Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
On a whim, I stumbled into the new Mad Max installment – Fury Road – on what happened to be its opening night. I just wanted diversion, and got it in spades. The film is an utterly unapologetic festival of vehicles and violence, spending virtually no time on backstory, plot, character development, or even plausibility; it is essentially a two-hour running gun battle/car chase shot for spectacle and speed, and with almost no breaks in the action. If you don’t know the story of the previous three “Mad Max” films you might not even understand why any of it is happening, though that won’t detract from your ability to enjoy (or, be assaulted by) its impact – it has that little content, and that much power.
The film has already generated a lot of commentary, and I don’t have much to say about it as a movie as such, or as an episode of the Mad Max franchise. One focus of the attention, however, is the role played by Charlize Theron’s character, “Furiosa”. As the title implies, Fury Road is very much Furiosa’s movie – she leads the hero contingent on their mad chase for life across the desert, twice (this movie is so epic, even the Namib desert isn’t big enough to contain it – at one point they turn around and fight their way back through the same horde of mechanized thugs they had just fought to get away from, and the movie ends exactly where it began). She fights a hostile Mad Max to a draw and later saves him from death, drives the biggest “war rig” in the entire fleet of insane weaponized cars, and shoots, stabs, punches, and runs down the army of barely-human male psychotics who are chasing her, by the dozens. All this is embodied by a small and famously beautiful woman made up in this film with a shaved head, amputated arm stump, branding scars, and motor-oil war paint. There is never a moment in the film when she wants a man, and barely a moment when she trusts or relies on one, even after Max throws in his lot with her and later rescues her from bleeding to death; their final moment of triumph is a bare nod of recognition as they turn away from each other and pursue their separate destinies, her as savior and leader of her people, him as damaged and haunted loner.
Unsurprisingly, Theron’s character – a strong, self-reliant, and effective woman who stands up to vile and vicious men, in the company of other self-regarding and assertive women – is driving misogynist right-wingers absolutely nuts. There is even an organized boycott of the movie by “men’s rights activists” who are terrified that it will be popular and thus encourage more action films featuring “some damn political lecture or moray [sic] about feminism, SJW-ing, and socialism”. (NB: it’s very hard to find any hint of socialism in Mad Max, especially inasmuch as it centers on a society where there is essentially no government or economy at all. But that’s no different from almost everything right-wingers call “socialist” these days.) Even more notoriously, Eve Ensler, the feminist author and activist, was consulted for some of the female characterization in the film – another point the “men’s rights” community finds so crazy-making they just can’t stand it. (Feminists? Having input into Mad Max?)
There are in fact feminist themes that run through the movie, somewhat more complexly than much of the commentary (superficially focused on Theron as a “strong woman”) has noticed. Though that is not all there is to be said about the movie, it is that I wanted to comment on here.
[SPOILER WARNING: SOME PLOT SPOILERS BELOW THE JUMP, NOT THAT THERE’S REALLY MUCH OF A PLOT]
Mad Max: Fury Road stands in a somewhat vague place within the Mad Max series. Filmed thirty years after the last of the original trilogy that starred Mel Gibson, the role of Max is played in the new movie by Tom Hardy; his character suffers flashbacks of images of people killed in the previous films, so it is apparently a chronological sequel (unlike the reboot of the James Bond series with Daniel Craig, in which the characterization established in the previous films is simply ignored). At the same time, there is virtually no explanation for the desert-oasis setting or the continued obsession with cars and “guzzoline”: people just drive around and kill each other, and how this connects with events in the earlier films is not clear. The main villain is recycled from the original Mad Max, but his nightmarish cult society of water scarcity, reincarnation mythology, sex slavery, violence, and huge clanking machinery is likewise not explained or even made to seem possible. What history or ideology lies under all of this has to be gleaned from occasional remarks from the uniformly psychotic and gibbering cast of extras; this is one of the few films where you long for just one talky expository character.
