Thursday, June 4, 2015

The World of Mad Max: Yeah, I'm a Little Obsessed

Mad Max: Fury Road literally made me feel like a kid. I went a little apeshit after I saw an advanced screening, and started posting every article and review I could find. I wanted people to see a film that, for me, represents the apex of what fantasy filmmmaking can be right now in 2015. George Miller has created a masterpiece of action and speculative fiction filmmaking.

...and it's so much goddamn fun to watch.

A friend sent me an e-mail after they saw it, that said (paraphrasing here), "I didn't think I could have an experience in a movie theatre that compared to my childhood at this point of my life, but this was like seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time." This was pretty much my exact reaction. I've been a long-time defender (some would say apologist) of the Star Wars prequels, and I do enjoy those films, but, no, my experience of watching The Phantom Menace cannot compare to my experience watching A New Hope in 1977. Even in my defense of Lucas' later work, I acknowledge that my enjoyment comes from acknowledging that they simply cannot give me the same experience. I honestly expect much the same when The Force Awakens debuts later this year.

I expected a similar feeling from Fury Road. I loved the original Mad Max trilogy in the 80's, and, as much as I was dying to see what George Miller would do upon returning to this world, I expected it to feel somewhat hollow. Hell Mel Gibson wasn't playing Max Rockatansky anymore, how could it not feel somewhat "off?"

I've, as of this writing, seen the film three times.

In fact, it feels solidly beyond Miller's earlier films, and not just in technical know-how, but in storytelling confidence. There have been articles published about how Fury Road breaks all the accepted screenwriting "rules." Articles about how the pacing can be so amazingly fast, so uninterested in waiting for the audience to catch up, and still be cinematically clear. Of course, the feminist angles of the film have been discussed ad nauseum, to the point where I think it does the film a disservice to continue making that the central talking point.

Which is not to say it isn't a valid talking point. The character of Furiosa (Charlize Theron), and her personal mission of redemption, are vitally central to the film. The way the character is used, and how her story is told, are absolute models of the best kind of diversity in storytelling. Why? Because I don't really think that the creative team cared as much as the people discovering it after the fact. Furiosa and the wives are characters with goals and fears that serve the story, period. The fact that feels like some sort of revolutionary choice is sad, but I don't think George Miller looks at it that way, he's simply telling the story he honestly wanted to tell. I don't think "making a statement" ever entered his mind. Which, for me, makes the point, and the example, far more powerful. "Who killed the world?" doesn't refer to men, in general, but to Immortan Joe, and his ilk, specifically. In the specificity of character, not of fact, is where storytelling holds it's real power to be universal.


I'd rather grapple with the film outside of that framework (TOO LATE!!). Mainly because so much hay has been made about it within that framework already. The film has so much more to offer than that.

No, I want to talk about the world that Miller has created, and how endlessly goddamn interesting it is. Miller's wasteland, over the course of three films (the first Mad Max lives in a different place, but we'll get to that), has evolved and changed in so many truly evocative, and socially relevant ways. The Mad Max films have always been about who we are now, as all great escapist entertainments have been. Miller's keen eye for human weakness has always allowed him to see the ridiculous nature of humanity through history, and our constant and evolving need to dominate each other.

He takes this knowledge and refracts it though the kaleidoscope of car culture and it's dependency of gasoline. Life and death in the world of Mad Max is based around how fast and well you can drive, how tough and powerful your car, a metaphor often used for self, is. This idea is driven home in the original 1979 Mad Max, where Max, despite is copious skills as a driver, is vulnerable until he accepts his place at the wheel of the iconic V-8 Interceptor, a heavily modified Ford Falcon GT.

Prior to the moment he takes the wheel of this sleek, black machine, we've seen him driving Interceptors identical to the others driven by Main Force Patrol officers, and a family vehicle. Of course, he is at his most vulnerable in the latter. Once we see him take control of the V-8, which is also virtually "costumed" identically to Gibson, we know that man and machine have become one. It's a motif that Miller returns to over and over in the Mad Max world, costumes often reflect the vehicles that the character is driving, more than anything else.

