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Tuesday, July 07, 2009


Big dumb cinema

My husband, who sat through the first Transformers movie and had a bit of time on his hands, entertained me the other day by leafing through various reviews of the sequel, noting the following fact: once a movie hits a certain level of incompetence, it inspires critics to get creative with their slagging off, perhaps under the impression that somebody needs to say something clever quickly just to counterbalance the dumbness. For instance:

"at once loud and boring, like watching paint dry while getting hit over the head with a frying pan"


"so loud, you could stick the famously deaf Ludwig Van Beethoven in a concrete bunker a mile away from the nearest cinema and he'd still be gassing about the impressive use of Dolby Surround... by the time the umpteenth building is demolished by a stray Decepticon boot, you'll find yourself amazed at how little (an estimated) $200 million buys you these days."

or Mark Kermode's little mini-film on the subject, or my favourite: 'I don't just feel like I've just seen a bad movie, I feel as though I've been DEFEATED by some malevolent force'.

To express his support for these critics, he found some action clips from the first movie and showed them to me. I was genuinely surprised. I'd been expecting rather dull action scenes strung together with bad dialogue, but this was such an overestimation I had to revise my standards. I didn't know anyone could make action scenes like Michael Bay's. It wasn't just that they were loud and crude: they were confusing. There's a very basic task any action director has to perform, which is to communicate to the audience what's going on. For that to happen, you need a rough sense of what is where and how the various objects and characters stand in relation to one another. Watching those scenes was simply bewildering: as far as I could understand, the soldiers were running in random directions, the village was on some kind of massive turntable that kept rotating to different angles every time the camera moved away, and judging from all the differently framed shots of gunplay, I would imagine that most of the casualties in the Transformer Wars were victims of friendly fire. The scene was simply all over the place, an extreme object lesson in why conventions like the 180 degree rule exist, and why you need to be Stanley Kubrick to get away with breaking them.

However, when we discussed this with a mutual friend, she explained that some people she knew had actually liked those movies. This really surprised me. A good action movie is a pleasure to watch, but those action scenes simply didn't make any sense. Perhaps they were trying to convey the confusion of battle, but in a real battle you're always clear on at least one point, which is what direction you yourself are facing. Your own angle of vision is the baseline. With cameras leaping about like drunken crickets, even that certainty disappears. You could have as much fire and less confusion just setting light to a skip.

Her intial explanation was this: they liked films in which they didn't have to think.

And that got me thinking.

You see, it's an explanation I've heard many times: I like to go to a bad movie so I can relax my brain. But you know what? I'm calling shenanigans.

Watching those confusing action sequences, I had to think like bloody beggary. Everything reeled about at such a pace that I had no idea what was going on; I had to work it out based on limited clues. At top speed. With no help from the cameraman. I've watched Agatha Christie adaptations that stretched my deductive powers less.

The real problem with this idea is simple: it implies that a film has to be bad if you want to watch it unthinkingly. But even a brief glance at movie history disproves that theory. Other action movies don't make you think either, and yet they're excellent. When the evil T1000 Terminator bore down the mass of his huge truck on poor little John Connor's fleeing bike, I didn't think anything at all except, 'Go faster, John! Go faster!' I didn't think because I didn't need to: James Cameron had done my thinking for me. Shot for shot, he laid everything out: the road, the bridge, the huge vehicle, the crash of fender against wheel, the cruising chopper thrumming in to save the day ... it was all set out in perfect sequence, taking me through a complicated set of manoevres while making no demands at all on my intellect. It was no work at all to keep up. Cameron had done the work for me.

What it did do, though, was make me feel, and therein lies the problem. The chase scene might not have triggered many intellectual reflections as I sat enthralled, but it did give a very vivid sense of what it was like to be John Connor: small and smart and scrappy and helpless, suddently out of his depth, just not fast enough, not strong enough, not big enough to escape the horrific inevitability barrelling down on him. If I want a subtle or domestic portrait of childhood I'll watch La Gloire de Mon Pere, but Cameron, in flight, manages to give a high-octane and breathless rendition of a genuine childhood experience: I'm in trouble and I can't cope with this much longer and I really really want my dad. Schwartznegger's weighty mass homes in just in time, and the secure authority with which he lifts the pre-teen John and carries him to safety - one-handed, like a regular father snatching his toddler out of the traffic - captures genuine drama without sacrificing one drop of adrenaline. It's the drama that makes the adrenalin flow: if we didn't care about John, the chase would be like watching a tennis match between two contestants you'd never heard of - fast, perhaps, but who cares who wins? And if we don't care who wins, do we need to watch at all?

