Road rage (Desserts or deserts: Part 1 of 4)
Look. I didn’t mean to make this a back-to-back Mel Gibson thing. Last week, Dae wrote one of his finest works on Apocalytpo (2006) and eloquently highlighted the ways one can approach the work of a “canceled” artist. In our polarized culture of hot takes and knee-jerk reactions, it’s easy to forget that it’s okay to slow down and appreciate or analyze something despite its complications, that it’s okay if you can’t reduce your feelings for a thing to 140 characters or 30 seconds of video. Dae also picked the theme for December: Desserts or Deserts. I started to watch Aladdin (1992) and was surprised but impressed at the disclaimer in the beginning: warning of the harmful stereotypes and racism within the film I was about to watch. I would expect something like this for Song of the South (1946), but Aladdin!? Robin Williams!? The beloved city of Agrabah!? Time comes for us all, I guess, as it should: progress doesn’t get made by clinging to beliefs or societal norms from 20, 200, or 2000 years ago. So, in the interest of enjoying something complicated1 and staying on theme with “Desserts or deserts,” let’s talk about Mad Max (1979).
Disclaimer: This film isn’t set in the desert. I’d seen Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and assumed the setting for the first film would be the same. I’d also like to level some blame at movieweb dot com, for clearly not doing their homework. Despite my blaming of others, I fucked up, but it’s too late to turn back now. I will argue, however, that Miller’s vision was always for Mad Max to be in the desert, so when viewing this, think about Miller’s intended vision. Are you seeing a desert? For the sake of this month’s theme, I sure hope so.
Set “a few years from now” and featuring Hugh Keays-Byrne as “The Toecutter,” the first thing that will strike you about Mad Max is that it feels like a harbinger of the 80s. Its fuel-injected, fast-paced, leather-clad aesthetic could have inspired Frank Miller’s Batman or half of Michael Jackson’s music videos. The second thing that will strike you is the Australian slang: “We got a twisto bikey, big bopper. That scag and his floozy are jib-wobberin’ out the tango jingo!” (I made some of that up, but not all of it.) The third thing that might strike you, and did hit me, was that a lot of cars get crashed gloriously for a movie that was made on a “shoestring budget.”
I’ve yet to say anything about the plot, and that’s because it doesn’t matter. You don’t watch this movie for the plot. Here it is: society is falling apart. Max is the top cop at the Halls of Justice in a lawless land. Cops drive around at 90 mph, chasing and trying to shoot criminals. You look into the void, and the void looks back. It’s about how participating in an unjust society makes you complicit, and if you’re paying attention, the complicity will slowly eat you alive. The only way to win the game is not to play, though the game might just find you anyway. It’s surprisingly timeless.
Maybe the most interesting thing about Mad Max is its director, George Miller. Mad Max was his first feature-length film, though it hardly shows. In recent interviews, he’s talked about what a disaster making this movie was at times, but for a first effort, it really shines. Miller’s filmography is as mixed as a bag gets, including last year’s excellent Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022), high school science teachers’ favorite Lorenzo’s Oil (1992), Happy Feet (2006), and Babe: Pig in the City (1998). Despite his wiley track record of films, his talent is without dispute. His focus, scene by scene, makes his movies boredom-proof. In one sequence, when Max goes into a hospital and sees the gnarled burned hand of a patient under a blanket, you wonder what lies beneath the blanket. Max approaches, and as he slowly lifts the cloth, rather than a smash-cut to some grotesque visage, we get a vibrant ripple cut to Max’s face in a distorted rictus of pain. The jarring effect feels effective where an attempt to ramp up the gore would’ve felt flat.
The editing is tight, the score and sound design amp up the dysphoria, the direction is rock solid, and the vision is fascinating. This universe feels fully realized, and if you’re a fan of the more recent films, you’ll want to watch more to see how they may all fit together. Any lover of film could lose themselves considering many of the decisions that were made in how making this film was approached. Especially given that we’ve got a more fantastically realized version of the film in Mad Max: Fury Road, which actually takes place in the desert! With this first effort, it feels as if Miller wanted to convey a dystopia and had to decide where to spend his limited budget, and he opted for cars. All cars. And some spiked outfits, but mostly cars.
Why cars? Maybe because roads are things we all have to share, but the inequality of roads is evident every time you get on them. Bicycle riders are treated terribly; some people can afford fast cars with big motors, and others can’t. We’re all destroying the planet simply by participating. Maybe in 200 years, a dystopian film about the breakdown of society, where cars are central to the plot, will be seen as the visionary statement of its time.
The latest film in Miller’s continuing tales of dystopian highway madness, Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga (2024), has a trailer out as of yesterday.
Written by George Miller, James McCausland, and Byron Kennedy; Directed by George Miller
Recommended way to watch (at time of publication): Free to watch on Kanopy (if you have a library card) and sort of free to watch on Amazon Prime, though they’ll show you ads because they like to make money.