Sunday, April 20, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Transformers (2007)

I learned something important about myself while watching this movie. I really am an elitist. And now - post Transformers - proud of it.

It is pure foolishness to go into a film like Transformers expecting art, so my expectations were relatively modest: I just wanted to have a good time, and see some exciting action scenes. That's why Michael Bay films exist in the first place, isn't it? I feel this was reasonable expectation: a little excitement, a lot of fine stunt work. No need to be a snob about it. Who doesn't enjoy a little carnage candy from time to time? And besides, respected film critics (some of whom I know personally...), -- as well as close friends of mine -- had relatively positive things to say about the film.

Which makes me suspect that either those people have temporarily lost their minds, or I seriously need a lobotomy so I can join the club. Because any way you slice it, Transformers is a two-hour insult to the intelligence and especially the genre of sci-fi.

At fifteen minutes, I wanted to turn the thing off, and watch a smarter, say, Bay's Armageddon (1998). At a half hour (a seeming eternity...), I wanted to be anywhere - doing anything - besides watching the film. By the time the movie was over at 143 minutes, I was drained, spiritually exhausted from the herculean effort of paying attention to a plot that was so flimsy, so mechanical, so utterly lacking in human value and simple entertainment that it made me yearn longingly for the next episode of Ghost Whisperer. At the end of this bloody debacle, Kathryn turned to me and said, "let me quote Howard Margolin here: that was feces."

I never thought I'd say this anywhere, but this is a movie that makes the 1998 Godzilla look good by comparison. This is a film that makes Independence Day appear a paragon of intelligence, clever plotting and wit. Transformers is a movie so corrupted by blatant stupidity and fourth-grade potty humor that it makes me yearn for the subtlety and relative maturity of, for example, Lost in Space (1998). It's Underworld-bad. It's Uwe Boll bad. It's a steaming cinematic turd-pile: a stultifying, de-humanizing, seemingly-endless, self-aggrandizing paean to clanking metal and egregious product-placement (Burger King, GM, etc.) Since the whole bloody thing is based on a "product" (a popular toy line of the eighties from Hasbro), perhaps this is par for the course. But I've always preferred movies so inventive, so exciting, so imaginative that they've spawned toys, not toys that spawned movies. I guess I'm in the minority. Again, mea culpa. I'll gladly cop to that.

The biggest problem with Transformers is that - substance wise - it is actually much, much less than-"meets the eye," to coin a phrase. It throws a multitude of (bad) ideas at the screen, a sort of "kitchen sink" strategy; one no doubt carefully focus-group and poll tested, I would wager, to titillate and distract the widest possible demographic of popcorn-chomping masses. Think bread and circuses here...

The overarching strategy, I believe, is that the sheer volume and noise of all those hackneyed story elements smacking the silver screen would -- hopefully -- prevent you from thinking much about the ridiculous plot or from asking questions about the narrative. First it's a war movie set in the Middle East (topical, no?). Then it's a coming-of-age teen sex comedy (quick, get a load of Megan Fox's painted-on stripper abs while she checks under the hood of the car!) Then it's an E.T.-style schmaltzathon about a boy's friendship with a camaro-cum-robot called "Bumblebee." Then it's a hunt for a "cube," the film's McGuffin,. Then it's a conspiracy film about a secret government project, "Sector 7." And then it climaxes with platitudes about the "special" and worthwhile nature of human beings, so you can leave the theater feeling proud - proud - of yourself and your species. We're special.

Special Ed, perhaps, if the people in this film are any barometer of average human intelligence.

Never mind that you just endured over two hours of grinding metal robots and stupid, interchangeable humans killing each other, extreme destruction of property (blowed up real good!!!), offensive racial stereotypes masquerading as humor (Bernie Mac and Anthony Anderson - j'accuse), and the worst overacting from John Turturro in a Hollywood release in years. Just so long as you don't ask questions, and at the end, you feel uplifted.

Cuz that's what bread and circuses are for. This is a movie that believes - like so much of corporate Hollywood these days - more is always more, bigger is always better, and louder is always preferable. And Transformers relentlessly keeps piling on the noise and destruction, like a multi-car wreck sprawled across the highway. Eventually, you just succumb to the sheer weight piled upon your senses and give over. Kind of like a cinematic that beats you into submission and then asks you to feel good about the experience afterwards.

Here are a few questions I would like to direct at the incoherent narrative (which is so filled with plot holes you could drive Optimus Prime's truck through some of them). Why does the film's McGuffin, "the All Spark" only seem to create evil life? I thought - according to the awkward exposition - that the nature of created life would depend on who controls it. Instead, whenever the thing is "energized," it creates mean little robots. It's not a Decepticon device, is it? Secondly, how come characters (Megan Fox's character, for one) don't register shock or surprise the first time that they see a giant robot lumbering towards them? But then, later, some of the very same characters all gasp at the sight of the captured Megatron --- once they already know giant robots exist and are here on Earth?

