Wednesday, June 3, 2015

What A Lovely Day

Mad Max: Fury Road is an opera wrought in fire and chrome. A delirious western at the end of the world, with more nuance and intellectual rigor than anything to be celebrated by the Academy Awards in at least a decade. And best of all, it utterly takes the piss out of all the macho crypto-fascism poisoning modern culture.

The connections to the previous films is tenuous at best. It begins with Max still driving his suped up muscle car from the first film and a half, only to have it wrecked in the first few minutes and find himself a captive of the War Boys. Max doesn't do much for the next half hour or so, as director George Miller has a far vaster story to tell than the angst of one shell-shocked survivor.

Enter Immortan Joe, one of the greatest film villains since Peter Ustinov's Nero. A warlord bedecked in medals and a death's head mask, commanding the War Boys and leading them all to Valhala. Ruling the Citadel with an iron fist, doling out water rations as he deems fit and using women as livestock, either to breed his degenerate sons or slaved to industrial milking machines. An impotent, incompetent old hag who throws away everything in the doomed pursuit of his escaped wives.

The very first time the audience sees Joe is in all his scabrous and flabby mortality, being bundled into armor that never sees real fighting anymore. "Immortan" Joe is a walking corpse, kept alive by the suffering and sacrifices of the poor and desperate who crowd around the Citadel - an aquifier he seized through conquest back when he could walk without a cane. Even his iconic mask is nothing but a respirator, doing the breathing for him.

*wheeze* *hack* *wheeze*

Alongside the Bullet Farmer and the People Eater, Joe is the apotheosis of everything wrong and stupid in the world. A saber-rattler, emboldening the gullible to ugly and meaningless death from the safety of his Citadel. A self-absorbed whiner who goes to war to preserve his nightly booty calls, Joe sees everyone and everything as his own property but cannot see his own impermanence in the world. After he's gone, his empire comes apart faster than that of Alexander.

Fury Road marries visuals and music in a way rarely seen outside the films of David Lynch. Hammering drums and grinding guitar surround the extended chase sequence that forms the core of Fury Road, often accompanied within the film by the ludicrous Doof Wagon - a military truck decked out in war drums and a post-apocalyptic Buckhethead thrashing away on a flaming guitar. That's not hyperbole, it's a literal goddamn flamethrower!


This is the drummer boy of Immortan Joe's army. The bagpipers who play the War Boys into battle, keeping their spirits up. That it's a horrible waste of resources for people trying to survive in the wasteland is entirely the point, as are the yearning strings that constantly rise above the doof metal in the film's score. Everything about the War Boys is extreme, over the top, and pure artifice. For all their macho bluster, it is the softness of humanity that triumphs in both the story and the music.

Much has been made of the film's feminism. Much should be made, as it's both readily apparent but not preachy - Joe and his War Boys are every macho stereotype in a muscle car and drinking Jägerbombs while Max and Furiosa work together in more of a buddy cop formula with no romantic or sexual tension at all. But even more revolutionary is the implicit contrast between Max and Joe, between the nomad and the warlord.

A good analogy would be that Immortan Joe is Leonidas, leading his 300 War Boys to glory. Max is the Scythian, the nomad of the Steppe, hardened and confident from a life in the wilderness. While Joe needs to dress up in his medals and skull mask, needs to rule the Citadel and lay with only the choicest females, Max simply gets what he needs to survive and keeps moving. And so Joe's insecurities and grasping desperation are laid bare through contrast with the elegant simplicity of Max.


Just as the quaint and old fashioned violins of the chase music endures more than the thunderous electric guitar, so do Max and the many free women of the film endure better than Joe and his screeching adolescents. They endure not through some innate superiority or deus ex machina, but rather through working together. In this way do we see the single greatest and most important contrast between the two male leads - Max changes while Joe remains static.

Max doesn't even change all that much, but just enough to recognize the common humanity between himself and Furiosa and the wizened biker grannies - another Steppe nomad analogue. His plan to charge back through the pursuing war bands and take the Citadel is presented calmly, with no rousing talk of the "glory of battle." War is a serious matter that requires sober consideration, as well as cooperation. Max, Furiosa, the wives and the Scythian grannies are all keenly aware of their mortality, all desire to live and find some little bit of peace in this world of fire, and the film clearly argues that only by working together can they hope to achieve any of that. You may call that socialism but I call it survival. And so does Max.

And survival is really the defining theme of Fury Road, just as it's been for every Mad Max movie. Joe and his orcs are a tempest in a teapot when placed against the awesome, unconscious forces of nature. Which George Miller does frequently, in shot after beautiful shot. Fury Road presents a world after climate change, where all the denials and excuses are so much pissing in the wind. The world is bigger than you and doesn't care about your feelings.

"Fuck you." ~ Nature

Against such forces, an individual is just so much paste. Joe rages against this reality in everything he does, more petulant child than bold warrior. His boys do the same, being paint-huffing screwheads with more testosterone than brains. Max accepts the reality of the situation, and so accepts the aid of Furiosa because he knows he can't win all by himself. What could he "win" in this blasted hellscape anyway, other than a few more precious days of life?

Mad Max: Fury Road is the greatest film of 2015 and the greatest film of George Miller's career. In all its bombast and fire, it tells a very human story with more pressing concerns than whatever happened in the last seven Marvel movies. And best of all, it eschews the sterile computer animation so endemic to modern action films in favor of good old fashioned pyrotechnics. Go see it twice.

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