We brought this upon ourselves: A Michael Bay career retrospective
America's favorite action auteur-savant, Michael Bay, has spent years telling whoever will listen that his directional style is too hardcore for 3D, that adding depth would be too extreme and punishing on the average filmgoer. With last week's official announcement that Transformers: Dark of the Moon (dude, it totally syncs up with Wizard of Oz, man) would be released in IMAX 3D, he's decided it's time to use the latest in high-tech wizardry to blow our brains outta our skulls and straight through the movie screen, leaving us huddled and crying bloody tears in the fetal position. It's the final step in a journey of vengeance he started years ago -- and it all started with an act of injustice so dastardly it would be written in books about cinema and history and cinema history forever -- Michael Bay got in trouble.
Born to a Child Psychiatrist and a CPA in Los Angeles, a young Michael Bay once strapped a boat-load of fireworks to his toy train, rolled camera on his dad's 8mm loaded with Kodachrome, yelled "awesome" and let 'er rip. The ensuing disaster, presumably shot while he ran in circles around the fire, maniacally giggling, earned him the unwanted (and unwarranted, he would argue) attention of his parents, multiple neighbors and the Los Angeles Fire Brigade. Before he could cut the footage into a thousand incoherent pieces, however, the camera was taken away, and Bay was grounded by the very people he sought to entertain.
As in a Shaw Brothers kung fu flick, he swore vengeance and set upon mastering the arts he would need to wield his weapon -- cinema. He went to film school, where he joined the fraternity Psi Upsilon, and like Shaolin Monks, they taught him the skills he would later need, like objectifying women. Observe, for example, this early career ad for Bugle Boy jeans:
This is seriously an ad for men's clothing.
Possibly assuming he'd be grounded any minute, Bay worked furiously, directing ad after ad, moving to music videos and featurettes for Playboy. More and more people were being punished by his cinematic antics, but unlike his parents, they kept being entertained. He would have to go further -- and wider. Luckily his success in commercials led to a relationship with mega-producer and fellow owner of very finely coiffed hair Jerry Bruckheimer. He and his partner had been attempting a project with an objective thought unthinkable until they saw that one commercial Bay made (At Red Rocks, by the way) where Brian Seltzer played guitar with an old woman, and they immediately knew Bay was the man for the job.
The mission: Make Will Smith, America's most likable person EVER, seem like a raging douchebag. It was right in his wheelhouse, and using more skills possibly forged at the frat house, Bay brought homophobia, racism, misogyny, uberviolence, and Martin Lawrence into Will Smith's world. On those terms, it was a resounding success. Seriously, it's really hard to like Will Smith in this movie.
It was also a resounding success financially. And the Bay knew he'd have to go harder. He responded with The Rock, letting Nicholas Cage freely ad-lib Cageisms, shooting 83 percent of the movie in slow-motion, destroying most of downtown San Francisco with a hummer (back then called a humvee and made of metal instead of yellow plastic), and putting badass Terminator-killin' Michael Biehn in, like, one scene before he got shot by that fat actor from St. Elsewhere. He also began developing a new skill on The Rock -- crass patriotism.
It was the fourth highest grossing film of the year and Bay's first to receive a Criterion DVD (other films in the Criterion Collection include: The Seven Samurai, The Works of Stan Brakhage, The Red Shoes, The Third Man).
To complement this new tool, Bay went looking for the stupidest screenplay he could find. He found it in Armageddon.
Though realizing another stupid movie with the same premise would be released that summer (Deep Impact), Bay hired another five writers to dumb it down, including future camera-shaker J.J. Abrams, who started work on the script the same day he saw the film's teaser trailer at a local theater (true story). He sought to capture as wide an audience as possible, and so he targeted the heartland -- all those states in the middle of the country (the ones with all the corn), luring them in with a story of working-class, uneducated white people (and proud of it) that destroy the environment by day and party in Vegas all night (then they save the world and Aerosmith ROCKS OUT).
"So ya like corn?" he is famously quoted saying. "Well, then I'll give you corn. Bring out a JFK mural and some white kids."
