Tuesday, November 29, 2011

#111: Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle, 1958, directed by Jacques Tati, written by Jacques Tati, with the artistic collaboration of Jacques Lagrange and Jean L'Hôte.

Not even Triumph of the Will announces its visual strategy as succinctly as Mon Oncle, which opens with the following credits:

Followed immediately by the film's title:

It's cold, sterile modernity versus warm, chaotic life, down to the adorable pack of wild dogs. Bet you can't guess which side Tati comes down on. It's a bit of a stacked deck: outside of Woody Allen movies, I'm guessing pre-Modern France wasn't always as charming as Tati makes it out to be.

Nor were the worst excesses of modern architecture as magnificently ugly as the film's central set, the Villa Arpel:

Too bad Mon Oncle was made before Brutalism really got rolling. It's the architectural equivalent of Ween spoofing Pink Floyd; designer Jacques Lagrange found a hidden dial in modern architecture and turned it to eleven. To say Mon Oncle was a step forward for Tati as a filmmaker is to understate the case considerably: Lagrange and production designer Henri Schmitt both worked on M. Hulot's Holiday, but nothing in the earlier film prefigures the kind of absolute mastery of the frame found in Mon Oncle. These would be the best designed sets in cinema—if Tati hadn't gone on to make Playtime. And Tati uses color precisely as Sirk: old France is all warm yellows and browns; modernity is, well, just look at it.

After establishing a hard-line distinction between the old world and the new, Tati throws Monsieur Hulot (dressed for the first time in a warmly-colored brown raincoat) into the gulf between them. There's a lovely shot of him carefully putting a stone back into place on the crumbling wall that divides the two worlds.

The Villa Arpel belongs to none other than M. Hulot's sister, her husband, and their nine-year-old son. The plot, such as it is, revolves around their efforts to figure out what to do with Hulot. In the character of M. Arpel, we find perhaps the closest thing to an antagonist in any of Tati's films. Jean-Pierre Zola plays him as the very embodiment of pig-eyed self-satisfaction.

It hardly seems like a fair fight. Of course, calling dirty pool misses the point: Mon Oncle makes no claims of realism. I wouldn't even call it a cinematic essay; it's more of a fantasia on The Theory of the Leisure Class, and there's nothing else quite like it. I'm not kidding about Veblen: his sidenote that the "canon of reputable futility" demands curved driveways (because they waste time and space, they proclaim that their owners have time and space to waste) comes to glorious life in a throwaway shot of Mme. Arpel and her neighbor animatedly greeting each other, staring off in opposite directions.

This is not to say that Mon Oncle is a critique of the ways in which modern design has failed to live up to the ideal of form following function, no matter how many times Tati returns to shots of characters pretending to enjoy sitting in painfully uncomfortable chairs.

For one thing, M. Hulot's apartment is not exactly a triumph of functional design, no matter what color it is. In a long shot that I'm certain Wes Anderson has carefully studied, we see Hulot ramble his way through various windows and stairwells to the top left of frame. As Matt Zoller Seitz notes, it looks like a dollhouse.

I love Seitz's observation that in the Arpels' hideous fountain, only turned on for guests, "you can see the gears of social need turning." I'm not so certain I'd go along with his assertion that Hulot is in any way part of the "mechanisms behind our modern world," however. You couldn't reverse engineer a smoothly oiled machine from his workplace performance, for instance.

The only time we see Hulot fitting into the modern world like a cog in a gear, it's because he's gotten drunk, flipped a sofa on its side, and passed out.

