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Mad Max: Fury Road
by George Millar
It's funny how things turn out in life sometimes. It'll be swiftly obvious to anyone who meets me or read the opinions on this website, (or even some of my fiction) that these days I have a big downer on feminism. Five years ago I considered myself a feminist, but then I met real (or fake, depending on your viewpoint) 3rd-wave feminists, who told me that as a man I couldn't be a feminist, but I could be an 'ally'. After we'd interacted some more, I decided that I didn't want to be allied to them, and was actually cool with the idea of not being a feminist either, as I'd realized I'd been using the word (as most people do) without understanding what it meant. (I draw the distinction of '3rd-wave' here, because there's another bunch of feminists who are some of the most principled and upright people I've met, but I think they're second wave, and they're certainly the outgoing wave, and we have to deal not with what feminism was, or should be, but what it is becoming.
This shift in world-view gets me into a certain amount of debate with people around me, and I find myself debating both sides, with people who think I've gone too far, and people who think I've not gone far enough. (This is all going to be relevant to the movie eventually, honest). Fortunately in my real life I've got people who can do debate and conversation, and who are thus worth talking to, not like in other contexts where... well, this isn't the place to go off on another rant about the sci-fi community.
On the flip-side though, I see a lot of people decrying this movie as 'feminist propaganda', and while I think there's some weight to that accusation, they're complaining about all the wrong things. These people (mostly guys it must be said) are complaining about the things that are *good* in this movie, and missing what the problematic things are. As usual the debate over this movie is divided into two political camps, who can only scream abuse at each other, and who are both wrong.
But fortunately, as I said, I've got people around me who can actually converse and absorb the viewpoints of others, but sometimes this turns up surprising results. So, after seeing the new Mad Max movie, and finding it not bad, and the gender politics questionable, even mildly offensive, but sufficiently defocused to be overlooked, I was a little surprised to have a friend who normally argues "YOU GO TOO FAR!!" suddenly take issue with my statement that the politics of the film weren't that bad. "What?!" she said "it was full of all that crap you keep talking about! Normally I think you're off your rocker, but this time it was all real!" She then proceeded to point out lots of things in the movie that I had missed, and that were pretty questionable. Like I said, it's funny how things turn out.
(Okay, she didn't actually say she normally thinks I'm off my rocker, that was me editorializing, but I know she thinks it sometimes).
But there's still lots to like in MMFR. Let's get the major issue out of the way first: it's a very empty film, a triumph of style over substance. But OMG, what style! This is a glorious piece of film-making that crushes the argument that fiction is inherently about "the human condition" under it's juggernaut wheels. "Mad Max:Fury Road" is not about the human condition: "Mad Max: Fury Road" is about shit blowing up!
Now, you'd think we've had enough empty cinema in which stuff blows up, and before seeing MMFR, I would have agreed with you. But all those other films lack something: they lack style, they lack spectacle; it's become too easy to use cgi to put anything on the screen, and people don't think about what they're doing, and the result is often boring. But MMFR has the same visual drama of the chariot-racing scene from Ben Hur, or the attack on the Death Star in Star Wars: George Millar knows how to use visuals to get your heart racing. But unlike Ben Hur or Star Wars, MMFR is like those scenes ALMOST ALL THE TIME.
And it has to be said, whatever I think about some of the politics, this is a film that breaks a lot of ground that needs to be broken. First off, in a time when people like Quentin Tarantino are saying that cinema is a "Young man's game" (I saw in once say this once in a panel discussion with Ang Lee, followed by a cut to the look on Mr Lee's face. Pity Katherine Bigelow wasn't there to take issue with the "'mans's" part of the statement too). Well, here's George Millar putting out this rollermonster juggernaut of action that frankly blows anything Quentin's made recently off the screen, and Millar's in his eighties. Quentin might feel it's time to put the oldsters out to grass, but Millar's gonna keep making movies till they put him in the ground, and he's knocking them out of the park. You've got to respect that. If he can do this, others can do it, so perhaps Quentin is too ready to hang up his spurs.
On a related note, this is a film that actually has some action roles for women over sixty. When did you last see that in a movie? For my money they weren't in it long enough, but that's partially due to the frenetic nature of the film, characters come and go at a rapid rate. But still, it's really something to see some gun-totin' grandmas on motorbikes, though this is likely something else that the "It's feminist propaganda!" crowd consider a "Bad Thing".
