The Two Michaels – Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Public Enemies
July 6, 2009
I know the comparison seems a bit arbitrary (the directors have the same first name and they have new movies out around the same time), but having seen Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Public Enemies within a few days of each other, I can’t help but contrast the two works and their creators. For those unaware, Michael Bay is responsible for TROTF, as well as such doozies as Bad Boys, Bad Boys II, Pearl Harbor, The Island, and who could forget, Armageddon. Michael Mann’s Public Enemies is the latest work from the man who has given us Thief, Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider, Ali, Collateral, and Miami Vice. Both directors specialize in glossy style (indeed, they both have backgrounds in advertising), and both have a notorious reputation for being nearly impossible to work with on set. Bay tends to get a significantly higher amount of financing from the studios, but Mann has recently commanded budgets that hover around the $100 million range, and according to some reports, that number is significantly higher in actuality. As you can tell from the films listed, one has churned out some of the worst blockbusters seen in the modern era, and the other boasts a CV of some of the finest films Hollywood has produced in the last three decades.
Armond White of the New York Press recently gave an update of the Year in Movies 2009 by singling out TROTF as the ‘…live action cartoon that revived the awe of movie watching.’ I’m not sure about it reviving anything, but I can say that within the first two minutes, I was awe-struck. You can probably guess that I’m going to flip that seeming praise into a serious damning, and you’d be right. If you were to suddenly turn up the lights in the cinema between minute two and minute twenty of the film, you’d see my expression and assume I had just witnessed a full grown man stab a blind 7-year old in the ear. From the bizarre ’17,000 years ago’ title card to the two dogs humping for no apparent reason in the backyard of Sam Whitwicky (Shia Lebouf), I was absolutely astonished. Bay’s entire reprehensible oeuvre of action spectacles littered with casual racism and sub-sub-sub teenage humour never prepared for the depths to which he would go in this film. Within the inexcusably loooooooong 149 minutes, we witness robot testicles, a small robot humping Megan Fox’s leg, robots that exist as racist caricatures, a middle-aged woman running around campus high after consuming pot brownies, and the Oompah-Loompah from Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory turning up as an Egyptian border guard, presumably only so Bay could squeeze in a few short jokes. This is only the tip of the iceberg.
It is utter nonsense from start to finish. I would never have assumed there would be a plot in the first place, so I wasn’t dismayed at the lack of one, but I couldn’t believe just how boring it would all turn out to be. Extended ‘comedy’ moments in place of characters, some slapdash ‘why won’t you say you love me?’ storyline, and the most mind-numbingly dull action sequences you can think of. The Michael Bay ultra-fast editing approach is in full force, only now with cameras zooming around CGI robots, leaving the viewer unable to decipher what exactly is going on, which I guess isn’t a problem since the viewer also doesn’t care. It meanders needlessly for what seems like a year (and particularly boring one at that), assuming that the payoff of plastic-looking monstrosities clanking around is justification enough. Well, it isn’t. This is the worst kind of hackery. The first one at least attempted to give us the wonder and excitement of the boy-and-his-robot-friend fantasy. Here we are thrust into a heap of witless garbage, and we damn near choke on the stench before an hour is up.
The stupidity, the sickening editing, and the ultra-sleekness (every shot looks like an advert for something) are too much to bear, and it strikes me odd that any human being with a functioning brain can enjoy it. But none of that really matters, because this is a Michael Bay movie. It took less than a week to cross the $200 million dollar domestic gross mark, and that’s what it exists to do. Now I have spent some years defending Hollywood blockbuster schlock from the incessant eye rolling of the art crowd, and I tend to hate the bile that spews forth about ‘art’ and ‘meaning’. For a while after I left the cinema, I wondered if this was it; the final nail in the coffin. Were my days of enjoying hugely expensive summertime trash over? Was I just desperate for something that is trying to say something relevant or interesting or at least to elicit a serious emotion? I don’t think so. While part of me is tired of the same old over-marketed dross getting shoved down our throats, I still love an event picture, and I love the idea of watching gorgeous effects blow stuff up real good. So while this hasn’t stirred in me the hatred of an entire genre, it has made me less tolerable of corporate, artless trash.
