The Transformers vs. Chicago vs. Me


It’s been a week since I published my review of Transformers 3, and the discussion over at Row Three was fast and furious for a few days. While leaving out my thoughts on certain of the comments in that thread, or on internet commenting in general, I will expand upon something that I left out of my original review for the sake of brevity: it sickened me, sickened me, sickened me, to see Chicago so defiled in Transformers 3. It’s only a CGI desecration, and I know that, but – and I do not, of course, ever use this word loosely (or at all) in conversations about films, but as near as I can figure – Chicago got raped.

That upset me, personally. It upset me, probably, more than it upset actual film critics living in the actual city. I visited the place with Matty Price last year, and to say that it had a large - and lingering - impact on me doesn’t nearly do it justice. And here it was, torn apart and shat upon by Autobots. Fie!

Chicago is a marvelous place. That is the word to me – marvelous. It was a city of marvels. I wandered around its streets and marveled. I went on the boat cruise and looked at the tops of the highest buildings, and I marveled. And when a film like The Dark Knight goes to Chicago, it is because that film – and filmmaker – are exalting that marvel. They are saying, this place is marvelous enough to be Gotham City. Gotham is an ideal – a paragon – and Chicago is a city in America that is like it enough to be pushed up onto that throne of the Ideal City.

Trans3mers didn’t go to Chicago to exalt. Given the connection between Bay’s images and the visual codes of pornography – call it the male-only gratification-and-to-hell-with-everything-else approach – seeing Chicago destroyed for that pornographic gratification seemed to me the filmic equivalent of a sexual crime. Bay took something beautiful and for no reason at all, destroyed it – destroyed it largely offscreen, in fact, in the act break between acts 2 and 3, to make it over as a post-apocalyptic playground for Sam Witwicky to run around in – for the express purpose of finding his pillow-lipped girlfriend, who is lost somewhere within.

That the city will also play home to a complex re-staging of an intensely frightening 9/11 concept – what would it have been like to be on one of the upper storeys of the towers, after the planes hit, unable to get down? – is largely insult to injury. Many have commented that I don’t particularly have the right to invoke 9/11, that a building is just a building, and that any connection I see between the two events is just my imprint, not the movie’s.

“If 9/11 had never happened, would you have had the same response?” many have asked. If 9/11 had never happened, then Trans3mers would just have shown us a scene of trapped and helpless humans about to meet a grisly demise in a collapsing building, and you’re right, in a movie universe we might not have noticed that such a thing is rather of horrible, too. But with very obvious visual echoes of a very painful piece of American history (and my response to the film never even mentioned the fact that Bay uses the Chernobyl disaster more directly, and for similarly witless purposes), it comes down to the fact that it won’t just be my imprint that sees 9/11 in that office tower scene; it will be a lot of other peoples’ imprints, too. If you’re making a movie, you have a responsibility to consider what your images will suggest. To say that Bay didn’t do it on purpose or to say that I’m interpreting the imagery incorrectly aren’t actually saying the same thing. If Bay selected those images purposely (if naively), then they are part of the conversation and their meaning can be analyzed. To suggest that such analysis has no place in a Transformers movie would, to me, suggest that the Transformers movies are therefore so trivial that they shouldn’t even exist. Which I wouldn’t mind, by the way.

My reaction to Trans3mers is, lingeringly, one of a really ugly kind of anger. This is what surprised me. Movies have made me angry before, but it was a controllable anger, a kind of frothy indignation that comes of seeing your favourite baseball team lose, or a sub-par production of The Merchant of Venice. With Trans3mers, it was something else – something in seeing that beautiful city used like a whore – something in the jackhammering, deadening violence of the whole thing, from history-abusing start to spine-shattering finish. I said there was so much hate in the film that it was actually frightening – and it was. The hate spilled over, and I carried it out of the theatre, and every time I think back, it bubbles up and darkens my day. And nothing, at least to me, is ever “only a movie.”

In precise opposition to all this, I saw Armadillo at the Bell Lightbox yesterday. Armadillo is “holy shit” filmmaking. This is not to treat the film flippantly or to suggest that the film treats its subject flippantly; it doesn’t. The film is as comprehensive – possibly the most comprehensive, ever – a portrait of the soldier’s experience as I’ve seen in a movie. It becomes “holy shit” filmmaking because, at so many points in the film that one loses count, one simply cannot believe the places the cameras of Armadillo take us, or the things they show us, or what those things look like. In an era when any noob with a video camera thinks he can make a documentary, Armadillo is as visually precise, and tonally calibrated, as Apocalypse Now (or, a better analog, Jarhead). And yes – when the cameras eventually, and frequently, take us into open combat between the Danish soldiers and the forces of the Taliban, and you realize – holy shit! – the cameraperson is in more physical danger than you or I will ever be in our entire lives, and it isn’t even their war – the film becomes something altogether more remarkable. A film of conscience and painstaking craft, Armadillo is unforgettable.