Few directors are known by name by the general movie-going audience, even fewer are hated as heatedly as action director Michael Bay. It’s difficult to exactly point out why so many so-called cinephiles and wannabes feel so strongly about a director who has not one but two films featured in the prestigious Criterion Collection (The Rock and Armageddon). Is it that he gets to work with a big budget and the best industry professionals despite his films generally getting horrible reviews? Is it the Victoria’s Secret models, hot cars and his passion for explosions that make people envious? Is it the fact that he doesn’t care about anything people write about him on the internet? I am still not sure.
My most likely answer would be that people enjoy his films, the box office numbers speak for themselves, but since critics hate everything that has his name on it pretentious moviegoers feel conflicted about his work. On one side his entertaining and hectic films are must-see events, on the other hand they’re not good enough to be declared favorites without losing a lot of street creed. This puts aspiring film experts in a tough position, where they ultimately give in to “peer pressure” and declare they don’t like his films, while still actively seeking them out and watching them. The excuse is that they’re “going to see how bad they are” or “laugh at them and make fun of how bad they are”, while secretly enjoying them.
While it is not socially acceptable to like a Michael Bay film, without the rare approval of Rotten Tomatoes or other “authorities”, his pictures are too big to ignore. It is a well known fact that Bay innovated the action genre with his hectic videoclip style editing and action set-pieces/explosion centered plots. Undeniably nobody can make objects, people or computer generated imagery look as sexy as Bay does. His fetish for visual perfection at the cost of anything else, be it story or characters, is in its own way a valid mean of expression. While his artistic statement might not be the deepest, it is certainly far more interesting than many pandering art house director’s annoying ideology and propaganda. That’s right, because much like say the Coen brothers Michael Bay is in his way an auteur. He has a clear vision, his films come from a very personal place and he makes most of the decisions on the projects he works on. So why is there no respect for the Los Angeles boy who likes to blow up shiny toys and is one of the few that still prefers practical special effects (when possible)?
One reason is envy. Many professional critics are self-centered egomaniacs, that take themselves far too seriously and believe only their opinion matters. It is only natural that critics would hate Bay, because he gets to ignore them. He doesn’t need good reviews to be successful. He stopped trying to make a critically acclaimed film after Pear Harbor, didn’t do it for him. Critics feel powerless against Bay (inferiority complex), because no matter what they say he doesn’t have to play by the rules. So regardless how we feel about his catalogue, we can all agree that Bay represents some sort of anomaly in the Hollywood studio system. As long as his films are profitable he can do whatever he wants. He gets to have fun, he gets to direct movies and gets to do them the way he likes them. Isn’t that every filmmaker’s dream (getting paid for what you enjoy doing anyway)? As a matter of fact isn’t that everybody’s dream (in a way)? Oh, and did I mention many people who become critics once were aspiring filmmakers? Does it start to make sense now?
Personally, I enjoy Michael Bay’s films, especially on a technical level and because I like to disagree and challenge with mainstream ideas, I admit it. I also think he’s a likable guy (based on the interviews I’ve seen) and a professional, with a work ethic I respect. Even if you like Bay however, let’s say you genuinely hate him or his films. That’s fine. You don’t have to like every director, it’s impossible. I myself tend to actively dislike certain directors, mostly when they make “cold” films that are hailed as masterpieces or when they are very judgmental and annoying about their “message”. Anyways, the reason or event that inspired me to write this piece was a news bit I read this morning about Michael Bay possibly being punched on the set of Transformers: Age of Ultron, in Hong Kong. Reading some people’s reactions I was saddened not only to find a lot of hate for his films, as expected, but also people rejoicing about the incident. The same people probably would define themselves against violence. Some gloating attitudes even transpired from articles written by what I consider to be respectable bloggers.
So when is hating a director too much? To me the answer is clear: When it becomes personal. We are here to judge their work, not who they are as a person. Sure that influences their work, but why should we be happy that they were possibly physically hurt? I guess it’s easy and even satisfying (in the moment) to hate someone and cheer when something bad happens to them, especially if it’s a person you envy. Then however I asked myself how I’d react if a public personality I hated got punched and I remembered when the ex Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi was allegedly punched and I thought it was great. I could justify myself and say that Berlusconi has done a lot of damage to Italy and basically destroyed the country’s image and goodwill, while Bay can be merely held responsible for “ruining people’s childhood” by taking on the Transformers franchise and producing horror remakes, but that wouldn’t be right.
