About two years ago, I wrote a book on the films of Michael Bay. This unauthorized critical examination saw release in November 2014 under the title MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay’s Films. I knew I was throwing down a gauntlet with a provocative title like that and the reaction to that mere declaration. One troll kept loudly accusing me of writing the book so Michael Bay would hire me. He must have really liked this joke because he made it on several posts, across many websites that carried the announcement of my book. (The Broken Projector was one such outlet and I had a very interesting conversation with Scott Beggs about the book.) This suggested to me that not only did he have no understanding of how Hollywood worked, he almost certainly hadn’t read the book.
That question “Why would someone write a book about Michael Bay?” has come up again now that I’m in the middle of a push to get my book at least 50 reviews on Amazon. I even dropped the Kindle price to $2.99 for just this week as an incentive. (There, shameless plug done.) And perhaps, it might make the book more attractive to some of you if I discuss a few of the motivations behind it.
The real genesis of the book came Summer 2014, when I saw a lot of people on Twitter talking about going to see the latest Transformers film despite being certain it was terrible. (That’s somewhat amusing when contrasted with the latest Ghostbusters conversation, where you can get into a fight with a Ghost-Bro who hasn’t seen the film and STILL is certain it’s terrible.) Unsurprisingly, these people walked out of the film with their assumptions confirmed and somewhat disingenuously acted shocked at how much they disliked it.
I won’t say I felt bad for Bay, but I briefly considered that perhaps his audience was seeing in his films what they wanted to see. So as an experiment, I resolved to view Transformers: Age of Extinction with not only an open mind, but one that gave him the same benefit of the doubt that Hitchcock and Scorsese are afforded when their films are dissected in film school. Some have described that as a “devil’s advocate” approach, but I feel that tag would be more apt if I was merely defending a surface-level examination of the films. My effort was to presume that there was always deeper and deliberate subtextual meaning behind every choice.
The result was a post that became one of my most popular of all time, wherein I deemed T: AOE “the most brilliant and politically subversive film you’ll see all year.” If you examine the work properly, it’s easy to discern that Bay has made the robots the antagonists, and the presumed villain of the story – a defense contractor played by Kelsey Grammer – is actually the guy we should be empathizing with. He’s the only one with any sense, and he ends up murdered in cold blood by Optimus Prime. Along the way, Bay finds time to use this all as a metaphor for the Iraq War and the result is a film whose message is the complete inverse of what one sees if they watch it only as a giant robot battle. Indeed, I claimed:
It’s impossible not to interpret AGE OF EXTINCTION as two brilliant deconstructionists jam-banding on an action movie specifically designed to burn the house down. This is Kruger and Bay as Bialystock and Bloom, dropping “Springtime for Hitler” on an unsuspecting crowd like it’s an atom bomb. And appropriately, the soundtrack of the damned can only be provided by Imagine Dragons.
Some found my insights amusing, some were deeply offended that I gave Bay any credit at all, and some people merely thought I lost my mind. But as I saw the post shared again, and again, always provoking reactions, I wondered if it would be possible to re-examine the entire Bay canon and find consistent themes throughout.
To aid in my conclusions, I began doing quite a bit of research and I came across an interesting fact. At the time I wrote the book in 2014, if you were to rank the top six directors of all time, based on domestic box office take, five of those six directors would be Academy Award winners for Best Director. Not just nominated, winners. Considering that in recent years we often get the sense that the Oscars tend to reflect more critical opinion than popular, mainstream opinion, it comes as a slight shock that there’s this strong degree of crossover. One might take it as a sign that it’s impossible to consistently appeal to audiences without significant directorial skill.
Five out of six is an insanely strong correlation – and it makes one wonder about the outlier, who it will surely surprise none of you that it is Michael Bay. He comes in second place, just behind Steven Spielberg. This made me curious how the numbers would stack up if I looked at worldwide box office. At the time I wrote the book, four of the most commercially successful directors worldwide had Oscars. Bay was in third place behind James Cameron and Spielberg. (The other non-Oscar winner was David Yates.)
This is significant because when Bay’s artistry is discussed, he tends to be lumped in with directors like Brett Ratner and McG, and perhaps the Simon Wests and Len Wisemans (Wisemen?) of the world, but those guys are not his peers. Commercially they don’t even come close to him. Bay’s peers are the Spielbergs, Camerons, Zemeckises and Howards of filmmaking. He’s punching his weight in that class, and yet is still considered an underdog.
So MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay’s Films was an attempt to give that underdog his due. I won’t be so arrogant as to call it unbiased, though it’s ridiculous that the thesis “Maybe this guy DOES know what he’s doing” can still inspire so much pushback. I don’t expect every reader to agree with me, but I hope it gives them something to think about.
For example, I became aware for the first time that Megan Fox’s Transformers character is actually the real star of the film, and possibly an underrated feminist icon. I also understood for the first time how Armageddon was about man’s relationship with God and how The Island is actually a brutal allegory attacking Hollywood’s propensity for remakes and reboots. There is an entire unexplored world waiting to be found beyond what is often dismissed as “Bay-hem.”
The best description of the book actually came from Chris Waild when I appeared on his NEW IN BOX webseries. Gushing that the book was his favorite book on filmmaking, Chris – a co-executive producer on NCIS – expounded:
“The book is a film on filmmaking technique. It’s also a film criticism of Michael Bay’s films. But it is also a criticism of film criticism and forces you to actually look at the movie and the choices that were made.”
Aside from the aforementioned Transformers post, my essay on The Rock is also available for free online. For the rest, you’ll have to part with $2.99 if you buy it by Friday. On Saturday, the regular price of $4.99 will be reinstated.