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.


Scott said...

I can totally appreciate your distain for Michael Bay movies, but my question is do you think The Rock deserves to be in the Criterion Collection? What was Criterion's rationale for including it?

legato said...

Great review as always. First just a thank you for giving credit where credit is due and reminding people that Nic Cage is a modern day Lugosi. Those wide eyed freak outs can turn the most mundane film into something exciting.

The real thing I want to talk about though is your last point. Michael Bay himself is the second rate version of an other director so the parody whether intentional or not goes back to none other than Tony Scott. We talked about this a bit over at the criterionforum, but Scott seems to do this whatever you want to call it for different means than the Pavlovian responses you described here. Scott isn't thinking about how things work within a plot, but rather the responses from the cinematic stimuli (hence his stories being so stupid and uninteresting). The difference with this being that rather than doing this to ensure that his audience is having fun it's closer to Andy Kaufman or probably more accurately Soviet Montage theory where he is probing why such an edit causes such a response. The how isn't important when you've got the why.

Christian said...

This made me laugh in anger. Anger of Michael Bay, of course. But does he give a damn about other people opinion? Of course not, he makes millions in the costs of a public with no opinion.
And I truly believe that the Criterion Collection only gave space to Bay's abominations to remember us how good the good films are. It is the only reasonable answer to Scott's question.
I'll be around. Bye!

djproject said...

ah michael bay.

a few random thoughts here and there ...

1) i remember hearing that for michael bay, his favourite films were the 1930s musicals involving busby berkeley. this i think explains simply and elegantly why bay can laugh his way to the bank while the rest of us do our best "khan scream."

2) as one who dealt with various forums, i don't get into the whole "why the [1khz] is this on the criterion collection." i can imagine part of it is the business angle: the association with buena vista they had at that point. and also i think bay wanted to show himself off a bit and wax philosophical about the aforementioned busby.

3) you pretty much said why i have little to no interest not only with michael bay but with most mainstream cinema in general. they are not about story or art (two reasons why i would be interested in seeing them) but rather about spectacle. if i want something that resembles amusement park rides, i would go to an amusement park. sure it's more expensive than a theatre and there's no air conditioning but at least i won't be frustrated when it doesn't meet my expectations.

4) your footnote explaining the general's "reasoning" behind the nerve gas attack was pretty much my dad's dismissal of the film: why would a high-profile, highly decorated marine use *that* means to raise awareness of unsung fallen heroes? fundraiser anyone? i guess facebook, twitter, meetup and kickstarter hadn't been invented. so let's use chemical warfare! *eyeroll*

Matthias Galvin said...

Great work as usual, Matt!

Yes yes, Michael Bay artistically bankrupt, doesn't care about the educated viewer, "frustrating" to watch, etc... That's all well and good.

But those images!

You said it yourself in the Armageddon capsule; even if the fundamental conceit for them is basically idiotic, Bay has a startling eye for composition. Granted he has money, but there's a visual strength that shines through, particularly with his lighting environments; they aren't the work of an amateur.

Maybe that doesn't redeem what people find disappointing about him (which, really, by now we all should know exactly what we're getting into with a Michael Bay movie; while I couldn't have stated it so elegantly as yourself, implicitly I knew that his movies weren't works of any depth or insight but were certainly enjoyable for what they were as spectacle thrills). His visual strength may not redeem him, but nobody reads, for example, e.e. cummings and expects capitalization.

Joel said...

"I 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...'"


Baf said...

The bit about watching the audience to find the bits where they fidget or take bathroom breaks actually reminds me a lot of how big-budget videogames are developed. The one big difference is that there, the question isn't so much "where do people get bored" as "where do people get stuck".

Tom said...

Two things:

1.) The technique described, where action is shot such that there's virtually no connection with any real people (so that the stars don't really have to be there) is one of the most unbearable parts of Bay to me, and it's magnified enormously in Transformers: you're not watching an action sequence at all, you're watching an almost avant garde series of images with no concrete ties to anything. It's hard to see how this is appealing unless that abstraction is specifically what you're looking for.

2.) That said, I love this movie, and it absolutely is because of Nick Cage. You obviously listened to the commentary, but you didn't mention how much of his characterization was specifically Cage's insane, terrible ideas- playing the guitar naked, a bunch of the lines, most of his motivations, etc. It goes beyond the crazy tics, and it's so odd that it pushes the rest of the movie out of the humdrum blockbusterness of Armageddon and into the "what the fuck am I watching" zone that Con Air inhabits.

Doctor Memory said...

"...even if the fundamental conceit for them is basically idiotic, Bay has a startling eye for composition."

I would argue that "had" would be the more appropriate verb there: based on the evidence of "Transformers", Bay's directorial tics have long since overwhelmed his ability to even compose and frame a shot coherently.

Matthew Dessem said...

