Thursday, August 4, 2011

Pop! #4: The Stupid Sublime

The POP! series:  An occasional series of riffs and exultations on the things which fascinate me most in popular culture - weird, wonderful, brilliant, sad, sick, and emblematic of the absurdity of pleasure, pain, and the impossible.

Marco Brambilla's "Evolution"
To label an object or a person is a frustratingly futile task, no matter how quick we are to do it & the ease of its execution.  It also allows us the sidestep the actual complications of language.  As in calling something boring or dumb or stupid.  What is stupid?  The original Latin from which it derives meant to be numb or stunned, which is something very different from how we understand it - which is, generically: inane, pointless, lacking meaning and sense.

Interestingly enough, all of the above (numbed, stunned, inane, pointless...etc.) would seem to apply to Michael Bay's (stressing the possessive) Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon.  In fact, it's stupidity accumulates into something which could also be said to be sublime (and it fills all of the meanings of that word as well).  The work's complete ignorance of everything that normally defines intelligence in either art OR mass entertainment only elevates its power.  Michael Bay, in his complete lack of sensitivity, both for the product and its receivers, creates, in his increasing success and artistic freedom, a kind of awe.  One that applies as well to that other hyper-masculine big-budget lenser (which seems the more appropriate term here than filmmaker), Zack Snyder.

Despite their success and seeming knowledge and interest in the hipness factor, both Snyder and Bay exist in a kind of clueless, primitive bubble of their own creation.  Neither of their styles' obeys any of the standard rules applied to those toiling in the trenches of genre fare these days.  Their existence above the assembly line makes them perpetual figures of envy and ridicule.  Not that that point of view is completely unjustified - it just ignores what is actually occurring in their works and how it reflects not only their own personal fetishes, but also the whole idea of spectacle in the Hollywood machine today.  In the films of Bay & Snyder, we find a pinnacle of the perceived "stupidity" in the cogs - A sublime state of stupidity.

To justify the work (and relevance) of Bay & Snyder, means an accumulation of words in the place of bodies of work which lack and refract the customary identification (the standard boilerplate for critical analysis).  It's Hyberbole.  It's Demonstrative.  It's Craven Pageantry.  The whole must be broken down into individual pieces, and those strung together fragments are bewildering in their isolation.  Traditional purpose of storytelling is ignored, a la the bare-bones necessity of forward momentum in action examplar Samuel Fuller.  Montage creating meaning through the stacking of dissimilar imagery found in the anarchist theory of Sergei Eisenstein is also left aside.  These ARE works of montage, but a Montage of Nothing.  Even Futurist impulses, of which there are many in the Bay/Snyder canon, cannot account for the patriotic striving deep in their artery-clogged bloodstreams.

Where Bay works in quick, hyper-speed bursts, Snyder settles into slo-mo ballads (for instance, at least 5-10 minutes of his recent Sucker Punch is dedicated to the repetitive image of gun shells falling like raindrops to concrete).  While parading together in the same stomping grounds, each lenser's style is actually an antitheses of the other - Bay's increasingly isolated machismo rearing heads with the democratic machismo of Snyder.

Bay's Transformers films are bizarre conceptual/structuralist objects that end up as commercials for themselves.   The garish parade of stock obsessions he had been building over 10 years in the Jerry Bruckheimer pipeline is Definitely unfunny, unhip, and, y'know…uncool…dude.  But that is part of their complicated existence and Bay's closeted Conservatism.  In their retro patriotism, they wind up as the most logical pop-cultural extensions of Fox News pummelt.  I mean, just notice the primary color cues of star robot Optimus Prime and his brethern; the threatening "other" that are the evil robots (even having their base located in a desert landscape uncannily resembling Afghanistan); and the "talking points" that take the place of "plot points."

The original Transformers film was, at heart, the missing link between producer Steven Spielberg's 1941 and ET: gleefully absurd chaos of destruction coming to heads with spirtual enlightment in the form of extra-terrestrial connectivity. The nostalgic allure of the Hasbro toy franchise from which the concept derives seems a natural for the perennially boy-man Spielberg. Its saga of coming of age through the automobile, that purely American of pop-cultural touchstones, also has wistful echoes of a pre stock market-ticking George Lucas. While the idea seems eye-poppingly logical at the fingertips of these two geek pioneers, their franchise-exhilaration has hit a crisis-fuelled middle-age (witness the Star Wars prequels and the now dragged out of the desert Indiana Jones), and the once-innocent Olympian torch has been planted in a decidedly more jaded landscape.  This dehydrated age defined by a trendy vomitus of "consumer snuff" is given direction through a clip-friendly consciousness bombarded by too much information, too much communicative noise.  Instead of consumption and release, the digestive track is pumped with fantasies that respond to proven ideas --- concepts that make sense in bits and billboards.

