Mad Max: Fury Road Reviewed

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Fury Road film poster by John Aslarona
George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road performs exactly what its intended audience demands. Essentially a cartoonish two-hour car chase brimming with violent badassery, Fury Road precludes any real criticism. Poking at the weak dialogue, cardboard characterizations, and muddled motivations would miss the point. Fury Road looks amazing. It’s thrilling. It’s violent. It does what it was made to do. It’s a spectacular entertainment. (Spectacular in the Guy Debord sense).

Those who would contend there’s more to Fury Road, that would protest I’m missing some depth here, might refer me to the film’s feminist motifs. Yes, this is a film that critiques and rebels against patriarchal authority (going so far as to spell out its message in big block letters even). Maybe there’s a Freudian or Lacanian analysis in there too: Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa (she’s the real star of the film—Tom Hardy’s Max is a bland substitute for old crazy eyes Mel), shorn of both hair and an arm (castration symbols, no?) driving an enormous phallus (one dangling a big testicle full of fuel, power, no less) across the desert wastes, plunging it violently ahead to save some concubines (their eminence derives from their non-mutant genes and marvelous cheekbones—like Zack Snyder’s 300, Fury Road always privileges ideal body types over aberrations).

Where was I? It doesn’t really matter.

Ah, yes: I claimed that the movie obviates criticism.

Fury Road is a product, a commodity that successfully camouflages its very commodification. It’s fan service for our post global id.

The film has been nearly universally praised, as a quick tour through the aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes shows. I’ll lazily pull from RT’s pull quotes lazily: “This movie will melt your face off,” promises Christy Lemire. (Uh, okay). For David Edelstein, seeing the film a second time “became about digging the spectacle – not to mention the hilarious sexual politics.” (Were they really “hilarious”?) “An A-plus B-movie that at times feels almost like a tone poem to early-’80s excess,” writes Christopher Orr, who may or may not know what a tone poem is. Mark Kermode, a crank whom I generally admire, calls it “an orgy of loud and louder, leaving us alternately exhilarated, exasperated and exhausted.”

I stuff these quips in  here to show how Fury Road precludes any real criticism. Like I said up front, it does what it intends to do, and what it intends to do is show us something wholly familiar in a way that makes us think that we are not seeing something wholly familiar. But for me, anyway, Fury Road does feel familiar, like any number of movies I’ve already seen. Maybe blame it on Miller’s earlier Mad Max films. Maybe they colonized our cultural imagination so much that any strangeness in Fury Road is difficult to glean, hence the filmmaker’s central trick: Speed the damn thing up. Less character development, less bothersome talking 

I cherry-tomato-picked the Kermode quote above, but his full review is more measured and insightful than that quote alone suggests. He ends with a warning: “…at two hours it’s more of a slog, battle-fatigue teetering on the edge of burn-out and even boredom.” Reader, I’ll admit to that boredom.

The first edges of that boredom actually creep in early, when we see how little is actually at stake in the film. Miller’s gambit is to keep Max constrained for the first quarter of the film—bound, chained, even muzzled. Tied to the prow of a rumbling car like some mythic figure, Max is relentlessly imperiled by spears and bullets and an apocalyptic sandstorm. But like some mythic figure, we know he’ll never die. Like the Roadrunner cartoons it so closely resembles, Fury Road imagines a slapstick world of zany cause-and-effect non-logic, producing kinetic anxieties in its audience that are ultimately relieved (over and over again) with a belief so strong that it cannot be suspended: Max will not die. Max can never die. There must be a sequel.

That promise of a sequel finds its affirmation in the film’s most clichéd final moments. (I’m going to discuss the end of the film now. Spoilers coming up—fair warning, eh?)

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Fury Road film poster by Salvador Anguiano
Continue reading “Mad Max: Fury Road Reviewed”

Watch a film about Thomas Pynchon, A Journey into the Mind of P

This 2002 documentary by Donatello Dubini and Fosco Dubini is kind of a mess, but it’s a fun mess. Interviews with old friends, like Jules Siegel, superfans and webdudes, and critics (George Plimpton shows up a few times), are interspliced with a lot of stock footage. The Residents’ fantastic pop appropriations from The Third Reich Rock n’ Roll help to stitch the movie together. The film occasionally indulges in a kind of obvious paranoid rambling, and the last section, detailing an attempt to photograph Thomas Pynchon (you remember that silly CNN report?) is not nearly as interesting as  Allen Rush or other Pynchonians riff. Sort of a for completists only deal.

Did Wes Anderson interview Robert Evans as a substitute host for Charlie Rose in 2002? You bet your ass he did.

