Will Michael Bay Save Cinema?

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It pains me to write that title. But, to answer the question: maybe. I am not talking about film, or artistry, I am talking about cinema. I am talking about strangers sitting together with popcorn and soda and watching a movie. As stupid as Michael Bay movies are, they get people into the seats. I’m starting to think that’s not a bad thing.

We are past the second coming of 3D, because as predicted, it failed again. 3D worked for Avatar, ushering it to the highest grossing film of all time, but since then 3D has been seen for what it is: a gimmick. You could say that Michael Bay movies are comprised of gimmicks, too, but there’s a difference. Where 3D is a gimmick meant to change the way we see movies (making them more “immersive,” which is great for roller coasters, not film), Bay’s gimmicks rely on pure cinematic spectacle, and his specific, if not unique, take on cinema -- not on the gimmick of 3D.

It goes without saying that I prefer a different kind of movie. The movies I enjoy most can be viewed no differently in the comfort of my living room, office, or on an iPad. Like most people, I do the majority of my movie-watching at home. There our investment is lessened because we don’t have to carve out a specific time to watch. We can pause when we want, or finish watching the next day, or stop watching all together. When we go to a theater we are giving our time up, for better or for worse, to a storyteller. It doesn’t stop for bathroom breaks or phone calls. Sometimes it’s a bad decision because some movies are horrible. It's part of the experience. It’s a gamble. And this is partly why movie-going is on the decline. To quip: "I'll catch it on Netflix." People don’t want to invest in movies that may suck when they can just as easily watch at home and decide after ten minutes whether or not to continue watching.*

Here is where Michael Bay comes in, and believe me when I say I write this next line with great distress: Michael Bay movies need to be seen in theaters. They are simply too big to watch on an iPad or most home theaters (as much as I love my plasma and soundbar, it’s not the same as a movie theater).

I recently saw this video, which explains that Michael Bay’s favorite movie is West Side Story. When you see the side-by-side comparison of that film and Bay’s films, you get a sense of its influence on Bay. West Side Story is huge. It’s a gigantic film. The shots are full and dynamic (as the video explains). I would never compare a Transformers movie to West Side Story, but the influence is there. However arbitrary they may be to the discerning eye, Bay has made a career of creating dynamic shots. He makes his money by going too far in terms of how fast and far he moves his camera, and he constantly ignores story for the sake of spectacle. He rails against good taste and more subtle sensibilities, and takes audiences on over two-and-a-half hour rides of incoherence and noise.

But, people seem to love it.

People go to theaters to see his films because that’s where the experience is best. On a television the spectacle disappears; audiences see it for the noise that it is. But, in a 4K theater, with Dolby Surround, the purpose of Michael Bay’s films return: the spectacle and experience of a movie theater. And it keeps people paying for seats. This isn’t an important thing for indie filmmakers who have venues like iTunes, VOD, Vimeo, Netflix, etc. with which to screen their films. But, having the classic venue for movies is important for culture and people. It perpetuates a willingness to butt elbows in the dark with strangers and experience together things we otherwise wouldn’t have. By sitting there laughing and crying (and rolling our eyes) we are reminded that we share intangible fears and hopes with the people around us -- even if those fears and hopes are invoked by a lot of whizzing and clanking noises, and robots that turn into cars doing god-knows-what, for god-knows-what reasons. At least we’re all in the dark together.

*Yes, you can walk out of a theater, but it's my observation that people become more willing to sit through a bad movie in a theater than they are in their home.

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