At the opening of the film, Max (in his iconic Interceptor hot rod) is captured by a crew of scarred, crazed, white-painted “warboys” driving old vehicles tricked out with spikes and weapons; he is taken to a desert citadel populated by warboys who worship their grotesque, supposedly unkillable leader Immortan Joe, who promises them Valhalla if they die for him. The warboys are covered with scars and brands denoting their loyalty to Joe, and kept motivated and energized by a supply of silver spraypaint which they huff straight from the can, leaving them with silvery lips and teeth (“grills,” get it?) in their sea of all-white coloring and total body scarring. Max is caged and plugged into a wounded war boy as a living blood donor, since he is blood type O. And then it gets weird.
Immortan Joe’s warlord outpost is also home to a large crowd of unwashed, nearly crazy peasants kept in continual desperation for lack of water; the leader inspires them by occasionally turning on the flow from the water supply only he controls, but cautions them “don’t get addicted to water!”. Inside his hideout, there is a harem of obese women chained to milking machines, pumping breast milk by the gallon for consumption by the toadlike leader and his cadre of deformed sons and sycophants. There is also an extensive greenhouse of lush vegetable crops, maintained by the slaves but not accessible by them. The mesa is a caste system of perverted elites, crazed warriors, and slaves of varying degrees of degradation, maintained by high-handed manipulation of the resources that make them all what they are.
The main excitement of the day is the departure of a war convoy, heading out across the desert with an armored tanker truck and escort vehicles to obtain “guzzoline” from some distant source. The vehicles are hauled out of storage on large elevators by the peasant slaves, operating huge gears and levers with their emaciated bodies. The convoy commander is the Imperator Furiosa – Charlize Theron with her afore-mentioned bald head, dirt, brand, scars, war paint, and limb stump; she is sullen, coolly authoritarian, and the only woman in the film to this point who is not traumatized, chained up, or beaten down, though she still appears to be a slave to Immortan Joe. She is also the only character so far seen who is not ravingly insane.
One important theme becomes apparent even before the action starts: the significance of biology, and the life-giving forces, in this lethal, scoured, and overwhelmingly mechanized environment. The slaves are kept in check by their need for water and their denial of the food they themselves grow; women are enslaved as, literally, milk cows and “breeders” for the biological needs of their male captors; Max is harvested for his blood; the warboys are incited with dreams of violence as a portal to otherworldly reincarnation (“I live. I die. I live again!” one babbles while trying to immolate himself in his car). Later the life theme becomes even more apparent, and more fraught, but even from the beginning it is the coordinating force in a society otherwise consisting entirely of metal, flame, gears, and gasoline. The way this enrolls women, the source of life – in every literal sense in this movie – establishes the gendered nature of the conflict that dominates almost every moment of the rest of the film, which otherwise superficially appears to be just about energy resources.
In fact, almost everyone in this constantly warring automotive Sparta – a world of mechanical violence with no visible living ecology – is actually defined and identified by their biological status. Joe’s body is grossly fat and covered with pustules which he displays in a see-through full-body armor rig that also holds the vaguely lung-like pulsating oxygen setup he needs to stay alive (his oxygen mask is a skull face). One of his sons is a hulking, animalistic brute who can barely grunt, and subsists on raw mothers’ milk from the breeder slaves; the other is a sickly-looking obese dwarf who lolls on a high-chair observing the scene through Steampunk binoculars. The slave workforce are uniformly ground down, gaunt, dirty, and wasted from starvation and dehydration. The breeder sex slaves are cow-like and lethargic, chained to clunking milking machines seemingly forever. The warboys are thin and weak cannon fodder kept on the point of induced psychosis by psychological manipulation and toxic drugs; the main such character, “Nux” (Latin for “nut,” perhaps a commentary on his mental state) has bulging neck tumors which he has marked with happy faces and named Larry and Barry. Max is beaten, whipped, and subject to a punitive tattooing, tapped like another form of cow for his life-giving blood, and chained in an iron head cage that essentially becomes his face for a large chunk of the movie. Furiosa – the most vital and self-actuating person in the film – is, as noted, scarred and mutilated.