What I find endlessly fascinating, and what will always represent my favorite part of this series, is the way Miller's Wasteland has changed and evolved in such a tremendous, logical, and clearly linear way over the four films. The four films, in total, represent a continuing exploration of how humanity evolves in how we relate, and govern, each other, while understanding the inherent brutality and selfishness of the species.

Before I delve too far, a few comments about "continuity" and "cannon:"

Miller CLEARLY doesn't care, so I will follow his lead.

The events of the previous three films have no bearing whatsoever on the latest film, as far as story or character. In fact, there are details within Fury Road that contradict what we saw in the first three. Max is driving the V-8 Interceptor at the begining of the film, even when it was utterly destroyed (hold for a moment of silence....) during Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior). The visions of guilt and loss during the film don't match, at all, with the events of Mad Max.

The visions, however, don't really mean anything. We see several spectral figures haunting our hero, the little girl being the most recurring, and the most striking, but we also see an older black man and an adult white man (as well as the infamous brief shot of Toecutter's [Hugh Keays-Byrne -Yes, the same actor that plays Immortan Joe] eyes popping out of his head from the 1979 film). These can't all really be meant to represent his family. I tend to believe these are visions of another event, a story untold, wherein a group of survivors Max allied himself with were wiped out despite his best efforts. Max is a survivor, and with that skill, he is left to bear the memory of those who do not have it.

What we do know is that Fury Road began it's process 12 years ago, and that, as originally envisioned, would've seen Mel Gibson return to the role of Max (I love Tom Hardy, and think he is a super Max, but I would kill to see this version). When Gibson opted out, I think details changed, but not much content, and that supports the idea that the visions aren't meant to be Max's family. Or, that he has been alone in the Wasteland for so long that his actual memories have been compromised. He is Mad, after all.

Miller doesn't care, and in "following his lead," I've just written three paragraphs about the continuity of the series.

Like I said, I'm obsessed.

When asked about this, if Fury Road is a sequel or a reboot, Miller has responded it is a "revisit." Ultimately, it doesn't matter, everything you need to know to enjoy the story, in and of itself, and understand the characters, is right there on screen. the comparison has been made to Sergio Leone's "Man With No Name Trilogy," in which none of the films reference each other, and Clint Eastwood performs a character who dresses and acts identically from film to film, and yet is refered to a "Joe," "Monco," or "Blondie," and I think that's a pretty good place to start.

Don't worry about why Max has the doesn't really matter.

I cannot tell you what a breath of fresh air that is to a film lover who's grown exhausted and annoyed by the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the like. Where, at it's worst (and I think Age of Ultron counts), every movie feels like a commercial for two others, rather than a fully developed narrative of it's own. This is the film, period, and the connections to the others in the series is mainly thematic and esthetic.

So, no...Tom Hardy is not playing The Feral Kid from Mad Max 2 grown up....Can we move on?

However, that said...the thematic elements regarding society at play when watching the four films as a whole is deeply interesting. Because the leftover DNA from the Gibson-fronted version of Fury Road is that it obviously falls after Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in the development of Miller's wasteland world.

So, what do I mean by that?

The Mad Max films, pretty carefully, chart the last gasps of a compromised civilization, and then the way in which the survivors of it's ultimate downfall scramble to try to rebuild that civilization, usually on the backs of the weaker and less fortunate. I honestly don't think that was the plan when Miller made the first two films, but by the time he got to Thunderdome, he saw the string, and used it.

Mad Max (1979) presents an Australia that is, IMHO, pre-apocolypse, at least in terms of a nuclear exchange. However, things are bad. Resources are limited, especially gasoline, and the structures of society are starting to collapse. Max Rocatansky is the top driver for the Main Force Patrol, a badly overworked and under-supported police force. When we see the "Hall of Justice" headquarters for the organization, the "U" has fallen from the sign, and when we see the officers inside holding a prisoner the filming location is pretty clearly a condemned building. Literally falling apart and trash everywhere. Here was see the last vestiges of a controlled, orderly society, and the bureaucracy attendant to it, and clearly nobody feels any need to keep it operational.

