Episode 56: The Rock (1996)

Film chosen by listener Louis Naum, introduced by Matt

I should begin by publicly apologising to my old school friend, Ben, whose bargain bin copy of The Rock I accidentally-on-purpose held onto forever. He recently reminded me of the giant-boxed ex-rentals and free posters up for grabs in Richmond’s video shops like Trinity Video and Choices – the former was a tiny cupboard of a shop next to Woolworths, stocked with VHS tapes, a range of computer games, and some Games Workshop miniatures, the latter was perched at the top of the marketplace, where I later applied for a summer job, attempting to copy Quentin Tarantino (or Randy from Scream), but was sadly rejected.

In an era when I should’ve been solely revising for my GCSEs, I was rewinding and rewatching tapes of Nic Cage in The Rock, Face/Off, and Con Air instead; obliterating essential brain cells at a time when I needed them the most, in what can only be described as an act of pure escapism. Little did I know, I was in fact (sort of) training myself to make films – something I didn’t realise I wanted to, or could do until the following year when I enrolled at a local technical college to become a sports journalist, but was bug-bitten and ensnared by a calling to make movies. I always loved them, but the possibility hadn’t ever occurred to me, in spite of my undercover obsession with Dawson’s Creek – its lead’s worship of Spielberg mirroring my own, and the intriguing Scream 2 film class discussion on sequels. Once I learned about no-budget filmmakers like the rebel without a crew, Mariachi man himself, Robert Rodriguez, and credit card maxer-outer, Kevin Smith, tearing an indie trail, I thought, why not give it a go?

It all began the day I uncharacteristically thrust myself forward to direct a mock episode of a Coronation Street scene in Darlington Tech’s glamorous hair and beauty department as part of my BTEC Media course. Then, alongside fellow students, armed with Canon XL1s and Speed Razor editing bays, we cobbled together a few music videos and fake adverts, and soon after, aged 17, I directed an eleven-minute teen slasher ripoff, penned by my best friend, Sam, entitled Night Class; a film in which it inexplicably takes a lad 2 minutes and 10 seconds to walk through a graveyard – “Bayhem,” it certainly was not. It owed more to whizzing around in a wheelchair dolly, trying to be Darlington’s answer to Rodriguez, and attempting to remake John Carpenter’s Halloween in a college in North East England. Nevertheless, it marks my first time really picking up a camera and trying to tell a story on my own terms. Storyboarding, casting, not so much lighting, but operating camera, and perhaps most invaluably, cutting. It remains the most fun I’ve ever had making a film, under our self-consciously titled production company name of Ego Trip Films, which reveals we were aware of getting ideas way above our stations, but did it anyway, and for that I’m incredibly proud because not many people bother, even after receiving “the call” to be creative. Yes, it’s just a daft little short, and it’s nothing if not derivative, but I’m so happy it exists.

“What kinda fucked up tour is this?”

Tourist, The Rock

Bay’s sophomore effort, The Rock, arrived hot on the heels of his buddy cop feature debut, Bad Boys, just a year later in fact, and much like the Will Smith vehicle, it captivated the minds of teenage lads throughout my village, secondary school, and beyond. The grandiose execution, gloss, and sheen encapsulated everything we expected from a big-budget Hollywood actioner. Every frame dripped expense. As far as I can tell, coupled with 1998’s Armageddon, it’s the more credible half of Bay’s masterpiece double-header. In short, The Rock rocked.

Sometimes a photographic eye, and a keen knack (bordering on wunderkind genius) for visual storytelling finds itself in the body of a thoughtful artist like Bay’s Propaganda Films mentor and eventual rival, David Fincher, and sometimes it lands in the socket of a juvenile mind, who with confidence to spare, barges his way to the top, by analysing, understanding, and then catering to the vast American sensibility. Fincher makes Se7en; Bay makes Bad Boys. Both worthy films for different occasions, but whichever you prefer ultimately tells you who you are, and which side your bread is buttered.

