The Mad Maxathon, part two: The Road Warrior (1981) mostly

M-0005_Mad_Max_2_The_Road_Warrior_one_sheet_movie_poster_lPart one, part three, part four

Road Warrior might be punk’s Sistine chapel, but it is not without problems.

To be punk at all it has to have problems.

Many of them come from its dependence on colonial adventure narratives, particularly Westerns. There is an enclave of ‘white’ civilisation in the wilderness – a fortress, circled wagons – surrounded by aggressive and highly mobile ‘savages’, who are darker and more ‘tribal’ (some even sport Mohicans), and who rape and murder one of the ‘white’ women.

And as if this racial othering is not enough, many of them also dress as sexual dissidents.

To be honest, I am not sure whether it is because I have cherished this movie since adolescence that I tend to overlook these problems, or whether it is genuinely more complex than this reductive account suggests. Certainly such colonial imagery can be used in different ways. For example, when Starship Troopers (1997) uses the fort under siege scenario, it does so to parody imperialist military aggression. Unlike, say, Zulu (1964), in which post-imperial melancholy works hard to mythologise yet another shabby episode in the history of British imperialism. And unlike the final section of X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), in which Brett Ratner, once more putting the idiot into idiot savant, slanders San Francisco’s queer counterculture.

And Road Warrior does do some interesting things with its colonial set-up.

RoadWarrior_066PyxurzThree of the key ‘white’ people are so white as to become parodic, including their bleached blond leader Pappagallo (Mike Preston, who back in the late 50s recorded ‘Dirty Old Town’ and ‘Whispering Grass’, long before The Pogues and Windsor Davis/Don Estelle). This excess at least suggests a self-consciousness at work, and although it might not be very articulate, it is far more convincing than the post-hoc claims that the Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty (in that film from the following year about the police flying around over Los Angeles deciding who counts as human) is some kind of ‘ironic Aryan’. (The absence of any actual Aboriginal people helps deracinate the situation, I guess.)

MadMax_VernonWellsRelated to this is the transition from Mad Max’s Tom of Finland coppers to the accoutrements of sexual dissidence worn by the ‘natives’: the studded leather pants, wristbands and harness of The Humugus (Kjell Nilsson), and his Jason Voorhees take on an enclosure mask; the buttocks-flashing chaps of Wez (Vernon Wells) and the cutaway bondage gear of his bleached boytoy, etc, etc. However, I think this works a little differently to Toecutter’s stereotypically jealous (but, come to think of it, not really demonised) blond second-in-command in Mad Max.

it does not mean they are really fond of camping
it does not mean they are really fond of camping

Yes, the ‘natives’ are queer (except perhaps for the misleadingly credited ‘Tent Lovers’), but they are also charismatic and alive in a way the ‘white’ folks are not.

In Doomsday, the natives’ Glaswegian equivalents – and who would have thought that thirty years after the zombie apocalypse there would be quite so much pristine bondage gear stockpiled in Glasgow? – bear a very specific resonance, as evidenced by the music Sol (Craig Conway) plays to the crowd before they cook and eat Sean Pertwee. Adam and the Ants’ ‘Dog Eat Dog’, the Fine Young Cannibals ‘Good Thing’, Siouxsie and the Banshees’ ‘Spellbound’ and Areil Rechtshaid’s knock-off of Bad Manners’ ‘The Can-Can’ are all part of the anti-Thatcher eighties, and so it comes as no surprise that during the Road Warrior-like climactic chase, we get Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Two Tribes’. Displaced into the future, this is a culture of political and sexual dissidence being celebrated.

In Road Warrior, the celebration is perhaps less clear, but the film does not despise its ‘natives’. Miller, like Milton, is secretly of Satan’s camp.

And the opposition between the ‘civilisation’ and ‘natives’ is not as secure as one might think. Max lives in the wilderness and only crosses into ‘civilisation’ so he can leave again. The same is true of the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence). He eventually chooses to stay, but only as ‘civilisation’ begins its long trek through the wilderness. The Feral Kid (Emil Minty) is raised in ‘civilisation’ but looks like one of the ‘natives’, grunts and growls a lot and behaves like some kind of monkey-dog; his finger-slicing boomerang is as close as we get to Aboriginal culture. And of course the opening narration turns out to have been spoken by him in his old age, long after the events of the movie, when he has become the chief of the Great Northern Tribe – a rank and social structure that suggests some retreat from ‘civilisation’.

MCDROWA EC002The bondage gear also provides Humungus’s motivation for besieging the fortified refinery. Clearly, from the way his crew race around everywhere, they are not short of fuel. But in that dry hot sandy environment, leather and rubber are gonna get uncomfortable. They’re gonna chafe. So it is not gasoline Humungus is after. It is some other petroleum-based product. Like, I dunno, vaseline.

Mad Max’s key cinematic innovation was setting the racing cameras so close to the ground. Road Warrior added a couple more things to the language of contemporary cinema.

First, is the long final action sequence. Films did not used to do that, and now they do. Without Road Warrior, the runway during the climax of Fast and Furious 6­ (2013) – a runway so long you begin to suspect they are just gonna drive all the way to the destination airport – would have been a whole lot shorter and much less would have happened on it.