Bay, as a director, is obsessed with style, and only style, but unfortunately not in an interesting way. The editing of his films has always been a problem, with a static shot lasting less than a second, cutting to another static shot that lasts roughly the same amount of time, and often breaking up the routine with a sweeping pan or crane dolly that lasts only slightly longer, all of which leads to the sensation of extreme nausea. The shots are colourful and immaculately lit, but all artifice. His natural talent for prettiness combined with his complete lack of understanding of subtlety and total ignorance of the word ‘minimal’ leads to what is essentially a war of escalation with himself. The relative box office failure of The Island led to what is perhaps his most mature work, which is the first Transformers film. No doubt guided to some degree by executive producer Steven Spielberg, you can sense the desire to create a building excitement with the introduction of the robots to the Sam character, recalling E.T., Jaws, and Jurassic Park. Even when the ‘awe’ reveals are completed, the finale has a somewhat more sensible flow to it. There are attempts to sustain a shot, even if it is moving and following the action so as not to force the audience to pay too much attention. There is actually a sense of spatial relations between the characters and objects, and even if all of these aspects never quite work, the attempt must be seen as a kind of growth. In the sequel, however, it is all abandoned. The first one made a gazillion dollars, and he has that amount to make this one, so he’s going to cram absolutely everything he can in. The purpose of a sequel in his eyes is to simply outdo the previous one. That one was a little over two hours, this one will be longer. That one had some robots, this one will have three times as many. It is a shining example of the clichéd American ideal: more is better and quantity not quality. He has referred to himself as a CEO on the set. After all, he is in charge of $200 million dollars, and my guess would be that his ‘difficult’ nature on set has more to do with running the company than it does with an artist striving for the perfection of his vision (although this may be true if his ‘vision’ is to see every single dollar on screen).
All that said, his movies gross hundreds of millions in a matter of days, and studio executives only ever see the bottom line. Okay, that’s unfair, but with those numbers, they have a corporate responsibility to indulge him because he does what they want him to do: make a movie that will bring in the money, and if it has to be nonsense, loud, stupid, and completely unchallenging, then so be it. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is cynical trash, designed to cuckold the public and swipe their money, and it is rotten to its very core.
In stark contrast, we have the peculiar entity that is Michael Mann. A genuine auteur, his films have in the past been reasonably audience pleasing without sacrificing intelligence. While he might not have produced a massive blockbuster (though I suppose Last of the Mohicans comes close), he still manages to get significant budgets from major studios to make what he wants to make. Perhaps this is down to the attractive nature of his favoured subjects: criminals and lawmen. While he doesn’t always deal with them, at least not always in the spectacularly violent way (The Insider, possibly his masterpiece, concentrates on the threats of corporations), one can see the common theme that arises: Individuals battling against a corrupt world to main their freedom and adhere to their code. The attention to the exploration of character combined with his continued experimentation in form sets him apart from many of his contemporaries, and probably goes some way to explaining his devoted critical fanbase, which is particularly evident on the Internet.
His newfound love for DV and his apparent lack of concern for plot has led to his most recent features, namely Miami Vice and Public Enemies, to mediocre critical reviews and, in the case of Vice, outright box office failure. However, these features are exactly the reason why he’s an artist. I’m not saying those two films are perfect, but they are both astonishing in their own way; it just so happens that that way is not particularly conducive to your average audience’s enjoyment.
Critics have generally liked Public Enemies, but many of them seem to have the same reservation: it’s cold. The reasons for thinking so are understandable. Mann’s continued experimentation with editing and narrative tend to de-emphasize the big emotional moments. In fact, Public Enemies feels almost matter-of-fact as we’re watching it. We watch a series of events, very few of which are properly explained, until it’s over. Dillinger famously escaped from a prison by carving a piece of wood to look like a gun, a fact which is barely noticed in the film save the briefest of close-ups and a tossed off line by a guard. He also seems to work hard to hide the budget he’s been given. A period piece like this, costing as much as it does, usually ends with filmmakers indulging in the décor. Establishing shots of the beautifully constructed exteriors are often dotted around, and sweeping shots of the expanse of their recreated past add to the lushness of the experience. Mann does almost the exact opposite. There are very few establishing shots in the film, despite the attention to detail that obviously went into the production. Recreating the Great Depression would normally allow a director to showcase an identifiable but also alien world that gives context to the character and their actions. Here the Depression is noted, but briefly and subtley (consider the stunning shot of the woman asking Dillinger to take him with her, with the decrepit house just behind her and the laundry flowing in the wind to their left). Mann’s intention here isn’t to explain away the actions of his protagonist, because his interest lies somewhere else. He’s not setting out to create a tragic hero a lá Bonnie and Clyde, but rather a complex individual who has skills and desires he himself hardly understands. He has stated in interviews that the reason he used DV for a period picture was to strip away the romanticism they are so often associated with, especially when dealing with a figure as famous as Dillinger. Video is almost a signifier for ‘the real’, while film is the fantasy, and it’s use here (along with the verité handicam work) is to present this time as the Now. The real achievement is how well it works without ever feeling like a faux-documentary. By stylizing so many of the shots in such a way, he’s managed to allow us to interpret his film through the visuals as opposed to merely through screenplay and acting. The predominance on close-ups and very tight medium, as well as his by-now-should-be-trademarked behind-the-ear shots, are there to get us deeper into the people as opposed to the myth they might represent in other films.
