Monday, May 20, 2024

Mad Max (1979)

"They say people don't believe in heroes anymore..."

Mad Max (1979)

Despite multitudinous descriptions to the contrary, George Miller and Byron Kennedy's Mad Max (1979) is not actually a post-apocalyptic film.  

Rather, it's pre-apocalyptic. But the handwriting is certainly on the wall...and on the open roads.  

This celebrated cult film might more accurately be described as dystopian in concept because the filmmakers imagine a world, "a few years from now," in which widespread lawlessness has taken hold, and the authorities -- increasingly more fascist in tone, powers, and demeanor -- are helpless to prevent a culture-wide death spiral into anarchy and chaos.

Dominated by a caustic aesthetic of anticipatory anxiety, a sense of psychic uneasiness that suffuses every frame, Mad Max is literally a movie about mankind speeding -- foot pressed hard against the pedal -- towards moral and spiritual annihilation.  

Often, I compare Miller's Mad Max to the early cinematic endeavors of Wes Craven (Last House on the Left) and Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) because there's a genuine feeling while watching Mad Max, that you, yourself, are in peril. 

As is the case with Craven or Hooper, the audience feels jeopardized in Miller's hands, as though it might end up seeing something that could truly do the psyche harm.  

At one point in the film, our hero -- police officer and family man Max (Mel Gibson) -- admits that he's "scared," and the audience wholly shares that trepidation.  Max's vicious world is one without a safety net, in which the laws of the jungle dominate.  Miller enthusiastically takes the film beyond the bounds of  movie decorum and good taste right from the start -- from the opening sequence -- and leaves viewers wondering just how far he will tread into taboo territory. 

The result is a film that has lost none of its dreadful, visceral power in over three decades.

"Look, any longer out on that road and I'm one of them, a terminal psychotic, except that I've got this bronze badge that says that I'm one of the good guys. "

Mad Max opens, both symbolically and literally, on Anarchie (Anarchy) Road, as leather-clad members of the under-staffed MFP (Main Force Patrol)  pursue a dangerous "terminal psychotic" called Nightrider.  

Nightrider believes himself a "fuel-injected suicide machine," and survives all attempts at pursuit and restraint.  At least that is, until Max (Gibson) -- the best -- joins the chase.

Finally, Nightrider is killed in a high-speed wreck.  Unfortunately, his "friends," led by the gang leader Toecutter, desire vengeance. One of Toecutter's minions, Johnny, is apprehended by Max's friend, Officer Goose (Steve Bisley), but then released by effete, officious lawyers. Next, it is Goose who becomes a target for Toecutter's mad revenge.

After Goose is burned and maimed on the road by Toecutter, Max resigns from the force. With his wife Jesse (Joanne Samuel) and young son in tow, he heads out on a vacation from his responsibilities.

Unfortunately, Max's family almost immediately crosses paths with Johnny, Toecutter and the others, and pays the ultimate price.  Max's wife and son are run down on the open road, and left dying.  

Enraged, and with no legal recourse, Max takes command of a souped-up police interceptor, and engages his enemies on the open highway, outside the bounds and restrictions of the law.

I'm not a bad man.  I'm sick.  I've got a personality disorder...

As is the case with all works of art, this film arises from a very specific context. 

In particular, Mad Max emerges from the era of "Oz-ploitation" or the so-called Australian New Wave, which included such works as Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock.But more specifically, Mad Max  is very deliberately a reflection of the events, trends and fads of the early 1970s. 

As co-writer James McCausland has acknowledged, much of the film's anarchic energy is fueled by the 1973 Oil Crisis, in which OPEC reduced oil production and quickly sent world economies into a tailspin. As gas supplies were rationed, McCausland apparently saw reports of violent outbreaks at gas stations, where drivers acted decisively and aggressively to assure that they weren't caught short at the pump.

Also critical to the formation of Mad Max's underlying structure, no doubt, was "The Super-Car Scare" of 1972 - 1973, which occurred at the height of muscle car culture in Australia. There were talks at that time, indeed, of new vehicles that could travel 160 miles an hour, as well as news story accounts of young, out-of-control drivers in muscle cars (small cars with big, powerful engines...) racing through small communities and causing civil and traffic disturbances. 

