Friday, June 5, 2015

Dead End: A Dissenting View on Mad Max: Fury Road

The influence of marketing divisions on movies right now is so pervasive that what sometimes passes for reviewing could just as easily have been dreamed up in the boardroom. When The Globe and Mail calls Australian director George Miller's return to the action genre in the new Mad Max: Fury Road "a double-barreled shotgun enema to the senses," is that kind of macho hyperbole (fitting to the genre) giving me an idea of what to expect, or is it choice ad copy to sell it? As for the metaphor, who thinks enemas are very pleasurable to begin with, let alone what you are looking for in a good movie?

I know it's not so much that film critics are eager to line up behind the product driven views of executives. Their taste in formula pictures after all is shockingly bad. But the climate reviewers are now working in is not designed for informed criticism, but instead for a style of consumer reporting. After all, if audiences today are being treated (in the crudest sense) as if they were nothing more than consumers, in that same way some of us are now thought of as 'taxpayers' rather than citizens, there is less need to ask questions as to what art is and why it is. Once when I was reviewing Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind (2001) for CBC Radio, his adaptation of Sylvia Nassar's fascinating biography of mathematician John Nash, I wanted to describe why the movie was such a failure of imagination by describing how Howard turned Nassar's nuanced take on Nash's life and illness into a banal and conventional redemption story. My producer told me to forget the book and just tell the listening audience whether or not they should go to the film. In other words, leave out the context and just whip out a thumb to go yea or nay. It turned into a huge battle which I eventually won, but over time more episodes of this nature would ultimately cost me my job. And here we're talking about a radio network in the public sector not pressured by advertisers. But the mindset of regarding listeners as consumers was already in place.

With this comes a blind adherence to a popular taste which tells you that whenever a film makes a whole lot of money on the opening weekend, it has to be good. While those you never heard of are without a doubt duds to avoid. A critic's job used to be, in part, to actually draw attention to the interesting work that nobody was paying attention to, and to movies that didn't benefit from those huge marketing campaigns. But the national media has become nothing more these days than an extension of the marketplace itself where smart critical thinking is replaced by promotional journalism. Editors are constantly feeling the pressure from their bosses to protect the status quo, or they are replaced by those who will. This helps explain why a new Tom Cruise film will garner any number of cover stories in the entertainment section of magazines and newspapers, even though anyone who is already a fan of Tom Cruise is certain to be going anyway. So he hardly needs all the attention. Meanwhile, a movie that could really use some ink gets ignored because nobody writing about it stands to gain anything by taking the risk of drawing attention to it. Out of this comes an audience primed to conform to whatever is deemed to be popular taste. Because movies are also now so heavily niche marketed each genre also has its own devoted fan base. In that world, marketing divisions slavishly cater to those who treat what they love with a devotion often indistinguishable from fetishism.

Tom Hardy as Mad Max in Fury Road.

After recently seeing  Mad Max: Fury Road, I can fully understand the passion and enthusiasm it has generated in both audiences and many critics. Given that most contemporary action dramas are tedious and impersonal in their cookie-cutter designs, Mad Max: Fury Road by comparison across with the visual dynamism of spectacles such as D.W.Griffith's Intolerance (1916), or Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), where the vistas are brimming with bold visceral excitement. George Miller is a director of considerable imagination for conceiving action. And in Mad Max: Fury Road he has made a movie out of what is essentially an extended chase sequence. There are so many memorable baroque touches (and very little CGI) that you can practically hear the director gleefully crowing all the way to the finish line. But if there's true sensibility at work in the movie-making, there's also a conflict in form given the material he's working with here. Not content to make an action jamboree, Miller loads the picture with issues – issues that in a genre that is all about delivering kinetic thrills can't possibly be dealt with in any depth. It's this distinction that's missing in much of what I'm reading.