The gangs, embodied by Toecutter, Bubba Zanetti, Johnny the Boy and, briefly, The Night Rider, are the real power of the last gasps of this society. They have strength, and they use it for their own whims and enjoyment. The MFP attempts to stem this tide, and in Miller's portrayal he doesn't flinch from what the situation would do to the men in it. Outside of Max, and to some extent his best friend Jim Goose, who's still pretty charmingly amoral, the MFP officers display much of the same character traits as the members of Toecutter's gang. Vengeful bloodlust, cowardice, etc, and Max is pushed there, as well, prompted by the murder of his wife and baby son by the Toecutter's gang.

I was struck recently by a comment I read online about the murder of Max's family. The film never really establishes that Toecutter knows this woman and her baby are related to Max. The murder of Jim Goose is clearly set up as revenge for his treatment of Johnny the Boy in custody, but when they threaten and, ultimately run down Jessie and Sprog (yeah, the kid's named Sprog - must be an Australian thing), it seems to be just a horrible thing he and the gang do because they can. They haven't threatened Max, and make no real sign that they know who he is, even. Now, I'm certain that the idea was that the Toecutter and his gang were after both the MFP officers, but the film becomes almost more creepy because it's not clear.

(Note: Upon re-viewing the trailer, there is a scene where Max is told the gang is "out to get him.")

What's also really compelling is that the general public seems virtually oblivious to all of this. The roads are hell, we see signs warning of "high fatality roads," and the gang runs down an innocent couple in a car viciously. Although, while the violence to the car is shown in excruciating detail, Miller cuts away from the violence, with the suggestion of rape, done to the actual couple. Again, the car and the occupants are one in these films. Yet we also see families (including Max's own) out with campers, as if they're taking a jaunt down to the lake for a weekend.

What we have, bottom line, is a society in free-fall, and nobody cares. Everyone is focused on themselves. Max doesn't really care about anything but taking care of his family. His superior, Fifi McGee (these names, seriously), is more interested in propping up a "hero" for PR than actually making things better. Goose is a hedonist. The gang are psychopaths, and the civilians we see seem to be trying their best to ignore that anything is wrong. Even as the brink gets closer and closer.

I also think it's cool that the only apocalypse we actually see in any of these films is Max's own. He was already self-and-family focused, and when that is ripped from him, all he can do is explode. Taking out the entirety of Toecutter's gang in the process. Thematically, however, it represents the last breath of what civilization was left. Max has nothing, and shortly, neither will humanity.

As Mad Max 2 aka The Road Warrior (1981) opens, it's very clear that some sort of nuclear exchange has occurred. Whatever was left of Australian society is gone like a dream, leaving only a vast, desert wasteland. There are no cities, no police, no order. It's kill or be killed, and this is all laid out by a pretty thrilling, in it's concise nature, voice over.

In the midst of this we find Max, alone and scavenging for fuel, food and ammo. There is nothing else for him, just survival. This is the bottom line for this character from this point forward, it's where we'll always start, and the consistent plot element is that this man alone will enter some new facet of the wasteland society.

The facet that max encounters this time? Tribal warfare. I even love how the voice over refers to the clashing superpowers as "two mighty warrior tribes." Mad Max 2 presents us with two classic tribal communities. Pappagallo and his people within their refining compound, the gatherers, and The Lord Humungus and his crew, the hunters. In the middle of this falls Max, trying to get the best deal for himself.

But it's within this tribal conflict that the real meat of the series starts to sizzle. The refinery tribe represents those who live off the land, making and growing what they need, and planning for a migration to better climates when the current site becomes too difficult.

