Notes on Mad Max: Fury Road

Last weekend I finally got around to seeing Mad Max: Fury Road – about six months later than everyone else. I realise this means this is hardly a contemporary review, but I want to add my reflections on the film regardless.

The first thing I am going to talk about is one of the most striking things about the film: its diversity. I remember seeing headlines such as ‘Fury Road finest feminist film for decades’ when it came out, and assumed it was an Onion or Daily Mash headline. For those of you who’ve had the privilege of watching the original Mad Max films, you will know that, while they are not sexist, they are hardly a meditation on gender; they consist of Mel Gibson beasting it around Australia on a motorbike doing in men dressed in S&M gear. Therefore, I expected the latest instalment to be basically more of the same, but with better CGI. Well, how wrong could I be?

Fury Road is possibly the best film I have seen for representing women as actual, interesting, rounded human beings. The writing team resisted the temptation of making Furiosa a cliché ‘strong woman’ badass character, which nearly always ends up with the woman just taking on the quasi-comic, overblown masculine traits of every action movie hero. Likewise, they resisted turning Max into some useless bumbling sidekick overshadowed by his female superior – another trope that often appears when people try to write a ‘strong female’ focused drama. No, Furiosa was indeed super badass and cool, more than able to fight, survive etc, but she also exhibited genuine tenderness, rage and longing just like any human in her situation was. Possibly the most moving and relatable, not to mention excellently acted, scenes in the film was when she returns to what she thinks is home only to discover that ‘home’ has become a barren, inhospitable quagmire that her party had already driven through. Similarly, Max is not a cliché, all-action hero, but a man haunted by his past who is also seeking redemption. Also, perhaps most importantly, neither Max nor Furiosa would have survived without each other. All-in-all, gender representation and equality is done excellently in this film, avoiding tropes and cliché in favour of actual believable and well-balanced characters.

The other thing that stood out for me was how excellently shot the film was. The Director, George Miller, has stated that we wanted the film to be ‘as colourful as possible’ and the art direction to be ‘as beautiful as possible’ and his vision was certainly realised. His reasoning was that he felt that all post-apocalyptic films went for a drab, colourless vision of the world to convey the horror of the post-apocalypse. Miller’s vision, in contrast, presents with a world that looks almost biblical. Indeed, I am sure that the feeling of mythical pre-history is no accident. The dusty masses clamouring for the ‘water of life’ at the start of the film, the huge dust storm and Furiosa being stolen from the ‘green place’ to roam the wasteland all have a distinctly Christian myth feel to them. This also ties in perfectly with the theme of redemption that runs through the film. (By the way, did anyone else notice that guy with distinctly neanderthal features at the end?)

The last subject I would like to talk about is what was, in my view, the central theme of the film: power. Fury Road is set years after civilisation as we know it, and as such humanity has returned to a ‘state of nature’, if you will. Far from Locke’s or Rousseau’s conception of this time, life in Fury Road is very much a Hobbesian affair – nasty, brutish and short. It is quite easy to see the film as being a meditation on patriarchy, or simply anarchy, but this misses the point that actually ‘evil’ in this film is always simply a manifestation of absolute power. Immortan Joe was clearly a respected, charismatic and powerful warlord in his day, and used this to build up an army of slaves and warriors. With these, he managed to subjugate neighbouring communities and created a monopoly over our most vital resource: water. After securing his domination, he was able to take any women he wanted as his property and cement himself as a god-king amongst his citizens – the similarities between Joe addressing the dusty crowds below and the Pope the crowds in St. Peter’s Square seemed to me quite intentional. This story of absolute power securing privilege and leading to despotism is almost entirely reflective of human history before the great social advances of the 18th-19th centuries, and is an unsettling reminder of the fragility of human society.

So there we have it. Fury Road is an excellent film which is beautifully shot, gripping and actually surprisingly thoughtful. The actors put in a great performance all-round, but Charlize Theron steals the show as Imperator Furiosa. (Also, I was more than thrown when I realised that Nux the ‘warboy’ is played by Nicholas Hoult, a star of my favourite film.) There is plenty of excess in the costumes and the quasi-comic grotesque nature of Fury Road (I confess, the guitarist playing thrash metal on a huge truck almost ruined for me), but it still manages to be a thoroughly watchable film, and, arguably, a film with quite a left-wing bent.



