The Case for Michael Bay as Visionary Auteur

By  · Published on April 24th, 2013

When a Transformers film or Bad Boys II washes over its audience with gigantic, thunderous popcorn-scented waves, they know the man behind those tsunamis. No, it isn’t Poseidon, but someone even more mythic and powerful: director Michael Bay. He is one of the most successful auteurs working today, and mass audiences love visiting the worlds he presents to them through the colorful, bombastic prism of Awesome. They connect to his movies, but maybe not for the obvious reasons.

A Michael Bay picture is many, many things. The global showman has made his career off shiny money shots, a broad sense of humor, solid on-screen pairings, well-orchestrated chaos, and much more. We all know a Bay creation when we see it, and much of that comes from the mind’s more subconscious, inner workings. Bay doesn’t necessarily repeat himself, but there are reoccurring details which appear in most of his movies, all of which further his status as an auteur.

Since an auteur is generally labeled as a filmmaker with a “strong personal style,” even Bay’s harshest critics should admit he has personality and a well-established brand, whether they like his particular brand or not. The director’s newest movie, the abrasively entertaining Pain & Gain, carries on those trademark signatures in many ways. It’s not the explosions which make him an auteur, it’s the little things that make his human stories more meaningful than what we see from most blockbuster directors.

Michael Bay a true visionary auteur, and here’s why:

Pee Matters

Barton Fink’s the common man in an uncommon situation.

John Turturro reached the pinnacle of his career when he was pissed on by Bumblebee in 2007’s Transformers. He then topped himself a mere two years later by being literally overshadowed by a pair of robot testicles. These aren’t immature jokes on the part of Bay’s, but rather a chance to strengthen his heroes’ journeys. They end up on top despite having started off as the butt of many jokes. Bay urinating on Turturro and having him endure robot balls is meant to highlight the sadness of Agent Simmons’s life. He went from the Sector 7’s hotshot agent to taking the backseat to a bunch of kids and robots. In many ways, Simmons is always being peed on.

Now, I know you’re asking yourself, “What does Detective Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) smashing a henchman’s face into a piss-filled toilet accomplish then?” Like the greatest staples of Bay’s career, if there is a question, there is an answer. Marcus dipping that baddie’s face into piss is Bay splashing cold water into the audience’s face, telling them Lawrence’s character is more than meets the eye. He isn’t a joke of a cop, but a genuine badass. Pee is a storytelling device from Bay’s perspective, not merely an easy gag in bodily fluid form.

He proves this once again with Pain & Gain. A man with some, shall we say, bowel problems propels a character to leave a hospital where he would’ve faced his death had he stayed. Without that overblown excrement gag, the character’s life and movie would’ve been no more. Yet again, the plot is powered by bodily fluids.

Nobody Loves Michael Bay More Than His Own Characters

Why are Bay’s worlds so heightened in their slickness? Because his characters know they’re in a Bay movie…or they at least believe they are. The first two Transformers films reference Bad Boys II and Armageddon, showing that we are watching fans of Bay’s. It makes sense that the style of Transformers is Bay’s aesthetic cranked up a few thousand notches, because his characters all see their surroundings with a Bayian eye: they only know conventionally attractive women, they’re the saviors of their own universe and the sky’s the limit when it comes to explosions. They know they can overcome life-threatening obstacles because they’ve seen Bay’s other characters do so.

Obviously none of the characters in Pain & Gain have seen Bay’s films because their story comes before his moviemaking days, but they feel inspired by his type of movies. Their American dreams consists of expensive sports cars, supermodels, exciting lifestyles, and more Bayian staples. Perhaps this is why the characters in Pain & Gain are more empathetic than they should be, because Bay obtained that dream in certain respects. He knows what the success Daniel Lugo and his buddies are chasing feels like. Nobody understands the desire to live in a Michael Bay world more than Michael Bay.

The Power of the Sun in the Palm of Bay’s Hand

Bay puts his characters and the city of Miami through bright, colorful hell in Bad Boys.

