June 2015

Arts & Letters

Desert storm

By Shane Danielsen
George Miller and the evolution of Mad Max

Before he was a filmmaker, George Miller was a medical student. While completing his residency at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital, he worked in the ER department, where he witnessed a grim succession of broken bodies, many of them shattered in car and motorcycle accidents.

Awful and incessant, these incidents reminded him of his youth in rural Queensland, where a number of his friends had died in similar circumstances. “Chinchilla itself is west of the Darling Downs,” he told australianscreen. “Completely flat roads. Loamy soil. Heat haze. Burnt land. And with a very intense car culture. I mean, the main street of town and Saturday night were just the kids in their cars. And by the time we were out of our teens, several of our peers had already been killed or badly injured in car accidents. There was just those long flat roads where there was no speed limit, and people would just go [for it].”

Inspired by memories of these untimely dead, he went on to direct his first feature, as stripped-down and unencumbered as he could make it, in 1979. (“I basically wanted to make a silent movie – with sound,” he admitted, years later.) It was of course Mad Max, a bristling, propulsive little action-thriller that provided the still-nascent Australian film industry with as close as it had yet come to a foundation myth – mostly because it played unabashedly to certain national preoccupations: masculinity in extremis, the lonely terror of the Australian highways, and men’s fascination, bordering upon obsession, with their cars.

All of this had been felt before, and much of it expressed, but it had never been so powerfully or convincingly distilled into a single work. The film was crude and tough and more than a little ridiculous – like its star, it hasn’t aged especially gracefully. Nevertheless, its success was enough to inspire two sequels, and build the only Australian film franchise of note since Alvin Purple.

But more than that, it provided – as much as Star Wars, made two years earlier – a kind of template for the cinema that was to follow, not just in Australia but around the world. Display-driven, yes, subordinating character to incident: a string of increasingly grandiose or ludicrous set pieces where a narrative should be. But also deformed by its own ambitions, warped by the industrial production model of the very film industry whose ranks it aspired to join.

This is a story of imperial overreach. And how we got to where we are today – barraged by impact aesthetics, cowed by sound and spectacle. Living in a Marvel universe.

Let’s be clear: sequels have always been part of Hollywood’s methodology. And franchises, too, are nothing new: 20th Century Fox churned out no less than 14 Sherlock Holmes movies, with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, between 1939 and 1946; Mickey Rooney played small-town teenager Andy Hardy 16 times. But these were mostly B-movies, bottom-of-the-bill program fillers.

The success of Star Wars changed that, as it changed so much else – suddenly the so-called trash was the main attraction, the big box-office draw. And together with this newfound respectability came a desire on the part of filmmakers and studios alike to work on bigger budgets, prompted by the emerging possibilities of special-effects technology, and justified by the public’s perceived appetite for spectacle.

Sherlock Holmes did not suddenly become a test pilot. Andy Hardy did not travel to Marrakech or Peking. Those series worked for so long because they maintained a strict continuity of means: the same budget, the same setting, the same scale. For the modern franchise, however, the sky was the limit. Money, it was felt, would mint money. And bigger always meant better.

As such, it was at least congruent with pretty much every narrative of the film industry, which are all about more or less the same thing: how to climb the ladder. The mailroom clerk who dreams of becoming a studio exec. The extra who craves a speaking part. The star who really wants to direct. There is a presumption, broadly held and devoutly attested, that every step taken must be a step upward, and that to stand still – to remain for long at the same level – is somehow to fail, or to stupidly misunderstand the game being played.

Is it any wonder that this madness infects the films themselves? As their budgets swell, and their human quotient diminishes, the films seem intended less as distinct works in their own right than as instalments in some vast, Gilgamesh-like magnum opus – each movie a stepping stone on the way to some other, supposedly grander work. Call it the “epic impulse”, a storyteller’s understandable desire to craft modern myths – or chalk it up to simple hubris, a consequence of too much indulgence and too little self-restraint. Either way, the effect is the same: somewhere along the line, these filmmakers start to believe the bullshit they’re peddling.

The pattern is tediously familiar: a scrappy, semi-independent first film is acclaimed as a triumph, only to be followed by successively larger and less satisfying instalments. The original Matrix is a smart, aggressively stylish sci-fi riff on various philosophical issues of perception and identity, cheerfully plundering sources from Immanuel Kant to Yohji Yamamoto. The second is a muddle of action beats and clumsy exposition, frantically filling in the answers to questions no one was asking. The third is a disaster.

Or, at the other end of the critical spectrum, consider the Godfather trilogy, in which everything fine and good about the first two films, masterpieces both, is undone by the third, a bloated, “operatic” farrago in which Sofia Coppola’s acting somehow manages to be one of the least egregious elements.

