The Commercial Weaponisation of Nostalgia

A few days after the opening day I watched Transformers 2 again. I know some people may think I am punishing myself seeing the movie again, but I missed the first brief section at the first screening and I wanted to see if it got better on second viewing (ala Terminator Salvation). So far the best reviews by far have been Paul Byrne at the Sydney Morning Herald and Charlie Jane Anders at i09. The two dominant modes of film criticism in the last three decades have been the political economy approach, which examines the socio-economic conditions of production, and the psychoanalytic, which critiques the psychological fantasies around which the structure of a film is organised. Byrne takes a quasi-political economy perspective, while Anders takes a quasi-psychoanalytic approach.

Byrne compares the first film to the second and finds it lacking. His assessment of the first Transformers film is spot on:

It had a childish Spielbergian glee at the possibilities of the technology; there was lots of action but it came after character, humour and story. Michael Bay’s tendency to make everything loud and stupid – as in Bad Boys, Armageddon and Pearl Harbor – was kept in check by Spielberg’s fatherly hand.

There are three lines of criticism. The film was without internal logic. For all the talk about Michael Bay’s directing I don’t think he comprehends the purpose and potency of the money shot. Lastly, as a weird paradox, the film serves to reproduce a critical geek subjectivity in older viewers due to its failures.

No Logic
However silly the first Transformers, it had a relatively coherent internal logic. The original cartoon had the Transformers on Earth because their battleship crash landed and they didn’t really have a way home, so they had to adapt and ‘fit in’ with the indigeneous population (humans and human technology); hence the capacity to transform. The sequel live action film completely lacks any reason why the Transformers take on the ‘disguised’ form that they do. To give the film much greater overall coherency only a handful of extra scenes were required. Here are the examples of this I can remember:

1) When Soundwave sends down a minion in the form of a giant lioness-type robot there is no explanation given for why the robot should take this form. Why not have Soundwave accessing psychological research that comes to the conclusion that a certain big cat is the most recogniseable and feared predator on Earth, hence for maximum psychological impact Soundwave gives the robot the form of a big cat.

2) The female terminator-type Transformer could’ve been rationalised with a discussion between a few senior Decepticons explaining why they needed an infiltration-type Transformer to find out what Sam knew.

3) One of the biggest dissapointments would have to be the Constructicons and their collective form, Devastator. It makes sense to have the Destructicons to ‘eat’ away the pyramid to get to the energon-producing, sun-destroying machine underneath. A far better way this could’ve unfolded is to have the Constructicons as separate Decepticons that are forced to take on this form as some kind of ruthless move to get access to the energon machine.

For a good summary of all the stupid plot holes (there are acceptable plot holes in movies if it is necessary for some other reason, these were plot holes without a reason) read this Yahoo movies list or this funny and accurate summary here, sample:

I am already incredibly sick of this movie, and I’m just typing questions about it. Sam resurrects Optimus, Optimus kills the Fallen, end of story, right?
Pretty close. Sam dies, though.

Yeah, for a little while. But then the Transformers in heaven send him back because he still has work to do.

Fuck you.
I’m serious.

Fuck you. There’s no way.
It’s true. The 6-7 Primes are there in the clouds like Mufasa’s head in The Lion King, and tell Sam he’s awesome and he needs to live again so he can bring Optimus back to life.

The Money Shot

“Not a scene shown was a “money shot” from the film. I really want to keep them a secret to give everyone a great surprise this summer.” — Michael Bay

The only pay-off for Bay is the money shot. The problem with Bay’s direction is that he liquidates the money shot of any sensical meaning. If a basic form of action is the competition (pursuit or fight), then the audience is drawn into the action by having an understanding of what is at stake in the competition. The final battle in RotF is literally fought by the human soldiers without any conception of why they are fighting, and this is metonymic of the location of the audience in the unfolding dynamics of the film’s plot in general. Again, Paul Byrne isolates the problem here:

The problem with Bay’s direction is that it’s rarely commensurate with the overall needs of the scene. The primary value for him is the shot and he tries to make each one a pay-off, whether appropriate or not. Megan Fox in slo-mo is an example: she is running hand-in-hand with Shia LaBeouf in these shots but she gets the cut-away close-ups rather more than he does – although his fate carries the dramatic weight of the scene Paul Byrnes

When the film is released on DVD or if you have access ot a copy through nerfarious means try this as an experiment. Download the latest version of the VLC player and when an action scene starts, slow the movie down to 0.8 speed. Michael Bay boasted that so much computer power was required to create the movie that a standard PC would not be powerful enough the produce a single scene. Why not slow the action down for every single fight scene so the weird beauty of the rendered Transformer robots can be appreciated in all their glory? Get rid of half the crap that happened, including the scenes involving the female ‘human’ Transformer, and stretch the action out so the intricate rendering can be displayed properly.

Offending Geeks Everywhere
The first film was worthy of my childhood, the second film was not. Charlie Jane Anders argues that Bay has finally made an art film because it is utterly non-sensical. Anders writes, “Let yourself go in your adult diaper, Michael Bay invites you. Feel the music of total excess stir inside your deepest core. It is your Allspark, your cube. And you are a Transformer.” Indeed, the film is transformative but not in a adult diaper sort of way. On the contrary, the films incites negative criticism from pretty much every single adult Transformers fan who grew up with the toys. The overwhelming appreciation I got of the film was that someone had read Zizek’s remarks in his book (allegedly) on Deleuze and taken them to heart:

What, however, if there is no puzzled look, but enthusiasm, when the yuppie reads about impersonal imitation of affects, about the communication of affective intensities beneath the level of meaning (“Yes, this is how I design my publicities!”), or when he reads about exploding the limits of self-contained subjectivity and directly coupling man to a machine (“This reminds me of my son’s favourite toy, the action-man that can turn into a car!”), or about the need to reinvent oneself permanently, opening oneself up to a multitude of desires that push us to the limit (“Is this not the aim of the virtual sex video game I am working on now? It is no longer a question of reproducing sexual bodily contact but of exploding the confines of established reality and imagining new, unheard-of intensive modes of sexual pleasures!”). (183)

The self-contained subjectivity of a Transformers fan was attacked and exploded by this film, because it didn’t seemlessly couple the infantile dimension of my subjectivity with my adult appreciation of the Transformers franchise on both the level of the Transformers mythopeia (internal logic) and cinematic conventions of the action flick (money shot). This blog post was originally titled ‘Michael Bay is a Deleuzian’ because he captures in concentrated cinematic form the affects of frustration and violence experienced living in a culture where the culture industry happily pillages the collected childhood of the audience. This is not an action movie, but an unwitting cinematic essay that inspires criticism of the contemporary commercial weaponisation of nostalgia.

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