Then we have Humungus, his tribe roaming the wasteland, preying upon those weaker than themselves. Taking the materials and supplies they need from those who can't stop them. We open the film with Humungus' war chief, Wez, attempting to run down Max. A lone vehicle makes a juicy target, but when Max shows himself as capable of mounting a defense, the pursuit group scatters. Sure, the tribe is involved in a protracted siege of the refinery, but Pappagallo's people are barely holding off the incursions, and weakening. It's only a matter of time.

Max falls in with the refinery tribe because he knows he can make a deal with gatherers, with whom trade would be a welcome concept. I have often wondered if, before Humungus arrived, Pappagallo wasn't trading fuel for other necessities with passers. That's all well and good until someone shows up who feels powerful enough to just take what they want, and screw what you need. It's hunters and gatherers, and exploitation versus harvesting.

And in the final moments, when the remnants of Humungus' tribe realize they've been sent on a wild goose chase, and that he chase has no meaning, they simply drive off into the dust, literally. Humungus and Wez are dead, but the tribe lives, off to find, or make, the next corpse to pick clean.

And what of the gatherers? Oh, they get away, off to "paradise, three thousand miles from here," symbolized by a pamphlet that the audience, and Max, clearly recognizes as a pipe dream. We don't find out what they find, only that the bizarre Gyro Captain becomes their leader, a position that The Feral Kid, revealed as our narrator, will rise to, but it's pretty safe to assume it's only more of the same. More tribes looking to make their own way, and it's a fair bet there are more hunters than gatherers.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) finds Max robbed by Jedediah (Bruce Spence, who also played The Gyro Captain) and his son from the air in the middle of the Wasteland, and left with nothing. In attempting to track down his goods and camel-drawn vehicle (the fuel is ever-more scarce), he comes upon Bartertown.

Now, I'm going to slow down for a minute to talk about Thunderdome, and how it's kind of the lynchpin of the series. It's pretty universally recognized as the least of the Mad Max films, and I agree with that, but I also don't think it's a "bad" film. George Miller lost his Mad Max production partner, Byron Kennedy, in an accident shortly before shooting, and it seems clear that took some wind out of Miller's sails in terms of actually making the film. He's also made comments that seem to indicate he feels it's the most interesting of the original three. I think that's true, and a lot of the ideas that are refined to a sharp edge in Fury Road start here.

It suffers mainly in having a second half that can't live up to the first. The Thunderdome fight between Max and Blaster is spectacular, original stuff, and nothing else really matches it. It's like having the climax of the movie 45 minutes in.

That said, Thunderdome is where I really started to see what Miller was doing here, because Bartertown, as a concept, was such a logical thematic jump from the tribes of Mad Max 2. We go from a tribal society, to a feudal city-state based on barter with undercurrent of the industrial revolution.

Aunty Entity (Tina Turner) lives in a castle (of frilly white gauze, but still) over the walled village she and her guard, who's armor and headdresses nod strongly to medieval armor. Meanwhile, there is an entire underclass of slaves, peasants and criminals doing hard labor to keep the whole shebang running.

OK, let's talk about the first half of the film. It's all palace intrigue and backstabbing. Entity feels that Master Blaster, "a big guy giving a little guy a piggyback" that functions as a single unit, is threatening her control of Barterown. Master, the little guy, is the only one who understands the mechanics of the Methane plant (the whole place runs on pigshit) that powers Bartertown, all the vehicles, etc. He wants more power and status, and Aunty doesn't want to share with some pigshit-shoveler from the underworld.

So, yeah, there is a LOT going on here, thematically. From the basic human greed that any form of trade or barter engenders, to social class and status, to the concept of enlightened rule. This is what happens when the hunters, or those with that inclination, figure out that they don't need to go out and chase down what they need. If they amass enough power and control, they can get people to bring it to them. Aunty has everything, food, water, fuel, and she gets what she wants by parceling it out to those without it. The scene where she outlines her deal for Max hits on all of this.