Or, to take one of my favourite examples, Pitch Black. A relatively low-budget sci-fi thriller from 2000, it saw a disparate group of survivors stranded on a planet inhabited by vicious predators who only come out at night; unfortunately, their arrival coincides with the beginning of a month-long total eclipse. Simple and spare, it proved a critical and commercial success – so much so that director David Twohy and star Vin Diesel followed it up, four years later, with the windily titled The Chronicles of Riddick, in which Diesel’s silver-eyed convict is revealed to be some kind of interstellar royalty, the sworn enemy of an armour-clad race called, I kid you not, Necromongers.

Made for four times the budget of the original, it was about 15 times less interesting. None of the supporting mythology made any sense, much less enhanced the drama – and every new revelation about the unfortunately monikered Riddick only served to detract from the power of his original appearance. The first film was modestly thrilling pulp fiction, but, for the sequel, its makers wanted to create something with the density and longevity of a legend. And for this, too, George Miller and George Lucas must shoulder a little of the burden of responsibility.

Two years after Mad Max, inevitably, came Mad Max 2 – or The Road Warrior, as the Americans preferred it. A leaner, harder, better film than its predecessor, it remains the jewel of the original trilogy – its stunts more intricate, its staging more inventive. And while it maintains the sordid, exploitation-flick feel of the original, it adds a cobbled-together, salvage-yard aesthetic that would become the series’ defining characteristic. Miller claimed that one of the inspirations for the first film was the OPEC oil crisis of the mid 1970s, with its unsettling intimations of what privations might lie ahead, but it’s this film that offers the first glimpse of a truly convincing post-apocalypse world.

Yet already some signs of rot are evident, notably in Norma Moriceau’s costume designs, which swap the leather-jacketed utilitarianism of the first film for something a little more, shall we say, froufrou. I’ve not had the good fortune to mix socially with many bikers, mind – and the finer points of survivalist-couture remain largely a mystery to me. Even so, I rather doubt that the “mohawk-ballerina” look has ever been big among the chaps out there.

The outfits, like the increasingly outrageous character names (my favourite: “The Humungus”), marked a distinct shift in the tone of the series, a slide from under-resourced minimalism to something more florid and baroque. In this sense, it’s a clear precursor to the final film in the trilogy, Beyond Thunderdome (1985). It’s almost impossible not to think of this film, nowadays, without also recalling the video for its accompanying hit single, Tina Turner’s ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’. The video’s cutaways, to a loincloth-clad, blond-mulleted bodybuilder playing the saxophone, offered about as neat an encapsulation of everything that was wrong with that decade as one can conceive.

It’s not entirely without merit: Miller is too assured a visual stylist for that. But it is undeniably ridiculous, a cartoonish romp that abandons the exploitation-flick feel of the first two films for something grander and more audience-friendly. (Where once there were scarred, toothless thugs to dispatch, now there are sad-eyed little children to save.) And it is telling, I think, that it cost more than the first two films combined. The director has spoken of the bare-bones exigencies of making the first Mad Max – how, for example, he and producer Byron Kennedy would have to stay behind, after wrapping each day, to sweep the roads clean after stunts. But money was not an object when making the third film, and it shows. It has resources to spare, but none of the conviction of its predecessors. All codpieces and feathers, and no guts.

And that, for a while, was that. Thunderdome disappointed commercial as well as critical expectations; the franchise was abandoned. And Miller went off to Hollywood to become, of all things, a reputable A-list director, turning his deft hand from elevated trash (1987’s star-studded The Witches of Eastwick) to grown-up drama (Lorenzo’s Oil, in 1992, for which he was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar), and then, more unexpectedly still, to children’s movies, courtesy of the well-received Babe (which he co-wrote and produced) and Happy Feet.

Looking now at Miller’s filmography, you sense he’s a man easily bored, eager to test himself, to try new things. The sequel to Babe, Pig in the City (which he directed himself), swapped bucolic charm for a stifling urban darkness, and in the process forfeited nearly all of the goodwill, and most of the audience, of the original. It was a superior film – rather a great film, in fact – but hardly the work of a man intent on repeating past successes.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that, 30 years after he abandoned it, he’s now returned to his first creation.

Released back in July 2014, the trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road promised mayhem of a quaintly old-fashioned kind: real objects – things of actual mass and velocity – smashing noisily into other real objects. Physical stunts, not weightless pixels. It looked vast and extravagant, a pugnacious rebuke to any suspicion that its maker, now 70, might be entering his dotage. It looked awesome.

