"If I think about the future of cinema as art, I shiver" (Y. Ozu, 1959)

WAR GAMES 2 - 13 Hours (Michael Bay)

Monday, 11 July 2016 09:45

Giona A. Nazzaro

The Ethics of War

Michael Bay is a tricky issue. Hack or auteur? As we all know, the (cinephile) people spoke. Hack. And after all the media mayhem caused by his latest film, the severely underrated 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, it seems that the Michael Bay issue is the perfect litmus paper to dispense, or not, the seal of coolness. But whenever there’s so much ill will, it always seems as if something more is lurking beneath the surface.

Michael Bay may not be the loveliest guy in the business. So let’s get at least this notion out of the way. And yes, he loves to blow things up. Oh: and let’s not forget one of his major signatures: the booty shot. If you wrap all these things together, you may very well end up with the portrait of a very cynical, to say the least, director rabidly hell-bent for commercial success and then some.

Even though some scholars have started to pay more attention to Bay’s work (notably John D’Amico’s excruciatingly well researched essay Michael Bay: Futurist), the fact that Donald Trump has rented out the Carmike Cobblestone 9 Theatre in Des Moines, Iowa, to show the film to his supporters has highly aggravated the image of the film itself as nothing more than a jingoistic Hillary Clinton-bashing propaganda machine. Tana Goertz, the Iowa co-chair of the Republican candidate, released a statement to the Des Moines Register “Mr. Trump would like all Americans to know the truth about what happened at Benghazi.”

After Mrs. Clinton’s hearings, the fact that a film like 13 Hours exists seemed like a vile provocation in order to undermine the Democratic candidate. Obviously the critical discussion about the film itself got lost in a haze of accusations and preconceptions. And so did the film.

It is too easy to begin from the end and declare that 13 Hours is a rather strong work indeed and possibly, together with Pain and Gain, Mr. Bay’s best work to date.

Michael Bay has rewritten the rules of the blockbuster first with Armageddon and then with The Transformers franchise. His “too much zero” approach and the devil may care attitude has made him one of the more interesting filmmakers working in the States today. In terms of sheer technological investments, his films feel like a permanently open laboratory where digijtal cinema is explored and studied in all its possibilities. Watching one of his Transformers films is like studying the overheated brain of the collective imagination putting together, pixel after pixel, new possibilities for post-modern commercial cinema. It is no small wonder that his films feel more like industrial documentaries about the transformation of cinema itself than accomplished storytelling. Of course: there is also the contradiction about a huge display of wealth and possibilities to retell always the same story. But it is indeed this very contradiction that makes Bay’s films fascinating. It is as if the director would acknowledge that there were no more stories to be told (a Stephen King he isn’t). Therefore, the only story left is that of the cinematic medium itself. Marshall McLuhan was right. Didn’t we say that already?

Consequently, Michael Bay’s ventures in more political territories (The Island, Pain and Gain), normally not as successful as his other blockbuster projects, feel like the efforts of a filmmaker who, even though he brashly declared “let them hate!” referring to the critics, still tries to make a connection.

Wildly experimental in his blockbuster films, in less expensive films as those cited above, Bay manifests an energy that seems to stem directly from the Seventies. Pain and Gain could have been a George Armitage film, while 13 Hours obviously owes a lot to Sam Fuller, Robert Aldrich and John Milius. Of course: three completely different filmmakers that possibly only share the fascination for the men in the battlefield (and let’s not forget that all three have been accused, especially in Europe, of being somehow “fascist”).

 

 Michael Bay

 

Michael Bay tries not to prove that Mrs. Clinton has lied. He has simply chosen to stick with the version of the facts provided by the contractors. The “stand down” order is not an indictment of Mrs. Clinton; it is simply the trigger for what ultimately feels like an old-fashioned western. Soldiers marooned in a foreign land surrounded by enemies. If Yousry Nasrallah told his followers on Facebook that he did not feel offended by the language that soldiers use in American Sniper (how can you realistically expect something different?), why should the contractors in 13 Hours be able to tell friend from foe if they are primarily concerned with their retirement plans? As awful as it may sound to politically correct ears, Bay’s contractors are a sort of new working class. Soldiers whose only cause is the man next to them. John Milius has been American cinema’s greatest poet when it comes down to show what war does to man. But Bay comes a very close second with 13 Hours. The contractors can’t tell their enemies from the friends and the country is crumbling around them, bound to become a Da’esh stronghold. Perception of the reality of war is impossible. The soldiers in Bay’s film aren’t emanations of Edward Luttwak’s Weltanschauung. They belong to a noble tradition. Their forefathers were in the film of people like Allan Dwan and Raul Walsh. Of course: their forefathers had a cause. They don’t. That’s the huge difference. Bay films exactly this difference. This desperation. These soldiers are beyond propaganda because no one would like to stand in their shoes for the love of the cause. The carefully choreographed explosions are not the sign of Bay’s terminally childish taste for kabooms. In 13 Hours the nightmarish explosions are the only possible geography of a Bosch-like no man’s land in which people die.

Bay’s only concession to the rhetoric of the classic war film is the shot of the burned American flag. Does this brand him as a Republican? Not sure. Could that shot have been avoided? Maybe. Does it make 13 Hours a bad film? No.

With 13 Hours Michael Bay proves that he is not only one of the major players of contemporary Hollywood but also one the very few filmmakers who have understood the non-dialectics of war and made with it his very own filmic ethic.

 

 

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