Tag Archives: Armchair Sociology

4 Thoughts I Had While Watching Transformers 4

Transformers 4 - Wahlberg, Peltz, Reynor

Look, let’s get a few basics out of the way. Plenty has been written over the years about Michael Bay’s storytelling problems, his directorial tics, his troubling portrayal of women, homosexuals, and non-white characters, and his fetish for big guns and magic hour. You can also debate whether Transformers 4 is his most blatant cash-grab ever or the prototype for a new international-era blockbuster. (Maybe it’s both.)

But here’s the catch: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Michael Bay film that I completely hated. In fact, even at their most flawed and least coherent, Michael Bay’s movies are still entertaining. They’re also surprisingly rewatchable, as you realize every time you catch yourself watching Armageddon on cable.

So how does Michael Bay manage to make films that fail on both a taste level and a logic level, yet still excel as cinema? Here are four things Michael Bay gets right in Transformers 4 that explain his cinematic upside.

Michael Bay movies are always about what it means to be American.

Yes, nearly half of Transformers 4 takes place in China, but it’s still an American movie — not just in its financial origins, but in its central theme. After the city-smashing alien battles of the previous Transformers films, this is a story about America trying to figure out its place in the changing world. Its three subplots involve a widowed American inventor who just wants to provide for his family, a wealthy American scientist in search of his conscience, and a grizzled American operative who’s determined to defend his country from alien incursion at all costs.

Is this all a metaphor for immigration, foreign policy, global finance, and the double-edged sword of the military-industrial complex? Of course it is.

It’s also a film that takes bizarre pride in the minutiae of laws. This is a film about giant alien robots that still finds time to include plot-driven arguments about intellectual property, search warrants, and statutory rape. Its villains have a binding contract, to which they honorably adhere. And while the entire third act is basically a nonstop chase-fight scene, it’s happening because one character’s crisis of conscience negates a different contract, which means the villains are essentially justified in exacting their violent revenge.

It all seems to imply that America is nothing without its laws, and without people who live within them, even when they disagree with them. You don’t like a law? Work to change it. Laws are meant to serve the people, and as the needs of the people change, so must the laws. Not exactly a concept I expected to see in a film about a robot pterodactyl, but there you go.

But the characters in this film also grapple with Americanism on an individual level, because…

Michael Bay movies are always about what it means to be a man.

Mark Wahlberg’s hero Cade Yeager (Seriously? Yeah, seriously.) is a macho ex-football star and widowed inventor with a hot teenage daughter whom he tries to protect from the leering advances of every other guy on the planet. He doesn’t want her to make the same mistakes he made as a teenager — a teenage pregnancy among them — and he hates the idea of men lusting after the daughter he still thinks of as pure and perfect. She’s the embodiment of the future he always thought he’d be able to sustain and provide for, but with every year he finds himself farther from his idyllic self-image. And with his daughter about to head off to college, who will he be with no one else to worry about but himself?

Kelsey Grammer’s black ops director is a shadowy figure working to keep America safe at any price. He doesn’t have room for emotion. He doesn’t even seem to take pleasure in his work. What he wants is success, and what success means to him is a complete and total elimination of external threats. It’s a fool’s dream, and if this was a movie with more depth, Grammer might get a scene where he admits what the audience already knows: that no matter how effective he is, he’s just delaying the inevitable need to adapt and assimilate with outsiders. And yet, the need to defend what we know from our worst expectations of what could be is as fundamentally American as wanting to provide for our families and excel in our chosen fields.

Which brings us to Stanley Tucci, who gives the film’s best performance as industrialist Joshua Joyce, a thinly-disguised caricature of Steve Jobs at his most tyrannical. Yet, like Jobs, Joyce just wants to make a difference in the world. Sure, he wants the world to remember that he’s the one who made that change, but it’s progress that fuels him. And it’s his fundamental similarity to Cade — the innocent spark of curiosity mixed with the hubris of wanting to be remembered for having done “the right thing” — that sets the events of the final act into motion.

