Sunday, May 31, 2015

Start Your Engines

Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron in Mad Max Fury Road

There was a guy on Twitter assigning "Mad Max" names the week after Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, directed by George Miller) opened. I missed out on that, because I'm sure he got swamped almost immediately. Fury Road is an instant cult classic of a sort that hasn't been seen in many a long year, so it's inevitable that its devotees will want to commune with it. Like its predecessors back in the day Fury Road has some unusually splendid names. I doubt the Twitter guy was able to improve on them, even as people lined up to get one. I mean, how does one improve upon names like Rictus Erectus or Cheedo the Fragile or Corpus Colossus? To say nothing of Imperator Furiosa.

Mad Max: Fury Road is the kind of film where incoherent babbling is almost a reasonable response to what one has just seen. When I got out of the theater, I muttered, "Well, that's the goddamnedest thing." It's been a long while since I walked out after a movie ready to turn around and walk right back in to see it again. I almost wish that I had before sitting down to write about it, because it's a film of such baroque imagining that I'm sure that I missed countless offhand details. The first experience of the film is overwhelming. It's a film designed to overwhelm, but unlike many other films similarly conceived, this is a film that manages to accomplish this aim and then some. I suspect that, like its predecessors, it's a film that will generously repay repeat viewings.

The plot of Fury Road finds Max captured by the minions of The Citadel, a fortress in the wilderness ruled over by Immortan Joe. Max is a valuable commodity. His blood type is O-positive, making him a universal donor--important in a society where anemia and other infirmities are common among a mutating population. When one of Immortan Joe's generals goes off the reservation, Nux, one of Joe's Warboys, takes Max with him as a "blood bag." That general is Imperator Furiosa, who has a cyborg left arm and a deep grievance with Joe and the Citadel. She has abducted Joe's "wives," five women untouched by disease, with whom Joe intends to breed a male heir equally untouched by defect. She intends to take them to the green land of her youth. The chase is on, and in a turn of events, both Max and Nux wind up in Furiosa's company--Max with an desire to escape almost equal to Furiosa's, Nux with a desire to redeem himself and go to Valhalla. Unfortunately, Immortan Joe has called in his allies. The entire wasteland is on Furiosa's tail...

Nicholas Hoult, Charlize Theron, Riley Keough, Courtney Eaton, and Abbey Lee in Mad Max Fury Road

The Mad Max movies have always been deeper than their premise would suggest. Oh, sure, you can go to them and groove on the action and have a grand old time at that basic level of experience. You don't need to think about them to enjoy them. They're among the greatest action films ever made in part because none of them ever forgets to put its characters and world into motion. These are movies that thrive off of kinetic energy. If moving pictures by definition are about movement, then these are the movie-est movies ever made. That was never more true than in Fury Road, which is a film of rare acceleration. It puts the pedal to the metal right from the start and it never lets off. While most action movies are defined by a few discreet set pieces, Fury Road is all set piece. It expands the truck chase at the end of The Road Warrior and the train chase at the end of Beyond Thunderdome--already among the most expansive of action sequences--to occupy the entire movie. It's almost all chase. The only comparable film I know is Buster Keaton's The General.

polecats in Mad Max Fury Road
Polecats. These people are nuts.

Moreover, like the films before it--particularly Beyond Thunderdome, with its three dimensional duel in its title arena--Fury Road expands the geography of action filmmaking into realms it's never gone before, something that contributes to the impression that you're watching a film conceived of by madmen. To name one example: This film's polecats--lunatics on the ends of flagpoles that sway through the air counterbalanced by engine blocks--take Thunderdome's dimensionality and put it into motion through space. To name another: the canyon passage where motorcycles jump over the top of the war rig and drop bombs. It's almost a shame that Miller had to scrap plans to film this in 3-D after one of the cameras was destroyed in a stunt, because if ever there were a movie that would justify 3-D, it's this one. This is a film with an uncommon emphasis on both geography and spacial relations within that geography. It's clear what the action is, how it flows from previous actions, and how it sets up subsequent actions. It's an easy film to follow in spite of its speed. This is not a film in which that speed is slummed by shaky-cam or fast cutting or incoherent action in close-up--though the cutting is fast enough. Miller favors tricks with film speed as opposed to tricks with cuts and transitions, a technique he's been using since the original Mad Max. Part of the giddy rush comes from the emphasis on physical stunts and practical effects. There is surely plenty of CGI in this film--the sequence inside a vast dust storm would be impossible to film without it--but almost all of the actual stunts in the film are real bodies in motion, not computer avatars. When this film re-purposes the old "jumping a motorcycle onto a moving train" gag from Police Story 3, it's just as crazy as the original item, and just as thrilling. As with its predecessors: if you think some action set piece is totally bonkers, just wait. There's something even more outre coming down the pike: The polecats, I've already mentioned. The Doof Warrior, he of the truck built of amplifiers and a guitar that spews fire. And then there's this dude:

