One of the greatest artists in the history of the universe, Thelonious Monk, was once asked why his compositions were so complex, so dense, so complicated. His answer could not be more insightful:
Simple ain’t easy.
Creating a sense of simplicity in the postmodern world is nearly impossible, and so Monk scrambled the notes and time and space in search of that elusive state. A very serious and obvious issue we face as citizens of the 21st century is that there is so much – so much technology, so many channels and choices, so much content, so many voices, and yet so little understanding.
I guess the closest we get to simple and popular in this era is Pharrell’s “Happy.” That song can be played anywhere in any situation and make the mood lighter, make people dance. Now, do I feel that “Happy” is CIA propaganda to attempt to pacify critical thinking in the U.S.? Yes, and probably you should too, but I bring up this piece of quality pop to let you know that I am not a hater. While my two movies, Pavilion and Memphis (starring Willis Earl Beal, the Thelonious Monk of our time), are unwavering art films, I take great pleasure in pop – even candy pop. I love Katy Perry. Yet there is a fine line between the celestial glossy and the moronic.
And this brings us to Transformers: Age of Extinction, directed by Michael Bay and executive produced by Steven Spielberg. I’m sure Bay is a standup guy. He certainly is very successful in terms of helming enormous projects and managing unfathomable amounts of money, with literally thousands of people on the payroll, and extending a variety of international brands in the name of gargantuan entertainment and global box-office power. This would also lead me to believe that Bay, having conquered Hollywood, has skin as thick as Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots, so, honestly, he can take a shot or two, as can his collaborators.
I did not see the previous three Transformers installments. I saw this one. And I can say with confidence that I will never see it again. Why? Like the majority of content being produced this century, it isn’t made to be seen more than once. It’s disposable. By design. Great films – Pierrot le Fou, Beau Travail, Gummo, Taxi Driver – are like favorite albums. As you listen to some records over and over, they reward your patience and open up into something infinite. They become a part of you. That is the filmmaking I aspire to. In this light, Transformers and other blockbusters of the like are, literally, garbage.
As this isn’t a review, I won’t bother you with the basic plot and character breakdown – also because there is no plot and the characters are predominantly made of wood, or metal, the latter being of the computer-generated type. I have literally no idea what the movie is about. I’m not trying to be funny or mean-spirited. I am being literal. I’m guessing Mark Wahlberg’s biceps got their own trailer. The female lead is laughably out of a farmer’s daughter joke, with legs straight from the Ford Modeling Agency. Her love interest has an Irish accent. I’m just being honest, these are the things I know from watching the actual film. Stanley Tucci is totally watchable and villainous and pretty hilarious. As every so often he still takes a role in tight, powerful films such as Margin Call, as well as directs his own nuanced films, one forgives him for cashing his large paycheck and smelling the dollar bills right in front of you, with his eyes rolling to the back of his head.
OK, what else? The actual transformers – Autobots, Decepticons, Dinobots – all do an admirable job of smashing and destroying and doing their animator parents proud. One exception is the Autobot Vietnam veteran-type voiced by John Goodman (really?) which I found distasteful and distracting. With lines like, Take that, bitch, he was clearly a stand-in for the director, telling me exactly what to do after paying my $15.
As the film progresses, I sink deeper into my seat and decide to let my mind wander. I start playing a game. At first, I try to figure out the movie’s catering budget (astronomical), then deduce the exact number of computers deployed in postproduction (infinite), and then try to estimate how many tons of various waste was produced during the shoot. I think about the millions of audience members who will watch this movie, once. I start to try and figure out how many meetings, exactly, took place in boardrooms, and on how many continents, over the course of making and distributing this film in the name of brand tie-ins. Much like an advertising campaign, this film clearly has clients and their interests in the outcome were being served first, while the audience was a distant second. Hasbro, UPS, Bud Light, Ducati – the list of corporate nations taking part in the land grab is pretty endless and cheapens the movie with each frame. Product placement in film is by no means novel but it still reeks of corporate backscratching and the content that comes out is always bent over in one way or another.
Keeping with the tie-ins, here comes China with a leading role. The Chinese government allows very few foreign films to be distributed in the homeland so it is obvious that Paramount (the hedge funds that run Paramount, really) bought its way in with the promise of billions, a similar number to how many potential ticket buyers there are in the People’s Republic. The story ends up in China (yes, there is an aerial shot of the Great Wall at dusk) and I start to imagine Bay and Spielberg being hosted at a state dinner in Beijing. In the vision, they are being toasted by Premier Li Keqiang but, before they clink glasses, the Chinese leader requests that the two Americans dance – you know, do a little jig to earn the moment. As if on cue, Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream comes over the speakers and Bay and Spielberg begin to dance. To be honest, it’s a little shaky at first, tentative, but they get the energy up after a bit and really start to get into it. The camera closes in on Bay, spinning around and taking a sip of Champagne just as he says to himself, Take that, bitch.
Then what happens is that I actually start to feel bad for them – these heroes of Hollywood – in their powerlessness in the face of the real machine of the global market. It’s a weird thing – feeling sorry and protective of powerful superstars who are falling on their faces. Like when LeBron James does his best but still gets his ass kicked by the Spurs, I start to feel bad for the guy, the lump in his throat clearly visible. I am now feeling bad for the most famous, celebrated, compensated people in America, which makes no sense at all.
When my focus returns to the screen, the film is still going and it is now in full action-battle-destroy-cue-the-tension mode. The images on the screen pound the eyes and the sound is so loud it hurts my ears. I look around. More empty seats than I expected – this is opening night at 9pm – and the viewers who are there seem, well, pretty bored. The action on screen is visceral but so over the top and so utterly repetitive that the effects have no poignancy. If you scream constantly then nobody knows you’re screaming. The senses have been dulled.
Bay and his cohorts of machinations spend too much time beating a dead horse with all of the toys that money can buy and the result is exhaustion, overload, and boredom. And, frankly, the thing is way too long, so I take off the 3D glasses and leave the theater just as Mark Wahlberg takes another swig of Bud Light. As soon as I get outside, I realize I’ve made the right call. It isn’t enough to say that I needed peace and quiet. I needed total silence.
I get on my bike and pedal into the park, the darkness like velvet as I float downhill. And I start to wonder. I wonder what it would sound like if Willis covered Pharrell’s “Happy,” and how filled with confused beauty and glorious madness true happiness could sound like. I wonder what a $200 million Eliza Hittman film would look like, or a $200 million Terence Nance film would feel like. Both those films could change the culture. Those films could live forever. And then I start to think about what a microbudget Michael Bay film would look like. What would he do with $200,000 and a small, tight crew, one good camera, three good lenses, non-actors, and 20 days to shoot a cool, strange story? What would he be capable of if he walked away from the toys and helicopters, massive sets, and international brand conglomerates, pared it down to the essence, and unleashed his own El Mariachi or Pi into the world. I gotta say, I bet it would be amazing.
I gently steer the bike into the soft night and turn my head to hear the wind rush by. Recently, a few people asked me why I have kids riding bikes in both my films, as if I have a magic-hour bike fetish. Well, what’s wrong with that? To me, there is no more beautiful, graceful and meaningful an image than a kid riding a bike as the day fades into twilight. It is just so simple. See? Easy.