Thursday, June 25, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Attractions

by James Hansen

Let’s assume, just for fun, that we are supposed to take Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen seriously. That somehow, someway Transformers is actually supposed to be communicating something to a willing and excited audience about governmental protection in times of struggle, the continuing need for heroes in an unstable world where our biggest war, perhaps the last battle humans will ever fight as the terrorist-bots attempt to (jigga-what!) BLOW UP THE SUN, takes place in the Middle East while Americans are still dumb enough to honestly think its Las Vegas. That we should cast off the fact that Transformers is rip roaringly sexist (why the hell is Megan Fox even in this installment other than for shots of her ass?), racist (they’re just robots, stupid), and so abundantly simple minded that explosions are used to string together the half hour chunks between the three shoddy (or, should I say, sharddy) plot points, and instead pay attention to the message of Optimus Prime as he and the Autobots save the human race again. Does that work for anyone? Did the person who screamed “Noooooooo!!!” after the slaying of a certain character display honest emotion? Was the woman sitting next to me who seemed to tear up when Sam says goodbye to Bumblebee really that emotionally invested in this story? If one of these people is you, then perhaps you should not read on because I can’t for the life of me even pretend that those reactions were true. But if they were then good for you, I guess. You see something I don’t and I’ll never ask you to feel differently. At least not right now.

Since we cannot assume that we should take Transformers seriously, and as I hear the shouts of “it was fun and cool” come from the millions of teenagers of America who are seeing the movie this weekend, let us now assume, on a more likely premise, that Transformers is pure action spectacle. That people like to watch fighting robots. That every time one of the parts of those things shove through the middle of one of the other things and send sparks flying up to some part of another one of their things while we ooh and ahh and have fun and that makes it good enough. Want me to be more descript? I do too, but unfortunately its relatively impossible to keep track of who is fighting who, what is hitting what, and when major...umm...arteries(?) are being hit in robot fights. We certainly know when robots are dying, as director Michael Bay makes sure every kill features a metal robot’s head being split in half. Amongst all the groans from my audience during these rather violent acts, I couldn’t work up much of a reaction either way because it just seemed to be metal clanking noises. It was, and is, very violent, I suppose, but it certainly doesn’t look that way compared to the violence of, say, Slumdog Millionaire. This is perhaps what keeps the “fun” level up and the pain threshold down for the PG-13 audience. So far so good with our “its just a spectacle” thesis. Perhaps then critics should stop the criticism of the points I made in the first paragraph. Maybe they all become moot, or at least fun loving audience pretend they are, so that we can enjoy Transformers for “what it wants to be.” Of all the things Transformers may or may not be, it is rather hard to argue that it is not, at the very least, trying to be full of spectacles and become, to borrow the term from an academic context, a large scale attraction.

Now permit me, if you will, to take this a little further keeping in mind we are talking about Transformers, but not forgetting that we are speaking of it merely in terms of being an attraction. Andre Gaudreault in his important essay “From ‘Primitive Cinema’ to ‘Kine-Attractography’” speaks of early cinematic attractions where he sides with Tom Gunning in labeling attractions as “before the viewer, in order to be seen. Strictly speaking, it [the attraction] exists only in order to display its visibility.” Or, as Gunning summarizes, an attraction is “an element which surges up, attracts our attention, and then disappears without developing a narrative trajectory or a coherent diegetic universe.” Now, there are some clear instances of this in Transformers: RotF from the awkward opening sequence in some randomly selected time BC to the 100 times that one of the cars transforms into a, eh, Transformer or from a Transformer back into a car. Whether Bay’s camera is moving or (as if) sitting still, it is intent on capturing those movements from machine to more complex machine or the inverse. Though this likely helps lead to the ridiculous 150 minute running time, Transformers wants us to watch, see, and be impressed by this continued attraction. There is so much going on in that single instant that there is no way for an audience to keep track of all the movements, but there are precisely so many movements so we all sit astonished, or bewildered, by whatever that crazy shit was that just happened.

Is this a good or bad thing? There is undoubtedly no “right” answer, as the question and the situation and largely dependent upon the circumstances. Renowned scholar Vivian Sobchack argues in her article “Cutting to the Quick,” (pardon the long quote) “The plots and stories of most popular feature films today have become pretexts or alibis for a series of autonomous and spectacularly kinetic ‘monstrations’ of various kinds of thrilling sequences and apparatical special effects...the raison d’etre of such films is to thrill, shock, stun, astonish, assault, or ravish an audience, now less interested in ‘developing situations’ than in ‘immediate’ gratification offered by a series of momentous – and sensually experience – ‘instants’ to which the narrative is subordinated...” It should be clear that Sobchack is not attacking such films (she goes on to argue largely in favor of The Matrix, a film she uses as a limit case for her own thesis) but is rather peering into a developing cinematic situation as the technological landscape shifts in the early 21st century. Sobchack’s insistence ont he importance of recognizing the changing of technology fits the mold of the Transformers development and transformation, so we must wonder how Transformers may fit into Sobchack’s attractions thesis.

The problem for Transformers, even in viewing it as this modern day cinema of attractions in an attempt to, as some people may argue, approach on its own terms, is that amid the attractions, the spectacle, or even the story (if you still want to go that route) there just isn’t anything there. Although Sobchack situates the use of slow motion as a technological process which takes the banal action of such movies and turns the banality back into something exciting, i.e. back into an attraction, Transformers, especially considering that it is the second part of a series, uses so many of the same slo-mo tricks, the same whirling sound design, the same incoherent transformation attractions that the audience is quickly worn into a stooper gazing blankly at a screen whirling in front of them while they sit idly by waiting for something, anything to happen, to excite, to thrill, to surprise, to jolt them into reaction.

