Went alright: had a G1er in the audience that kept interrupting me when I tried to answer questions (who was also late, slammed the door, stepped over everyone to sit in the front row, and fell asleep during the second panelist's reading), but other than that it went over well. Here's the final copy I read from. You can probably guess the film clips, but I also took some in-sequence photographs of MPM4 Prime to illustrate the point at the end (as I can't change it that fast!). I did have Prime sitting on all the populist, film, and political theory books to my side.
Nuance in the Noise: the politically dexterous Optimus Prime
Right, this is a culmination of several ideas that have been percolating for years. I have a thread which is a synthesis of a sympathetic close reading of Optimus Prime that I wrote years ago for a forum post, and a more hostile reading from Terry Van Feleday from a thread on Something Awful that was compiled into a giant pdf. Externally to the films, I have a thread that is a comparison of the gulf between the critical and box office receptions of the films and the rise of populism around the world for the last few years. This then dovetails back into the idea of how we view Prime and leadership figures, complete with a neat little bow.
And before I get into it, I want to make it clear that, despite talking about the nature of Optimus Prime's leadership and the different perceptions of it within the texts of the films, I am not arguing that the movies are successful because of some populist or fascist appeal, but rather their position is in some ways analogous to those movements: that of critical dismissal before thunderous success.
I ended up with about thirty pages of notes or, as george carlin called them, brain droppings on this subject, so this may end up as something more one day, but for now I can only touch on the major blocks of this argument.[refer to mpm prime]: yes, I will get to the toy at the end. He's not just here as a visual aid.
So, the first thing to do is to document Optimus Prime's character arc through the michael bay movies. This seems like a major discovery, akin to finding water on the moon, but it's there if you pay attention.
In the beginning, Prime comes to earth looking to end a war and save another planet from being contaminated by his own race's conflict. His best intention is to try and stop the conflict without needlessly hurting anyone, even if that means he has to pay the price [clip1]. He waxes lyrical about the fate of his race and that of the humans, and tries his best to save everyone, including megatron [clip2]. In a quick decision, sam kills megatron instead, and this leaves prime in a position he didn't anticipate or prepare for [clip3].
Movie two: decepticons keep showing up, and prime helps the humans stop them. Even so, some of the humans are deeply distrustful of prime, so he goes to ask his friend sam to vouch for him. Sam shortly ends up in grave danger, and Prime ends up being killed while defending him... only to ultimately be resurrected by his best human friend. Prime awakens in the midst of the worst danger yet, and wastes no time in dispatching the big bad.
Movie 3: Optimus discovers that his oldest robot friend may still be alive. Easily able to locate and retrieve him, Optimus revives sentinel and spends some time with him seeking closure and guidance after the loss of their home. Sentinel expresses confidence in Optimus's ability to lead him on the world that his not his own [clip5]. Shortly thereafter, sam discovers that sentinel is a traitor, and the decepticons invade. The human allies blame the autobots, and force them to leave. However, they quickly resurface, optimus stating that the facade was to trick the decepticons into making their move. They fight through chicago, optimus's oldest robot friend gravely wounds him, and optimus is saved by, of all people, megatron! Seizing the opportunity, optimus returns the favor by killing megatron and then executing sentinel prime. Gone are the aspirations of nobility; optimus now acts decisively and pragmatically. He's been on earth long enough to understand that he cannot save both his friends and enemies, and so chooses his friends.
Movie 4: however, the rest of the human race is not so sympathetic. Prime's reward for sacrificing both his body and ideals is to be hunted down and exterminated along with any remaining decepticons. Prime discovers that the transformers are being disassembled for parts. They storm the facility this occurs in, but stanley tucci confronts them. Prime remarks that the world will know what is happening to the autobots that fought to protect it, to which tucci replies that the world will approve. Prime, now thoroughly defeated, withdraws [clip6]. Having traded idealism for practicality, prime's reward is to be discarded by the people he was protecting at their earliest convenience. In the final act, mark wahlberg converses with prime about looking beyond past mistakes [clip7], and prime agrees to save the humans from the baddies one last time before leaving earth, a broken man in search of answers.