And yes, all of this happens amid car chases, shootouts, fistfights, and sweaty closeups of muscles, breasts, and luscious legs filmed against hypersaturated sunsets. Because Michael Bay movies are also obsessed with the human body and its place in the world. And with masculinity vs. femininity, and with vitality vs. obsolescence, and with thought vs. action. If you’re not acting, if you’re not defending or attacking, if you’re not trying to get somewhere or obtain something, then you’re just waiting to be passed by. That’s life. That’s America. That’s humanity.

That’s cinema.

Michael Bay movies are always going somewhere.

Michael Bay – What is Bayhem? from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

This short clip explains Michael Bay’s aesthetic better than I ever could, and it’s totally worth your time from a film studies perspective. But I can sum it all up by saying you know you’re watching a Michael Bay film when small people are caught between giant problems and have to keep moving to survive, both literally and figuratively. There are almost no static camera moves in a Michael Bay film, or flat medium shots. The close-ups are always dramatically lit. The wide shots are in motion on multiple planes of action. And the characters are almost always shot from below, framed against massive backdrops that constantly remind us how insignificant they are against the collective shrug of society, industry, or nature.

Transformers 4 is about age and decay, about desire vs. actuality, and about man’s (and robot’s) eternal quest to understand why things happen. The “what” is the MacGuffin that keeps the story moving forward — hunted robots, kidnapped daughters, stolen weapons — but the “why” is what every hero is truly after. For all his presumed favoring of style over substance, Michael Bay’s movies are gravely concerned with where we as a nation, as a species, as a gender, and as a planet, are headed — and whether any of it actually matters.

Michael Bay movies are a textbook example of emotional logic.

Look, Transformers 4 is a pretty dumb movie. It’s a “dark” take on a popular ’80s cartoon that was created to sell toys to preteen boys, so you’re not dealing with unimpeachable source material here. And yes, the characters make intellectually questionable decisions at every step, not just because this is an action movie that requires them to keep getting themselves in trouble in order to justify its own existence but because Michael Bay doesn’t really care about the same logic that you and I care about.

Instead of logical cause-and-effect — “He did X, so they did Y, and therefore he should now do Z because he wants to achieve A” — what Michael Bay movies deliver is emotional cause-and-effect: “His actions made me feel X, and now I the viewer want to feel Y.”

For example, Cade spends most of the movie trying to keep his daughter safe. At least, that’s his stated goal, but his actions perpetually debunk his statement. This is a dad who nearly gets his daughter killed numerous times, sends her out to shoplift, and belittles her boyfriend at every turn, all under the guise of protecting her physically and emotionally from external threats.

While Cade’s intellectual logic doesn’t hold up, his actions (and his daughter’s reactions) fuel our emotional logic. We know he can’t protect her forever, and we also realize she’s probably more capable than he gives her credit for. So what we, the audience, end up wanting from this story arc is to know that Tessa can take care of herself so Cade won’t have to worry about her. And her final act in the movie closes that loop and provides us with the emotional catharsis we needed, even if its intellectual logic is as questionable as anything else in the film.

Similarly, Tucci’s Joyce isn’t just the most entertaining character in the movie; he’s also the movie’s resuscitated heart. While Cade has been brave from the beginning because he’s fighting for his freedom, Joyce is the one who has to choose between what he could be and what he wants to be. And when a film gives us a villain who realizes the error of his ways, we spend the rest of the movie hoping he’ll live long enough to become a better man.

Whatever that means in Michael Bay’s world.

8 Things You Can Stop Doing Right Now

This post might be hard for some of you to read, but I’m writing it for your own good. And mine.

Please stop telling the world how much you’re “crushing it.”

Yes, I’m talking to you. If you’re tweeting and Facebooking and Instagramming power quotes and humblebrags about how relentless you are, or how grateful you are that your life is so incredible, or how much you hope everyone else will someday be as awesome as you are, you’re not fooling anyone. Well, maybe except yourself.

See, most self-help blogging — and, by extension, most social media — is just people yelling at themselves to get out of their own way. What others see as “inspiring,” I see as “terrified people convincing themselves it’s all going to be okay if they just keep pretending.”