Second, is the radical electro-surgery George Miller performed on the muscles under Mel Gibson’s face, so that in this film it actually moves. Sadly, this experimental procedure was not entirely successful, dooming Gibson to decades of shit-eating glibness and peculiar gurning.

One time it even turned his face blue.

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The Mad Maxathon, part one: Mad Max (1979) mostly

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Part two, part three, part four

Waking up in post-apocalyptic Britain last Friday, and with only a week to go until Mad Max: Fury Road, it was time to get back up to speed. Thus did the Mad Maxathon commence!

Back in my Plymouth teens, one of the local free papers had a competition to win cinema tickets and related goodies. Most weeks I entered and – not having enough pocket money or, later, paper-round wages to waste on a postage stamp – would deliver it in person (in a reused envelope) to their offices. The only things I ever won were a pair of tickets for a double bill of Ghoulies and Trancers (I suspect no one else entered that competition) and, a year later, a pair of tickets for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, a film my girlfriend did not want to see, especially after the preceding year’s fiasco. Oh, and along with the tickets came a Thunderdome t-shirt, which I had to collect in person and, being poor, could not just throw away despite the embarrassment of advertising a film I hated. It became a winter garment, always worn under something else, until eventually it faded and fell apart. This may well be the origin of my dislike for clothing with writing on it. And of white t-shirts.

I forget when or where I first saw the previous movies – presumably on video at a friend’s house. So something good did come of those free tickets. They enabled me to reassess my opinion that Mad Max, despite holding the world record cost-to-profit ratio for twenty years, was the weakest film in the series. (The Road Warrior was always, in the words of JG Ballard, ‘punk’s Sistine Chapel’.) While I have watched the first two multiple times over the years, I have only seen Thunderdome twice – and not since it was first broadcast on television. So how do they hold up?

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Mad Max starts off as a properly sleazy ozploitation flick: a tubby copper in leather spies through rifle sights on a couple having sex in a field; an insane car chase ensues. There will be more bare bums in the franchise (and car chases).

Mad Max was one of the first Australian films to be shot using widescreen anamorphic lenses but George Miller’s real innovation was to mount the cameras on speeding cars and motorbikes so very close to the ground. It does not sound like a lot, but it was, and remains, breathtakingly perilous to watch.

mm4Accounts of the film often take note of Miller’s work as an emergency room doctor, and of several incidents during the OPEC crisis when – in full Ballardian mode – regular folks queuing for fuel violently turned on each other. Clearly some kind of autogeddon was in the ozploitation air (see also: Peter Weir’s The Cars that Ate Paris (1974), one of the earlier Australian films to use widescreen anamorphic lenses, whose spikey Volkswagen is homaged in Fury Road; Ian Barry’s Chain Reaction (1980), which stars Mad Max‘s Steve Bisley,  Hugh Keays-Byrne and, as an uncredited bearded mechanic, Mel Gibson; Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Dead End Drive-In (1986), based on Peter Carey’s story;  and, in a slightly different vein, Richard Franklin’s Road Games (1981)).

I was not surprised to hear that for Fury Road, George Miller presented Tom Hardy with a 300-page ‘comic’ made up of storyboards, rather than a conventional screenplay because Mad Max – with its generic mix of AIP biker movie, backwoods Straw Dogs/Deliverance rape-revenge narrative, lone gunfighter/sheriff/samurai seeking revenge/justice, rogue cop brought out of retirement one last time and this time its personal – comes across increasingly like a 2000AD strip. This connection with the other Sistine chapel of punk comes full circle, first in Neil Marshall’s underrated Doomsday (2008), which riffs off The Road Warrior but also in its final shots gives Rhona Mitra a Carlos Ezquerra/Mike McMahon big boots look, and then in Fury Road, co-written by Brendan McCarthy, who started working on 2000AD in the late 70s and then, inspired by Road Warrior, co-created the post-apocalyptic surfer comic Freakwave (1983). Some consider Freakwave to have been plagiarised by Waterworld (1995), which was dubbed ‘Road Warrior on water’ back in the day. ‘All at sea’, more like.

Mad Max’s melodramatic transitions in particular have something comic-book about them – foreshadowing Sam Raimi’s more obviously comics-inspired Darkman (1990) – and, to be honest, much of the dialogue would probably work better as speech bubbles. The stand-out dialogue scene is the one in which Mel Gibson, with his oddly immobile face, emotes, trying to say something incomprehensible to his wife about his feelings for her in terms of feelings he had for his dad but never expressed. Or something like that. Wisely, to shut him up, she kisses him. And considering how unwise kissing Mel Gibson actually is, we should thank her. She may be overly taken with the idea that running right down the middle of the road is the best way to flee murderous bikers, but right then, at that snoggy moment, she takes one for the team.

mad-max-wifeMad Max is only Gibson’s second film and, although he has yet to become completely insufferable, the construction of his image of physically battered masculinity – the shirtlessly electrocuted resistant-to-electrocution Martin Riggs getting his ass handed to him by the mighty Gary Busey in Lethal Weapon (1987), the shot-to-pieces Martin Riggs annoyingly not dying in Danny Glover’s arms in Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), the hammer-to-the-toes justifiably tortured hardly-Lee-Marvin of Payback (1999), culminating in all those unpleasant things people do to Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ (2004) – is already gearing up as he (somewhat ineptly) wreaks his revenge.