Gears have been much on my mind recently; the best movie of the Christmas season is obsessed with them. It's worth noting here that for all its love of artifice and artificers, Hugo is built on the same premise that animates the Villa Arpel: people have a purpose; they can be repaired and fixed into place. Tati doesn't see it that way: there's no solution to the problem that is M. Hulot. And not just Hulot: one of the most delightful recurring gags in Mon Oncle has to do with a street sweeper who somehow never... quite... manages to swing his broom. There would be no place for him in Hugo's train station, where everyone has a job to do (even if that job is filming our dreams). Of course, there's an inherent tension in a meticulously crafted film that argues that meticulous craftsmanship is anti-humanist. But I think Mon Oncle manages to have it both ways—remember, the wall between Hulot's world and the Villa Arpel is crumbling. There's a wonderfully generous moment at the end of the film when M. Arpel, after banishing Hulot to the provinces, causes some Hulot-style chaos of his own. After inadvertently making a traveler walk into a pole, Arpel and his son hide behind their monstrous car, the son takes his father's hand, and for a moment, the two worlds are united.

So here's Tati throwing a brick into the clockwork that rules us, beatiful and intricate though it may be:

People think it is a message, but it isn't: one should be free to say to a man who is building a house, "Be careful. It might be too well-built."


    It may be a soulless machine, but it makes me cry like Daisy Buchanan.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

#110: M. Hulot's Holiday

M. Hulot's Holiday, 1953, directed by Jacques Tati, written by Henri Marquet, Jacques Tati, Pierre Aubert, and Jacques Lagrange.

It's easy to forget just how much comedy is fueled by misanthropy until you encounter a film like M. Hulot's Holiday. As something of a misanthrope myself, I have mixed feelings about this kind of movie. On the one hand, it's a gentle, affectionate film that manages to evoke the laziness of summer vacations without being lazy itself. On the other hand, this is a comedy in which no one gets kicked in the nuts. How on earth did they cut a trailer?

M. Hulot's Holiday may have been released in 1953, but its sensibility and technique are both from silent films. Although it is nominally in French, there are very few subtitles, and none of them are strictly necessary. It doesn't take more than an instant to recognize Hulot as a silent film character, as iconic as Chaplin's Tramp, instantly recognizable by silhouette.

Although he has the same talent for pissing off waiters, hotel managers, and functionaries of all stripes, Hulot generally causes less chaos than the Tramp. The pacing is very different from a Chaplin film, or indeed, most comedies, silent or no. There are a few sequences of rapidly escalating catastrophe, most memorably when Hulot manages to set an entire shed of fireworks on fire.

This is the kind of comedy we're used to: the clown racing around as things blow up around him. And there are other instances of brilliant physical comedy, even if they don't have that "Hall of the Mountain King" sense of impending disaster. Hulot's tennis match is a particular standout.

But I honestly laughed hardest at a moment that no one but Tati could have pulled off: a shot of Hulot near-hypnotized by a gob of taffy nearly falling from its hook.

The taffy slowly droops, getting closer and closer to the counter, until at the last minute, just as Hulot is about to spring into action, the hand of the proprietor sweeps in from out of frame and catches it. Tati stays on this for a good thirty seconds (and returns to it later in the film), and I can't think of anything else quite like it. The rhythm of the joke, it seems to me, is not far from the peek-a-boo game we all found so mind-blowingly hilarious as babies, and maybe that's what Tati's tapping into here. Or maybe I'm just the kind of person who would feel the same irresistable urge to grab the taffy before it hits the cart. In any event, it cracked me right up.

Still, it must be said that visual language of the film is surprisingly conventional, at least compared to the loopy modernist brilliance of Play Time. I saw M. Hulot's Holiday for the first time about a year after Play Time and it's amazing how dramatically his visual style evolved. There are a few visual puns of the sort that Tati perfected in his later films, like this shot of a man transformed into a horse:

There's one brilliantly executed longer joke of this sort. Hulot's car breaks down at a funeral, and he drops the spare tire into a puddle of muddy leaves just as a chauffeur gathers funeral wreaths for the ceremony, and you can probably see where this is going:

The interesting thing about the confusion with the spare tire is that it only works in black and white; you could probably get an undergraduate paper out of that fact if you throw the name Borges around enough.