The original Mad Max (1979) certainly didn't have any pretensions to being noble in its intentions. As much a demolition derby as revenge fantasy, Mad Max was set in Australia in the near future and featured a cop named Max (Mel Gibson) who chased down a marauding gang of bikers who eventually got their revenge by brutally taking out his wife and child. By the end, however, Max becomes a hot rod vigilante who dispatches each one with balletic precision. The film was a huge international hit (except in North America where it played in a horribly dubbed version because the distributors didn't think viewers would understand the accents). But given that the material was nothing that hadn't already been plumbed successfully in numerous American genre hits featuring Clint Eastwood (Dirty Harry), Charles Bronson (Death Wish) and Chuck Norris (Lone Wolf McQuade), they needn't have worried. But Miller had already decided that Max's character touched something deeper in the viewer. He ventured in the widescreen sequel, The Road Warrior (1982), to portray Max as a heroic Jungian archetype based on characteristics already defined by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949). In it, Campbell describes what he calls the "monomyth" where a hero's journey begins in crisis. When he achieves victory, he is then transformed into a new spiritually enlightened man. "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man," Campbell writes of this evolved heroic warrior. Back in the early Eighties, however, George Miller told me in an interview that he discovered and rejected Jung while training to be a doctor before finding his vocation as a filmmaker. "I always found Jung's work a little too mystical for me," he said. But he obviously had a change of heart and quickly embraced Jung's concept of the collective unconscious after Mad Max found such strong audience rapport. It's a shame he didn't trust his first instincts. For Jung's theories not only don't apply to The Road Warrior, they can't work because Max – who reluctantly helps homesteaders who've survived a Third World War from violent bikers who covet the oil refinery they are protecting – doesn't really do anything heroic, or even become Campbell's transformed man in the end. (The homesteaders already seem to know that Max is hopeless to rely on. They use Max as a distraction so they can find their freedom away from the bikers.)

Mel Gibson as Mad Max (1979).

In The Road Warrior, Mel Gibson's Max gets reduced to being a detached icon representing nothing more than a leather-clad survivalist. He might have been conceived in the same manner that the lone hero of the American Western was, an icon recently explored in John Maclean's fine picture Slow West, except that Max has no beliefs at stake. The only drama is in seeing his glorified passivity contrasted with the swirling action of those who are around him."The religiosity implicit in Jung's therapeutic approach tends toward passivity," Robert Lindner writes about the psychotherapist in Prescription for Rebellion (1952). "He seeks to bind mankind to archaic forms...[by] hypothecating the 'fact' that such archetypes always provide creative solutions." (Lindner also postulated that Jung's early sympathies to Nazism written about in his 1939 book The Integration of the Personality came out of his blind adherence to archetypes as a guide to understanding the self.) Despite the dynamic and exciting movie-making in The Road Warrior, Max is given no inner life to dramatize which makes him – and the picture – an ultimate exercise in glum heroics. The self-conscious desire to create a meaningful myth out of Max's journey served to sap the picture of any exhilaration outside of the thrills of the action itself.

The third film, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), continued the turgid march towards mythologizing Max's fate without really getting anywhere – despite his saving a band of children. Once again, he is left wandering the desert. Which brings us to Fury Road where Tom Hardy now plays Max, but he is still the same "shell of a man" eking out a life in Outback while fuel and water become even more of a scarcity. After being captured by the legions of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the biker gang leader, Toecutter, in Mad Max), Max is imprisoned. Joe possesses sex slaves in which to propagate his successors, War Boys to do his bidding, and he rules over a desperate populace he keeps loyal by providing water that he hoards. Even though he promises his followers immortality in Valhalla, one of his female lieutenants, Imperator Furiosa (a brooding Charlize Theron), decides to spring the female slaves and head for greener pastures. Joe is furious at losing his "property" and sets his warriors loose on them. While Max is initially used as a vehicle hood-ornament providing a "blood bag" for the War Boys, he eventually sides up with Furiosa to lend his hand in an epic chase that pretty much takes up the entire picture.

The Road Warrior (1982).

A lot is being written about the movie being "a feminist picture" and having contemporary relevance. But little of that becomes of any dramatic consequence. For example, Mad Max: Fury Road keeps reminding us about gas shortages and environmental calamity. Yet for the whole film people drag race at insane speeds without giving the shortage a moment's thought. Someone recently tried to convince me – unsuccessfully – that this was ironic and intentional. But there's no scene in the picture where that irony is ever addressed because without the gas guzzling there would be no thrill ride of a movie. The film is also supposed to be about liberating sex slaves from the patriarchy, but you never come to understand their struggle, or even why they want Max to help them. (At first glance, they appear to be doing a fashion shoot in the desert that looks destined for the E! Channel.) Miller might be able to frame actors on the screen so that they make strong impressions, but they have no developing dramatic inner life that would make us feel for their fate. A sign in Joe's harem lair screams "We Are Not Things!," but isn't that what all the women become in the larger scheme of the story? No one is given much of a personality to suggest otherwise. Couldn't we have one woman perhaps arguing with Furiosa about whether her utopian idea of freedom in this green world is going to be any more satisfying than Joe's lair? A smarter writer might have suggested that Furiosa's notion of paradise might possess similar snakes that already plague Immortan Joe's idea of Eden. (Eve Ensler, who wrote The Vagina Monologues, might have been tagged to be the script supervisor which gives the story cache for some feminists. But that doesn't tell you whether or not The Vagina Monologues is a good enough feminist play to warrant her contributions.)

