Thursday, September 17, 2015

Bloody and Chrome

The plot of Mad Max: Fury Road (directed, as were all of the previous three films, by George Miller) is refreshingly simple. The setting is a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland. Immortan Joe is a ghoulish, Vader-esque warlord who hoards water, food and beautiful women of birthing age in a mountain stronghold called the Citadel. Like most such strongmen, he rules through a combination of charisma, economic power and a quasi-religious cult of extreme violence. Joe charges Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron),  one of his most trusted cadres, with leading a convoy to replenish supplies at the aptly named Gas Town and Bullet Farm. Instead, Furiosa smuggles Joe's harem in the belly of her big rig in a mad bid for freedom. On the way, they pick up Max (Tom Hardy), the Road Warrior himself, also recently escaped from Joe's clutches. A mind-blowingly violent car chase ensues.

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Action movies are supposed to be fun but they almost never are.  In my experience, they manage to be at once overstimulating to the point of panic, obscenely cavalier with human life and also deadly boring. So it's no small compliment to say that the carnage and speed and noise and visual density of Mad Max: Fury Road truly is an incredible thrill. Be prepared, though:  this movie aims for all-out perceptual saturation. Light-drenched widescreen panoramas of desert and sky give way to frantic camera swoops and zooms. Extreme closeups of colossal, heaving machinery and manic human faces flutter by almost in collage. There are huge, kaleidoscopic mosaics filled to the brim with visual detail. And the design aesthetic choice. The nearest description might be an armed, post-apocalyptic, death metal demolition derby: monster trucks and muscle cars, all souped-up, armored and seriously weaponized but decayed and shambolic, held together with spare parts and found objects--skulls, spears, tank treads--covered in rust and oil and desert sand. It's like a medieval, carsploitation, sci-fi western. And if that sounds steampunk to you, it is--but in the gnarliest, most psychedelic way possible.

Did I mention the Doof Wagon, a flatbed loaded with Marshall stacks, a fleet of tyco drummers, and, suspended by cables above it all, a blind guitarist shredding on a flamethrowing double-necked guitar? That's real. (While we're on the subject of the Doof Wagon, this movie features some of the most spectacular character names you will ever hear. Imperator Furiosa? Toast the Knowing? Rictus Erectus? A thousand times yes.) And the humans are just as frankensteinian as the machines. They're like sacks of dusty bones, like prehistoric dirt creatures, clad in leather and rusty iron, often grotesquely scarred or deformed, sporting mechanized limbs, packing serious heat. From the cars to the weapons, from the goth accessories to the human bodies themselves to the speed of everything, Fury Road tends toward total audio-visual excess. It is mind-blowing and campy and terrifying and hilarious. It beggars description. Certain passages of this movie felt, to me, like something close to pure cinematic pleasure.

Of course this pleasure comes at a high price. The film overwhelms the viewer's sensorium, but it also overwhelms the human bodies within the film itself--by maiming, by cyborgification, by disease. This is practically a convention of the genre. But the violence here is extreme and total and it poisons every aspect of life. In this world there is almost no trust or human companionship. Violence mediates every human relationship; it backs every interaction like a currency. The beginning of Max and Furiosa's partnership is a game of mutual mistrust; almost every move they make is a hedge against treachery. Even language is badly decayed, boiled down almost entirely to sheer utility or violent exhortation. Max himself communicates mainly in a series of grunts and refuses to even utter his own name.  When Nux, one of Immortan Joe's army of "war boys" who has stowed away on Furiosa's rig, casually refers to a tree as "that thing," it's a funny acknowledgement not just of the obliterated natural world, but also of that world's severely restricted possibilities--for language, for imagination, for human life of any kind.

Unlike most movies of its kind, Fury Road actually seems to understand the devaluation of human life implied by violence on this scale. And it illustrates it in typically spectacular ways. The war boys are hairless and painted white. They are anonymous, born to live and quickly die in thrall to violence and power. Before they hurl themselves into certain death--and a ticket to Valhalla--they spray chrome paint on their mouths and scream "WITNESS ME!" It is pure insanity. After his capture by Joe's henchmen, Max becomes a "bloodbag," a human IV bag used to funnel healthy blood into sick war boys. Women work as milk-pumping machines or sex slaves. And the people living in the shadow of the Citadel are essentially abject human dust living at Immortan Joe's mercy. Also: One of Joe's henchmen sports an embalmed baby's head as an amulet.  Despite the aesthetic thrill, this may be the least appealing post-apocalyptic desert-scape of all time. As the film goes on, the horror of it all becomes harder to ignore.

We're even forced to consider the lives of the war boys, the kinds of faceless storm troopers that are dispensed with, casually and in great number, in so many violent movies. After he comes aboard Furiosa's truck, we actually come to know and to sympathize with Nux. We get to see him as a human person with feelings and desires. It's a lot harder to see other war boys blown to bits when we know they're capable of, say, love or regret or nostalgia. And, significantly, we  come to understand the nature of Nux's worship of Immortan Joe. It turns out that the violence and spectacle serve the same purpose for Nux as it does for the viewer. Just to perform as crazed warriors, they must achieve an ecstasy that short-circuits their deliberative minds and overwhelms their natural-born empathy. They truly are a benighted bunch, indoctrinated from childhood in an ethos of total violence, fed myths of an eternal reward in exchange for their self-sacrificial zeal. They, like us, are meant to be enthralled by the terrible beauty of it all; of course the optics are going to be spectacular. There's a parable on the fascistic perils of spectatorship for you.

Now, the self awareness at work here only extends so far. For as much as Fury Road has allowed itself to be hyped as a "feminist" action film, Immortan Joe's runaway brides look suspiciously as if they've just escaped from an Aerosmith video. They may be rebelling against the Citadel's particular form of sexual control, but they're still objects, if not of Joe's affections than of the hetero male viewer's eye. (Which is not to say that Charlize Theron's performance as Furiosa is anything but devastating.) And, in the end, the film still proffers a rather well-worn narrative of redemption through violence, a violence that rights political wrongs and offers personal salvation to go along with its narrative resolution. And that resolution here is fairly thin. We're supposed to believe that something transformational has happened simply because one impressively costumed, water-hoarding caudillo has been toppled? I don't buy it. The evil at play here is too deep-seated and sinister, the ecological and spiritual wounds too deep. This is still a desert hellscape of warlord capitalism. We still have Gas Town and the Bullet Farm. This world is fucked.

But there is another moment in the film that offers a more convincing utopian possibility. As the action wears on, Max and Furiosa repeatedly exchange brazen life-saving feats. Their fates increasingly intertwine. Belatedly they come to trust one another. Near the end of the film, Furiosa sustains a life threatening wound and begins to bleed to death. Max puts an IV line from his arm into hers, allowing his blood to flow into her veins. "Max," he says, "my name is Max. That's my name." Like everything in Fury Road, the moment passes instantly. But the rhyme with the Max's time as a bloodbag is unmistakable. Immortan Joe's colony treated Max's body as just another natural resource to be plundered. But when Max commingles his blood with Furiosa's and finally speaks his name, it is an act of real brother-and-sisterhood. It's a genuinely communal moment, practically a marriage, that most optimistic of human institutions. In this world, that qualifies as a miracle.

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