Virtually no one looks normal or healthy, and it is clear that in each case their peculiar physical deformities are tied to the role they play in this grotesque society of abuse and predation: Joe’s bodily decomposition is somehow staved off by his consumption of breast milk; the slave women are sexually abused and literally harvested for their womanly product, but otherwise have no agency; the peasants are who they are because they are weak and starved; Max’s blood type is the only reason he is kept alive, and in turn it keeps the warboys alive; Furiosa’s body bears the scars of her war rage, and seems somehow appropriate to her eventual rebellion. The more crazed and evil a character is, the more abnormal-looking they are. Even those without obvious physical deformities have deformed themselves, taking live bullet implants for teeth, branding Joe’s war symbol on themselves with a white-hot iron, or locking themselves in leather facemasks and armored body suits. (The unspoken trope here of “ugly = evil,” especially apparent in the character of the dwarf son, who plays no role in the film other than to look deformed, is problematic, but it underscores the implicit theme of life both withered and healthy.) This theme erupts much more boldly and brilliantly as the movie progresses, but it is an unmistakable stage setting from the very beginning.
From this desert colony of moral and physical lepers, Furiosa rolls her war convoy out on the road across the blazing desert. For reasons she does not explain, she soon deviates from the expected route, and Joe launches his war legions to stop her. This begins the on-the-road battle of increasingly over-the-top weapons and vehicles that occupies the rest of the movie. Mad Max gets caught up in it when he is dragged along in chains to keep pumping blood for his warboy captor. He manages to escape during a sandstorm that immobilizes all the vehicles; he comes upon Furiosa’s war rig and discovers what it was that motivated her rebellion, and which she is fighting to protect: five almost naked, ethereally beautiful women, one pregnant, who have been kept as sex slaves by Joe. They are bathing in a running hose, water draining off their smooth, tanned bodies and soaking into the desert sand in an almost sensual stream of the life-giving fluid for lack of which others are dying. This explains what is now, obviously, Furiosa’s rebellion: getting them and herself out of Joe’s brutal and disgusting slavery. Max doesn’t care. After a multi-way fight between Max, Furiosa, Nux the warboy (still hilariously chained to Max and the car door they are both shackled to), and the five not very helpful captive women, he steals their rig and leaves the women in the sand as Joe’s warriors zoom up to re-enslave them to a life of rape and forced pregnancy. (Joe and the warboys are apparently Republicans.)
At this point, the motivating conflict for the film is finally made clear: Immortan Joe’s nightmare colony of sex slavery extends beyond the lumpen milk breeders chained to their pumping machines, and includes his five “wives” – the only characters in the film who are young, healthy, and beautiful; Furiosa, herself a slave (with a past only vaguely articulated), is smuggling them out in her war rig to “the Green Place”. When Joe perceives she is deviating from his plan, he guesses her intent and races to check on his “treasure”: he unlocks a huge, gleaming bank vault door set into the rock of his mountain/cave hideout, to reveal . . . an apartment prison for the women Furiosa is stealing away from him. As “treasures” they are literally his property, but they have some spark of self-assertion left to them; the walls of the vault are painted with the slogan “We Are Not Objects”. In taking them away, and in giving them some sense of themselves as autonomous and self-assertive (their fight against Mad Max, though unsuccessful, is a huge step away from their history of victimization by men), Furiosa establishes the real feminist theme of the movie: not “strong women” with guns and exploding cars, but women as agents, as autonomous persons, women who are not things – women who make their own decisions and have their own desires and goals and can act on them.
This scene takes place barely past the beginning of the journey that defines this hyperbolic road-trip action movie; the fighting that is launched by Furiosa’s defiance of Joe continues with rare, short (but interesting) interludes for the entire rest of the film. The already-legendary action sequences (or, sequence; it basically never ends) are indeed spectacular; the wild characters and equally wild cars on display are unforgettable. And the spectacle helps flesh out Furiosa as a woman of substance: she kills and crushes her way into the pantheon of bloody action heroes as few have ever done. She also comes to a working truce with Max, who, in his self-absorbed misery, is indifferent but not hostile to her and the other women’s goals; she for whom men are unequivocally – not theoretically – the enemy accepts him when he shows himself trustworthy, and he, almost against his own desire, signs on to help the women as long as his goals coincide with theirs.
