Tuesday, June 30, 2015

"Mad Max: Fury Road"

Mad Max: Fury Road embodies the crux of the three previous films’ ideas, themes and aesthetics taken to a logical, apotheotic1 conclusion: After succumbing to the same loss of value of human life following the loss of his best friend and family in the original 1979 film, transferring most of his remaining sense of kinship towards his dog and property before getting caught in a war over natural resources in The Road Warrior and briefly turning his own life into a commodity in order to get his property back before finding a greater purpose in freeing a man from slavery in Beyond Thunderdome, “Mad” Max Rockatansky now finds his very body – and those of others – commodified and objectified without his consent. The ensuing struggle for freedom and integrity undergone by those characters is in some ways the franchise’s very own way of breaking free from its previous films’ codes and the expectations derived from them.

Indeed, when taking into account the first film’s thin characterization of Max’s wife – whose main purpose was to be victimized in order to further her husband’s mental decline (mirroring society’s) – and the last two films’ plot patterns in which Max would put his self-interest aside to help lead a threatened group towards an unseen promised land, Fury Road turns into something of a critical re-examination of its predecessors. The causes of the apocalypse still remain vague (flash-back soundbites occasionally pop up alluding to nuclear war and massive pollution of ground and water) but whereas the previous films – particularly the first two – naturally encouraged their audience to think of the villains’ savagery and/or despotism as an uncontrolled deviation from societal norms, Fury Road implies Immortan Joe’s patriarchal might-makes-right capitalism as a logical continuation of dominant social and economic relations, reduced to their most primal form. It is thus, all things considered, fairly inevitable that the quest for a mythical utopia that somehow manages to exist outside the culture that birthed the conditions leading to the present situation would turn out to be the wrong answer. It’s no longer enough to run away from evil in the hopes of finding a place untouched by it, where things can be started anew; the existing system has to be challenged and transformed.

As academic as it may sound, the above paragraph should not be taken as an interpretation of Fury Road as some kind of subversive revolutionary treatise disguised as an action film. It is best understood as the product of a combination of changing global political context (Fury Road would likely have had a different plot had the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 never happened) and director/co-screenwriter George Miller’s accumulated expertise gained throughout his post-Beyond Thunderdome filmography. He manages to make Fury Road the most mature and serious-minded film of the franchise, while also making it live up to its title more than its predecessors ever did. It’s quite remarkable how relationships and backstories are conveyed to the audience with subtle minimalism even as the characters involved in them are being chased by a colourful army of hollering semi-literate lunatics through sandstorms, carfights and gunfights that wouldn’t be out of place in a heavy metal vision from the Book of Revelations.

Miller’s visual storytelling is graceful, balanced and economic without feeling cheap or lazy. While Max’s introductory narration – there for the benefit of the uninitiated – does feel like it was written as a voiceover for the trailer of a particularly trite action video game and the repeated questions posed by the apparitions of the nondescript child he apparently failed to save are clichĂ©d in nature, they blend seamlessly with the frenetic speed of these flashbacks (emphasis on the “flash” part) and the capture and first escape attempt they cover. Particularly impressive is the manner in which Miller conveys significant information and ideas through simple visual cues and non-verbal character actions. One of the most striking examples comes when Max first glimpses Immortan Joe’s “wives” after the initial chase that granted them both their freedoms: In a couple of close shots, one of them removes her chastity belt and drops it to the ground, with the camera lingering ever so briefly on the now-disarmed instrument of constriction. Everything the viewer needs to know about the sexual slavery these women are escaping from is told in a few seconds, without any dialogue or flashbacks, and much of the developing relationship between Max and their one-armed leader Imperator Furiosa is handled with similar restraint. The story of two strangers being forced to trust one another in their struggle against common enemy is a familiar one; yet the primality with which Tom Hardy carries his rough-hewn masculine body, coupled with Charlize Theron’s alert nimbleness, effectively turns each character into something of a post-historical idea of their respective gender. Away from patriarchal society and buffeted into a struggle where each has something to gain from the other’s continued existence and well-being, Man and Woman must rediscover each other and relearn to co-exist and cooperate as equals in order to remain alive and free. Crucially (and refreshingly), this relationship remains entirely devoid of sexual or romantic tension; Max and Furiosa share meaningful glances throughout the film, but their signification evolves from distrust to apprehension to trust and respect, never attraction.