Here's another good question: How does Megatron stay frozen under Hoover Dam when he's not in a hermetically-sealed chamber and we plainly see human scientists walking all around him? So let me get this straight:.humans (who are much smaller organisms) aren't frozen in this environment, but the giant robot is? Why, also, do the robots always feel the need to announce each other by name when they are about to engage in mortal combat. "Optimus Prime, I will destroy you!" "Megatron!" etc. Based on this facet of the film, I eagerly await the officially licensed Transformers drinking game.

I have tried - with patience and logic - to pin a few people down about why this movie is so good in their eyes. One answer I keep getting is that Peter Cullen did the voice of Optimus Prime in the 1980s and it's cool he got to do it again for the 2007 movie. Well sure. Okay. That is cool! Neat. Warms the cockles, really. Next?

Then they say, "the special effects were great." Yes. Indeed. The giant robots are very cool to look at. And the special effects are impressive.

For about five minutes. Again, this movie lasts 143 of 'em.

After that, I hear: "well I grew up with the Transformers in the 1980s, so it's about nostalgia." I appreciate nostalgia; one could argue, actually, that this blog is a testament to nostalgia. What baffles me, however, is that these are the self-same people who grew up with Godzilla, Planet of the Apes, Halloween, The Omen, Battlestar Galactica Scooby Doo, and other older franchises, but they don't feel nostalgia for the modern interpretations of those franchises. In fact, they give those modern adaptations no quarter, no mercy. So why fall for something as loud and empty-headed as Transformers? Shit, I'd even take Burton's Planet of the Apes over this excrement (and I despise that film with a passion).

Okay, okay. Bottom line: is this movie exciting? That was my expectation going in - an exciting time - so even if the movie was stupid, did it get my heart pumping faster?

Well, er, no. Except, perhaps, in righteous outrage. By my reckoning, cinematic excitement generates from the fact that you know and like the characters in jeopardy. So that at the moment when the car chase or the final battle arrives, you care so much about those people that you are emotionally, deeply engaged, concerned for their welfare, even when you shouldn't be because you've seen a million movies before. We all know that Luke Skywalker will win the day, that James Bond will survive for the next film and so on...but because we care about those characters and their universes, we suspend disbelief and find ourselves involved. Is there one character in Transformers we actually care about? Just one? I submit there is not.

Again, don't give me the "this is an action movie" not a character piece argument. I love the Die Hard movies...because John McClane is a personality we care about, and there is something human at stake when he goes head to head with terrorists. Ditto the amazing and inventive Bourne movies. Action movies work not merely because of the stunts, but because of the people - the personalities - fronting the stunts. Transformers' human beings are more pre-programmed, more predictable and more robotic than the titular mechanisms. The officious "government" agent. The bad girl (juvenile record) with a good heart who dresses like a pole dancer. The awkward kid with the pumping heart of a hero. The sassy comic-relief black dude. The cutesie, bickering but loving parents. Is any character in the film more than the sum of a cliche, maybe two?

And that's the most important reason why this movie is a travesty: it understands robots poorly, but it understands human beings even less so. The authors of the unfortunate screenplay, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, are doing Star Trek next. I had read a lot of interviews with them before seeing Transformers and felt very confident in their skills. Now...not so much.

If Star Trek proves to be this dumb and vapid, I shall become enormously depressed...and - honestly - may never recover. Movies - especially movies in the imaginative terrain of the sci-fi genre - carry a unique duty, in my estimation, a responsibility to show and tell us things that are challenging, different or new. They can exist in the terrain of action, but they must also speak to the human mind and the human soul (like Alien, Terminator, Planet of the Apes, The Matrix, Star Trek).

Transformers doesn't do that. It doesn't engage on any human level. It's a loud, gimmicky steam-roller that tramples over the intelligence of an audience. It's not a good action flick, it's not a good science fiction movie, and the film's clockwork, manipulative heart speaks volumes about the movie industry today. And the much ballyhooed action sequences? There isn't one in the film that matches the highway chase set-piece in The Matrix Reloaded. Not one.

is a grotesque and cynical dollar-sucker. Even if you like the TV show. Even if you like fighting robots. Even if you've never seen a movie before. Even if you're bored. Even if you have half-a-brain. Even if you watch it with one eye open. Even if you watch it on drugs. Even if you watch it in your sleep.

Feces indeed. I haven't hated a movie this much in years.


