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Toward the Limit: Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction


Trans Feat

By Carol Vernallis.

Michael Bay poses a problem. He is the second-highest-grossing director, after Spielberg, so it’s not surprising that critics and connoisseurs love to take him down. But neither supporters nor detractors have been able to say exactly what he does. Is he just good at making Hollywood blockbuster films, using standard techniques and applying a few twists, or is there something more? The most thoughtful attempts to define his style tend to culminate in highly ambivalent pronouncements, typically using traditional auteurist language. Writing in the New York Times Manohla Dargis claims that Bay’s “signature adorns every image in his movies…he’s a perverse genius,” while her colleague A. O. Scott suggests that “although they may look like soulless corporate studio product, [Bay’s films] are really examples of personal cinema, expressions of the will and imagination of their director” (Dargis 2007; Scott 2014). What could make this director of “soulless corporate studio product” a “genius,” let alone “perverse”? How can his films be so strongly “personal” if they don’t actually “look like” it?

With an eye toward Bay’s earlier films, I focus here on what Transformers: Age of Extinction (T4) really looks like—and sounds like—in order to characterize the kinds of experience it can create. Working through my own ambivalence, I’ve come to understand this director’s style in terms of drive, energy, musicality, humor, intensity, even jouissance—an overload of pleasure and pain to the point of unbearability (Lacan 1981). Bay pushes toward a moment when things can’t be assimilated. But he stages these moments so we don’t see them coming, we may not notice them when they first arrive, and we may not have caught up with them before they pass. I find myself rejecting the idea that these films look “soulless.” I’ll show that virtually every parameter of these films becomes stripped down, heightened, transformed, and placed in the spotlight. These elements become pliant material in service of musicality and speed. This pliancy allows Bay’s films to go all kinds of places—some of them odd. It’s also the reason it has been hard to analyze and come to terms with his work: robots, human characters, landscapes, editing, color, and so on combine and overlap to form a tissue; everything is bound together.

Bay’s films excel in what Richard Dyer calls the intangibles: movement, sound, line (Dyer 1999). Consider his favored color palette: a sherbet blend of neon pinks, lime greens, and baby blues. Nor would most directors be so skilled with fast, disjunctive cutting, varied settings, and quick shifts of tone, like a move from dainty lights and streamers, very “girl party,” to jet-black demons smashing it all up. Like Matisse’s mega-pink odalisques, Bay’s sensibility isn’t one everyone will appreciate. It’s true that T4’s price of admission can be high: the film fits advice columnist Dan Savage’s definition of relationships, that you must accept some intolerables to be admitted into the game (Savage 2014).

Trans 02Most critics stop attending to Bay’s movies when confronted with the clichéd characters and appeals to young boys. T4 begins cloyingly, on a small farm in Texas, with Bud Light and cornfields. It ends with aluminum rice pots, old ladies, and red lanterns in China. But in between there’s an embrace of the world of things. Even in the smashing of it, Bay’s world is alive. I consider the payoff worthwhile. I’ll put up with the teen’s short-shorts and the grownups’ silly rants, because there’s something more. What kinds of feelings do I experience as I watch Bay’s films? Many of the images stay with me, and my reactions, moment by moment, include real awe, joy, fear, and tenderness.

This article breaks into two sections. First, a consideration of T4’s parameters focusing on the way they work in service of speed and pliancy: (1) geography, landscape and settings, scale, and other features that contribute to large-scale form; (2) characters and related materials like costumes, props, and dialogue; (3) tone, music, and sound; and (4) issues of identity and intertextuality. The second section analyzes two segments of T4 to show how the film uses its basic materials to create long musical phrases with beginnings, middles, and ends. I’ll close with a suggestion about why we might take Bay’s films seriously.

Synopsis

Like the rest of the franchise, T4 concerns friendly and hostile robots, but its questions of good and evil are more nuanced. Several reviewers have claimed T4’s narrative is not comprehensible: it is, but it’s a bit convoluted. With many plot points and a running time of 165 minutes, T4’s narrative fully recounted might lose readers, so a brief recap is in order.

Trans 03The story begins when small-time Texas inventor Cade (Mark Wahlberg) and his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) discover and hide an Autobot Transformer, Optimus Prime, in the barn. In the Chicago war’s aftermath, Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), head of the CIA, mandates that Decepticons and Autobots should be eradicated. The CIA ferrets out Autobot Optimus, and Cade, Optimus, Tessa, and her boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) go on the lam. To protect their lives, they decide to infiltrate KSI, a corporation where a CEO inventor, Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), is melting down Decepticons and Autobots for Transformium, a substance that can shapeshift into nearly any form, including KSI’s new race of robot. The Asset (an evil alien robot), Attinger, and Joyce plan to exchange the Seed, a catalyst to make more Transformium, for Optimus Prime. Transformium’s dangerous: the creators detonated Seeds during Earth’s ice age, causing the Great Extinction and transforming some dinosaurs into the substance. Joyce has built a new super-robot, Galvatron, and an army of lesser robots, but he doesn’t know his progeny are tainted with Decepticon Megatron’s evil DNA. A battle initiated by Joyce between Galvatron and Optimus Prime leaves Optimus wounded and Tessa trapped on an alien spaceship. Unhappy with Galvatron’s poor performance, Joyce shifts KSI operations to his China facilities. Once Tessa and Optimus Prime are rescued from the spaceship, our protagonists follow after. In China, the Autobots, outmanned by a new race of robots, call forth robot-fighting dragons to fight them. The alien spaceship sucks up and drops metals in apocalyptic fury, but in the battle, good prevails—at least for the moment. Tessa gets to go to her high school graduation.

Brief Description of The Transformers’ Franchise

Trans 04The Transformers films derive from a 1984 toy whose individual parts can be manipulated to form a vehicle, device, animal, or robot action-figure (tagline “Robots in Disguise”). Comic books, video games and fan conferences followed. In 2007, to re-engage older fans and introduce children to the brand, Hasbro, the manufacturer, produced Transformers: The Movie. All Transformers films are based on the premise that Cybertronic Decepticons and Autobots, after fighting on their planet, have come to ours to continue their battle.

T1 introduces the Transformers universe. Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) wrests the cube from the Decepticons to place it in the Autobots’ care and in the interim gets the babe, Mikaela (Megan Fox). Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), features the story of “the Fallen,” an ancestor in the Optimus Prime dynasty, who betrays the Autobots to align with evil Megatron. (T2 was the least lucrative, perhaps because it was produced during the 2007-2008 Writers’ Strike; Bay claims he went forward with a weak script because he wanted to keep his special-effects and post-production teams employed.) Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) was a box-office success, introducing a new heroine, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). In T3 Autobots and Decepticons struggle over control of a spaceship.

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) works solo. Bay had backed away from the franchise, but after witnessing a two-hour line for a Transformers amusement park ride, he decided he couldn’t give his opus to another director. He negotiated a reboot, with an enormous budget, new cast, redesigned robots, and more adult themes. Critics have groused that T4 is really about global capitalism and the digital era (Klein, 2014). Filmic elements are interchangeable and human characters are expendable (stars, LaBeouf, Fox, and Huntington-Whiteley have been subbed in by Mark Wahlberg and Nicola Peltz). And it’s true, much has been refashioned on the modular level. In T4 Optimus Prime resembles a figure from a mannerist painting; his chest is enormously widened (befitting the clothes of the late 16th century), but he also wears lounge-lizard bell-bottoms. Bumblebee is more mature. T4’s backers hope the new look will sustain several future Transformers films, with or without Bay.

Bay’s films tend to fall in the action genre and appeal most strongly to adolescent males (e.g., Bad Boys 1 and 2), but The Island, a dystopian sci-fi remarriage comedy/romance with a kinship to THX 1138, speaks to a broader audience. Pain and Gain (2013), a long-planned project, is an indie small-budget film (22 million) about desperate, low-life body builders. Bay says he doesn’t know what he will do next.

I. RECASTING THE MATERIALS OF FILM

1. Figures, Landscape, and Form

Trans 05If I were to condense Transformers: Age of Extinction into one synoptic image, it might be a slightly transformed emblematic one that doesn’t appear in the film: We never see Optimus Prime turn from his dirty, unpainted self to his shiny self. Along with that image I’d include Cade, with his toothy dragon helmet, and a roiling landscape that’s constantly transforming, stretching from Texas all the way to the Wulong Karst National Park in southern China, as well as the tall buildings, strips of greenery, and bay of Hong Kong. But that’s the charm of Transformers 4—it’s too mega-opus-like to hold all of it in one’s imagination.

We might start with those robots. Bay has been accused of making only testosterone-driven films (and I’d love for him to make a woman’s weepy), but I can see why they appeal to women. The robots look like jewel boxes—very pretty (like Optimus’s face). As they transmute, their lines are flexible, graceful, elegant. And they’re good creatures. Every Autobot would rescue a kitten from a tree.