Watching really bad action, on the other hand, you generally don't much care who wins. It's fairly predictable that the good guys will, the director hasn't managed to trick your adrenals into believing this time they might not, and so you might as well go get some more popcorn: it's not as if you'll miss anything. Your brain may be switched off, but nothing else will be engaged either: your heart and your guts can stay safely untampered with as well.

What you're left with, in fact, is a movie noisy and sparkly enough to give you something to do for a few hours while making absolutely no threatening passes at your emotions. I'm beginning to suspect that some summer blockbusters are aiming precisely at this demographic: not people who are unwilling to think, but people who are afraid to feel.

These big, dumb blockbusters are, above all, guy movies. Not little-boy movies; despite its basis on a set of toys in the 80s, Transformers is not a children's film. The target audience is young men - but also men in their thirties, which is, after all, the age those little boys who played with Tranformer dolls will now be. My brother had one or two, and he's thirty-five, way older than the regular teen demographic. I don't think he'll be going to see the movie, but the point is, the movie is pitching at an age range that stretches well above the basic 14-24 bracket who make such an uncritical audience (partly, I'd speculate, because at that age there are very few places other than the cinema you can afford to go if you want a night out).

Now, the majority of men and boys are well-adjusted people - but we do live in a culture that puts a lot of pressure on masculinity. The lesson a lot of boys get hammered into them as that weakness is effeminate, and that feeling is weakness. Anger and aggression, perhaps, but fear? Compassion? Love? No way.

The trouble is, suspense involves a bit of fear. You're scared something bad will happen to a character you care about. That's how it works. If the hero is completely unassailable there's no tension: they'll win, so why get interested? You already know what's going to happen. Conversely, if the scene is going to have any dramatic tension, there has to be a chance the hero will suffer, will lose, will fail.

It occurs to me that if somebody is really, really knocked about by the image of masculinity, then feeling almost anything, even in a movie, may feel like a crack in the armour. Sympathy for a character in a frightening situation - what most good action scenes require - means being able to picture someone else's vulnerability, and to have compassion for it.

And if you feel compassion for someone else's vulnerability, that means something in you recognises common humanity with it. Identify with someone vulnerable, and you end up remembering you're only human.

On the other hand, a film that fails to provide genuine drama doesn't run this risk. If the action is hard to follow in detail, bad stuff flies past leaving no impression and we can simply assume the hero will probably win. If there's no suspense, we feel no fear.

After all, despite the apparent randomness of the shots I saw, somebody must have storyboarded them. Or if they didn't, they must at least have spent a lot of time in the editing room splicing them into sequence. It's not as if somebody's dog got into the cannisters and chewed up the reels, however much it might look that way: somebody must have deliberately put those shots in that order. The film makers must be aiming for a specific effect.

Going to the movies has become a summer ritual for a lot of people. Summer is the season of blockbusters, we expect big movies with explosions, and going to see them can be a social event. It's possible, then, that part of the reason is simply that for some people, going to the cinema rather than seeing the film is the main purpose. But that doesn't entirely explain why people would claim to like the films - and I don't buy, either, the suggestion that explosions or robots are simply enough to make people happy. I'm starting to believe that there's a school of cinema deliberately trying to avoid touching people's feelings, like a small boy tiptoing through a field of traps, knowing that any mis-step into drama will set off a terrible chain reaction that ends with the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, you're not as strong as a giant robot after all.

In consideration of this, I'm not sure if I share all the reviewers' anger at Michael Bay. I wish that studios would stop giving money to bad movies and kick some towards getting my novel adaptation out of development, because, well, I'd have more money then, and I wish too that studios would spend their money on making good movies rather than movies that aim no higher than filling up the horrible, horrible silence for a few hours without triggering any dangerous emotions. But I have the feeling Bay makes this kind of movie because it's the kind of movie he wants to see. How fragile do you have to feel before that's the case? I'm wondering if, perhaps, we should feel a little concerned for him.

On the other hand, I'd just like to remind anybody who actually spends money going to see the movie: it's your fault movies like this get made. If they lost money, studios might be more careful next time. Let's not ennable this emotionally-avoidant behaviour. Do your part for manhood and stay away!

I haven't stopped by in a long while so I hadn't heard about your novel adaptation. Great news! I think your novel would make a great film. Here's crossed fingers they don't screw it up and that whatever happens you make a zillion pounds out of it.

Also great thoughts on action sequencing. I hadn't realized what was making it so difficult to follow those action scenes. I just thought ????? a lot and decided "random alien robot blasthing things" or "are we even in the same town?" Sometimes they were not, I think.
Too late for me... I saw it. In my defense, it was a group outing and I had no say in the selection. (In fact, I didn't know if we were going to be able to go until very nearly the last minute.)

