David G. Hughes
Then when we arrived at the top of a gentle slope—it was already night—and looked towards Florence, both of us exclaimed in astonishment:
‘Good God! What’s that tremendous thing we can see over Florence?’
It was like a huge beam of fire, shining brightly and filling the sky with a brilliant light.
I said to Felice: ‘We shall certainly hear tomorrow of some great thing that has befallen Florence.’
— Benvenuto Cellini, Autobiography (1728)
Had famed Renaissance sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) been a Florentine during August-September of 2018, he would have been referring to the havoc and despoliation of a Michael Bay production. Partly shot in Italy over six weeks, including Rome, Siena and Taranto, Bay’s 6 Underground (2019), which premiered on Netflix in December, opens to an explosive, extended car-chase chiefly shot on the cobbled streets of Florence. While some Hollywood productions have filmed in the city to exploit its striking resplendence — most recently Inferno (Ron Howard, 2016) and Hannibal (Ridley Scott, 2001) — it’s surprising how few actually have when compared to, say, a neighbouring city like Rome or Venice. These reasons could be financial, or indeed practical, for the notion of an action-packed blockbuster using the old, narrow streets of Florence, which isn’t drastically different now to how it was during the Middle Ages, as a sandpit would be met with incredulous protestation from any sane production manager. Yet to a merciless director like Bay that was more the reason to attempt it, as he said promoting the film: “The reason I decided to shoot in Florence is that this city has never hosted a big car chase scene.”
Anyone familiar with the work and, by proxy, the personality of Michael Bay shouldn’t be surprised that his chief incentive to use Florence was novelty and difference for its own sake, or as cinematographer Bojan Bazelli reports: “Why not go to [one of] the oldest cities in the world and go crazy?” One can only speculate how the local Florentine population felt about extensive shut-downs and restrictions across a relatively small city; as one observer commented: “Helicopters are loud, Italians hate road changes, and we really, really hope no one accidentally crashes into the Duomo.” While few would doubt the professionalism of the production crew, it would be fair to say that with Bay’s hot-headed, irreverent reputation as well as his notorious penchant for “Bayhem”, it’s not unreasonable or too conservative to fear for the maintenance and integrity of a precious city and its innumerable objet d’art. Watching the film, you find that Bay does indeed have his target set on revered treasures, one roadside victim being Bernini’s Apollo & Daphne (despite the fact that it’s actually held in Rome). What intrigues me in the case of Bay vs Florence is the type of pleasure derived from the destruction of objects worthy of aesthetic contemplation. I believe there is something of interest, or even pleasure, in the dissonance of Hollywood’s artistically-reviled, bad-taste auteur using the pinnacle achievement of the Renaissance as little more than a playpen of petulant explosions, blood ‘n’ gore and ribald jokes.
Yet perhaps the dissonance intrigues because the match-up is not as dissonant as one may initially assume. Florence is commonly regarded and experienced as an auratic locale, with only Venice comparable in terms of aesthetic accomplishment. So overwhelming is Florence that it is the number one inflictor of the Stendhal Syndrome – the psychosomatic condition of fainting, hallucinating or falling into general nausea after being exposed to extensive beauty, as dramatised in the Italian film The Stendhal Syndrome / La Sindrome di Stendhal (Dario Argento, 1996) based on the 1989 book by psychiatrist Graziella Magherini. Bay doesn’t strike as a connoisseur of the fine arts yet he does have a Masters degree in that very same topic. At Wesleyan University, he was a favourite student of Janine Basinger and he is almost certainly an aesthete in his own manner (one example: he made Ben Affleck go to dentistry for more “heroic” teeth). More so, the symptoms of Florentine Stendhal Syndrome are not wholly different from what we may designate Bay Syndrome: reports of vertiginous, wooly-headed states caused by an oversaturated colour palette, frenetic action sequences, layers of diverging motion and an overwhelming decoupage. In both aesthetic encounters, the subject experiences a strong affective response to the object and, at this level, we might consider Florence and Michael Bay to be apposite allies.
We can take this strain of Bay revisionism further. Assessing Renaissance architecture, art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) said that it represents: “Pride of Science, Pride of State, and Pride of System”. These would correspond to Bay’s palpable love and knowledge of cinema technology, country and way of life that is brazenly asserted in his filmography, often to the liberal critic’s discontent. Or, as he once put it, “I’m, like, a true American.” Look at this video of Bay showing off his bespoke camera, the ‘Bayhem’ (also the name of his sneakers), with pride: “Perfectly ergonomically balanced”, he remarks like an aesthete. You’ll see that the colour of the camera is identical to the garish green of the protagonist’s car in 6 Underground’s Florence chase. Explaining his preference of colour, Bay says: “You’re doing it for advertising purposes; why not just do it fucking green?” Bay is both maximalist aesthete and indecorous money-maker. Most of all he wants to stand out and many anecdotes describe a tactless, ruthless competitiveness and a raison d’etre for being the ‘first’ to do something, anything. But he wouldn’t be the first creative braggart to walk the streets of Florence; likewise, the Renaissance artists spoke in action, not introspection, displaying what art historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897) called a “mighty, energetic, and fully developed nature”. Lest we forget these artists were not saints, not beyond threats or even murder when attempting to get the edge. This passage in Cellini’s riotous Autobiography is telling:
I had recourse for my defense to a great dagger I carried; for I have always taken pleasure in keeping fine weapons. The first man I attacked was a plaintiff who had sued me; and one evening I wounded him in the legs and arms so severely, taking care, however, not to kill him, that I deprived him of the use of both his legs. Then I sought out the other fellow who had brought the suit, and used him also such wise that he dropped it.