I try to be cautious of my tendency to overpraise work that yields to, shall we say, vigorous critical exegesis; at various points in my life I've been a Pink Floyd fan and an English teacher.1 So it's possible that my preference for Play Time over M. Hulot's Holiday stems from my own character flaws—or my sense that modernity is attacking me, too. I will admit to being charmed beyond all measure by the one point where everything comes together, a costume ball where Hulot, against all odds, has a moment of grace and dignity.

Of course, shortly thereafter, Tati has him catapulted at great speed into a canal.

Comedy, like science, requires victims. But the unique thing about M. Hulot's Holiday is that it isn't about Hulot's ritual humiliations. Tati is at least as interested in the sound of the ocean, the strange collections of people who are thrown together on vacation, and that moment—you must have been around six—when your parents' car finally turned off the highway and the ocean came into view.


  • If you'd like to see Tati in more of the ritual-humilitation-type comedy, the DVD includes René Clément's short Soigne ton Gauche, in which a pre-Hulot Tati plays a wannabe boxer. It goes about as well as you'd expect.

1Fortunately, neither took.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

#109: The Scarlet Empress

The Scarlet Empress, 1934, directed by Josef von Sternberg, screenplay by Eleanor McGeary, from the diaries of Catherine II, arranged by Manual Komroff.

From the Poetics right up until the post-structuralists blew everything up, literary critics spent a surprising amount of time on taxonomies of genre. Although it has glaring omissions, I think Northrop Frye's was one of the most elegant, if for no other reason than that he mapped his genres onto to the four seasons. I'm not going to do a better job of summarizing the correspondence than Martin Amis in The Information:

Summer: romance. Journeys, quests, magic, talking animals, damsels in distress.

Autumn: tragedy. Isolation and decline, fatal flaws and falls, the throes of heroes.

Winter: satire. Anti-utopias, inverted worlds, the embrace of the tundra: the embrace of wintry thoughts.

Spring: comedy. Weddings, apple blossom, maypoles, no more misunderstandings—away with the old, on with the new.

Well, films have seasons, too. And although it's unlikely anyone running a studio has spent much time with Frye (or even Amis), archetypal criticism is alive and well in the studio release schedules.1 In fact, once you realize that summer blockbusters fit within Frye's definition of romance, it's nearly a one-to-one correspondence.2 We're in the height of summer right now, and more money than ever is ever being thrown at tepid variations on the monomyth. What better time to watch a film like The Scarlet Empress, which belongs wholeheartedly and unabashedly to winter?

On its face, The Scarlet Empress seems like a more common kind of story: a tragedy of overreach. Think of Citizen Kane, The Great Gatsby, or (from a certain perspective) Paradise Lost: stories of overweening protagonists who gain the world and lose their souls. And it's a period drama about royalty, with all the possibilities for lavish sets and costumes that affords. Those lavish costumes are going to be worn by none other than Marlena Dietrich, at the height of her powers:

Bring on the Oscars. So on paper, The Scarlet Empress seems familiar. Against that familiarity, you begin to get a sense of how strange and perverse von Sternberg's film really is. Consider the opening sequence, in which we meet Princess Sophia Augusta Frederica, long before becoming (as von Sternberg puts it in an intertitle) "the ill-famed Messalina of the North." Young Sophia is played by Maria Riva, Dietrich's daughter, and looks every inch a princess.

This is the "childhood innocence" sequence found in the kind of movie The Scarlet Empress sometimes pretends to be: Charlie Kane doesn't want to leave his father, Gatsby doesn't want to go to war, and Sophia doesn't want to marry a king—she wants to be a toe-dancer. But as she settles down to hear her bedtime story, she pulls a creepy-looking doll from beneath the covers and the tone changes. With a different score, the way the doll rises from beneath the blanket could play like the end of Don't Look Now.

And the bedtime story she listens to? A history of "Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible and other Russian tsars and tsarinas who were hangmen," represented on screen by a montage that would be hard to get past censors today, from a torturer whipping prisoners:

To naked women on some strange variation of the Catherine Wheel:

To, most memorably of all, a church bell with a human clapper.