Distorted Sets and Prismatic Terrain

One of the new digital cinema’s pleasures is a geography that allows us to traverse an impossibly varied landscape. The question becomes: can we take it all in? An unprecedented level of audiovisual complexity marks the built environments and natural terrain of recent films like The Hunger Games (2012), Captain America: the First Avenger (2011), and Transformers 4. It’s much easier to create a mental map of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1954) or King Kong (1933). Michael Bay cares greatly about sets and locations. His manipulation of them into strange configurations creates what I would call a “prismatic landscape.” KSI’s headquarters are lovingly realized with an interior glass boardroom set off by a moat; a revolving entrance doorway that confusingly mirrors the lobby counter (out or in?); and a futuristic 50s showroom. The offices are dotted with white orchids, turning the space into a grotto-like lair. By way of contrast, there’s the worn, mid-century modern UN office, slightly musty and oily. Cade’s barn, a homemade temple to technology, is tall enough to be a church and sanctified by the many sources of amber light that honey it up. Like other aspects of Bay’s films, these sets “pop”; they work because they’re a bit too aggressive and prominent. Close viewing reveals greater strangeness: within and without Cade’s barn, signage of flags, stars, and warnings of borders and crossings cover many surfaces. Together these create a sense of confinement but also an incitement to risk; this is highly characteristic of Bay’s style. The way we move among these settings is equally important. The locations get bigger and bigger. Nor can we always be sure whether trains, cars, or spaceships have gotten us there, particularly in such a fast-paced and long movie.

Scale

One of the first robots to appear is Lockdown, The Asset. In IMAX 3D, especially, he emerges out of murk and shipping detritus looking twenty stories high. We don’t even breach his shins. But by the end of T4, the monsters seem even bigger. Spaces and places do, too. How does the film do it? One way is through miniaturization. There’s the tiny, slave-laborer Autobot Brains in his miniature aquarium prison, with Tom Thumb-sized bed and pillow. Near the end of the film, the flying dinobots hitting the glass skyscrapers look like gemstone-studded brooches; and the shattering glass resembles silver confetti and tinsel—very pretty. The pieces of metal pulled up by the spaceship seem enormous, even the noodle factory’s cutlery. So when we see robots’ enormous heads close-up for the first time, they seem more monumental than ever.

Buildings and their interiors also cheat scales. From the outside, a mini gas station looks so small it might only hold a urinal and a cash register, but on the inside it’s more decked out than a spacious mid-50s pub. We might assume our hero’s hideout is a modest brick church, but inside it’s as big as Notre Dame. But that’s music video training for you. (Bay got his start in music videos and commercials, where directors have been cheating scale since the 80s. Janet Jackson’s “Together Again,” directed by Seb Janiak, and Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” directed by Jeff Stein, are good examples.) Why would Bay stage the enormous Hong Kong battles in Detroit, so viewers can see the mid-century American art deco stone office buildings peeking out from behind the Asian portals and gates? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to throw up some sets on a green screen? Bay must have wanted the Detroit/Hong Kong mashup for its odd effect.

Editing Geography: Match Cuts

Trans 07T4 presents a sense of fluid time and space. Since the late 80s, film directors have been using subtitles to help viewers follow quick shifts among locations (1996’s Independence Day is an example). But Bay gave that up long ago. He just goes. From the dinosaurs to present-day Antarctica; from the middle of Texas to a D.C. State Department building; from the Southwest plains to an NSA flight; from a CIA meeting on an alien spaceship to LA, Chicago, Hong Kong, and mainland China. Match cuts, fluid camerawork, and Godardian sound-splicing get us there. The match cuts can be particularly clever. At the film’s opening, primordial Transformium goo kicks up, and oddly freezes, as the dinos flee. Why? I think it’s because it creates a graphic match with the motionless ice and snow of Antarctica. Tessa slams her screen door, and there’s an immediate cut to television footage of the Chicago war, but no television is on—we go straight to Attinger plotting with the CIA, and the ambush of Ratchet. But all the recording gizmos by the home’s mailboxes somehow rationalize this. There’s something uniquely clever and abrasive about Bay’s match cuts.

Building Scenes

Bay knows how to build scenes—beginnings, middles, and ends are sharply articulated. When we’re in an overhead helicopter over Hong Kong with Steve Jablonsky’s drumming, rushing music, we know a scene’s about to start. On city streets, we should expect delays—the difficulty of buying a motorcycle when you don’t speak the language; of wiping out on a bike; of failing to catch the elevator on time; of catching your breath once making it onto the roof, and sipping a stolen yogurt drink, as a giant spaceship starts to cast its shadow over you. Scenes terrace. A beginning and an ending can take place simultaneously: Cade fires up a torch to repair Optimus Prime alongside the abruptness of the thrumming Imagine Dragons song “Battle Cry”; Optimus asks Cade why he’s willing to help, and Cade replies, “Because you trust me too?” Scene after scene have strongly etched shapes, though their styles and lengths vary.

Shape

Circular and linear patterns repeated over large stretches of film also contribute to coherence, musicality, and speed. The orbiting alien ships stream rows of chevron lights around their circumferences. At the Texas homestead, the SWAT team’s armed men, cars, and helicopters advance in wavelike concentric patterns, and the race cars then circle around the pond. In KSI’s circular showroom, camera, cars, robots, interlopers, staff, models, and inventors projected on screens twitch and shift their balance, or turn. On the alien mothership, multiple spirals interlock. Lines carry weight too. Trains and train tracks occur repeatedly, robots run up escalators, cars speed down roads, and high wires stretch from building to spaceship. The dinobots gambol along long strips of Hong Kong greenery.

Large-Scale Form

Trans 08T4 is essentially a chase film. The protagonists run after robots and the robots run after them. It’s (1) lose your friend and home, (2) infiltrate the enemy to gain information, (3) rescue team members, and (4) battle the enemy. But the film shows more complexity. It’s not always clear who began the conflict and who is good and evil. The film suggests a godless, literally mechanical universe where creators force all to do their bidding. As Lockdown says, “The problem with loyalty to the cause is that the cause will always betray you. We all work for somebody.” The question of who we are responsible to—self, family, country, corporation, species, or universe—remains unanswered. Does T4 retell the biblical story of Job but with the corporation and robots vying for the role of God? Cade makes pleas to the skies, and Lockdown answers with a description of a mechanical universe. At T4’s end Joyce benevolently makes good on Cade’s trials, and Optimus Prime says basic questions, like who we are and why we are here, are not our concern.

Most striking about T4 is its explorations of scale. Enormous robots, tiny people. What can the robots do—and do they want to eat us? (Joyce and Lucas wonder about this.) The fear of consumption emerges against a backdrop of extreme historical and temporal stress. A war has just ended, and the world may soon suffer near-total annihilation. Cade and Tessa have narrowed romantic and economic options. As Kristen Whissel points out, digital morphs like the Transformer robots appear at cultural junctures. They suggest terror but also hope tied to new social formation (Whissel 2014).

Signposts appear reassuringly at important nodes in the film—near its beginning, middle, and end, or some combination thereof. Simple lines help create form: Tessa says to Cade, “Perhaps some things should never be built”; Joyce says to Optimus Prime, “You cannot stop technology.…The world will approve”; Cade and the dinobot say to Joyce, “Perhaps he’s saying some things should never be built” (and the dinobot roars in approval). At the film’s beginning, Tessa can’t go to the prom or have a boyfriend, and Cade loses his home and employee. At the end, Cade approves of his daughter’s graduation and boyfriend, and Joyce agrees to rebuild Cade’s fortune. Lucas’s complaint that Cade and the government haven’t properly compensated him resolves when Su Yueming, as she mounts the motorcycle toward the film’s end, defiantly demands, “I need a raise!” A boat appears at the film’s beginning and end. Hallways appear three times: Darcy’s and the engineers’ discussion in Antarctica; Attinger and Joyce’s quarrel about the Seed at KSI; and Su Yueming and Joyce’s motorcycle ride in Hong Kong.

Dreamscapes

Transformers 4 is a gigantic dreamscape. Characters, places, and props change into new shapes, much like our dreams produce reconfigurations of the day and the past. The curmudgeon who runs Cade’s small-town movie theater bears a strong resemblance to the cigar-smoking yahoo robot; the surly Irish robot Crosshairs (or as Cade calls him, “Lucky Charms”) chimes with Shane. The doe-eyed Drift mirrors the Chinese population. So Tessa must rhyme with the imprisoned vagina dentata robot jailed in the alien’s ship (“Bitch,” the Autobot Hound calls her). Other touches encourage us to make these gendered connections. Tessa’s sprint to her bedroom as she’s chased by Prime’s stray missile becomes restaged as her run down the alien spaceship’s hallways; her snippy robot-dog morphs into the deadly hunting dogs that chase her. At the barn, Tessa says, “No lasers, Dad!” and on the alien ship, it’s dense with lasers. Later, a shot of the Great Wall of China twins with the Monument Valley landscape, and the bay of Hong Kong becomes a larger instance of the Texas farm’s pond.

Aural and Visual Motifs

Postclassical digital cinema offers new forms and viewing experiences. In action films large set-pieces, busy with inflated CGI and bombastic soundtracks, can momentarily dip, allowing a space for a striking gesture, image, or line of dialogue to come forward. With so much activity, these moments acquire a different kind of weight: across the film, they can function as a string of motifs. These chains resemble those found often in pop music and music video, when audiovisual and/or aural moments come forward, recede, and then reemerge. Working as rhymes, no single moment in the string gains permanent ascendancy (Vernallis 2004, 21–23). After most of the film’s material leaves a viewer’s memory, one of T4’s key strands may come forward: a fascination with death. In parallel, two of T4’s threads stand out for their exploration of an individual’s and the species’ end. Other moments confirm this fascination: Attinger calls his CIA ops project “Cemetery Wind.” The Seed is a tactical nuke, branded with a skull and crossbones. The film is aptly titled Age of Extinction.

