Art & Design


Who Needs Plot Anyway?

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One director is an art-house darling revered by critics and peers alike, a reclusive master capable of capturing profound meaning in a single lingering gaze. The other really, really likes to blow shit up and believes subtlety means letting his leading female actor keep her underwear on as he swoops in for a 3D close-up of her arse.

Yes, we’re talking about Michael Bay and Terrence Malick. This week, their latest flicks (Transformers: Dark of the Moon and The Tree of Life respectively) will drop into Melbourne cinemas. On the surface, it’s hard to imagine two more opposing stylistic or philosophical forces than these two. Is it possible, however, that deep down they both have a similar goal—to prove that plot is totally superfluous to cinematic success? Let’s take off our snob hats for a minute and have a look.

This year’s Cannes Palme D’Or winner, The Tree of Life is a visual symphony that mixes snippets of 1950s suburbia and sweeping visual montages spanning the dawn of time to life on earth. A kind of filmic tone poem, Malick uses visual tangents to deliver feelings – awe, wonder, pain, regret, love – in a way that transcends rigid narrative particularity. The Tree of Life manages to bypass plot and leave you with a deeper sense of meaning because of it. As a narrative experiment, it’s wonderfully successful and will no doubt influence many a filmmaker while helping to shape the ever-evolving cinematic medium itself.

And then there’s Michael Bay and his new film Transformers: Dark of the Moon. The third installment in the blockbuster franchise, it can be summarised as follows: robots transform and try to find something and have to fight or whatever. There’s something about the moon and a sexy model trying to act and then people get out of cars and look at the sky in slow motion. Fuck yeah! Here come the 3D robot tentacles! Kerblam! Smash! Kerblango! Dju dju dju dju dju (sound of a transformer transforming).

Strange thing is, for all its total absurdity, Transformers is pretty damn entertaining. See, Bay—like Malick—has long worked outside the assumption that a coherent plot is necessary to a film’s success. Despite all the critical poo-pooing, Bay’s influence has already made a considerable mark on the ways that filmic narratives are dispensed and the ways that we consume them. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Bay is shaping a new popular cinematic language. Using a kind of self-referential filmic shorthand, every character, plot-point and story element is rendered dimensionless. His films are pure surface, clichés of clichés, flat screens onto which he projects visual pyrotechnics. Image really is everything in a Michael Bay film. Plot is nothing.

So, while Malick pulls towards greater emotional and intellectual development through plotless experimentation, Bay tries to abandon even the pretence of intellectual or emotional engagement by reducing the plot to a non-existent abstract upon which to cram more and more sensory overload. You may love one more than the other, but the bottom line is that these two icons of high and low culture might not be as far removed as we’re comfortable believing.

Tree of Life and Transformers: Dark Side Of The Moon open nationally today.


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