  1. Thanks for posting that review, to which I had a similar reaction. The dumb, potty humour is bashed over the viewers' head at a relentless rate - it just shows how the writers prioritised their idea of "entertainment" above everything else (like a coherent plot). If anything, any nostalgia I had for the 80s cartoon was soured by this travesty.

  2. Well, Muir, time for me to disagree with your review. What I gleaned from your post is that you hated the film but still can't quite pin down why. Most of your points say that various things left a bad taste in your mouth. I won't try to convince you that it's a good flick, because that's all a matter of taste, but I at least want to tell you why it's actually more interesting than you say.

    I saw Transformers in the theater on opening day and enjoyed it. Not best film of all time, of course, but a good big-budget summer blockbuster. I'm someone who enjoyed the Transformers growing up and will still pop in Transformers: The Movie from time to time. The 1986 movie was really the pinacle of the cartoon--a quick review the original series shows that it was just as bad as most other cartoons of its day. We're not really holding the 2007 film up to some high standard set in the Eighties, but looking for the kind of entertainment value provided by robots that turn into other things. So here are some of the things I liked about it. For starters, it was exactly what I expected it to be. There was a plot that was just enough to move the film forward, a bit of humor thanks to Shia Lebeauf and the sometimes awkward robot anthropomorphism, product placement, and lots of images too big for the screen.

    You say that you didn't care about any of the characters, and while I don't think Bay intended this, I think it's actually one of the more poignant messages of the film. I consider Transformers to be a film about our immediate condition as comfortably-incomed people living in the United States in the year 2007. Sam Witwicky isn't surprised to see giant robot vehicles because he doesn't live in a void. He's someone who has lived in the United States with all of its media, sci-fi film and television, and ever-changing technology. In that regard, these Autobots and Decepticons are only new in their immediate proximity, not in concept. Should everybody in a sci-fi film be in disbelief when something out of this world happens? Or do we have coping mechanisms that thrust us into believing the evidence in front of us. Digital technologies are advancing at a rapid pace and it's extremely hard to keep up. So often works of media, from print to screen, have warned us of the consequences of "modernism" (whatever that means). But rather than having existential crises as a result of every new iPod, Aibo, or fase idol, we just do our best to keep up. Even the speech of the Transformers in the movie is informed by the modern Internet lexicon, making Optimus Prime's colloquial style a reflection of our moment.

    I think that's another reason the characters in the film seem faceless. These really are random people. It could have just as easily been the next guy as it was Josh Duhamel. And really, who is Josh Duhamel anyway? He's just an actor that looks like so many others. Why put Anthony Anderson in his stereotyped role? Because we like cameos, we like Anthony Anderson, and when we construct a fictional world based on our own we desire these familiar appearances. Our contemporary desire for the familiar is fulfilled by Jon Voight, Anthony Anderson, and John Tuturro. It's this really fascinating balance between the main characters and the well-known characters. Even more so than stereotypes, the actors in the film are prototypes. "This is your average awkward teenager, this is your average hottie, this is your average action hero..." and so on.

    The film also plays with how comfortable we are as a society with product placement. Or, if not comfortable, at least how consciously-immersed we are in it. Don't look at it as insulting. Look at it as humorous. I laughed out loud in the theater when I caught a glimpse of an Xbox 360 coming to life as a result of the spark. Think about how interesting it is that we're expected to accept the longest GM commercial of all-time. It leaves you delightfully flabbergasted.

    Speaking of sparks, the AllSpark in itself is extremely interesting. The AllSpark is not from the original series and was in fact ret-conned into the Transformers universe in 1999. Energon was the commonly used name for the same concept and pure Energon is basically bad unless tamed. So that explains why the AllSpark turns electronics into bad guys. You're right to say that the AllSpark isn't well explained in the movie in this regard. Yet it's striking to consider the fine line drawn between good and bad technology in a movie that embraces the digital and mechanical without question. This can be seen in Michael Bay's cinematography. Again, I don't know if Bay was going for this (I doubt he was), but he subconsciously was putting on screen the idea that we should just embrace technological change (however flawed that may be). In the end, there are good Transformers and there are bad ones and they fight in our streets and we try to get involved, but really they don't care about us. Rather than see this limbo as a bad thing, I find it actually quite compelling.

    Consider the cinematographic framing of the Transformers throughout the film. Most of the time their bodies don't fit on the screen. A lot of the time, especially during battles, it's extremely hard to make out the action. In this regard the spectator is like the person on the street. We don't necessarily get a privileged view of the action. It's an interesting form of spectacle in which our amazement is not directed at the actual action but rather the scale of our gaze. As much as I dislike psychoanalysis in film theory, I think there's something interesting going on with the fetishization of not only the technology in the film but also the technologies that made the film. It's CGI that's taken for granted. The film purports that showing off grand achievement of creating the mass of computer generated characters, places, and objects is no longer the goal. For Bay it is about saying something like, "this is so good that we don't have to focus on it, regardless of how much money we poured into it." It's an extremely interesting false-naturalization of the technology--a thread that runs throughout the entire film.

