Beast of the Month - July 2001
Michael Bay, Big-Budget Blowhard Director
"I yam an anti-Christ..."
John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) of The Sex Pistols, "Anarchy in the UK"
Director Barry Sonnenfeld on Michael Bay, in a Newsweek Magazine interview
Memorial Day weekend is, traditionally, the opening shot of the summer movie season. It is the time of the start of the season of blockbusters. This year, the weekend was reserved for one film, and one film only: Pearl Harbor.
The reason it was reserved solely for this flick was that, at least according to conventional wisdom, Pearl Harbor was the guaranteed smash hit film of the summer. It had a surefire formula, already practically patented by Michael Bay (the film's director and The Konformist Beast of the Month.) The film had young attractive actors, an immense budget, an uncomplicated script, and lots of action and explosions. This film couldn't fail. And, whenever it would break the magical $200 million mark in U.S. box office, Bay would join the elite level of directors who have had two films bust the megahit barrier: Steven Spielberg (though he needs no introduction, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, Jurrassic Park, Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan are among his masterpieces), George Lucas (no intro necessary as well, but the entire Star Wars series is his creation), James Cameron (Titanic and The Terminator series), Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump and Back to the Future) and Chris Columbus (Home Alone as well as the soon-to-be released Harry Potter film.) Only Spielberg and Lucas have directed back-to-back $200 million hits, and Bay's previous flick, Armageddon, achieved that level of success. (As a comparison, here are some recent directors of note who haven't busted the $200 M level even once: Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone.) Not too shabby, considering Bay is only 36 and has only directed four films.
A funny thing happened on the way to box-office gold: Pearl Harbor hasn't quite lived up to the hype. With other flicks down the pipeline, Shrek and likely The Mummy Returns already appear to have outperformed Bay's film. It may still make $200 million, but considering the huge costs behind the promotion of it, that hardly seems worth celebrating.
What went wrong? Perhaps it's a case of too much hype. Or perhaps it's a case of what noted twentieth century poet Nikki Sixx (of Motley Crue) once pointed out: "Paint a garbage can platinum, it's still a garbage can."
Pearl Harbor is a disaster of a film. It revolves around a romance which is unromantic, and thrills which are unthrilling. Without a single character that is worthy of any empathy, it lumbers painfully for three hours without anything worth feeling for. As master film critic Roger Ebert put it, "Its centerpiece is 40 minutes of redundant special effects, surrounded by a love story of stunning banality. The film has been directed without grace, vision, or originality, and although you may walk out quoting lines of dialog, it will not be because you admire them."
Sadly, this is a step up from his previous megafilm, Armageddon. This two-and-a-half hour 1998 clunker, about a deadly meteor ready to destroy earth and a ragtag gang of gung ho misfits sent by Uncle Sam to stop it, had a ludicrous plot and cardboard characters (as well as another unconvincing romance) which was miserably covered up with glossy cinematography, a booming soundtrack and high-tech special effects. As Ebert once again put it: "Take almost any 30 seconds at random, and you'd have a TV ad. The movie is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense and the human desire to be entertained. No matter what they're charging to get in, it's worth more to get out." Considering its immense budget, dollar per dollar, Armageddon is undoubtedly the worst film ever made.
Did we mention huge budgets? While Titanic is certifiably the all-time champ for the "Bigger Is Better" mentality, Armageddon and Pearl Harbor are the current runners up. Both films, when you combine costs of production and marketing, broke the $200 million dollar barrier once again. Bay's films are the ultimate example of empty excess. (Freudians will suspect, like Sonnenfeld, that there appears to be some form of penis envy in his quest for big budget flicks to conceal his lack of creativity and other assets: coincidentally, Bay was dating gigantic fake-boobed porno gang-bang slut queen Houston last year. Bigger is indeed better.) His films may look great, but there is no there there.
Of course, why does making crappy, expensive films qualify Bay for certifiable Beasthood? After all, at a time of swindled presidencies, fraudulent energy gouging schemes and oppressive global trade and finance cabals, isn't this missing the big picture?
Not in the least. For the magnum crapus which are Armageddon and Pearl Harbor IS the big picture. It is a sign of a collapse of vision, a collapse of film to challenge and inspire the public.
