Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Abuse of Light in the Films of Michael Bay and Spielberg

Much can be learned about American culture by comparing the abuses of light in the cinematography of Spielberg and Michael Bay films. In most of his movies, Spielberg works with the cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, who favours an overabundance of natural, white light. His shots are often overexposed so that the milky white light washes out all of the surfaces in the scene. Given the attributes of Spielberg’s movies, including the sentimental nostalgia for childhood, the touchy-feely morality of secularized Judaism, and the over-reliance on storyboarding, this prevalence of white light represents God’s immanence and the religious imperative to make Earth resemble Heaven.

Meanwhile, Bay’s movies are conspicuous for their aversion to natural lighting, especially in indoor scenes: there’s almost always a fully-saturated, candy-like blue or yellowish-orange light source somewhere offstage, casting an artificial glaze over everything. Given the features of his movies, including the militarism, the jingoism, the crass subservience to macho stereotypes, the predominance of production values and the lack of artistic vision, this artificial light represents hollow, amoral materialism and the secular imperative to make all places resemble Las Vegas.

Spielberg’s Compromised Judaism

With these two iconographic uses of light, you have the worst of American religious and secular cultures. American Judaism and Christianity are so cut off from their mystical origins, so drained of their spiritual purposes, and so compromised in their integration with the secular forces of science, democracy, and capitalism, that their myths and moral messages are hideous, grating imitations of healthier versions. It goes without saying that a secularized Jew or Christian has no legs to stand on: they can chant their creeds incessantly only because they’ve mastered the art of compartmentalizing their thoughts and feelings, having now adapted to an environment consisting largely of computers, which have readily-inspected separate directories to store their information. These moderate religious folks don’t share the theistic mindset needed to breathe life into their creeds, because they’ve at least unconsciously absorbed the scientific, secular worldview. Accordingly, they save their myths only by interpreting them in literary rather than in theological terms. Morality and families are sacred, the moderates will say, because God carved his commandments into stone and handed them to Moses--except which of these moderates can explain why that religious metaphor should be regarded as any more special than the metaphors that are a dime a dozen in the thousands of novels published each year? Does the old age of a tradition sanctify its content? Obviously not, since the moderate religionist freely cherry-picks which religious tradition to observe and which to discard as the obsolete labour of ancient, uninformed yokels.

The problem with moderate, secularized religions is simply one of awkwardness. It’s not a question of having to face up to an honourable challenge to the secular lifestyle; rather, the presence of wishy-washy, hypocritical, having-it-both-ways charlatans is just aesthetically intolerable. Imagine you’re at a party, everyone is enjoying themselves, and then a self-righteous hypocrite takes his face out of the punchbowl and his arms off of a pair of half-naked ladies, and lectures the crowd about its sins, spouting the wisdom and stale metaphors of cultures long departed, the alcoholic beverage still dripping down his chin and his cheeks still flush with the anticipation of his imminent orgy. Again, the trouble in this case has nothing to do with taking seriously the transparent nonsense emanating from that self-deluded fellow’s mouth; the difficulty is just in extricating yourself from his vicinity so that his bad taste doesn’t somehow rub off on you.

Something similar can be said about democratic western politicians, who represent the bottom of the barrel, ethically and intellectually speaking, given that ultimate political and economic power resides--in this time of globalization--in the oligarch’s corridors which interpenetrate government and the private sector. For example, an American liberal’s chief difficulty today becomes not one of having to devise a plan to beat Romney, Cain, Perry, or any of the other potential Republican presidential nominees; the problem, rather, is in expending the energy needed to hold back your own embarrassment for the Republicans. Of course, Republicans are in exactly the same situation with regard to Obama. Obama’s high intelligence only makes his betrayal of his initial liberal campaign more awkward and the bankruptcy of liberal rationalism more conspicuous. 

But to return to Spielberg’s movies, my point is that his light symbolism is mawkish and sanctimonious, because his symbols depend on secularized Judaism, which has nothing to teach either religious or nonreligious people, given the extent of its compromises. Mind you, the shame of secularized Jews is likely indirect, since they tend to see themselves in Straussian, elitist terms, purveying noble lies for the unwashed masses and for social stability. Their cognitive dissonance lies, then, not in any tension between their religious and nonreligious beliefs, since they have virtually no religious beliefs to speak of, but in their pretense that they’re wiser than the rabble to which they regularly lie as soon as they talk about religion or morality.

(Note that because I’m culturally a reformed Jew, I’m entitled, by the power conferred to me by the Laws of Political Correctness, to slander Jews as freely as I like, just as Herman Cain was the only one in polite society to be able to speak the N-word in the name of Perry’s hunting camp. I, for one, dare not type the full N-word, lest the PC gods smite me for failing to observe the superstition of idolatry.  We must, after all, bow to preposterously-misplaced fear of symptoms rather than of diseases. We must especially avoid speaking ill of Jews whose people suffered so much in their confrontation with pure evil--unless you happen to be a Jew, and then you can say whatever you like about them. There’s nothing like a naked double standard. In any case, I’m all for being politically correct, by worshipping images and signs rather than what they represent. How else will we remain clueless and incapable of preventing our downfall? The conventions of political correctness must be respected as a means by which we’ll extinguish ourselves and clear the path for a species to replace us. See Political Correctness.)