    In the end, Transformers (2007) is interesting to me because it acts as a time capsule for the popular-media view of our immediate circumstance. It's a movie that would look completely different if it was made in another year. I enjoyed it because I turned off my brain and took it at face value when I walked into the theater. I enjoyed it further afterward as I thought of the various points I've made above. It was interesting to watch a film that so blindly subscribed to its own tenants. I hope you take some of these things into account when reexamining this "piece of garbage."

  3. Bobby:

    I find your clever analysis of Transformers infinitely more exciting and stimulating than anything that actually appears in the film itself. Well-done. Your review is so interesting it almost makes me want to watch the film again.


    I can (and I think my review is clear about this...) put my finger precisely on why I hate the film: it rouses no interest from the human heart, fails to excite the senses and engage the emotions, and reveals nothing enlightening about our human condition. It is badly-paced and overlong, and the plot doesn't hold together. It is craven in its desire to sell, sell, sell, and the film's sub-adolescent sense of humor is often ugly.

    Now, you put a lot of thought into your review, but the question remains - is the actual "thing" worthy of such examination?

    Or have you applied your considerable intelligence to something that is, essentially, a mindless, corporate-driven moneymaking machine with no artistic soul and no intent to do anything but abuse the senses?

    I think where we part company here is that you judge the film as somehow commenting on our media-driven society, where I don't think anything so trenchant or interesting was intended.

    Rather, it' unintended consequence. A natural side-effect. Interesting, perhaps from a sociological standpoint as an examination of where we are - artistically - as a culture in 2007, but in and of itself not a design of the filmmaker so much as a "business strategy" to sell tickets.

    I mean, couldn't you make all the same observations about Underworld? That it comments on our populace's current desire to believe in the supernatural, and reflects the culture's obsession with digital imagery? Yes? That doesn't change the fact it is a bad movie. Just as Transformers is a bad movie.

    You can attempt - as you did - to make an argument that Transformers is commenting on the culture, I guess. One of the few times I actually laughed in the film was when Optimus Prime mentioned "e bay" as the venue in which he discovered Sam Witwicky. That's very funny, and does suggest, at some level, that the film is playing with the Internet-obsessed culture. But I don't see this as a consistent leitmotif. Only a clever one liner. Again, one market-driven. (People use e-bay, so let's throw it in there! It's mass-marketing product placement. Notice "" wasn't used...not enough people know it!)

    My point about gasping at the robots is not that characters SHOULD gasp (which you cogently argue that they shouldn't, necessarily), but - again - that the film should be consistent. Nobody gasps when they first see the robots. Then later they DO gasp when they see Megatron. In other words, I'm looking for consistency of reaction; not necessarily a particular reaction. Something that says these characters exist "within the film" as real people we should identify with, not mere ciphers to be landed in the film as place holders.

    I appreciate your review because you didn't come back and just say "it's fun," or "it's supposed to be stupid." That's what I usually hear from people who like the film. Yours is the first review not to go with the "it's campy," "it's so bad it's good argument." I maintain it's just so's bad.

    I guess my point is this: ask yourself - and this is a big question (perhaps the biggest in reviewing films) - is the filmmaker here interested in making a statement?

    Or does the crass commercialism of the film (a quality Transformers shares with Spice World, for instance, and From Justin to Kelly), merely reflect, by sheer nature of its corporate design, on the commercial culture from which it sprang?

    And if its the latter, does that make it a good film? Or merely an interesting time capsule of the year 2007? I will grant you that it is an interesting (if ultimately sad) time capsule of our times, but I disagree heartily that it intentionally "comments" on anything. I can see why it fascinates you from an intellectual point of view, but I maintain that filmically it's a disaster.

    Thanks for writing, buddy. I loved your review. This is precisely the sort of debate I enjoy having here.

  4. We watched this at a friend's house a few months back... I had the same reaction as you, John. (Sorry Bobby - luv you! Blame it on the generation gap. Did you ever watch the cartoon as a kid?)

    As an exercise in compare and contrast, they popped in the original animated movie right after, and you know what? It MUST be nostalgia that made this 2007 movie successful at all. Because I remember watching the cartoon as a kid, too, and it was cool...then. As an adult, not so much. If they'd stayed true to the cartoons when they did this film, it would still have sucked.

    (Tony's going to kill me for saying that!)

    When I had cable last year I watched a lot of Boomerang. I saw some stuff that I remember loving as a kid and they SUCK now. The humor is just as cliched as anything you picked on in the 2007 film, just 20 years older and without as many references to products. The only thing I will give it is that the plots were more creative, and you had more character types to choose from than the standard boy-hero and hottie companion.