That last shot of the bell ringing rather famously dissolves into a match shot of Sophia's hoop skirt as she rides a swing toward camera. The film is filled with this sort of mordant wit, although there's nothing else that rhymes quite like that. There is a recurring visual motif, though, and it's found in the shot of the doll: something unexpectedly terrible emerging from its hiding place. You can see the same thing in a later shot of an obscene cuckoo clock, or this memorable image of a drill bit slowly making its way through the eye of an icon.

These shots are echoes of the film's greatest, darkest joke: Sophia's introduction to Peter III. Bedtime stories or no, when Dietrich first appears as onscreen, she seems as naive as her daughter, the kind of girl who believes in fairy tales.

So when John Lodge, dressed like the cover of a romance novel, arrives as Count Alessi, envoy of the Russian court, you know exactly what kind of story she thinks she's landed in.

Which is, of course, exactly the kind of movie von Sternberg wants us to think he's making. Sophia's husband-to-be is, according to Alessi,

The handsomest man in the Russian court, tall and formed like a Greek god, a model in fashion and deportment which all of us strive to follow. His eyes are like the blue sky, his hair the color of ebony. He is stronger than a team of oxen and sleepless because of his desire to receive you in his arms. And he can also read and write!

It's the "read and write" that's the tell. When Sophia arrives in Moscow, and excitedly begs the Empress to let her meet her husband, we get the film's central image. A gigantic door is thrown open, and a strange procession emerges: dwarfs in formalwear leading hunting dogs, a steward, a glowering woman (the prince's mistress, it turns out), and, finally, the "handsomest man in the Russian court."

That's Sam Jaffe in his first film role, as a Russian Emperor and a horror-film jack-in-the-box. His Peter III is a sniggering madman: in his first interaction with his new bride, he insists on showing her his new "invention" (a toy soldier glued to a wheel; it's not clear what part of it he thinks he's invented), then rushes off to watch an execution.

Oh, and that glamorous Russian Court we expect to see in this kind of film? With all the pomp and splendor and inevitable Oscars for the costume designer? Here's Empress Elizabeth in all her glory:

Believe it or not, that chair is one of the more subtle pieces of furniture in the film; Elizabeth has an entire table surrounded with chairs like this:

The joke is on Sophia, but it's also on anyone who came to The Scarlet Empress expecting a tasteful historical drama. This might be a good time to point out that the film's posters featured Dietrich in sable; John Lodge was on more of the lobby cards than Sam Jaffe. Von Sternberg really rubs the audience's collective nose in it, too; it's safe to say that fewer tickets would have been sold for a film about the relationship between a brood mare and royal half-wit:

The final act of the film is basically about Marlene Dietrich being Marlene Dietrich, which is always a pleasure to watch. I can't think of another film from this era in which power and sex are so explicitly linked. There's actually a scene where Count Alessi kisses Sophia, then hands her a whip and demands she punish him for his insolence, which somehow sailed right over the heads of the Production Code Administration.3 She doesn't whip him—at that point in the film, she still thinks the handsomest man in the Russian court is losing sleep over her—but never fear, Alessi gets his. No one but no one could use her sexuality as a weapon like Dietrich. If she'd done nothing else her entire career, the shot of her coolly assessing Peter's mistress would have made her a cinematic icon.

Clearly this isn't Sissi. But what's stopping it from being Citizen Kane? After all, Sophia gradually loses her humanity as she becomes Catherine; by the film's delirious end, she's arranged the murder of her husband. Well, for one thing, the tone's all wrong. Imagine a version of The Godfather Part II in which Michael reacted to Fredo's death with a rictus like Dietrich has here:

More importantly, from beginning to end, von Sternberg repeatedly makes the point that Sophia doesn't make any of her own choices. Early in the film, we watch Sophia's routine on entering her own parlor: she curtsies and kisses the hands of no fewer than seven people before speaking. Seven curtsies, seven kisses—and then one more, once she is introduced to Count Alessi. When she leaves the room (after being told that she's travelling to Russia to be married), von Sternberg makes us watch the same ritual, in reverse. Her every action is circumscribed by ritual, and by decisions that were made for her. When she does seize the crown, it's because her husband is insane and his mistress has promised her a shaved head and a trip to a convent. Aristotle would say that's a misadventure, not a tragedy. I say it's an inverted world, a mirror version of fairy tales and costume dramas.