Look, I’m glad you feel motivated to improve your life. And if you enjoy inspiring others, rock on. But every time you tell me how much you won’t back down, I suspect it’s because you’ve realized your life is empty and you’re stapling public meaning on top of it as a parlor game to distract you from your own night terrors.

I’d like to suggest a different tactic: admit you’re unhappy, or frustrated, or afraid of being exposed as a know-nothing or a slacker or a deviant or a failure. Admit it to yourself, at least. And then take action to fix it. Not the public action you can build a personal brand from, but the private action that leads to successful habits and self-confidence in small doses. The kind that erodes your worry until you can at least leave the house, literally and metaphorically speaking, and do the actual work that inspires people, rather than the documenting of a process that confuses activity for accomplishment.

And while we’re being honest about how we see ourselves, I’ll be honest about something else:

I’ve been thinking about taking some risks for awhile, but I keep talking myself out of them. Not changing is easy. Telling myself the odds will be better later is very tempting. And while I’m waiting, I’m comfortable in my familiar habits. Well, maybe “comfortable” isn’t the right word for it… maybe “safe,” or “not inconvenienced,” or “acquiescent.”

Truth is, I’m lying to myself.

If I’m not happy, or if I feel unfulfilled, no one else is going to fix it for me. It’s not their job; they’re trying to make themselves happy and fulfilled, not me.

I get why we all publicly proclaim that we’re on the path to something amazing. It’s the same reason I tell myself I’m “writing” when I’m usually just “surfing the Internet and thinking about writing”: because I’m afraid of admitting to myself (much less to others) just how hard I’m not working at succeeding.

So, in the spirit of yelling at myself to get out of my own way, I offer myself this advice. Feel free to yell at yourself with this same advice, if it helps you.

Insomnia

Stop waiting for “the right time” to do something.

Unless you’re a hostage negotiator or a paratrooper, timing isn’t everything. Sure, some times are easier or harder than others are for accomplishing whatever it is you want to do. But there’s no such thing as a “right” (or “wrong”) time to get married, start a business, have a baby, switch careers, break up, move, quit, or take a vacation. People have succeeded and failed at those adventures for centuries, regardless of when they started or what odds were against them or in their favor. What matters is how you go about it in terms of resolve and tenacity, not whether or not the stars are properly aligned to make your job easier.

Stop waiting until you have “enough money.”

You’ll never have enough money. If you get more, you’ll spend it. If you save some, an opportunity or an emergency will come along and then you’ll be back to zero. Money is a resource. Don’t expect to reach a point where you’ll have “enough” money to accomplish X. Find ways to multiply your revenue streams en route to accomplishing X regardless of how much money you started with. What matters is accomplishing X, not reaching a magic dollar amount that will let you believe it’s “okay” to get started.

Stop waiting for permission.

Nobody else is paying attention. And if they are, and they tell you “no,” do it anyway, because you’re not going to be satisfied unless you experience your accomplishment. And if it costs you someone else’s good graces, it’ll gain you something more important: the knowledge that comes with success or failure, rather than the caged feeling having been allowed to act. If your path to success includes a step where someone else can stop you in your tracks, reroute your path. (Unless you’re the kind of person for whom permission is more important than accomplishment — in which case, acquiring the permission IS your accomplishment. And if that’s who you are, then the rest of this won’t make any sense.)

Stop thinking you’re the one who has to get it right the first time.

Failure teaches us what not to do. Sometimes we need to fail more than once at something in order to understand why we’re not getting it done right. Over the past 20 years I created a comic book, a freelance business, and two different web series that achieved varying levels of success, but they all ultimately ended before I wanted them to. And yet, what do I lay awake at night dreaming of doing? Making TV shows and movies and web series and novels and stage plays and comic books and video games. “But I already failed at them more than once,” I tell myself. And then I remind myself, “no; you started them more than once. Maybe it’ll take ten starts, or twenty, to find one idea — and one process — that sustains itself.” What matters isn’t being a prodigy who never makes mistakes; it’s continually surviving your mistakes until you either succeed or you find something else to pursue.