Given Gibson’s occasional homophobic outbursts, I vividly recall being delighted to discover that, at least in the olden days, he used to have a big enough gay following to provide one of the case studies for Michael DeAngelis’s Gay Fandom and Crossover Stardom: James Dean, Mel Gibson and Keanu Reeves (2001). I am however quite mystified as to the source of this, or indeed any hetero, attraction. Sure, in Mad Max, he is young and pretty and wears tight black leather and does not yet have a mullet. Is it that? Or is it his later tendency to be as shirtless as Matthew McConaughey while wrestling in the rain with Gary Busey or otherwise taking physical punishment? A suffering that in some ways maps onto his Judy Garland-like life of dislocation and addiction and abuse (although admittedly he is the abuser, not the abused)? Please tell me it is not the mullet.

Oh, and Main Force Patrol? Come on, people, that is not what MFP stands for.

120 years of sf cinema, part nine: 2005-2014

2015 marks the 120th anniversary of sf cinema. This is the ninth part of a year-by-year list of films I’d recommend (not always for the same reasons).

Part one (1895-1914), part two (1915-34), part three (1935-54), part four (1955-1964), part five (1965-74), part six (1975-84), part seven (1985-94), part eight (1994-2004)

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Chetyre/4 (Ilya Khrzhanovskiy)
Pervye na Lune (Aleksey Fedorchenko)
Pyl/Dust (Sergey Loban)
Les saignantes (Jean-Pierre Bekolo)
Tian bian yi duo yun/The Wayward Cloud (Ming-liang Tsai)
The Wild Blue Yonder (Werner Herzog)

2006
Africa Paradis (Sylvestre Amoussou)
Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón)
Electroma (Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo)
Gui si/Silk (Chao-Pin Su)
Gwoemul/The Host (Joon-ho Bong)
Krrish (Rakesh Roshan)
Papurika/Paprika (Satoshi Kon)
Southland Tales (Richard Kelly)
Special (Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore)

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La Antena (Esteban Sapir)
Bekushiru: 2077 Nihon sakoku/Vexille (Fumihiko Sori)
Los cronocrímenes/Time Crimes (Nacho Vigalondo)
Dai-Nihonjin/Big Man Japan (Hitoshi Matsumoto)
Eden Log (Franck Vestiel)
I Am Legend (Frances Lawrence)
My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin)
Resident Evil: Extinction (Russell Mulcahy)

2008Doomsday(1)
Boku no kanojo wa saibôgu/Cyborg She (Jae-young Kwak)
Doomsday (Neil Marshall)
Mock Up on Mu (Craig Baldwin)
Pontypool (Bruce McDonald)
Sleep Dealer (Alex Rivera)
20-seiki shônen: Honkaku kagaku bôken eiga/20th Century Boys 1: Beginning of the End (Yukihiko Tsutsumi)

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Fisshu sutôr/Fish Story (Yoshihiro Nakamura)
Gamer (Neveldine + Taylor)
Metropia (Tarik Saleh)
Moon (Duncan Jones)
Mr Nobody (Jaco von Dormael)
Splice (Vincenzo Natali)
Stingray Sam (Cory McAbee)
20-seiki shônen: Dai 2 shô – Saigo no kibô/20th Century Boys 2: The Last Hope (Yukihiko Tsutsumi)
20-seiki shônen: Saishû-shô – Bokura no hata/20th Century Boys 3: Redemption (Yukihiko Tsutsumi)

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Action Replayy (Vipul Amrutlal Shah)
Beyond the Black Rainbow (Panos Cosmatos)
Enthiran (Shankar)
Monsters (Gareth Edwards)
Stake Land (Jim Mickle)

2011
Another Earth (Mike Cahill)
Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (Madeleine Olnek)
Detention (Joseph Kahn)
Fase 7/Phase 7 (Nicolás Goldbart)
In Time (Andrew Niccol)
Juan de los Muertos/Juan of the Dead (Alejandro Brugués)
Love (William Eubank)
Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
Sound of My Voice (Zal Batmanglij)

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Antiviral (Brandon Cronenberg)
Dredd (Pete Travis)
Ghosts with Shit Jobs (Chris McCawley, Jim Morrison, Jim Munroe and Tate Young)
Looper (Rian Johnson)
Robot & Frank (Jake Schreier)
Transfer (Damir Lukacevic)
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (John Hyams)

2013
Snowpiercer (Joon-ho Bong)edge-of-tomorrow_emily-blunt
Trudno byt bogom/Hard To Be a God (Aleksey German)
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)

2014
Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)
Fehér isten/White God (Kornél Mundruczó)
The Rover (David Michôd)
The Signal (William Eubank)

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