So who in the name of Zeus’s butthole does Michael Bay think he is? With an endless parade of supermodel girlfriends, this baseball-capped, Aviator shades wearing, Michael Bolton lookalike ticks every stereotypical Tinseltown director box, but turns off so-called “real filmmakers” left right and centre – no one at film school would confess to liking anything he did, let alone being a Bay fan. Aside from this jock-looking frat dude, occasionally shirtless, with long, ’90s rock and roll locks, looking like he should be either in, or at the very least, producing Bon Jovi records behind the camera, what do Bad Boys and The Rock have in common? The suited and booted, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer.

Both these influential figures were the fat cat, filmic fathers of Bay. Simpson exploded off the planet in ’96, prior to the release of The Rock, with pony-tailed hair and his trademark black Levi’s 501s, aged just 52, in a self-destructive haze of cocaine, pills, high-class hookers and bizarre sexual practices. But Jerry persisted without him, completing the film on his lonesome, then cut Simpson’s high-concept movie formula and established aesthetic from hit films such as Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, Beverly Hills Cop II, Top Gun, and Days of Thunder, and without ever really altering anything, pasted it across the board to bring us films like Con Air and Gone in Sixty Seconds (also with Cage), Enemy of the State and Bad Boys II (reuniting with Will Smith), and Pearl Harbor (back with Bay).

“Whaddaya say we cut the chit-chat… a-hole!”

Stanley Goodspeed, The Rock

Michael Bay is the kind of fella you might find schmoozing with Charlie Sheen or John Stamos behind a waterfall – a Sports Illustrated swimsuit babe under each muscular arm in the Playboy Mansion’s grotto. He’s the filmmaker who finds it totally acceptable to yell deafeningly into a bullhorn on set, behind a giant Panavision camera, as if manning a recoiling machine gun, walls collapsing in around him, with his affected grandad shirt unbuttoned slightly too far, no doubt carefully calculated for maximum manly hairy chest display, cellphone chock full of supermodels’ digits, and the giant, chiseled jaw and smirk of a man who’s doing precisely what he wants to do, how he wants to do it, 24/7, and is succeeding in making a shit-ton of cash in the process. He wants to date pornstars, and cast hot chicks who look like (or actually are) Victoria’s Secret models, to show off their flawless physiques. This man does not exude the paternal presence of a godfatherly Steven Spielberg, instructing Drew Barrymore to cover up after her Playboy spread; he’d more likely convince her to strip down further. As Nicolas Cage says in the movie, SHAME ON HIM.

On the other hand, there’s a complicity in any actress willing to work with Bay on a teen boy-titillating blockbuster like Transformers; a knowledge you’ll be tacked on the walls of college dorms across the USA and beyond. A line has to be drawn; you work with Bay and face his wrath, or seek out a more fulfilling project for a fraction of the pay, but I’ll bet you won’t be voted “FHM’s Sexiest Woman in the World” anytime soon. There’s a price to pay for that particular honour. I hesitate to say all this without being labelled a “problematic” Bay-sympathiser, but a filmmaker instructing an actor (in this case, Megan Fox) to arch their back 70%, as was reported by the now shamed, Shia LaBeouf, on the Transformers set, is merely something any artist could, in theory, ask of their subject. Should we “cancel” a Pablo Picasso or an Egon Schiele for requesting their muses bend over? What’s the difference? One perv paints with light? Can we be fair across the board here? Let’s not vilify him for doing precisely what he’s hired to do, all the while excusing the collusion of studios and the cinemagoers themselves.

