Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction


It's a common criticism of Hollywood that films are nothing more than advertisements, either for subsequent films in the series, or, more predominantly, for licensed products. It's common knowledge that film studios such as Disney are not in the business of making films, but of making opportunities to sell products. The Transformers films are hyperbolic representations of the criticism of Hollywood's utter soulless capitalist excess. What are the Transformers films but feature length advertisements for toys, predicated on nostalgia for earlier versions of those toys, directed by a filmmaker known primarily for his excess of style and paucity of substance? Each film in the series functions on the same logic that I outlined in a previous essay, one of illusory escalation and increased returns on the initial investment. The Transformers films are the epitome of the reification of nostalgia and capitalism. However, I want to suggest that with the most recent iteration/repetition of the series, that no longer are the Transformers films advertisements for toys, but rather advertisements for late capitalism itself.


I will start with Fredric Jameson's helpful definition of reification from his influential 1979 essay, "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture":
The theory of reification (here strongly overlaid with Max Weber's analysis of rationalization) describes the way in which under capitalism the older traditional forms of human activity are instrumentally reorganized and "taylorized" analytically fragmented and reconstructed according to various rational models of efficiency and essentially restructured along the lines of a differentiation between means and ends
What is most relevant to this discussion is the phrase, "instrumentally reorganized." Human activities, such as affects, are instrumentally reorganized, ruthlessly by the market into a system of equivalence. Affects such as nostalgia are instrumentalized and restructured for consumption. In the Frankfurt school of thought, this instrumentalization is the hallmark of the culture industry, in which culture, especially pop culture, is a tool of distraction, keeping the masses complacent and ignorant of the machinations of greater powers. Transformers, then, would be a classic example mobilized by grumpy old Marxists like Adorno to contend that mass culture is corrupt, the apotheosis of politically unproductive, and formally and aesthetically inert.

Of course, it is no stretch to say that the fourth reiteration of this film series is aesthetically deplorable; its garish teal and orange palette, over-reliance of low angle shots, and its ludicrous and grotesque reproduction of the male gaze. It is a film without characters, but rather types, ones without clear motivations, and emotions amplified so that even non-English speakers can parse the affect. But these criticisms wholly miss the point of films such as Transformers: Age of Extinction. This is not a film, not an aesthetic object to be interpreted, understood, studied or appreciated. Rather, this is a vehicle of ideology. This is a product that advertises its very nature as product. It is the reification of affects such as desire. This movie consumes the viewer's desire, affects, wants and needs, and hands it back. This is a film that does not care not ounce about the audience. This is a film without an audience.

Let me expand on this. This film has no audience in the sense that it circumvents the circuit of desire, affect, and art. In traditional aesthetic philosophy, art is understood as "as a 'finality without an end,' that is, as a goal-oriented activity which nonetheless has no practical purpose or end in the 'real world' of business or politics or concrete human praxis generally" (Jameson 131). Art, any art really, whether mass culture such as television or high culture such as "Rites of Spring" are meant for us to "suspend our real lives and our immediate practical preoccupations" (131). Jameson, Adorno, and countless other Marxist critics teach us that the commodification of art has short circuited this process of enjoyment (or, process of affective call and response, whether "negative" or "positive" feelings). Mass culture objects become instruments of commodity satisfaction, ones that fulfil the ever-present and contiguous desire to consume. This desire is mechanically produced in the system of late capitalism, an era of universal commodification. But what we are presented with in this late stage eternal moment of late capitalism is the circumvention of the desire to consume. I posit that Transformers: Age of Extinction has no audience in the figurative sense because there is no desire to consume, no desire to enjoy. Seeing the film is simply the mechanical repetition of the act of consumption. It is the empty repetition of the act, the automatic performance of consumption.

The film provides no affect, no real feeling. It doesn't even provide a sensation of irritation or frustration. There is no catharsis because there is no real feeling. There is no joy and there is no joylessness. The film is utterly and wholly empty, devoid of anything but the own logic of consumption. It is the Ourobouros of consumption.

Many critics of this film will make mention of the copious product placements, such as Hugo Boss, Bud Light, Chevrolet, and other multinational corporations. They point at these advertisements as proof of the film's lack of soul, or lack of artistic merit. However, the film doesn't do anything with the products, neither an ironic use nor a enticing use. Rather, the film mechanically features the products because this is what films of this scale do. In fact, the film, without affect, presents both an aside about the nature of sequels, and the image of post-Fordist industrial production itself. Yes, the means of production are built into the logic of the narrative. But first, let us discuss the "ironic" aside uttered by the aging owner of a decrepit film theater.