More than that, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the much visited artworks of Florence were once considered profane, morally corrupt and lowbrow when contrasted to a conservative tradition that emphasised moral Christian obligation. Michelangelo’s David was even stoned on its public reveal. One scene in the Netflix series Medici: Masters of Florence (2016- ) depicts this culture war when, upon seeing the newly erected David by Donatello (commissioned by Cosimo de Medici, portrayed by Richard Madden) as the forward-thinking centrepiece of the Palazzo Medici, a political opponent calls it little more than the “mind of a sodomite sculpture” and asks, sarcastically, “where in the Bible does it say that Goliath was slain by a naked boy that looks like a girl?” There is frank eroticism to Florentine art, alongside a strong homosexual impulse. One need not look far to see similar moral outrages at the licentious, voyeuristic Michael Bay and the pornographic impulses (albeit heterosexual) prevalent in his oeuvre. Renaissance Florence was as vain, cosmetic and ostentatious as Bay is today.
It is said that the Florentine Renaissance was the birth of individuality as we know and value it. In Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) Burckhardt writes, “man became a spirited individual, and recognized himself as such.” The aforementioned David is a monumental testament to the individual and the genius attached to it, not to mention the other giants of the era, including Boticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Giovanni Boccaccio and Dante Alighieri. These figures manifested the artist-as-hero notion that we maintain today. This “age productive in personalities,” as Walter Pater calls it, oversaw the transition from pro forma craftsman to fully-fledged artist pregnant with insight and vision. In this sense, you could say the streets of Florence is where auteurism was born, and, in some way therefore, where Michael Bay, in his trenchant individualism, was also born. As Ben Affleck once remarked: “You may like it, you may not—but those movies are him without compromise.” Even Bay’s merging of gratuitous aesthetics and money-making has a genealogy in Florence, which was not built on conservative piety but brash gesture and new money. Florence at this time was the banking capital of Europe, as tradesmen and bankers overtook the old aristocracy as the governing power. It was what art historian Howard Hibbard (1928-1984) calls “a small-scale prototype of modern capitalism”. The achievement of the Florentine Republic complicates the art vs commerce divide, for it was thriving industry and the patronage of bankers that gave us the great works we enjoy today. Perhaps Bay wishes he was alive at this time when the union of art and commerce was unquestioned, when art did not have to be confrontational to the state to be seen as valuable, and instead bigged-it up.
For all these reasons, Bay shows a degree of attraction, fascination and perhaps even an instinctual understanding of Florence that others don’t have, what Camille Paglia calls its “voyeurism and voracity”. Yet he never permits himself a level of deferential respect towards it that could indicate a metaphysical union or pleasing stylistic synthesis. In fact, it’s fair to say that Bay’s perspective on Donatello’s David would be as philistine and myopic as the conservative critic in the Medici series, and not the forward-thinking visionary Cosimo de Medici, who likewise commissioned Filippo Brunelleschi’s astonishing Santa Maria del Fiore – the Duomo of Florence, which Bay uses as a parkour apparatus. Hardly refined in his appreciation if there is any, Bay cannot resist the tawdry and adolescent temptation to include a groan-inducing joke about the (small) size of David’s penis when, somehow or another, the getaway car makes a bypass.
During the Renaissance, a small penis represented cultivation, civilisation and beauty, part of Italy’s rediscovering of Ancient Greece as it made Neo-Platonic advances towards a collective ideal city-state. Bay’s attitude couldn’t be further removed from this; his perspective is of an overcompensating heterosexual masculinity, a stubborn individualism (he has never married) and a belligerent, infantile sense of destruction. When we witness the green car smash through Apollo and Daphne, the protagonist played by Ryan Reynolds exclaims in agony: “That was Apollo and Daphne!” The joke here comes from the simultaneous acknowledgement of its revered status and its corresponding obliteration. We begin to see that Bay’s use of Florence comes not from aesthetic affection or comradeship but a sense of dysfunctional antagonism. There is pride in rampage as innocent passerby become sadistic collateral damage, as if playing Grand Theft Auto, and cultural ignorance is celebrated by xenophobic jokes. In this light, the remark about David’s penis feels intended less like a harmless joke and more like a puerile attempt to belittle from a man who once offered the rejoinder to the people behind Team America: World Police (2004) that he “dated his girlfriend and that’s why he’s pissed at me”.