As unusually nuanced as the screenplay’s gender politics are, they have not unshackled themselves from genre expectations as successfully as the rest of the screenplay has from its predecessors’ patterns: While Immortan Joe’s “wives” are given distinct personalities, they are not given sufficient time to flesh themselves out as individuals and linger in the audience’s mind more as characters to be protected than fully-fledged people who happen to need help. More frustrating is George Miller’s occasional inability to prevent himself from taking advantage of his villain’s degradation of women: Before the laudable chastity belt shots, the aforementioned first glimpse of the “wives” by Max begins with a semi-subjective shot of them hosing themselves clean in skimpy cream-coloured skirts and tube tops. One of them, Angharad, is communicated to us as being of particular importance to Joe by a close-up of her pregnant belly, a shot made somewhat erotic by its emphasis on the way her wet dress clings to it. Subsequent low-angle shots of her standing from behind, as well as a couple of quick upskirts during fight scenes, continue to subtly eroticize her. Of course being a survivor of sexual abuse should not mean that one should never be considered sexually attractive, but these particular shots are rendered inappropriate by the narrative context in which they appear. While these occasional slip-ups on Miller’s part neither demolish his enterprise nor call his sincerity into question, they do display a lack of consideration for the ways certain images and their context may be received by the audience.

Was it really wise, for instance, to introduce Joe’s enslaved obese nurses by a close-up of one of the women’s breasts before zooming out to reveal the breastfeeding machinery they are all attached to? If his intent in doing so was to challenge the presumed heterosexual male gaze by initially appearing to fulfill its demand for visual pleasure before pulling the rug from beneath its owner’s feet with disturbing context, he doesn’t succeed nearly as well as Harmony Korine did in Spring Breakers.

The representation of these enslaved female bodies leads to another problematic element within the film. The homophobic undertones of the first two films’ villains3 are replaced with uncomfortable touches of ableism: Immortan Joe is first seen through a close shot detailing the warts on his aging cumbersome body, the lookout in his outpost is an overweight dwarf, the People Eater who runs Gas Town is an obese man whose gout is prominently featured in wide and close shots… One cannot dispute the efficiency with which it makes its rogue’s gallery of villains so memorable by following an age-old tradition according to which the souls of evildoers are reflected in their monstrous physical appearances. Yet their sharp contrast with Max’s rugged good looks, the conventional beauty of the “wives” and Furiosa’s appealing quasi-androgyny (not to mention the fact that she, the “wives”, is played by an actress who is also a model), makes this implicit connection between evil and body nonconformity most unfortunate in a film whose major female character and heroine is an amputee.

Still, as discomforting as the dehumanization of these alternative bodies may be, their diversity and noticeability contribute greatly to the film’s aesthetic beauty. Indeed, if there is another thing that makes Mad Max: Fury Road so striking in the landscape of modern blockbusters, it’s the variety of its visual palette: From blue day-for-night filters to a panoply of colours in character’s costumes and makeup, Fury Road is a breath of fresh air in a genre that seems increasingly committed to sticking its audience’s faces in uniform worlds of brown, grey, teal or orange. Composer Junkie XL elegantly complements this colour scheme elegantly by combining allusions and sometimes direct quotations of Giuseppe Verdi’s Dies Irae to the kind of drums and electronic bass typically found in Hans Zimmer’s scores for Christopher Nolan, resulting in a score that is wild and apocalyptic without directly screaming at the audience to feel impressed.

It’s a pretty damning statement on the state of current action films that one of Fury Road’s noteworthy features is that its action scenes manage to capture the viewer’s breath and communicate the movement and direction of the vehicles and characters with clarity. As complementing an action film on the readability and coherence of its action scenes would be like recommending a restaurant on the basis that the meals it serves won’t give you food poisoning, I shall not elaborate any further on the matter. Suffice it to say that Mad Max: Fury Road is a thoughtful if imperfect reminder of how cinematic tools may be used to communicate complex ideas and shape relationships between characters in situations and environments as simple as a car chase in the desert. It brings to life new ideas through old-school visual means, crafted with the care and professionalism of the old veteran that George Miller is.
1Readers will hopefully forgive my neologism, but I felt that no existing adjective relative to the reaching of a peak could do the film justice.
2Including a whole car built with the specific purpose of providing Immortan Joe with his own soundtrack, performed by giant speakers and a man playing an electric guitar that shoots flames out of its neck.
3Toecutter and his gang from the first film behaved in a sexually threatening manner towards men as well as women, and the masked, bare-chested Lord Humungus from The Road Warrior looked like an embodiment of heterosexual fears of hyper-masculine sadomasochistic gay men, right down to his porn star name.

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