Mad Max Fury Road

I mean, holy fuck! Right? Regardless of whatever trickery there is in making this image, someone actually performed that stunt in real life! This is a movie strung together from a long series of "holy fuck!" images.

And, my god, is this film gorgeous! Miller and his cinematographer, John Seale have graded the color of this film so that it's a technicolor fantasia rather than some austere apocalyptic wasteland. This contrasts well with Brendan Fletcher's demented production designs, in which both cars and people are custom constructs. Every little thing is detailed and imagined and significant. Even if it were only an object d'art to be looked at without contemplating any deeper meanings, like some kind of kinetic sculpture or something, perhaps, then it would be remarkable enough. But that's not all that it is by a long mile.

Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron in Mad Max Fury Road

Beyond the sensory thrill, beyond the rush of adrenalin, the Mad Max films invite the viewer to delve into them for meaning, to interpret them, to make intellectual play with them. These are movies about more than just the thrill of watching ornate custom vehicles destroy each other. If that were so, these films would have a depressing sameness to them. I mean, in terms of what's actually on screen at any given moment, there's not really a difference between them. In spite of this, each of them has an individual personality, one etched by the meaning of the action to their specific characters. Fury Road, perhaps more than the other films in the series, extrapolates the specific to the universal. It's a film from which you can take what you need based on what you bring to it, though it's not a tabula rasa by any means. It has specific concerns. Principle among those concerns is the idea of bodily autonomy. Who owns the bodies of human beings? This is a theme that resonates across ideologies. "We are not things!" is the manifesto of the Immortan Joe's "brides," but that's a grievance that could be made by the Warboys, or by Max himself as he's reduced in his very essence to a resource to be exploited, marked with tattoos outlining his very usefulness. The repeated emphasis on brands--Furiosa bears one prominently on the back of her neck--suggests a hierarchy where everyone is livestock. Max himself is nothing more than a "blood bag" in this society, hung up to be drained into needy Warboys like so much meat. He's not a person. This notion is even more forcefully expressed in the shots of The Citadel's "dairy" where, fatted pregnant women are hooked to milking machines.

Pregnancy, and the abundance of women in the cast of characters, slants the film's discourse toward issues of reproductive choice. Immortan Joe's "brides" are breeders. In the taxonomy of Joe's fiefdom, they're incubators, not people,. This is made explicit in the scene where The Splendid Angharad shields Furiosa from Joe's gun with her own pregnant body. "My property!" Joe screams at this, if the point has been missed. There's an underlying rape narrative in this film: Joe's "brides," like every other denizen of The Citadel, are slaves, who by definition do not consent. This is a society where everyone who isn't at the top is indeed a thing to be owned. Humanity is a luxury.

The politics of bodily autonomy have a personal meaning for me, given that in order to live as I must, I must submit myself to the gatekeepers of medical care. There's a certain amount of rage every time I have to ask permission to do something to my own body, which as a matter of moral principal I own, but which as a matter of practical and political principal I do not. So Fury Road pricks at my own issues in specific ways. The idea of body modification as political or moral statement is present in this film in droves, too, either in, say, Slit's sidelong stapled scar or the ritual scarification on Nux's chest or Furiosa's missing left arm. This last is open to interpretation. Was she born without it? Did she lose it in battle? One theory holds that she chopped it off to avoid becoming one of Joe's breeders, an idea elided by the fact that she's a kidnapped person who did not grow up at The Citatdel. Regardless, she bears her disability without any comment, just as the film bears it without comment. Hell, she even punches Max in the face with her stump.

Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy in Mad Max Fury Road

One of this film's other grievances is the question of, "Who Killed the World?" Fury Road is fairly explicit about this: the hegemony of white men killed the world. I use the qualifier "white" because this film emphasized the whiteness of the institutional structures propping up Immortan Joe by literally painting its soldiers white. Joe is the very model of the white male patriarch. He's almost an albino, riddled with disease, deluded by his own entitlement that everything is in its proper place. Joe's hegemony derives--as it does in the real world--from his control of resources. This has been a constant theme in the Mad Max films, though Miller has moved beyond looking only at petroleum as THE key resource in his post-Apocalypse. Joe controls water, and cautions his serfs "not to become addicted to water," as if they had a choice. This is frighteningly forward-looking of Miller, given that the head of Nestlé was recently in the news for bleating the idea that "water is not a human right," that it should be privatized. It's worth reflecting for a moment that all of the Mad Max movies are demonic parodies of the present, a notion that should terrify everyone.

Immortan Joe's secondary means of control is the religion he's spread among his Warboys, in which he encourages them to aspire to enter Valhalla, "shiny and chrome," as palliative to lives that are nasty, brutish, and short. The Mad Max films have become more and more interested in myth as they've progressed. Fury Road's mythological element is a particuarly bitter pill, given that it preys upon the body fears of fundamentally damaged people and promises them rebirth as whole and healthy if they die in battle serving the interests of this film's hegemon. The aspirational lives of the Warboys are tragic. When we see Nux's zeal as compared to his infirmities--he's presumably anemic, and possessed of two growths on his shoulder that he's named--it humanizes him, and by extension the other Warboys who are presumably similarly afflicted. The scene at the outset when they choose their steering wheels from a ritual pile of them resonates in context in deeply atavistic ways. This is part of Fury Road's particular genius. It makes human beings of even the meanest of characters, even those who it could have rendered as mere orcs for its heroes to massacre along the way. This goes back a bit to the naming of its characters. Looking at the list of named characters on the film's IMDB page suggests so many potential stories among its characters that it makes one salivate at the prospect of luxuriating in this world.

Zoe Kravitz, Charlize Theron, Riley Keough, Courtney Eaton, and Abbey Lee in Mad Max Fury Road

Resisting Immortan Joe's grotesque patriarchy is what casts Imperator Furiosa as the film's hero rather than Max. Her resistance is both overt--absconding with the brides is a direct blow to Joe's authority--and subtle. She is overtly a badass, a woman who doesn't let her lack of a left arm stop her from becoming a war leader or driving a massive war truck or kicking the shit out of Max and outsmarting him once he thinks he has the upper hand. Furiosa is further enshrined as the film's hero by the various suggestions that she has been a participant in The Citadel's hierarchy as a capo of the Patriarchy. Theron's performance--which in just world would win all of the awards at year's end--is deeply informed by regret and a yearning for redemption. She communicates all of this with subtle cues of body language rather than in emotional conversations. This film is far too laconic to spell this out for the audience. It would be easy to fetishize Furiosa, but that's where her subtle resistance to Joe's patriarchy comes into play. She keeps her hair cut close to her skull, she lacks an arm, she paints herself with axle grease as war paint. She subverts the male gaze at every turn in spite of being played by Charlize Theron, one of the most beautiful women in the world. The contrast between Theron and Rosie Huntington-Whitely's Splendid Angharad is instructive: Both actresses are blond and tall, both have had long careers as models, but the film makes a point showing Splendid as dressed for the male gaze and Furiosa as a repudiation of it. Even among the brides, there's a deep critique of how they've been kept for the enjoyment of the male gaze. When we first see them, they're rinsing themselves off with water in a scene that is almost a parody of fan service, but they're also in the process of cutting off the spiky chastity belts in which they've been imprisoned. This, too, is resistance. This is women taking control of their own sexuality for themselves rather than for the pleasure of men. Fury Road elides the idea that Furiosa has done exactly this herself.

