' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Armageddon (1998)

Friday, June 29, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: Armageddon (1998)

This blog and Michael Bay no longer speak. That is to say, I no longer go to see Michael Bay movies. After all, I have routinely cited Bay’s 1998 skunk spray opus “Armageddon” as the worst movie I have ever seen. This led Cinema Romantico to talk a lot of trash about the “Transformers” movies, none of which I have seen, and which a friend, Brad, rightly called me on – do I really have the right to deride movies I have not watched? So, I simply stopped seeing Michael Bay movies and talking about Michael Bay at all. It’s better for him; it’s better for you; it’s better for me. And yet. A couple months ago, I was listening to Slate’s Hit Parade podcast where host Chris Molanphy takes riveting monthly deep dives into Billboard Hot 100 history. And on that episode from April, Molanphy’s focus was Bon Jovi, a band he flatly copped to not liking. And though he came away still not liking them, he also gave them some credit, turning over, like, half a new leaf. As I listened to this, with the 20th anniversary of “Armageddon’s” release fast approaching, well, reader, I knew what I had to do; I had to re-watch “Armageddon.” In these divisive times, are we not frequently implored to hear the other side?

It’s become somewhat de rigueur in pop culture discourse to call Michael Bay an auteur (or, its wicked stepsister, a vulgar auteur) and then to call these auteurist citations on the carpet. Watching “Armageddon”, however, in which an oil drilling crew is recruited by NASA to land on an asteroid screaming toward Earth and bore a hole in the space rock to insert a nuclear bomb to save the world, made me think Bay is undoubtedly an auteur. Though occasionally a little acting can be glimpsed, Bay prefers planting stars stolidly in the frame and then sliding the camera past them, or spinning it around them, from his signature low angle, reducing all these no doubt well compensated performers to mere unmoving objects of his camera’s affection. They are all powerless props to his ultimate vision, and Bay is like the asteroid, which the movie occasionally cuts to, hurtling through space. It doesn’t actually hit Earth, of course, but why would it need to when Bay himself has already ground our retinas to dust?

Bay, of course, keeps his pedal to the metal, so much so that the two space shuttles re-fueling at a space station is just an excuse to blow that space station to smithereens. Why David Bordwell’s “The Way Hollywood Tells It” cites “Armageddon’s” Average Shot Length as 2.3 seconds, meaning that on average every shot in the movie changes within said timeframe. If this sounds intended to induce whiplash, it sometimes does, though Bay’s cuts are not unthinking, betraying his cultural vision. When the oil drilling crew gets a little R&R prior to takeoff, Bay shows us the scene of Will Patton’s Chick trying to say hi to the son he shares with his ex-wife. Bay then cuts directly to several other astronaut/drillers at a gentleman’s club, which does not in any way feel accidental but a summation of Bay’s Floridian binary. And at a dire moment late in the movie, when Armageddon really does seem near, Bay’s camera gazes out from between the Lincoln Memorial’s pillars toward the Washington Monument at which point he cuts directly, I swear, to a Coca-Cola® billboard, which was so hysterically apropos I paused Netflix to laugh. Commercialism piggy-backing on nationalism is our Michael Bay!

The asteroid is discovered by an amateur astronomer (John Mahon) who wants to name it for his wife, “a vicious, life-suckin’ bitch from which there’s no escape.” Because even as the Year 2000 dawned, Michael Bay’s worldview remained plopped down in the armchair of Archie Bunker. Bruce Willis’s principal hero Harry S. Stamper, meanwhile, is introduced launching golf balls from his oil rig at a Greenpeace boat, which might have been played for environmental irony if Bay had the ability to ever render anything with less than 180 decibels. And while the government has often lent a helping production hand to Bay, he is oddly disenchanted with them here, from NASA to the Pentagon and on up. Dr. Ronald Quincy (Jason Isaacs) is introduced as “pretty much the smartest man on the planet” simply to poke fun at the President’s chief scientific advisor, and then a few scenes later “pretty much the smartest man on the planet” is reduced to a confused, stammering yokel in the presence of Stamper, who obviously knows best about everything. Granted, Stamper has expertise in deep drilling that no one else does, but in contending with Quincy’s sudden turn into uselessness and, eventually, having to overcome the Deep State’s various attempts to sabotage his mission, he transforms into a libertarian rock star.

The common rebuttal to everything I’m opining, of course, is that a movie about an asteroid and explosions doesn’t have anything to do with politics. It’s tantamount to the sentiment that, say, a football game doesn’t having anything to do with politics, while the same people who espouse the game’s supposed apolitical nature stand up for the American flag before games and cheer military flyovers, two – surprise! Surprise! – recurring images in “Armageddon.” No, these are people who would rather a certain kind of politics not intrude in their games just as they would rather a certain kind of politics not intrude in “Armageddon.” And that’s not to say that I don’t think Mr. Bay should inject his politics into his movies. Movies should not be apolitical! If Mr. Bay wants to stick it to the state even as he utilizes its resources to help make his movie, he should go for it! And isn’t that the beauty of personal liberty, to consider something and then decide what to do about it for yourself? Upon watching “Armageddon” I have decided never to watch another Michael Bay movie ever again. Ah, freedom.

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