“Film Criticism no longer has any meaning, it is reality we must analyze in a cinematic way.” – Hanns Zischler
There’s nothing more inducive of genuine pathos than a man who is bored with a franchise. Inevitably, he starts skeezin’ “his” subordinate labor, loses the things that are dear to him, and suffers in multiple paternity suits. Michael Bay is bored. How awesomely pathetic! What sort of industrial filmmaker are you, man? Yamada Yoji made forty-eight Tora-san movies, pal, and you can’t even push out three without whining like the free-spirited Wesleyan bluestocking you are in your crippled soul. You’ve even lost the truest dear, Armond White: “Now, there’s no poetry; just idiotic, unintelligible machine combat. While it easily out-astonishes Chris Nolan’s glum Inception, it defames the action-movie tradition and embarrasses the talent that makes Bay a great filmmaker.” Too much wild ink spilled in the name of “intelligibility” in the action cinema of the moment…don’t worry, I’m not going there.
Auteur. Autobot. Automatic. Autism. Don't mind me, I'm just playing with words. Look, seriously: Are these movies the work of a high functioning autist? Autism occasionally manifests as a preoccupation with a single television program, toy, or game. Is the essence of Bay a certain automatism..? A monkly refusal to risk exploiting anything that might even accidentally create engagement, emotion, suspense, action with consequence, or dramatic content (all things that you have to “waste” time on or suture to dread and suspect “values” to render their substance as effects) What remains after the sectioning of these hoary narrative devices is only a frenzied transit of “pure” visual interest, through a field of exhausted but still glowing energies. He’s the world’s own Casey Jones, and he will make the trains run on time.
Maybe...he’s most perfect Futurist-Brechtian there ever was? Bay has figured out a fine way to bit-crush duration and space (which, according to Pascal, induce melancholism and reflection, and who knows what else!) into pure, supposedly thoughtless dynamism—which make the viscera sing in a much more operatic range. Which explains exactly why watching post-Bruckheimer (1) Bay is a lot like watching every screensaver in the world, that sort of queasy, vaguely organic, multidimensional non-space that works as a symbolic border/curtain to productive work on our ordinators. It is Bay who remains the only committed heir of Marinetti.
I. THE REVOLUTION OF POLYPHONIC SURFERS
Must I remind you, that time and space died yesterday...
The Manifesto of Hasbro:
We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.
The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt.
Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber. We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist.
We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath ... a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
We want to sing the man at the wheel, the ideal axis of which crosses the earth, itself hurled along its orbit.
The poet must spend himself with warmth, glamour and prodigality to increase the enthusiastic fervor of the primordial elements.
Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.
We are on the extreme promontory of the centuries! What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed.
We want to glorify war—the only cure for the world—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.
We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.
We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multi-colored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals: the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons: the gluttonous railway stations devouring smoking serpents; factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke; bridges with the leap of gymnasts flung across the diabolic cutlery of sunny rivers: adventurous steamers sniffing the horizon; great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses with long tubes for bridle, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propeller sounds like the flapping of a flag and the applause of enthusiastic crowds.
Not so strange to remember that Marinetti’s manifesto was fundamentally a carnage-montage, lived out by the 20th century, and one that was only made possible by the cinema. Homage repaid and made circular. Armond White is absolutely right when he says that the Aesthetic of Transformers is Futurist. But that’s only because the aesthetic of the whole world is Futurismo. This is why art is dangerous on occasion and not just for Wayward Hipsters, and justifies its perpetual suppression. The living mystique of the proto-fascist avant-garde (Hot Then, Hot Now!) becomes the zombified politique of today’s Flying Dutchman, the stateless corporation.
Paul Virilio: “Physical speed freezes you. And the faster you go, the farther you have to look, and you lose lateral vision. You are spellbound.” (2)
The ubiquity of this sort of futurist narrative is telling—the feel of being reverse-engineered only for the sake of a certain beautiful motion—such and such must happen so we require a consequentially implausible pretext, people breathlessly moving in a deterministic manner to hit their marks, pushed by unknown gods, as in the old oral style of the epic. Bay too loves to flaunt it in the most outrageous manner—the way the National Air & Space Museum, that cathedral of shiny self-worship in the American capital opens up and out to the graveyard at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson. Is this even a joke? Spatial relation and causality belongs to an old world of statics, of nouns rather than verbs.