Scott & Legato,

I talked a little about why "Armageddon" probably deserves its place in the Criterion Collection here. Re: Tony Scott, I haven't seen that many of his films, believe it or not (I'm not nuts about Top Gun or Domino, and haven't seen Crimson Tide or True Romance in at least 15 years, though I remember liking them). Are you saying that Scott is Watson to Bay's Pavlov?

Matthew Dessem said...


I should have said this more clearly in my post, but, yeah, I think one of the things people find infuriating about Michael Bay is that he is succeeding on his own terms--he just has very different goals when making a film than other directors.

Matthew Dessem said...


He does bring up Busby Berkeley on the commentary, during the shots of the SEALs climbing out of the water in the boiler room. If I remember correctly, he talks about the way Berkeley would start with a wide shot and then cut in to "privileged angles," shooting the same scene from a variety of perspectives. Which is definitely something Bay has picked up.

Matthias Galvin said...


I wouldn't say that Bay's compositions have gotten worse at all--in fact the lighting environments in Transformers are just as complex and constructed. Rather, I'd agree with your assessment that he's incoherent because, well, we can't see shit of what's going on. I'd be more inclined to say that Bay has lost (or, perhaps gotten even worse with/never had) his senses of space or of rhythm in action.

Matt's illustration of the stutter cuts is a very good, convenient example of this: none of the angles are particularly clear themselves, their assembly doesn't lend any real coherence to the relative sense of where it happened, and neither does it take place in time to be of any natural flow.

I'd agree that he's gotten, in ways, worse, but I think that his graphic vision has gotten better. Even if it's buried amidst explosions and bullshit, to take stills or freezeframes from moments of the Transformers movies, it's still good. I recall one of the more brief moments of quiet in Transformers 2 when the two romantic leads are hopping from building to building, avoiding... something--I don't remember--and being struck by the way the colors came through in the totally implausibly-chosen windows, and how the track-pans all sort of wove together. Except the shaky-cam. (I find shaky cam difficult because of my own idiosyncratic curiosity about wondering how a space comes together).

Matthew Dessem said...


I think the images in The Rock are much less polished than those in Armageddon, so if I wanted to appreciate his work on that level, that's the film I'd choose. Maybe because he was shooting on location more often, and had less control of the light?

Matthew Dessem said...

(to clarify: maybe the images in The Rock aren't as polished because he shot it on location). But of course the tunnels were built on a set, and I think that entire sequence is as muddy and un-striking as the film gets, so my comment has defeated its own purpose.

Matthew Dessem said...


And yet some big budget video games were clearly made by people with an interest in narrative. (That said, I wish the puzzles in games were much, much harder; there's rarely any satisfaction in solving them. I would play a "deleted scenes" edition of a game consisting only of the puzzle taken out because they playtested as too hard).

Specifically to the test audience issue, Paul Feig talks about Apatow's method of testing different cuts here. I'm not sure why that bothers me less than the way Bay talks about it; is there that much qualitative difference between trying out a joke and trying out a car chase sequence? I don't think it's just that I like Bridesmaids better than The Rock, but maybe it is. Obviously, Bay loses me when he discounts Rosner as "a writer who's never had a script actually made into a movie." Something I'm puzzling over.

Matthew Dessem said...


I'm generally skeptical of actors who say that they developed their own character, although I read the Jonathan Hensleigh draft of The Rock and, yeah, the version of Stanley Goodspeed on the page is pretty different (and pretty bland).

I didn't think Nic Cage was quite crazy enough for the film to make it to Con Air territory. Armageddon. has more moments that work that way for me(e.g., Udo Kier), though it's not Con Air either.

Incidentally, I tried to rewatch Con Air a few months ago and couldn't make it past the scene where the criminals are introduced, specifically the stuff about Ving Raimes writing bestsellers from prison. But it has at least three insane performances: don't underrate Buscemi and Malcovich!

Matthew Dessem said...


One thing about that car crash is that if he'd just used the crane shot, it would have been a more impressive stunt.

Anonymous said...

And now with D-Box, Michael Bay doesn't have to worry about keeping the audience in line anymore. D-Box will jerk them to attention.

legato said...

Watson's a great point of comparison, yes. If you ever find yourself watching one of Scott's films take a close look at the continuity editing or the lack thereof. He takes normal scenes and than jumbles them into some sort of ink blot for lack of a better word.

Jeffrey said...

Just a few add-ons:

I'd agree that Bay's compositions/lighting obviously have a lot of craft and work behind them, but I'd say it's still debatable as to whether they count as 'good'. Personally I find his use of orange and blue filters to be pretty ugly.

I think one key difference between The Rock and Armageddon is that the latter film has greater pretensions, not just of the higher stakes of saving the world but of emotional impact (the montage of Bruce Willis's life flashing before our eyes is pretty awful). The Rock doesn't have nearly the same interest in trying to make us feel any emotions other than 'thrilled' whereas Armageddon is also asking us to laugh, cry, and actually care about its flimsy characters. This is the same reason why Pearl Harbor is so terrible.

