Revisting the Collective: Defending Michael Bay

(CS: Remember when Michael Bay was one of the most popular directors in Hollywood, and most of his movies were instant box office gold? July 9, 2012, would have been that time as I wrote a piece for Collective Publishing about the successful director who was making hits based on a popular 1980s toyline.)

Transformers: Age of Extinction has now been out for almost two weeks, and as expected it ended up making more money than the gross domestic income of a small country while being panned by almost every respected film critic in the world. The Transformers series has one major thing in the common with the rock band Nickelback: no one ever seems to admit to liking either and actually many people get plenty of enjoyment bashing them despite grosses that indicate a significant amount of the population pays to see them. They are the pop culture anomalies of “no one likes them” but everyone is more than willing to make the property rather successful by paying to see it. It is an odd relationship between obvious popularity that is proven by the vast amount of purchased tickets but doesn’t seem like a fan-hood that anyone wants to admit. (CS: Now, Nickelback seems to a band from the past, and the Transformers follow-up movie The Last Knight was considered a major disappointment to the point it looks to be the last one directed by Bay.)

It is a conundrum of popularity mixed with widespread derision that likely triggered Michael Bay’s recent comments when asked about the picture’s critical panning in an MTV interview. “They love to hate and I don’t care, let them hate. They’re still going to see the movie. I think it’s good to get a little tension. Very good.” 

These comments sparked a firestorm over social media where many continued the usual Michael Bay bashing by using his words to “prove” his contempt for both his fans and cinema as a whole. These comments for the angry internet residing mob were apparently the proof that he not only dismisses movies as art but views it as a purely commercial product. A product with his very own words doesn’t necessarily need to be of any quality, because he’ll still be getting the money to buy another house and a yacht to cruise about in. 

Except these people are wrong, and that isn’t what Bay was saying at all. 

First of all, for Bay to have any type of sanity and desire to remain in the film industry, he really can’t stress too much about what critics are saying about his pictures. A quick look at Rotten Tomatoes shows that of all the pictures he has produced and directed in his career, The Rock is the only one to earn a “fresh” rating, which means the only one to get more positive than negative reviews. He also has created many box office smash hits and has become Hollywood’s golden boy who has an incredible amount of creative freedom that allows him to make almost any type of loud and visually overwhelming picture he wants. (CS: Including one about two thieves racing around in a stolen ambulance that barely anyone saw this year.) 

Pain & Gain was likely a personal project that got made more due to the fact he has a great track record for hits rather than actual movie studios craving it to be made. It is obvious critics’ feelings of his picture hasn’t hurt his career at all, and more importantly, move-goers aren’t deterred by bad reviews when it comes to his pictures either. (CS: Times change.)

So, are the majority of critics wrong in their assessment of Bay’s work? I don’t think so. The Rock is really his only picture that I’d throw out a strong recommendation to see, and I do have some mild affection towards The Island and the first Bad Boys. For the past few years, I cringe when I know I need to review a Bay picture, because he clearly doesn’t craft movies that vibe with my own interests and sensibilities. For those that don’t deeply analyze pictures or have to watch close to 300 movies a year, (CS: Probably closer to 200) it seems the visual and sensory overload that is a Bay epic is exactly the type of occasional cinematic fare that is craved. (CS: It is crazy to think that while defending Bay as a darling for the casual movie goer, Age of Extinction ended up being his last major hit, so this was the swan song for him as a hitmaker up to now.) 

I can strongly stand by my belief that Bay doesn’t make very good movies, but believe that he was justified in his comments and that there was nothing insidious in his words. His success does show that he doesn’t need to listen to critics. He is far from the only person to say he doesn’t listen to critics, as novelist John Grisham has stated he stopped reading reviews of his novel a long time ago. If Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg made that very same statement, there wouldn’t have been any backlash, because most acknowledge their pictures are well-crafted and clearly works of art. The internet backlash was an example of taking a statement to back-up an erroneous belief that already existed. 

