Lindsay VO: In Ronald Reagan's first speech as president in 1981, he famously said,
"In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem.
Government is the problem."
Before 1984, American television stations were closely regulated,
and the promotion of any product within the body of a TV show
was forbidden by the Federal Communications Commission.
All that changed under the Reagan administration in 1984, when children's television was deregulated
as part of a wider bid to boost the American economy.
Around this time, a Japanese toy company called Takara Tomy was enjoying success in Japan
with several lines of transforming robot toys, including Diaclone and Microman.
Spying opportunity with this new deregulation,
effectively allowing children’s television shows to act as commercials for toys,
American toy giant Hasbro licensed both of these toylines
into a new, American brand known as The Transformers,
and sped into production a cartoon to promote the new toyline,
which premiered in September of 1984.
Although the quality of children’s television of this era is notoriously low
if not extremely high on camp,
SKELETOR: You tin-tongued dolt I'm talking about my patience not my body
OPTIMUS PRIME: Amazing - a booby trap that actually captures boobies
HE-MAN: Ah just what everybody needs - a magical island holiday
SKELETOR: I could write a book about what you don't know
MEGATRON: You disgust me.
TEELA: He-Man, are you alright?
HE-MAN: Just mussed my hair.
Lindsay VO: The effects of this change in regulation laws in media targeting children
reverberates to this day.
Children’s programming is only put into production
with a mind to how well it will sell merchandise.
And Yes, we can consider a toy, a cartoon, a comic, a whatever a piece of art
--The Transformers was most definitely art--
MEGATRON: You are either LYING, or you're STUPID!
STARSCREAM: I'M STUPID! I'M STUPID!
Lindsay VO: But that piece of art is still used primarily
for the calculated push towards profit maximisation.
The trend since that de-regulation in the mid-1980's
has seen the profits of these giant corporations
go more and more to the top one percent of earners.
Income inequality was a reality in the mid-1980's, it is a much bigger reality now.
And if we live in a capitalist society where wealth = power,
and the way wealth is distributed, and who controls the means of production,
then what gets made and consumed,
especially media that targets children who are not yet old enough to question power structures,
is an important question:
Who controls the means of production?
Who benefits from that control?
Some might even say it is in the best interest of the masses to…
seize the means of production.
Today we’re talking about Transformers, Marxism, and film theory,
the least-complicated topic I’ve ever decided to tackle.
--sweet fuck why did I choose this--
That topic you think you know about because, ah, certain YouTube intellectuals
screaming about how Marxism is directly opposed to western values is so Hot right now!
So at the risk of pissing everyone off--both on the Right and on the Left--
I’ll preface by admitting that I am not an expert in Marxist critical theory--
I have an MFA in film and television,
not a PhD in Derrida
But I know enough about Marxism to know it’s really too complex a theoretical framework
to satisfactorily scratch the surface in a 15-20 minute youtube video about Transformers...and...film theory.
But this is a survey, not a comprehensive lecture so... where do we start?
The barest bones reduction of classical Marxism is that capitalism is bad because it’s exploitative
because a portion of the value that the worker creates goes to the owner--
In America, a HUGE portion--
Therefore, the worker is not paid the full value of her work.
But Marxism is also highly concerned with the masses--
how information is disseminated, how values are shaped, who shapes them,
who has power, and ultimately how groups of people are controlled and coerced into buying into this unjust system.
This makes Marxist theoretical frameworks particularly of interest to film theorists,
and especially relevant to the Transformers movies.
We’ll get into that.
One popular misconception is conflating Marxism with communism--
TABBY: Well, technically communism is the inevitable outcome of Marxism,
so it's sort of a distinction without a difference.
Well, I get that, but what I mean is
in American when people hear the word "Communism"
they usually think of the Totalitarian brand exemplified by Stalin.
Well, like I said, I'm no expert! So go ahead, school me.
Well, it's true that there's a Western tradition of Marxist theory
that's more academic than revolutionary
You've got your Hegelian Marxists--
Tabby VO: Your critical theorists, your Situationists, your Marxist-Humanists--
Your Analytics Marxist, your postmodern Neo-Marxists--
You know, you've got to read Kojeve--
Benjamin, Marcuse, Alrhusser, Lukacs, Gramsci, Rancière--
You have read Rancière, haven't you?