    Some cartoons stand the test of time; Bugs Bunny will always appeal to kids and adults alike. A lot of what came out in the 80's just has not aged well (though I wonder if kids today would still like it as much as I did).

    So yes, the fellas got all gooey over hearing Peter Cullen. I can dig that. I think the only thing that got us through the film was that voice and a heaping helping of nostalgia (which was then ruined for me somewhat by seeing the cartoon again). I'll concede, though, that in this case, the fellas also read the comics, so their connection to the characters runs deeper than mine ever will.

  5. I'm no fan of this TRANSFORMERS film, though as I told Bobby, though I didn't outright hate it as much as you did. I will now put forth my simple bit of film-historical wisdom that makes it IMPORTANT but in no way suggests that anybody has to like it.

    I have long been a believer in the idea that one can tell far more about a given society at a given historical juncture by its emphatically "bad" (overly commercial, "mainstream," spectacle-driven, unabashedly anti-human and generally grotesque) films than its "good" ones. I argued something along these lines when we had a big debate about CASINO ROYALE many moons ago. The 1967 is FAR more interesting a film because it entirely symptomatic of a whole era of excess in film that the new version merely subsumes under the banner of chic gloss. The 1967 CASINO ROYALE, by this logic, shows a viewer a lot more of the politics of stardom (Peter Sellers and Orson Welles never appear together on camera!), the process of "euro-pudding" international co-productions, and the follies/bad taste of its world than the 2007 film.

    By this logic, TRANSFORMERS is symptomatic of something. Symptomatic is the operative word. Myself and Bobby are not supposing that the film is entirely received by spectators as specifically intended by its creators. Rather, its contents are so volatile and unstable (and at times, terrible) that they absolutely bleed something about or society out of the screen. So what can we learn? Well, the mainstream of our entertainment industry has a crass and sophomoric sense of humor; many of our feature films are outwardly driven (pun intended) by commercial exigencies; our sense of spectacle has gotten so big and out of control that it literally cannot be contained within the frame of the screen (this is, actually, the most interesting and important component of this film for me--man, it seems, can no longer necessarily control the simulated camerawork of CGI, despite being able to do so by definition); finally, all technology has become so mundane, so banal, that even massive robots that shapeshift do not surprise as much as they might have at another historical junction.

    Again, I'm not defending this film. And to test your theory against UNDERWORLD, well, it shows that Western culture has such a love affair with industrial gothic iconography, vampires, and the sex-death nexus that it is willing to consume just about anything. It shows that purity of vision, expert cinematography of the old school, and a sense of storytelling are lost to loud soundtracks and highly calculated advertising campaigns. Sobering stuff, and not defensible in the realm of quality. Yet that is precisely what most remnants of mainstream film culture actively work against.

    TRANSFORMERS is fairly bad and I won't be watching it again anytime soon. However, it is also one of the key works of American self-parody in recent years.

  6. Anonymous4:57 PM

    Well sir, I suspect that I may be one those friends who had relatively positive things to say about Transformers. I apologize if I led you astray. I believe what I said was "it was bad, but it wasn't as bad as I expected." That assessment is indeed "relatively positive", in the strictest sense. And I stand by it. Transformers is a bad film, but I expected worse.

    I like the Transformers, generally speaking. I like them a lot. I am fully aware of how lame-brained and crudely drawn the original cartoon could be. I loved it as a kid, but even then I preferred the comic books, which were (taken as a whole) generally much smarter and more consistent. Like Bobby, I still watch and enjoy the animated movie when the mood takes me.

    The appeal of Transformers, in its purest form, is the "Dude, it's a jet that turns into a robot!" factor. I don't say that dismissively. I love jets that turn into robots. Jets that turn into robots are cool. For those that can't understand... I can't help you. I can't begin to intellectualize it. It's a jet that turns into a robot.

    Sadly, Bay's team couldn't even get that part right. The robot designs used in the film are horrible; ugly, overwrought CGI messes. They are a testament to the modern movie practice of allowing technicians to make design and content choices based on what their technology can do, as opposed to letting artists/designers determine what *should* be done aesthetically. In short, I didn't care about seeing those robots turn into trucks and jets because those robots did not look cool.

    So, without that simple (but crucial if I'm going to enjoy something like this) piece working for it, and taking into account the director and cast, I knew this movie wasn't for me. In fact, I expected an utterly miserable viewing experience, quite like the one you describe. For much of the running time, that's exactly what I got. Just... not the whole time.

    For one thing, that Shia kid wasn't nearly as charmless as I expected. Good for him. But that only goes so far, and Turturro worked hard to demolish whatever goodwill young Shia managed to earn on behalf of the the cast.

