Monday, 15 June 2015

Fast and Furious

The is-it-a-feminist-film-or-not? reading of Mad Max: Fury Road is a misdirection. George Miller's series has always been about a man - the clue is in the title - who has gradually evolved from a two-dimensional reactionary into a three-dimensional one. The fun of the films is essentially boyish: smirking parodies of heroic forms and daft cars, like a cross between Blackadder and Top Gear. The presence of Miranda Richardson did not make the former feminist, any more than the hiring of Sue Perkins would the latter. The redeeming virtue of Mad Max is that his confusion (the condition of modern manhood) has not curdled into either fascistic misanthropy or unthinking misogyny. In that sense, Max is a more complex character than most "action heroes" and more empathetic than his obvious progenitor, the "man with no name" played by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's westerns (there is an amusing reference to this in the latest film in Max's initial refusal to reveal his name, a ploy that echoes all the way back to the Odyssey).

This latest instalment in George Miller's seminal series has an elegiac air about the scenes featuring Tom Hardy as Max, many of which are bathed in the "magic hour" sun that became a feature of westerns in the 70s, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Days of Heaven. This is a visual shorthand for historical inevitability: my time is over; all things must pass. Hardy, like Gibson in Mad Max 2, is also noticeably close-mouthed (Miller naturally parodies this by having him muzzled for a large part of the film). Though this reinforces the feminist reading, because Charlize Theron's Furiosa gets to do marginally more talking and just as much arse-kicking and problem-solving, the underlying message is conservative: talking gets you into trouble. It also has the effect of characterising Max as a figure only partly of this world, for whom every utterance appears to be a conscious effort of translation, though more in the mould of a social outsider than the uncanny demi-god that Eastwood perfected.

Miller's films often employ a story-telling trope and use artefacts as mediums of memory, with the postmodern irony being that these tales and memories are inevitably misleading or delusional, to the point of downright fatal. In Fury Road, we get the legend of "the Green Place" and an old biker-lady's portmanteau of "heirlooms". The film ends with Max melting away in the crowd as Furiosa is popularly acclaimed the new leader of the Citadel, the heart of this "civilisation" (no need for nonsense like an election). This trope signals a man moving from the real to the mythical realm, a process that has been underway since Max quit the police force in the first episode in 1979. Tom Hardy has apparently been contracted to do three more films. By the last I suspect he'll need no dialogue at all. This shouldn't detract from the qualities the actor brings. If Mel Gibson's incarnation had a little too much of the Achilles about him, Hardy's resourceful hero has the air of an Odysseus.

The key anxiety addressed by this fourth film is not to be found in the relationship of the sexes but in the image of a world of work (the Citadel's social hierarchy is literally powered by treadmills) in which men are increasingly constrained and even envious of women's ability to choose between a biologically-mandated role (i.e. reproduction and nurturing) and a life that is in no way inferior to that of a man (Furiosa's skill in driving the war-rig or shooting, and the independence of the Vuvalini bikers). Mad Max's initial job upon capture by the forces of the Citadel is to be a blood-bag for Nux, a sick warrior, which calls to mind Marx's famous use of the vampire metaphor but also the traditional male fear of being "bled dry" by wife and kids, of being tied-down by the job (Max is literally chained to Nux, and then stuck on the front of his car like an oversized Spirit of Ecstasy). Apart from the mindless mob and the comedy villains (the ruler of Gas Town, in a shabby suit with nipple rings instead of a fob-watch, was a particular delight), the only male role in this society appears to be that of war-boy.

Slowly dying from radiation sickness and brainwashed into a beserker desire for death in battle (Valhalla awaits), the war-boys make explicit the roots of the Lost Boys trope, which Miller introduced in the previous Mad Max instalment, in the cannon-fodder of the Great War. These "half-lives", controlled by the physically and morally corrupt Imortan Joe, the tyrant of the Citadel, represent the madness of men. "Who killed the world?" one of Joe's "breeders" (the harem of physically hale swimwear models that constitute the plot's McGuffin) accusingly asks Nux. The unstated answer is men, but the film tells us that not all men are the same: there's always the exceptional Max, with his independent resourcefulness and guilt-ridden flashbacks. The conservative pessimism of Miller's dystopia is evident in the lack of subtlety in his social order. The figures of authority are monsters and slaves to their own mad ambitions, their enforcers are idiot lumps of muscle or deluded youths, while the common people are weak and inept (they can't even seem to fill a billy-can with water without descending into chaotic violence). The only real exception - and a welcome splash of lurid colour - is Coma, the Doof Warrior, the artist henceforth known as the double-neck-guitar-cum-flamethrower guy.

