In a pre-credits scene in Michael Bay’s directorial debut, Bad Boys, two characters played by Martin Lawrence and Will Smith are arguing inside of a Porsche 911 Turbo. Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) is attempting to eat a combo meal from a fast food restaurant, and is vexed by the lack of any place to put his drink. He spills French fries down between the seats. The car’s owner, Mike Lowrey (Smith), is furious. This is a high-performance machine that Marcus is smearing with grease.
Not without some justification, Marcus gripes about all the things the Porsche doesn’t have. No back seat, no cupholders. What good is a car without those crucial amenities? He observes that it’s just "a shiny dick with two chairs in it," and the men are the balls, "bouncing the fuck along."
We laugh at Marcus’s inability to see the forest for the trees. Of course Mike’s Porsche doesn’t have any of that shit. It’s built for one thing, and one thing only: performance. He’ll never be able to use his car to take the kids to soccer practice or help a buddy move. He’ll only be able to use it to rev the engine and draw stares. It’s a shiny dick with two chairs in it. That’s why he bought it.
This scene is, essentially, Michael Bay’s thesis statement for the rest of his career. It’s obvious whose side he’s on. As the movie continues, Bay’s camera will ogle Mike’s Porsche and all but drool over it. That’s how Bay treats every subject in his lens: cars, women, explosions. Especially explosions. They’re all just shiny dicks on celluloid.
Bay’s critics, who hold him up as the cinematic antichrist, have for the past twenty years been playing the role of Marcus. Why don’t Bay’s films have interesting characters? Why is his editing so slapdash? Why isn’t there anywhere to put my drink?
I have always been confused as to why Bay’s critics are so bothered by what his movies lack. No, you don’t see a Bay movie for characterizations, moral quandaries, or narrative sophistication. But who says that all movies must have those things? It’s like criticizing a rap song for not having enough guitar solos.
I am not attempting to tell you that Michael Bay is a great filmmaker. He isn’t. But he is great at one thing, and one thing only: putting arresting images onscreen. Like the Porsche that only does one thing well, Michael Bay focuses relentlessly on what he cares about and disregards everything else. The man has never composed an ugly shot in his life. Take any still frame from a Bay movie and you will see something gorgeous. Watch the movement of his camera in any shot and you will see a confident, dynamic arranging of visual elements that can be, frankly, dazzling.
Granted, most of these shots are smashed together in ways that may make little or no sense, and certainly do nothing to establish relationships between characters or any kind of human drama. What I’m saying is: who cares? You can watch other movies if you want that stuff.
How many movies do you get to watch that are such sumptuous visual feasts? How many directors can put such care into lighting, color timing, composition, and camera movement for even the most minor things? I am not saying all directors should try to do what Michael Bay does. I am saying that no other directors succeed at it.
Whenever Bay comes out with something slightly different from his norm – something like The Island or Pain and Gain – the consensus is that he’s trying, and failing, to change gears. He isn’t. Both of those movies are still about the visuals. They’re just visuals of slightly different things. (And not even that, really: Pain and Gain slobbers over its male performers bodies’ more than any shot of Megan Fox in Transformers.)
Let’s not confuse the issue. Critics and cinephiles can't stand that Bay’s movies make so much money. His commercial success really bothers them. That’s why they hate him so much.
Now, I’m not one who thinks that the market has spoken, so we’d better shut up. It’s weird to me, too, that there must be so many people in the world who only see one movie a year, and choose to make it a Transformers movie. There are so many better, more entertaining, more thoughtful, and more challenging movies to choose from. By the same token, it’s strange to me that someone who sees a hundred movies a year would refuse to number a Transformers movie among them. If you care about cinema, how could you write this guy off?
Michael Bay is exactly who he wants to be: a shiny dick in a director’s chair. His critics are the balls, bouncing the fuck along, wondering where the cupholders are.