During the first act, genius inventor but poor capitalist Mark Wahlberg visits the closed theater in his small town. He and his assistant are there to purchase parts of the theater that might be repurposed/appropriated and vivified by its reintroduction into the market, whether in a new form, such as a robot with questionable use value, or rejuvenated by his recuperative skills. As they enter the theater, the owner remarks that the establishment closed due to the proliferation of sequels and remakes, all of which are stupid. His remark, we are supposed to gather, is an attempt to inject a knowing self-aware nudge of the elbow in the audience's collective ribs. But one might justifiably ask, what is the purpose of this self-awareness beyond the desire to circumvent criticism based on the film's reiteration of the blockbuster format?

We know from David Foster Wallace's influential essay that irony is the dominant form of discourse because of television. He argues that the form of television matched the medium of television in the sense that the gaze is literalized. The form of TV reverses the uncomfortable constant gaze of the audience so that the audience watches the audience. This leads to vibrating hum of irony that circulates, simultaneously invisible (it is ever-present) and self-consciously visible (it calls attention to itself). This is, of course, only one of many explanations for the sheer imperial dominance of irony as a mode of discourse, and that, in reality, there is probably a complex web of factors. Nevertheless, we have irony as our dominant mode, meaning that non-ironic objets d'art are perceived as "corny," "hokey," and "cheesy." We regard this objects with suspicion. An excess of "real" emotion makes viewers uncomfortable. Thus, we shield emotions with a patina of irony, a measure of self-protection, as contact with "real" emotions is unbearable. Cultural objects, produced within the dominant mode — of late capitalism of course — then automatically use irony in the creation of the object's overall tone or atmosphere. This is to say, then, that the use of irony in Transformers: Age of Extinction is mechanically reproduced, a rote deployment, because that is what other cultural objects do. Other films made x amount of money at the box office by doing y, and so this film must do that as well in order to maximize profits. Because after all, as I have been repeating, this film is not a movie but rather a commodity. The aging theater owner's snarky aside is meant to elicit a titter from the audience. The gesture allows the audience to assuage their guilt from engaging with such an empty text. We know we should know better, and yet we still partake in such cultural “trash.” The film mitigates this uncomfortable feeling by acknowledging on its surface that this film is nothing more than a stupid sequel and/or remake. This patina of irony that shields the audience from both “real” emotions and guilt from consumption is the production of the “quasi-material 'feeling-tone' which floats above the narrative but is only intermittently realized by it” (Jameson 133). This “feeling-tone” is imminently consummable and a hallmark of the era of late capitalism. Transformers: Age of Extinction reproduces – or possibly better, replicates the feeling tone of emotional distance and obligation. The inclusion of irony is obligatory; I contend that even attendance for this film is obligatory.

The film is produced not by an auteur (Michael Bay) but by an army of labourers, all working diligently to create this tableau of CGI, this 165 minutes of zeros and ones bleeding across the screen. Surely, the 21st century version of Marx's assembly line (the Fordist model, we've already mentioned) is the sea of terminals where "code monkeys" program commands for the computer to obey and produce. The objet d'art of film is already a multiply mediated affective experience: filmmaker, camera, projectionist, screen, audience. Now, the sheer dominance of CGI means more layers of mediation, resulting in alienation from the labourer (recalling the boy making the watches) and alienation for the audience. The modern CGI blockbuster is an example of what Jean Baudrillard "calls the simulacrum (that is, the reproduction of 'copies' which have no original) [which] characterizes the commodity production of consumer capitalism and marks our object world with an unreality and a free-floating absence of 'the referent'" (Jameson 135). This alienation from the Real sustains an ever-present desire for the Real. The image of the simulacrum “consumes the event, in the sense that it absorbs it and offers it back for consumption” (Baudrillard 21). It is the irrational desire for the Real, to see beyond the symbolic order. Due to the dangers inherent in violating the symbolic order, there is a “fundamental paradox of the 'passion for the Real': it culminates in its apparent opposite, in a theatrical spectacle like spectacular terrorist acts” (Žižek 9). Thus, films such as Transformers: Age of Extinction reproduce the mass destruction of other films – which are always more real than actual terrorist spectacles – but this film does so mechanically. To the point that the film allegorizes its own production by including images of the assembly line within its very own narrative. This film is so utterly layered in mediation that its inclusion of the assembly line is without affect, without comment, without an apparent ideological stance.

Stanley Tucci's character is a multimillionaire genius inventor who reverse engineers his own Transformers from the dead bodies of robots, killed either in action (in Transformer battles) or more likely, killed by a black ops outfit sanctioned by the CIA. The first half of the film has scenes set in Tucci's Chicago offices where his scientists work to engineer better more efficient Transformers, while the second half of the film depicts Tucci's China factories. In an almost metafictional move, the film recognizes its own globalized production, which allows the film to include product placements aimed at Chinese filmgoers. The factory in China (versus the laboratories in the US; not a coincidence, I should think) provides the film with the chance to literally depict the assembly line that produces the Transformers. The assembly line, the Fordist symbol of endless and efficient production, spits out Transformers to be wielded by the American military. Tucci's genius inventor has made a deal with the US and Chinese government to produce, via assembly line, what are essentially drones.