This is the well-worn stomping ground of Bay, whose sense of wonder comes in fascistic doses of toned fashion and high-artillery. Sprayed across the gear-whored worlds of The Rock, Armageddon, and The Island, this somehow makes guilty perverse sense. Their gift is a serious-minded bloat, which takes dynamically satirical storylines (in the case of The Rock and Armageddon, worked to death by producer Jerry Bruckheimer's crack team of pay by the letter screenwriters) and screws them to a ruthless game of Battleship as if played by Matthew Broderick in WarGames. The ignorant "high-stakes" builds to a geyser of pyrotechnic pretentiousness that actually resembles the greatly comforting self-indulgent catharsis of great arena rock. In its explosion of the senses, it is like one of those acid trips that triple-locks all the escape hatches. In the prolonged comedown, we're pushed by a whirlwind of competing forces into that next power ballad.  And while it sounds like sex, very little of it has to do with actual human erotica.  The bedazzlement of model beauties is quickly disposed of, as if it's a contractual fine print that Bay would rather overlook.  Such is the case in Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon.  After an extended prologue, the first image of the film proper is an ass level slo-mo Steadicam  following Victoria Secret's Rosie Huntington-Whitley in her undies up a flight of stairs, silk curtains billowing to the  strains of a sleepy U2 ballad.  Bay's interest in this or women in general (as is exemplified in his public war of words with Transformers 1 & 2 vixen-toy Megan Fox) is a kind of "beside the point."  It has little of the attraction of the boys and their big toys letting chaos reign.

However, when this random sprawl is tied to an ultimately tender coming of age story with clear pacing and a shifting tonality, the result is grotesquely DULL, nightmarishly exclusive --- we're just spinning in circles outside Bay's private suite, watching through a window as fine, committed actors and technicians parade a charade of gestures and poses before him. Storytelling in this techno room (absent of the responsible chaperoning of a Bruckheimer) is all about brazenly meatheaded, circa-1999 fist-pumping (some examples:  a stale joke about eBay gets dragged out like a drunken frat trick for half the film's nearly three hour run-time (Twitter replaces eBay in the 3rd film); the soundtracks are odd assemblage of Wal-Mart rock that is destined to head straight for the bargain bins, along with the promo-porn discs of Charlie's Angels 2).

As one tries to make sense of what could make a party like this so popular, the hopeless realization dawns that its all about merely saying that one was PRESENT…to gape, glaze ones eyes, and forget our miserable lives.

And this is what Bay does best - it's a form of escape which succeeds because of its tactical, physical qualities.  It is the purest definition of SPECTACLE.  A very Public presentation (or hallucination) of sight on the biggest, most striking scale.   Though Bay doesn't come anywhere near Snyder's pretensions of subversions, they still share a belief in Ideas that are antiquated and, often, incongruous.  The sphere of influence at play in these lensers' work seems based on marketing graphs and concept drawings dug up from deep within the cultural rubble - a time when the consumer didn't have the one-click away access to peeling back the layers of history and the attendant cultural baggage.

To get into this work demands slowing the gears of sociological interpretation that spin more fervently than ever before in our (net)wired synapses, and, instead, bask in the surface pleasures.  Snyder makes this easy in his ignorance of visual, cinematic depth.  It is a flat fetishization of the body in space that explicitly evokes the static panels of a comic book.   Thus, Snyder has a great affinity for what is working within the frame, and how each operates against each other - creating sparkling tableaux that is digi-cinema's equivalent of hieroglyphics.  But being masochistically beholden to his source material's visual layout, he winds up with work that is not only anti-cinematic, but, also fan-boy ignorant.  It never takes into account the momentum that comes with flipping through the pages of a comic book/graphic novel - a thing that distinguishes the best comic book films.  Because of the time/space control of the director, we are actually witnessing His reading of the source - one which cuts off the personal narrative-making that comes with the act of reading a comic.  This was most explicit in Snyder's adaptations of Frank Miller's 300 & Alan Moore's Watchmen.  Now with his own original source, the act of storytelling  becomes more obscure - ie, there is no pop-historical reference for us to fall back on - the layers of reality/interpretation exist purely in the lenser's imagination.

The recent exhibition of reformed Hollywood action director and current hot-shot video artist Marco Brambilla's stunning 3D strips "Civilization" & "Evolution" at the Santa Monica Museum of Art is a fascinating convergence of these ideas of spectacle, pop cultural imagery, montage, comic books and a definition of flesh, technology, pain, pleasure and history via the silver screen.

These 2 video collages explicitly reference the widescreen frescoes of Goya as well as pre-cinematic technology while being rasterized with the latest in digital 3D technology.  With the plastic glasses on, these large-scale projections face off each other in a dark room filled with the bombastic strains Prokofiev.  The works resemble whacked, orgiastic Where's Waldo pop-up books.  Brambilla uses genre spectacle new and old to riff on the earthly and divine, and the work's commercial sheen makes its place in the gallery complicated and exciting.  Brambilla rebuffs pretension with polticized aesthetics that are simultaneously pleasurable.  You can sit with these horizontal and vertical scrolling (respectively) works for endless hours.  They become narcotics that makes a passion for bigger and badder seem not so guilty.  

One wonders what Bay or Snyder would come up with if they decided to leave the business behind, as Brambilla did after the Stallone/Snipes futuristic actioner Demolition Man?  Perhaps it may be easier to define them?

Other entries in the POP! series:
- It's Britney Bitch!
- Tabloid Aria (in 3 acts)
- It will go up when I'm ready for the people to receive it.

No comments:

Post a Comment