In and among this festival of mayhem are further, concentrated but more powerful, moments in which women and the lives of women under patriarchy are brought into sharper relief. During the running battle among the fleet of war cars, Immortan Joe pulls alongside the war-rig and tries to shoot Furiosa; the pregnant refugee, his former sex slave, puts her body in the way, using his “property” and his unborn offspring as hostages, and asserting her independence in the most vital way – he can still kill her, but he cannot use her for his own ends anymore. When she falls off the rig and is crushed under the wheels of Joe’s car, he callously orders one of his thugs to cut her open with a knife to save the fetus he had forced upon her. When it dies, too, he demands to know if it was a boy; the thug tells him it was, “perfect in every way”. Joe is stricken at the loss of part of his male lineage, and his brutish son keens “I had a brother, and he was perfect in every way!” (i.e., not like the deformed dwarf back home).
At the midpoint of their quest for The Green Place, the surviving fugitives cross an unspeakable, mucky, Hieronymus Bosch wasteland. It is here that Max finally makes a real commitment to the women’s welfare, undertaking a dangerous solo attack on their pursuers to buy the refugees time to escape; when he returns, he is filthy. “He’s covered with blood!” “It’s not his blood.” He grabs a bucket from the war rig, looks in, and asks “What is this?” “Mother’s milk.” He washes his face clean in the white fluid. (I trust the extended symbolism is clear enough?)
Passing through this unlivable swamp, the group comes upon a woman stark naked up a tall pole. Max recognizes this as a trap to lure passing men; Furiosa climbs down, however, and calls out her mother’s name and tribal affiliation. From all directions, middle-aged and elderly women appear in war gear on motorcycles. They are the last of the community that Furiosa was stolen from as a child. (No further details are given.) They make it clear that they have been squatting in that desert for decades, sharp-shooting any men they see and protecting their dwindling community of embattled women. The Green Place? That was the swamp the refugees just passed through, dried up and ruined. There is no refuge for them. Furiosa and her young, fertile charges now have to decide what to do with their lives – join this community of literal feminist separatists, or head out on a suicide gamble that there is something on the other side of the barren salt flats that stretch away ahead of them. In a passing conversation, one of the surviving slaves says she, too, is pregnant; she decides that Joe’s son, when it’s born, will probably be ugly. One of the old women notes “Might be a girl” and a hopeful look passes between them – men perpetuate abuse of women by using women to perpetuate patriarchy itself, but women bear women, too.
The women at first decide to take their chances on finding some other haven further across the desert; Max strikes off on his own. But, by then committed to the women and empowered by his own fight for freedom, he soon chases after them and proposes an insane bid for an end to the war: return to Immortan Joe’s citadel (now empty of its warboys), take it from him, and create their own haven there. Knowing it may be suicide, or, worse, their own re-enslavement, the women agree to fight for peace on their own terms.
The whole group – the refugees, the elderly female warriors, and Max, their now-trusted (and only) male ally – turn around and begin to fight their way back along the road they just escaped on. The violence amps up even further (literally: the rolling bandstage stacked with speakers, fronted by “Coma the Doof Warrior” – a screaming guitar player in red longjohns, flying through the air on bungee cords playing metal powercords on a double-necked guitar with a built-in flamethrower – is . . . I mean . . . well . . . it just is, is all). The spectacle of motorized mayhem reverses itself over the second half of the movie, and the road becomes the setting for a showdown between Joe and the dwindling band of defiant women. The elders sacrifice themselves in heroic rages, Max fights back and forth across the moving cars, and Furiosa finally puts an end to Joe when, in hand-to-hand combat, nearly at the point of death, she wraps a chain around his skull-head breathing mask, ties it to a vehicle, and rips his face off. (Again, biology is destiny.)