The better, more efficient Transformers are controlled remotely by "pilots" tucked safely away in a military area. The drone metaphor, neither subtle nor obvious, is presented without comment. It is simply the nature of warfare, the film contends, that machines of war will be physically and psychically distant from the operators. The act of killing and its subsequent and constitutive affects, like all affects in the late capitalism era, becomes utterly and totally mediated through screens, joysticks, and distance. This mediation is mirrored in the film's very presentation of drone warfare: without comment, without affect. It simply is, as if the film is presenting drone warfare as fait accompli. However, in the film's defence, the drones are taken over by Megatron, and there is a late third act attempt to comment, but this is only to provide necessary plot resolution; Tucci's inventor realizes that a contract with the American military can lead to external corruption. However, his business with China continues, which is literalized in a burgeoning romantic relationship with the inscrutable, martial arts expert, beautiful Chinese head of the Chinese company, a common and pernicious Orientalist trope, and not the film's only one.

The inclusion of Orientalist tropes in Transformers: Age of Extinction should come as no surprise. The Transformers themselves are depicted using flat stereotypes in order to aid the audience in differentiating between each heap of CGI. John Goodman voices a grizzled old veteran who shoots indiscriminately, has a beard(?) and chews on a cigar(????); with this, the film deploys a recognizable American stereotype. In addition, the film includes Drift, a relatively new Transformers character (introduced in IDW's series of series) who is modelled after a samurai, composes a haiku, and is voiced by Ken Watanabe. It is a classic case of the fetishizing, exoticizing Western gaze. It is also boring. Drift is given nothing to do other than provide wise-sounding phrases and pablum for almost no plot-driven reason. It is the empty expression of Orientalism simply because that's what these films do.

Kathleen Stewart writes in Ordinary Affects that:
The objects of mass desire enact the dream of sheer circulation itself -- travel, instant communication, movies, catalogues, the lure of new lifestyles patched together from commodities gathered into scenes of possible life.
The experience of being "in the mainstream" is a concrete sensory experience of literally being in tune with "something" that's happening.
But nothing too heavy or sustained.
It's being in tune without getting involved. A light contact zone that rests on a thin layer of shared public experiences. (51)
Transformers: Age of Extinction is the ultimate expression of the late capitalist era: a consummable, mass produced and easily duplicated, that signals its own ease of duplication within its mode of reproduction. It is a boring slog of a movie meant only to provide momentary respite from the unending demand of balancing work, family, and leisure. This movie perfectly encapsulates the necessary labour required to enjoy something. It is a piece of shit.

Works Cited

Jameson, Fredric. "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture." Social Text 1 (1979): 130-148. Print.
Stewart, Kathleen. Ordinary Affects. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. Print.
Transformers: Age of Extinction. Dir. Michael Bay. Perf. Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci. Paramount Pictures, 2014. Film.
Žižek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. London: Verso, 2002. Print.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

June Reads

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin
Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills
Coldheart Canyon by Clive Barker
The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

I read Coldheart Canyon back in 2002 or 2003, and I remember being impressed by the misnomer of "Hollywood ghost story" on the cover. The traditional ghost story structure, which this novel tricks you with, features hauntings and the protagonists' disbelief until the second act. Well, just like other Barker novels, this text dispenses with the traditional structure amazingly fast and provides a long (700 pages!) series of connected setpieces. It's the little things that make this novel good; specifically Barker's innate understanding that scenes should be connected by a "because this happens" rather than "and then." The prose and dialogue is almost as good as I remember it. Though the characters are less well drawn than my recollection would have it. The novel traffics in Hollywood stereotypes, but that could be on purpose. As for the explicit sex? It's less extreme! than I remember. Quite tame, actually. Not sure why the Goodreads community is clutching their pearls. Coldheart Canyon represents the first part of my newish project to reread his novels. I think I might have read them too young to appreciate them. I'm satisfied that my first step was not disappointing. This bodes well for the project. I might add that Barker still qualifies under 2014's "No Straight White Dudes" policy as Barker has been openly gay for his entire publishing career.

Laura McHugh's debut novel, The Weight of Blood tickled quite a few of my fancies, such as the Southern Gothic, the rich lush descriptions of the deep rural South, the oppressive heat, the looming ominous canopy of trees, and the inevitable crime that occurs in such deep poverty. McHugh's novel is very similar to Daniel Woodrell's middle career works: Southern noir, sexy, sweaty, and violent as all hell. However, McHugh appears to have set her sights higher than Woodrell, and she attempts to weave theme and meaning into her text. It's not always successful: a painfully obvious symbol is mobilized to demonstrate the already stated theme. McHugh's prose is good, and her characters well drawn. As with most debut novels, I can only presume that the next novel will be an improvement.

Americanah so far holds the title of best novel I've read all year. And this has been, so far, a year of great novels.