A man who works with his hands is a laborer;
a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman;
but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist.
In his indispensable film study text, Understanding Movies, Louis Gianetti held forth on what separated craftsmanlike directors from those who rise above the norm:
“…what differentiates a great director from one who is merely competent is not so much a matter of what happens, but how things happen…”
In other words, Gianetti continued, the difference was in how effectively the director used form – visual style, composition, editing, mise en scene, and the rest of the directorial toolbox – to “…embody (a film’s) content.”
But with the rise of big budget blockbusters in the 70s and 80s, there came the ascendancy of a breed of director for whom content mattered less than form. In fact, there were, actually, some for whom content seemed not to matter at all. For them, visual virtuosity was not, in Gianetti’s words, a means of embodying content, but an end in itself; they were purveyors of what detractors often referred to as “pretty pictures” and “eye candy.” As opposed to Gianetti’s content embodiers, they represented a new directorial species presciently limned by film theoretician Siegfried Kracauer over a half-century ago:
“The technician cares about means and functions rather than ends and modes of being… he will be inclined…to conceive of them in an abstract way…”
The movies have always had their share of visual virtuosos (think Orson Welles, or consider the shadow play of the 1940s/1950s noirs growing ever more baroque with each passing year), but visual style stepped to the fore during the 60s and 70s as never before. Inspired by European flamboyance, and with the traditional conservative Hollywood aesthetic of form-follows-function having faded with the old studio system, there came a generation of directors who were as expressive visually as they were in the stories they told. At their best, visuals and narrative acted as a powerful team, each reinforcing the impact of the other i.e. the bleak modern urbanscapes of Point Blank (1967) and the movie’s theme of dehumanization; the near-documentary look of The French Connection (1971) and its realistic police procedural tale; the elegant pacing and deepening visual gloom of The Godfather movies (1972 & 1974) and their epic narrative arc of devouring moral corruption amid Mafia royalty.
But there were also directors who seemed more intent on dazzling than conveying, like Sidney J. Furie (The Appaloosa , The Naked Runner ), Richard C. Sarafian (Man in the Wilderness , Vanishing Point ), and Peter Hyams (Busting , Capricorn One , The Star Chamber ). And, there were also directors — like John Milius (Dillinger , Red Dawn , Farewell to the King ) and Walter Hill (The Driver , The Long Riders , Extreme Prejudice ) — who seemed to consciously and conspicuously strip-mine the work of directors of greater stature for the superficial stylistic tics of the originals only to regurgitate them in pretentious but dramatically inferior fare, sometimes even copying the work of their inspirations shot-for-shot i.e. Hill’s The Long Riders aping Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969).
Perhaps no director defined the aesthetic of visual indulgence with more clarity and with less apology during those creatively explosive years of the 1960s/1970s – and up through today — than Brian DePalma. On the eve of the 2002 opening of DePalma’s twisty-turny neo-noir Femme Fatale, critic Gavin Smith glowingly described DePalma’s canon in, ironically, the same terms often used by his detractors, saying DePalma’s filmmaking “…delights in taking liberties with suspension of disbelief in sequences of absurd, impossibly escalating jeopardy…logic and believability aren’t important…(his movies are) adventures in cinematic form masquerading as genre exercises.”
DePalma himself has been openly dismissive of the human dimension of his movies, confessing to boredom with shooting scenes stressing emotion and character, while, instead, primarily concerning himself with visual concepts that may have little to do with the dramatic content. By his own words, he is, according to a 1984 interview, “…a visual stylist, a visual stylist…” (his emphasis) for whom dramatic content is, at best, a secondary concern.
DePalma’s near-exclusive obsession with visual imagery explains his frequent turning to tales featuring macabre and sometimes grotesque violence (Carrie , The Fury , Scarface , Body Double ), and lurid sexuality (Dressed to Kill , Casualties of War ,and, again, Body Double). In the same 1984 interview, DePalma explained his penchants saying that, motion pictures being “…a kinetic art form…,” acts of violence make a natural fit for cinema and for his desire to fully exercise the visual potential of the medium.
Unsurprisingly, then, some of DePalma’s biggest disappointments have been movies demanding a strong dramatic foundation, like his Vietnam War-set Casualties of War (1989) and its Iraq war counterpart Redacted (2007),crime drama Carlito’s Way (1993), and his attempt at a The Conversation-type political thriller, Blow Out (1981). By the same token, some of his biggest commercial successes have been movies whose near-cartoonish plots provide the perfect vehicle for his brand of visual hyperbole like his almost wholly fictional take on the bringing down of gangster kingpin Al Capone in The Untouchables (1987), and the first big screen interpretation of the far-fetched 1960s TV spy series, Mission: Impossible (1996).