That said, I did enjoy it, after a fashion. There were a lot of explosions and things-moving-around, and (I suspect) more than a little childhood nostalgia. I didn't think it was terribly good, but then I enjoy quite a lot of bad films in the horror genre, too.

And I did think that the second movie improved on the action scenes a bit. There were places in the first movie where, even on a full size theater screen, I couldn't tell which giant robot was doing what to which other giant robot, or even how many giant robots were involved. The action in the second film is still confusing, but it was at least decipherable. (On the other hand, I suspect it'll be just as much of a mess as the first one for anyone trying to watch it at home.)

Part of the problem is the design of the robots themselves, I think. The original toys, and the animated series, featured characters with distinctive physical appearances: bright, distinctive colors; solid bodies with clean lines; and weapons that fired solid-line laser(ish) beams. The new, modernized look is chunky and modular, with a lot more texture; and when you have two similarly-textured things side by side, it gets a bit hard to tell them apart. That's especially true when they're engaged in violent movement, but frankly I had trouble telling the robots apart even when they were just standing around.

It's been years since I've seen it, but my memory is that in storytelling terms - plot, pacing, and managing the menagerie of characters that tend to accrue in ongoing serials - the original, animated Transformers movie worked better on every level. If you're feeling nostalgic, watching that would doubtless be a far better use of time and money.

Michael Mock

verification word: Cated, which is actually a family name. Sophisti is the oldest daughter, Compli is the middle child, and then there are the twins: Indi and Masti.
Oh, I forgot to mention - several of the spinning/swooping/where-are-we-anyway camera shots were enough to nauseate my wife. I didn't have that problem myself, but... Well, the fact that you can do something doesn't necessarily make it a good idea.
//like watching a tennis match between two contestants you'd never heard of - fast, perhaps, but who cares who wins? And if we don't care who wins, do we need to watch at all?//

Fun fact: I am not capable of doing this. If I watch for more than thirty seconds, I'll decide that I'm now cheering for the one in the pink shirt, or the one who's a set down, or whatever random reason I come up with. And then, when the one I'm cheering for loses, I actually feel bad for a minute.

(This is probably also how I manage to care what happens to Rayford and Buck, in spite of the writing.)
I love reading reviews of bad movies, especially when done by a critic with a real love of the English language like Roger Ebert. They're so much more entertaining than the movies themselves, as any MST3K fan will attest.

grack: The noise of disgust I made about fifteen minutes into the remake of My Bloody Valentine.
"I don't buy, either, the suggestion that explosions or robots are simply enough to make people happy"

Well, umm. I don't know what to say, then, because explosions and giant robots are enough to make *me* happy.

Not in every occasion or mood, of course. But yeah, explosions are *pretty*. Giant robots stomping around are *cool.*

Sometimes I want to think, and sometimes I want to feel. Usually in those cases I read a book. But when I'm in the mood for sheer visual spectacle, that's when I go to the movies and watch a big dumb action flick.

Or go in the back yard and blow up stuff. That's pretty satisfying, too.

[verification word: "immyompl", which is the sound of a giant robot exploding before falling onto a collapsing building]
Giant robots stomping around are *cool.*

But nothing's inherently cool. Cool is a quality of execution, not of content. Done in different ways, the same idea can be totally cool or utterly pathetic.

And if it's done dreadfully badly, why isn't that a desecration of the potential coolness? If nothing else, it's bad for its reputation; I might feel cool wearing a big green hat, but if my local Wife Beaters For Glory chapter start wearing big green hats at their rallies, they're making the hats look bad.

It's not as if it's a choice between no robot movie and a bad one. We could have a choice between a bad one and a good one, and a good one would have better spectacle. Everyone would win. I like spectacle too sometimes, but bad spectacle is disappointing, like getting a dried-out Jaffa Cake when I paid for sachertorte.
I saw it. I have no excuse. I didn't know how bad it was going to be, but I knew it would be at least as bad as the first one, which pissed me off, and it was much worse! And much longer, and louder! We saw it because my husband thought it would look good on the IMAX. It just made me feel bad, and I love both giant robots and explosions. It was mostly the dripping, splattering misogyny, but as you say, it was bad film in other ways, for no good reason.

I think this can be educationally contrasted with the animated Transformers movie from the 80s. Far inferior technologically, but it managed to make giant robots far more interesting as characters.

It's still not an epic tale, of course, but I had hoped to see at least this level of investment in the first Bay movie. The Transformers may have the movie's title, but they are little more than mayhem-generating scenery pieces in the actual film.

Of course, this opinion comes from someone who chocked up when they burned the Enterprise in Trek III, so my bias is there.