And satisfyingly, despite reports of reshoots and budget overruns and on-set tensions, the finished film delivers in spades. An extended chase sequence, moving efficiently through a succession of barren landscapes (with the deserts of Namibia standing in for the Australian outback), it’s also a vision of hell, a wasteland as grotesque as a Bosch altarpiece and as crude and brutish as a Slipknot gig – each, amusingly, a source from which its meticulous production design borrows.

Fury Road amplifies the theatricality of Beyond Thunderdome, yet somehow makes none of the same mistakes; what was camp and florid in the earlier film seems fastidious and diamond-hard in this one. And while it recycles narrative elements from each of the three earlier films, it’s neither a sequel in the strict sense nor a continuation of the original cycle. Rather, it’s a superior example of one of the more satisfying storytelling phenomena of our age: the creative reboot.

Thus, while the film’s attempts at backstory often feel perfunctory (Max had a wife and daughter; they died; now their faces appear as subliminal, stroboscopic flashes before his eyes), its plotting is frequently surprising – not least because, somewhere in the development process, Miller made the unlikely decision to subordinate his own title character. Stepping into Mel Gibson’s dusty boots (as well as imitating his halting line-deliveries), British star Tom Hardy is predictably good as Max – but he’s elbowed aside, and his performance overshadowed, by that of his co-star Charlize Theron. As the one-armed rebel Imperator Furiosa, Theron provides the movie with both its most indelible character and its big, fast-beating heart. At one point, she uses Max’s body as a kind of brace, to steady her rifle while she takes a shot, hitting a target he cannot. And with that, the emasculation of Max Rockatansky is complete.

It’s by no means perfect. The dialogue veers between the ludicrous and the oddly potent, sometimes in the space of a single scene. Likewise the performances, which range from the compelling (young British actor Nicholas Hoult is especially noteworthy as Nux, one of the spectral “War Boys”) to the merely utilitarian (in particular the Wives – glamorous concubines of the film’s chief villain, Immortan Joe – who deliver their lines as if auditioning for Abaddon’s Next Top Model).

But then, you don’t come here for conversation. You come to watch mayhem – ideally, conceived and executed on a monumental scale. There’s no longer anything especially remarkable about that; on the contrary, it seems that every few weeks Hollywood offers up some new, more cataclysmic depiction of total carnage. (Up next: San Andreas!) Yet inevitably the result is a kind of catastrophe-fatigue, the symptoms of which were eloquently summarised by American critic Matt Zoller Seitz in a 2014 essay entitled ‘Things Crashing into Other Things: Or, My Superhero Movie Problem’.

“Shots of people fighting inside and atop collapsing and burning structures all feel basically the same,” he wrote. “Machines bash other machines for a while. The bashing is choreographed and shot and edited pretty much as you expect, with few aesthetic surprises … The bigger the canvas, the more boringly typical the action becomes.” The problem, Seitz concluded, “isn’t that the movies are product – most movies are product, and always have been – but that they can’t be bothered to pretend they’re not product.”

Yet Fury Road, to its credit, seems very different – ironic, given that it’s a film in which so many corporate resources have been invested. From its unexpectedly feminist subtext to its surreal, fever-dream imagery, it feels wholly strange and singular, bizarrely personal. More than anything, it bears the unmistakable mark of its maker.

This shouldn’t be surprising: Miller has reportedly been planning this film for a long, long time. Detailed storyboards have been in existence for almost a decade. And all the while, you sense, he has toiled to refine and polish every beat. (One fight sequence, a three-way scuffle between Furiosa, Max and Nux – with the two men linked by a chain – offers a veritable masterclass in how to exhaust the possibilities of a single set-up.)

And to his credit, he’s still working to expand the limits of his already-formidable technique, quietly exploring the possibilities of filming movement. Thus, while shot digitally, much of the action here has a stuttery, analogue quality – as if one or two frames per second were missing from the action. And occasionally a bit of business just proves delightful: one climactic sequence, with steroidal toughs teetering on giant poles, dipping in and out of the action, feels like nothing so much as a vintage Friz Freleng cartoon; as I watched, I found myself grinning – reminded by, of all things, Tweety and Sylvester atop gondoliers’ poles in Venice.

Appropriately, for a road movie, it feels like the end point of something – if only because, in terms of staging and spectacle, it’s hard to imagine how its creator could possibly top it. (Though, inevitably, further instalments have been hinted at.) Yet perhaps its major achievement resides in how skilfully Miller has met the considerable array of challenges he set himself. Working with a massive budget, and vast physical and digital resources, he managed nonetheless to make something vital and compelling and in some ways nearly avant-garde, something eccentrically, unmistakably itself.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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