Underneath these images he presented his own struggle, creating his most personal film to date with the different sides of his personality: the horny guy, the military dude, the cowboy, the good ol' boy, the rowdy youngin', the insane Russian and the wise master of his field. Here, the many faces of Michael Bay drill into the very thing driving the story, in an attempt to crack and then destroy it while suits and bureaucrats judge their impending success. In the film, they destroy the asteroid (and cinema), but in reality it turns out you can call middle America stupid as long as you wheel out the JFK mural and the white kids, and all those people skipping their fantasy football draft to drive to their local cinema made Armageddon the highest grossing film of the year.
Furious at his success, Michael Bay shat out Pearl Harbor, otherwise known as it's working title, Armageddon Except Boringer, Minus Bruce Willis, Plus More Affleck and There's No Asteroid or Funny Fat Blacks and Kate Beckinsale Doesn't Wear a Latex Bodysuit Though I Wish I'd Thought of That. But it turned out America, that year, was really looking for a version of the story of our greatest military defeat and tragedy that looked like a Victoria's Secret commercial.
Apparently, there was not enough of this:
Lost, unfulfilled, and looking for an answer, Bay retreated into his man-cave in the Hollywood hills, with only local playmates-of-the-months and his golden robot servant to keep him company (my friend Johnny used to work for a pizza place in the hills and during this time he totally delivered Bay a pizza and when he got there he was pretty sure Bay was whipping himself like those monks from the Da Vinci novel). He emerged with Martin Lawrence's digits clutched in his hand.
Bad Boys II is the most hateful movie ever made. It's also Bay at his Bay-y-est, a best-of "compilation" film of the greatest moments from his films prior. It starts with two black detectives undercover in the KKK, and it ends with the same detectives leading a team of mercenaries to invade Cuba (no, really).
Along the way they take ecstasy, desecrate dead bodies (including admiring the large breasts of a female shooting victim), kill countless people, show children homemade pornography, walk in slow motion and have a long conversation about one shooting the other in the buttocks, which is hilariously heard out of context by a large black woman, who admonishes their homosexual lifestyle (no, really). It features shots of rats having sex like humans, a super slow motion shot that follows a bullet into a villain's head before he steps on a mine and blows up, and Will Smith saying, "nigga."
The opening credit that reads "Directed by Michael Bay" is over an image of a burning cross. (NO, REALLY).
You cannot imagine the amount of glee Michael Bay could have possibly had while making this movie, which not only allowed him to exorcise his demons, but let him destroy an army of General Motors cars with explosions and cast Megan Fox in one of her first roles, as "Girl Shot from Beneath Dancing Under a Waterfall for Maximum Possible Ass Exposure" (my favorite part of the movie).
The movie made an obscene amount of money. But Bay had realized that, although people appeared to be enjoying the film, it was obviously bruising their souls. He was playing a large part in the destruction of American Culture. He took the ennui we were all still experiencing, post-9/11, and kicked it in the ass, spitting in the face of every man, woman, and child that loved the freedom and majesty of the United States of America, and we thanked him for it -- not because Bad Boys II was a great movie (it was), not because we were used to it, but because we had become so jaded and spiteful that we actually enjoyed it. We craved it.
Parents ground their children because they love them, and deep down (especially once they're older), kids realize that. In the beginning, Bay had sought to ground the world, to regain the power he had lost doing what he loved (blowing shit up). What he got was so much better. We (actually Jerry Bruckheimer. And then Stephen Spielburg -- no, you guys, REALLY) gave him power, and instead of lovingly teaching us through mundane and probably ineffective punishment, he rejected it with full-fledged and outright abuse. He sat us down in front of the TV all day in dirty diapers while he had a few drinks with his buddies, slapping us during the shows and leaving us alone during commercial breaks, and it's made us callow and unable to empathize and mean and dumb and completely lacking in self-awareness.
Now we expect the abuse. Now, we need it. And all the Tron: Legacys and Clash of the Titanses and Prince of Persias we embrace, because like your drunk uncle who kicked you barefoot instead of with steeltoed boots, it's "not that bad." We can take it.
And every time we start to speak up -- maybe demand something more -- daddy comes home with a nearly three hour movie where Megan Fox's ass is introduced before she is, jivetalking illiterate autobots are a toy we buy our children, and robots have scrotums and fart.
And this time, it's in 3D.
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