    What was it, then? What was it prevented me from unleashing righteous fury, Muir-like, upon this monumentally crass and inept excuse for a film?

    Peter Cullen. Every time Cullen spoke, I forgot to hate the movie. I don't expect you to understand this, John. When the Transformers debuted, you weren't quite the right age to be so afflicted. Among those of us who were, Optimus Prime is afforded a reverence that the character, such as it was, would never have earned without that voice. I've described Cullen's Prime voice as a cross between John Wayne and your Dad. That is to say, everybody's dad, or an idealized version thereof.

    Scoff if you will, but there are many of us for whom, if comfort and safety were given voice, it would sound like Peter Cullen. He didn't just sound like a tough guy. He sounded like a rock of virtue, a sonorous signal that everything was, in fact, going to be alright. So yeah, they got to me by deliberately pushing a very specific nostalgia button. But, hey, at least I'm aware of it.

    Ultimately, I found Transformers to be ugly, stupid and indicative of much that is wrong with modern American filmmaking. But, all that said, it was still less torturous to watch than some of it's brethren. Like, say, Jackson's Kong. Make of that what you will.

    -Tony Mercer

  7. Tony:

    You told me quite clearly that the movie was crap when we spoke about it on the phone months ago, so just know that. You warned me, but I still wanted to see it! :)

    I get the Cullen thing - I do. I appreciate it. It's just not enough to tip the scales, as it were.

    I also agree with you about Shia. I've seen him in two films -- one average (Disturbia) and one sub-par (Transformers)-- and he's definitely "got" something. I don't know if he's a good actor or merely if he has "presence," but something is definitely working for that kid.

    Now - Bobby: I am fascinated by your review (particularly how Transformers utilizes CGI and the thing about "proximity") and I have a proposal:

    How about writing a full review of the film I can post on the blog as an alternative point of view! How about it? I think you've got a theory there that deserves more space. I want to read it!

    Kevin --For Transformers to be self parody, I submit, it would have to have some awareness of its own stupidity, and I don't think it does. Whereas "Hot Fuzz" for example, is clearly a parody of action films, and uses the tricks of the trade comically.

    Just a thought.

  8. John -

    I think that HOT FUZZ is brilliant, but I don't think that it is self-parody. I think that it is selective pastiche that knowingly appropriates elements of other genres, films, ideas, etc. and creates something almost entirely new out of them. The worst kinds of self-parody in recent years (EPIC MOVIE, DATE MOVIE, SCARY MOVIE 4) do not combine and re-present in the same way. HOT FUZZ heightens and sutures while EPIC MOVIE reduces and quarantines. HOT FUZZ suggests recognition of quotations (always with a difference, either in meaning, set-up, or execution) while EPIC MOVIE only demands recognition (usually accompanied by a tasteless sight gag, bit of mickey-moused music, or slapstick transition).

    I am not even suggesting that TRANSFORMERS is self-parody. And I don't really care about how it was meant to be received by its creators. TRANSFORMERS is like the embarrassing family member who has a few too many drinks and goes off on a rant without realizing that they've done anything wrong. The importance of their folly is entirely in how audiences interpret their rant(the diverse niche audiences that, combined, constitute something like a mainstream--not ideally mainstream, mind you--film audience). Thus, TRANSFORMERS is the kind of mainstream movie that says a bunch of things, at once combining deeply held assumptions about American beliefs and tastes and at the same time exposing the inadequacies of those beliefs through clumsy presentation. I can't say whether or not TRANSFORMERS succeeds as an adaptation of the 1980s cartoon, nor as a vessel for selling toys, or as an excise in nostalgia. I imagine that it did all of those things reasonably well based on the final dollar tallies. But I do submit that it is precisely the sort of cultural folly that comes out of a society that no longer as any idea of how to visually represent itself in a coherent way.

    That said, I dare you to find a mainstream film of recent vintage that (consciously or, more interestingly, unconsciously) tells us more about American culture circa 2006-2008 than TRANSFORMERS.

  9. I should also add that I mis-used "self-parody" in my original post. I don't want to be seen as a flip-flopper. The phrase "key works of American conceitedness" would be more appropriate.

  10. Cloverfield? (A question, because I haven't seen it yet. It's shipping from Netflix today...).

    And don't worry about flip-flop arguments here. I believe that sometimes people change positions and that's okay. People aren't always right the first time out, especially me.

    I think Bobby is going to school me on Transformers when he writes that piece. And then he can have my job... Bobby Schweizer's Reflections on Film and Television! :)

  11. joey_bishop_jr.11:11 PM

    I'm really curious to see how you feel about Cloverfield...I think this will be another case of where you and I differ my friend- for the record, I loved it!!!