If you also acknowledge a bit of punk influence here -- courtesy of the nihilistic music movement on blazing ascent, circa 1974 -1976 -- you can easily detect how all the creative ingredients for Mad Max fall into place.

Suddenly, we have punk criminals prowling the highways of Australia in souped-up super vehicles, vying for both the remaining oil supply and day-by-day, moment-to-moment domination.  One scene in the film explicitly joins all contexts: Toecutter and his gang hijack a gas trunk on the road, and siphon precious gas from the storage tank. The underlying message is of a corrupt but rising youth movement leeching off and destroying a dying establishment.

If "No Future" was the unofficial credo and soundtrack of punk music in those days of the disco decade, Mad Max remains the most potent visualization of living for the moment, on impulse, and entirely for self. This is what the law of the jungle is, as dramatized by Toecutter and his gang.  He is a man with no respect for life, law, family, or community. All he cares about is getting what he wants when he wants it. "Anything I say? What a wonderful philosophy you have," he quips to a cowering victim.

The world has gone to Hell in a hand basket in Mad Max, and those who still play by the old rules of law try to understand what has happened, and struggle to play catch-up  "Here I am, trying to put sense to it, when I know there isn't any," Max notes, importantly, after the death of Goose. He's dealing here with a world that no longer makes sense to him.

Accordingly, Max progressively loses his faith that society's decaying infrastructure (as represented by the ramshackle local police center or "halls of justice") can stop the world from spiraling towards destruction.

It's clear Max's loss of faith arises for a reason, and is not some personal, solitary angst.  His boss, Fifi (Roger Ward) keeps mentioning the need for heroes, and the culture's absence of heroes. 

But what heroes, honestly, could possibly inhabit a blighted, decrepit police station like his?  

The nihilism of the world, of "the terminal psychotics" seems to have bled the life out of public institutions in Mad Max, leaving them as rotting monuments to a previous golden age.  Max realizes, appropriately, that Fifi's comments are "crap." What his world needs is not cowboy heroes, but a functioning infrastructure; one that funds the police, trains the police, and supports the police in the battle against crime.

Although the lawyers and judicial officers glimpsed in Mad Max are portrayed as effete, intellectual egg-heads with their heads-up-their-asses, the police are not viewed in terms much more friendly. In the film's first scene, we catch a young MFP officer ogling a couple making love, and then indulging in a high speed chase which endangers other officers, and civilians. He looks like he could be a gang member himself...except he's wearing a leather cop uniform. Similarly, Fifi is interested only in results, not the letter of the law. He just wants the paperwork to be "clean" so he doesn't get in trouble with superiors. Again, the impression is of an old, once noble institution that has given way to corruption and decrepitude.

Again and again in the film, Max sees evil triumph over the (flawed) forces of order, and so must make a fateful decision about his own place and role in the world. Mad Max thus brilliantly diagrams one man's disillusionment about society, and his final, knowing, unfortunate break from it.  Many see the film as being fascist in viewpoint because the criminals attempt to argue that they are merely "sick" (and thus to be treated with compassion), but I disagree with that assessment. Max gets revenge, but at what price?

The price is the very eventuality that Max so dramatically fears all along. He knows, even starting out, that there is very little difference between the cops and the "terminal psychotics" who vie for control of the roadways.  When Max's family and friends die, that line is blurred entirely. Max realizes, contra Fifi, that there can no longer be any heroes. Heroes only work in context of a functioning civilization and support system.

As critic Keith Phipps astutely intimated, Mad Max is almost a character piece, a tale of a man trying to figure out where he belongs under the rules of the New World (Dis)Order:

I often write here about how deeply and thoroughly I disapprove of movies that utilize revenge as the primary motivation for heroes or superheroes.