Charlize Theron in Mad Max Fury Road

Max himself resists Joe's patriarchy from the film's early scenes, too, but his concerns are more personal. This is the first film since the first one to suggest that Max's "madness" is more than just a hollowing out due to grief and vengeance, a void that is filled by the process of reconnecting with people who need his help. This film's Max is a man haunted by visions of his past that take the form of terrifying hallucinations. Max is a transitional figure between Furiosa and the brides, too, one concerned with the ownership of things, though to a much lesser extent than Immortan Joe. Max's umbrage at seeing other characters in possession of his car, his clothes, or his shoes, is a rhyme to Joe's rage at Furiosa's "possession" of his property. Max's resistance, then, is purely selfish, as opposed to Furiosa's more altruistic and idealistic resistance. This is, perhaps, why Max doesn't seem like the film's central figure, though the film makes structural choices that knock him from the spotlight, too. The most overt of these is the scene where Max heads out into the darkness to deal with The Bullet Farmer while Furiosa's war rig is bogged down. We have no idea of what Max does to take care of The Bullet Farmer, but there's an explosion in the darkness and Max returns with an arsenal. This is a zen moment, in which the audience fills in the story gaps themselves rather than having the filmmakers spell it all out to them. Tom Hardy is a good choice to replace Mel Gibson as Max, and he's good enough in the role, but the film gives him maybe twenty lines of dialogue, if that, and puts him into a muzzling mask for the first half of the film. Frankly, placing him next to Theron's Furiosa means Max is dwelling in a titanic shadow. There's no shame in that, I guess, and it seems like it's completely by design in the first place.

Given the thematic element of possession and property and given the apparently socialist matriarchy of the Vuvulani, Fury Road becomes a critique of oligarchy by presenting an opposing ideology in-film. I say "oligarchy" rather than "capitalism" because The Citadel is clearly not a capitalist state. It's feudal. Capitalism and its discontents are something the Mad Max films have already had done with in Beyond Thunderdome, and that film's socio-economic millieu was very different from the zeitgeist in which Fury Road dwells. This is a film that cleverly smuggles a socialist reposte to a society where the 1% are currently trying to insert an amoral "morality of capitalism" into the culture at large. This is a film in which its characters stand up and say "no." The film itself a shout of "no" at the world in which it was made. That this was funded and released by a vast multinational corporation is one of the film's sweetest tricks.

Megan Gale in Mad Max Fury Road
Megan Gale as The Valkyrie

Oh, and I love The Vuvulani, the old lady biker gang at the end of the film. The Vuvulani are perhaps the film's most pointed repudiation of the male gaze and of capitalism and Patriarchy. They play like a community of lesbian separatists, an idea elided when they take issue with the presence of Nux and Max among Furiosa's company. If you count Furiosa's own ragtag band of followers, this brings to four the number of matriarchies depicted in the Mad Max movies (there are two in Beyond Thunderdome, as well). There's a hint of hippie earthy-mothery New Age bullshit in the idea that the Vuvulani are the nurturers and mothers who will renew the world--one of their characters is The Keeper of Seeds, if the point is too fine--but this is all of a piece with its opposition to Immortan Joe's exploitation of the world by rape and slavery, and it's certainly representative of two diametrically opposite views of motherhood. Incubator or nurturer? It's one of the film's less nuanced elements, and I do bristle at it a little. This is more than balanced out by the idea of women of every type being cast as action heroes, and not just the hyper-fit fetish figures of, say, the Underworld films or the Resident Evil films. It's fun watching older women participate in the plot and in the action rather than being pushed to the margins. This might be the element of the film that fully embraces the humanity of all women rather than just the ones that men might think are fuckable. In truth, I almost wept at their inclusion, being a no-longer-young woman myself. One of these women is named The Valkyrie, and that's a name loaded with significance in a movie full of names loaded with significance. If Furiosa is an Erinye, come to scourge Immortan Joe's patriarchy for its sins, then The Valkyrie is the chooser of the slain, who conducts them to Valhalla. There's a closing of the narrative loop in this kind of symbolism, particularly given Nux's ultimate fate and his desire to arrive in Valhalla. As absurd as the film is--and it is often absurd to the point of surrealism--and as exuberantly messy as it is, it's also a tightly controlled narrative.

Which all brings me back, full circle, to the names. For what it's worth, I never did try to get a name from the Mad Max naming dude or from the apps that are surely out there now doing the same job. I mean, I already blog under the name of Vulnavia Morbius, so it almost seems like it would be redundant for me. But don't get me wrong. I loved this film for reasons both broadly defensible on aesthetic grounds and for reasons that are deeply personal. This is a film that pushes the boundaries of what cinema can do, and in spite of the barbarity of some of its images, it pushes those boundaries with a firm grounding in moral principle and moral outrage. There really is nothing else in cinema like this movie.

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