A Single Man, Goffman and LGBT Representation

Last week I revisited A Single Man, which just about wins the esteemed title of my favourite film. Without giving too much away, it follows a single day in the life of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a gay English professor who has lost his lover of 16 years, and whose life is haunted by depression and a morbid fixation with his own mortality.

What struck me on this watch-through was how one of my favourite scenes almost perfectly illustrates Erving Goffman’s concept of the ‘presentation of the self’. In his opening monologue, George states, ‘Only fools could possibly escape the simple truth: that now isn’t simply now. It’s a cold reminder, one day later than yesterday, one year later than last year, and that sooner or later … it will come’. Many of us know that feeling, but it’s not sociologically interesting. But then he continues with this: ‘It takes time in the morning for me to become George. Time to adjust to what is expected of George and how he is to behave. By the time I’ve dressed, and put the final layer of polish on the now slightly stiff but quite perfect George I know fully what part I’m supposed to play.’

It’s a brilliant speech, and I can’t help but wonder whether Isherwood was influenced by Goffman when writing the novel. The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life was published in 1959, and was hugely popular in the US. With A Single Man being published in 1964, it isn’t hard to imagine that Goffman’s thought may well have influenced the story. Regardless, this monologue is textbook Goffman. Briefly, the argument that Goffman puts forward is that we perform the roles that are transmitted to us by society. These roles are multiplicit, and potentially infinite. Some of us perform these roles better than others, and become very adept social actors, whereas others, for whatever reason, fail to do so. In this scenario, actors frequently lose ‘face’ and ‘deface’ those around them.

George has an intricate routine of preparing himself for his day which allows him to present himself in the way society expects English professors to do so. Obviously, if he showed up to work outwardly bitterly depressed, drank heavily and raged at his students about the tragedy of the human condition, he would not be adequately fulfilling the role he has to perform. The institution he works for would be defaced, and he would lose his job.

The other thing I would like to talk about is the LGBT representation in the film. Increasingly, there are calls for media to show interesting portrayals of ‘queer’ individuals rather than just tokenistic caricatures. A Single Man is a perfect example of how to do this well. Throughout the film, George’s sexuality plays second fiddle to the real themes of the work: loneliness and living in the present. While we are well aware he is gay, George is not at all portrayed as an obviously gay stereotype. His mannerisms, voice and dress give nothing away and he only mentions his sexuality overtly once in the film. While George’s sexuality underlies the entire work, at times you almost forget about it. This film is not so much one about gay liberation but a story of an ordinary man with the light and shadow that makes us human. It is about a man who fears the inevitably of his end, hates the seeming futility of the present and who has lost his only anchor in the world: his love. It is a tale anyone can relate to regardless of sexuality, race or gender. A Single Man is a very moving film which is wonderfully shot and accompanied by a beautiful soundtrack. I urge you to watch it.

Film: Journal de France

This week I took the rare step for me of actually watching some films. These were ‘Les Intouchables’ and ‘Journal de France’. You’re probably familiar with ‘Les Intouchables’, a buddy movie about an young, unemployed, black migrant who winds up caring for a paraplegic French aristocrat, but I want to talk about the latter.

I stumbled across it completely by chance when I was looking for French films on Netflix and thought I’d give it a go. It was fantastic. In short, it is a film about the life and work of Pulitzer prize winning photographer, Raymond Depardon. On the face of it, it is chronicling his journey across rural France as he photographs enchanting scenery, hamlets and a way of life which he feels is dying out in the face of an increasingly monochrome western capitalist culture.

However, what makes the film is that it is interspersed with clips he shot from his career. Depardon largely shot in conflict zones and was intent on capturing life in the moment. There is footage from the Venezuelan civil war, the Soviet occupation of Prague, Raymond himself interviewing French mercenaries fighting in Biafra etc. The filming is visceral and revealing, as well as being brilliantly shot.

What made the film most interesting for me though is the effect of having thirty years of film of different conflicts and peoples across the world condensed into about 90 minutes. Maybe I’m getting carried away having studied Sociology and Anthropology for one term, but I feel it gives a real sense of relativism and how small our ‘global village’ has become when we can see these tales of human struggle and life that seemed so important and consuming at the time but are now largely forgotten but for some reels of film in a Frenchman’s basement.

Verdict: Enlightening, thoughtful and reflective. 8/10