 

Continue reading “Did Wes Anderson interview Robert Evans as a substitute host for Charlie Rose in 2002? You bet your ass he did.”

A short riff on a favorite scene from Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood

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I absolutely loved Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, which is nominated for a few Oscars this year, including Best Picture. (Boyhood is too good to win best picture; I’m fine with that prize going to Iñárritu’s faux-art film Birdman). A rich and sentimental evocation of “reality,” Boyhood synthesizes the best elements of Linklater’s previous films, and like many of those films—Slacker, the Before trilogy, Waking LifeDazed and ConfusedBoyhood isn’t really about anything. Of course it’s also kinda sorta about everything: family, love, growth, education, life. Etc.

The central formal device of Boyhood—namely, that Linklater shot the film over twelve years using the same actors—has been remarked upon at great length by others, so I won’t touch on it, other than to say that I found watching Ellar Coltrane’s Mason grow up profoundly moving. The aesthetic experience of Boyhood is its greatest pleasure, much like its sister film The Tree of Life. And although Boyhood’s aesthetic power relies in large part on our witnessing its characters grow and age, its emotional tenor, its vibe, inheres from scene to scene.

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There are many wonderful moments in the film, some more memorable than others, but a favorite of mine takes place at an overnight “camping trip” in a house that’s still under construction. Mason is maybe, what, thirteen here?—I’m not quite sure, but he tells his mother the truth about where he’s going, if not entirely the truth about what he’ll be doing there…which is, what? Not much really—the younger kids hang out with the older kids, drink a beer or two, lie about sex—stuff kids do. The scene captures the same not-quite-boring hangout vibe that permeates Dazed and Confused and Waking Life—a kind of familiar realness.

Linklater is a master at evoking a sense of place. And this place, this house—it’s simultaneously boring, calming, and horrifying. On one hand, we’ve been there before—the abandoned house, the empty parking lot, the little switch of trees that aren’t quite woods, not really—the free space where we can play at being adults. On the other hand, Boyhood has allowed us—or maybe I should not extend my pronoun to the plural? No?—Okay: Boyhood has allowed me, this viewer, a kind of paternalistic view of Mason (“my-son”) who is, after all, growing up before our very eyes (sorry for slipping back into the first-person plural there). And here Linklater has young Mason—whom we trust to do the right thing and all but still—here Linklater has staged Mason & co. in an abandoned house full of scrap wood and power tools and circular saw blades which the young men are of course throwing into the sheet rock with gleeful abandon.

I flinched as the blades flew forcefully past Mason and his friend; in any other film they would have to cut into flesh and bone, be tools for forces tragic or comic. Plot devices. But in Boyhood they are the toys of boys playing at growing up. Nothing happens. No grievous injury or terrible death—the sort of thing that usually licenses, I don’t know, the central character’s maturation. Not even a comic wound. Nothing. The blade-throwing is just normal bored stupid teenage amusement. It’s the sort of thing that Mason’s mom—and a paternalistic viewer like me—might find horrifying—You could get very badly hurt, Mason!—but he doesn’t. He’s fine. He’s alive.

For me, this particular scene—not the strongest or the strangest or the most memorable or moving—is nevertheless a key moment in Boyhood, not just because it disrupts audience expectations (the film is full of such gentle disruptions), but because it engenders and then discharges my own parental anxieties. That’s a form of catharsis, I guess, but not a catharsis of tragedy. It’s catharsis for reality.

J.G. Ballard’s “The Subliminal Man,” John Carpenter’s They Live, and Black Friday

Today is Black Friday in America. I don’t think it’s necessary to remark at length on the bizarre disjunction between this exercise in consumerism-as-culture and the intended spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday that precedes it. Indeed, I think that the cognitive dissonance that underwrites Black Friday—the compulsion to suffer (and cause suffering), both physically and mentally,  to “save” money on “consumer goods” (sorry for all the scare quotes, but these terms are euphemisms and must be placed under suspicion)—I think that this cognitive dissonance is nakedly apparent to all who choose to (or are forced to) actively engage in Black Friday. The name itself is dark, ominous, wonderfully satanic.

Rereading “The Subliminal Man,” I was struck by how presciently J.G. Ballard anticipated not only the contours of consumerist culture—urban sprawl, a debt-based economy, the mechanization of leisure, the illusion of freedom of choice—but also how closely he intuited the human, psychological responses to the consumerist society he saw on the horizon. Half a century after its publication, “The Subliminal Man” seems more relevant than ever.

