Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Max: How I Stopped Worrying & Learned To Live In A Waking Apocalypse

Upon beginning this little blog, it was largely under the premise that I felt a deep need to explore the nature of myth, and what it meant to reflect not only the time in which it was told, but how it can often morph over time. And few major cinematic myths have experienced quite the history as Max Rockatansky has. Once an ace office of the Main Police Force, later a wasteland-weary loner seemingly saddled with trouble wherever he goes, remains one of the more original icons of the popcorn landscape. And with the long-awaited Fury Road just about to hit screens with what seems like a harsh gale force the likes film fandom has rarely seen, it seemed right to peek back George Miller's signature hero, and what he has meant to me over the years.

Long before I even truly knew about Mel Gibson, or of George Miller, my childhood visual mythology was already running rampant with heroes of all dimensions. From Luke Skywalker to Atticus Finch, films allowed me to fine tune an image to what storybooks and good people in the real world were already informing my worldview. One could envision the path, the fear, and ultimately the choices these characters had to make before standing up to their will to run in the name of some form of good. And while these definitions were what many would call rudimentary, they carried a potent array of reminders of how important it is to learn from every experience. Sure, there were times when storytellers would pull a ruse of laziness, and expect kids to accept a hero as moral without question, and even then, young me couldn't help but suspect something was amiss on the part of the teller. Even so, complexity wasn't huge on my periphery.

So when a relative inadvertently exposed me to the original Mad Max via a trip to the local Drive-In, the very idea that a hero could be so complicated, and at times downright broken, frightened me. It also threw me for a big loop. Since Max's journey largely takes place on the sidelines as his pals on the MFP(Most notably his buddy, Goose) took precedence until the Toe Cutter and his gang shifted their evil gaze his way. Having only seen a few horror movies at the time, the encroaching doom that lurched ever closer to Max and his little family felt a little too close for comfort. Every step the marauding gang of biker hooligans took toward the inevitable was one step closer to my little mind breaking along with poor Max's. But to see our hero go so far as to handcuff a lesser villain's ankle to an overturned vehicle leaking gasoline, and left behind to die a fiery death was something that I certainly wasn't prepared for. Even when the world of the preceding ninety minutes seemed dire and decaying, it was nothing compared to the distressing feelings that wrapped up the film. Simply put, nothing was to be the same again. The road ahead could not be more uncertain for Max, not for us. Perhaps it was all too soon. A road that went foggy without warning, with only rage and sorrow as navigator.

And funny enough, a year later when we caught the follow-up at the same twin drive-in, the stomach churning finale of the original Max was mere prelude to the even more evocative apocalypse that surrounds us here. Mad Max 2 (AKA - The Road Warrior), is a classic case of reinvention that takes the promise of desolation into revelatory mythmaking peaks. Gone were the green grasslands, clean roads, and promises of populated landscapes ahead. The world had become a savage ocean of desolation on all corners that shook little kaijyu to his very bones. In this rendition of the world, there truly is noone to look to for protection. No government. No hard driving ace police. Nothing. With only machines, wits, and goodness, a little luck finding juice, one may just have a chance. It was a deep dark place where only the resourceful could survive, and I couldn't imagine kids like me having a prayer.

It also opened me up to the realization that heroes weren't bound necessarily by continuity. That depending upon who is telling the tale, our lead can take on many guises, as can the world that surrounds them. While the film does visualize that this is the same Max, it could very easily be a souped-up reincarnation since the world has indeed fallen quite a ways from where it was just one film ago. Even so, one cannot help but understand why this character evolved into a self-serving survivalist in the wake of past events. He even goes so far as to consider ditching his first real bastion of human contact with the people of the film's main setting - a refinery under siege by a gang of scavenging psychos led by the charismatic slab of beef known as The Humongus.

The leap between film worlds was made less jarring by the natural progression of Max, not to mention sheer visceral thrill of Mad Max 2's still astonishing action and sense of vision. And even as Max becomes little more than a mythical hero in the eyes of a child, it is this spark of storytelling license shorthand that allows the character to have this more plasticine nature allowing for his world to become a boundless sandbox for George Miller's fertile imagination. It's a blank check for him to upgrade/alter the post-apocalypse to whatever his heart's desire. Something that Miller and his now well-honed band of daredevils could utilize to their advantage after The Road Warrior's big splash on the global stage. Max had become as important to me a mythical figure as anyone under the auspices of Spielberg or Lucas. The bleak future had become but a canvas to place upon it a hero eternally at odds with his will to escape his greatest fear, empathy.

