The Arrested Evolution of Michael BayPosted: June 30, 2014
With yet another Transformers movie in theaters, it’s time for another round of debates about Michael Bay’s standing as a filmmaker and worth as an artist. Of course, where were these debates last year when his (supremely underrated, in my opinion) Pain and Gain came out? But anyway, this time around it seems like some people are starting to reconsider Bay and view him in a different context, which I think is a good thing. Regardless of what you think of his style or substance, there should always be room at the table for different approaches to the art form, though more often than not Bay’s approach is certainly different from what most discerning film people would consider “good”. And while Bay’s voice might run directly counter to what I prize most in film, I feel that I’m starting to develop new understanding (but certainly not enthusiasm) for the man and his madness.
It shouldn’t even be a debate that Bay is a technically brilliant filmmaker; he conducts action and destruction like pretty much no one else in the history of the medium. Unfortunately that level of craftsmanship pretty much never extends to his oversight of the script, where the character development is often left unfocused and the pacing is always left to drag somewhat. Having said that, some of his better (ie, non-Transformers) films actually do provide the right beats and character moments, but the great downside of Bay’s approach is that even when he has these moments they never really come together as a cumulative whole. Bay demonstrates that it’s one thing to have these moments in a script, it’s another to get them to add up to something meaningful, and his greatest failing as a filmmaker is being unwilling to give those moments due consideration. One example of Bay’s almost-but-not-quite movies is Bad Boys, his first film and a solid, Tony Scott-esque buddy cop film. It never fully comes together on a character level, but not because the pieces aren’t there. Using the identity-swapping element to externalize the conflict between Mike and Marcus is a good idea, and played decently enough one scene at a time, but without any structural progression to tie it all together fully. Bay does handle the tension and miscommunications well within the individual scenes themselves, even if the scenes don’t build off each other convincingly. Unlike, say, Amazing Spider-Man 2, all of the scenes in the movie contribute to the plot and don’t really feel extraneous, but while the structure is fine the thematic/character escalation is lacking and scattershot. But to some extent this is balanced out by Bay’s flair for action and the natural chemistry of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. Bad Boys is a good example of how Bay can direct something with energy and visceral engagement, and even handle character moments fine, but doesn’t seem to have the focus to connect the dots of the emotional arc. Bay’s potential qualities are even more apparent in The Island, which I think is just a straight-up decent movie, and possibly the only example of Michael Bay ever using restraint. The runaway clones Lincoln and Jordan aren’t action heroes, and never look badass in the way most Bay protagonists do; instead, they’re just two people trying to survive, and causing (relatively moderate) mayhem along the way. While the film doesn’t particularly do much in exploring the essential themes present in such a premise, just the inherent nature of it all makes it deeper than most other Bay movies. Furthermore, Bay does handle the character sequences well enough, in what is possibly one of his most character-dependent movies. One or two logic/pacing considerations aside (the reveal that the Island is not what it seems comes too early) it’s actually a solidly-constructed world and a decent (if not particularly groundbreaking) story… so of course it’s considered one of his biggest failures. But it’s one of Bay’s most focused works, and represents the sort of movie he could be making if he wasn’t able to indulge his worst tendencies with massive Transformers films. The epitome of Bay’s narrative potential, though, is clearly Pain and Gain. More than any other movie he’s made, Pain and Gain is a movie driven by character. Most importantly, by well-defined characters, played with great meatheaded aplomb by Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie. And not only does it allow the characters to dictate the action, but both the characters and the action are absurd and obnoxious enough to fit right in with Bay’s over-the-top style, which is why it’s by far Bay’s best effort on a narrative/character level. A story of American excess being directed by the cinematic king of it, Pain and Gain demonstrates what the right combination of director and material can accomplish, and how even Bay’s bombastic approach can still leave room for character and dramatic structure without sacrificing the absurd voice that he’s chosen to embrace.
All in all, I’m going to try not criticizing Michael Bay for his creative choices. Just because they rarely ever jive with my own perspectives on storytelling doesn’t make them invalid, and I don’t think his style-over-story approach is much worse than the phony intellectualism at the heart of some obnoxious arthouse fare. What’s frustrating to me about Bay, especially looking back at these movies, is that a lot of his movies do have the right beats and moments to actually achieve good character development and poetic arcs, but he and his collaborators clearly don’t put enough focus on that part of their work to make it all come together. The end result is some exciting and “kewl” moments with a lot of unfocused flailing dragging most of it down. If Bay had a producer or screenwriter that was willing to advocate character development throughout the process- or if he actually had the gumption to push for such things himself- he might produce some solid films on par with Pain and Gain. But for now, we’ll have to live with the directionless sound and fury… something that $100 million worth of people (and counting) are apparently fine with.