Another first: a female lead in an action movie who's not completely beautiful and voluptuous (though she's still pretty in an androgynous sort of way, you can't really hide it's Charlize Theron). Now, I have to be honest, I've got nothing against beautiful, voluptuous women in films (I've met plenty of people who really do have a problem with them, I'm not one of those people), but you can't have one thing all the time (and we mostly do). Imperator Furiosa is a rare example of a female character who looks realistic to the situation we find her in. She's even missing an arm, but doesn't make any fuss about that nor does she allow it to hamper her actions. I'm not sure she's quite as great a character as people claim (the movie doesn't have much time for in-depth characterization, and actually our knowledge of all the characters is pretty shallow) but she is a ground breaking character, we've never seen someone quite like this before, and hopefully we'll see more 'outside the formula' female characters in future movies.
And while we're on the subject of the women in this movie, let's consider the 'wives'. The plot involves Furiosa smuggling a tyrant's wives out of "The Citidel" and away to "The green place" (another, better community that's always just over the next hill) while said tyrant, and his army, are in pursuit trying to get the wives back. That's about the whole plot. There's been much debate about how the wives are portrayed, as they're scantily clad and some of them have very impressive hairstyles, and there's quite a bit of muttering about them being 'objectified'. Well, first off, that's the point, isn't it? They've been objectified by the society they live under. Also, not every instance of someone being portrayed as beautiful, or even as sexually alluring, is objectification. In this case, anyway, the wives frankly didn't do it for me as eye-candy. There's a whole visual language of erotic beauty: it's not enough to just have a young woman in a skimpy costume, and this language wasn't used in the portrayal of the wives. Most important of all the wives exhibit clear personality traits, and are definitely people, not objects. The fact that this discussion even pops up is yet another example of people who want to kick up a political storm over something they haven't bothered to take the time to properly understand.
Anyways, far more beautiful than any of the wives, is Tom Hardy's "Max". At first we see him bearded and caked in mud, later he's hidden behind a mask. When the mask finally comes off, it's genuinely a shock. The camera even lingers for a bit, visually muttering to the audience "look at this! Phwooorrr." Tom Hardy, like George Cloony, has one of those faces that you can just point a camera at, and BOOM! But he's not objectified, he retains a personality, and he's an important character in the narrative (to be fair, I don't think we see men objectified that much in movies, I've seen it in advertising, but not movies. Maybe I'm watching the wrong movies though).
But the visual narrative of beauty isn't much spent on any of the cast members, it's spent on the things that this movie really cares about: car crashes. You've all seen those lingering slo-mo shots of the leading lady (or in Daniel Craig's case the leading man) walking out of the surf in skimpy swimwear, well, MMFR reserves that kind of erotic focus for explosions and car-wrecks. Time and again something smashes into something else, and we cut to slow-mo to see all the colors and the bits of cars and people, sprialling through the air, and it is strangely beautiful in the same way that Cornelia Parker's "Cold Dark Matter, an Exploded View" is strangely beautiful. Collisions and explosions become complex, glittering things, much like the mobiles that we hang over infant's cots, to keep them entranced with all those bits moving and flashing and catching colors. This is destruction as ballet.
So, now let's cover some more of the lumpen critique that I see of this movie. Just as some people scream "objectification!" at the wives (entirely missing the point) there's others who are furious (no pun intended) over seeing Mad Max pushed into second billing behind Furiosa. I can see a little merit to this complaint, really the film might have been better if Max wasn't in it, it's not his movie and it's usually a bad idea to have a major character playing second-fiddle to another one. However, this comes down to a decision of marketing: Max is an established brand, and will bring the punters in. If Millar wants to make a female-led movie in his post-apocalyptic world, then he's going to need to invoke Max in order to get the movie funded and greenlighted, and also in order to bring people to the cinema, so that's that. Like I said above, I see people denouncing the movie as 'feminist propaganda', and there's some weight to the accusation, but not for the reasons they put forwards. A lot of them feel that Max has been emasculated, and complain that he nearly loses a fight with a one-armed woman, but I don't see it that way. I've got no problem with Max, or any character, losing a fight to anyone else, that's a standard occurrence in movies. Someone can have the drop on you, or betray you, or have some unexpected advantage, and this even happens fairly regularly to superman (thanks to kryptonite) and is largely used to put the character in some position that they have to fight back from (how many times has James Bond been captured, and tied to something deadly?) I just don't feel that Max's character is emasculated at all. Indeed, later we see max walk into the fog carrying a billy-can of oil and a gun, in order to deal with a segment of the army that's pursuing them. After a while there's a flash and a bang, and then Max comes back carrying a bunch of weapons salvaged from the wreckage of their pursuers. It's one of the coolest moments of the film, because you don't know what he did, but you know that whatever it was was awesome, (though this point gets oversold when Furiosa comments that the blood Max is covered in isn't his own. Show, don't tell, Mr Millar, Show, don't tell). So I don't feel Max is emasculated in this film, even if Furiosa sometimes demonstrates capabilities he doesn't have (she's the better marks-person, for instance). Max is not supposed to be some kind of onmi-competent superman, and there's nothing wrong with him having other competent people around him. Indeed, Max and Furiosa eventually start working as a team, and it's a personal beef of mine that we don't see enough fiction these days where men and women work well together, rather than being in constant war (a point that obviously I'll be returning to later in this review). I also find it problematic that people cannot look at two characters who are functioning as a team without instantly falling to argument over who's in charge. People on both sides of the gender-war divide, it seems, cannot see a man and woman as working together as equals.