The second half of Thunderdome loses a bit of the plot, because it re-introduces a tribal element, in the form of the Children from the Crack in the Earth. The tribe is innocent, not only are they far more primitive than Bartertown, but they are actual kids, and they are headed for a confrontation between the two. On a pure plot level, it works OK, the kids were left there by the crew and passengers of a crashed airliner, and they await the return of "Captain Walker," who will lead them to "never-neverland." Of course, they think Max is Captain Walker, and frankly, the mythology the tribe has created from the bits and pieces of society they've scavenged is pretty clever and cute.

But the inherent problem is that Miller has already played with the tribal culture, and it wasn't innocent, on either the hunting or gathering side. The series has passed the "primitive innocents" as a thematic element. It works, but not as well as really grappling with the results of the Bartertown society would've.

But with each film of the "original trilogy," the society regressed, or advanced in a logical way. Bartertown was inevitable, as need would eventually drive people to figure out how to replace what was lost, and not just continue to scrape the dregs of what was left of the pre-apocalypse society, as in Mad Max 2. Even as the culture does that, there are still those who have, and who don't...and therein lies the conflict.

Now, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), despite being removed from any real continuity with the first three, is clearly set at a period after Thrunderdome. I say this only because of how the society has evolved.

What we see in Fury Road is a full-on civilization. A brutal, cruel and unfair civilization, to be sure, but a civilized structure, in comparison to the the earlier films. We have large and organized city-states in Immortan Joe's Citadel, The People-Eater's Gastown, and The Bullet-Farmer's Bullet Farm, each providing a resources for each other. Water, fuel and ammo, respectively. Those at the top of the food chain, so to speak aren't scrabbling for resources anymore, they're producing them. Joe has access to fresh water, and with that he grows food. The People-Eater is obviously drilling and refining oil, and the Bullet-Farmer must have some sort of mine, and is producing gunpowder and ammo.

This is really a seismic change for the series. Our heroes have limited resources, but their pursuers don't, really. I'm sure in the sense of the modern society we enjoy, the resources are extremely limited, but we're talking about a population that's much smaller. There's no scene where we see Humungus doling out the last few rounds for his .357 Magnum one by one, but we do see that The People-Eater is keeping close accounts of exactly how much fuel Immortan Joe is pushing everyone to expend over his "family squabble." There is an economy in play, here, and it's clear that it's really only to the benefit of those at the very top...

1%, anyone?

But even more compelling than that is the religious implications of Immortan Joe's empire. It struck me all as very Egyptian, honestly, the way the Citidel was designed, the idea that Joe was a God on Earth. The reference of Valhalla is, of course, very Nordic. Like so many things in the world of Mad Max, it's a hodge-podge of elements slammed together. The idea of life eternal for death in the service of one's God is, of course, pretty common, too. Crossing that with Joe's all-too-earthly obsession with perfecting the continuation of his line, the hording of bodily fluids, exposes a delicious hypocrisy.

But the underlying idea, the evolving ways that humans control and exploit each other, is front and center again. The truly remarkable thing is watching George Miller evolving ability to insert these concepts and not only make them seamless to the narrative, but have the actions and motivations of the characters the cornerstone of how the ideas are explored. There is no need for a character to give a speech about how humans exploit each other, or the status of women in our society, because that idea is ingrained into the choices that each character makes. With Max, the perpetual outsider, as the consistent viewpoint for the audience. Not to mention that the stories move so damn fast that any moment of didactic exposition arrives, and is gone, before we can  become annoyed by it.

There is promise of more Max to come, with Miller himself hinting at a new film, Mad Max: The Wasteland, and Tom Hardy comfortably signed to return for two more films. The fact is, the masterful work displayed by George Miller as both a director and scenarist on Fury Road at nearly 70 years old is the kind of work that should be treasured. He took what he had done previously, asked himself what the next logical step would be, and executed it. I believe he can do it again.

I also believe that this film is very much worthy of attention come Oscar season. Let's not forget it.

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