The premise of the tale is fairly straightforward and fits neatly with the schema of many other early Ballard stories: Franklin, an overworked doctor, is approached by Hathaway, a “crazy beatnik,” who refuses to take part in the non-stop consumerism of contemporary society. Hathaway can “see” the subliminal messages sent through advertising. He asks for Franklin’s help in stopping the spread of these messages. Hathaway reasons that the messages are intended to enforce consumerist society:

Ultimately we’ll all be working and spending twenty–four hours a day, seven days a week. No one will dare refuse. Think what a slump would mean – millions of lay–offs, people with time on their hands and nothing to spend it on. Real leisure, not just time spent buying things . . .

The fear of a slump. You know the new economic dogmas. Unless output rises by a steady inflationary five per cent the economy is stagnating. Ten years ago increased efficiency alone would raise output, but the advantages there are minimal now and only one thing is left. More work. Subliminal advertising will provide the spur.

Franklin is unconvinced, even though he is already working Saturdays and Sunday mornings to payoff TVs, radios, and other electronic goods that he and his wife replace every few months. Soon, however, he realizes that something is wrong:

He began his inventory after hearing the newscast, and discovered that in the previous fortnight he and Judith had traded in their Car (previous model 2 months old) 2 TV sets (4 months) Power mower (7 months) Electric cooker (5 months) Hair dryer (4 months) Refrigerator (3 months) 2 radios (7 months) Record player (5 months) Cocktail bar (8 months)

Franklin finally sees the truth, but only after Hathaway takes to blowing up signs’ switch boxes (the word “terrorism” is of course not used in the text, although it surely would be today):

Then the flicker of lights cleared and steadied, blazing out continuously, and together the crowd looked up at the decks of brilliant letters. The phrases, and every combination of them possible, were entirely familiar, and Franklin knew that he had been reading them for weeks as he passed up and down the expressway.

BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW

YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES

Like many Ballard stories, “The Subliminal Man” ends on a pessimistic note, with Franklin choosing to ignore his brief enlightenment and give in. Ballard drives his criticism home in the final image of the story, with Franklin and his wife heading out to shop:

They walked out into the trim drive, the shadows of the signs swinging across the quiet neighbourhood as the day progressed, sweeping over the heads of the people on their way to the supermarket like the blades of enormous scythes.

“The Subliminal Man” offers a critique of consumerism that John Carpenter would make with more humor, violence, and force in his 1988 film They Live. In Carpenter’s film, the hero John Nada (played by Roddy Piper) finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see through the ads, billboards, and other commercials he’s exposed. What’s underneath? Naked consumerism:

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The images here recall the opening lines of “The Subliminal Man”: ‘The signs, Doctor! Have you seen the signs?’ Like Ballard’s story, Carpenter’s film is about waking up, to seeing the controlling messages under the surface.

In his film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek offers a compelling critique of just how painful it is to wake up to these messages:

 

It’s worth pointing out that Carpenter offers a far more optimistic vision than Ballard. Ballard’s hero gives in—goes back to sleep, shuts his eyes. Carpenter’s hero Nada resists the subliminal messages—he actually takes up arms against them. This active resistance is possible because Carpenter allows his narrative an existential escape hatch: In They Live, there are real, genuine bad guys, body-snatching ugly-assed aliens—others that have imposed consumerism on humanity to enslave them. That’s the big trick to They Live: It’s not us, it’s them.

Ballard understands that there is no them; indeed, even as the story skirts around the idea of a conspiracy to dupe consumers into cycles of nonstop buying, working, and disposing, it never pins that conspiracy on any individual or group. There’s no attack on corporations or government—there’s not even a nebulous “them” or “they” that appears to have controlling agency in “The Subliminal Man.” Rather, Ballard’s story posits ideology as the controlling force, with the only escape a kind of forced suicide.

I don’t think that those who engage in consumerism-as-sport, in shopping-as-a-feeling are as blind as Ballard or Carpenter represent. I think they are aware. Hell, they enjoy it. What I think Ballard and Carpenter (and others, of course) really point to is the deep dissatisfaction that many of us feel with this dominant mode of life. For Ballard, we have resistance in the form of the beatnik Hathaway, an artist, a creator, a person who can perceive what real leisure would mean. For Carpenter, Nada is the resister—an outsider, a loner, a weirdo too. It’s somehow far more satisfying to believe that those who engage in spectacle consumerism are brainwashed by aliens than it is to have to come to terms with the notion that these people are acting through their own agency, of their own will and volition. Happy shopping everyone!

Ed. note: Biblioklept published a version of this post last year. It is offered again now in the spirit of Thanksgiving leftovers.

Danse Macabre (Jean Renoir)

Cousins — Jim Jarmusch