So when the roads finally gave way to dunes in Beyond Thunderdome, who could blame Miller and company for aiming for soft-pedaled illustrated storybook territory? At the time, Star Wars had been put to rest (or so I thought), and I was hurting pretty heavily for another cinematic legend to drive it all home, so naturally Mad Max was on my mind full cycle as Tina Turner music videos and ads promised a Max adventure on a scale unseen. Even though I was fully aware of the tragedy that befell the production before filming with the loss of producer Byron Kennedy, what I was able to see from the marketing storm that followed near release in 1985, was something striking and potentially very special.

Having Max, this time much older and used as a pawn in the power struggle between the powerful of a trade-based boomtown deep in the wasteland, was an exciting new dimension to the mythos. And while the first thirty minutes of Thunderdome indeed burned a mark into my DNA that summer, it was hard to reconcile with certain choices that were made to close the circle. From the Fellini-esque touches that graced the glorious pit known as Bartertown, to its people, to Thunderdome itself, the film flirts with a greatness that far surpasses anything that had come before. And yet, Max's adventures beyond(yeah, just go with it) end up grinding the film to a halt instead of rocketing past. And while the notion that the feral child from the previous film would be a harbinger of sorts to an entire colony of child survivors of a plane crash, is a good one, as a story it never feels fleshes out to any satisfying degree beyond the visually respledent. It's pretty much an equivalent to Jedi's Ewoks. It feels like compromise. A compromise that in many ways belittles Max, and renders him more spectator than participant.

While still a gorgeous third film, it lacks the sense of dramatic propulsion that had brought the legend of the loner cop to such a status.

And then the legend lie dormant. And George Miller had for decades distanced himself artistically with often terrific, yet baffling choices for projects. To think that the man who brought Max Rockatansky to so many hearts and minds, also brought us Lorenzo's Oil, and Babe, remains head-spinning for its' sheer willingness for experimentation and fortitude. And his forays into the realms of CG animated fare took his career into many more impressive areas. It was as if success had then allowed him to treat work as a neverending film school, where he could further explore his ongoing theses about the ordinary thrust into the extraordinary into the super-extraordinary. (Just look at the leaps between Babe and Babe: Pig In The City)

For years, I had heard wind of a return to the wasteland. And it was around 2007 when I heard about a script for Mad Max: Fury Road being in the works. And in no traditional sense either. Had heard that  a majority of the film was to flirt with the comic world by being almost wholly composed via hand drawings before a word of dialogue was written down. So for years, I had long been hoping for more information, for some news that Miller and company were to make this dream project a reality. And then come roughly 2010, it came down the pipe that it would finally come to pass. But not before production problems, delays, shooting location moves, and various other drama made it almost supernatural in how fate seemed destined to keep Max from seeking redemption again.

2015. I am now forty years old. The wait has ended.

True to his ways of re-examining his mythological figures through a new lens each time, and with great sensitivity to the world around him, Miller's return to the world that brought him the world's attention is nothing short of extraordinary.

Mad Max: Fury Road, is proof positive that passion can still survive after decades of bliss seeking. That film as art can still mean something, and that action films can indeed chart a changing world. Older me can find himself both enthralled by the intensity and often insane composition of the action. He can even be deeply impressed by the film's clear love for the cast, and it's incredible gallery of memorable characters who are only given so much dialogue. Tom Hardy's Max, is a great new interpretation of the loner hero, and should do well in subsequent films should they go that route. And Charlize Theron's turn as Imperator Furiosa does Max one better in creating a hero that can at last carry that torch alongside him no matter where she goes from here on out. And what truly captured me, was that Fury Road is a return that carries the weight of weathered experience, and a willingness to transcend anything that had come before. And that even includes sexual/gender politics, not to mention world-building, and philosophical stances.

Years of percolation has allowed the film to become both a relentless, and exhausting feast for the senses that displays an unheard of amount of affection for the world and its people. It feels like the world of Max, has in itself both an artist's rage and love that feels ready to burst. Not everyone mellows with age, and we have seen quite a bit of shifting in our lifetimes. Miller seems to use this series as a barometer for how he sees the world, and with Fury Road, he sees a world ready to slough off old skins. That perhaps the post-apocalypse isn't this nightmarish place that must be avoided or to be protected from. It is here, and that perhaps by knowing your community, and taking it back for future generations, answers will indeed come through togetherness. The film admits that such a process is hard, but with each other, perhaps it isn't quite so painful. It's possible that the reason why Thunderdome wasn't quite able to deliver Max to the ages, was because this had to happen first. Max simply wasn't ready. Miller, wasn't ready.  

And now it's here.

I finally feel ready to put aside my love for the hero, and become my own.

Maybe one day, we all can.

Image by Kaz Omori

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