BY RENE RODRIGUEZ / [email protected]
NEW YORK – The mere mention of his name is enough to make movie critics hiss and groan. Their feeling is shared by many serious film buffs, who argue his style of filmmaking is antithetical to the primal pleasure of movies — an engrossing story, told through images and populated by characters we can identify with.
Michael Bay is well aware of this, thank you. Sitting on a couch in a Manhattan hotel suite to promote his new film, the $100 million futuristic thriller The Island (opening Friday), the director is engaged and lively — until you utter the word ”critics.” Then Bay immediately detaches, turns away to stare out the window, and begins to speak in a drone-like manner, as if reciting a speech he’s had to say 10 times too many.
”They castrate me,” he begins.
”They call me the devil and all that crap.” For a moment, he stops, obviously wanting to talk about something else. But after a little prodding, he begins again.
”The critics were very nice to me when I first began with Bad Boys,” he says. “But I’ve actually stopped reading them. It would be nice if they liked me and didn’t call me the devil. But when you’re successful, everyone wants to see you fail. Every single movie that I’ve done, lucky enough, has been a huge hit. I don’t have that flop yet. Maybe The Island will flop. I don’t know. But right now, I don’t have that.”
He certainly doesn’t. Whether it’s deserved or not, Bay’s reputation in the pop culture arena is of a stereotypically slick, hotshot director whose movies are all assaultive flash and vacuous thrills — a perfect filmmaker, in other words, for the Xbox generation. It’s a reputation so widespread that in last year’s Team America: World Police, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone had one of their marionettes sing the line ”I miss you/ More than Michael Bay missed the mark when he made Pearl Harbor” and everyone in the theater got the joke.
But there’s an undeniable counterpoint to all the criticism: The five movies Bay has directed to date — Bad Boys I and II, Armageddon, The Rock and Pearl Harbor — have grossed more than $1.7 billion around the world. That’s not just enough to keep Bay working. That’s enough to have landed the 39-year-old veteran of TV commercials and music videos a spot alongside the A-list likes of James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
It was Spielberg himself who sent Bay the script for The Island, about two people (Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson) in 2050 who discover they are clones bred to supply replacement parts for their ”sponsors,” and go on the run to avoid their fate. Made for Spielberg’s DreamWorks Pictures, it’s the first film Bay has directed away from the auspices of actionmeister producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Con Air), who gave Bay his feature-film break.
The Island is easily the most substantial picture Bay has made, with thought-provoking subtexts about identity, the dangers of genetic engineering, and the value of human life.
But The Island is also, unmistakably, a Michael Bay film, from the dream sequence that opens the film — a hyper-kinetic montage of nightmarish images that zip by faster than the eye can register — to a showstopping mid-film car chase (shot with the aid of a remote-controlled camera able to move at 130 miles per hour) involving an 18-wheeler carrying one-ton metal train wheels, a flying motorcycle, helicopters and lots and lots of shattered glass and steel.
That chase scene — which keeps building in intensity until you’re sure it’s about to end, and then tops itself again — is the kind of thing Bay does best. It is also the kind of thing that has earned him the critics’ wrath. Bay’s rapid-fire editing and relentless, in-your-face imagery edges into the assaultive: When that chase sequence in The Island finally ends, you feel exhausted — which is exactly the way Bay wants it.
Critics have railed against Bay’s technique, arguing that it renders his movies incomprehensible. Bay, who is obviously sensitive to the complaint, is quick to point out that the cutting in The Island “is very slow in the beginning, all right? It’s very deliberate. It is only as the world quickens for the characters that the cuts get more intense and they start picking up. That’s one of the ways I build up energy and get this kinetic thing going. And it certainly looks like a lot of other people are starting to cut fast now, too, right? Thus, we go back to the devil thing. Thus, the death of cinema from Michael Bay.”
Editing has arguably been behind most of the leaps forward in the ways movies tell stories, from Sergei Eisenstein’s revolutionary use of montage in the Odessa Steps sequence from 1925’s Battleship Potemkin, to the use of jump cuts in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1959 Breathless and subsequent films from his French New Wave peers.
But while few would argue that Bay doesn’t know what he’s doing — even the harshest reviews of Pearl Harbor expressed begrudging admiration for the attack sequence, which contained the now-famous point-of-view shot of a Japanese bomb being dropped on an American battleship — it is the speed with which Bay cuts, an obvious remnant of his music video work, that is the most controversial element of his style.
Janine Basinger, chairwoman of Connecticut’s Wesleyan University Film Studies Department, was the then-18-year-old Bay’s first formal film professor. She is also an avid defender of her most famous pupil.
‘I often joke that my tombstone will read `She taught Michael Bay,’ ” Basinger says, laughing. “But I don’t think Michael Bay is the devil. I think he’s a good filmmaker. He was an award-winning photographer as a high school student, a fully defined visual artist as a kid, and I don’t think he approached the medium with the idea of pleasing other people necessarily.
‘Ingmar Bergman said, `Every great filmmaker has to define film on his own terms,’ and in a sense, that’s right,” she says. “For some people, it’s about long takes or performances or social messages. For Michael, it’s about pace and rapid movement. Michael is actually an abstract artist in the way he uses time, space, light and color. He’s almost an experimental filmmaker in that regard. He uses the medium in the fastest, sharpest way that it can be used, and if you don’t like it, tough luck.”
If The Island doesn’t feel nearly as much of an onslaught as some of Bay’s other movies, it’s because the times may be catching up with the filmmaker. The pace of action pictures has quickened tremendously over the past 10 years, and one could argue that everything from The Matrix to Black Hawk Down owes a small debt to Bay. While no one will ever defend Armageddon and The Rock as great movies, they are infinitely more watchable today — or at least more comprehensible — than they were five years ago. It’s no accident that The Criterion Collection, the DVD publisher catering to high-brow art films by the likes of Francois Truffaut, Akira Kurosawa and Jean Renoir, includes both films in their catalog. They may not be spiritually or intellectually nourishing, but they may also be pitch-perfect examples of the direction in which popcorn entertainments are heading.
Which would make Michael Bay into a bona fide artist after all. The director is not holding his breath for a critical reevaluation any time soon, although he admits that thus far, ‘the press is being real nice to me on [The Island]. Maybe it’s because of the subject matter, but it seems that way. Steven Spielberg called me after he saw it and said, `You’ve always been one of the best shooters around, but now you’re a real storyteller.’ That was a really great compliment.”
And even if reviews for The Island end up reviving those devil references, Bay says he doesn’t care. ‘I don’t make movies for critics: I make them for the average person to just go there and forget about their problems for two hours. Besides, in a way, it’s like a badge of honor. Quentin Tarantino told me, `Hey dude, don’t worry about it: They called me the Antichrist last year!’ ”