The success of Star Wars (1975) further catalyzed the popularity – among a new generation of audiences, moviemakers, and even studio executives – of the visual stylist aesthetic. Star Wars creator George Lucas himself often professed a dismissive attitude toward the elements of drama and character, and it was a mindset which would often become couched in the lofty terms of “pure cinema,” and in being supposedly truer to film’s visual nature than the more narrative-driven movies of an earlier age.
The result, in the eyes of many in the critical establishment as well as from more drama-centric moviemakers, has been 30-40 years of thrillers and adventure films marked – according to film critic Richard Corliss — by ever more innovative “…eye-popping visuals…” buoying up “…straight-ahead, easy-sell scripts that are routine and familiar,” while traditional story-telling values of “…situation, character, wit, subtlety…” have degraded. By the early 1980s, there was already a critical constituency gagging on a wave of visually indulgent, dramatically vapid big studio fare. As long ago as 1984, Film Comment’s David Chute was complaining, “In the post-Lucas period, ‘pure cinema’ is synonymous with sensationalism… I’m sick to death of all this empty style.”
In a 1996 cover story, “Who Killed the Hollywood Screenplay?”, Entertainment Weekly gave, as an illustrative example of the excesses of the visual stylists, the “ludicrous” climax of the stalker thriller The Fan (1996), set at a baseball game during a torrential downpour. According to The Fan’s screenwriter, Phoef Sutton, a number of people on the production argued with director Tony Scott over the scene, pointing out baseball games are called because of rain: “In fact, everybody argued with him. But I don’t think Tony cared about the plausibility of it.”
Almost a decade later, demonstrating the same dismay for a trend which has only grown more pronounced, writer/director Ron Shelton, responding to a young generation of moviemakers’ disdain for dialogue, argued in an interview, “…the old canard that action defines character is only partly true. Hamlet wasn’t doing a whole lot when he said, ‘To be or not to be.’”
In Hollywood, the argument has been less an aesthetic than a commercial one. Action and visual excitement sell better than character and drama at the major release level, and, as style/action-driven movies have come to dominate box office charts, the industry has looked to areas producing the kind of eye-tickling talent the studios feel the blockbuster brand of thrillers needs such as cinematography (Jan De Bont, Twister, 1994), advertising (Tony Scott [Unstoppable, 2010] and his brother Ridley Scott [Robin Hood, 2010], Gore Verbinski [Pirates of the Caribbean, 2003),and music videos (McG, Terminator Salvation, 2009).
The career of Ridley Scott, one of the Grand Old Men of the school of visual stylists (his feature directorial debut was 1977’s The Duelists), provides an apt microcosm for the trend at large, with its few nuggets of gold scattered across an ever-widening vein of pyrite. Within Scott’s filmography, every Alien (1979), Thelma & Louise (1991), or American Gangster (2007) is offset by a surfeit of gorgeous but empty – and sometimes silly – movies like Legend (1986), Black Rain (1989), 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), G.I. Jane (1997), and Hannibal (2001). Wrote Star-Ledger critic Stephen Whitty in his pan of “purely visual filmmaker” Scott’s failed con man comedy Matchstick Men (2003), “For 25 years, Ridley Scott has been a style in search of a story…(He) has always known how to make gripping, memorable pictures. Telling tales…has been another matter.”
Ridley Scott’s career may stand apropos as an in-miniature representation of the 40 year post-Star Wars trajectory of the visual stylists, but if one is looking for a more contemporary poster child for the aesthetic, an equally on-point choice would be Michael Bay. In the years since his 1995 theatrical debut with Lethal Weapon (1987) clone Bad Boys, Bay has, for many, come to stand, for good and/or for ill, as the top of the visual stylist heap.
Bay’s career began in advertising and music videos, his work on an award-winning series of “Got Milk?” ads bringing him a 1994 Director’s Guild nomination for Best Commercial Director. The following year, the producing team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, with their eyes on slick-looking, action-driven fare like Top Gun (1986) and Days of Thunder (1990) (both directed by Tony Scott), brought Bay on board to helm the light-hearted cop actioner Bad Boys. A mid-range hit in the U.S., Bad Boys ultimately pulled in a worldwide box office of $150.8 million, a tremendous return on a budget of just $23 million. Bay thereafter became a regular member of Bruckheimer’s directorial stable, subsequently turning out a series of evermore extravagant – and expensive – blockbuster thrillers. On only his second film, The Rock, with its $224 million worldwide gross against a $75 million budget, Bay graduated to the A-list ranks, and remains one of present-day Hollywood’s premier purveyors of the big budget actioner.
Though Bay does have his supporters among action aficionados, the general critical view of his work slants negative and often even hostile. In a review of his historical epic Pearl Harbor (2001), perhaps his most reviled work, Entertainment Weekly described Bay as a director with a “…near-fetishistic love of sleek, macho gadgetry…whose films rarely flirt with notions of brevity or subtlety…,” while another critic, reviewing the same picture, ranted that Bay “…proves his generation of single-minded directors-as-demolition experts knows little about inspired filmmaking.”