Fury Road features a running theme of binoculars and telescopes: the far brought near and the world framed, which is a knowing joke about the process of film-making (one of Joe's deformed sons oversees the action from a director's chair). The series can be thought of as one long pastiche of cinema tropes by Miller, which tends to obscure the backward-looking nature of the films' politics. Mad Max was always out of time, and always more concerned with the US (i.e. American cinema heritage) than Australia. The moral breakdown and biker gangs of the original 1979 film were a hangover from the social anxieties of the late 60s that would bring Nixon to power. The energy crisis and fetishisation of petrol in the second film, released in 1981, was a re-run of early 70s fears rebooted by a punk aesthetic that would prove as influential in cinema and design as its near-contemporary Blade Runner.

Mad Max 2 also made clear Miller's debt to Sergio Leone, including some obvious plot parallels with A Fistful of Dollars (which Leone in turn borrowed from Kurosawa's Yojimbo, and Kurosawa borrowed from Dashiel Hammett's novel Red Harvest). The third film, released in 1985, took a sociological turn with the more complex politics of Bartertown, but is remembered mainly for the postmodern way in which it cheerfully pastiched its predecessor in the series with ever more improbable vehicles, big hair and a gonzo-brilliant Tina Turner. To British audiences, watching after the end of the miners' strike, it seemed spookily up-to-date - a dominatrix leader crushes a competing social power that controls the energy supply - but in fact the political subtext was still focused on the 70s energy crisis and the fear of a post-apocalyptic social breakdown filtered through tropes borrowed from The Lord of the Flies and Riddley Walker.

The fourth film fully catches up with the fear of nuclear war, referenced in the prologue and an ever-present theme in the sickness of Imortan Joe and the "half-life" war-boys. Ideologically, we appear to have finally reached the 1980s, hence the Vuvalini, a gang of mature biker chicks who distrust men and specialise in clean headshots, look like a women's group just returned from Greenham Common. There are also some more ambivalent gestures towards contemporary concerns, such as the tech-augmented human (Furiosa's prosthetic arm good, Imortan Joe's life-support system bad) and the atavistic perils of religion (Valhalla standing in for Paradise, to avoid a too-obvious equivalence of the war-boys with teenage Jihadis), but this remains an economy centred on petrol as much as water, which is a stunning conceit when you think that in a genuinely "regressed" society a horse would be far more valuable than a car (apart from ominous birds and a two-headed lizard that Max eats, fauna is noticeable by its absence).

The traditional western-film themes of home and redemption are as strong as ever, but what has become ever more prominent in the series is the sense of being lost in the world - uprooted and unable to recognise the sites of memory. The "Green Place" that the escaping women search for has declined into a toxic mud-flat with crows and stilt-wearing scavengers, shot in the crepuscular monochrome of The Seventh Seal, that they pass by unwittingly. The entire narrative arc is essentially a cinematic joke: "there's no place like home". Having spent the first half of the film fleeing from the only greenery to be seen anywhere in this desert landscape, supposedly to find the Green Place of legend, Max intervenes to turn the convoy around and target the liberation of the Citadel. If the first half owes a lot to The Wages of Fear (the transportation of a valuable but volatile cargo), the second owes most to the wagon train sub-genre (settlers, complete with seeds, must brave "hostiles" to reach the promised land) with a strong dash of Stagecoach (a pregnant woman, self-sacrifice, male and female outsiders making common cause).

Though this literal about-turn looks like a two-fingered salute by the director to narrative logic, it actually marks the transition of the film from a study in the alienation of forced labour to the valorisation of a settled order. Though Max believes he must remain an outsider, he also believes that civilisation must advance (or at least recover from its ecocidal folly) and that the women - Furiosa, the "wives" and the Vuvalini - represent the forces of progress. Having been robbed of his surplus blood by Imortan Joe's war-boys, Max freely provides a transfusion to save Furiosa, the rebel who was an "Imperator", a favourite of the old regime. The possibility of revolution is sublimated by restoration (here recast as "redemption", in traditional western style), a more glorious revolution, in which the corrupt monarchy, driven insane by its desire for heirs, is overthrown not by a democratic uprising but by an oligrachic coup. This is the birth of the republic. If the first half of the film is Greek, the second half is Roman.

The sociologist Richard Sennett, in his 2006 book The Culture of the New Capitalism, talked of the stresses of the new social order (i.e. what has come to be known in pop-culture as the "precariat"): "Only a certain kind of human being can prosper in unstable, fragmentary social conditions. This ideal man or woman has to address three challenges. The first concerns time: how to manage shortterm relationships, and oneself, while migrating from task to task, job to job, place to place .... The second challenge concerns talent: how to develop new skills, how to mine potential abilities, as reality’s demands shift. ... The third challenge follows from this. It concerns surrender; that is, how to let go of the past." That's a pretty good thumbnail sketch of Mad Max: Fury Road, but one that also hints at the tragic dimension that keeps us interested, namely Max's inability to escape his past. Regardless of its passing the Bechdel test with flying colours, the film is bonkers and I'm already looking forward to the fifth instalment.

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