Bay’s Uncontrollable Misanthropy

As for Michael Bay’s abuse of light, this should be seen as just a hint of the depth of the man’s loathing for his viewers. As far as I can tell, the subtext of each of his movies is Bay’s feeling that the secular lifestyle of infinite consumption degrades us all and that we’re all, in effect, currently writhing in hell. He therefore aims for his movies to be execrable, to be the very worst form of art that anyone can currently perpetrate--and this is no easy trick, since a movie that successfully translates a filmmaker’s boundless misanthropy must have not a single redeeming quality, so that when the movie’s over and the viewer leaves the theater, not a trace of anything of value can be left in the viewer’s mind: not a memory of a funny, scary, sexy, or cool scene, not a resonance with ideas dramatized by the movie--nothing. In this way, the lasting relationship between Bay and his audience is strictly one-way: his audience members transfer their money to the bank accounts that fund his nihilistic enterprise and he leaves them with a representation of the void at the heart of American secular culture.

The key to the production of the worst of all possible art is shallowness, which is the equivalent of religious moderation and which thus makes for the comparison with Spielberg’s morality plays. There need be nothing wrong with a movie that criticizes libertine or materialistic culture, if the movie commits to the criticism and carries it out with good faith. Even were the criticism unmerited, such a movie would have the redeeming feature of posing the challenge of discovering the movie’s weakness. But a movie that commits to nothing, that rehearses tired action formulas purely for cheap, ephemeral thrills, appealing to the very lowest standards with regard to plot and character, isn’t art so much as highway robbery.

Bay evidently got a taste for this shallowness from Bruckheimer’s seeming instruction to his composers to abuse their musical instruments. Listen, for example, to the scores of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, which feature repetitive blasts of a full-throated orchestra (“duh-duh-duh-duh-duh, dum-dum-dum-dum, duh-duh-duh-duh, duh-duh, dum-dum-dum-dum!”). This anti-music doesn’t discriminate by picking a horn or an oboe or a violin to prevail for a moment, creating a shifting sonic pattern that humans call music. Instead, his movies’ scores bang away at all of the instruments in the orchestra simultaneously, committing to none of them and thus creating a vacuum that celebrates the farce of parasitic consumerism.

Michael Bay, then, hates Americans for gobbling up his movies; at least, that's the most plausible explanation of why he keeps punishing his audience, according to this satirical blog rant. But again, were he to openly reveal that contempt, his movies would no longer be the very worst possible, which is what they need to be to hold a mirror up to the American black hole. His genius is in revealing nothing, saying nothing, showing nothing; his movies are cotton candies that disintegrate when consumed. 

Still, perhaps no one can perfectly hold such hatred in check, and so for what at first seems no discernable reason, he paints most of his indoor scenes with melancholic blue and queasy yellowish-orange artificial lights. These lights are artificial not just because they’re electric, but because they’re unrealistic: the light sources themselves are rarely shown and their hues are always fully saturated, meaning that their hues are furthest from white so that the lights are like vampires hiding from the sun. Bay calls attention to the fact that these lights are props, that he and his cinematographers--he uses different ones from one movie to the next, so he seems to be the common denominator--choose to reuse the same bizarre lighting, scene after scene and movie after movie. He often pairs orange and blue lights in the same shot, hiding their sources like Easter Eggs. 

The depressing cyans and nauseating yellowish-oranges indicate, then, not a subliminal criticism of the scenes he puts together, but Bay’s seething, barely-controlled disgust with the depraved world that holds him in such high esteem, with the audience that’s entertained by nihilistic twaddle and is so numbed to the emptiness of their secular culture that they’re even fleetingly thrilled by Bay’s chaotic action sequences and stirred by his ham-handed reinforcement of sociopolitical conventions. What the lights seem to mean for Bay is that his movies are supposed to depress or nauseate the viewer, but that because the viewer instead flocks to see his movies, it’s the viewer’s emptiness and taste that are so appalling. The sickly lights symbolize the viewer’s shallowness for preferring such shallow movies.


Here are stills from Munich, Catch Me if You Can, Minority Report, War of the Worlds, and Saving Private Ryan. Notice the prevalence of natural white light that washes out mere material bodies, like the Platonic Forms that set the standards for material copies of them.


And here are stills from The Rock, The Island, the Bad Boy movies, and the first two Transformers movies. Notice the lack of natural white light and the repeated use of the same saturated, unrealistic blue and yellowish-orange lights.





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