Totally...in under grad
So moving on Marxism and Stalinism
are not the same thing, but this is a useful opportunity to delve into the
difference between theory and praxis.
Marxism is a form of theory.
Theory is thought framework, a means of interpretation, and in this context, a means of predicting
sociological trends and interpreting them.
Praxis is the real world execution of that theory--
In this case usually it would be activism.
For instance, enacting the ideology of Stalinism
in the real world is a form of praxis!
Not a good one.
There are those who defend it--
BUT WE’RE NOT GOING TO GO THERE.
So giving “A Marxist Reading” on any given text
is de facto incomplete as there are many Marxist schools of thought,
just as there are many feminist schools of thought.
Marxists disagree with each other constantly
Believe it or not.
So to keep this simple we are going to pick a framework
of a Marxist theoretical theorist who is very important and just GO with that--
Let’s spin the wheel of Marxist discourse.
Who’s it going to be? Who is going to tell us how to interpret the Transformies--
Okay, Adorno, good enough.
Max Horkheimer and Theador Adorno were members of the Frankfurt School,
which was associated in part with the Institute of Social Research
at the University of Frankfurt
And ultimately we today might consider them the 'daddies' of critical theory
they were far ahead of their time in that they saw media
as a potential lens to culture--
how cultures develop, self-reflect, and propagate values -
ideas that wouldn’t take hold in mainstream academia and critical studies
until the 1960’s and 70’s,
largely in thanks to the work of these guys.
Adorno was the most pessimistic, so it’s a good thing we chose him.
[PLATE DROPPED ON METAL TABLE]
GLEN: I ate the whole plate.
CARLY: Sam, I got to run.
JERRY: Deep. Wang.
You're not getting it. Deep--
[LITERALLY CGI ROBOT HUMPING MEGAN FOX'S BOOT MOANING 'SAY MY NAME SAY MY NAME']
[PANTS RIPPING FFS]
AGENT SIMMONS: You want those new teeth you saw on Skymall?
[SLAMS A METAL TOOL DOWN]
GLEN: The Whole Plate.
For Adorno, film was too close to mass culture
and its spectators were in turn too close to it,
too integrated into its effects and manipulations.
With Horkheimer, Adorno produced the blistering Dialectic of Enlightenment in 1944 after they fled to the U.S.
penning a devastating indictment on the integration of film
into capitalist industrial production and consumption
into what Adorno and Horkheimer describe as “The Culture industry”.
According to Adorno and Horkheimer,
Wait a minute, why does this guy hate jazz so much--
Anyway, moving on.
Adorno saw film as almost analogous to the way Marx saw religion, what he famously called the
- Adorno saw the film industry as a mass, organized machine designed to salve the masses
and to keep them obedient.
According to Adorno and Horkheimer
In effect, late stage capitalism is sad,
and a part of the media industrial complex’s function
is to provide a distraction from the fact that you are fundamentally being exploited.
So, you watch Transformers; movies which nobody likes but pings the nostalgia centers of your brain
just enough that it distracts you from the void for approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes.
depending on which one you are watching.
And that is the culture industry.
An important aspect of the escapism provided by the culture industry is of the representation
of the self, the ur-audience member both elevated and denigrated
in the form of the leading man.
i.e. Sam Witwicky.
SAM: I've been talking to you for 10 seconds you have 30 seconds left --
MIKAELA: You know what you can give me the silent treatment all you want--
Lindsay VO: And Cade Yeager:
YEAGER: Go, go--
KID: You know, there's a reward for turning you in.
[VO] YEAGER: Really?
YEAGER: Cool you want to be punched in the face, like, really hard?
OK, we're done here--
that’s enough theoretical framework from Theador Adorno, hater-of-jazz.
OPTIMUS PRIME: Ah, Jazz--
I’m gonna do my own damn Marxist reading -
first, let’s ignore “the culture industry”, i.e. the forces that went into the creation
of the text, and talk about what’s in the text itself.