Stop thinking other people are succeeding because they’re special, or because the world is out to get you.

Networking helps. Talent helps. Perseverance helps. Luck helps, but no one is perpetually lucky or unlucky. You’re not failing because “this person doesn’t like me,” or because “everybody just promotes their friends,” or because “I’m just not good enough,” or any of the other excuses you’ve invented for not working hard and habitually enough to earn your own toehold on success. And yes, some people may continually get breaks because of who they know. That’s how life works: people prefer to work with other people they’ll get along with, and knowing someone is the first step to peacefully coexisting with them. But even if a person is well-connected, s/he still has to be likable and competent. So maybe start there?

Stop making the same mistakes the exact same way.

If you try something once and it doesn’t work, try again, but change something in the process. You may have the right idea but the wrong execution, or the wrong framing, or the wrong support, or the wrong price. Don’t change everything all at once, but do change at least one variable. If your idea is sound and you keep hammering at it from different angles, it’ll push through eventually. And if it never does, then either the idea isn’t useful enough to people you’re not being honest with yourself about why it isn’t working.

Stop expecting tomorrows.

You’re going to wake up again tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after, until one day you don’t. And you never know when that day is going to be. So if you’re waiting for the stars to align, or until you have enough money, or until the marketplace catches up with your obvious genius, how ironic will it be if the day that happens is the day you didn’t wake up? Not that you’ll appreciate that irony, because you’ll be dust. And while you may have a pleasant eulogy, it’ll be shorter and less dynamic than it would have been if you’d started that next thing today.

“Insomnia” image by Carlos Martz on Flickr.

What I Learned by Quitting Social Media for 100 Days

I struggled with whether I should even write this post.

On Twitter, I joked that blogging about a social media cleanse would be like getting fat to protest diabetes. But that “purpose vs. action” conflict is one of the big reasons why I walked away in the first place, and it’s also why I bothered coming back.

That’s a purposeful word: “bother”

It means I took time out of what I’d prefer to be doing in order to do something else due to a perceived sense of obligation. But why, and to whom?

I’ll try to explain.

The Shutdown

Every year, I take a break from social media around Christmas and New Year’s. Sometimes that break lasts a few days, or a few weeks. It makes travel easier, and it also gives me time to reflect and recalibrate.

This year I decided to take a purposely long break because I was finding the daily manufactured outrage on Twitter and Facebook to be emotionally exhausting. Every statement anyone made seemed like an excuse to chastise or polarize. The habitual daily interaction with people I know and “know,” which I used to enjoy, I was now dreading.

So, on December 11th, I announced I was taking a leave of absence from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and blogging. (Yes, that’s a self-aggrandizing “personal branding” thing to do, but I interact with a lot of people in these channels and I’ve learned that they come to expect a consistent level of interaction from me. Also, I once walked away from Twitter for several weeks without warning and I started getting concerned emails and phone calls from people, so this time I thought I’d provide some context.)

I figured I’d be back in May, on my birthday. Instead I came back a month earlier than expected, on March 31, for a few reasons — some personal, some professional. However, I should stress something here: I didn’t come back because I missed it.

On the contrary, I loved being away from social media. I may have missed the interaction, but I absolutely did not miss the form that interaction takes.

Was It Hard?

No.

Admittedly, I was pretty burned out when I walked away, so I needed the break. If I had been loving social media and I suddenly decided to give it up at random, I’m sure it would have been much harder. But no, aside from two or three urges in those first two weeks, I found it extremely easy to not take part.

Privately, several people told me they weren’t sure how I could do it. They didn’t think they would ever be able to walk away from these channels that didn’t exist 10 years ago but which we now take for granted.

Me, I’ve always been a bit of a Luddite. Despite working in the digital realm, I’m amazingly slow on the uptake when it comes to new technology. Seeing people in their 20s sitting together but individually glued to their phones makes me feel like the old man in the room, wondering when we all stopped having actual conversations. I like what technology can do for us, but I’m more interested in the ends than the means.

