Information Overload: Kevin B. Lee’s Transformers: The Premake
Kevin Lee (a longtime friend, full disclosure) has earned a heady reputation online and in academic circles for video essays like his much-circulated dossier on “The Spielberg Face” that rearrange film history’s visual building blocks and understood components. His latest film views the forthcoming Transformers: Age Of Extinction from every angle but head-on.
The starting premise of this “premake” is a new phenomenon I hadn’t considered: if everyone has a smartphone, then a counter-promotional EPK can be easily assembled from the variety of surplus (ancillary?) documentation available online. With its wide spread of locales and very public filming, Transformers generated amateur set videos and photos from Monument Valley to Hong Kong (though unsurprisingly/sinisterly, as Lee notes, none from mainland China, where tight control is still maintained on internet access). The emotional spectrum includes bemused, nothing-to-do spectation at the site of extras running from repeatedly descending helicopters and active irritation at not being to cross Chicago’s streets without the approval of intrusive PAs.
As a “desktop documentary” (Lee’s term), Transformers: The Premake offers up the illusion of watching someone work on a computer in real time. Web searches for keywords lead logically from one video to another, Google rabbit holes offer up fortuitous connections and the line of seemingly spontaneous argument — equal parts inspired research and algorithmically-prompted serendipity — externalizes thought as keystrokes and mouse motions. There’s a tension generated by the question of agency: how much is the technology dictating what’s being accessed, as opposed to merely enabling it?
Google mediates, and so does Paramount. The film’s wellspring of sources includes amateur videos uploaded to YouTube as well as Lee’s own footage of Chicago shooting (and, at one point, being unceremoniously escorted off the set by an understandably surly PA). Videos he wants to use are pulled, and when Lee emails to ask what happened the uploaders don’t know either: their footage shows objects that can be glimpsed in other videos that are still online. It certainly seems like Paramount’s legal strategy is scattershot and randomly repressive: evident attempts to guard against “spoilers” or premature unveilings of visual elements are haphazardly deployed.
For me, the polemical insistence on resistance as a default position is the documentary’s weakest point. Paramount’s ability to annex portions of urban centers for its own purposes, turning public space into a private set, is an especially blunt manifestation of corporate acquisitiveness at work — but it’s their money, and their taxes, and if they want to guard their lousy intellectual property, I find it hard to get agitated about that. Lee uploads one of his videos (from a hard drive named “FAROCKI,” no less) to supplement that which has been removed, a response to a YouTuber’s resigned response: “what can you do?”
Besides predictably entertaining footage of Michael Bay being a shouty prima donna on set, I was especially hypnotized by Lee’s connecting the dots of the global finances that set a juggernaut like the fourth Transformers in motion. There are dilations on the tax breaks that draw productions to different states, including a hard-sell, over-earnest commercial extolling the employment importance of Michigan film tax credits. The migration of Hollywood productions from one state to another in search of the most advantageous tax breaks, which has led states to try to outdo each other with more and more incentives, is often described as a “race to the bottom”; Lee seems more ambivalent but doesn’t tip his hand one way or another.
There is also truly ludicrous footage from official Chinese television, with the sorry site of Bay being feted by local officials and answering questions that seem to be meant for someone else (“What inspires you?”) The Premake will hopefully act as an earnest for viewers to delve deeper and read up on the compromises, concessions, and grafted-on scenes of life in mainland China (all subject to state scrutiny) Hollywood is willing to integrate in order to gain co-production status with a Chinese company — thereby evading the 34-foreign-films-a-year foreign film quota and tapping the soon-to-be biggest market in the world.