Interpreting text is the most basic form of film studies and mostly ignores other influences i.e. real world
markets that may have lead to the thing existing in the first place,
this is simply the study of the text.
LINDSAY VO: Bumblebee peeing on John Turturro is a part of the text.
It is a thing that happens in the story.
Independent of all things that went into the creation of the text.
The character of Bumblebee hears what Agent Turturro says:
AGENT SIMMONS: Brave now all of a sudden with his big alien friends standing over there
SAM: Where's Sector 7?
SIMMONS: Wouldn't you like to know?
Lindsay VO: Decides he needs to be put in his place, and pees on him.
OPTIMUS PRIME: Bumblebee, stop lubricating the man.
Lindsay VO:I’m sorry, lubricates him -
and swivels his little robot hips as he does so.
This is all text.
So what does the text have to say about … capitalism?
While on the whole the series remains uninterested in a critique of capitalism:
SAM'S DAD:Oh so, your car has a job?
SAM'S MOM: What does it change into?
There are parts of the text that are strangely anti-capitalist, and this is actually a major trend in Hollywood movies
where the villains are capitalists, in spite of the fact that Hollywood as a system
is a monopoly capitalist wet dream.
THERE WILL BE BLOOD: I. Drink. Your. Milkshake. [INTENSE SLURPING NOISE]
Transformers 4 frames Cade Yaeger as a down on his luck inventor,
YAEGER: I'm an inventor!
He is an entrepreneur, but appears to work off a barter system?
Contrast him with Stanley Tucci’s character Joshua Joyce in Transformers 4;
SCIENCEPERSON: Transformium, that's what we've calling it
JOYCE: Focus group. Catchy.Trademarked.
Lindsay VO: Not of course to be confused with Stanley Tucci’s portrayal of Merlin in Transformers 5...
MERLIN: Oooh. God. I'm swozzled. One last nip.
Lindsay VO: --Joyce is a thinly veiled Steve Jobs-a-like whose methods are inherently exploitative.
SCIENTIST: Programmable matter. And now we've mapped it's genome--
SCIENTIST: You've mapped it's genome.
BRAINS, TRAPPED IN A GLASS CAGE: And I was in charge of the autopsy duty.
No union. No benefits. no nothing.
Lindsay VO: He steals technology that is not his, and more over, he steals technology
from the dead bodies of Transformers.
BRAINS: This is not legal. This is illegal experimentation.
Lindsay VO: And not just Decepticons, either.
The movie goes out of its way to show that the medic Ratchet from the first movie--
you know, the guy that said this -
RATCHET: The boy's pheromone levels suggests he wants to mate with the female.
--is having his corpse vandalized.
YEAGER: They're melting Ratchet.
And that Optimus is really mad about this.
OPTIMUS: They slaughtered Ratchet!
I'm going to tear them apart!
Lindsay VO: In the very same scene where we are getting to learn of Steve Jobs’s exploitative villainy
BOOM product placement!
And the ironic thing about Age of Extinction--
the one text of the five movies that is most critical of capitalism--
is also the most explicit in its product placement.
YAEGER: Insurance? It's a freakin' spaceship.
This your car? [pops bottle open on door frame] Huh?
But there is another form of product placement in these films that would also be of interest to the attentive Marxist.
See, the attentive Marxist is less interested in the text itself than the function of the text
- what values is it encouraging, what is it trying to sell you.
And the answer to that is, of course, much more than Meets The Eye--
The answer is much more complex than a series of films designed to sell toys and place products.
And that is where the aesthetics of advertising come in.
If the primary intent of these films was to sell product and elevate brand name recognition,
namely, of the Transformers toy line, then Michael Bay was the perfect choice to direct
these five movies for a variety of reasons.
The first being his history as a director of commercials and music videos.
Commercials as advertisements for products,
AD: Y'know this is pretty good beer'--
and music videos being advertisements for albums.
Both are pieces of art unto themselves--
Bay’s iconic “Got Milk” commercial from the 90’s is remembered for a reason.