Here is the first audiovisual thread, this one concerning the annihilation of the species:

  • After the highway battle between Optimus and Galvatron, Cade, Shane, and Tessa hover at the roadside. A twenty-story-high, faceless, black robot suddenly emerges from the maw of a sky-filling alien spaceship. Cade tells Tessa to start running. Falling sheets of black soot stain the air. Emanating from the robot are repeated booming sounds, against which the spaceship makes a high-pitched whirring. It feels like a nearly pure realization of bad fate.
  • Again, a run for the humans, this time from an exploding factory. Lucas, the slowest, is swallowed up in the encroaching river of fire. He becomes charred midstream, as if cast in the lava of Pompeii, and we see his carcass of ash and soot twisted into a lone statue in an empty field, missing a limb and wearing a rictus of a clown’s face. He appears to be caught in the act of throwing a football or surfing a wave. (I find the image frightening. It resembles a mashup of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini with a dash of mean-spirited performance art video.)
  • Cade and Darcy watch the dismantling of an Autobot’s head. Darcy says she thinks of robots as “only metal” and Cade says, “That’s an Autobot. The ones that fought for us.”
  • Once caged, now free, a mini-Autobot, forced to toil like the workers of Auschwitz who stripped corpses of teeth and hair, now stands in a daisy field, saying, “Not my problem anymore! I’m walking!”
  • In KSI’s corporate glass citadel, projected images of jellyfish float past Joyce, Attinger, and their top thug. A shot of the earth momentarily drifts in, resembling the blue-marbled orb astronauts beamed back from the moon; then a bonsai with red flowers; and then a white halo-like embryo, resembling Joyce’s personal ball. Joyce says, “I need a beat.”
  • The dinobots, freed by Optimus Prime, gracefully lope up strips of greenery past Hong Kong skyscrapers.

This audiovisual string suggests much: the apocalypse, corporate greed, encroaching high-risk technologies, global warming, institutional exploitation, the tiny hope. These images share a conveyor-belt-like tracking motion along the vertical or the horizontal, and their evocativeness springs from their ties to key moments in the history of film. The run to the cornfields, for example, recalls North by Northwest (1959); the assembly line of Autobot heads and the gumming of the works, Modern Times (1936).

Motifs 2

Trans 10Scholars have noted that new digital technologies make possible a painterly approach to cinema. I’ve claimed that cinematic form changes as well.  Films like The Bourne Ultimatum, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge, and Transformers 4 present a new paradigm where all levels of a film are altered from large-scale formal schemes to the surface style (Vernallis 2013, 3-11). Other film theorists have argued whether these types of films present a break from the past or revamp older practices. In the historical-continuity-with-a-twist camp, David Bordwell claims that classic narrative structures endure alongside minor variants like “puzzle” films. Camerawork and editing, such as shifting lens-lengths, a reliance on close shots, wide-ranging camera movements, and rapid editing, define this new “surface” style.  In the other camp, Eleftheria Thanouli claims that broader changes have taken place: today’s plots slacken and stories divide into intertwined subplots. These multigeneric films adopt a self-conscious stance, and realism becomes hypermediated. Steve Shaviro, in the postclassical camp, claims we are in a new era of “post-continuity” (Bordwell 2002; Thanouli 2009; Shaviro 2012).

T4’s digital post-classical device that hits us the hardest is the linking of brief moments over the film’s three-hour time span. T4’s strongest image of an individual’s death—Lucas, the film’s sacrificed surfer—crosses with the larger theme of annihilation just described. Here’s Lucas’s thread:

  • Lowbrow and misogynistic, Cade’s employee Lucas first appears driving his Mini Cooper into town, while singing some crass working-class white rock, “I’m a nasty woman! Gonna make you cry.” His musical preferences contrast with the guitar-based indie song Cade listens to as he pulls in his truck. Lucas reports he’s out of surfable waves and cash.
  • Trying to catch Cade’s football while standing in an aisle of a decrepit movie theater, Lucas falls back onto a pile of film canisters so high it might be a wave. The wall behind him is ominously blackened with soot. This is his first “wipeout.”
  • Reclining on an old couch in Cade’s barn, Lucas encourages a beer-delivering robot to bring him a cool one. At first glance, the robot’s saccharine, yellow smiley face and black dome seems benign, but it’s the negative of the exuberant, tall white silo with the same blue smiley face that the teenage girls drive past while they sing their school’s-out song.
  • In the barn, Lucas faces off against Cade and his newly purchased transformers’ truck (aka Optimus Prime). Optimus’s front grill has a desaturated black and white center (odd because the set’s colors are so punched up), and Lucas wears clothing to mirror it. His T-shirt features a swirl of brown and black specks with a black silhouette of a surfer at its center. Lucas says nobody owns him.
  • Lucas is willing to turn in Optimus Prime. Nervously, he says handing over a Transformer for bounty is the American thing to do. He gets clonked on the head again, perhaps by one of Optimus’s missiles, and has a red welt on his forehead, almost as if he’d received the mark of Cain. He’s too focused on fear and illness. He’s thinking of aortal contortions, and, when he drives up, his surfboard only shows the black of the yinyang symbol. As our heroes speed along in a getaway car, he keeps musing on the scariness of it all, closing by thanking the “stranger from the cornfields.”
  • The abandoned factory sets the scene for Lucas’s awful wipeout and death. But Shane’s leap onto a curved platform resembles a surfable wave. Tessa makes matters clear about a character who perhaps uncomfortably straddled too many roles—uncle, housemate, employee, coworker, lender, watchdog, friend: “Lucas is dead and my life is over.”

2. CHARACTERS AND PERFORMANCE

Acting

Trans 11Each character projects quickly and sharply. This is important considering that T4’s dialogue is typically brief. CGI-intensive frames run hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece; with so much money to be recouped, every frame is under pressure to beguile us instantly. Bay is known for shooting his monumental images more quickly than other directors do—he achieves this partly by barking through a megaphone. This, too, forces a distillation of character.

To keep the film’s energy going, the actors’ performances are highly stylized and filled with business. Some examples of odd gestures and strange manipulations of props include the ways Joshua Joyce repeatedly points his index fingers, palms downward, toward his penis, sometimes following with a nice hand flourish upward. (Do these gestures underscore the huge vertical drops and rises of the robots?) Both Cade and Lucas walk side-lopingly, perhaps again making a space for the film’s swirling patterns of fire and smoke, twisting metal, and debris. Tessa often places her arms stiffly forward, hair adrift, while serving as sentinel. When she loses her perch, she becomes the damsel in distress with cries of “help me!” until she turns back to rescue her father, swinging from a truck’s crane to attach a sword to a hook and pull it out of Prime’s heart. Attinger moves between robot and human, gesturing almost not at all. Small touches as actors deliver their lines create speed and rhythmic accentuation. Cade repeatedly takes on or off his glasses at heightened moments (a mysterious prop, the thick-rimmed opticals wind up in Attinger’s and Joyce’s hands, too). Attinger will also throw down playing cards, and Tessa will place a tray of food on the table. These help to create emotional beats.

Characters

Against so much fast-paced activity, roles are quickly sketched but finely nuanced. The villain Attinger, however crazed, still possesses a recognizable worldview and physical-mode-in-the-world. A Rumsfeld type, he seems in love with hierarchy and fearful of contagion. From what he knows, few Autobots remain, and it makes sense to clear the world of them; like Cheney and Halliburton, he’s sure Transformium profits won’t cloud his judgment. Joyce may be in it for the babes, self-aggrandizement, love of technology, and to make the world a better place. Tessa possesses range: a teenager who protects and rebels against her father, she wants more from life and chafes against his rule. Not yet fully adult, she pouts and heads out from the barn (“What, no dating!”), and at the gas station storms out with a bit of over-the-top “Lucas is dead and my life is over!” These two small beats prepare the viewer for the moment when she can’t move forward on the high-wires. At some level, we’ll remember her stubbornness even an hour later.

But for a moment, Cade’s character will sometimes pause in reflection, in ways other characters don’t. He’ll glance out the window of his truck as he’s driving into town, or look out at the stars and give thanks for his wife and daughter. After Lucas is killed, Cade again momentarily gazes out from his truck, and when his daughter is taken by the aliens, he glances up blindly at the sky. Besides these glances, which suggest a unique kind of interiority, are other touches: the sweetness with which he tries to teach a robot to paint, and his only partly self-aware, inflated sense of relevance—“Don’t drive a wedge between employee and employer!” “I know it’s been sucky around here, but I’m going to invent something that’s important!” His saying, “Only one,” while glancing at a movie-theater seat, richly evokes the loss of a lover, even if it’s in a stock Hollywood way.

The last third of the film perhaps overreaches in asserting Cade’s masculinity. Cade shows he can drive into KSI and shoot that laser gun. Joyce has to tell him “You’re good with a gun. You should have it,” and Cade makes extreme sacrifices for the family, going hand-to-hand with Attinger and the number-one CIA thug. Cade does let his future son-in-law drive the car through the alien spaceship’s suck-metal-up-and-drop-it attack. Shane is a “tomato can,” as they say in boxing lingo. There doesn’t seem to be more there than an impudent, “I’m a man and I deserve the girl.” Hitchcock used weak male leads (Psycho, The Birds), perhaps to give more space for the women and supporting characters. Perhaps Shane is a reflection of the kind of guy Cade used to be.