So, though I can see the things that people on both sides of the gender-wars point to and complain about in this movie, I feel that they are generally what's in front of them, because their view is warped by their chosen political lens (which is, one must admit, true of all of us). But looking through my lens, I don't have a problem with the same things that the outraged commenters on you-tube have with the Max character. My problem with the portrayal of the Max character in this movie comes straight after that 'problematic' fight scene.
Having won out against Furiosa, Max climbs into her 'war rig' and drives off into the desert, leaving her and the wives helpless in the path of an advancing army that's likely going to kill Furiosa, and return the wives back to an existence of constant rape. This, for me, was the great betrayal of the character. Max, as the film repeatedly tells us, used to be a cop, and is haunted by his failure to protect his wife and daughter. He's been established as a hero in previous movies. The idea that such a person would just abandon anyone to their fate in the desert (much less the wives who, unlike Furiosa, visibly aren't so great at survival) just didn't wash for me, and it was one of the few bum notes of the production. I think some kind of claim was being made that he'd "lost himself" and become purely motivated by survival, but it just felt wrong.
But my real problem with this movie is a more subtle one: This movie is hailed as a feminist masterpiece, but it's fundamentally sexist. Unfortunately we're getting to the point where those two statements might not even be contradictory. Modern feminism, at least as I encounter it among college-educated middle-class women in the past five years or so, has taken a profoundly sexist turn. Real gender-essentialism is back on the table in a way it hasn't been since the 70s, but now the 'problematic sex' are men. As usual, once the thing people are fighting against turns to their advantage, they immediately sell-out, and start doing the thing that they were denouncing yesterday. This would seem to be a reoccurring behavior trait of human beings. The 'new left' appears to be well aware of it's own hypocrisy, because it's invented arguments to 'dodge' the bullet, redefining terms like 'racism' and 'sexism' to allow it to do the racism and sexism that it wants to do. This also is a standard move, just as one might see complex arguments over the definition of 'corruption' being used in financial environments to claim "This isn't corruption, not matter what it looks like". In "Politics and the English Language" Orwell wrote that political language "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind", and nothing has changed since he wrote that.
Thus, we have here a movie in which all the male characters are negative in some way, tainted by masculinity, while all the female characters are at least victims, if not victim saints. "The Citidel" is a fantasy society in which no women have any responsibility or collusion with the regime at all. No such society has ever existed, though I encounter legions of middle-class white-women who believe they're living in one, totally oblivious to their level of privilege, and most of all to the fact that they enjoy privilege greater than many cis-straight-white-males. Feminism once understood this, in "A Room of One's Own" Virginia Woolf rightly complains that she's not allowed to walk on the grass at an "Oxbridge" college, (but she attended Kings College London, not Oxford or Cambridge, but perhaps she's recounting an experience on a visit) because of weird rules around gender (the college even employs enforcers, "Beadles" to maintain such rules) but she does not lose sight of the fact that most working-class men (and by extension working-class women) could not even enter the college grounds, and never have a hope of an education like hers (even though hers was constrained). The fact that women generally have less power in society, is not the same as saying they have no power, and a middle-class or upper-class woman will generally have more influence, power and opportunity in life than a working-class person of either sex. This means there's always women who've achieved a degree of privilege and power in a society, who are collusional in that society, not wanting to give their position up. But this fact has somehow been forgotten by the new left, which seems to now believe that class doesn't exist, and in my experience only mentions class in order to dismiss it. Thus we have a weird and unreal society in MMFR where powerful men have no mothers, sisters, wives, or daughters who are enjoying power-by-association, except perhaps Furiosa herself, who has chosen to reject the regime.
