Film Crit Theory via Transformers
July 1, 2017 11:05 PM   Subscribe

Lindsay Ellis delivers a film theory course via the Transformers movies in The Whole Plate: 1) Film Studies; 2) Auteur Theory 3) Why is it so hard to remember what happens in Transformers? 4) Genre 5) Feminist Theory ... More to come!
posted by Eyebrows McGee (21 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
I'm watching the feminist theory episode and (a) feeling very scared for her for going there with this video given GG, but at the same time wondering if (b) if you talk like a sociology class long enough, hopefully the GG'ers get bored enough to stop watching the video before it gets interesting don't tell anyone.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:31 PM on July 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think Lindsay Ellis isn't too afraid of the garbage human geeks on the right. Her Mel Brooks, The Producers and the Ethics of Satire about N@zis video is also pretty good.
posted by fleacircus at 12:24 AM on July 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

"How are you in every movie, Stanley Tucci?"
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 3:41 AM on July 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

[A couple deleted. Probably best to discuss what Ellis has produced so far rather than derailing with complaints about what she hasn't done yet (but lists as a topic, and apparently intends to address in later installments?)]
posted by taz (staff) at 4:20 AM on July 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Lindsay Ellis' video essays are amazing. The Hercules video is spot on and the Loose Canon videos are really interesting. I'd never thought about it too much, but the video-essay as a medium does seem like it would find itself on youtube.
posted by goner at 5:00 AM on July 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

These are really good. Using "trash" like Transformers to illustrate these ideas is brilliant, precisely as she says because these movies are popular and that says a lot about our culture.

Something I mentioned to my father last week as we were leaving the theater is that all of the Transformers movies snap nicely into focus if you understand them not as stories about people and alien robots, but as the fantasies of a ten year old boy as he is playing with the toys. All of the things that seem odd and off-joint about the movies, like the constant action, crude jokes, and Serious People saying ridiculous things (see: Anthony Hopkins says "duuuude") are all the kind of things a ten year old boy would incorporate into his play story. It's as if the movies are 150 minute long Calvin and Hobbes panels.

Lindsay might be working her way around to this; she says in the intro that there will be twelve-ish episodes and we're only up to 5.
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:59 AM on July 2, 2017 [12 favorites]

They're good, but the series is laboring under a certain defensiveness. This is most clearly apparent in the feminist theory episode, where the reality of internet shitheadedness forces Ellis to front-load the discussion with a primer the purpose of which seems mostly to try to convince fragile egos to not feel threatened by feminism, post-modernism, etc. This padding doesn't leave much time to talk much feminist theory, so I hope more is coming. Considering the kind of toll massed internet randos can inflict on the health and well-being of women who engage in public acts of thinking and speaking that defensiveness, the pre-emptive pleading for the right to have the discussion, sadly isn't unwarranted.

But there is also a different kind of defensive self-consciousness that pervades the series, brought about by a tension between two ideas: firstly, that the Transformers series as a cultural artifact is a worthy subject of study, and secondly, that the material itself is rubbish. It seems like Ellis has opted not only for academic distance, but ironic distance as well. Over and over again she punctuates her discussion with the most cringeworthy scenes - robots farting and pissing and leg-humping, enormous robot testicles, Shia Labeouf gaping slack-jawed at Megan Fox's bare midriff - as if to constantly remind the viewer that, while she takes film theory seriously, she still has taste for god's sake.

And it's unnecessary. Ellis' analysis is both penetrating and kind of interesting. Nobody needs to see the leg-humping robot for the nth time to understand that the movies themselves aren't Citizen Fucking Kane. It's as if Ellis is continually interrupting herself to reassure us that nobody thinks these are good movies. For this reason episode three is probably the best so far, as it mostly avoids these defensive interjections (the pissing robot in this one is part of the core argument, so it's not all that gratuitous) and just tackles the subject matter head-on.
posted by um at 7:02 AM on July 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

I agree that the third episode is the best. I say this as someone who's never watched a Michael Bay movie ever: Ohhhhhh, so that's why nobody seems to know what happened in one!
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:09 AM on July 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Funny, I've only ever seen Armageddon all the way though but I feel like I know Bay's movies better than ones that I've actually watched just from all the clips that have been floating around the internet for so long.
posted by octothorpe at 7:35 AM on July 2, 2017

Oh man I love these deep dives she does occasionally
posted by The Whelk at 8:08 AM on July 2, 2017

I've watched the first two of these so far and they're pretty great.
posted by octothorpe at 8:14 AM on July 2, 2017

I say this as someone who's never watched a Michael Bay movie ever: Ohhhhhh, so that's why nobody seems to know what happened in one!

I think Ellis mentions this, but there's also a distinct break between Bayformers and his earlier movies in this regard.

I have a pretty good idea what happened in Armageddon and The Rock, despite not seeing either one of those in quite some time, but I couldn't tell you the first fucking thing about Transformers, which I saw when it came out. And it's not like I re-watch the other two movies on the regular or anything.

I don't know if this is like a George Lucas thing where people just stopped saying no to him or what.