Props

Capitalizing on action film tropes, Bay repurposes things found at hand. During the CIA’s black-ops takedown of the farm, Cade grabs a small flying drone. Not much might be made of its capture, with so much happening, but the drone—about three times larger than a hummingbird—becomes one of the film’s main props. In Monument Valley, Cade uses the drone to project one of the Autobots’ wrongful deaths on a rock face; later he uses it to hack into an ATM and send a handwritten note back to Attinger, and to scan and fake photo ID cards in order to break into KSI. Next it scares off KSI employees leaving the building; and then it sends Tessa footage of KSI melting down Ratchet. In the homestead CIA SWAT team scene, when Tessa’s pushed to the ground, she falls over her little red rider wagon, which throws its contents across the grass; the wagon was the intimate object that helped her lug repair junk from the house’s mailbox to the front door. In another scene, Tessa flips off and on the Christmas lights found in an abandoned mini gas station, as if trying to ignite a spark between her father and her boyfriend. At the department store, when Cade, Shane, and Tessa steal supplies, Tessa flashes Shane a hanging T-shirt and tosses its hanger to the floor. The intimation is that she and her boyfriend have gone into a booth for quick sex; earlier on Skype, the couple had playfully talked about taking their shirts off for one another. Cade will be left with binoculars to spy over the city.

The Embedding of Props

Trans 12Many of T4’s props and other film elements carry an affective wallop because they’re embedded in the mise-en-scene before they take prominence. Our eye or ear registers them and we’re primed to read them as salient. A triptych of monumental black and white photos of Joyce holding his white orb hangs in KSI’s glass boardroom. We pay little attention to them because of Joyce and Darcy’s domestic squabble. Amidst a discussion about dinosaurs, Joyce says, “Ribs,” and Darcy says, “Not on your life.” In a heartbeat viewers can tell he’s a narcissist—Joyce’s taunting Darcy with an offer to eat “his food” and have sex afterward. Joyce will later float his orb for Darcy in a long, narrow hallway. The “sound secretaries” with their long legs and cross-hatched high-heeled shoes appear again while Joyce has a meltdown over Galvatron: “Math,” he says, “Algorithms!” (this time their dainty legs winking through the rear of the set). 3-D floating monitors with CAD drawings of guns appear before Joyce transforms the boom box into a gun he points at Darcy. But guns have been everywhere, including Lockdown’s gun face, and the Autobots frequent sudden drawings of enormous muzzles right up into the lens of the camera. (T4 thinks it’s a Western.) In T4’s second scene a Native American who wields a gun is told, “Don’t shoot!” as Darcy passes the lone metal detector and folding table in the frozen wasteland (an odd setting). Both consciously and not, viewers catch details and become more attuned to environments.

And then, these props move into delirium. On the spaceship, an enormous revolving orb floats near the spaceship’s ceiling, which then might be imagined as the same orb, miniaturized again, as it drifts onto a screen in the Chinese corporate headquarters’ glass office. Glass boxes, not surprisingly, pose problems for characters (Bay is intimate with the substance; he has long been blowing it up). While Joyce may have felt comfortable in his glass-centric KSI office building, in Hong Kong he says, “Great! I’m in the midst of a war and in a glass box!”

Dialogue

Trans 13A director’s ways of working with dialogue and intonation shapes the film’s texture. Jacques Tourneur spoke softly into an actor’s ear, and told him to deliver his lines to the camera as if he were sharing a secret. John Ford would strip phrases and whole pages from a script until it was bare bones, not one extra word. Howard Hawks, on the other hand, would take the script and say, “Well, that’s a start. Let’s have some fun with it,” and the actors and he would improvise on the morning of the shoot. Bay’s up for improvising, and might sometimes shout through a megaphone to an actor very rapidly, “Give me a funny line!” “And another!” “And another!” It doesn’t matter who’s acting, most often there’s something driven, clipped, direct in the ways lines are delivered. “His name is Shane and he drives, Dad!” is Tessa’s. “They walk. They talk. We’re dead. Kill them all,” says Attinger. For me, there’s always a remainder in this barked, clipped speech, an energy that suggests much lies behind it. And so the lines stay with me, even though they may not carry much force on the page. “I started the Apocalypse, but you brought your family along—that’s terrible parenting,” scolds Joyce to Cade in the midst of the grand robot battle. Perhaps this clipped, hyper-accentuated speech—surely heightened during looping—creates a counterpoint against the Transformers’ mechanically modulated voices and sound effects as the robots coalesce and fracture. The humans’ lines break for pauses at odd moments. Because the robots’ sound effects and voices are so musical—a pattern might sound like this—“Kuhng!” “Puhng!” “Twawk-twawk,” and a high-pitched “bwee-bwee-twee-whipple-whir-whir”—human words become musical as well. They’re made of kindred stuff.

Costumes

The film exploits brevity and speed—dialogue directs our attention so we can move fast. Cade takes note of sartorial matters when he tells his daughter Tessa, who is wearing those embarrassingly oversexualized short-shorts, “Sweetie, remember, cold water, air dry” (to prevent shrinkage).  Does our attention to Tessa’s clothing extend to the others’ outfits? Probably. Though Cade’s, Shane’s, and Lucas’s outfits are utilitarian, the suavely outfitted CIA characters look like Hong Kong action figures—exceptionally trim pants and sleek, flowing, black cloaks flapping in the wind.

Raising Stakes, Revealing Character

The film skillfully exploits action sequences to accomplish two things simultaneously: excitement and character revelation. At KSI’s checkpoint, Cade quickly notes Shane’s shaking hands, so he berates the boyfriend into revealing whether he’s been sneaking around the home late at night to have sex with his daughter. On the alien’s tightrope that stretches between spaceship and city skyscraper, Cade finally gets to tell Tessa she’s gone into a zone of womanly intransigence. Cade asserts: “You are not 18 years old yet and you’re going to do what I say!” (as he shoots at the encroaching robot-dogs). Cade’s speech drops into an ongoing exchange between father and potential son-in-law as they jostle for dominance. Shane says, “I’m not here to help you get your daughter; you’re here to help me get my girlfriend.” The thread resolves when the two men, as they fly their hovercraft in battle, attempt to respond quickly to Autobot Crosshair’s garbled instructions. They decode it together quickly—“punch, hold, slide, repeat.”

Robots and People

Music video directors, including Bay, tend to display a range of activities in the frame. This speaks to the various rhythmic strata in a song. In Transformers, “The Asset” is one of the slowest-moving and deathly, and the miniature imprisoned robot, Brains, the most nervous. Of the actors, Attinger is the most rigid and staid, Shane the most voluble.

Trans 14As in music video, links between the inanimate and animate heighten the sense of musicality. In pop music, much material emerges and recedes; within the heterogeneous texture, there’s often the extremely slow and quick (Vernallis 2004, 54-72). In T4, humans take on the attributes of robots, and robots behave like humans. Attinger barely moves at all. He’s a twin of Lockdown, his “asset.” Darcy’s walk is comically robotic. Cade dons a painted helmet of a dragon robot face and detonates a missile in front of his groin, much like Galvatron. He later throws Shane’s bottle of green mouthwash across the room: the robots often spit up green gooey “shizzle.” Early on, Cade and Lucas shake the theater owner’s grandson’s hand and it waves strangely like a robot. Tessa has “the best hands in the business” and needs to move with robot-like precision. During the Texas stakeout, military men perched on the tops of tanks seem ready to deform into robots. After Lucas is turned into an ash skeleton, Lockdown stalks beside him, and for a moment, the two resemble the same kind of creature. Darcy and Bumblebee, as they watch Optimus and Galvatron fight, make the same bewildered head gestures. In the church, while our heroes plan on infiltrating KSI, Shane and Tessa cuddle (next to materials found on hand, the red votive candles), and Cade tells them to stop. In this reverberant sound space, Tessa calls back, “You’re so square—who even says smooching?” but her voice is recorded so dryly it must belong to a robot. Optimus Prime confides in Cade that he has similar problems with Bumblebee. Both express confusion over forms of parent/robot/child/protégé nurturing. And of course the robots are very like people. I always feel sad when Optimus Prime gently whimpers, and my heart softens when Bumblebee looks up like a puppy.

Robot and Human Ids Run Wild

T4 concerns the struggle between good and evil, but when you’re not looking, the two cavort. Evil Lockdown is the king of his “own personal prison,” but in Cade’s “temple to technology” (his barn), he taunts potential buyers about corpses buried in the backyard. He threatens to crack their skulls and the “purple people eater” with a baseball bat—a foreshadowing of his deployment of the alien’s superpowered laser gun. The alien ship’s pretty glass domes also dot the city’s skyline, including the tower Cade perches on. Inextricably, both Cade’s farm and the ship have cricket sounds. Momentarily the alien prison ship looks nearly identical to the cityscape. Modern capitalism is our prison house.