But everything seems all at once to be hitting a wall of speed. You need time and space for narrative. This was so obvious that it only occurred to an obscure, exiled Soviet thinker, Mikhail Bahktin, to take this idea seriously. This new system of discontinuity implies a different type of narrative causality, a fictive-magical and unpsychological one, the sort that is becoming common on the news, where experts offer up half-hearted just-so-stories that no one believes, to explain why the markets fell one way rather than another, why the Greeks are lazy, philosophical and angry or why the train of neutrinos at CERN arrived mockingly ahead of their masters’ schedule. There is no effort to suspend our disbelief. We accept these speculative conditionals from the winged spirit of Mercury, as people once accepted theodicy from the God of Moses. This hunger for effect combined with a Magian attitude towards technologies which must make anything and everything happen has made the Deus Ex Machina the default mode of cinematized reality. No longer useful just at the ending, the god-machine must be used constantly, till it overheats.
And in fact, this overheating, this redlining is what the audience craves. They won’t be satisfied until the sacred monster has exceeded its structural limits, has become megalomaniacal, and drunk on its own speed and cancerous invention. But this Faustian activity comes with a price, naturally. As “Madison Dave” Bordwell points out, the whole death of a thousand cuts thing is anti-efficient—Zeno’s fletcher’s paradox is already the cinema, motion itself being at core always an illusion or a reality so fundamental it is imperceptible—one fluid second cut into 24 immutable states. We shouldn’t be surprised to see that the same principle applies in storytelling: scenes are actually longer (and certainly feel that way) precisely when they are cut faster. That is perhaps the cause of the real sense of exhaustion that some people experience with these “fake-fast” films. An “action” scene from the 60s would have taken 2-3 minutes of screentime tops; today that has bloated into 10-30 really exciting minutes.
The deepest boredom comes when novelty and pleasure become perpetual. There is no mandate for pleasure, it must be lived freely. But of course that isn’t the Way of Bay. Which brings us to one of the keys of this cinema—it is without a doubt baroque in its energy, and baroque for ideological purposes, with its martial need to brutalize and confuse perspective by providing sensual targets like a day-glo merry-go-round on fire, and inevitably inviting the usual hereditary criticism against that aesthetic. This is a new baroque of hypnotic spirals (3) that draw you ever inward. The faster the world moves, the more static the fanboy-observer feels, in his awesomely state of “awe.” Marinetti was right, you can only genuflect to speed, and eventually, not even move an eyebrow, just feel the soughing wind of data. These films are pervaded by fears—a linked pair of them—the fear of “losing” the audience, by boring them, presumably, and the mutual and cousin fear of the spectator that his thought or private emotion might not be completely obliterated and assumed into the dazzling awe-play onscreen. In Bay’s movies, the identification is no longer with the hero, whose existence is just pretext, the identification is with the Collective Vehicle, which is the movie itself, as camera and spaceship, hurtling freely to future vantages.
From here on out, I will call often on Paul Virilio, the anti-Jules Verne of our time, apocalypticist extraodinaire, more Nemo than Nemo himself, to help explain the phenomenology of this neo-futurist narrative—the dromospheric cinema.
III. VROOM, ZOOM
“From now on when he shouts “moteur!” to his assistants, the driver-moviemaker is not so much after making the background-decor parade before him as to cross it, even pierce through it to the light beyond. Like the war weapon launched at full speed at the visual target it’s supposed to wipe out, the aim of cinema will be to provoke an effect of vertigo in the voyeur-traveler, the end being sought is to give him the impression of being projected into the image.” —Paul Virilio (4)
Virilio's simple yet beautiful insight is that, if once upon a time you had to journey, hungry, for experience, virtuality's Ptolemaic Revolution meant that the mountain now, instantaneously, comes to Mohammed, and therefore experience today is a paranoid phenomenon, as it comes with a crowding, persecutory pressure on our many electronic skins. This new vectoring must impact narrative itself, which was, fundamentally, a way to organize collective or individual experiences of this late, lost journeying. The “story” of the protagonist is no longer one of an individual negotiating a mytho-poetic space and engaging in some transformation to adapt herself to the specificity of the chronotope that comes to be hers. The old Bakhtinian chronotope is traded in for a newer, faster model, and the story becomes purely vehicular. The Chronotope, as Bakhtin saw it, is the way local conceptions of spatiality and temporality are imprinted into specific languages, and particularly into genres and narratives, in other words, culture. The modern action film, with its dazzling focus on random power surges and fulmination, is the no-where, no-time anti-chronotope that corresponds to discontinuous modern experience. It is the sharpest edge of the globalist “synchronotope” (5), that is, the realm of intermittent experience that films like New Rose Hotel, Boarding Gate or Southland Tales try and fail, heroically, to make tangible.