Whatever it is, it's not for everybody. The Scarlet Empress was a box-office flop. But look, if you're feeling cheated, if you want the awards season biopic you were promised, all is not lost. As it happens, there is one grand tragedy in The Scarlet Empress, one character whose fatal flaw leads him headlong into catastrophe.


  • If you want to see how to effectively use the kind of close-ups that Michael Bay so egregiously misuses, pay attention to the royal wedding sequence. As Robin Wood points out, von Sternberg doesn't give us much information about where people are standing in relation to one another. Instead, he intercuts close-ups of Count Alessi:

    and Sophia:

    The effect is to make the wedding a scene that happens between betrayer and betrayed, not husband and wife.

  • The Scarlet Empress obviously prefigures Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible films, which are also about a relative innocent whose humanity is relentlessly ground out of him. For that matter, you could shoot scenes from von Sternberg's film on Eisenstein's sets and vice versa, and no one would be the wiser. I hadn't seen The Scarlet Empress when I wrote about Ivan; the more you know, etc. I think the Ivan films are better cinema. Eisenstein manages such a consistent paranoiac tone, and there are some pretty incoherent sequences in The Scarlet Empress (Roger Ebert attributes them to von Sternberg being ""impatient when his attention is called away from Dietrich"). But of course, Eisenstein doesn't have Dietrich, so it's a pretty close call.

1The last studio head who might have read Northrop Frye was fired in 2005.

2The reason it's not one-to-one is that very few people will wager a film's budget on satire. Unless you count the terrible, terrible films the studios dump in January as very subtle satires of Hollywood greed and incompetence. They certainly encourage me to embrace wintry thoughts, so maybe Frye wins again.

3If I'm understanding this correctly, The Scarlet Empress was the 16th film to face the PCA and seems to have gotten by due to bureaucratic screwups. Here's to bureaucratic screwups.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

#108: The Rock

The Rock, 1996, directed by Michael Bay, screenplay by David Weisberg & Douglas S. Cook and Mark Rosner, story by David Weisberg & Douglas S. Cook.

Here's Michael Bay on the commentary track for The Rock, talking about his decision to insert a stand-alone car chase into the film, a sequence that, for all its sound and fury, accomplishes exactly nothing that has anything at all to do with the narrative.

Actually, I had a fight about the car chase with one of the writers, because I felt, "This is a way for me to help, after all this complicated setup, to help suck the younger audience back into it." And I know that sounds kind of weird, of trying to make movies for demographics and whatnot but, basically that's, that's what it was. I had a fight with one of the writers, um, he said "I've never heard of a director talking about demographics." And I'm like, "Well,"—this is a writer who's never had a script actually made into a movie—and I said, "Well, let me tell you something. If you're given 60 million dollars, you'd better fucking know who you're selling this movie to, because it could be the last time they ever give you 60 million dollars again." We're in a business, and this was, my idea with The Rock was to take people on a big ride and have fun characters in the movie. This is like an e-ticket ride, kind of, one-third into the movie, and, you know? I think it did the trick around the world—it's so far made 340 million dollars.

And here's Michael Bay explaining how he knew the movie needed a car chase at this particular point:

That was something on the first test screening that worked beautifully, because what I do as a director is I watch their body movements. When they start to fidget, when they start to look at their watch, you know you've got a problem with your film. When they start to jump up to the bathroom a lot, you know that there's a problem in the movie right about there. when, just when generally a lot of people go to the bathroom at a certain point in the movie.