Robot-Human Alliances

Trans 15I sheepishly admit I’m a female, middle-aged academic who’s enamored with T4’s robots. What’s going on? Perhaps the Transformers scenarios beguile because of what they tap into; they’re near-religious structures. And like the squabbling Greek gods who dallied among humans, these robots have overinflated ids. Transformers also has a bit of the golem story, a Jewish folktale in which townspeople shape mud into a large, animate, humanoid that ultimately returns to dead matter. T4 may reimagine 18th- and 19th-century automata, like de Vaucanson’s gilded copper duck that ate, quacked, splashed water and appeared to shit its food like a live bird. T4’s robots have terrific entrances: an evil one climbing up on the water tower and then more scaling apartment buildings in Hong Kong; Megatron calling the swarms to get going from inside KSI’s factory; then there’s also the battle between Galvatron and Optimus Prime. I love when the good robots bust into KSI’s lobby, then bound up 40 steps with each leap along the escalators, tossing people off like handkerchiefs.

Charlie Jane Anders claims T4’s robots’ faces are too close to humans’ and suffer from the uncanny valley phenomenon, but I disagree (Anders 2014). There are many moments when the robots touch me deeply. I care about them all, and warm to their beautiful voices. Even “See ya later. Goodbye!” charms.

3. TONE, HUMOR, MUSIC, AND SOUND

Tone

“What the hell?” “Why not?” Nicholas Cage says in Bay’s The Rock (1996) before he drives his Ferrari through a store window. Bay’s films can feel like a musical, a Ringling Brothers circus, a police shootout, and a Norman Rockwell painting, all stuffed into a blender. At every moment, some quirky detail vies for the foreground—a little robot, an odd piece of dialogue or intonation, a prop, a strange color shift, an emotion. Even the slower patches assert themselves! Consider how quickly a viewer’s mood is primed to shift, and the ways this contributes to musicality and speed. Near the film’s opening, Tessa jumps off her girlfriend’s truck, and they celebrate “almost time to get it down and get wasted” (triumphant joy); Tessa peers inside the ragtag mailboxes (curiosity); a high-angle shot reveals her dragging a red wagon toward home (sentimental Americana); she opens her college admissions envelope (hope, then defeat); she crests the porch as her electronic dog talks to her (threat and humor); she slams the door and inexplicably encounters a newscast of war (annihilation?). We’ll soon move to a high-level CIA conference, Decepticon Lockdown emerging from the swamp, and Autobot Ratchet getting torpedoed out of a boat.

Bay’s technique works through accretion. Effects build into a roiling field, much like his favorite motif of a long-stretch truck—coming at a perpendicular angle—to smash straight in. Jouissance. Then dispersal. Paul Greengrass’s aesthetic also emphasizes speed and punctuation, but it relies on a narrower kind of continuity that runs with clearer moments of ramping up and down. Bay literalizes his aesthetic on many levels. Many of the director’s impulses, poorly tolerated in our highly regulated society, in T4 willfully press through to more fully reveal themselves at the film’s most heightened moments. The giant spaceship that pulls up and drops everything, wonderfully messy and ad hoc, feels right for Bay.

A Perverse Tone

Trans 16Most unique within these tonal shifts is the way Bay momentarily foregrounds a quirky, even twisted aesthetic. In one scene, Attinger, the CIA head, sits at a distant side of the room, behind a bowl of sickening, overly red wilted roses, with a Jasper Johns–like blotchy American flag behind him. On the other end is an African American marine inscrutable and stick-like, with a partially legible poster behind him, reading “Freedom is Fi.” A White House staff with a large 70s mustache mediates between the two, swiveling his head back and forth nervously. The men’s nonsequiturs start to sound eerie: “Any dirt on that?” “Outstanding!” So, too, does Attinger’s conversation with Lockdown on the alien spaceship’s hood in what should be zero-oxygen level. Here bad players have problems carrying on conversations. Attinger: “Who are you working for?” Lockdown: “Every galaxy I’ve traveled…you all think you’re the center of the universe.” Brains, the miniature robot, gamboling off in a field of green-colored daisies, tells our heroes, “sorry, I’m walking!” Off-kilter sets and zany exchanges yield an edgy disequilibrium.

Humor

Quick and blunt, much of T4’s humor aims not to elicit reflection or even to charm, but rather to pull us swiftly into the next charged sequence. Attinger takes aim at a young Chinese woman straightening her skirt in an elevator, and then our heroes try to brush past a clutch of old ladies heading down an apartment hallway. “How do you say ‘Get the fuck out of the way’ in Chinese?” yells Joyce. Not funny for some audiences, but it works in the moment. Similarly, in KSI’s showroom, Bumblebee voices a snippet of “I’m not touching it,” then a riff from MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This,” and an African American manager pops out, with long pointed arm stating, “In my office in fifteen minutes.” Again, arguably problematic, but the instant serves as an escape valve, a transition into something much grimmer—the dismantling of good Autobots (who have souls) for spare parts.

Sound

The sounds of robots disassembling and reforming is where Transformers’ charm and soul reside. As with the soundtrack’s other elements, these sounds feel engaged, enthusiastic and noble. I could happily listen to the soundtrack alone. It’s worth attending carefully because we can never be sure what any sound-object connects to until sound and image coalesce on screen. T4’s world is enchanted.

Some of the sound design is odd. The sounds for the high-wires scene (threads running from alien spaceship to skyscraper) don’t belong to high-altitude air with a terrible drop below. Instead the often lushly reverberant clunks and clangs sound like the clutch of a pirate ship, or the dankness of a prison’s underground graveyard. Some effects sound as if they’re underwater. Are they sonic overflow from the spaceship? Bay thinks often about sequences. The alt-indie rock music begins alongside Optimus Prime (compressed as a truck) as he heads out, our heroes on board, on the open highway to Monument Valley. As Optimus transforms from an old to a shiny new truck, Chinese taiko drums overlay on top, to then be filled in by the heroic Transformers brass-led anthem (very Wagnerian). How did we get here?! Music and sound changes just like the Transformers—surprising and wonderful.

With the new digital cinema, distant relations can be brought close. Joyce makes much of his KSI lobby sounds (“thung”), which primes viewers to attend to others, like Darcy’s oddly muted voice in Joyce’s glass boardroom (echoing Tati’s Playtime, 1967). I hear a long, linked series of sounds, rising from the lobby’s “thung” to an electroshocked Brains’ feverish stutters of “Buh buh buh buh.” KSI’s Chinese corporate doors make a “thung,” just like Joyce’s LA ones, linking KSI globally.

Music

Four kinds of scoring shape T4: Jablonsky’s run-and-gun pulsating drone-based material for chases, Skrillex’s techno-cold sound collages, Imagine Dragons’ indie-folk-pop tune, and the traditional heroic horn theme that’s used in all the Transformers films. These are reworked and collaged in many ways. In the film’s final fight scene, Skrillex’s robot sounds cross-cut with the Imagine Dragons’ tune. But there’s more material than that. When Joyce “needs a beat,” a few bars from the sonic world of elegiac British composer John Taverner appears. The film closes with a riff from the Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Spanish guitar appears more than once. Props and objects “sing,” as when the drone’s “zzz” becomes a melody as it tries to hack an ATM machine. Concrete sounds are woven into the non-diegetic scoring.

Music helps structure scenes. Imagine Dragons’ tune begins with humming, wordless singing as it accompanies Cade’s group while they plan to infiltrate KSI. Once the real fighting begins, we’ll better understand this earlier audiovisual passage with its reflective, slightly mournful past-tenseness. Together, preparation and action sequence are long—fifteen minutes in total. Not only can digital audiovisual aesthetics direct moment-by-moment shifts and make connections among distant moments, it can also bind together sustained sections of film.

4. CAMERA AND EDITING

Framing and Editing

Critics of Michael Bay have focused on his music video-like camera and editing, but haven’t looked closely at how it works nor how it combines with other techniques to create form. Bay has built a unique lexicon of editing. It contravenes the Hollywood system, which emerged as a way to seamlessly present coherent space as it unfolds in time. Among Bay’s many techniques, one that stands out is a cut closer or wider than the 30-degree or 180-degree rule to create a jarring moment. The edit often occurs on a large object in the frame’s corner, leaving the viewer with the sense that she’s in a truck on a road covered with potholes. Sightlines, too, may not match, so we may have no more than a general idea of where characters are (like an atom’s buzzing electrons—a last sighting and a proximal guess of where we are at any instant). We must gauge why someone is where they are now, drawing on where we assumed they and others were. Often these cheat-cuts have underlying psychological rationales. In his argument with Optimus Prime about mapping the code, Joyce inches forward, but he’s all-powerful and winning the argument. Similarly, Optimus, in order to free the dinobots, takes two steps toward the grounded alien spaceship, and two more inside, without breaching the entrance. But he’s Optimus! In the Autobots’ Monument Valley regroup-by-fireside scene, the placement of robots and people is unclear, but it’s an enclosed space and all jostle for prominence. These jarring edits, ellipses, and unpredictable placement of figures and props are balanced by overly generous cinematic flourishes. Often we watch the head of the SWAT team turn a full 180 degrees, beginning with his back to us. Bumblebee also turns just for emphasis or beauty.

Bay also balances these intensified sections with others that are less prismatic. After a frenetic patch, the camerawork might become sinuous and rounded, especially in circular spaces. The camera might also reframe to better display a robot (for example, a pan and tilt) while simultaneously revealing another off in the distance; the foreground robot will do a lovely pirouette as the background robot hops up and down at the same time. There might be a relatively clear, stable, and balanced section, such as three people walking down a hallway forward, and the camera matching pace in front of them, while workers on either side run by to create greater speed and flow. Patterns of activities vary: flurry, coalescence, spreading, fury.

