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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

entry arrow9:33 PM | Welcome to the Canon, Armageddon

One thing I like about the business of film criticism (or any sort of criticism for that matter) is its function in advocacy -- the championing of the obscure, the marginalized, and the previously unconsidered. Genius, it seems, does not easily manifest itself sometimes: critical recognition can take time, and a little bit of looking out of the box. Douglas Sirk, for example, was known as a maker of so-called "women's films," fluffy and oversaturated melodramas like All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life, and Magnificent Obsession that were considered, at the time of their release, as nothing more than brainless Hollywood chick flicks. Then the film critic Andrew Sarris came around, reevaluated his work, and placed Sirk in the pantheon of great filmmakers. Fred Camper calls him "the epistemologist of despair." (Read his article here.)

But this is not a post about Sirk, one of my favorite directors. This is a post about ... tada! Michael Bay. You read that right. Michael Bay, the director of such head-splitting, quick-cutting, special effects-heavy, Hollywood action extravaganzas such as The Rock, Pearl Harbor, The Island, and Armageddon. Mere mention of these titles is enough to make any serious cinephile froth at the mouth.

But now, here comes Criterion, and it has recently appointed Bay's Armageddon to stand alongside masterpieces of such acclaimed filmmakers as Akira Kurosawa, Robert Altman, Michaelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Bernardo Bertolucci, and the like.

This is not a joke. And to underscore the importance of this new release, one must realize that Criterion is to film what Penguin is to literature. (Remember the hoopla the Philippine literary world gave when Rizal's Noli Me Tangere finally got into Penguin's list of classics?) Film critic Jeanine Basinger, writing for the Criterion DVD of the film, has this to say:

Despite what you may have heard, Armageddon is a work of art by a cutting-edge artist who is a master of movement, light, color, and shape—and also of chaos, razzle-dazzle, and explosion. (It was no surprise to me to learn that as a thirteen-year-old, director Michael Bay blew up his toy train set with firecrackers so he could photograph the result with his mom’s 8mm camera.) If he weren’t working in Hollywood, Bay would be the darling bad boy of the intelligentsia. As it is, he sometimes falls under suspicion for having been nominated for multiple MTV Awards, and for having won every accolade available to directors of commercials, including the Clio and the prestigious Director’s Guild of America “Commercial Director of the Year” title. Armageddon is only his third movie, but it came under fire from some critics who had praised his second, The Rock, and for its same characteristics: fast cutting, impressive special effects, and a minimum of exposition.


It is true that Armageddon, a perfect example of Bay’s work, illustrates his “take-no-prisoners” form of storytelling, in which he trusts an audience to figure things out. (One of its strengths is its minimum of dreadful exposition that over-explains the inevitable pseudoscience.) Yes, it gives audiences a lot to absorb. Yes, it cuts quickly from place to place, person to person, event to event. But it is never confusing, never boring, and never less than a brilliant mixture of what movies are supposed to do: tell a good story, depict characters through active events, invoke an emotional response, and entertain simply and directly, without pretense.

Armageddon is not for the faint-hearted, the slow-witted, or the dim-eyed. (Those who claim that it was hard to tell where characters were in relation to each other in the space should take another look.) Consider how the film explains what Harry Stamper’s (Bruce Willis) vacationing crew is doing when he sends out the word he needs them. In little more than one minute of screen time, five key characters are identified, established in a specific environment, shown relating to others, given distinct personalities, and defined in ways that indicate how they will behave on the later mission. (If that’s not screenwriting, what is?)

Is it time for a grand reevaluation of Bay's work? Is he now an auteur? Should I look at Transformers with a totally different eyes now? I'm still undecided, but right now I'm thinking ... The films of Tito, Vic, and Joey may be unacknowledged masterpieces of Filipino comedy. The unheralded Three Stooges from our shores...

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