Transformers, the Bad Boys films, and The Island make you feel the heat of the settings their characters inhabit. Even at nighttime, there are plenty of light sources. Bay never lets the audience forget the heat that’s breaking his characters down. Look at the end of Transformers: the sun is going down. The conflict is gone, and so is the sun’s overwhelming presence. This visual technique can also be found in Pearl Harbor, Revenge of the Fallen, Bad Boys, Bad Boys II, and The Rock. Bay always provides the audience with a sense of peace and resolution after the fiery storm. Even the despicable characters in Pain & Gain are shown less sweaty through more calm camerawork and weather at the end of their violent journeys.

Women…You Can Live With Them and You Can Live With Them

Some have accused Michael Bay of being a misogynist, but he is nothing of the sort. Many of his movies have relied on the power women have, both in love and action. In Pearl Harbor, Captain Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) returns home twice not because he’s the best damn fighter pilot in the sky but because of his pure love for nurse Lieutenant Evelyn Johnson; for Armageddon, A.J. Frost (Affleck again) survives the mission because of Grace Stamper (Liv Tyler), while her father, Harry (Bruce Willis), sacrifices himself for the sake of their Aerosmith-themed young love; in The Rock, one of Bay’s most thrilling action sequences comes from John Patrick Mason (Sean Connery) simply wanting to see his daughter; and Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel) fights so he can return home to his wife and daughter in Transformers. His characters go to amazing lengths for the women they care about. Bay is really a cheesy romantic, not a sexist.

At the beginning of Bad Boys II the villain says, “Fucking bitches.” By the end, he dies for those words. In the first Bad Boys, the villain kills a woman in the first ten minutes, and her friend, Julie Mott (Téa Leoni), avenges her, helping to bring upon his death by the hands of Mike Lowery and Marcus Brunett. Since the sequel’s antagonist says “American bitch,” with emphasis on her being an American, he suffers a brutal kill for his slurs against women and using America’s name in a negative context.

The most notable exception regarding Bay’s love for women can be found in Armageddon. After Harry is left to sacrifice himself and the crew’s ship won’t take off, co-pilot Jennifer Watts is about to save the day in this boy’s show…until a a fellow crew member, played by Peter Stormare, literally and symbolically, shoves her aside to show her how a man gets the job done. Pain & Gain will draw heavy accusations of misogyny, but since we’re seeing the film through the eyes of moronic meatheads, that cartoonish portrayals we see makes sense for the story Bay is telling.

Music Saves Lives

“You’re welcome, Nicolas Cage.”

“Who’s going to drive you home, tonight?” without that song, and important question, the geeky Sam wouldn’t have picked up Mikaela in Transformers. Without picking up Mikaela, the Decepticons win. She helps make him a hero, if only so he can get that kiss at the end. He’s the one who gives her the ride home, but, by the end of Transformers, she gave him the most important ride of his life.

A.J. Frost’s cover of John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jetplane” injects a sense of hope into the team from Armageddon. If Frost didn’t break out in song before leaving his gal behind, the crew would’ve left on a more somber and dire note, perhaps leading to theirs and Earth’s demise. They save the planet so A.J. can sing “Leaving on a Jetplane” one more time, not because it’s their job.

However, the most pivotal use of music in Bay’s films came in 1996 from The Rock. Do you remember that little number called “Rocket Man”? Elton John saves Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) in one of Bay’s many iconic scenes from The Rock with that song. Everyone is familiar with “Rocket Man,” and Goodspeed, being the smart man he is, uses its popularity to his advantage. Without Elton John, he wouldn’t have been able to stall Captain Darrow (Tony Todd) and morph him into the actual Rocket Man.

Money Gets You Nowhere

In the fire-filled explosive finale of Bad Boys we see a shot of money burning in the sky. No character quips, “Look at all that money…gone. Damn.” Why? Because they care less about money than Bay does. He’s only followed characters who aren’t in the best financial situations, and yet they’ve always overcome their obstacles. Even more telling, sometimes those obstacles’ villains are purely driven by money, not family or friendship like Bay’s heroes. If they aren’t scheming robots or an asteroid, they want cash. Pain & Gain follows those money hungry villains as well, and they suffer for their greed.

Look at Armageddon as the prime example: NASA may have all the financial resources and accomplished astronauts around, but their mission is useless without the team of average Joes they put together. Bay believes money means nothing at the end of the day. Only friendship, family, and doing the right thing are important.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.