Shots and Editing Continued

Many of T4’s shots and edits are beyond counterintuitive. In a car chase, the cars should follow one another in the same direction. In T4, one car heads straight from stage left to the center and, in the next shot, another also drives from stage right toward the center. At this point the viewer should infer a collision and the end of the chase, but Bay intensifies the action such that we accept the drama of continued pursuit. In the second shot, a camera on a crane tracks quickly alongside and then passes the car, so the shot contains competing levels of internal activity (as if the car chase had been condensed into the same shot). Perhaps this new focus overrides the system, and the inference of a crash becomes only a moment of frisson.

Another example: it is said that a director should always shoot on the same side of the proscenium because otherwise viewers will perceive a disconcerting jump. (This norm is known as the 180-degree rule.) But Bay will shoot many things—person, robot, or truck—first on one side of its visage and then on the other. He’ll then track in front of the object to reestablish spatial relations. Other directors employ this technique, but Bay’s careful proportions in relation to the frame are hard to mimic. Bay shoots so that each shot presents a privileged view—his proportions and angles project authority. If each shot works well as its own entity, it doesn’t matter if it fails to traditionally match up. Also, these disjunctive shots reflect the robots’ coalescing and breaking apart; this, too, grants the director license.

The discontinuous editing ripples through the film’s texture. The robots’ mutations into several different types of heads and bodies, as well as Bay’s explosions, seem to work synergistically. There’s also the fraught familial relations, and the strange dislocations of place. How much does the soundtrack ground us but also disorient us?

Pacing

Bay’s editing choices allow him to control pacing. Here’s one more example of how cheat cutting creates both speed and drag at the same time. The police cars, with an intent to ambush our heroes, drive along a road to meet them. There’s a hairpin turn that will then lead them in the other direction. Suddenly the cars head the wrong way, but we don’t see them breaching the curve. There’s just a jarring coming forward and back. Then there’s one close-up of a car that doesn’t belong to the pack, hardly moving, with dust swirling around it. This, alongside a pop music soundtrack, freighted emotions, and a few semi-ambiguous shots, again somehow overrides classical cutting. Is the friction of the turn transferred to the effortful, but mired, car?

Established through framing and editing, pacing extends through scenes. Consider the film’s first large set-piece—the SWAT team’s attempt to locate Optimus Prime on Cade’s farm. We begin at a distance, with police cars on the road. Many of the shots, sutured through cross-cutting, are canted or overhead, half-left, half-right. As the cars come closer, we shift to more shots of people. We then see, through a wide-angle lens, the frame’s contents disposed long into the distance along the frame’s z-axis: Attinger, legs spread out across his chair, throws an apple across his command-and-control room; Tessa falls across her little red wagon; a foregrounded nose of a gun squeezed against Tessa’s forehead connects to a very long arm of a CIA operative. These great expanses occur when events should be speeding up; but the stretching builds tension. Spots of pink, red, and green, through carefully framed pots of flowers and Tessa’s rocking chair, create points of interest for the viewer to grab onto and leap across shots: these too intensify the action.

Many types of shot contribute to this whole. In this and other scenes, Bay deploys three characters, two facing in one direction and the third in another. Tension builds because at least one might break from the frame—the line might unpredictably open up. A circling camera dollying among the figures creates a destabilizing effect. In this scene, suddenly, the main SWAT person—blank-faced and severe, listening through his earpiece—slows way down, and then we’re on the ground. And it must be the timing. A beat after Attinger shouts, “Kill the girl. Shoot her.” Optimus flares out!

Bay hooks scenes together. Following the CIA stakeout at Cade’s farm, the Autobots fly down from Monument Valley mountaintops to circle and converge at a campfire, seated against a monumental wall of rock (a screen memory of the façade of Cade’s barn). Since this scene replays the patterns of the SWAT team’s attack, the rescuers—hurray!—expunge evil.

5. IDENTITY AND INTERTEXTUALITY

The Image

Michael Bay’s images can be beautiful. Spielberg calls them “eye-candy” (Spielberg 2014). Whether it’s sumptuous explosions or everyday objects, Bay adds something extra to the frame at almost every instant. Details reside at the finest level—too many gnats in the air or water and smoke curling off a building. Sometimes there’s a demonstrably added element, like a veil of luminous, pastel colors thrown over the spaceship’s maw. Trees are worthy of digital manipulation. At Cade’s ranch, the leafless oaks in the distance twist into the sky as if near Psycho’s Bates Motel swamp. Behind Lockdown’s emergence from his tornado-spaceship, the trees form upside-down L-shapes. Impossible, but they underscore foregrounded figures.

Representation

Transformers 4 doesn’t achieve anything like balanced representations of race and gender, though Bay often talks about these issues on DVD commentaries. The few African American characters are limited. The CIA black-ops head is so stern he’s a cipher. The “purple people-eater,” an obese, loud-mouthed, middle-aged black woman, is the butt of a joke. The mini-Autobot, Brains, fits the stereotype of the wily slave. A few handsome African American soldiers and technicians grace the frame, but they are given few lines.  Things are no better with other people of color, whether in the U.S. or Hong Kong, except perhaps Joyce’s love interest, Su Yueming. Action films must telegraph their contents quickly, but still—why does the film rely on stereotypes when depicting ethnicity and culture? Is it because they are legible so quickly and contribute to the film’s sense of speed?

And where are the lady robots? Were they left on their planet? Do robots not “need” a feminine gender? The film has odd ways of compensating for this lack of feminine power. In the control room when staff watch Galvatron and Optimus Prime battle, Su Yueming stands up to the accompaniment of a robot’s big swooshing sound-effect. Darcy and Bumblebee move with the same surprised gestures. Crosshairs proclaims, “oh Mama,” as he releases a tether; the alien spaceship then links to a skyscraper (high-wire umbilical cords?). And after the vagina dentata robot is killed, her presence lingers until Cade shoots the killer dogs off those high-wires. Suddenly we see the dogs’ bellies—the same texture and color as the vagina dentata’s flesh—odd considering everything else is blue metal. (Finally the feminine has been extinguished.) And of course, T4 flaunts hypermasculinity. Cade overworks his laser gun. With his sword and dinobot, Optimus seems out of a medieval epic.  T4’s allusion to a Christian rescue in China is ominous. Perhaps Tessa, Darcy, and Su Yueming are enough, but just as with representations of race, class, ability and sexuality, I’d like a richer range.

Intermediality

T4 frequently discusses its contemporaneity, the digital versus celluloid. As the grandfather in the old movie theater points out, with film, people came from miles around to see the dancing girls with the big cha-chas. In the digital realm, Joyce tosses Transformium suspended in space, several inches above his outstretched palms, back and forth, as if it were a Slinky. He notes, “Almost sensual, isn’t it?” Perhaps not the cha-chas, but a potential substitute. “We can replicate everything,” states Joyce, “including robots” (and we might assume deadly but entrancing women, too—Joyce has been working on those sexy jellyfish). “We make poetry here!” combatively enthuses Joyce. “We’ve mapped the genome.”

Self-Referentiality

William Rothman has noted the ways that Hitchcock and other directors comment about their filmmaking practice right on the film’s surface (Rothman 1988). Michael Bay’s films are intensely garrulous. T4’s characters continually advise viewers how to respond. This running commentary may help the film go even faster (viewers’ thoughts and feelings need no more than a quick assessment). “That was insane, it was awesome, but it was insane, right?” “That was a little bit intense.” “What we’re about to do is going to be kinda scary.” “The scary people are back.” “That stuff is nightmare shit.” “Wow, this gotta be the Supermax!” Perhaps the film’s surface editorializing serves as a rebuke to the YouTube commentary, where fans and detractors critique every moment of a film. T4 is ready to enter the fray.

T4 was a fourth-time-around major endeavor (after Bay said he’d had enough with three), and the film seems to keep brooding on itself. A truck’s bumper sticker proclaims “Got Ammo?”—an homage to Bay’s original breaking commercial, “Got Milk?” When Joyce says, “We make poetry here,” “Why can’t we make when we want?” Bay’s probably talking about his team’s artistry. Issues of IP copyright infringement, rights to company property, and nondisclosure agreements keep surfacing.

Perhaps the most direct breaking of the fourth wall is when, after a robot that looks like a goblin-druid from an 80s Neil Young tour transforms into a dinobot, the Autobot Drift says, “I was expecting a car!” Bay shows his hand most clearly when Optimus Prime sadistically whacks his newly forged dragon across its head, saying he will kill it if it doesn’t fight for his family. Bay has been accused of being authoritarian (Megan Fox called him Hitler). Drift and Hound muse on this: “You just want to follow the guy.” “That or it’s brainwashing.” “No. That’s Optimus Prime!”

II. BAY’S MUSICALITY

Musical Phrasing

Bay understands beginnings, peaks, and lulls. A close reading of the next two sequences show the ways T4 parses action into musical phrases. Varied phrase lengths contribute to the larger sculpted whole. Clear beginnings are important. They are often established through people running energetically, music kicking in, or a Transformer driving through a passageway. Internally the sequences have peaks of emotional intensity, when characters start saying odd things like, “It was me, it was me, it was me!” Then there’s a lull. And the film ratchets up again. Other directors might use some of these elements, but skip the lull. In T4 a character might look down; there might be a spot of humor; or a bassline might drop ominously even lower. These quieter moments help establish pace.