Bay’s movies are about action, noise, pace, and the striking, often pretentious image (Nicolas Cage’s Christ-like pose during the climax of the empty-headed The Rock; Ben Affleck striking a heroic stance on a parked fighter plane’s wing, backlit by a setting sun in Pearl Harbor although the Japanese attack took place in the morning). Wrote Film Comment’s Kent Jones in a 2001 consideration of Bay’s work that damned the director with the faintest of praise (Jones refers to his enjoyment of Bay’s work as the “guiltiest of pleasures”), “Bay uses (explosions) the way that Bresson uses doors – liberally.”
Neither characters nor plots have to play out credibly, or even consistently in Bay’s thrillers; they serve only as functions to take his movies to their next spectacular display of action and effects. In The Rock, for example, supposedly crack military officers make the most boneheaded of misjudgments (one blunders into an achingly obvious ambush site; another hand-picks the most unreliable of troopers for his moral crusade to force the U.S. to own up to forgotten covert operatives). In Armageddon (1998), NASA official Billy Bob Thornton lobbies his agency to use Bruce Willis’ mining outfit rather than trained astronauts for a space mission to blow up an Earth-threatening asteroid because of their unique abilities, although the only unique ability they demonstrate on the mission is their collective talent for standing around grimly watching a power drill grind away.
Peter Bart, in his book, The Gross: The Hits, The Flops – The Summer That Ate Hollywood, recounts Armageddon screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh’s creatively frustrating experience with the director. As Bay ran Hensleigh through one rewrite after another, Hensleigh, irritated at Bay’s increasing obsession with the physical side of the film, thought back to a remark New York Times film critic Janet Maslin had made about film directors coming up from the world of music videos: “They haven’t just undermined film narrative, they’ve demolished it.”
One of Bay’s signature tics is a rocket-fired pace maintained by an editing style so frenetic one film director declared, “…it felt like (Armageddon) was made for people with attention deficit disorder.” Bay’s handling of exposition scenes is no different, using the same restless camera and exhausting cutting rhythm he uses for his often incomprehensible action sequences, almost never repeating a shot within a scene. Kent Jones describes Bay’s sensibility as being one of “…downsizing narrative coherence and capitalizing on his audience’s urge toward mental statelessness…Clarity? By Bay’s lights an outmoded concept….”
Bay is both frank but dismissive about the continuity problems his style often produces. “I don’t get hung up on continuity too much,” he told an interviewer. “When you get hung up on continuity, you can’t keep the pace (up) and price down….”
Bay’s cutting can grow so chaotic it actually works against the very overwhelming impact he’s trying to create. Kent Jones confesses that during the attack scene in Pearl Harbor, the editing grew so jumbled he could no longer keep track of which character was on which ship. One of the peak moments during the attack scene comes when a Japanese bomb pierces the magazine of the battleship Arizona, touching off an explosion so powerful it lifts the massive dreadnought clear out of the water. Bay cuts through the moment so quickly – it’s little more than a flash cut of the ship lifting out of the harbor waters – that the horrible grandeur of the moment is lost in the rushing on to other things. Compare this to the attention the same moment gets in the more traditionally constructed big budget Pearl Harbor recreation of three decades earlier, Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970).
Though a particularly dreadful release like Pearl Harbor pushed Bay to the post of whipping boy for a generation of visually-addicted, speed-freak-paced, action-immersed, dramatically underwhelming directors, there’s no refuting his box office track record and Bay points to box office numbers as the strongest indication he is obviously “…tapping into something people want to see.”
And moviegoers do want to see Bay’s movies. Each of his first four movies released after Bad Boys easily crossed the $100 million blockbuster barrier, their average domestic take standing at $168 million with, frequently, even better earnings overseas. Armageddon alone pulled in $452.8 million worldwide while Jon Amiel’s vaguely similar sci fier The Core, with its Amiel-admitted anti-Bay sensibility, achieved better reviews, but did a worldwide business of only $72.7 million. Bay stumbled the first time he moved out from under the Bruckheimer label with the sci fier The Island (2005) for DreamWorks. The $126 million picture did only $35.8 million domestic (although it compensated somewhat with a $124.5 overseas take), but then he roared back with another sci fi effects fest, the $150 million Transformers (2007, also for DreamWorks), which turned out to be his highest grosser with a worldwide take of $706.5 million. Bay followed with the 2009 sequel Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen which, despite poor reviews, did over $836 million worldwide. The cumulative domestic take alone for Bay’s eight theatrical features amounts to approximately $1.5 billion.
That in mind, for all the critical carping – and for whatever statement that obvious popularity makes about today’s blockbuster audience – Bay is correct when he says the stories he tells and the way he tells them are something “…people want to see.”
– Bill Mesce