This is 6 Underground’s aesthetic failure—its purposiveness reveals itself as unbecoming and resentful in a way that elicits in the viewer what philosopher Roger Scruton calls “a spasm of recoil”. If Renaissance Florence “liberated the western eye, repressed by the Christian Middle Ages”, as Paglia says, Bay is attempting to pluck it out and dangle it by the optic nerve in petulant rebellion—he is an epiphenomenon of the Western artistic tradition and its Luciferian malformation. Such as it is, Bay is almost certainly displaying what Harold Bloom calls “anxiety of influence”, which is the anxiety artists feel when attempting to overcome the legacy of antecedents. For an egotist like Bay, Bloom’s notion that there is only derivative work if you fail to overcome the influence of masters is too much to handle and his destruction of Florence manifests an ambivalent Oedipal struggle against the birthplace of virtuous, enlightened auteurism that has dogged his déclassé reputation.
I do not intend to either reappraise Bay as a misunderstood vulgar auteurist or secret Renaissance man, nor compare his failings against that of the Italian masters—which is surely too easy. It is not Bay’s Rabelaisian manner, pornographic sensibility or use of violence that marks his misuse of Florence — that is, in fact, his compatibility, as both allow us to consider amoral, sybaritic pleasures. Rather, it is his hangups and his oppressively touristic sensibility. In the twenty-minute segment that makes up the car chase, no site of Florentine interest goes unnoticed, even if for a flash. The getaway car becomes a tour guide, only made extra fast and consumptive. This is nothing new, of course. We expect movies to exploit and make use of exotic locales and its distinguishing features, and we can hardly take a moment to pause and reflect on the city space during a car chase. But the extent of Bay’s voracity goes above and beyond, transforming iconic fixed objects into a bric-a-brac composite, almost cubist in visual disintegration. ALS (Average Shot Length) is extremely low as Bay devours the city space, chews it up and regurgitates it for audience viewing to the extent that it doesn’t really resemble Florence anymore.
The city has no agency or character as a result. It also displays a Promethean fall: Bay’s ambition to construct a good car chase sequence crumbles by the limitations of the city space. Simply put: one cannot drive for too long in Florence without having to stop. Thus Bay slices his footage, and cuts between locations that have absolutely nothing to do with each other, including wholly different cities. In one moment, our green car takes a turn and ends up in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena (also used in Quantum of Solace) as if Bay needed air so badly he just jumped to an open space in another city. Bay is a virtuoso in his orchestration of motion, movement and space, but here he’s bested by the city, as if it was his head that Perseus held high at the Loggia dei Lanzi in defense of the Florentine state.
This shows both the folly of Bay’s unthinking ambition and his touristic, neoliberal motivation. 6 Underground is quite clearly not made for people familiar with Florence. Those remotely familiar with the city can only guffaw at its fantastical construction and orchestration of city-space. As cars disintegrate into pieces and helicopters wizz over iconic landmarks, we manage to drive past the Santa Maria del Fiore, through the Palazzo Medici into the Uffizi Gallery (as in, the entrance to the Uffizi is depicted as the Palazzo Medici) and the Palazzo Vecchio in a matter of seconds. There’s also the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, the Piazza on Via dei Banchi and the Piazza Santa Trinita, where its column of justice is circled and circled around.
This cinema of intensive tourism is championed by Bay when he explained that shooting in Florence would increase tourism and add a “sexy image” to the city. This merely goes to show the extent to which Bay is unfamiliar with his location of choice. Has anyone been to Florence and concluded that it needs more tourists and is lacking in amorous quality? The Deputy Mayor of Florence championed the film for bringing “important economic impact” (reported to be €500 thousand, with Bay more optimistic in an estimate of €90 million for all of Italy) as well as “image return”, as if the only thing the city of Dante, Michelangelo, Donatello and Botticelli required was Michael Bay to entice the throng.
To take aim at this is not a cry for realism, verisimilitude or vraisemblance (we can enjoy Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset for a more psychogeographic perspective on European cities), which would be futile directed towards Bay, but it is a protest against an arrogant attempt to simply see it all as the same. This is a globalised vision that seeks to devour uniqueness and encourage universal consumption, leaving no hope for cognitive or perceptual re-engagement with a city milieu. That’s the irony of Michael Bay; he’s anxiously desperate to discover innovation, difference and newness by putting cameras in novel spots, but he’s completely unable to get beyond the confines of a tourist pamphlet and open himself up to new possibilities of feeling that the city of Florence is surely well-equipped to do.
David G. Hughes is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief of the film website Electric Ghost Magazine / @EG_Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies from King’s College London and Film Aesthetics from The University of Oxford. You can follow him on Twitter @BelovedFire_.