Our Heroes Infiltrate KSI (1:02-1:13)

1:02 Start : As the camera tracks alongside Optimus parked outside KSI, the drone flies out of his far window, while Cade quickly glances down and up. The drone’s flight path works nicely with the song, especially the melody’s contour, both leading us through a group of exiting workers. Mini-peak: The drone threatens to sting one of the KSI staff and scans his ID pic instead. Streaming from his eyes, Bumblebee’s green lasers terminate on a fabricated ID, thereby helping to end this short phrase.

1:03 Start: Cade closes the truck’s door and heads into KSI. His glance upward may foreshadow our heroes’ later break-ins. (Our team’s advance on KSI seems powerful because of our team’s five thrusts into the building.) Tessa and Shane’s smooching in the church provides humor. Cade’s swirling his spoon in a green-filled glass recalls Bumblebee’s streaming lasers, helping to end this short section.

1:03:40 Start: Cade and Shane drive up to KSI’s checkpoint. Mini-peak: Cade taunts Shane for sneaking into his home without permission to have sex with Tessa. As the guard passes his metal detector underneath Bumblebee’s chassis, the viewer’s imagination is sparked (snooping!). Cade’s joke, “I’m gonna kill you,” ends the section.

1:04:40 Start: Cade and Shane drive into KSI’s showroom. Three peaks build in intensity (and hysteria?): 1) Bumblebee punches Shane’s nose with his steering wheel, 2) Joyce bullishly claims “We make poetry here,” 3) Bumblebee punches a standing robot (and leading up to the knockout, the men on the video screens get increasingly silly). Bumblebee’s spatial coordinates can’t be determined. While Joyce returns to continue his tour, the silver display car is dollied back (implausible). An African American manager enters. Humor helps end the scene.

1:07:12 Start: A match cut joins the African American manager’s arm to a machine arm. Three sections remain subdued (quiet before the next rev up?). Joined scenes with conversing pairs of speakers seem to place antagonists and protagonists in relation—Joyce with Attinger, and Darcy with Cade. Attinger and Joyce intermittently turn away and face their walls. (Joyce will later note that Attinger was never a friend.) Joyce’s higher ethics are suggested through the small window behind him. Similarly, as Cade and Darcy muse about Transformium, Cade notes humanity’s cruelty to Autobots. During his dismantling, Ratchet’s head glows beautifully with rich greens, blues, and pinks. To what purpose? Mini-peak: A torqueing high-angle Hitchcockian shot reveals Cade beaming his drone’s footage to Tessa in the car (she looks upward). These shots frame Optimus as he angrily whisks away a light pole (they’ve slaughtered Ratchet!); he and Bumblebee face off to spring into action. Next to Joyce and Attinger, a robot carcass lies on a gurney, reminiscent of KSI’s salvage project. The hallway looks vaguely vaginal. Joyce says, “Attinger, buddy, you need to get the Seed,” accompanied by a lowered bass that drops in pitch at the phrase’s end. This downturn helps end the section.

1:09:30 Start: Music kicks in as Cade mentions Autobots. Staff congregating in a room’s corner intensifies energy. In the background, beyond the glass, an employee windmills to create more motion. Mini-peak: Cade’s break into a run is heightened by a pounding tom-tom and a flash of light crossing his face, as is the man who follows him. Cade’s jump over a turnstile creates a mini-flourish at the scene’s end. Bassline drops again. (Bay often begins or ends a scene with a flourish.)

1:10:10 Start: In the elevator Joyce cagily glances and Cade looks down. The elevator rises too fast—Bay’s cheating physics because he likes speed. Mini-peak: To the rescue: the camera lens “bishops” across, in front of several cars. Bumblebee whirls around with an overcranked turn. With greater stakes, the two-lane highway scenario will be revisited in the upcoming fight sequence. Bumblebee freezes, with no one on board, but Shane and Tessa keep moving forward in their seats (not plausible!). These shots help end the scene.

1:10:40 Start: Attinger, Joyce, and Cade meet in the conference room. Sightlines seem confusing for Cade. Cade’s plea for government assistance appears directed to Attinger, screen left. (While Cade speaks, Attinger enters through the door gesturing as if he’s responding to Cade.) In truth, Cade’s talking to Joyce, who’s against the window far screen right, and paying poor attention. Joyce walks out. Cade’s unanswered speech suggests neither the government nor the corporation can be trusted.

1:11:38 Start: Tessa and Sean spring open Bumblebee’s door and start running. Kicking up the pace even more, the Transformers bolt into the building. In the lobby’s rear, Autobot Drift contorts into the same posture he’ll adopt in the large showroom—one arm holding up the rifle, knees bent and legs spread. What’s that helicopter that Bumblebee rides? Is it a Transformer, yes—that’s Drift. Drift slides into the showroom’s galley. Hound calls: “Science fair’s over, meatbags!” A detail—what are those odd chevrons stamped onto the safety cones? (Perhaps they’re KSI’s and the aliens’ shared logo.)  Staff fleeing is layered: white, black, then white coats. A handheld camera tracks Joyce as he runs in and tells people to stop. Three shots throw their contents forward, heightening mayhem. 1) The Oreo-cookie robot buckles over by the vending machine—humor; 2) The mini-robot, Brains, falls against the glass; 3) Joyce strides forward with arm pointing, and before him an attendant falls, sliding to the ground.

Interim: Joyce and Optimus debate about science and souls. Attinger indemnifies Joyce. Joyce releases Galvatron into battle.

Galvatron and Optimus Battle (1:14–1:18)

Three times, a vehicle’s long side flies toward us, almost to impact us straight on. Each time, the intensity rises—Galvatron, Optimus, and then an enormous 18-wheeler truck of lumber that breaches all the highway’s lanes. On first viewing, this scene seems to have cars rushing inexplicably back and forth. And in truth the scene’s opening seems designed to disorient us. Galvatron twice exits the KSI garage. On the road, the camera films a red Camaro and him first from one side, then the other.  But after that, spatial relations quiet down a bit, though the pace doesn’t slacken. Subtle cues help make shifts in screen direction sensible.

In the first large turn, many cars veer off onto the grass to clear the way for Galvatron. It’s a handsome shot, wide and graceful, as if T4 were a Western and the cars were readying to corral the herd. In the far distance, a green truck changes screen direction for all cars. Joyce and the control room staff also view a large projected diagram that should suggest where all players are positioned, though I think it works more as a joke on critics. Galvatron jumping the road divider is confusing because he disintegrates and reforms. What forms can he adopt, and where did he go? He drives straight into opposing, oncoming traffic, while the camera crosses from one to the other side of his visage. Interlaced throughout this scene are some delicate bishop-moves that trouble spatial relations and help to shift screen direction.

The second time Galvatron disintegrates, he breaks into a star-shaped pattern like his flying bogies. The shot is stunning not only for the glory of Galvatron reconfiguring but also for Bumblebee’s emergence. In an earlier shot, a side of Bumblebee’s face edges the right eighth-quadrant of the frame. Then he appears as a little robot by the overhead pass in the far distance. Now Bumblebee materializes into a form we recognize—incrementally shifting from a mask into a face, with his voice finally coming into focus. When Bumblebee asks about Galvatron, “What was that?”—we’re in a state of wonder, too—about both Bumblebee and Galvatron.

The closing set-piece evokes wonder. Optimus Prime and others hurtle through the air on the long horizontal so that Optimus is streamlined like a swimmer. Everything seems extremely slow: the sound effects include an elongated, reverberant scream. The moment resembles the archetypical instant of extreme danger, when your life flashes before you, focus is sharp, and time seems to crawl. It’s a gorgeous audiovisual moment, with grace, line, flight, but it also inspires terror. The robots are tossing humans back and forth like juggling balls, from elbows to knees to fists.

*   *   *

T4 loses momentum before getting to Hong Kong. More than explosions and shapeshifting robots, the film’s tensions emerge out of the Oedipal conflicts between Cade, Shane, and Tessa. Once the ambiguously avuncular Lucas is disposed of, Cade and Shane decide how they want to deal with Tessa, and other characters resolve their dilemmas about whether to stay or go, the film’s impetus drops off. Bay sometimes brings T4 to moments of jouissance, but often it seems to bear a just-below-the-surface hysteria. The robots may lose it a lot, but they’re just expressing the nuclear family’s sentiments. Young boys’ screams are often mixed in with the robots’ sounds. Still, T4’s last section drives toward what Lesley Brill shows us about crowds: rising and dropping objects combined with accruing groups of people suggest a multitude (Brill 2006).

A.O. Scott claims that Transformers reflects “the glorious uselessness of [Bay’s] own imagination” (Scott 2014). But the film possesses a moral dimension. Many of us attempt to capitalize on our time as we attempt to succeed at work-status and relationship-speedup. Time means much for T4’s characters, too. Among the explosions and CGI, they must demonstrate their mastery. It’s awful that Lucas gets killed, but as Cade, Tessa, and Sean are leaving, there’s an honest minute of mourning. Remarkably, it seems like enough. In a beat, too, Shane and Tessa declare their love in the midst of the final battles. Quick instances earlier, like the couple’s momentary cuddle during the alien spaceship’s flight over the Great Wall of China, help us trust in the couple’s vitality. Joyce needs but a “beat” to do the right thing. In these heightened moments the film encourages us to ask whether, as individuals and as a collective, we too would act rightly.