What can we learn from all this? Firstly, I’m no better than other people or bloggers: I just happen to dislike other people. In other words a little bit of healthy auto-critique every once in a while prevents you to become exactly what you say you hate in other people. Secondly, hating and envying famous people doesn’t make you feel any better about your life, in the moment it might be a gratifying feeling, but it’s destructive and will make you feel miserable in the long run and we should really focus our time and energy on things we truly love and enjoy. Thirdly, does there need to be a third point? I don’t know, usually it’s three, but I guess I had only two. So this is how I feel about Bay. I hope that whether you like him or not, that I still gave you something to think about. I’m not going to try to convince you that he’s a great director and that his films are masterpieces, but if you can watch and appreciate Bay’s cinema for what it is without the need to insult it or feel guilty about it: My job is done.
Cinema is a very subjective experience. Every film is perceived differently by every person that watches it. We all bring our own personal baggage into the movie going experience, whether we realize it, want it or don’t want it is irrelevant. Films speak to us differently in different stages of our lives, based on the experiences we’ve had, people we’ve met, stories we’ve heard and other, new movies we’ve seen. I can watch a film today and completely hate it, then revisit it in a couple of years and fall in love with it or the opposite. All this is to say that there isn’t and there can’t be a universal meter to measure what a good film is, but then there’s film critics.
Am I a film critic? I’d prefer to see myself as a commentator, because I don’t have a formal training, but for the sake of this post let’s say I’m a critic. I’m the bad guy. I’m the guy that tells you the movie you’ve been pumped for years is total shallow shit. I’m the guy that you love to hate, because I over-analyze stuff, while you just want to be entertained. Good, now that you know who I am, let’s move on. Should my opinion influence the way you think and view movies? Yes, otherwise why am I doing this. Am I allowed to voice my negative feelings? Yes, but if I’m smart I’ll try to be constructive in my criticisms. Are my favorite movies the best movies? No, because I am not an absolute. The only time my favorite movies coincide with the best movies is for myself, nobody else in the world will have exactly the same tastes as I do, because we’re all different, remember?
What about aggregates of critics’ opinions like Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic or IMDb? Here’s where it gets tricky. People tend to believe that the majority is right. I mean they have to be, don’t they? We live in a complex world, where we try to simplify things as often as we can. The sites I just mentioned are great, I check them multiple times every week, even daily sometimes, but they’re not infallible. Humans are imperfect, so a human’s creation can only be flawed. The masses are not always right, but elites aren’t either. These sites (and I might add lists like AFI and the prestigious Sight & Sound Top 50 ) are just what most critics believe, don’t get me wrong most of the times these people know what they’re talking about, but even they can be wrong.
Tastes vary over time. A film might be so ahead of its time that critics aren’t prepared yet to understand it and appreciate it. That’s how cult followings are born. A film might also be just viewed as bad on a technical level or for its non-conformist opinions or social commentary. That’s an example of the mainstream labeling a film as “bad”. Once a film is considered “rotten”, the minority that really enjoys it, usually doesn’t feel it is socially acceptable to admit they liked or even loved the movie. Those people are usually very insecure. They use films to brand themselves. It makes sense. The “image” a film has is going to rub off on the people championing it, in marketing we call it the “halo effect”. So it makes sense to have only critically acclaimed films in your Top-whatever list.
Since we’ve established that there isn’t an absolute authority that has the right or knowledge to conclusively decide for everyone which movies are good, bad or in-between, there shouldn’t be “guilty pleasures”. Everyone should be free to like everything, but most feel that they aren’t, now why is that? Easy, we don’t really believe that. We do think a critic’s opinion, an expert’s opinion, the opinion from our own social circle or other opinion leaders is more or as important as our own. I’m not saying other people’s opinions are worthless, but at the very least they’re all as valid as our own. Once we accept that, we won’t have to over-justify our own tastes, when they differ from the mainstream. Then again I have a certain tendency to dislike or at least be suspicious of everything “too” mainstream, and this contrarian attitude is ‘dangerous’ and stupid as well. I’m working on trying to change that about myself.
Maybe this whole discourse is too theoretical, dry and boring so I’ll give you a concrete example of what I mean. I am a fan of the auteur theory and so I try to watch movies in the context of the director’s catalogue. Being someone who enjoys watching the films of Gregg Araki and other auteurs that are considered mediocre or bad, I feel that I have to defend my opinions a lot and I like doing that. Now even with what’s considered his worst work, I still find something to like, because I see his stylistic trademarks, the actors he loves working with and his specific tone and atmosphere. That’s why I champion the auteur theory and watch movies that way. If you’re really into a director I think your favorite films of his will be his most personal, maybe even self-indulgent ones, but definitely the ones that speak to you, that you feel were “made for you”. So I can say in good conscience, with no guilt or shame that I like all of his films, even his poorly rated works like The Doom Generation or Kaboom.
