Auteur of Action: Michael Bay in the Criterion Collection

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The Criterion Collection has a pedigree that few other media distribution outlets can match. Widely respected for bringing consumers the highest possible quality editions of landmark, respected, and exemplary films, their only peer is perhaps the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (an audiophile-focused line of remastered classic albums), and the MFSL doesn’t have nearly the same skill at curating its catalogue. To be a Criterion film means something in the film community because it implies a level of artistic excellence. Solaris, The Seventh Seal, Ikiru, The 400 Blows. Even if you haven’t seen these films, they mean something in the common language of film buffs; they imply a level of excellence. To be a Criterion film is, contextually, to be the top of your form. Browsing the list of releases reads like a must-watch list for any engaged film fan.

However, with any list so carefully organized and selected, aberrations stick out that much more. A movie like Robocop looks out of place for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is public adoration; Robocop spawned an entire franchise, which is not something most movies of Criterion caliber do (most movies of Criterion caliber the average movie-goer would scarcely know exist). It’s an action film (not the most critically respected of forms) with notorious violence. It is adept at pure entertainment in a way that so many films offered by the company aren’t, and it pleases a crowd of average moviegoers like few things in the collection. Surely at the time of its release, many film snobs scoffed at its inclusion.

However, with the recent blooming of Criterion’s genre picture offerings and an outstanding release of Repo Man, it starts to fall more and more into place, and the company as a whole seem to be more willing to embrace popular art. There’s no better time than this to look at two of the strangest aberrations, two DVDs that are so out of place it’s hard to believe they exist until you hold them. That popular punching bag Michael Bay, perhaps the most derided and hated film director this side of M. Night Shyamalan, has had not one, but two releases put out by Criterion- one for The Rock, and one for Armageddon.

Now, there’s plenty of possibilities outside of the quality of those films for why Criterion decided to add them to their catalogue. Most commonly, whispers circle that they were payment to Michael Bay to get the rights he owned to movies Criterion wanted to release. But that’s a boring story with an easy answer, so here’s a more radical proposition: what if Michael Bay’s work truly deserves representation in a curated collection of great films? What if Michael Bay is an important director who deserves to share space with Kurosawa, Fassbinder, Bergman, Antonioni, and Passolini? What if a man so reviled that praising any of his films can warrant questions of a critics’s competency actually saved the modern action film from total irrelevance?

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Here’s the easy part out of the way first. To quote the copy on the back of Criterion’s releases (taken from my copy of Persona): “The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films, presents [Film Title].” Important is the easiest way to explain the inclusion of Bay’s films; like them or not, they signaled a new form of action filmmaking, a new style of blockbuster cinema. Regardless of their quality, they moved action films forward to something they simply weren’t previously. They pushed out of the rut that Hollywood action movies were in during the mid-90’s, that exhaustion prophesied in the running-on-empty by-the-numbers malaise of Under Siege. The era of “it’s Die Hard, but on a [fill in your own high-concept]”. It’s Die Hard, but on Air Force One. It’s Die Hard, but in a hockey arena. It’s Die Hard, but Steven Seagal is trying to stop the evils of pollution. The Rock and Armageddonsignaled something different, something more epic and grandiose. They changed the face of what blockbusters with explosions were. For no other reason, the man deserves at least a sizable footnote in the history of film. “Important” is an easy word to lay at the feet of these movies.

But that’s not the only key word Criterion uses to describe the films in their catalogue. To quote (again, taken from the back of my copy of Persona): “The Criterion Collection is dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world.” Greatness implies a level of craft, skill, and artistry, coming together to make something exceptional. While there’s no objective measure for such a concept, and while consensus is not the same thing as correctness, when we look at Michael Bay on Rotten Tomatoes (http://www.rottentomatoes.com/celebrity/michael_bay/) we see a man who has directed eleven films to date, with exactly one film certified fresh (The Rock, sitting not so pretty at 67%; not even a ‘C’). At least in the eyes of the critical community, this is a pretty solid portrait of a derided filmmaker. So if the simple inclusion of The RockandArmageddon in the Criterion Collection assumes a degree of greatness, but popular opinion holds Michael Bay in contempt, what could this consensus be missing?

When looking at the vitriol leveled against Bay, the same complaints pile-up over and over. Accusations of weak stories, flat characters, and lack of emotional depth abound, and none of them are unfounded. By these traditional metrics, his films simply don’t work. The crew in Armageddon are entirely defined by one character trait each (except in the case of Steve Buscemi’s character; he gets two traits- he’s both smart AND horny), and despite seeing the film a dozen times, I couldn’t tell you what any of their names are. The plot of The Rock takes completely illogical twists and turns, pushing forward entirely through movie logic without even a tenuous grasp on reality; things happen because they’re the kinds of things that would happen in movies. Piled on top of that, there is nothing in his filmography that even tries for subtext, and it all hits with the emotional subtlety of a brick. The things movies are “supposed” to do, especially “great” movies, Michael Bay simply doesn’t do. The problem, however, isn’t with Bay or his films; the problem is with this lens of film watching.