T4’s final sections—on the alien ship and in Hong Kong—are too long. But Bay and his collaborators may want to bury the annihilation motifs so viewers can reenter their daily lives unencumbered. Many of these threats draw on Holocaust imagery, some overtly and others refracted through popular culture. Optimus stowed beneath the barn’s floor would be understood by young people more through Inglorious Basterds (2009) than the horror of the Nazis. Something still lingers, however. T4 helps us experience danger in our bones, but not to a point where we can’t function. T4 is also “personal cinema” and toward the film’s end, after the viewer may be worn-down and overwhelmed, compositions get crazy. Fire, flesh, and robots are on the bottom, and water is on the top; then all’s inverted. Some of these moments are among cinema’s most vertiginous.

Bay may have run out of money, time, or access. Shooting extensively in China may have been unfeasible. So the level of craft in the film’s last third may dip. Bay may also have felt driven to tie the movie together at all costs. The fight in the Chinese factory, with its dirty brown and black sped-up footage, echoes the abandoned American Midwestern factory as well as links to the film’s other deathly images.  T4 is too long, and I can’t quite stretch my brain around it. But it encourages me to watch it again. What can I say about this overwhelming opus? I’m up for it again. I’m game. Count me in.

Carol Vernallis teaches at Stanford University. She is the author of Unruly Media: YouTube, Music Video and the New Digital Cinema (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural Context (Columbia University Press, 2004).

References

Anders, Charlie J. (2014). “In Transformers 4, Michael Bay Urges You To Smash The Patriarchy”, io9, June.

Bordwell, David (2002), “Intensified Continuity Visual Style in Contemporary American Film”, Film Quarterly 55.3: pp. 16-28.

Brill, Lesley (2006), Crowds, Power and Transformation in Cinema, Detroit: Wayne University Press.

Dargis, Manohla (2009), “Invasion of the Robot Toys, Redux: Review of Transformers: Revenger of the Fallen”, New York Times, June 24.

Dyer, Richard (1999), “Entertainment and Utopia”, The Cultural Studies Reader 2, ed. Simon During, New York: Routledge.

Jackson, Janet (1997) “Together Again”, dir. Seb Janiak.

Lacan, Jacques (1981), The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, New York: W. W. Norton, pp. 184, 234, 281.

Petty, Tom (1985), “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, dir. Jeff Stein.

Rothman, William (2012), Hitchcock, Second Edition: The Murderous Gaze, Suny Series, Horizons of Cinema, New York: State University of New York Press, pp. 212.

Savage, Dan (2014), American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics, New York: Plume, pp. 56-58.

Scott, A. O. (2014), “Let the Mass Destruction Begin: Review of Transformers: Age of Extinction”, New York Times, June 27.

Shaviro, Steve (2012), “Post-Continuity”, The Pinocchio Theory, March 26.

Thanouli, Eleftheria (2009), Post-Classical Cinema: An International Poetics of Film Narration, New York: Wallflower Press, pp. 96, 173–182.

Vernallis, Carol (2004), Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural Context, New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 21-23.

Vernallis, Carol (2013), Unruly Media: YouTube, Music Video and the New Digital Cinema, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 3-11.

Whissel, Kristen. 2014. Spectacular Digital Effects: CGI and Contemporary Cinema. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 14.

3 Comments for “Toward the Limit: Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction

  1. Wheeler Winston Dixon

    Carol, you know I love and respect your work, but after reading this incredibly long and detailed article on Michael Bay’s TAOE, I have decided there are only two possible interpretations of this piece.

    One is that this is perhaps the most elaborate hoax I have ever encountered, written with tongue buried deeply in cheek, in which case I congratulate you on a brilliant piece of satire.

    But I fear that it is number two, you’re serious, in which case I have to say I couldn’t disagree more. I’m not going to rehash all the arguments against Bay’s work, which you know too well, but I’ll simply say that for me, and many others, Bay’s work is utterly empty and completely without value.

    Nevertheless, this is an elegantly reasoned piece, and I will certainly defend to the death your right to this opinion. Bay’s films should certainly be examined in depth, given their unquestioned reach and popularity. But the conclusions that I reach are the absolute polar opposite of yours – this is the death of cinema.

    Still, bravo! A very surprising article indeed.

  2. Dear Wheeler,

    I’m delighted you liked my analysis – I admire your work too. When you mention “the death of cinema,” which death are you referring to? You’ve written so much on this topic, it would be hard to respond in a single post. I agree with many of your social, institutional, technological and economic claims. Mega-blockbuster, comic-book, and toy-oriented films have taken up too much of the exhibition landscape. As you say 21st-Century Hollywood, “The saturation booking philosophy (in which a film opens everywhere at once, worldwide, on the same day, to ensure complete penetration of the market and forestall piracy and potential negative word-of-mouth) has become entrenched as the sole way of opening a film for maximum payoff, which makes only the most pre-sold projects attractive to major Hollywood studios.” I also agree that not all possibilities remain available to us at any moment. I concur with Manovich that the new digital era tends to foreground painterly approaches and there can be “a disconnect from the real in the classical Bazinian sense.”

    But at the level of the aesthetics of an individual film, and the ways audiences respond to it, I sometimes differ. In 21st Century Hollywood, you say “Hollywood is chewing up old narrative styles in favor of faster editing, time compression, and a visual palette of increasingly baroque special effects, all in an attempt to keep audiences in a dazzled stupor” (p. 7). “Viewers want to be inundated with multiple images and multiple narratives, not necessarily to follow all of them in strict narrative format but to have a false sense of omniscience” (p. 155) and “…the coldness of the digital image, stripped of any of the inherent qualities of light, plastic and colored dyes, betrays a lack of emotion” (p. 8).

    I think digital techniques are making possible new forms of audiovisually intensified cinema. Everything’s changing formally, from the large-scale, mid-level, to the surface. These films can elicit attentive, engaged viewing. Yes, I love Transformers! I can’t condone all of it (its global politics and representations of class, age, disability, gender, sexuality and race are problematic), but some sequences move me as much as any in cinema, and the film also has progressive moments.

    So perhaps we might take on your last three claims! One of T4’s most stunning sequences begins when Cade uses the drone to hack aggressively into KS1, and lasts until Lockdown’s abduction of Shane and Tessa on his alien spaceship. That’s twenty rich and varied minutes that would be impossible to orchestrate without digital technologies. We may need to go frame by frame with a close accompanying audio analysis. Cognitive studies and models may help here, too.

    We both agree that we want many approaches to the new digital cinema. I admire your large-scale take on media industries. I’ve been developing close audiovisually attentive readings tailored to these new films. I discuss Moulin Rouge! and Eternal Sunshine in my book Unruly Media. My co-edited Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics and Oxford Handbook of Sound and Image in Digital Media deal with others (Source Code, Wag the Dog, Bourne Ultimatum, Children of Men, Inception and others). OHSIDM is particularly interesting because my co-editor Amy Herzog and I actively solicited scholars in many disciplines – film, media, music, sound, performance studies, new media – to collaborate and to write across the disciplines. I think we need interdisciplinary approaches to respond to what is now an audiovisually-intensified mediascape. A lively debate would be wonderful!

  3. Wheeler Winston Dixon

    Hi, Carol, and thanks for your comments! I appreciate your point of view, but when it comes to the “death of cinema” in this case, I mean the death of content, thoughtfulness, anything other than spectacle substituting for an complete lack of depth or intelligence. There’s nothing going on in the Transformer movies for me, nothing except making money, and creating a world of endless, repetitive CGI bombast – but if you can find something or value, more power to you!

    Since my favorite director now working is Manoel de Oliveira — still cooking along at age 105, amazingly enough – who also uses digital technology, I’ll defer to him. On the DVD of his film THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA, there’s a forty minute video interview with Oliveira in which he pretty much indicts “Bayesque” cinema as not only empty, but also almost immoral – worthless, degrading folly, mindlessly in love with destruction and nothing more. So I’ll refer you to that video, and let Oliveira speak for me – he’s far more articulate than I am.

    The entire interview, which starts out as prepared text, shifts to a Q&A session in one long take, with a few interruptions. There is one brief shot of Oliveira’s extremely simple digital editing set up, sitting on table in his bedroom, which says more to me than all of Bay’s films, or those of Roland Emmerich or any other of the “fragmentary” directors working today – it’s used a tool to clarify, not “blenderize” the images Oliveira gathers. He’s working in the real world, using 21st century technology – there’s even some beautiful CGI at the end of the film – but used with restraint, and taste.

    I guess the key point here is your frank admission that “I love Transformers!” – well, as you can probably guess by now, I don’t. Yet we live in a digital world, and I also can’t agree with Manovich’s rather reductionist comment you cite above that digital technology may lead to “a disconnect from the real in the classical Bazinian sense” – Oliveira’s example proves that need not be so, unless that is the intent of the director.

    The shift to digital is simply a platform change, as it was with paper film, then cellulose nitrate film, then safety film, and now digital production. That’s just evolving technology – it’s what you DO with it that matters. We are, after all, in the opening years of the digital shift, and what will happen in the decades to come, especially with the move away from physical media to an all streaming world, is anyone’s guess.

    I’ll leave it there, but again, I absolutely respect and admire your work, and none of this is any way a criticism of your article, or your accomplishments here, which are considerable. We simply have different ways of approach this – which makes a world, no? But now I have an article I have to write — seriously! Best wishes!

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