Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Machine Within The Machine: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Drag Me To Hell

Boo Hoo

I'm a bit surprised at myself that I even took the time to write out the full name of Transformers 2 in the title above. Partly because I don't care, and partly because I honestly thought I didn't know its full title. Blame it on months and months of advertising, perhaps
, that I was able to somehow pull the full title out of my ass, a feat that I fear, just mere days after witnessing the film, I will not be able to do for the film's plot. The fact is that just like Michael Bay's first Hasbro-toyline inspired debacle two years ago, the experience of watching the film is much like coming face-to-face with a void that leaves in its wake two n a half hours that feel as close as I think I've come to a complete arrest of all mental function; the visual experience of the film is somewhat akin to crossing one's eyes and blinking as fast as possible for 140 minutes, but the experience on any other conceivable level amounts to little more than a slight, vague sense of outrage and very little else.

The fact of the matter, maybe, is that hating on Michael Bay and the abhorrent fruits of his labor is something I admit I'm a bit tired of doing. Maybe because most people, on some level, sense that this shit is everything that is wrong with cinema, wrong with America, wrong with humanity- Transformers 2 is bloated, graceless, obvious, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, anti-intellectual, disgusted by sexuality and degrading about the human body, infinitely violent and baldly fascistic- all, of course, while proudly flaunting its bigger and bigger weaponry like so many erect dicks on the set of a hardcore porno (a weak comparison, I admit- at least a porno has something within its frame that is more than a smattering of 1's and 0's in a vain attempt to convince the viewer there is something of interest to be seen). The point being, you certainly knew this already, and for me to deride it being all these things strikes me as about as impotent and packed to the gills in cliche as any and every scene of Transformers 2. In fact, I'd even say that the incredible, all-encompassing ugliness of Bay's work does more good than ill for me- at a time in my life when I'm afraid I've become too content with the world and where its headed, Transformers 2 reminds me that there are indeed still elements so ugly and hateful and so lacking in art and humanity that I feel compelled to fight back in some way, in any way. It reminds me that some are, at best, indifferent and, at worst, rooting for a vision of the world in which all females are either hysterical, nightmare mothers or objects (pretty literally here- every female worthy of desire here is so drenched in oil and spray-on tan as to appear horrifically artificial and plastic) to masturbate to, where a couple of gold-toothed, tired-lingo slinging, voiced-by-a-white-guy (Tom Kenny, lord forgive 'im) self-admitted illiterate black robots figure as perfectly suitable comic relief, and where our purest, truest heroes ask an incapacitated foe whether he has "any last words" before blasting him between the eyes at point blank. It's rotten to the core, no doubt- but I think its clear that those who give two shits about the directions and dialogues of serious film, those who see cinema as more than a place to turn off your brain for a few hours, don't need to even see the thing to get that feeling. It's the Slumdog Millionaires and the Junos of the world, in all honesty, that I am most troubled and incited by- films every bit as rotten but in a package insidious and shiny enough to cause thoughtful, caring people to think they are watching something of merit, of nutrition and importance even. Basically, I don't really want to harp on Transformers 2's failings as a worldview (which every film, no matter how small, ultimately is) and success (if that's what you'd call it) in capturing the hateful, cynical center of a hateful, cynical auteur.

What I'd rather harp on, with all that said, is the film's utter and complete failure as a film, as an action piece with any possible reason to invest thought or feeling or as an agent of the most primitive cinematic gift, that of sight. If Transformers 2 feels hopelessly antiquated and outdated socially and thematically, just get a load of its visual and narrative presentation- the whole thing plays like a computer graphics demonstration; that is, it plays like every empty and forgotten "Whiz-bang" blockbuster that relied on the spectacle of technology predestined to appear helplessly corny and, well, antiquated mere seasons after its release. That Transformers 2 one-ups these films, however, by appearing visually outdated and pathetic upon its release is almost beside the point but still worth mentioning. In the rare instances when they aren't contorting and spinning themselves into an incomprehensible, eye-splintering digital maelstrom, the titular robots display features so ill-defined and murky that the idea that we were ever meant to relate to or even believe in these creations is cast into serious doubt. That these gigantic machines appear to be weightless and of a variable size doesn't help matters; they move about without causing so much as an imprint in a field of grass (except, of course, during actions scenes where, from what I can gather, Bay's technique involves throwing the camera in the air as hard as his crew can while simultaneously blowing up every real object on the set) and see-saw from as huge as a building to just a hair taller than human companions given the particular technical (and, no doubt, creative) limitations of each scene. These digital atrocities, because they are digital and because they are atrocities, lend themselves perfectly to Bay's signature worst-thing-you've-ever-experienced style of action filmmaking. Every action scene plays roughly the same, with the indistinguishable forms of two or more fighting Autobots and Decepticons rendered into the empty spaces of the shakiest, most ineptly filmed landscapes you ever did see. The experience, again, is akin to doing that trick where you turn your eyelids inside out with your pointer finger and thumb and, once you've done that, start darting your vision left and right as fast as you possibly can. For 2 and a half interminable hours. It's painful, yes, but more than a little boring, which leads me to the real question at the heart of Transformers 2: Who cares? Who COULD care? What is there to care about? At what point do the interests of humanity and the interests of two or more indistinguishable fighting digital robots intersect? The genocidal body count of every action scene in this film reminds us early and often that puny human weaponry is useless against these giants- why have a single soldier on the ground of any of these battles? Perhaps as a weak attempt to create some sort of urgency and reality to all these battles, but the fact is that the sight of a few dozen extras being squashed by imaginary robot feet doesn't stand a chance to the overwhelming falseness of the whole affair. Any human interest or faculty is pulverized, literally and metaphorically, by these weightless and flat place markers performing feats that make no logical, emotional, or aesthetic sense. The real casualty here, of course, is reality- any sense or scent of it. We are left staring at a screen filled with an almost literal void- works of fiction and fantasy intended as the real and fragments of the real shattered to fit a fantasy, neither of which coming close to something persuasive, artistic, compelling or fully realized. It is, simply put, no exaggeration to say that any camera in the hand of any person the world over capturing any image, no matter how mundane or graceless, is infinitely preferable and, on some level, truly superior to the rape of the senses that Bay offers here. I do not intend in saying this to propound a populist or egalitarian vision of cinema but instead to uphold the importance of a fundamental realism in the cinematic arts. This is not to declare digital imagery and special effects an enemy of the state, as it were, but to declare that an interest of some sort be allowed in these images- there should be something more than the satiation of the most naive, uninformed instincts behind them. I proposed as a joke to a friend that this movie could be improved by screening the film in 3D but with only the digital special effects appearing 3D. The more I think of it, the more I am certain that such a gimmick would legitimately and seriously improve the experience of the film. It would add a reflexive and structural element to the movie and at long last, and if only in the most literal sense possible, relieve the film of its suffocating flatness.