The training of the eye as done through Western ideas of art criticism naturally narrows the eye’s focuses on the things that Michael Bay ignores, which easily accounts for his widespread derision. By refinement, it assumes a narrower set of purpose for the art of movies. But when that eye expands, encompassing more and more of what film has to offer, it can find a different goal, a goal that Michael Bay sets out to achieve in all of his work: the use of blockbuster cinema to achieve pure entertainment and visceral reaction with as little space between heart and mind as possible, a complete removal of separation between thought and feeling. The more complex a character, the more the viewer has to think to understand them, so Bay strips this away. The more considered a plot, the farther it places one from the art of film, so the more Bay simplifies it. The more subtext, the harder the work of unpacking the movie, so the more Bay removes it. This isn’t to say any of those things are universally bad, or that this distance can’t be highly rewarding in its own way. It’s just to say that Bay’s goal, one that he accomplishes with aplomb in The Rock and Armageddon, is the removal of distance between signifier and signified, and as such the removal of distance between audience and art.

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Every object, every room, every character and every line of dialogue in a Michael Bay film exists to express exactly what it means to express in the loudest way possible. Bruce Willis in Armageddon isn’t just an overprotective father; he is every overprotective father. He chases his daughter Liv Tyler’s no-good boyfriend (Ben Affleck) with a shotgun, and the fact that sympathies are supposed to still lie with him after this shows that the audience isn’t meant to see this as a reality. It represents the concept of an overprotective father. It exists to be an entire archetype boiled down into one man. The room his crew receives their psychological evaluations in isn’t just a room; it is a room of maximum possible discomfort, meant to express their anxiety over this mission. The dialogue expresses every character’s traits in the most literal way possible; Udo Kier’s terrifying visage is the disquieting doctor; anechoic chamber foam spikes jut out from the walls not with practical purpose, but to literalize fear and stress. The glowing green balls of death that are The Rock‘s MacGuffin of choice exist not to be authentic depictions of dangerous weaponry, but to stand in for the entire concept of WMDs. The green means radioactive, sickening, diseased, dying, and their complete fragility is the cultural fear of dirty bombs, of suitcase bombs smuggled across borders, ready to kill at the slightest provocation, expressed by Bay even before terrorism was a publicly expressed national security concern.

This removal of distance extends beyond here as well. Michael Bay’s use of editing, often deemed confusing for its lack of reliance on traditional forms, works to express on a similar level. While its frantic nature and lack of interest in literal depiction seems amateurish or poorly conceived, it actually serves a purpose; when coherence is removed, the audience is forced to interact with the scene and the editing on an abstract level, which engages emotion directly. When an action scene works in the traditional way, the audience has to move between the depiction of what’s happening and its emotional meaning. Bay works to destroy this process, instead directly pushing emotional transference through expressionism.

One of The Rock‘s most derided sequences is a scene where a team of men on a lower floor is gunned down by a different team of men on a higher floor. Critics of the scene point to it as confusing, frantic, chaotic, and unclear, but watching the scene, it’s obvious that the film didn’t mean to communicate the action in a traditional or literal way. It works expressly because it’s confusing; it’s a huge setback for our protagonists, and the editing expresses their fear, their demoralization, and their sudden loss of grounding. The plan as it was envisioned will no longer work, and the editing’s abstraction expresses this to us without separation and without thought, purely through emotional experience. This use of collage, cut-up techniques, and free-association echoes a repurposing of modern art’s use of abstraction to express human experience in non-literal ways. Avant-garde artists in many different mediums have worked for this same kind of effect, a removal of distance and a form that more purely expresses an idea, a thought, a singular moment, to destroy the barrier between the audience and the artist.

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This is Michael Bay’s genius- the use of experimental art techniques to communicate in ways that express clearly to popular culture. He emerged just as our relationship to the world was being deeply and permanently impacted by the rise of the internet, and he allowed action films to remain relevant to the culture at large. Looking into the future his early films would soon impact, his removal of distance understood modern culture before the internet had even begun to be truly grasped by popular culture. With an increasingly globalized world, brought together by technology but still existing in fragmentary forms, the modern blockbuster needed his impetus to morph into structure that reflected this; a decrease in linear narrative and an increase in associative and conceptual outlooks provided Michael Bay and his visionary art with the perfect time and place to change the face of modern film. Whether or not one stands on his side, and whether or not he receives the critical re-appraisal his work begs for, it’s hard to imagine an action director of the past two decades more deserving of a place in Criterion’s catalogue.

Michelle Arf


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