Much as it tries, Transformers blinds the audience with so many attractions that it can’t work its own way out of them in order for them to actually attract. This full effect is realized when the final battle is to take place. Optimus Prime gears up to fight The Fallen (I think it was The Fallen anyways) but even though they load Optimus up with the souls, spirit, and firepower of the whole history of the Autobots and The Primes, and even though we’ve been listening to The Fallen talk the whole movie about his impending arrival, the battle is hilariously unastonishing. There have been so many rocket blasts, so many robot fights, so many transformation done in the same way that after The Fallen awakes and fights and is quicky defeated that all I could muster, much as I really wanted to be excited after 140 minutes of transforming, was a shrug of the shoulders. Dude got stabbed by something and shot by something and torn in half. What else is new? Horrifically long and stone cold boring as much of Transformers RotF was, in the end, I couldn’t even believe it was over if only because I kept believing at some point something fun, cool, exciting, thrilling, jolting was going to happen. Much to my chagrin, everything had become so redundant, repeated, recycled that the whole ordeal was confusing, insignificant and unexciting. Transformers, even in viewing it as large scale modern day attraction, had defeated itself.

All author quotes come from essays published in The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded (ed. Wanda Strauven, Amsterdam University Press, 2006).


Anonymous said...

I like to assume that all of the robot fights where you can't tell which character is which is really just a reference to Nabokov's LOLITA: "I rolled over him. We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us."

About 40 minutes in, I was already on board with your argument. But I think I made peace with that and just started trying to count all the references to movies past.

j.white said...

Haven't seen the movie, but this review is brilliant.

Poor Michael Bay. You've summed up his career perfectly, especially with the last few paragraphs. (Though I must admit: I do get a kick out of THE ROCK.)

Brandon Colvin said...

Nice review, James. I really appreciate the intertwining of academic sources here. Well done. Your enthusiastic disgust is palpable and exciting.

James Hansen said...

Jacob- Maybe thats why I don't like LOLITA all that much...too much rolling.

J(acob) White- Thanks for the kind words. I worked hard on this one (not that I don't always). I get a kick out of THE ROCK too, but this is just awful.

Brandon- Thanks so much. I'm glad that all came through!

Chuck W said...

I thought I had said this outside the comment forum, but I'll go ahead and say it again -- excellent review, James. Probably one of your best.

Of course, someone (not me) might argue that the visual muddle and sensory overload of TRANSFORMERS could be read as an attempt to elicit a specific spectatorial response, like a modern day Brakhage painting with CG. A breaking way of compositional logic, a full-on occlusion of the cinematic eye, a breaking down of perspective.

But fuck that. That's bullshit, frankly, since the spectacle of TRANSFORMERS is surrounded by so much stupid shit it would be impossible to suggest it's anything more than a cynical cash-grab.

So when does this recent craze with film adaptations of comic books and toy franchises end? And what could possibly be next?

Anonymous said...

Hey James (Ryan here)...I agree with all the above; a brilliant review. For what it's worth, I think I'll add a few of my own comments.

I think I enjoyed the humor in this film more than anything else (which, as you can imagine, makes me cringe considering the fact that I'm more impressed with the script than any of the lofty FX).

I watched as intently as I could for a while, then tuned out for about a half hour. Upon waking, I realized the exact same stuff was happening on screen as when I'd first lost consciousness. I imagine my experience was a lot like people who watch a soap opera for years, then leave only to return years later with the same banal plots and dialogues intact.

My only disagreement with you here is your arguement re: audience reception (something you admirably and intelligently dissect, but I believe miss slightly). This comment: "Much as it tries, Transformers blinds the audience with so many attractions that it can’t work its own way out of them in order for them to actually attract."

I think the disparagingly sad gap between the audience of Transformers and its critics has been trying to understand why it's $$-making and frenzied audience excitement differs so tremendously from every review in the popular and peer-reviewed press.

Something the movie does do IS attract. In a dangerous way. I think you're touching on something more insidious than most people care to appreciate. With so much overstimulation, movies like this slip messages in under the radar (something which ALL Michael Bay movies do, unfortunately. That's why I joined the "I Hate Michael Bay" group on Facebook--a small, if pointless, protest of my own). Bay's (and much of the popular cinema these days) use the extreme potential to aggressively manipulate audiences.

By overstimulating us, the makers of Transformers make it easier to input not only ideological message (how could you avoid the anti-Obama/Pro-war rhetoric?), but about four trillion advertisements. How many auto/telecom/kitchen appliance advertisements did you see? I'm venturing to bet not half of what was actually there.

Each sell was so plugged into everything else that the movie rises to a level of market propogandizing.

A disgusting attempt to undermine an audience's own congnition and decision-making abilities. The movie was more autocratic than anything else. We could make all the arguments we want about passive viewers wanting schlop entertainment to escape their wretched economic woes, but here is the worst of the worst.

Attraction is only half the story of this film--it's what the attractions are trying to SELL that is the other half, I believe.

Glad to have read your review. It serves as an augury to film at large (wish others believed this film was as sexist and racist as you purport--I've had my own air share of Transformer-defenders overlooking the meat-market/Steppin Fetchit-istic aspects of this film. The film, at base level is ANYTHING but pure action-entertainment. In the least, it's irresponsible...and at most, it's an exceptional example of propoganda and extremely derisive rhetoric).