[I should clarify something here: my day job still requires me to login to Twitter and Facebook every weekday, so it wasn't like those channels ceased to exist to me for three months. I could still look at what was happening, but what I was preventing myself from doing was replying, liking, favoriting, commenting, sharing, or otherwise generating new content myself. And I only paid attention to things in the most minimal of ways. For example, I'd see that day's top Facebook post in my feed, but that was all I had to see en route to managing my employer's brand page.]

What Did I Miss?

Surprisingly little, and yet what little I did miss was equally surprising.

Having used Twitter and Facebook daily for years meant I’d developed a reflexive attitude toward them. I’d often tweet or share dozens of observations in a single day, because I was used to forming on opinion about something and immediately projecting it out into the world. Or I’d read something I felt would be useful to the people I consider “my audience,” and I would share it because I felt like they would benefit from my curatorial action.

At first during my social media sabbatical I had to consciously stop myself from sharing, because not sharing felt unnatural.

I still had all the same observations that I would normally have tweeted or shared, but which I now had to enjoy privately or share with my girlfriend through a text. My public sharing reflex died after a couple weeks, and it was replaced by a new reflex: to actively suppress my desire to share.

I became conscious of my habits in a way I wasn’t when I was doing them.

After awhile I started asking myself why I would have bothered sharing this or that in the first place.

Who really benefits if I share this?

Why would I take up someone’s time with that?

And that thinking ultimately got me to ask myself two formative questions: when it comes to social participation, what do I want (and why), and what do others want from me (and why)?

Actions as Self

Sometimes I wonder what life would be like if I’d joined Twitter under a pseudonym, rather than as myself. Because who I am publicly on these channels is who people expect me to be, and partly who I expect myself to be. My actions there establish my persona in their minds, and in my own.

The act of sharing something, or stating on opinion or observation, is as defining as not doing those things. And yet, no one knows what we didn’t do, so our public identities are disproportionately constructed by our actions, not our restraint.

Did I cease to exist for my 100 day sabbatical? No. But @JustinKownacki did, within the context of the daily real-time conversation about life. Also during that time, my ability to define myself internally by my actions (and by others’ response to them) went on hiatus, so the only person who could tell me who I was was me. And I’m not always the most reliable self-narrator.

What’s It Like to Be Back?

Confusing, because I’m not sure why I do this.

My old habits came back quickly. By the end of my first day back I was endlessly refreshing my feeds, hoping for that dopamine hit of a like or a comment on something I’d said. Recognizing that this was a waste of time, I deleted my Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram icons from my phone’s home screen. If I’m going to check those feeds, I want to ask myself, “Is it really worth hunting for that app?”

I’m reluctant to post things. Every time I share something, I feel like I’m creating unnecessary distractions in the streams of the people who follow me. Not that everything else isn’t equally distracting — if there’s one thing I didn’t miss, it’s the low quality of the content or the reptilian nature of the dialog — but just because I might feel that some of my own “creations” deserve more attention than some other people’s, that doesn’t ultimately mean that mine have more of a right to exist.

This has me thinking a lot about voice, and purpose, and why we all bother talking to each other in the first place. I don’t have the answers, but I do have new instincts and urges — some of which I’m fighting against, and others which I’m glad I’ve developed, and which I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t given myself the mental space to create them.

What Now?

I’m not sure.

I really have to think about what I want from existing online.

If I actually were a brand, it would be easy, because my purpose would be to sell. But I’m not currently freelancing, so anything I do online is just an extension of my own humanity. And that’s a strange thing to have to manage.

When Did “Making” Become a Bad Word?

ThoreauQuoteWhen I was little, I wanted to be a farmer. I remember this because I distinctly recall throwing a penny into the Millcreek Mall fountain (right outside JCPenney) when I was eight and wishing that I would grow up to be a farmer. I liked grass, and the Playskool farm seemed pretty cool.

At some point, I realized being a real farmer would involve a lot of hard work, so I ruled it out.

Later, I wanted to be a chef. Then, in high school, I wanted to be a comic book artist. And in college, I split my studies between becoming an animator or a filmmaker.