But anyway, this insight of hers is one of those things that was kind of lurking around in my subconscious to the point that I had an "oh my god, of course!" reaction when I watched that video. In my case, the revelation had to do with video game skill effects. It's something that I had only been able to articulate as "noise", i.e. such-and-such game has really noisy combat effects. Others have called it "particle soup". But that video really put a pin in what bugs me about those games, which is that you trust the game to tell you what's important or not by ramping the level of effects up and down accordingly and ensuring that the most impressive-looking skills also have the most impressive mechanical effects (and vice versa).
posted by tobascodagama at 9:00 AM on July 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Nobody needs to see the leg-humping robot for the nth time to understand that the movies themselves aren't Citizen Fucking Kane.

dude. I think the people the series is written for do need to see the leg humping robot in each context to understand that the movies aren't Citizen Kane. That is also the language of film/video/youtube leveraged for the essay.

I hate to break it to you, but i think the author loves to hate the leg-humping robot (and everything else). Check out Lindsay Ellis's guest star on Andre the Black Nerd's transformers videos. And the new one for the 5th movie.

These seem to be for a mass audience, and I appreciate the way they are written. A senile reality TV star is the President of the United States. We are all the leg-humping robot. Sorry.
posted by eustatic at 11:12 AM on July 2, 2017 [7 favorites]

The videos are really quite good at what they're explicitly setting out to do, which is provide a brief primer on some of the key areas of focus in film studies by using Michael Bay and the Transformers series as a jumping off point for that discussion. As an introduction to the ideas, the videos don't much deal with many of the areas of tension in film studies, at least so far, other than to point out they exist and perhaps give some hint or indication of Ellis' own feelings on the ultimate merits of each.

As such, the examination of the Transformers series isn't all that in depth, and there are some other important questions about film studies itself that could potentially be better addressed, and perhaps they will be later, to provide some grounding for how to look at the value of the discipline. Maybe that isn't exactly in the videos purview as they are simply offering an introduction, but it's something that I think is also of significant importance given how current trends in criticism and analysis also play a role in understanding movies and how audiences think about them.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:10 PM on July 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Metafilter: We are all the leg-humping robot.
posted by Bringer Tom at 3:04 PM on July 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

As a fairly unsophisticated film viewer, it's a great introduction for me, and I know enough about, like, lit-crit to be able to connect some dots from "basic overview" to "reasons it might be valuable" or "implications that might arise." I keep going OHHHHH as I suddenly understand things that never made sense (why high-speed action sequences are so tiring and hard to tell what's happening) or as I realize what some reviewer was talking about when he said "X."

Plus I am always down for making fun of Michael Bay.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:26 PM on July 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

I really recommend people dive back into her history for other essays; Loose Canon is fantastic and her un-series analyses are likewise good. Nostalgia Chick got a lot into a series storyline which I personally found less engaging, but if you like that go for it, and even if you don't the analysis remains interesting.

Similar youtube analyzers-of-pop-culture include Folding Ideas (mostly film), hbomberguy (video games), Lessons from the Screenplay, Maven of the Eventide (vampires), and, of course, Feminist Frequency. If anyone knows similar analysis work by women or people of color in particular, I've been looking a LOT but haven't found much. It seems to be rare even for white men, which is a shame because I love this stuff.
posted by Deoridhe at 3:48 PM on July 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

As a fairly unsophisticated film viewer, it's a great introduction for me, and I know enough about, like, lit-crit to be able to connect some dots from "basic overview" to "reasons it might be valuable" or "implications that might arise."

Yeah, there is a lot of value to it, without question, and particularly in how so much of current film studies is tied to thoughts about representation and connecting the films to real world values. That though does shift focus from other perspectives on art and film that have some real importance, mostly in regards to more aesthetic values of a more traditional sort, which has some tension with current theory. There is good reason for some of that tension, as I mentioned above, but there are some difficulties the more value driven theoretical approaches have too which needs some balance as well.

I mention this not to knock the videos or the ideas Ellis is discussing, but to suggest we have reached a point of some difficulty in discussing movies and art due to these differing approaches not being wholly compatible with each other on a deeper level, which causes resistance to some of the ideas in film studies and some of the evaluations from the older aesthetic, which, perhaps ironically, helps give naked commercialism a freer reign.
posted by gusottertrout at 4:59 PM on July 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think these are really good. She puts words to some things that I sense as a viewer, but don't really have the critical vocabulary for -and is very entertaining while doing it. No, they're not the same as a college course on film studies - but I still learned some new stuff.

One of the most educational things about them in general is just seeing how she approaches movie and the kinds of concepts she's thinking about as she's watching.

I'm going to watch more now.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 4:19 AM on July 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

The genre and why don't we remember segments are, I think, the strongest, with the auteur theory segment the weakest of the bunch, sticking too much to the outlines of the initial versions of the concept for much of it, so I'd suggest not taking that one too much to heart, other than her jab about the reach around, that was golden.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:14 AM on July 3, 2017

Some of this is funny, because I've gotten the impression that she REALLY likes transformers. Not the movie, but all the cartoons and shows before the movie. I mentioned it in the last one, but her discussion of Starscream, is extremely thorough, and covers more modern transformer cartoons that I never even knew existed.

I'm so glad she was able to strike on her own and can ditch the whole "nostalgia chick" thing and just be herself.

> (a) feeling very scared for her for going there with this video given GG

She got run off twitter for a bit during the original GG frenzy, and came back. I think she's got her finger on that particular pulse.
posted by lkc at 12:54 PM on July 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

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