I'm pretty skeptical of Tony Scott's oeuvre; he definitely has an interest in pushing the envelope in his use of editing and camerawork into abstraction, but rarely has it actually served a purpose. I thought it mostly worked in Enemy of the State, and Domino was an interesting experiment (albeit a miserable failure) but otherwise I don't see much different in his attitude towards the audience that Bay's.

JJ Gauthier said...

I actually really love The Rock - it's the only Michael Bay movie that I can say that about.

One huge difference between The Rock and Armageddon is the editing; while it's fast in The Rock, it's usually pretty coherent; I was never confused about what was happening or what I was supposed to be seeing. Whereas in Armageddon, I felt like I was constantly at war with the film in just trying to figure out what was going on.

The casting also works wonders, and not just Nic Cage. He's not at his craziest, but that's more appropriate here: he's eccentric while still sort of grounding the film. Connery adds a lot of presence and panache. Ed Harris' villain is more interesting than the usual sort of bad guy in these things; chemical terrorism is obviously a ludicrous solution to his problem, but there's still an underlying humanity and complexity, if not necessarily credibility. Unlike the other two, Harris doesn't really show up in this sort of film, and he again makes the role sort of compelling, so long as you don't question the logic of his strategies.

And all the small roles are filled by actors who give them a lot of personality and cool: Michael Biehn, David Morse, Tony Todd, William Forsythe, John Spencer, John McGinley, and so forth all add a lot to some pretty straightforward roles.

All of that, to me, makes Bay's style totally work, for once: his attempts to make everything COOL! work because most of it actually is pretty cool.

As for his framing and composition, it isn't quite as strong as in Armageddon, but you can actually see it without pressing pause literally every second. It doesn't linger over its beautiful imagery as much as I might like, but it's totally visible.

Finally, I love the lighting when Harris is briefing his men; Bay says in the commentary he used mirrors to create the cool lighting effects going around. It's a nice touch that isn't distracting.

Thaddeus said...

You very neatly summarize a lot of the issues I have with this director. It's even better, because this is one of the few movies where Michael Bay doesn't have rampant sexism/misogyny on display.

I love Mark Kermode's film reviews, and he's the one who really pointed out to me how pornographic his films are. Even when they don't have sex in them, they are shot with a mentality that everything you're seeing is set to a "porn" filter - like torture-porn, lifestyle-porn, etc. He fetishizes cars, guns, manly-men, and the American flag. God, how he loves to photograph people walking around a giant American flag!

Thanks for your careful work. I'm a photographer, so it sort of annoys me that Bay is actually really fine and hard-working at getting the right image every time. But I'm also a writer, so I'm constantly insulted by the lack of logic, and the just-past-adolescent mindset of his work overall.

I did enjoy The Rock in the theater, because Cage hadn't really done action before, and the action scenes were exciting enough to entertain me, in a summer-blockbuster way. I agree, tho, that it's very annoying to see Bay succeed, and to do it on his own terms as some kind of cinematic whore of babylon.


KinchStalker said...

Personally, I find it depressing to watch Michael Bay movies because they're so tailor-made for the modern ADD-addled Westerner (as in geographic location, not genre). Baz Luhrmann flicks elicit a similar reaction from me.

I do really think, however, that his stuff's inclusion in the Criterion Collection can be justified, without considering the fact that these films are virtually cash crops on discs and can provide CriterionC funds to support the restoration of artistically superior films, because it represents what people were flocking in to watch.

Example: I own an Oxford Chronology, which traces both widely-read (in their time) and notable British books throughout history. There are quite a few books listed for 1674, but Paradise Lost is probably the only one anybody's going to check out anytime soon (and quite rightly).

I hope my opinion hasn't been too incongruous!

Matthew Dessem said...


I hear this a lot, that the Criterion Michael Bay films pay for their restoration efforts, but find it a little difficult to believe. Are the people who want a DVD copy of The Rock really going to shell out for a Criterion version? (And if so, why no reissues? Armageddon isn't even anamorphic.) It's possible, I suppose, that they brought in a lot of money when originally issued but interest has flagged since then. But I've got to believe that something like The Royal Tenenbaums makes more money for them over the years than a Michael Bay film. (I am open to the idea that Pain & Gain will end up being some kind of loopy masterpiece.)

KinchStalker said...

Excellent point, Michael. I'm just, scrambling to find a justification for it. And just because something's in the Criterion doesn't mean it's, you know, a masterpiece in anyone's eyes. At the very least, I think putting a Michael Bay film or two in there preserves what "bored teenagers" were watching for those who may be interested in that, say, a few centuries down the line. Film has been integral to culture far longer than movies have been accessible for home viewing.

KinchStalker said...

And w/Pain & Gain, all we can do is wait. I have to admit though, Marky Mark's been in a few great modern flicks. And I'd be lying if I said I don't find Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson to be entertaining at times.