Posts Tagged ‘Michael Bay’
Recently, as I prepare to make the last round of cuts and revisions to my third novel, I’ve been reading one of my favorite books, Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen. The book’s rather cumbersome subtitle is How Walter Murch Edited Cold Mountain Using Apple’s Final Cut Pro and What This Means for Cinema, and while this may not sound like a page-turner to most people, it’s one of the five or six best books on film I know. As I’ve made clear before, Walter Murch—the man whom David Thomson describes as “the scholar, gentleman, and superb craftsman of modern film,” and whom Lawrence Weschler calls, more simply, “the smartest man in America”—is one of my heroes, and for those who are interested in narrative and technical craft of any kind, this book is a treasure trove. Yet here’s the thing: I don’t much care for Cold Mountain itself. I watched it dutifully when I first read the book, and although I’ve since revisited Koppelman’s account of Murch’s editing process countless times, nothing of the actual movie has lingered in my memory. I was startled last night, for instance, to realize that Philip Seymour Hoffman plays an important supporting character: his performance, like the rest of the movie, has simply melted away.
This paradox grows all the stronger when we examine the rest of Murch’s filmography. The English Patient, as I’ve said elsewhere, is an intelligent movie of impressive texture and skill, and Murch deserved the two Oscars he won for it. But as with Cold Mountain, I can barely remember anything about it, with only a handful of images left behind even after two viewings. I couldn’t get more than halfway through Hemingway & Gellhorn, despite being fascinated by Murch’s account of his work on it at last year’s Chicago Humanities Festival. Murch has worked as a sound designer on many great movies, above all Apocalypse Now, but when it comes to his primary work as an editor, his only unqualified masterpiece remains The Conversation. (As strange as it sounds, of all the movies that he’s edited, the one I enjoy the most is probably The Godfather Part III.) I have no doubt that Murch approached all these projects with the same care, diligence, and ingenuity that shines through all of his published work and interviews, but in movie after movie, that last extra piece of inspiration, the one that might have given a film a permanent place in my imagination, just isn’t there.
Part of this may be due to the inherent limitations of an editor’s role, since even the most inventive and resourceful editor is ultimately constrained by the material at hand and the quality of his collaborators. But I prefer to think of it, in a larger sense, as a warning about the limits of technique. Movies, for the most part, are technically wonderful, and they’ve been advancing along all the dimensions of craft—cinematography, sound, art direction—since the invention of the medium. Progress in art is never linear, but with respect to craft, progress is continuous and ongoing, with each generation adding to its predecessor’s bag of tricks, and as a result, movies look and sound better now than they ever have before. Moreover, nearly without exception, professionals in film are good at their jobs. Even the directors we love to hate, like Michael Bay, arrived at their position after a fierce process of natural selection, and in the end, only the most tremendously talented and driven artists survive. (Bay, alas, has one of the greatest eyes in movies.) Not everyone can be as articulate or intelligent as Murch, but for the most part, movies these days, on a technical level, are the product of loving craftsmanship.
So why are most movies so bad? It has nothing to do with technique, and everything to do with the factors that even the greatest craftsmen can’t entirely control. When you look at a student project from any of our major film schools, the technical aspects—the lighting, the camerawork, even the acting—are generally excellent. It’s the stories that aren’t very good. For all the tricks that storytellers have accumulated and shared over a century of making movies, decent scripts are either tantalizingly elusive or destroyed along the way by the hands of studio executives—which is one role in the movie business where talent does not tend to rise to the top. And the proof is everywhere, from John Carter on down. If there’s one movie artist who rivals Murch for his intelligence, good advice, and willingness to discuss aspects of his craft, it’s screenwriter William Goldman, who hasn’t written a movie since Dreamcatcher. Technique only gets you so far; the rest is a mystery. And even Murch understands this. On the wall of his editing studio, we’re told, hangs a brass “B.” Koppelman explains what it means: “Work hard to get the best grade you can—in this world, a B is all that is humanly attainable…Getting an A? That depends on good timing and the whims of the gods.”
For most of this week, anyone passing by my house would have seen a bright rectangular glow in the living room window, as the new Blu-ray of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol played in a nonstop loop. While it doesn’t have the same visceral power as it did in IMAX, this is still a fun, expertly assembled action movie, the perfect sort of thing to have playing in the background while I’m working on other projects. Even after seeing it three or four times, however, I still have to drop everything and watch whenever the big scene in the Burj Khalifa comes up. I may not get as dizzy as I did when I first saw it, but even on the small screen, it’s still wonderfully exciting—and all the more terrifying when you know how it was actually filmed. (Incidentally, as much as I hate this sort of corporate extortion, it’s worth shelling out the extra money for the Best Buy exclusive edition, which contains some great bonus features that aren’t included in the version available on Amazon.)
