed, patriotic to the point of ethnocentrism, over the top, filled with advertising, occasionally racist, spectacle-driven, feature a lot of yelling and make a shitload of money for a few already exorbitantly rich people. Michael Bay’s movies are not just pieces of modern American pop culture; they are modern American pop culture.
There are certain songs or artists that constantly appear on soundtracks when a director is trying to represent a certain decade years after it happens. When Martin Scorsese made Goodfellas in 1990 but needed to represent the 1970s in certain scenes, he used the music of the Rolling Stones to place the audience in that time period. This happens semi-constantly with the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival in films set in the 60s, particularly when Vietnam comes into play. Elvis Presley’s music serves the same function for the 50s. Chuck Klosterman has said that The Strokes’ Is This It is a great album not only because of the actual music, but because when somebody makes a movie about the 2000s, The Strokes will almost certainly be on the soundtrack as a signifier of the time period. There is a reason that Shia LaBeouf is wearing a Strokes t-shirt throughout Transformers. Movies work in this fashion too, and in the future when a character is watching a movie during the 2000s, there’s a pretty good chance that movie will have been directed by Michael Bay.
Last week, I mentioned that I think the auteur theory is kind of flawed in that a film doesn’t solely represent that director’s creative vision; there are a lot of hands working on a movie. The blockbuster director typically has the final decision for the most part, but he also has to appease the producers, the audience, and create things that are easily marketable. The President of the United States isn’t that much different. While President Obama is the head of his administration, any big decision is a collaborative effort. When we look back on presidents past, we are judging them by their leader, be it Nixon, Bush, Reagan, other Bush, whoever. But what we are really judging is the administration: the president is there to be the figurehead who has the final say, but it is not really his decision alone. Americans elect the president, who then assembles his crew in order to create the best product, or the best America.
Michael Bay hasn’t really been elected as the go to blockbuster filmmaker, but he kind of has been by America’s box office receipts. As much as people feel Hollywood can have an ideological agenda, that all comes secondary to making money. If we didn’t consistently use our dollars to vote for Michael Bay through ticket and merchandising sales, studios simply wouldn’t let him make these movies anymore. There is no Electoral College or elected representatives who then vote for you. Box office receipts are a much more directly democratic system than the federal republics or parliamentary systems that we see in the industrialized world. Movie ticket purchases are strictly a popular vote measured in dollars and cents. Al Gore may have won the popular vote, but he didn’t gain the presidency. In a way, he succeeded politically, but he failed to reap the due benefits. However, he was more successful in the directly democratic world of filmmaking, where his film An Inconvenient Truth made more than 40 times what it cost to make, winning an Academy Award for Best Documentary in the process.
Recent activities in the current administration and American culture do nothing to widen the gap between film and politics. Look at the week leading up to Osama bin Laden’s death: President Obama ripped into his critics by releasing his long-form birth certificate, then (sometimes hilariously) ripped into his critics some more at the White House Correspondent’s dinner, and then Navy SEALs stormed into Pakistan to kill bin Laden the next day. There was drama, comedy, and some climactic action. The announcement of bin Laden’s death caused America in general to start celebrating like it was New Year’s Eve, and parties broke out in front of the White House and Ground Zero. Even the next day’s Daily Show was a pun-filled celebration of bin Laden’s death. At the end of the show, Jon Stewart explained the show as “pure id.” And that’s fine; given the circumstances, I get that. But maybe that’s what America is at its core: instinctual reactions that are designed to please us at the lowest level of ourselves. Swift reactions that don’t involve thinking about long-term ramifications. Screaming on Fox News or MSNBC because 13 out of the 815 words the President just said don’t match up with what you believe. Going to see Michael Bay movies. This is why people hate America, but it’s also why Michael Bay movies are exceptionally interesting.
If America stays largely the same, Bay movies over the last decade will be the 2000s version of what Rolling Stones music is to Scorsese’s version of the 1970s. These texts are not functioning as grand symbols of an identity or idea, but they are memorable cultural touchstones that will remind us of a certain time or place. A movie in 2025 will be able to show us our teenage protagonist in their bedroom, sitting under a Strokes poster, talking on a landline, watching a Michael Bay movie, and the audience will instantly know which decade this story is set in without having to be shown a calendar.
Significantly more interestingly is the alternative that America changes its ways, with Bay’s movies then retroactively becoming metaphoric. If America becomes a more cerebral country, and a more cooperative and constructive member of the global community with more of a focus on people than war (think character-driven movies as opposed to action-driven ones), Michael Bay’s films would function as fantastic allegories for a lost time in American history. Bay’s movies in the last decade will work as historical texts that almost perfectly reflect how both non-Americans and smarter Americans view the country in general. It has been a pretty conservative, patriotic and reactionary decade for America, and that’s exactly what Bay’s movies are. Sure-headed leaders, the military, explosions, it’s all there. And of course, this doesn’t just apply to the Bush years either: as the news of Osama bin Laden’s death spread, baseball fans at a Mets/Phillies game actually started chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” If you told me that this will happen at the end of Transformers: Dark of the Moon after the military and Autobots inevitably defeat the Decepticons, I would instantly believe you. Those chants occurring at an exhibition of the country’s national pastime is such a comically American reaction that it would fit right in a Bay movie. So next time you hear someone talk about how Michael Bay represents everything that’s wrong in Hollywood, maybe you should remind them that we might have a bigger problem.