Before we get into this here Auteur Theory thingie on the biggest movie event of the summer, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, let’s get one thing out of the way.
1) There are major spoilers here, so if for whatever reason you’re some kind of anti-social non conformist who hasn’t ran, nay sprinted out to see the biggest movie event of the Summer, well, there’s ‘bout to be a whole shitload of spoilers up in that ass.
Now, I’m no film scholar, that’s not what I went to school for, but sometimes aren’t the ones who aren’t the professionals the best at what they do? With that in mind I’m here to blather on about Sir Michael Bay’s Magnum Opus, the biggest movie event of the summer; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. T:RotF is the sequel to the biggest movie event of the summer of 2007, Transformers, which in itself was a live action movie adaptation of the biggest syndicated television event of many a 80’s baby childhood afternoon and accompanying Hasbro toy line, Transformers.
Now the 2007 film came under much fire and duress from many critics, stating hurtful things such as “that was completely retarded,” and “what the fuck was going on,” or “Someone help, my husband is epileptic and is going into a seizure!” And to the critics credit they were not totally at fault for the bile with which they spewed. True, John Tutturo was criminally underutilized and not allowed to reach such Corinthian heights of acting which he displayed in You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. True, the character design for all of the transformers looked like they done by an agitated autistic kid.
But that’s not why we are here, we’re here to dive head first into the dirty details of T:RotF (carefully, for the exposed nails). Not only is T:RotF the biggest movie event of the summer, but it is also a very nuanced FILM that deigns to take on even more social issues and commentary than its biggest movie event of the summer status could even belie. From my limited screenings numbering in at only half a dozen or so I have pinpointed three main themes throughout this film. The first two will be discussed tonight while we will parse through the third this Thursday.
Race Relations: Mudflap and Skidz
Minstrel Shows began to take form sometime around the 1830s and exploded in popularity on through the Civil War, dying out sometime after the turn of the century, before making a nationwide comeback in the 1990s with the formation of the UPN and WB television networks. The main point of the Minstrel Show, of course, was white actors and entertainers performing in blackface and portraying blacks in insulting stereotypes. All the more damning was the practice after the Civil War to have black actors perform in blackface as well. A more recent example would be the guy who voiced Jar Jar Binks.
In the first Transformers movie the lone black Autobot was Jazz, a Pontiac Solstice who transformed into a breakdancin,’ sass talkin’ and confident young black Autobot. “What’s crackin’, Bitches!?” being his trademarked catchphrase. And like so many other blockbuster fare of yore, the lone black Autobot was the only one to meet a violent end when he was ripped asunder by Megatron.
For T:RotF Michael Bay wanted to address race relations in a post-racial America, and he did so with the inclusion of the characters of Mudflap and Skidz, twin autobots who start out as two integral parts of a Chinese ice cream truck, then take on the form of Chevy’s concept cars the Trax and Beat, GM’s foray into the red hot sub-compact god awful gaudy tuner market currently monopolized by Toyota offshoot, Scion. Bay has come under fire for Mudflap and Skidz, who many cite as being yet another example of Hollywood style Minstrelism. Both characters share a face that is reminiscent of an R. Crumb caricature of a black person mixed with a monkey, both talk in outdated “urban” slang and cadence that would find a home somewhere between Do the Right Thing and Boyz N the Hood. Skidz has a gold tooth that he unfortunately loses in the climactic battle and at one point it is revealed that neither could read.
Of course the chattering classes have raised their swords high and sounded the battlecry, to which Bay responded, a bit coyishly, stating that Mudflap and Skidz were just “good clean fun.” But really, Bay knew what he was doing. I mean look at one of the voice actors.
Bay’s inclusion of Mudflap and Skidz was his defiant stand against the contention that this is a post-race America. Apropos that this would be the biggest movie event of the same Summer that Sonia Sotomayor faces hearings for her appointment to the US Supreme Court. Because afterall, if this truly is post-race America, then why is there a minstrel show going on right in the middle of the biggest movie event of the Summer while Congress argues over whether or not someone can use their latina vagina and the life lessons it has brought them to judge whether a person is guilty or innocent just by looking at them.
The Relevance of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand
While working on Around the World in Eighty Days author Jules Verne was lobbied by transport and shipping companies to be included in the story. Thus the concept of product placement was born, and it has evolved from cigarettes in the early movies to such eventual overuse that it resulted in lampooning by Arrested Development and 30 Rock. (Quick tangent, NBC co-chairman Ben Silverman’s main decree when taking over the post in 2007 was to find new revenue streams through product placement in the shows he developed. Nissan automobiles in Heroes, the Ford Mustang in the failed reboot of Knight Rider, the snarky Snapple and Verizon jokes in 30 Rock. We might all think we’re impervious to these transparent pitches, but I can tell you personally that the Chili’s franchise has experienced a good deal of business from the writers of this very site thanks to a joke from The Office crafted around the very idea of product placement.)
