Review: “Michael Bay” by Lutz Koepnick

The legendary film reviewer Roger Ebert called Michael Bay’s “Armageddon” “an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense and the human desire to be entertained. No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out. […] Armageddon reportedly used the services of nine writers. Why did it need any? The dialogue is either shouted one-liners or romantic drivel. ‘It’s gonna blow!’ is used so many times, I wonder if every single writer used it once, and then sat back from his word processor with a contented smile on his face, another day’s work done.”

BAY: “I don’t change my style for anybody. Pussies do that.”

Even though Koepnick’s strength lies in his ability to delve deep, mainly and also grandly, funnily weirdly into matters of capitalism and existentialism, the start of the book feels a bit like a Michael Bay hagiography. Still, there is a fair bit of dipping into the bad parts of both Bay’s making of films and on how he treats actors, staff, et cetera:

Last but not least, after playing self-assured Mikaela Banes in the first two films of the Transformers franchise, Megan Fox was pulled from later sequels because she challenged Bay’s directorial persona in public interviews in 2009 and compared his machismo to that of historical despots whom neither Bay nor producer Steven Spielberg were willing to accept as points of comparison. In 2009 Fox said the following about Bay in Wonderland Magazine: “He’s like Napoleon and he wants to create this insane, infamous mad-man reputation. He wants to be like Hitler on his sets, and he is. So he’s a nightmare to work for but when you get him away from set, and he’s not in director mode, I kind of really enjoy his personality because he’s so awkward, so hopelessly awkward. He has no social skills at all. And it’s endearing to watch him. He’s vulnerable and fragile in real life and then on set he’s a tyrant.” Though Hollywood gossip has it that actress and director smoothed out their relation later again, Fox’s muscular words got her instantly removed from the project. In Bay’s world as much as in Hollywood in general, defiant combativeness in word and deed remains a male prerogative, a subject that will be addressed later in this book.

I really missed the “male prerogative” in this book, actually; even though Koepnick writes of it, it is not really discussed, although this paragraph is of interest:

And let’s not fake surprise about this: not one of Michael Bay’s films centers on a female lead or allows a woman to assume the same kind of heroic qualities and agential dynamics reserved for their male counterparts. Slight exceptions confirm the norm […] Bay’s early and later video commercials for Victoria’s Secret are all about female bodies, yet no further commentary is needed to imagine how these bodies are captured by the camera’s gaze. Bad Boys I and Bad Boys II sport more assertive female characters, Téa Leoni in the first installment, Gabrielle Union in the second. But in spite of their physical contribution to action and narrative, in the end they largely require the assertive interventions Figure 5: Unlikely heroes. From top: Pearl Harbor (2001); Bad Boys II (2003); Transformers (2007) of men to channel their energy most effectively or be redeemed from overwhelming evil.

Also:

FULLER: The first time I saw Michael on a bigger set, he was doing a video, and there was the hottest blonde girl I’ve ever seen in my life, and she’s got a wind machine on her. She’s dancing, she looks hot, she’s wearing a short skirt. He’s shooting her from a low angle. And he looked at a few of us, and there was this look in his eyes, like he had reached nirvana. It was childlike wonderment.

Plus:

Most of his films cater to some racist sentiments, fly in the face of everyone who wants cinema to abandon its history of sexist images of women, openly serve the agendas of the irrational and immature in his spectators, and engage military personnel and material to appeal to conservative attitudes.

Still, bar that and how Koepnick at times seems to like the sound of his voice a bit too much for my liking, I must say some parts of this book were a great read. Koepnick delves high and low with both detailed, David Foster Wallace-ish paragraphs, alongside ham-fisted and funny ones. Ham:

Nearly all of Bay’s films involve natural, man-made, or machine-triggered threats to large portions or the entirety of the human habitat.

and:

It is impossible to imagine Bay’s heroes reading a book over a prolonged period of time; in fact they might not be endowed with the gift of reading at all (as some critics may suspect). If Charles Baudelaire, according to Walter Benjamin’s famous analysis, wrote poetry for readers who no longer had the patience to read poetry, Bay makes films for viewers with low tolerance for both reading and viewing typical narrative cinema.

plus:

Similar to those who embraced Trump in the 2016 election as an authentic voice reclaiming America from foreign powers, Bay’s lonely crowds invoke and cling to patriotism as an unmediated structure of belonging because they have come to mistrust any other form of mediation, representation, and negotiated commonality.

Detailed:

Hungarian philosopher and critic Georg Lukács wrote in 1913 that cinema invites us to forget the demands of high art and instead cultivate the naïve and irresponsible aspects of our modern existence: “The child in every individual is set free and becomes lord of the psyche of the spectator.” Difficult as it may be to imagine Michael Bay reading the work of the grand Hungarian Marxist, Bay certainly has no qualms about presenting his films as vehicles appealing to the inner child in both their makers and their viewers. His pyrotechnic spectacles; his images of robotic toys gaining real-life existence; his narratives of global danger, rescue, and redemption; and, most of all, his presentation of both men and cinematic images in continuous action—all quite frankly aspire to free cinema from taxing expectations and enable the spectator to tap into the unfettered playfulness of childhood. It is certainly tempting to read Bay’s appeal to the child in every individual as symptomatic of what action cinema in the age of digital oversaturation for many is all about: a mechanism that is simultaneously catering to, producing, and capitalizing onindividual attention deficit disorders—our inability to sustain concentration over extended periods of time without the incentives of spectacle, thrill, seduction, and perceptual violence.

Pain & Gain shows little patience for exploring the nonhuman in the human, let alone tuning into the vibrancy and vitality of matter not controlled by neoliberal visions of self-perfection, of fitness, of instrumentalizing matter for the sake of individual benefit and competitive expansion.

Speaking of detail, this paragraph is wondrous, where Koepnick analyses neoliberalism into Bay:

Although definitions of neoliberalism vary, most focus on its stress on deregulation, structures of entrepreneurial self-management, and flexible models of work. Under neoliberalism, markets rather than government policies, rugged individualism rather than grown structures of care and solidarity provide the metrics to assess the parameters of a good life. Market rationality, in fact, serves as a model to configure all kinds of social domains and human activities, including those in which money initially seems to play no role whatsoever. Political theorist Wendy Brown therefore suggests viewing the spread of neoliberalism in the new millennium not simply as registering fundamental changes in postindustrial labor practices but as a dynamic by which economic rationality dominates all aspects of life at all times, transforms older models of governance and human identity into forms of management themselves, and replaces the homo politicus of ancient philosophy with the figure of the homo oeconomicus as the template of social existence: “In neoliberal reason and in domains governed by it, we are only and everywhere homo oeconomicus, which itself has a historically specific form. Far from Adam Smith’s creature propelled by the natural urge to ‘truck, barter, and exchange,’ today’s homo oeconomicus is an intensely constructed and governed bit of human capital tasked with improving and leveraging its competitive positioning and with enhancing its (monetary and nonmonetary) portfolio value across all of its endeavors and venues.”

All in all, this is a breath of fresh air as far as reading film theory goes for me; I must confess to being a near-total neophyte where this area is concerned, but I got through this book as an easy, eye-opening, and fun read.

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