But Fury Road goes further, blaming men for the collapse of the world ("Who killed the world?") and having the only positive male characters achieve their positive state, their redemption, through women. Of course, in the modern day, pointing out that this is sexism towards men, is futile, because sexism has been redefined by the new left to mean you can say any hateful thing about men, you can generalize about us from the worst members of the gender, and it's not sexism, in fact it's "progressive" (no-one seems to even realize that this is fundamentally the same tactic that's been used by every ideology of hate since history began, or else they realize it, but are hoping to get away with it). So, instead let's discuss the way this portrayal is sexist towards women (because sexism always cuts both ways, a vital point that the new left cannot accept). In this movie women are reduced to being angels. This is a real demotion, in fact it's an objectification, because an angel, in the sense of being someone who always does the right thing, is not a free actor. An innately good being who always does the right thing because of their 'better nature' does not have agency, they are an automaton. Seen as individuals the women in this movie, notably Furiosa and the gun-totin' grandmas, are well-rounded characters, but when one pulls back and looks at the portrayal of women overall in the movie, a different message comes through. None of the women ever demonstrate a capacity for choosing between right and wrong, they always chose right, and though everyone else sees the wives as wandering around dressed like sex-objects, I see them as wandering around dressed in diaphanous white like angels or nymphs from a pre-Raphelite painting. Other women, back at the citidel, are cast in a strange maternal role, where they are literally milked (it's never clear who's consuming the milk) and it is these women whom we see, playing the role of benevolent goddesses, releasing the hoarded water from the citidel at the end (and I do not think this dual portrayal of women as providers of life-giving fluid is a coincidence). Thus, many of the women in this movie are actually cast into a kind of motherhood fantasy, and even the gun-totin' grandmas are carrying seeds in their purses, and thus are once again nurturing agents of life, where the men can only be agents of death and destruction, (again, "Who killed the world?"). While individual women might acquit themselves well in this film, as a sex they are reduced to soft-focus, good-girl stereotypes that would not have been unfamiliar to Victorian fiction. Men, on the other hand, are reduced to studies in demonology, but the only characters in this film to actually develop, and actually make choices, are male.
And this is one of the few interesting points that you can take away from the film. This film is hailed as a feminist masterpiece, but it's actually representative of the ideological collapse of late-stage feminism, and the fact that so many people can't see that is only further evidence supporting this conclusion. To bring this into sharp focus, compare MMFR to the two 'Alien/s' movies (any serious student of film knows there's only two 'Alien' movies, and anyone who claims otherwise is a heretic and a liar). 'Aliens' is much more a feminist movie, where men and women fight alongside each other as equals, and neither sex is portrayed as being innately good, or bad, or to blame for anything, in fact in the world portrayed in 'Aliens', where corporate power is everything, such statements would likely seem distinctly odd, and the speaker would be considered a little touched. 'Aliens' doesn't just pass the Bechdel test, it smashes it with the single line "Get away from her, you bitch!" Mad Max Fury Road doesn't really pass the Bechdel test, because it's full of female characters who get to interact with each other, but in reality all they are talking about is men. Men so completely define the lives of the women in MMFR that they cannot speak about anything without speaking about men, and how bad we are. In 'Aliens' people make their choices as people, not as gender stereotypes, and Ripley even has to confront her own bigotry towards androids, when Bishop proves that androids are people too, capable of choosing right from wrong on their own terms. Notice that Bishop doesn't achieve 'redemption' through his interaction with Ripley, he's not 'educated' by her in the way that artificial people so often are educated by touchy-feely humans in movies, Bishop is his own person who chooses right and wrong on his own terms, and Ripley is just flat-out wrong about him.
"Mad Max:Fury Road" is a propaganda piece for the 'patriarchy' crowd: people who honestly believe there's a secret conspiracy of men, who are innately evil (but who dishonestly hide this belief, even from themselves, using the fig-leaf of political language) and that 'matriarchy' would be a kinder system of dictatorship because of women's innate moral superiority. These people were a shock when they first became visible after the 2008 financial crisis, claiming that women would have behaved differently in the same situations and under the same incentives (apparently ignorant of the Wall-Street women who didn't). Since then they have swept to power, at least on the internet, and redefined what feminism is, reintroducing many of the old arguments that feminism once stood against. Not only gender essentialism, but racial essentialism, is returning to fashion, and a new breed of 'activist' now tells whites and men to 'know their place', using political language that is often directly stolen from the extreme right. Clearly these people think they can make the old attitudes and prejudices work for them, but if B-movie SF has taught us anything, it's taught us that people can never control the monsters they unleash. Thus, "Mad Max:Fury Road" will likely one day be looked back on in the same way that we now look back on D. W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation": as a great piece of film-making that contains deeply problematic ideology that was prevalent at the time it was made.
But none of this really matters as regards the film as a piece of cinema. MMFR isn't about patriarchy, it's not about gender, it's certainly not about environmentalism. MMFR is about cars and trucks and explosions. It's 'Demolition Derby' taken to the ultimate extreme, and it's likely best understood and enjoyed, as just what it is.