HAS NO MILK MAN: *trying to say Aaron Burr*
RADIO CONTEST: I'm sorry maybe next time--
But these are pieces of art whose mere existence is dependent on their function as advertising.
So to bring it back around to professor Jazz-hater:
But Bay is advertising far more than just toys with these films.
Hollywood has long held a mutually beneficial relationship with the Pentagon
in which the Department of Defense provides information and equipment to certain productions,
provided that they effectively function as a taxpayer-subsidized military recruitment ad.
Not all Hollywood films make the cut.
THE AVENGERS was famously denied these subsidies when the text was not deemed by the Pentagon as--
shall we say--
Helpful to their recruitment efforts.
According to academic Toby Miller:
“As for propaganda, the state and the film industry have often worked together.
In the embarrassingly macho language of the US political science, the media represent ‘soft power’
to match the ‘hard power’ of the military and the economy.”
The military offering their equipment, time and manpower is nothing new; what is new is
the type of movie they lend their resources to.
No longer are the biggest projects real life stories about soldiers and heroism; now they
just as often involve an alien invasion, with a military subplot thrown in as an afterthought,
an advertisement, even,
which are then later tied-in with a literal recruitment campaign.
Recent high profile examples include The Transformers movies, Man of Steel, and
Independence Day: Resurgence.
That went well.
The Transformers movies use the cinematic language of capitalism both to safely critique
a fictionalized brand of capitalism - the girly, effite, non-manly Steve Jobs kind -
JOYCE: Tactical nuke [laughs] LOL
[DINOBOT IN JOYCE'S FACE ROARS]
JOYCE: [SCREAMS LONG AND HIGH PITCHED] OH MY GOD
Lindsay VO: While using that same language to actually promote the state's agenda
And one more important note about Tucci character
He exploits dead Autobots innocently, but only with encouragement from corrupt government agencies.
In fact, Tucci is redeemed at the end, despite his misdeeds,
where the REAL bad guy, a government agent played by
Kelsey-yep-he’s-here-too-Grammer and founder of CIA faction “Cemetery Wind”--
KELSEY GRAMMER: Cemetery Wind.
Lindsay VO:--is shot in the back by Optimus Prime, our hero.
In the end, in the words of Ronald Reagan….
REAGAN: Government is the not the solution to our problem.
Lindsay VO: Sometimes it is in the interest of the State to push this ideology.
And the Transformers movies have been all too eager to oblige.
So I want to bring it back to Professor Jazz-Hater for a minute--
BEE MOVIE: you like jazz?
Normally I wouldn’t feel the need to explain this
but this is a series for YouTube, not for the classroom --
When one explains a theoretical framework and applies it to a text
that isn't necessarily the same thing as agreeing with that framework.
It's just showing that you understand it.
I say this because I don't want my interpreting Adorno's position for Transformers
to mean that I think all products of the Culture Industry are meaningless
exist to cram some fleeting complacence in your life so you don’t get utterly sucked into the void.
If that was true how could I possible justify all these Starscreams I seem to own.
IT MAKES ME HAPPY--
But there is a big problem in nerd communities
with coming to terms with the fact that a product they love kind of only exists for
gross hypercapitalistic Reagany reasons.
Personally, I do not care.
I buy my Starscreams, I read my comics,
and I can still talk about the fact that this series only exists due to deregulation designed to target children
and benefit big businesses.
I personally do not ascribe to Adorno’s black and white world view--
that the culture industry produces only trash, and you only stuff your face with it because you
are trying to fill a bottomless emptiness with no name.
To concede to this viewpoint is to posit that Hollywood is incapable of producing art
with any sort of meaning, and that’s just not a position I can get behind.
Plus I just don’t think I can trust the taste of a guy who hates jazz that much.
BUT--and this is if you ignore Bay's movies which do,
I think, fit into Adorno's definition of trash--
it is also not fair to say that nothing good or artistic has come from this franchise
Despite it's origins as a marketing tool to sell toys.
The products of the culture industry are hollow and meaningless!
Hey Tabby… do you like jazz?
Yea. That's what I thought.