It is along similar CGI-centric lines that I found an unlikely and rather welcome ally Saturday night in Sam Raimi and his latest, Drag Me To Hell. I have seen the film described as something of a Rosetta Stone for Raimi and his work, a claim I admit I am not equipped to affirm or deny. I know pitifully little about Raimi's oeuvre- I enjoyed what he did with the Spiderman franchise and I'd even, without embarrassment, count myself as one of the few who really liked the goofy "Peter Parker goes emo" scenes in Spiderman 3, but I've never been a fan of his beloved Evil Dead series, and I've seen very little outside of that. That said, I was informed enough to come into Hell expecting Raimi's sorta-trademark Spookhouse approach to horror, and I admit that I found it almost wholly charming and fun. To call the set pieces and visuals (especially in the film's second half) expressionistic doesn't even begin to cover it, and sorta misses the point besides. It's the kinda of film that loves film and loves being a film, and throws all the fake blood, maggots, decrepit old women and icky bodily fluids it can to disgust the uninitiated and prudish and delight the true believers. I think that at least part of my aversion to Raimi's Evil Dead series is my preference for horror that takes itself a bit more seriously- that said, I couldn't help but grin in appreciation when the Lamia, the demon sent to Drag to Hell our cursed protagonist, manifests itself as two hoofed feet casting a shadow from behind a closed door. Raimi has reached a pretty great balance between traditional special effects and CGI here, at some points approaching the idea of the kind of digital graffiti that may well go towards saving CGI from itself and its worst instincts. I've never been the biggest proponent of digital effects, but it's inspiring to see a film like this use the technology in a way that's sly and self-knowing and joyfully over-the-top. There's a sense of hope here that those most ready and able to deal with such effects in a creative way simply haven't been given the chance yet, and that the reason such effects are so often used as cheap cop-outs and empty spectacle is precisely because uninventive, unimaginative brutes like Michael Bay have been those privileged enough to access it. That said, there' still something that draws some of my affection away from Drag Me To Hell, and I can't pinpoint exactly what. Perhaps there's something a bit too self-aware about it at points, a critique that I might also bring over to my feelings about the Evil Dead series. I'm drawn, for whatever reason, to consider 2007's I Know Who Killed Me and to view it as a modern classic the more I think of it. That Lindsey Lohan-starring flop had a real spine to it and a strange spark of insanity that allowed it to tell its absurd and trashy story in an honest and strangely affecting way. Raimi has a spine and a spark of insanity, no doubt, but it's of a different kind. I don't feel a sense of danger in applauding or defending his work. I get the strange sense that Sam Raimi and his work is nearly identical to the sort of "paracinematic", fringe, midnight-movie experience I cherish heartily, yet is in some way still a distant, foreign cousin. It's perhaps that Raimi winks too much, that at the end of the day, no matter how slimy and disgusting, his films tell us to smile when we wouldn't need to be told. It's still better than being told to smile when it's the last thing we want to do, of course, and with a summer of movies that have so far proven to be very little except dreck, Drag Me To Hell stands as a very pleasant surprise.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009: d. Michael Bay): .5/4
Drag Me To Hell (2009, d. Sam Raimi): 3/4


Marcie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marcie said...

I loved Drag me to Hell, and I feel as though Raimi's use of special effects were also very well put. You commented that you wrote this artical rather hastily, but I really enjoyed reading it.