And here's Michael Bay, blowing a cable car halfway into outer space to stop bored teenagers from taking a piss:

And there in a nutshell, is everything people hate about Michael Bay. He reduces film to a pure business transaction, he believes you can't possibly underestimate the attention spans of "the younger audience," and he's utterly contemptuous of not only the screenwriters he works with but with story itself. It's easy to see why he's anathema to critics, and equally easy to see why studio executives love the guy. I went into more detail about this when writing about Armageddon, but the key thing about Michael Bay movies is that they are not designed to tell stories. The narrative elements in The Rock, character, plot, dialogue, are there as signals in a sort of cinematic aggressive mimicry. He's making amusement park rides that look like movies.

So, as with Armageddon, you can make a staggeringly long list of ways in which The Rock fails as a narrative. And it's fun to do! The characters talk like movie posters (actual line: "Mason's angry. He's lethal. He's a trained killer. And he is the only hope that we have got.") Stereotypes pop up like clockwork when Bay wants a laugh, from the gay hairdresser to (really!) an angry Asian chef hollering at Sean Connery for invading his kitchen.

Although Bay hadn't yet graduated to Armageddon's world without time zones, the film's geography is muddled enough that an apartment in Washington D.C. has a view of the Library Tower.

For some reason1 there's a system of mine carts deep below Alcatraz island, with both traditional tracks and a suspended monorail.

And of course, in the film's most celebrated line, we're asked to believe that a Scotsman who has been in prison since the 1960s would have a personal philosophy built around the concept of "prom." But look: this is like writing a list of ways in which the Judas Breed fails to resemble a human being. It's too easy, and it's kind of beside the point. Mimicry doesn't have to work over the long term, it just has to get the predator close enough to eat you—or take your 340 million dollars.

The baffling thing about The Rock, as Jeanine Basinger points out, is how many critics admired it while scorning Armageddon. Roger Ebert, for example, called The Rock "a first-rate, slam-bang action thriller with a lot of style and no little humor," while Armageddon was "an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense and the human desire to be entertained." And yet in nearly every particular, the form and content of the two films are identical.2 They're both positively dripping with what Matt Zoller Seitz, in the best examinatipn of Bay's aesthetic I've read, called a "distinctively American hybrid of latent fascism and ingrained consumerism." So what's the reason for their different reception? I think it basically comes down to two things. The first is nostalgia for Sean Connery's version of James Bond, which is a much stronger force than, say, nostalgia for Bruce Willis's character on "Moonlighting." The second is Nicolas Cage's pathological inability to phone in a performance. Whether he's in an amazing movie or a terrible one, Cage commits with scary-eyed intensity to whatever bullshit he's selling.

He can't save every movie from its own ridiculousness, but he does a lot for The Rock. I could go into more detail about precisely what bullshit Cage is selling here, but I'm going to assume for both our sakes that you either know the premise of The Rock or have no interest in ever knowing it.

So let's take it as a given that Michael Bay isn't particularly interested in plot or character, and talk about the things that do interest him. In The Rock, there are basically two things that Michael Bay lingers on: scenes in which characters make tough, principled decisions, and action sequences. For all the attention paid to Michael Bay's action sequences, it's in his "tough call" scenes that he has an immediately recognizable style. Here's the platonic ideal of a Michael Bay shot: Ed Harris, as General Francis Hummel, in a close-up favoring his chin.

Hummel's the leader of a gang of mutineers threatening to launch a nerve gas attack against San Francisco.3 The image is from a scene in which Hummel calls off the attack and military discipline breaks down. In about two minutes, I counted no fewer than five shots in which Bay slowly tracks in on one of his actors' chins. That's against four master shots, two of which are point-of-view shots from characters surreptitiously observing the scene (which is to say, they're serving a different narrative purpose that precludes close-ups). Conversations are all-close-up, all the time, and that, as much as the swells in Hans Zimmer's score, convinces us we are seeing big moments. Bay takes this idea to its logical conclusion: I guarantee you have never seen anyone fumble for the right key on a key ring in such a dramatic fashion.