In the quaint days of cinema, movies were called “vehicles” for their stars, now, they are only vehicles, Mass Package Transports, for the collectivity of the audience. And as with the vanishing, irrelevant protagonist and movie star, prematurely in oblivion before our own eyes, the instantly forgotten Culture-Hero, mimetically, thus also the audience which must forget it is headed nowhere. Instead, naturally, we watch an eternal sequence of interruptions and updates, as you would in the psycho-time-geography of the Facebook page or this very website. Like the scrolling panoramas in Ophüls’ Letter From An Unknown Woman, events move through an intoxicating but frozen purview until they vanish in a horizon. The video game motion structure trades scrolling for the mesmerizing approach of the Zoom. There is no sense of panorama, only the bizarre multiplicity of vanishing points. The “world-sphere” zooms to your stationary avatar.
The Zoom is the dromosphere’s classic stylistic move. The Zoom is a flanger of space and time. Why is it dromospheric? Because it doesn’t merely traverse space with the plane of focus (at different speeds, balletically with Jancsó, and ballistically with Tony Scott) it makes a mnemonic f(x)unction of the optical distortion inherent in the lens structure—in a zoom you are sensing all the focal lengths (framings) as if they were harmonics of perspective itself (like in David Hockney’s quixotic project to escape and/or average perspective) for a moment revealing the black box of subjectivism that we can actually look at/through, at long last. A look that is composed of many looks. Just as the flanger subordinates the original musical notes to their cyclic, ghostly representation, its tracers, when we look through the zoom we enter this magical, drunken time-space where the observer is no longer able to determine motion relative to a single “look,” where everything visible is subordinated to the poetic operation of the zoom—the time of the zoom. A zoom is a strange double-doubling: the space in all the planes is doubled by the “unnatural” plasticity of new “simulational” spatial relations created by the zoom, and the real time that inheres to the shot is doubled by the time (which is also a speed) of the zoom.
Tony Scott, who is the only great artist of the dromospheric cinema, is distinguished from his comrades by his much mocked zoom metaphysics. What Scott says with his movies is that the optic is the haptic—it’s about the deft tactile massage of the eye. Scott is alone playing 3D chess, when everybody is playing checkers. It’s a too safe bet to say that the movies of the future will look more like Déjà Vu, and less like Transformers, even though the Transformers series is more purely surrealist. But the zoom better accomplishes that confusion of identity between the thrower and the javelin and the target that Virilio speaks of. The future belongs to the zoom, because the future is the zoom.
The Situationist dérive was once the poisoned antidote, the pharmakon, for this sort of spectacular stasis (the vibrating console-ation of the flight simulator that goes nowhere). The dérive was meant to restore the free possibility of drunken non-goal oriented adventure-time in the urbanized environment, but now there is probably a randomizing app for that at the Apple Store. But the protagonist—there is no such thing anymore, because there is no agony (other than carpal tunnel) in the pandora's box of mediation —never really journeys anywhere, initiative doesn't "belong" to her, as she is embedded in this new sort of perspectival freeze that is a requirement of the rather esoteric and abstract demands of the impossible narrative. The movie hustles the hero headlong, importunes, along with shards of informational bonbons, like it does the audience.
IV. THE FRENZY OF THE (S)LOWER CLASSES
In Virilio’s strange science-fictional universe, there are two levels: an experience of reality that is passive and static, and yet at the same time, paradoxically, there is more physical migratory displacement than ever. A chasm between. The human condition for Virilio is an eternal, solipsistic exile—refugees driven at night, in vague terror, by the light of their iPhones. What sort of narratives will be made for these people? Like commanders on virtual battlefields, people must now fight thickets of information, of cinema, of mise-en-scène (inadequately modeled by visual platforms) as well as genuine and perceived enemies. Multiplayer simulations bridge Virilio’s logistical chasm with a band-aid by simulating "journeys", “campaigns,” "characters" and "tribes" and by generating these things on the solipsism side of the chasm, restoring some sort of meaning by echoing the apparently tragic and senseless displacements of humanity happening on the physics/migration side of the chasm.
"Slow cinema" is a museum exhibition of a time-space experience (a stolen chronotope belonging to some old-timey Citizen-Other of Time, like Lav Diaz's Heremias or Sokurov’s bored soldiers and sailors) from a timeworld that no longer exists for people who live on click-images, except as caged exotica. This charitable re-distribution of Time from those who have too much of it, is a melancholy gift to those of us who live in the time and attention poverty of the dromosphere. If the time-image is exiled along with our Bachelardian poetic-quotidian and emotional memory to our technological armature, then what? What you get is a parallel not-really-schism between possible cinemas. In the ghettodromes of the Art Movie, the festival monkeys put their money down for Dumont, for Lisandro, or the Tarrs, the Schanelecs, on mangy cinema-horses that will certainly make history because they, the track fiends, bet on their long-shots.
