Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Great Debate: Michael Bay Auteur?

"A film is the epitome of an artwork resting on style. There must be an author, an écriture. The author writes on the screen, expressing himself through the photographic shots of varying duration and angles. For an author worthy of the name, each choice is determined, dictated by calculation or instinct but not by chance." - Robert Bresson

On Thursday March 8th at 6:30PM, TIFF Next Wave will be hosting at the Lightbox an in-cinema debate about Michael Bay. Is he a modern day Griffith shaping the language of how films are made today or is he an incompetent hack whose use of explosive special effects is a cover for the nothingness of his films? The panel will consist of Adam Nayman (The Grid, Cinema Scope), two film students from the Etobicoke School of the Arts and will be moderated by Mark Little.

What exactly is an auteur anyway? For André Bazin talking about an auteur means “choosing the personal factor in artistic creation as a standard of reference, and then assuming that it continues and even progresses from one film to the next.” François Truffaut gives his definition of the auteur in his famous essay Une certaine tendance du cinéma Français pointing out that the auteur should be considered as fully an artist as any of the great novelists, painters or poets. Jim Hillier highlights that there was a unique temperament to the 1950s auteur at Cahiers du cinéma: “it was not any world view but rather a particular world view that was being privileged.” John Hess further expands, “An auteur was a film director who expressed an optimistic image of human potentialities within an utterly corrupt society. By reaching out emotionally and spiritually to other human beings and/or to God, one could transcend the isolation imposed on one by a corrupt world.” The auteur would be recognizable by his mise en scène, which Fereydoun Hoveyda emphasizes, “The originality of the auteur lies not in the subject matter he chooses, but in the technique he employs, i.e. the mise en scène, through which everything on the screen is expressed.”

When the auteur theory first emerged at Cahiers in the 1950s it was used as a polemic to argue the singularity of Modernist Hollywood directors in opposition to the novelistic qualities of the French films of the time and in a post-WWII intellectual climate of strong anti-Americanism. The term to describe these privileged filmmakers has changed over the years. Jean-Claude Biette in his essay Que’est ce qu’un cinéaste? in Trafic revised auteur for the term cinéaste, which has broader implications. While more recently Michel Ciment at Positif argues for the practicing of a politique de hauteurs. Where the question is not if a certain director is an auteur or a cinéaste, but let’s champion these directors best work and not let them just ride on their reputation.

So lets return the conversation to Micheal Bay, whose latest film is Transformers: Dark of the Moon: the story of Sam Witwicky (an over-compensating Shia LaBeouf) trying to find a job, when there aren't too many prosperous positions available, while his girlfriend (British model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) is working her way up nicely at a corporation. Everything quickly escalates out of control towards CGI Hasbro Transformers getting together with the American military to save the world from other "evil" Transformers. There isn't much depth to the story or to the characters and instead what you get are noisy robots hitting one another for an extended period of time. Go figure.

The Transformers franchise series and its embrace of the military-industrial complex, and whose Dark of the Moon came out on Independence Day, gives off the bad impression of resembling too much a long promotional video for a teenage demographic to go out and thoughtlessly join the American military. In Dark of the Moon the death of human life is reduced down to a mournful country song, the real attacks on the World Trade Center is reduced to a suspense gimmick, and the presentation of the Korean actor Ken Jeong is crude and stereotyped. In regards to form, Bay's shots don't feel determined and there is no sign of a visible artistry.

What does Bay have going for him? One can think of the iconic roles that he creates for his lead actors, an interesting balance of moods in the films, and he is building upon a distinct repertoire of associations.

But what one seriously needs to ask oneself: Is there anything left to Bay's films after the explosions have stopped and the dusts has settled?


MedfordReinhardt said...

The way one uses this word always needs so much clarification that I wonder if it has any real currency today.

The reason the debate is even being held seems to more reflect the anxiety of there being a space for vacuous auteurship with few redeeming values than to parse the various definitions of the term and whether Bay fits into them.

He seems to fit well in that second circle Andrew Sarris laid out called "stylist," though it's compelling to think that he more closely reflects the industrial filmmaking process laid out in the first Cahier definition of the word than peeps like Tarr or Weerasethakul.

I may be unfair to poor Bay though. I think I'm still mad about how he fucked my girlfriend while she was his intern. Fucking asshole.

David D. said...

Medford, Thanks for the comment, interesting observations.