The Bad Boy of Summer
Michael Bay vs. his critics.
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Here's one good reason to see the new thriller The Island (DreamWorks) on July 22. The director is Michael Bay, the closest thing Hollywood has to a nuclear warhead. Bay specializes in disaster pictures, which contemplate the total annihilation of Earth (Armageddon, 1998), Western civilization (Pearl Harbor, 2001), or merely San Francisco (The Rock, 1996). Bay's critics say that such calamities are nothing compared with the hellfire the director is unleashing on the American cinema. "For years I believed that the introduction of MTV marked the beginning of the end for movies," a reader wrote the Los Angeles Times after seeing Armageddon, "and now I am convinced that the end is finally here." Journalists have called Bay "manipulative" and "shameless"—and, in a more open-minded spirit, asked, "Is Michael Bay the devil?"
With his free-range hair and surfer-dude locutions ("This is gonna be bitchin'!"), Bay doesn't seem like a harbinger of the End Times. Nor had it previously been thought that the Antichrist would emerge, as Bay did, from the Pasadena Art Center. The apoplexy Bay's movies inspire reveals something interesting about film critics: That no matter how much they insist that they've made their peace with the summer movie, and its bullying domination of the multiplex, they can still go limp at the idea of the summer movie as an artistic end in and of itself. Bay is a pure creature of summer, a man who has no ambition other than to dazzle and pummel. As he once put it, savoring his critical infamy, "I make movies for teenage boys. Oh, dear, what a crime."
Who is Michael Bay? He was born Feb. 17, 1965, in Los Angeles and adopted shortly thereafter by Jimmy and Harriet Bay. Later, after a bit of sleuthing, Bay learned of rumors that his birth father was John Frankenheimer, the director of The Manchurian Candidate. Frankenheimer furiously denied parentage and took some DNA tests to prove it, but the idea has a poignant irony: Bay, a reviled summer-movie artist, as illegitimate son of a decorated auteur. (Only Bay knows for sure if The Rock was an homage to Frankenheimer's Birdman of Alcatraz.)
Bay went to film school at Wesleyan, where his professor Jeanine Basinger says he eschewed "film majors all dressed in black" for the brighter company of his Psi Upsilon fraternity brothers. Frat-boy adventuring is one of the hallmarks of Bay's films, which always involve a group of men on a mission. In Armageddon, his troupe consisted of BruceWillis, Ben Affleck, Owen Wilson, and Steve Buscemi—a honey of a pledge class, though you wonder what Buscemi would bring to the spring formal. Bay's fealty to the Greek aesthetic made him something of a curiosity at Wesleyan. While his classmates angsted over mannered senior projects, Bay submitted a film about a very good-looking guy driving very fast in his yellow Porsche. The movie's exuberant texture, says Basinger, was recognizably that of a "Michael Bay film."
After a graduate stint in Pasadena, Bay cut his teeth with music videos (the DiVinyls, Donny Osmond) and TV commercials ("Got milk?") before falling under the sway of the producer Jerry Bruckheimer. It was a fortunate meeting. Bruckheimer has long coveted commercial directors for their ability to deliver what his swaggering productions need most: a triumphant high in 30 seconds or less. Bay, in turn, has taken the Bruckheimer imperative to new heights. In addition to the old Bruckheimer coda, the massive explosion, Bay has added two new signatures: the droll joke, which he delivers effortlessly in The Rock and Armageddon; and, in keeping with the zeitgeist, an affirmation of patriotism. "The United States government just asked us to save the world," Bruce Willis barks at his team in Armageddon. "Anybody want to say no?"
Bay also achieves rapid-fire highs by cutting between shots very quickly. A beguiling image might appear on screen for a half-second before Bay replaces it with another—then another, and another—creating a mind-bending visual collage. This is the source of much discontent on the parts of critics with Bay and his summer brethren, since "fast-cutting" is seen as a hackneyed technique of music videos, not cinema. In fact, patching a bunch of quick cuts together is a massive undertaking in the editing room. Moreover, Bay has a fluid, gliding camera—he's using quick cuts to create atmosphere, not to whip up false momentum. (Basinger has an alternate explanation: Bay's quick cuts are the director's attempts to introduce something like abstract expressionism to the $150 million blockbuster. There are studio chieftains who will faint at those words.)
Bay has a worshipful, almost tender reverence for his male stars. His trademark shot makes them look like Renaissance statuary: His camera begins at their right arm, then swivels around behind them, and comes to rest gazing up at their granite chins. If anything, this swooning pales in comparison to Bay's lusty admiration for government agencies. "For 30 years they questioned the need for NASA," Billy Bob Thornton crows in Armageddon. "Today we're gonna give 'em the answer!" Bay's first feature, Bad Boys (1995), can be read as a paean to the Miami Police Department; The Rock as tribute to the FBI chemical weapons expert, as embodied by Nicolas Cage.
Such homage may make Bay slightly Dadaistic. But it doesn't make him the devil. What really irks critics is that Bay feeds from the detritus of 30 years of summer movies—as the New York Times puts it, his films feel "stitched together, like some cinematic Frankenstein's monster, from the body parts of other movies." Hollywood has heard versions of this complaint before. With the first generation of popcorn directors, led by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the standard protest was that they had learned all their tricks from television. With Bay, the complaint is that he has learned his tricks from Lucas and Spielberg. The implication is that, within a few generations, Hollywood will produce a director who knows nothing but the grammar of blockbusters—the bastard son of Top Gun's Maverick and a velociraptor. Bay further exacerbates the problem by blockbusterizing his directorial pronouncements. For him, a characteristic boast is not, "I write all my own movies," but, "I write all my own action."
The danger is that Bay will heed critics' advice, forsake his chaotic blockbusters, and try to do something noble—which is more or less what happened with Pearl Harbor, his most humanistic and least effective movie to date. The Island, in which Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson play clones on the lam, represents a return to form. DreamWorks screened the first 45 minutes of the film last week, followed by a hair-raising highway chase scene that was shown out of context. There are those who say that watching a Bay movie is itself like watching one long chase scene out of context, as Bay whips from one image to the next, but I think Bay is on to something. He's whittled the summer movie down to its smallest constituent parts—without the clutter of character, cohesion, or exposition. Go ahead, embrace him. It wouldn't be the end of the world.
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.