But not the public. They want shiny and fast, and blurry. There is a sublime moment in T3: Dark Side of the Moon, when, to justify some false conflict with Not-Megan Fox over Labeef's going into danger, Bay cuts to an insert, photos on display—a barrage of instant exposition, you see, her brother was, wait, uh, whatever, something bad happened to him and she's
upset in the grip of random yet vague emotion. This is “storytelling” and “sikeology” of such vague flippancy that we can only be in awe. This is very much the “and then...” style we associate with oral culture or the artless stories of children, but with a difference, the required bit of information is brought to us as needed, but is just as important that it vanish from memory as soon as it has served. The narrative contract of ephemera. The ghost-brother has instantaneous relevance as a phantom story that serves nothing and no-one. We are in deep with Ed Wood level surrealism, but also in the presence of a odd yet sickeningly familiar concept of time and exo-memory.
Post-cinema is a mirror of capitalism. In capitalism, with its creative destruction and frozen triumphs of the Alzheimer instant, nothing is reversible, except a dead brand with nostalgia potential. In Hollywood's agoraphobic agora, everything must be instantly reversible and cynically multivalent. The spiritual logic of Kudos, (6) the sacramental mystery of pluck and Winning™ (Charlie Sheen), which is the grease of Capitalism, is something that makes Hasbro and Bay brothers in understanding. Kudos hops too fast for narrative convention, you have to be a ludic wizard of the battlefield, like Bay, or Bear Stearns, to keep up with it. Because sometimes, it just won’t be explained. To see these films as stand-alone art objects is more than a bit wishful, they are wider portals, of course, to merchandising. They are there to prismatically reflect and point to the more compelling commercial vehicular stuff around themselves; Cars, Robots, Militarism! For instance, Hasbro's Dualism is incompatible with narrative, only with eternal return. Unlike the sacrificial ballgame of the Maya, the incoherent battle between the two ideologies of Swiss Army knives can never be resolved, for the sake of continued and maximal play-in-the-field at large. So the domain of the Transformers films, like that of Theory, is ludic, to create an arena, a battlefield, where forces can play but never definitively, thus requiring a type of doublethink of Narrative. The great cycle ends in awe (but not really). Victors gather laurels made of water. The only convincing fiction in Transformers is that people must for a moment be brought to care about the unthinkable non-outcome. An epic has been fought, but without consequence, any loss is always matched by a restoration. It is much meant to be forgotten and repeated.
VI. THE NARNIAUTS OF NEVERLAND
A memorable image is memorable because it is generated and distorted by the eye’s emotion. The image is probably nothing in itself, unless it is holy. Classical cinema was structured for the creation of Bazinian holy moments. At the bottom line, it’s melancholic. Dromospheric cinema, seeking more visceral emotional responses—to variation, to movement for its own sake, to destructive violence—is an iconoclastic move, or a superscription, against these meditative things. There is no emotional engagement because that would fix one part of the journey as more crucial than another. Human sentiments are not up to speed in the dromosphere. Who ever asks what the trip from Osaka to Toyko means? Only a madman. This points, through negation, to a future religion of moving images. There is a fundamental need that perhaps only the cinema or video games can meet in their artificial way—the need to recover and experience sehnsucht/saudade with relation to time. A nostalgia that takes time itself, so close yet so faraway, as its object. Maybe that was the secret purpose of the late cinema, to glorify the ruin of time! How fertile is this thread: Proust, Ford, Resnais, Erice, Duras, Schroeter, the Dreyer of Vampyr and Gertrud, Tarkovsky, Sokurov, Diaz, Malick, Hou…but not just kino-mystics! First Person Shooter Anders Breivik helpfully explains in his manifesto how you can dissappear, avoiding your friends and the entirety of the dromosphere, for a wanderjahr into a video game, into the suggestive World of Warcraft (7). This is something new, I think. You can account for suspicious lost time in the dromosphere, by reference to its virtual counterpart, the chronotope of undifferentiated adventure time that is the secret substance and chief pleasure of the video game. We can start to speak of poetic displacements of time. Before you scoff, let me again emphasize the religious character (because “unproductive”) of such a utopian usage of time…
Famed citizen of the land of Allegory, C.S. Lewis: In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth's expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. (8)
You can see here that I see our post-cinema, a bit like Clive, as a nexus of not-quite-sufficient reparations for things lost through the effects of mediation: Bay gives us fast vehicles going nowhere for people living apparently static lives, Tony Scott gives us the back the sense of touch and sculpture through the eye, lost to the iPad, mouse, and touchscreen, and the various Timemongers and video games giving back lost time and the sense of the meaningful, scorable campaign with victories, (Mission Accomplished!) to the over-scheduled and perpetually defeated. Film criticism as it has been duly and dully practiced, being, naturally, chronotopical analysis of the shot and its duration, and movement and depth within the frame, will have, I guess, serious trouble decoding the new forms of Kino. Cinema may become increasingly invisible to those who are most interested in it.