This is all making me feel very sad. Because I was hoping that somebody, anybody, would defend this film, and reassure me that the thorough trashing is by folks who just don't get the innate coolness of Giant Robot Smash. (Yes, I also love monster truck rallies, why do you ask?)

The thing is, we're gonna see it anyway. We all know it's going to be horrible, and it will be, and we will be depressed and bored, and leave saying "Wasn't that horrible?"

But basically, when it comes to this sort of film, the entire family have a sort of Pavlovian stereotypical 13-year-old-boy reaction (including the authentic 13-year-old-boy).

There ought to be some sort of self-help group for this.

(The good news is, though, we're waiting for it to come through the drive in, so hey, ten bucks for the whole family, we bring our own popcorn, and we get to keep the snarky running commentary going)

[word verification: "pygrete." What an excellent idea. Hello, pie!]
Well, I haven't seen it, and I don't intend to, but I can be on hapax's side in this. I think that if a giant robot stomping on things, or a giant explosion, is well executed from a special-effects point of view, in terms of shape and colour and realistic movement and so on, then it can be cool all by itself, absent any context of plot or even knowing who is on which side. You can get an adrenaline rush without caring about the characters involved if the explosion is exciting enough, or the robots are stompy enough, and if that's all you're looking for then why not enjoy it?
I think that if a giant robot stomping on things, or a giant explosion, is well executed from a special-effects point of view, in terms of shape and colour and realistic movement and so on, then it can be cool all by itself

Oh, I quite agree. My criticism of the clips I saw rests entirely on the fact that they're not well executed: they're riddled with poor design, careless composition, ill-chosen framing, dreadful storyboarding, scrappy movement and, generally speaking, a plethora of technical incompetence.

After all, I couldn't criticise the plot; I didn't see the whole film, so I had very little idea which robot was on whose side. (And the way those scenes were shot gave me surprisingly little help when it came to guessing, which is a sign of a terrible action scene right there.) All I could judge were the scenes in themselves, and I couldn't enjoy them because they weren't any good. They weren't exciting: they were confused and boring.

Action scenes can indeed be fun in films with less-than-brilliant plots (though if the plot's really, really stupid and the director went on and shot it anyway, that does suggest he may lack the judgement to do good action scenes, which are far from easy). The action scenes in Jurassic Park, for instance, are terrific, while the script isn't anybody's finest hour. I wouldn't class it as dumb enough to call the director's judgement into question, but it lacks the naturalism and grace of Spielberg's early movies. But I still think it's a smart movie: it's just that the real thought is focused on the action, and when it finds its focus it's sharp, precise, ferociously intelligent. Consequently, that's a film I watch pretty much because it has great dinosaurs, and like very much entirely on that score.

So I've got nothing against watching a film because you like the action scenes. A good action scene is very hard to do and deserves as much respect as any other skilfully crafted work of art. But because it's hard to do, some people do it badly - and Bay is a rather startling object lesson in just how badly it's possible to do it. It's not that his films are action movies, it's that their action is rubbish.
I've been watching a few foreign films lately, and it's been bothering me lately why I even go to a 2 hour toy commercial like "Transformers" when I'm pretty sure it will leave me indifferent to it. This is not to stand on the side of film elitist "Only obscure titles nobody has ever seen before are good", because I'm not even a film buff. But obscure, low budget films did highlight to me the importance of having engaging character in order to be successful. Why don't people demand more of "Transformers"?

People will often use "The Dark Knight" as a counterpoint, then Bay fans will counter that "Not every film can be The Dark Knight", which misses the point, because "The Dark Knight" is not an anomaly. It is among the latest in a long line of films like "Batman Begins", the "Spider Man" movies, Pixar movies, the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, "Iron Man", "X-Men", "Lord of the Rings". You, or others, may not agree that these were all equally successful. But they were enjoyable to watch precisely because the movie had affection for its characters. That's a pretty big list of movies that succeeded at being both eye candy and mentally engaging, if only on an emotional level. And none of them were "old fuddy duddy" movies like "Terminator 2". I loved your use of "Terminator 2" as a counter to "Transformers", by the way.

Will Peter Parker stop Dr Octopus from destroying the city? Oh, of course he will. But what will he have to lose along the way? And Dr Octavius is almost a victim in all this. What's going to happen to him?

Films like "Transformers" feels no such affection for its characters. Hell, Megan Fox was pretty blunt in telling us that Michael Bay's instructions were basically to just be sexy. And if the movie doesn't care about them, why should we pay attention to what happens to them? Making a lot of money is not indicative of the quality of the franchise. "Hannah Montana" is a successful franchise too...
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