In fact, I’d say that the Burj Khalifa climb in Ghost Protocol is my favorite action sequence of the past five years, on a short list that includes the Guggenheim shootout in The International and the opening chase scene in Drive. At first glance, these three scenes might not seem to have much in common—one is a death-defying ballet staged one hundred and thirty stories above the ground; one is lunatic, extended gunplay; and the last is the car chase as chess game—but they’re all executed with something of the same spirit, and it’s worth drilling down to figure out why they affect us so deeply. There’s something hugely pleasurable about these scenes that goes beyond their immediate impact, and which sets them apart, in my mind, even from such landmark sequences as the hallway fight in Inception, which I love, but find somewhat less interesting from a writer’s point of view. Because what the three scenes I’ve mentioned have in common is that they were all written first.
Here’s what I mean. Many action scenes, particularly car chases, come off as assemblages of second unit footage that have been pieced together in the editing room, and as a result, there’s something monotonous about the relentless similarity of action—just see any Michael Bay movie for an example. The action sequences in these three films, by contrast, were conceived on the printed page. They have a clear beginning, middle, and end. They make memorable use of their locations. They have small setups, payoffs, and surprises along the way, as when Ethan Hunt throws away his malfunctioning glove and finds it adhering to the side of the building a few stories later. Each is centered on the personality of the characters involved—indeed, each scene unfolds as a sequence of logical choices, which is something you’ll never hear said of Transformers. And these are all things that can only be planned at the screenplay stage.
And while this may seem obvious, it’s worth remembering in light of a movie like The Hunger Games, which has its good points, but to my eyes, despite the strength of its material, doesn’t know how to plan and carry out action. Instead, it relies on editing and camerawork to create the illusion of momentum, when all of this should have been laid out in the script. (Note that none of the three films I’ve mentioned ever use anything resembling a shakycam.) Full credit, then, to writers Eric Singer, Hossein Amini, and the platoon that worked on Ghost Protocol for giving us action scenes we’ll remember, which is something that ought to be celebrated. Because it appeals so shamelessly to our reptile brain, the ability to write a great action scene may never get the respect it deserves, but like any other narrative skill, it benefits from intelligence, ingenuity, and clarity of thought—and all of the editing tricks in the world won’t make up for their absence.
Never has a city been more lovingly destroyed on camera than Chicago in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. By the time the movie reaches its crowning orgy of destruction, my wife and I had been staring at the screen for close to ninety minutes, along with an enthusiastic crowd in the IMAX theater at Navy Pier. My wife had seen much of the movie being shot on Michigan Avenue, just up the street from her office at the Tribune Tower, and I think it was with a sort of grim amusement, or satisfaction, that she watched her own building crumble to pieces as an alien robot spacecraft crashed into its beautiful gothic buttresses. It’s an image that merits barely five seconds in the movie’s final hour, which devastates most of downtown Chicago in gorgeous, even sensual detail, but it still struck me as a pivotal moment in our personal experience of the movies. (And hasn’t the Tribune already suffered enough?)
Like its immediate predecessor, Transformers 3 is generally pretty lousy. (I actually liked the first one, which had the advantage of comparative novelty, as well as a genuinely nimble comic performance by Shia LaBeouf that both director and star have struggled to recreate ever since.) As a story, it’s ridiculous; as a perfunctory attempt at a coherent narrative, it’s vaguely insulting. It’s also staggeringly beautiful. For the first ten minutes, in particular, the IMAX screen becomes a transparent window onto the universe, delivering the kind of transcendent experience, with its view of millions of miles, that even Avatar couldn’t fully provide. And even after its nonstop visual and auditory assault has taken its toll on your senses, it still gives new meaning to the phrase “all the money is there on the screen.” Here, it feels like the cash used to render just one jaw-dropping frame could have been used to pay down much of the national debt.
As I watched Dark of the Moon, or rather was pummeled into submission by it, I had the nagging feeling that Armond White’s notoriously glowing review of Revenge of the Fallen deserved some kind of reappraisal. At the time, White was dismissed, not without reason, as a troll, for issuing such pronouncements as “In the history of motion pictures, Bay has created the best canted angles—ever.” And yet I don’t think he was trolling, or even entirely wrong: it’s just that he was one movie too early. Michael Bay’s genius, and I use this word deliberately, is visible in every shot of Dark of the Moon, but it’s weirdly overdeveloped in just one direction. Bay is like one of those strange extinct animals that got caught in an evolutionary arms race until they became all horns, claws, or teeth. While a director like Christopher Nolan continues to develop along every parameter of storytelling, Bay is nothing but a massive eye: cold, brilliant, and indifferent to story or feeling. And it’s pointless to deny his talents, as ridiculously squandered as they might be.
So what exactly am I saying here? To steal a phrase from Roger Ebert’s review of The Life Aquatic, I can’t recommend Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but I would not for one second discourage you from seeing it—provided that you shell out fifteen dollars or more for the real experience in IMAX 3-D, which Bay has lovingly bullied the nation’s projectionists into properly presenting. (On video, I suspect that you might have the same reaction that my wife and I did when we rented Revenge of the Fallen: within forty minutes, both of us had our laptops out.) It’s an objectively terrible movie that, subjectively, I can’t get out of my head. As an author, I’m horrified by it: it’s a reminder of how useless, or disposable, writers can be. I won’t go as far as to say that it’s a vision of my own obsolescence, or that I believe that the robots are our future. But at this point in history, the burden is on writers to demonstrate that we’re necessary. And the momentum isn’t on our side.