The period from 1968 (when Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece 2001 was released) to 1980 (the year of Scorsese's Raging Bull) is now revered by many fans of cinema as the greatest period in film history. That could be debated, but look at the films of the period: Easy Rider, M*A*S*H*, A Clockwork Orange, The Godfather, American Graffiti, Chinatown, Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Taxi Driver, Star Wars, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now. That's a pretty hard list to argue with.
Much has been made of the downfall from this decade, and a lot of the blame has been unfairly heaped on Spielberg and Lucas for creating the blockbuster mentality. That seems to be a cheap shot: their biggest hits (Star Wars and E.T.) were not expected to be the box office booms that they turned out to be, and both were quite daring works. Still, success breeds imitation, and the blockbuster was formulized and refined by lesser quality hacks. Of particular note was the producing combo of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who perfected their crass pitch during the eighties with "high concept" brain dead flicks such as Top Gun. Simpson and Bruckheimer (and, later, after Simpson died of a drug overdose, Bruckheimer alone) became the producers for all of Bay's films. (Top Gun, of course, is an archetype for another common trait to the Bay cinematic style: phony machismo. Though his films are often described as "testosterone-driven", they're in fact quite wimpy and without spine in story-telling bravado, using shallow attempts at manly behavior to prove their supposed toughness - which is betrayed by the overtly homoerotic relationships of the male characters.)
It isn't a coincidence that as the state of cinema has deteriorated, the public after the late sixties and seventies has become less political and critical. Film is, simply put, the true national mythology. When moviemakers don't dare the masses, they become ignorant and apathetic. Could the so-called "Reagan Revolution" ever happened if people were still watching Apocalypse Now instead of Top Gun, 2001 instead of Armageddon, Taxi Driver instead of Pearl Harbor? It is arguable that the reactionary nature of societal trends was fueled by the movie industry rather than merely reflected in its work.
Now, in the year Kubrick devoted his most successful film to, where are we at artistically in film? Face it, the state of cinema is in shambles. So far, 2001 has been a notoriously terrible year for movies. When it comes to worthwhile films to watch, there's been pretty slim pickings: Shrek, Memento, Blow, and perhaps A.I., ironically enough the Spielberg-Kubrick collaboration. That's pretty much it, and even the greatness of these films can be debated.
There is something else going on in film right now. Some, including Mickey Z. (contributing editor to both Disinformation and The Konformist) have criticized Pearl Harbor not merely for its inept filmmaking, but for being historically inaccurate. That may be the case, but considering the sorry affairs of other films, this hardly seems to be a fault. After all, Moulin Rouge is based in the late nineteenth century, yet includes a character performing Madonna's "Like a Virgin." (And a note for viewers of A Knight's Tale: the rock band Queen was not singing "We Will Rock You" in the middle ages alongside Chaucer.)
Perhaps this is just a coincidental fad. Or perhaps it is just a dumbing down of movies to lower our standards. If people don't understand, for example, that Queen and Chaucer are from two different time periods, they can effectively be said to not understand history. And a public that has no grasp of history can be easily molded. This isn't a good sign.
Whatever the case, Michael Bay has arguably tied up one honor in his short film career. Though he's only directed four films, he may very well already be the worst director of all time. That title has long been regularly given undeservedly to Ed Wood, the trashy B-film director played by Johnny Depp in a 1994 Tim Burton film. But it's a cheap shot: for all the lack of money and talent that Wood had, he had passion, and there's more passion in a single shot from a Ed Wood film than the entire oeuvre of Mr. Bay.
In any case, we salute Michael Bay as Beast of the Month. Congratulations, and keep up the great work, Mikey!!!
BOTM Note: In June, Sony Pictures admitted to using the name of a non-existent film critic, David Manning, to insert rave blurbs for the films A Knight's Tale and The Animal. All of which means that Hollywood no longer has to even woo unprincipled "critics" to gush for their increasingly worthless drivel. For more on David Manning:
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls : How the Sex-Drugs-And-Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood
by Peter Biskind
Reviews, Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, Roger Ebert
Directed by Tim Burton, 1994
Nightmare of Ecstasy
The Big Book of the 70's, Jonathan Vankin (Paradox Press)
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