If 30 Rock and Arrested Development’s use of product placement were examples of a clear disdain for the practice, than Bay’s 2007 Transformers film could would be a clear example of joyful willingness for product placement. In this case the product was that of the largest car manufacturer in the world, the mighty General Motors. Ironhide transformed into the GMC Topkick, a big rig truck with a pick up truck bed. Ratchet transformed into a Hummer H3 outfitted for search and rescue purposes. Jazz the aforementioned Pontiac Solstice and Bumblebee into, first a rusty old Chevy Camaro and then finally the then concept version of the new rebooted Camaro.
The product placement was so strong in the 2007 Transformers that it appears the entire climax of the film was written AROUND the ability to have a long form GM commercial in the middle of it all. At one point in the movie the Transformers and their human buddies come into possession of what everyone was fighting over in the middle of the Mojave Desert. For some reason, even though they want to keep their presence a secret, everyone gets a big ole convoy going so they can drive to a surprisingly crowded downtown LA. Nothing happens for the several minutes or so everyone is driving there, just a bunch of good looks at all these GM vehicles driving around in the desert.
Now in 2009 things have changed, the mighty GM has fallen. First GM went with the other two of the Big 3, Ford and Chrysler, to beg America for money. Then Obama fired GM’s CEO, who had the audacity to name a vehicle after himself, and GM ended up filing for bankruptcy. Now the future is uncertain for GM, many of its different brands have already seen their ultimate demise, such as Hummer (Sorry Ratchet) and Pontiac (I guess its good they killed off Jazz, then). GMC has discontinued production of the Topkick (I’m pretty sure the only person who actually drove one was Ashton Kutcher, anyway). The new concept Chevy Camaro sits in limbo as no timeline has been set to start full-scale production. You can say that’s some pretty bad luck for Michael Bay that in 2 short years his movie is full of dated vehicles, but Bay turned these lemons into lemonade.
Adam Smith is the world’s first economist, in fact I think he invented economics, or something like that. In his seminal work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations he posited the theory of the “invisible hand” of the market that everyone has since taken and run away with. In short order the invisible hand of the market is the theory that the market will self regulate itself because everyone will be acting in their rational self-interest. The invisible hand will be later fleshed out when Russell Crowe develops his game theory. In a relevant instance the invisible hand is moving the domestic automobile market away from large gluttonus corporations that produce overlarge, overpowered and over…gas guzzling jalopies. It’s in the markets best interest because capital is scarcer and therefore should only be spent on efficient automobiles made by efficient companies and, oh yeah, THE SPECTRE OF PEAK MOTHERFUCKING OIL!
Faced with the market adapting to poo on his product placement parade, Bay could’ve just sat there and took it. Writing in nonsense reasons why Ironhide is now all of a sudden a Honda Ridgeline and Bumblebee a VW Beetle (now THAT would be preposterous) into the storyline. But no, he did not do that, and not only did he keep everyone the same vehicle, the new transformer characters took on the form of MORE GM vehicles. The aforementioned Mudflap and Skidz transform into the Chevy Trax and Beat, respectively, two haphazardly thrown together concept cars that hope to wedge Chevy into a market that is already completely owned by a foreign competitor (also, if you google either you don’t get any hits after their unveiling in Spring 2007, which does not bode well for the likelyhood you’ll ever see one on the road). Sideswipe transforms into a fancy new concept Chevy Corvette, which is probably sitting between the Trax and Beat cars and the Camaro in the Never Going to Be Built wing of the Library of Congress. And finally Jolt transforms into Chevy’s misguided attempt at resurrect the electric car, the Volt, which wouldn’t be so bad if they hadn’t killed the electric car with the EV1.
A big theme for the Transformer universe, something that runs through all the television shows, comic books, toys, movies, etc. is robots in disguise. Even more specific to the movies the Transformers are hiding on Earth, their very existence being safeguarded by President Obama and his best men. By embracing the failed economics of GM product placement, Bay is providing a little thought exercise for the audience that I have decided to play along with. Now on average the lifespan of a vehicle is 7-10 years and it usually takes 15 years or so for the US auto market to fully overhaul the fleet of vehicles used. Think about it, when I started driving in the mid-90s the oldest cars that were driven by poor people and new drivers were late 70’s/early 80’s clunkers that were falling apart. Nowadays if you look around you the majority of clunkers you see poor people and new drivers in are from the early to mid-90’s. So let’s say that the Autobots are entering America’s fleet during the 2007-2009 stretch. First thing that will seem odd will be the large amount of concept cars that never saw full scale production, but the average American driver really doesn’t know what a concept car is, so they can get away with it for a couple years. Then in 7-10 years the last remaining Pontiacs, Hummers and opkicks start to leave America’s roads it will be a rare occurance to see a fully functioning GMC Topkick out and about. By 15 years the disguises the Autobots have chosen will be what makes them stick out. Michael Bay is asking the audience if one should ever try to hide who we truly are on in the inside, because even if we are able to disguise that, Adam Smith’s invisible hand is just gonna pull our pants down for all the world to see, like that Kevin Bacon movie. Footloose, I think it was.
For Thursday: And, oh yeah, PEAK MOTHERFUCKING OIL… and energon!
This blogpost was written on Occam’s iPhone somewhere on one of the many clothing optional beaches along the California coast.