To be fair, Bay doesn't always track in on the chin of a character making a tough decision. When the President decides to drop thermite on Alcatraz Island and kill all the hostages, he goes to voiceover over shots of American military might that would be too fetishistic for Air Force recruiting commercials:

But that's Bay's basic technique for scenes with dialogue. The slow tracking shots and close-ups produce a conditioned response: we must be seeing a moment of supreme dramatic importance. After all, why else would the camera get in so close? Why else is the music swelling?

The action sequences are less distinctive, but again, there are a series of techniques Bay returns to again and again. First, he gets the camera as close as he possibly can. In the gunfights in The Rock, you will very rarely see the person firing the gun and their target in the same frame, even when they're shooting at point-blank range. There's also plenty of the kind of run-and-gun handheld that David Bordwell has critiqued in the Bourne films. There are aesthetic pluses and minuses to run-and-gun, but in studying The Rock I noticed a clear practical advantage: your stars don't have to do stunts. In the entire car chase sequence, there are three shots of Nicolas Cage or Sean Connery behind the wheel of a moving car. Connery actually drives the car away from the valet station:

And roughly halfway through, there are matching shots from the passenger seat of Connery and Cage driving:

The rest of the chase is entirely done with close-ups, shot through the windshield while PAs bounce the car up and down.

Steve McQueen might not have done as much driving in Bullit as he claimed, but he did more than that.

Amid all the extreme close-ups and Queasicam, Michael Bay occasionally shoots from a distance, using tripods, wide shots, cranes, and other elegant weapons for a more civilized age. Once or twice per action sequence, we get a stunt that is impressive (or expensive) enough that a handheld camera won't do it justice. So how do you blend more traditional shots with run-and-gun? Basically, by stutter-cut editing the shit out of it. Take a single stunt from the car crash sequence: Connery's character plows his Humvee into a parked taxi, sending it flying. In real life, this crash probably took about one second; on film, it takes just over three. Here's the first and last frame of each cut in the sequence (click the image for a higher resolution).

In those three seconds, Bay uses six different shots from four different cameras (shots 1, 3, and 6 are from the same crane shot). With each edit, he skips backwards in time, showing the moment of impact again and again and again.4 Well, it blends in fine with the rest of the car chase.

Master the slow track, the close up, the Queasicam, and the stutter cut, and you will just about have Michael Bay's filmmaking technique down cold. In The Rock, he didn't have quite the talent for perfectly composed Super Bowl commercial images that he developed by the time he shot Armageddon, but the rest of it's all there. None of his stylistic tics are particularly hard to duplicate, and most of them are pretty effective, if used sparingly. Maybe some day an enterprising young director will use them to tell a story.

Which brings us, once again, to Michael Bay in his own words: "What I do as a director is I watch their [test screening audiences'] body movements." That's not directing so much as it is straightforward stimulus-response. Bay is, I think, the leading figure of a school of filmmaking we might call the Pavlovians, cashing in on responses conditioned by other, better movies. Take away the food, and the dog keeps drooling.


  • Cage and Connery may not have done much driving, but indisputably performed one stunt their insurance companies must not have known about: having two stunt men hold them underwater while flames roared overhead. Connery wasn't thrilled about it; Entertainment Weekly has him yelling "So you're telling me I could burn my face off!" at Bay. (Nicolas Cage was eavesdropping).

  • The screenwriter Bay got into an argument with about the car chase was almost certainly Mark Rosner, who was fired over the car chase. The same EW article that has Connery yelling about the fireballs has Rosner describing their clashes over the script like this:
    I would say I wrote a man's movie, and Michael always had it in his head to make a boy's movie. And I think he found people to provide him with the appropriately juvenile material.

1I like to think the rough outline for a Michael Bay film is a long list of bullet points, each of which begins with the phrase "For some reason..."

2Basinger thinks this means critics should have embraced both films. That's one way to look at it.

3Somewhat bizarrely, Hummel's motive is to draw attention to the unacknowledged deaths of special forces units during Desert Storm. Apparently he couldn't get Dana Priest or Ann Hull on the phone.

4This is what separates your top-tier Michael Bay parodies from the lesser efforts, because to ape this technique, you need multiple cameras.