It's a downward sloping arc that sees prime trade away his ideals and nobility for a bitter pragmatism, only to get ultimately nothing for the exchange. It's not a happy story.
So, let's cheer ourselves up by talking about the rise of populism! For this project, I picked a few recent books on the subject: chiefly “The Populist Explosion” by John Judis, which is a pretty good survey of current populist movements circa 2016, and “Aspirational Fascism” by William Connolly, which is an informative psychological portrait of fascist movements. I've also been re-reading “Film Form” by Sergei Eisenstein, but I'll get to him in a minute.
First, let's look at how John Judis defines populism:
“the kind of populism that runs through american history, and is transplanted to europe, cannot be defined in terms of left, right, or center. There are rightwing, leftwing, and centrist populist parties. It is not an ideology, but a political logic – a way of thinking about politics. [it] is “a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class; [they] view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic; and [they] seek to mobilize the former against the latter.”
The transformer movies and modern populists have a similar disconnect between appraisal from the, ahem, established critical apparatus, despite it being plainly apparent that they have enough appeal to keep people coming back. Fair? Fair. A specific example I can recall is Red Letter Media's review of AOE on youtube: it's thirty minutes of a black screen.
Judis documents a parallel example: “the huffington post's washington editors announced that they wouldn't “report on trump's campaign as part of [their] political coverage... Instead, [covering] his campaign as part of [their] entertainment section.” Six months later... ariana huffington sheepishly announced they were moving their coverage of him back into their politics section.” (64)
Now that we have a rough idea of the parallel between the movies and populist leaders – that not only do they seek mass appeal while also being unconcerned with critical metrics, but that also critics are all too eager to reciprocate – let's imagine for a second that the critical approaches to judging film or charismatic leaders are empirically wrong, and serve more of a need to prescribe and assert culture when their role should be to examine and understand what is clearly succeeding (if I may make an aside, I have observed and learned from this type of person that to dislike something is to control it). Let's look at what William Connolly has to say about the psychology behind this. Speaking of critics:
“They may demand either that the world itself be partitioned into sharp distinctions without pregnant zones of indiscernibility, friction, litter, effervescence, and noise or that "we" must act as if it does so to conform to the necessary dictates of epistemology.” (xxi)
Further, when speaking on the components of his attempted genealogy of fascism:
“it does that in part by showing how a series of practices often taken to be relatively constant or on a stable trajectory over time - say, sovereignty, the state, capitalism, morality, or democracy - is often enough composed of a series of heterogeneous elements with [the potential] to shift in this way or that after a new shock or infusion.”
However, Connolly broadly is making an argument about the potentialities of fascism emerging from democracies. Surely film criticism is more settled, yes? No. Eisenstein writes, in the very beginning of his book, Film Form:
“In the early 1920s we all came to the soviet cinema as something not yet existent. We came upon no ready-built city... We came like ... gold seekers to a place of unimaginably great possibilities... no written traditions, no exact stylistic requirements, nor even formulated demands.”
So for someone like Michael Bay to come along, with his emphasis on a kind of dirty kineticism over a more calm and considered story structure, with resounding success while getting no closer look than superficial dismissal is fairly ignorant. But don't worry, Eisenstein would have hated Bay movies anyway. He also writes:
“Out of tune with the montage idea and composition, [individual shots] become esthetic toys and aims in themselves. The better the shots, the closer the film comes to a disconnected assemblage of lovely phrases, a shop window full of pretty but unrelated products.”
So yeah, he would have hated Bay. One of things that I think we find so baffling and frustrating with our various political leaders today is not just the leaders themselves, but also the unified and almost concrete support a significant part of the population will give them. How can people look at the same person, with access to the same information, and get such a different impression? Well, that's what's great about texts. They are essentially their own little controlled experiments with an individual viewer being the variable. So let's go back to Optimus Prime, but be incredibly skeptical this time.
In the beginning, Prime comes to earth looking for an artifact of immense power. He meets an impressionable youth that can lead him to it, and takes advantage of the kid's authoritarian upbringing to enlist him into his service. A battle follows, and at the pivotal moment, the kid puts the cube in megatron, which kills the beast. Importantly, when discussing this plan with the autobots, ratchet notes that the cube's lethality is only a possibility, not a certainty. Prime seemingly could have been gambling that the cube would have given him some supernatural buff, but fortunately for him, megatron collected on this losing bet instead. Seizing the opportunity, prime begins to orate to the humans, moving into a position of authority and alliance.