Finally, they arrive back at the citadel, free the female slaves, and open the water taps. (The dwarf son looks panicky, but it isn’t clear what happens to him.) The movie ends with the former slaves now masters of the prison; a more equitable sharing of food and water, presumably, is in the offing. None of this refugee domesticity is for Max; he and Furiosa exchange brief, comraderly nods and he turns back toward the desert.
A film this intense – and, in some ways, confused – may harbor many meanings. Some are obvious: the maliciousness of men, the violence of male-dominated culture and its ravages upon the bodies (literally) of women, the way women nurture life and men tarnish and destroy it for their own indulgence. (Some of these meanings may be clichés, but that doesn’t make them false.) Also embedded in there are the simplistic and ugly presumptions that go along with the violence of patriarchy: women defined by their reproductive capacity, people’s worth (especially, but not solely, women’s) determined by their match to a particular and stringent standard of physical perfection or even normality, the obviousness of violence and its role in giving men their place in the world. Most obviously, and what prompted the hysterical (in all senses of the word) backlash to the film is the latent and increasing autonomy of the women who refuse to be ground down by the predations of men and who rise up to demand their due, by violence of necessary but not by violence as a goal in itself. Those women reject both the men who abuse them and the world those men created, and that emphatic dismissiveness is what the misogynists can’t stand.
This leads to another aspect of the film: it presents, essentially, a choice between accepting the horror of the post-apocalyptic world as it is, and choosing another way of life. The violent tyrants who sit at the top of the destructive hellhole depicted in the film, of course, want only to preserve their own place by maintaining the oppression and depredation that allows it. The rebels do not merely reject patriarchy, or even violence, but oppression itself; in destroying Immortan Joe and his economy of misery, they reject the hierarchy that requires oppression to provide (what passes for) luxury for the 1%. (The reading that sees this society as a metaphor for capitalism specifically, rather than generic violence merely, is not in the least a stretch.) Critic Arthur Chu made the valuable point that the real dichotomy in the film, and in the entire Mad Max franchise, is not so much between violence and peace as between destruction (always associated with men) and rebuilding (almost exclusively associated with women). He notes that, though loutish men see Mad Max as a hero, “at the end of every Mad Max film he ends up with less than he had before,” while it is the women, especially in Fury Road, who do the work of building a more livable society. The film is explicitly feminist, but it is not exclusively “women’s issues” that that feminism promotes.
It is hard not to suspect that the critics of the film are upset not simply at its feminist message, but that it has a message at all. High-action movies can easily be seen as simple spectacle, and what morals they convey are often equally simplistic: “courage,” “loyalty,” “America,” “can’t we all just get along?”. This one interrogates the very notion of a society that exists because of and by way of violence, oppression, the destructive sequestering of scarce resources, and the grinding exhaustion of vast masses for the benefit of the few. That the most-abused in the film are women, and that the most-abusive ideology underlying it is the grossest dehumanizing misogyny, almost goes without saying – what else could you expect in this kind of society? But the film’s answer is not merely the women’s satisfying revenge, or the downfall of the oppressors, but the reformation of that entire system and the release of the pent-up resources of the overlords in a literal waterfall of wealth onto the masses. It’s a bit much to see Mad Max as a call to revolution, but it is certainly, quite explicitly, a rejection of oppression and the violence it begets. That women trigger that rejection – and that the violent anti-hero who leads them to do so then has no place in their new-made world – is also not an accident, but not the entire message of the film.
More than anything, it is refreshing to see a spectacular, crowd-pleasing film – especially one that relies on overwhelming visuals not merely for its impact, but also its meaning, having remarkably little dialog – that is capable of seeing the implications of its own imagery, and tweaking them in a way that interrogates their own implications. Like the best of sci-fi (which I guess is the genre this film falls into, as much as anything), it gives us a glimpse of an imagined technological world but forces us to confront what that world does to the people who live in it. And, like the best of sci-fi, the parallels between that world and this, especially regarding the place of women in society and the things done to them, force us to question how far we are complicit in the same horrors.
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