    And I enjoyed Transformers, too....

  12. Anonymous9:07 AM

    After reading my own post, I’m afraid I come off like the ranting drunken family member that Kevin writes about. Also, I don’t mean to put words into anyone else’s mouth or to assume I know what anyone else is talking about, considering I don’t even know what I’m talking about most of the time. -rc

    I never thought that some of the most interesting things to me about art, culture, consumerism, technology and theory would all come together in a review of the Transformers movie. Some of the conflicts I’ve had in recent years trying to reconcile my own critical perspective within an increasingly postmodern environment are shifting around in my head. The debate over this films “value” is helping me see more clearly where postmodern and critical theorists can’t understand one another. I think it is important that your readers not see this as just a generational “taste” gap with “X’ers” and “Generation Y” disagreeing how nostalgia should be framed. I think this issue is more fundamentally about reading and defining art from disparate theoretical standpoints; more specifically through the lenses of critical and postmodern theory. In John’s critique he begins with his own admission of being an elitist and goes on to use language like “insulting to the intelligence”, or that the film “spiritually drained” him. For John, the films overall mechanical plot was lacking in human value, he felt disconnected from what he was experiencing. In this time dedicated to entertainment, he felt “alienated” from what was happening in front of him. I don’t want to call you any names John, but in my head you represent critical theory in this debate, you want the film, in its “unique duty,” to show us something new, but also something old. You do not want the film to disconnect from those human qualities and values to which you can relate. I also believe that arts ability to transform us personally or socially is the primary measure of its quality. Keep the human at the center of the story since the 2008 viewer of the film is arguably still human. The hegemonic force which you rail against is not necessarily capitalism, although you are disgusted by the hyper commercialization in the film, but instead technology’s omnipresence and its ability to co-opt the “humanness” within the film. The technology is driving the culture, or in this case, the media-culture. Your ideas also align with this in your reference to what comes first the movie or the toy? Your point of view is driven by a set of values that seem to be driven by the human “connection” you have with the film.

    When I read Bobby and Kevin’s response to you, I could not help but to think of the postmodern lens. Postmodernism’s architectural origins came to mind with some of the language about the size of the machines in the frame etc., and even John’s own words of “much less then meets the eye” were interesting to think about through that perspective. However, I am more interested in how postmodern thought has affected the social sciences in terms of standpoint or multiple truths and interpretations. Ideas like “polyvocality” are moving into higher education, where narratives have no privileged epistemological status. It seems that postmodern thought is emerging as the “new” weird theory to challenge functionalism while Marxist critical theory is seen as immature or passé. My initial thoughts about this were that postmodernism is simply functionalism in disguise thus dismissing the value of critique as just another “truth”, and I am still not convinced that it is not. For example, the way Bobby tells John to not look at product placement as insulting, but instead as humorous. I don’t think that Bobby’s anti-critical response in this case was necessarily because of his over-identification with a theory, but more because he is a product of a culture that is best understood through the lens of postmodernity, a culture that really draws no lines between consumerism and everything else in culture, a culture where simulations are reality. But it also seems that there is a different kind of identification with the placements themselves. When we see the things that we know and like in the form of pastiche, we respond. So, when film or TV makes references to a film or TV show (ie: an unexpected cameo by William Shatner), those TV fans of the 1970’s who are watching will identify more then they would with a game console being highlighted. More identification with different types of technology is inevitable as technology becomes more central in our lives. Although the television and the video game console are both tools of entertainment, I imagine that they play different roles in how we internalize our surroundings. Bobby, correct me if I am wrong, but I think convincing interpersonal relationships are a long way off in the gaming world. Or, at least, the interpersonal relationships that do exist within online gamming are not central to the goals of the entertainment itself. Although postmodern theory generally acknowledges and analyzes technology and information outside the context of capitalist culture, some of Bobby and Kevin’s comment suggest a critical stream in their analysis. Statements like “a film about our immediate condition as comfortably-incomed people living in the United States in the year 2007” and the warnings of the consequences of modernism, etc. It seems that Kevin and Bobby’s thinking aligns more with Baudrillard and Jameson in that postmodernity is not necessarily something new and unique, but instead the final stage of capitalism, and looking back over Lyotards’s Postmodern Condition, Postmodern Fables, and the Inhuman, there is suggestion of basic connections between technological development and the further extension of capitalist principles into cultural production and exchange. I’m not just talking about the savvy product placement here, but also the role the technology plays in our “information society.” John’s concern about the loss of humanity is also expressed in the words of Bobby and Kevin, although they are using different techniques of deconstruction and are thus speaking a different language then John. I’m trying to simplify this for myself, but it’s almost like you all are agreeing on what is happening within the film, but can’t agree on the value of what and why it’s happening. I think it goes back to how various personalities read and interpret art. Some say we should not bother with “bad art”, and consuming it is detrimental to ourselves and our culture. This “crap” socializes us into consumers of more “bad art” and therefore we end up with a debased culture. I think Horkheimer and Adorno of the Frankfurt school would agree with John in this case, although they would place all pop culture in the position of the Transformers movie. On the other hand, others may see art not necessarily as a catalyst for social or individual change, but as a tool to reflect culture. And the “quality” measure of any particular piece of art is how accurately it reflects culture. If the culture is “crap”, or in this case, dehumanized by technological hegemony, then a movie that accurately reflects this is therefore a “good” movie.

