Spectacle as an End in Itself
Recently, one of my peers brought Brad Brevet’s musings on Michael Bay to my attention. Though I initially dismissed it as mere vulgar justification for a lazy critical judgment, I reconsidered because I think it serves a good launching point for a discussion of the role of sincerity and spectacle in media criticism.
To summarize the article, it consists of a piece identifying Transformers: Age of Extinction as an “Abstract Expressionist” work made in a vulgar key––a mass-market Pollack, if you will. It also identifies Bay as a “vulgar auteur” and notes how the director has created a signature style within the Hollywood machine. At the end of the article, he argues that because of the “profound effect” the film had on him, it was deserving of more than a facile dismissal. He also compares Age of Extinction to Pacific Rim, another manufactured robot spectacle which he despises for its phony sentimentality. He prefers to embrace Bay’s unapologetic approach––his unabashed commitment to misogyny, lionization of excess, uncritical militarism and chauvinism, etc. In Brevet’s words:
“Bay’s Age of Extinction is 100% vulgar, aware of it, embracing it and wholly honest about what it is. Bay isn’t here to make you cry with his transforming alien robots or tug at your heartstrings, he’s bringing the awesome and here to bludgeon you into submission.”
And later, he asks the key question:
“How do you judge a movie such as Age of Extinction, decrying its sound and fury when that’s exactly all it is and all it’s meant to be? This is a film meant to evoke a mood and response through its visuals. That’s it.”
Though the film is reprehensible, overlong, and a tiring nightmare to sit through, he reasons, it cannot be criticized because it is those things fully and sincerely. While I see no evidence that Brevet associates with the New Sincerity crowd (he’s not religious or “spiritual” enough to fit into Jonathan Fitzgerald’s crowd), his question belies what has become a normative approach to criticism: you can only criticize something for what it is and not for what it should or could be.
There is some superficial logic to this argument if you approach a work of art from an idealistic position. After all, you cannot analyze a film that isn’t there; you can’t conjure up a speculative film substitute and use that to bludgeon poor Age of Extinction. Of course, to me this is where superficial criticism shorn of any commitments ends up: waffling on the most basic questions because it is incapable of criticizing a work of art at its very core. At no point does the question “should this have been made?” arise. I may be mistaken about that last point. Brevet points out in his original review that he was always “engaged” by the film, and that it produced “slack-jawed amazement.” So beguiling is this monstrous tumor of a film, apparently, that it was more captivating than offensive. This is film criticism imitating video game criticism at its worst. He celebrates spectacle for its own sake, and prioritizing sincerity and uniqueness over formal or political merit. He prizes the film from its context and treats it like a one-day carnival: don’t mind all the cages, whips, and chains. Just eat your cotton candy and appreciate it “for what it is.” Criticism that takes genre into account is one thing; this is another beast entirely.
What we lose in such a method, of course, is a sense of what it might be lacking. When we make the boundaries of a single film the extent of what we can criticize, we wall ourselves off from all wise analysis. Such isolation might be useful in certain instances, but it should not be the basis for film criticism, which needs to be rooted in a correct apprehension of the material conditions of the society that produced the work, how the work processes and produces the dominant ideologies of that society, and how its formal qualities interact with its political content. For me, this can obviously only take place within the bounds of historical and dialectical materialism within a Marxist political praxis. Criticism needs to be an intervention, and as such needs to be armed to the teeth, criticizing a film for what it includes and––and this can be even more important––what it conceals or omits. That is the essence of ideological criticism. Of course, Brevet isn’t trying to do that. He might argue that it is inappropriate for me to criticize him for this, to which I reply: why aren’t you attempting to make your criticism matter beyond generating page views and shuttling your readers to or away from one mindless spectacle after another? Doesn’t it bother you that your approach to evaluating films leaves you unable to make a lucid critical judgment?
One wrinkle in this story is the idea of vulgar auteurism, which blogger Girish elucidates at their blog. The idea is basically an extension of “auteur theory” in the vein of Cahiers du Cinéma to commercial Hollywood directors like Michael Bay, Tony Scott, and Paul W.S. Anderson. Vulgar auteurism in its current form basically exists to validate the works of masculinist action directors, though there could be a contingent arguing for the value of romantic comedies or other genres considered “feminine.” Auteur theory is essentially a critical lens that prioritizes the individual mark or signature of a particular filmmaker (usually the director). Hitchcock, Welles, and Wes Anderson are typically cited as auteur directors because they tend to address similar themes with similar techniques in their films. As Girish writes:
Let’s remember that the Cahiers du Cinéma critics of the time admired and championed two different and distinct kinds of filmmakers: European directors of what would today be considered “arthouse” cinema (Rossellini, Bresson, Renoir) and Hollywood directors whose work was considered “vulgar” by comparison (Hitchcock, Hawks, Ray). One could go a step further and say that the latter directors were more central to the politique des auteurs because they managed to imprint their signatures on films being made within a factory-like system of production.
One can draw the comparison between this comment about the “factory-like system of production” and Walter Benjamin’s classic essay about film and the disintegrating “aura” of art. What’s notable about this paragraph, however, is that it highlights how Hollywood’s capitalist ownership has adapted to changing tastes and expectations. Whereas Cahiers critics might have been able to argue that the ability to produce “individualized” auteur work in the studio system was a subversive and remarkable achievement, I would argue that today this is no longer the case. Yesterday’s auteurs are today’s petty Hollywood princes, packaged and sold as brand names. Like Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, and Quentin Tarantino, Michael Bay is just another brand name, a recognizable bit of language that gets butts in seats. Transformers is therefore not the only name recognition studios can wield. Bay’s own notoriety is a powerful marketing tool, both to the reactionary dudebros and the morbidly curious “critical” types who will fork over their money to watch Age of Extinction just to witness the “spectacle.” There is nothing oppositional about being an auteur in Hollywood, “vulgar” or not. Further, framing the question this way still establishes little of why a film might be of worth.
This leads me back to Benjamin:
In Western Europe the capitalistic exploitation of the film denies consideration to modern man’s legitimate claim to being reproduced. Under these circumstances the film industry is trying hard to spur the interest of the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations.
Given that that Benjamin published those words in 1936, we can see that little has changed in the last eighty years. The true danger, however, might be that the iron fist of spectacle is slowly crushing even the most vacuous humanism from the Hollywood system. Mirroring such wretched articles as this one from the Village Voice, Brevet makes apologies for the film as spectacle even if its has no other worth. There is no human element, not even an attempt to render humanity in a sympathetic way. Even Roland Emmerich, with his cast of thousands, attempts to ground his films in some kind of affirmation, a cursory nod to flesh and blood amid the digital chaos. Bay, however, appears to be completely subsuming his human subjects in machines and oil, akin to the Futurists only less heady and more cynical. I’m no humanist, largely following Althusser’s theories on that question, but what is occurring is the transformation of “popular cinema” into Olympic opening ceremonies. It’s something completely worthless, blatantly ideological (albeit in disguised forms), and completely ephemeral that, as David Harvey once put it, is materialistic only in the sense that it absorbs enormous amounts of capital. The only redeeming quality of such a work is that everyone has seen it. It is a shared experience, and on that basis alone, it seems, we can validate a work. It’s postmodernism taken to its most brutal, wasteful, deliriously capitalist end: the consumption of vast amounts of resources to create pandering garbage that endures for only one second at a time. As Brevet helpfully points out:
Bay and the digital wizards at ILM have reportedly built this film with a budget of $165 million, which is to say every minute of this picture cost $1 million each.
What a noble venture! And such brave critics! At least we can console ourselves with the assurance that they’re quite sincere in their committed mediocrity.