The one thing all of those jobs had in common? They were all about producing something.

Today, I get paid to analyze market trends. (Eight year-old me never saw that coming.)

Granted, I do this for a company that produces consumer goods, so I’m tangentially connected to the manufacturing industry. But I don’t get paid to make anything. Not anything physical, anyway.

Not anything real.

And, most likely, neither do you.

When Did We Become a Nation of Ghosts?

We used to be a nation of makers. Now we’re a nation of marketers.

We used to sell tangible products. Now we sell abstract services.

We used to work for brands. Now we are brands.

When someone asks me what I do for a living, I find creative ways to answer. The truth is, I work in marketing, but I want to be a maker. I just haven’t figured out how to make something for a living yet.

The vast majority of “entrepreneurs” and “freelancers” I meet are people who offer invented, abstract, meaningless services at inflated rates so they won’t have to work very hard. The ones who do work hard are endless self-promoters and self-congratulators who confuse output with value, but because they bleat the loudest, they get heard, and then they get hired. What they get hired to do, I’m still not entirely sure; I’m not sure they know either. And if they can explain it, it’s bound to come wrapped in buzzwords.

What’s more rare is to find someone who makes a living by selling a product, or a tangible service — something that requires a physical action be completed, rather than a digital file be downloaded. I don’t think this is because no one needs anything concrete; I just don’t think as many people have the skills or the interest in producing something real.

We Used to Know How to Do Things. Now We Just Know How to Google.

It disturbs me that I don’t feel like I know as much as I used to. When I was growing up I read constantly and watched far too much TV, but I remembered large amounts of what I took in. Now I surf the web and retain very little. I don’t have to; I can just Google. I don’t even have to remember the name of the page I was reading; my browser does it for me.

I don’t know anyone’s phone number. I don’t know very much that I’d feel comfortable being quoted on, even in a casual conversation, because most of the facts and figures I do recall are vague and hazy. I preface most anecdotes with “I read somewhere” or “Did you know that something like…” If I had to take the GED tomorrow, I’d probably fail.

What am I supposed to teach my kids [when I have them]?

When did the concrete become less valuable than the abstract?

When did we decide that life coaching and corporate storytelling were viable careers?

I’m not sure (but I could probably Google it).

Did You Get Your Boy Scout Badge in Thought Leadership Yet?

Maybe this is all cyclical. Maybe prior generations went through this same ebb and flow of goods versus services, and physical versus ethereal. (Heaven knows the Catholic church made a mint selling sin erasers for centuries until Martin Luther disrupted their market…)

And maybe we don’t need to be a nation where everyone knows how to gut a fish, raise a barn, and sail by the stars. Cool skills, bro, but we’re forever headed forward [until the grid fails], so the modern rise of “soft skills” isn’t entirely useless no matter how arbitrary they may seem to be.

But I do wonder if my weakness for the minor digital gratification of a retweet at the expense of a major creative investment in something epic isn’t more than a byproduct of this immediate digital feedback being suddenly available.

I wonder if we all make less simply because we don’t think making is what matters anymore.

If that’s the case, eight year-old me would be so disappointed.

11 Things I Forget About Myself Every Day

Justin Kownacki in Affogato

Despite knowing that each of these things is true, I seem to forget them every day.

1. I feel better when I eat well.

2. I feel better when I don’t sleep in.

3. I feel better after accomplishing something physical.

4. I get more done when I’m already busy than I do when I have free time.

5. Giving myself “just five more minutes” to surf the Internet will kill a full hour.

6. Relaxing for a whole day is bliss; relaxing for two days straight drives me insane.

7. I won’t have time to do it in the morning, so I should do it now.

8. I’ll never have “enough” money because there’s no such thing.

9. Almost everything I’m worried about is inconsequential.

10. I don’t want to lay awake thinking about “next time.”

11. One of these todays won’t have a tomorrow.

Thanks to Andy Swan for the inspiration with his 36 Truth Friday.

Photo by Rob de la Cretaz.