Critics seem to be split on Depp’s performance, but I don’t see this is a problem of interpretation of execution, but rather as an understanding of the character. Depp gives a nuanced, understated performance missing from his most recent work, which might be especially jarring considering the larger-than-life aspect of Dillinger himself, but this is completely in line with the film as a whole. If the film lacks an emotional punch throughout most of its running time, it’s because Dillinger doesn’t understand it himself. The variation on the Mann theme here is that the individual, the outsider, with his code of conduct (the man who botches the prison escape at the beginning is tossed out of the car to die) is doing what he does without knowing exactly why. The tragedy isn’t in the grandiose legend falling, but in the fact that he only comes to grips with what is important to him when it’s too late.
Some space should be devoted to the remarkable final scenes. As a person, Dillinger had captured the public imagination. He was charming and cool with the press, he robbed banks but not people (which of course was ridiculous, because he was robbing the people, but his PR abilities made it seem otherwise), and he was a representation of an outlaw frontier spirit for which the public yearned. His final night took place in a cinema, watching the gangster film Manhattan Melodrama, featuring performances possibly influenced by his persona. He enjoys the mark he has made on culture, and then, through a series of clips showing the female star of the show, he thinks of Billy Frechette (Marion Cotillard, who is absolutely superb), the love of his life that is now in prison for protecting him. He leaves the cinema, unaware of the presence of Agent Purvis (Christian Bale, in better form than he has been recently) and his team of G-men waiting for him. The build is beautifully done, and the release, which is his demise, is done with 35mm film. The switch from video to celluloid works as both the moment he enters into legend as well as an underscore of the power of cinema. He wanted it all, right now, but he didn’t appreciate it until he saw it reflected through a movie, reflected through art. It might seem a bit hokey, but epiphanies usually are, and it works to justify the preceding 140 minutes. It is astonishingly well done.
This is not to say the rest of the film was boring. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is disconnected, almost like a series of vignettes because of how little information is given to tie one sequence to the next, but they all work to set up something important. Of particular note is the desperate, poorly planned bank job and subsequent shoot-out of Sioux Falls. Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) is portrayed as the kind of public enemy Dillinger loathes. He’s trigger-happy and short-sighted, and is clearly motivated by the myth Hollywood had portrayed of what a gangster should be (he even cackles maniacally when firing his tommy gun at the encroaching G-men). All this and I’ve not even touched upon the story of Purvis, who finds he is compromising his code of ethics to get the job done for his boss, J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), portrayed as a Rumsfeldesque power-hungry politician who sees Dillinger and his ilk as a way to expand the powers of his fledgling Bureau of Investigation. It is a remarkably dense film, and yet paradoxically it dwells so well on everything it wants to with ease. Mann has managed to pack in an awful lot without ever making the enterprise feel rushed. Public Enemies is neither as tight as Collateral nor as loose and expressionistic as Miami Vice, but like those films it stays with you. The visuals, the tone, the mood, the themes, the ideas, and the performances percolate in your mind.
And now, I must tie up the tenuous contrast of the two Michaels that started this whole thing. Mann is knowing for being difficult on set, supposedly to such an extent that Depp wouldn’t even directly speak to him by the end of the shoot. But while Bay is seen to be difficult because he’s running a company, Mann is an artist and a perfectionist. With Public Enemies and especially Miami Vice, you can get the feeling that he was always feeling his way towards what he wanted. Yes, it costs a lot of money, but by letting the films grow organically he creates something infinitely richer than the calculated market-based TROTF. The trouble is, especially in economic times such as these, how much further will the studios let him go? Mann, it seems, isn’t too far away from the individuals struggling against the system he loves to depict on screen. He’s an iconoclast working within a system that will lose patience with him sooner or later. The great tragedy is that it is the Michael Bays of the world, not the Michael Manns, that will flourish. One will use style to hammer the audience in the head, the other will explore its rich possibilities to create a more meaningful filmgoing experience. One will get budget to do whatever he want because he’s a studio man, the other will find it more and more difficult to get his increasingly audacious ideas onto the screen. It’s the conundrum that plagues any large-formed capitalist art/entertainment field, but just because it’s cliché doesn’t make it any less relevant.