Bay makes commercial films that are aimed at teenage boys that are salivating for mindless, flashy, and brain-rattling action pictures. But it is rather disingenuous for one to claim that just because one sees the film industry as a business and makes pictures with an attempt to maximize profits doesn’t also take pride in his craftsmanship. Not caring about what critics think about a work is not the same as not caring about the actual movie that was created. It especially doesn’t mean that he doesn’t value the fans that flock into the cinemas to see his latest flashy, ear-popping, three hour music video presented as a feature. There isn’t any evidence to show that he doesn’t hope his audience walks out properly satiated. 

Director Lars von Trier, recently on Twitter, scoffed at the notion Michael Bay can be considered an auteur. I think that is exactly what he is. He is definitely one who is meticulous and thorough in the creation of his explosion-laden, action bloated, and CGI-crammed experiences. Even as one that doesn’t enjoy the experience, I must admit his pictures are unique compared to many of the other special-effects driven mindless action pictures that jam into the cinemas. There is evidence of a man who takes the time to master the perfect shot or uses stylistic choices like slow-motion to create a certain emotions and atmosphere. (CS: But he never did it with a character eating soup.) It may be a jarring and abrasive experience, but one that is eagerly gobbled up by many and purposely implement by a man with a distinct vision. (CS: You can call someone an auteur or artist, but still not be a fan of that work and art.)

The auteur label will bother some, since it starts to lend comparisons to the likes of Woody Allen, David Fincher, Brian De Palma, Sofia Coppola, and Wes Anderson. Bay is a director that uses everything to his disposal to tell a story and create atmosphere and pull out emotion. Exactly like all the other directors just listed. It is just that many of the above use it to be provocative, stimulating and challenging, and also incorporate strong storytelling that is character-driven and often filled with allegories, depth, and symbolism. Plot, characters, and depth aren’t Bay’s forte, but it doesn’t discount the man has skill when it comes to form and style. (CS: The fun thing about revisiting these old columns is that I'm reminded of what was considered major news at the time that I've now completely forgot about. I have no memory of his comments or the controversy.)

Michael Bay may not have ever called any of his pictures art. They are art just the same way that Godfather, Citizen Kane, and Goodfellas are considered art. (Or Weekend at Bernie's.Cinema is an art form and a way of self-expression. Even if one can quickly dismiss a director’s entire canon, it doesn’t mean the pictures are any less of art. The fact the pictures are commercially-driven doesn’t make them any less art. The fact the pictures get critically panned doesn’t make it any less of art. There can be bad art. Art by definition isn’t something that is automatically held in high-regard. Thomas Kinkade created very commercial paintings that most critics hated, but the fact his paintings hang all over many living room walls seems to prove to many it is most definitely art. (CS: My parents loved him, and I learned about him through several paintings my dad bought and still have hanging in his house.) 

A critic doesn’t get to decide what is specifically art. They can ruminate if it is worthwhile, fulfilling, and enriching art. They get to share their opinion on its value. They get to use their knowledge of the medium and their analytical skills to craft compelling reviews that offer insight and perspective. A review is still very subjective no matter what expertise a critic can bring. The goal of a review is to stimulate conversation and thoughts about a piece. They aren’t gatekeepers that decide what gets to be considered real art. It is pretentious to even assume one has the right to dictate what constitutes art and such an endeavour would devalue criticism. (CS: This also stands for video games that despite Roger Ebert's objection, I also feel is without a doubt art.) Criticism explores and digs through the layers of a work of art, and though it can formulate the quality and value, it comes down to just being a written piece about one’s experience with the work. Bay creates art, even if I don’t think it is very good. (CS: I've been banging the drum of this view of film criticism since at least 2014, apparently.)  

The fact I haven’t written a single positive review of a Bay picture since I started writing about movies doesn’t actually speak into the talent or integrity of the director. He does make pictures where likely the top objective is high grosses over making something coherent and profound. Things that matter to me like character, stories and comprehension aren’t priorities in his movies. For Bay, it is the special effects and the MTV-stylized composition that matters because that is what excites his target demographic. He doesn’t care about critics, but he does still deeply care about the movies that he makes. (CS: It seems his diehard fans have now moved on. I am still interested to see what he makes next, and I hope that I can champion it.)