So my point is: Defend your favorite films. If you enjoy re-watching a film quite often or regularly and you don’t have the guts to admit it’s one of your favorites, but prefer to put a film you’ve seen once in your list just because it’s considered “better” by someone else that isn’t you, what kind of film goer are you? To me a favorite film is one I enjoy revisiting, one that makes me feel great every time I watch it, one that is good to me and maybe no one else. Maybe you don’t recognize yourself in anything I just said and you use the term “guilty pleasure” as a shortcut, because people immediately know what you mean or you don’t know a better catch phrase to explain your feelings towards a film. To me the term clearly doesn’t make much sense. A better use would be if it were used in the context of say enjoying films that are morally appalling.
All this to say that we should all try to be more honest (myself included) about what we like and don’t like, even if it’s not socially acceptable. Our favorites lists would be more interesting, less conventional maybe, but more eclectic. We’d all feel better about ourselves and realize that other people have weird and not necessarily “safe” tastes as well. Those tastes are there regardless of whether you admit them or not and for as risky as they might be, they make you unique and special.
A couple nights ago I re-watched Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), one of my all time favorite horror films. My brother and his friend and I set up a beamer in our living-room and watched Room 237 (the documentary about The Shining) first and then watched Kubrick’s film. It was epic and I appreciated it even more than the first time, having a better knowledge of Stanley Kubrick’s filmography and loving all of the films he has done. I also have a better knowledge of the horror genre, but still, what can I say about the film that hasn’t been said before?
So I came up with a couple ideas while and after watching the film. I noticed that all those ideas are about how The Shining had a huge impact on filmmakers and pop-culture in general. Without prolonging my monologue: Here are five ways in which The Shining was inspirational to other filmmakers and artists all around the globe. Much like Room 237 these are subjective theories, some probably more valid than others.
Sofia Coppola is known to be a fan of Stanley Kubrick fan. She cited Lolita as one of her favorite films, and I certainly agree. The Bar Scene in The Shining reminded me a lot of the one in Lost In Translation and both films mostly take place in a hotel. Maybe it’s the light or the atmosphere or something subconscious, but I think Sofia was inspired by it. You can’t really see it in that picture, but to give you an idea of which scenes I’m referring to.
Wes Anderson is another director that is widely influenced by Kubrick’s aesthetic. The most apparent thing is how he frames his shots. Anderson clearly likes to use wide shots and move his camera like Kubrick used to. His similarities with the master however are mostly on a visual level, thematically and tonally the two couldn’t be more different. The shot on the left is from The Royal Tenenbaums.
Obviously not a visual comparison here, but an audible one. Not that the two scores are terribly similar, but I feel that Johnny Greenwood uses some of the same “wood instruments” (sorry, I’m no musical expert obviously). We all know P. T. Anderson loves Stanley Kubrick, so it’s no stretch that he would assign his composer to do something “similar” or (more likely) Greenwood loves Kubrick as well.
Stanley Kubrick is certainly an auteur, and as such his body of work can and should be viewed as one giant piece. He has evolved stylistically and thematically throughout his career. The Shining maze scene, reminded me of the scene in the trenches in Paths of Glory. In this sense Full Metal Jacket seems like a natural evolution for Kubrick, especially in developing his visual style, just like there would be no ‘Shining’ without Barry Lyndon.
Clearly this idea is kind of silly, but you can’t deny the fact that they’re both on a go-kart, wearing not only the same type of clothing, but the exact same colors. Now, of course Mario has a red hat and all kinds of tricks and he’s actually racing against people, but I can’t help but think that somewhere in Japan someone loved The Shining and wanted to pay homage to it. Even the way it’s shot, from behind is the same!
So, these were my thoughts on The Shining‘s influence and inspiration to other people. The way this film inspired me is that it made me want to watch “older” films. When I first saw it I mostly watched recent mainstream films and now I’m quite the opposite, preferring foreign art house cinema. It’s one of the great horror films and I recommend it to anyone who loves Kubrick, the horror genre or just a good mystery. If you don’t like the horror genre: This is proof that excellent genre pictures exist. If you have seen The Shining, I’d love to hear about how you interpret it and how it inspired you!