Immortan Joe's sex slaves.

It's at the end, however, after defeating Immortan Joe, where Miller's Jungian mythologizing becomes a complete drag and defeats the whole purpose of the film. Max – once again – has to fulfill his role as the predestined loner and he abandons the women to go off into oblivion. Given that he is likely the only healthy guy around, and since most of the other men are covered with hideous tumors, how are these women going to perpetuate the human race for the future? Can't Max, who is still haunted throughout the movie by the ghosts of those he couldn't save, be restored back to humanity due to all his efforts? The picture deliberately resists any exhilaration of feeling at the end to preserve its mythical components which is why it ends up as inevitably dour as The Road Warrior was. Much of this probably doesn't matter to the movie's enthusiasts because its fans only want the mythical and iconic content to be true to its origins and viscerally satisfying – which is something George Miller can produce better than anyone. Mad Max: Fury Road is without a doubt a dynamic piece of work that stands apart from the deluge of loud and dreary action material usually filling the screen. But when Tom Hardy's Max inexplicably walks away at the end of Fury Road, guaranteeing the franchise – and Max – yet another encounter with death and mayhem, we're not really seeing anything radically new and daring. Despite his considerable gifts and skills as a director, when it comes to Mad Max, George Miller is perfectly in tune with the marketing zeitgeist.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.


  1. Mad Max and Jung, seriously?????! I think I really don't have to add anything here, I can understand you may not like the movie that much and that you can possibly see whats going on here (all the exaggerated reviews after the movie's release etc..), but to look at this popcorn hollywood big-budget action-packed blockbuster from such a philosophical point of view, is in my humble opinion just totally weird, just sayin'...

  2. Thanks for your letter. But don't blame me for the Jungian read on the hero. As I said in my review, that's George Miller's deliberate interpretation of Max. You can read him on the subject. He even told me so in an interview I did with him back when Thunderdome came out. That's what I said partly hurts the picture. Seriously.

    1. Ok, well I have to apology as I somehow didn't realize (or overlooked) that it was originally Miller who came out with this Jungian thing. Have to say that from my point of view as a huge Madmax fan (at least for me) the movies were never anything more than a well done exploitation flicks, so just as you wrote in the article above, the deeper sides Miller ocassionally tries to put in the movies (or for me also the philosophical look on his hero) look usually as a fairly plain or weird stuff. On the other side when I'm thinking about it, what he does in Mad Max movies always resembled me quite strongly of fairytales, simple but powerful messages delivered to you just in a slightly different (more modern) form. I always somehow thought that this may be something what he tries to accomplish in Mad Max. I think it's especially well visible in the Thunderdome, where he even depicts a group of kids who develop their own mythology and their own fairy tales, when they were isolated from the outer world.
      Also please excuse my English, I'm from Czech Republic, so sometimes I'm a bit struggling with the language when I want to express something exactly the way I want.

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful reply. You have made your points perfectly clear. The Mad Max movies - after Mad Max - are indeed self-consciously designed as hero mythology. But, for me, the heroic aspects don't grow out of the specifics of the character and the story, the get imposed on it by a kinetic and talented director who doesn't understand the limitations of the action genre.

  4. Thanks for your reply. To be honest, I have to say that the reason why I decided to read this article was because it was the first time I actually saw that someone (as it appeared from the title ) probably thinks that Fury Road or the whole Mad Max saga and the character itself are heading towards a "dead end". I was surprised to see something so apt (or how to put it) because I, despite being a big Madmax fan (as I said before), think pretty much the same. The only difference is that I somehow expected that it will be more of a style-oriented than story-oriented criticism. I agree with you that the franchise is heading nowhere, because it simply doesn't really deliver anything new (I think in fact) from the very 1st movie. But in my opinion there's also one more important factor which helped to make the Madmax flicks a real legend at the beggining but it starts to harm it as the time passes and that is the style. As an exploitation flicks, the 2nd and 3rd movies in the tetralogy used really successfully the punk subculture and style as a basis for the decorations, costumes, behavior of the characters, the whole atmosphere. In my opinion, THIS was the very reason the movies were so successfull. At the time when this all was actual, the whole Mad Max style and the type of villains Miller uses in the movies (Wez,...) were actual as well. I think that in an age when this all is pretty much gone, Miller simply ain't got anything more to exploit and that's exactly where I see the dead end for his hero. It's in this blighted place full of mainstream hipster shit, where he came to die for good, geeez, just kidding, but I really think there's something to it.