I think that's just pandering to an ugly, ignoble impulse in human beings. In this case, however, I would argue that Mad Max does not glamorize revenge and, on the contrary, sends its wayward hero off into a form of societal banishment for his transgression. Max ends up in the wilderness/wasteland, seeking redemption for his voluntary break from the mores of  an (admittedly crumbling)  society (see: The Road Warrior).  It takes him two more films, essentially, to reconnect with his more noble human nature.

So yes, Max gets his bloody vengeance in this film, but his ultimate fear is realized too. In breaking the laws of civilization, the only difference between him and the Toecutter's minions remains that he possesses a bronze badge.  What would his wife and son think of him now?

The final shot of Mad Max consists, not coincidentally, of an open and empty road. We race down it going ever faster, but  never actually arriving at a destination. There is no love and no companionship on this long road.  Max now lives for no one but himself.  He can look forward to isolation, mistrust, and confrontation...but nothing else; at least nothing good or positive.

This is a threshold moment...

While carefully noting what he believed was Mad Max's sense of amorality, Chicago Reader film critic Dave Kehr also accurately described the film as some "of the most determinedly formalist filmmaking this side of Michael Snow." 

What that description means, in lay terms, is that Mad Max isn't about dispassionately recording or realistically chronicling the details of its sparse, almost Western-styled narrative. Rather, it's about making the audience feel strong emotions. Namely fear, rage and even, briefly, bloodlust.

The reasons behind Mad Max's passionate, singular approach to filmmaking are actually, I believe, entirely moral. 

As the film's villain, Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) notes to an underling named Johnny (Tim Burns), an act of brutal murder can be considered a "threshold moment" in terms of the human soul. That's his philosophy of life. There's no future. There's no common good. There's just the shattering of boundaries, until everything -- and everyone -- is wrecked.

Now, a threshold is widely defined as the point at which a physiological or psychological effect begins to be produced, and that seems to be precisely what Toecutter is fostering in both his friends and his enemies.

He is sponsoring and encouraging madness, psychosis and violence. Indeed, there seems to be a plague of madness and nihilism sweeping the world in this film, and Toecutter fosters it in his cohorts (such as Nightrider) and his protege (Johnny).

In the film's climax, the audience's surrogate -- Max himself -- endures a similar "threshold moment," treading literally and metaphorically into morally "prohibited" territory (as a street sign indicates) just as he is about to cross-the-line of legality. The fearsome legend on the sign literally warns him to stop (lest he become like Toecutter), but Max ignores it.

This particular bit of clever framing (pictured above) is not an accident.  Max crosses a moral and geographical boundary in search of personal satisfaction, and Miller's shot deliberately evokes an earlier one in the film, set on a lovely beach.  

There, Toecutter and his gang have similarly ignored signs and warnings about transgression, and headed off knowingly into forbidden territory. The point of the nearly identical staging seems to be that Max -- in taking the law into his own hands -- is following the very nihilistic path he fears.

Mad Max is actually a moral film, I submit, because it concerns that threshold moment in each of us too. Vengeance might be sated.  But after the vengeance? 

As Last House on the Left observed, post-violence, "the road leads to nowhere, and the castle stays the same." In other words, there's a very big difference between portraying violence and approving of violence. I would argue Mad Max (brilliantly) portrays violence, while never, even for a moment, glamorizing it or approving of it.

Instead, Mad Max asks: what comes with moral transgression? How does a crossing of the "threshold moment" affect a good person? And if good people can willingly cross the threshold to barbarism, what becomes of civilization, a social concept erected on the foundation of the common good, not personal retribution? 

Mad Max gazes at all these ideas, but does so while moving at 150 miles-an-hour.  

The film -- heightened immeasurably by Brian May's superb score and George Miller's orchestration of the high-speed stunts -- conveys a powerful sense not just of speed, but of speeding out of control. 

Mad Max also reveals a world falling apart at the seams, but doesn't offer pat explanations for the breakdown, or easy answers about the solution.  We can try to "put sense" to the madness of this world, but there is quite definitively no sense behind the human impulse towards self-destruction.  

If Mad Max is right, the world itself is terminally psychotic.

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