Movie 2: Prime begins exterminating decepticons. After defeating one, it remarks that earth is not prime's planet to rule. Prime executes him immediately [clip]. His human allies begin to grow uneasy, so prime goes to manipulate the child to be his spokesman and pundit. Shortly thereafter, sam comes into grave danger, and prime falls to the attackers while trying to save his propaganda asset. Sam revives prime with the matrix of leadership, another artifact of great power. Prime then fights and kills the big bad, relishing in the experience [this is the infamous “give me your face” part]. This time the artifact of power is intact, and prime keeps it... in his chest.
Movie 3: Optimus retrieves and revives sentinel, and they discuss their roles in a new world. Sentinel acquiesces, saying that he will follow Optimus's lead. Seemingly impatient, sentinel instead pursues a more direct plan and works with the decepticons to conquer earth. Optimus, loathing them, refuses to be a party to a rebuilt cybertron, saying he'd rather remain with the humans. Battles happen, optimus and sentinel fight, and they exchange critically important words. Sentinel says that on cybertron, they were gods, but on earth, there will be only one [clip]. Megatron defeats sentinel, and then requests a truce. His only concession is to be in charge. Much like Milton's Satan, when offered the role to serve in the literal heavens, Optimus chooses to rule in hell instead [clip]. Sentinel's last words are a sorrowful lament of trying to save their own race. Optimus bluntly states that his own ambitions and motivations were not betrayed, only sentinel's. Sentinel, eyes racing, panics and pleads before optimus executes him. Optimus stands alone, the only god left. [clip]
Movie 4: But, while prime has won the physical battle, he hasn't won the narrative fight. The humans being to hunt all transformers. Prime reunites with the remaining autobots and swears vengeance [clip]. They destroy the robot salvage facility before being confronted by the owner. Prime, calculating that his narrative of the autobots as saviors is broken, withdraws. After a conversation with the human that saved him, prime realizes that his narrative of the benevolent alien god king may yet be salvageable. Prime rallies his autobots with the emphasis not on the physical fight (which they can easily win), but the narrative fight. Successful, prime leaves the earth, incensed at the idea of a creator having a different agenda for him than his own [“this message is to my creators... i'm coming for you”].
It's a scary story.
So, the real moment of grace for me comes from this: I read this big pdf that gave a hostile reading of optimus prime. It was convincing, and so much so that I reconsidered what I had actively thought and written about the character. I had a real, honest catharsis about how I could have let myself be so misled by a leader figure, and I don't mean one of those hypothetical, on-paper catharses. No, a real one. So I thought that if I can read Prime so wrong, and miss villainy in plain sight, it makes more sense to me now that others can misread villainy in the real world. What's great about Prime's arc in particular is how well he rides the line of ambiguity, of savior and villain*. In these two very contrasting close readings of the character, maybe we can understand what others see in authority figures, and can maybe walk them back from of the most extreme views. Rather than measuring art by the quality of the craft, maybe we should sometimes consider the effect it produces in its viewer.
The world is a scary place, and seems to be getting scarier with the looming specter of climate change and the economic and political instability that it will bring. But, I think Prime, as a physical character, offers some hope. You'll note that in his robot form, he looks less like he turns into a truck and more like he is wearing parts of a truck, with no real consideration as to how what part gets where. Seemingly, if we start with the truck and want to make a robot out of it, the two forms seem wholly irreconcilable. We can see where we are and where we want to be, but without any clear or obvious path of how to get there. However... it can be done. Tellingly, no one solid part can be grasped, but rather the solution comes from a myriad of small parts working in harmony to make something impossible, possible.
Finally, if I've cracked open a can of worms and now you're genuinely unsure what to make of the Optimus Prime from the Michael Bay films, I'll let the movie make this point for itself:
[clip – dinobot rally, leadership, brainwashing, something.... no, that's optimus prime. roll out!]