    - Again, sorry if this in incoherent, I’m just using your discussion board to process some things.

    John, I think Anne would some this up like this: “Some people are interested in people, some are interested in ideas, and some are interested in things.” There may be a correlation here somewhere in measuring the quality of this film.

    I am curious and would like to ask Bobby and Kevin if postmodern theoretical perspectives are the standard in media education programs with which they have been involved?

    I also want to note that I have not seen this movie, but found it very interesting that my sister went to see it. She is about five years younger, 32, and has not seen a movie in about ten years. Also, the week this film came out my dad, who never says anything at all about movies or pop culture asked me if I had seen this movie. That week was almost like “an invasions of the body snatchers” moment for me. What the hell was going on with the hype surrounding that movie that it could get my sister into the theater and my dad to make a comment on it?


  13. Rick:

    I think you nail the debate with this line:

    "’s almost like you all are agreeing on what is happening within the film, but can’t agree on the value of what and why it’s happening."

    I'm not being snarky but deadly serious when I say I want Bobby to submit a review of the film for me. I have the feeling there's a lot for me to learn there, about that perspective.

    I'm curious.

  14. Some relationship to postmodern thought is pretty much inevitable if one spends four years as an undergraduate in a program that analyzes media objects, though there are exceptions. However, I have noticed that many students react VERY negatively to methods of interpretation that reduce the importance of dearly held beliefs (narratives, moral choices, stories, differences in characterization). I was teaching some postmodern ideas earlier this semester--though I didn't quite lay out the field of inquiry as such in a direct way--and did not quite get a wholly positive response.

    That said, I'm clearly an ideas and things person (based Anne's shrewd observation). However, I also clearly love deeply human and humanizing relationships. Some things are defensible because of their human-ness, others not so (though TRANSFORMERS does, at its core, deal with human relationships and their connections to not-quite-humans, I don't quite think that it will win any prizes on these grounds).

    When I had formulated my thoughts about TRANSFORMERS to myself, I had couched my response more in psychoanalysis than in postmodernity. For me, it is the meanings that shine through the sheltered recesses of the subconscious and the unconscious, the hidden messages and the mistakes that are only revealed through analysis of the movie in its social conditions, that really show us what TRANSFORMERS has the potential to say.

    Curiously, all of this fun debate about the movie has not made me want to watch it again. This is probably a bad thing...

  15. rc said: "So, when film or TV makes references to a film or TV show (ie: an unexpected cameo by William Shatner), those TV fans of the 1970’s who are watching will identify more then they would with a game console being highlighted."

    I have to agree, but I am not ashamed. Shatner was my like my tv dad. Sure I played video games but they were along the lines of Atari 2600 (and, later, Nintendo), which had clunky graphics and no 'interpersonal relationships' to speak of... So in the generation gap part of your argument, yes, the fact that us 70's kids grew up with TV heroes and the 80's/90's kids have grown up with Sonic the Hedgehog and Mortal Kombat does make a difference in how we view movies like this one.

    I want to inject another question, though, in terms of the cast and crew of THB - could it be that those of us behind the camera (with the exception of John) see characters as the personification of ideas they identify with on some cultural level, while those of us in front of the camera see them as people we want to feel something for and connect to individually?

    In Transformers, even though I knew it would not be enjoyable for me to watch because I loathe CGI, I at least hoped the robots would have gained some depth of character that their cartoon ancestors lacked. Nope. The humans were cliches, too. So yes, the movie was 'spiritually draining' to me, too, because all the references to neat-o pop culture in the world could not make up for the lack of connection to any single character.

    They TOTALLY needed Shatner. Just saying.

  16. Anonymous2:28 PM

    I think your ideas about the differences between cast and crew on the house between is an interesting observation. I also think that interplay between macro-micro identification with characters plays a big part in the magic of storytelling.

  17. It is interesting, in relating to THB. The actors can't really afford of looking at their characters as abstractions or symbols, but almost the opposite is true for the crew, perhaps. I know that as the writer/director of the show, it is necessary to balance the views somewhat. The characters are both people AND symbols, if that makes sense.