Isn’t this exactly what audiences ultimately demand from a top-tier hotshot movie maker anyway? The bums are on seats. The money’s rolling in. Is his filmography really any dumber than the majority of the movies and TV shows we’re subjected to each year, particularly nowadays? This is Bay’s art. Yeah, it’s excessive, it’s chauvinistic, and flat out obnoxious at times – just like the man himself, but isn’t that an artist’s right? To express himself and his worldview? However deplorable it may be? Bay’s not an intellectual. Why are we holding him to that standard? He blows stuff up and says things like, “This island is so fuckin’ bitchin’!” But this is where the trouble starts – because he’s no dummy either. He’s a frat boy auteur, ready and willing to use you for what you can give him and his movie. Isn’t that why he’s paid the big bucks? Surely Bay’s just doing his job as a purveyor of the perverted to the perverted masses? Who’s lewd and lascivious here, really? The guy putting it up on screen, or the crowds queuing ’round the block, willing to fork over their hard-earned money to see it? Maybe a bit of both, eh?

There’s a part of most men – a sliver in some, a character-defining chunk in others, that covet his lifestyle. Do women understand there’s a little Michael Bay in all of us? Take every panel of petulant judges on TV, or every creep casting director, or model scout. If he (or she) is sick, then so’s the industry, and if we can all admit that, then why consume anything it vomits out? We, as moviegoers who enjoy Hollywood and crave more are innocent, I suppose? We’re comfortable reviling Bay, dispelling him as a hack, without ever acknowledging or understanding that he isn’t the real problem – we are. He’s just feeding the bears as far as I’m concerned. Bay is holding the mirror, and we are the warped reflection.

“How d’ya like how that shit works!”

Stanley Goodspeed – The Rock

Bay lost me forever with 2001’s Pearl Harbor – something I’ve still never absorbed in its entirety, but saw enough to be completely turned off. Everything that followed disappointed me. Especially his take on a childhood favourite, Transformers. But his first three – that out of the traps trilogy of Bad Boys, The Rock, and Armageddon, comprised an incredible trio of unabashed, people-pleasing, cutting-edge action movies. Will Smith’s edgy leap to commercial fame in Bad Boys, from TV’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air heralded his arrival as one of the stars of the late nineties and the new millennium. The Rock was Connery’s spectacular revival, and perhaps my personal favourite, Armageddon, which takes Bay, Bruckheimer, and Simpson’s cinematic formula and scale to stratospheric proportions where it explodes into a meteoric catastrophe of bewildering brilliance.

The Rock popped up on special edition DVD along with Armageddon on the revered Criterion label, which felt puzzling at the time, but now I think I understand it. Those films are curated under the criteria of being culturally and artistically significant – here illustrating America’s culture of excess. Perhaps they consider Bay to be a satirist? Either way, John Schwartzman’s lush cinematography, and the guidance of Bruckheimer, make this pairing peak Bay – a dog in his prime, in his time, throwing the kitchen sink at his movies with a youthful, arrogant exuberance that translated to the screen fervently. Every amped-up Tony Scottism reverberating through the mind – the fast cuts, constant tracking and trucking of multiple cameras, and larger than life performances. How could a film ever get bigger than Armageddon? I’m still not sure it can! At 136 and 151 minutes, these bloated, indulgent broad strokes, to this day, define his brand of film. They’re staggeringly expensive, but it’s all on the screen, as they say, and Bay and his buddies made their money back many times over.

“It’s a grunge thing.”

John Mason, The Rock

As the times change, the films of the past don’t. A world once sated by Bay is now hyper-aware of the circumstances surrounding said entertainment, and the real-life repercussions relating to him and his methods. We’re progressing as empathetic beings, we’re more considerate perhaps, but where does this leave us in an industry (don’t say industry) where primal desires are still sought by audiences who long for the days of Bay and company’s incendiary fireballs and male gaze bias? They’ll likely have to dig out their old DVDs and Blu-rays, because the time of the cigar-chomping movie mogul is through, and the insensitive, barking filmmaker is next. The weaselly Weinsteins and sleazy Simpsons are dead, and with them goes their bloated bigot blockbusters. I’m sure it’s for the best. But for better or worse, if for no other reason than posterity, as a record of the flashy MTV era, we’ll always have Michael Bay’s The Rock. The final hurrah of Don Simpson, and one of the genre-defining movies death-rattling around the mid-nineties, for me, should be rewatched, and respected as a massive milestone of excessive action cinema.

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