Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Mad Max

You need to be careful about attributing too much meaning to movies, especially big noisy action movies. Reading the cinematic tea leaves for deep relevance to the world of today is a mug's game, or at least a game for those poor souls who have opted to do graduate studies in film.

At the same time, part of what makes a movie work is how it taps on our familiar experience and resonates in the audience's mind. Any movie, if it's any good, is a little bit true--even if it's an over-the-top fantasy.

Idle Primate and I went out to see Mad Max recently. That's the first of George Miller's postapocalyptic trilogy set in the Australian outback and arguably the least iconic of the three. When people talk about a "Mad Max dystopia," they're usually referring to The Road Warrior, the second film in the trilogy, set after a nuclear war. That's a very simple world--rampaging motorized gangs of punk rock mutants in a completely lawless post-nuclear wasteland, where civilization is clearly and indisputably dead and gone.

Mad Max is more interesting in that it takes place while things are falling apart. It's not post-apocalyptic so much as... well, I guess pre-post-apocalyptic is the best word. (Which technically should just be "apocalyptic" but it's not really that either, because apocalypse suggests a clear and sudden transition and that's not really what's going on here.)

Max and the other good guys are highway-patrol cops, chasing down the first generation of the emerging road gangs that will have completely taken over by the time we get to The Road Warrior. It's clear that the police force is on its last legs as a civic institution; the cops themselves are starting to look and behave like just another (albeit relavitely benign) gang operating out of the trashed-out remains of the Halls of Justice.

But what's striking is that no one seems to think the world has ended. Notwithstanding the obvious failure of major institutions that is underway, a good chunk of the movie involves Max and his Sears-catalog family piling into the station wagon and going on a pleasant road trip, even though we know those roads are full of biker gangs. The bikers themselves are kind of goofy and clean-cut--a missing link, the last of the 1960's-style bikers, sort of a coelocanth-like specimen of pre-Altamonte Hell's Angel, from just before it split once and for all from the hippie genus and became something vicious and malignant. The kind of bikers you would imagine doing security for the Monkees.

At the same time, ambulances still come when you call them; lawyers still show up to get their clients out of jail; whiskey and hookers are still bought with money, not cans of Spam.

So the film and its characters exist in this odd space of apocalypse denial. In this respect Mad Max is a much more realistic film than The Road Warrior.

The big problem I have with survivalists and hard-core doomers is not that they anticipate some serious shit going down; it's that they seem to expect and even hope for a very clear-cut situation to emerge afterwards, where life is a matter of having lots of guns and being willing to use them. Where all complications of society, rules, expectations and having to deal with other people are swept away, and where life--if nasty, brutish and short--is at least freed from bullshit.

But as we've seen in Russia and Afghanistan and even the late Roman/early Frankish period, civilizations don't collapse that neatly. There is never any clear-cut signal that says, "NOW it is necessary and okay to quit mailing out resumes, pick up a machine gun and start marauding." You can lose and lose and lose some more--retirement plans, public schools, the rule of law--and yet that blessed state of nature never seems to come. The survivalists and Tea Partiers are bound to be disappointed. Just what does someone have to do to get a Hobbesian war of all against all going around here, anyway!

Of course, in Mad Max, the title character gets just that signal. Something Changes Forever and the hero is freed from all obligation to the old world, freed to become the Road Warrior.

It's only a movie, guys.

What's really interesting is how plausible even the implausibilities are. In this crumbling world, where even the police station looks like a trashed-out squat, the roads are still being maintained with beautiful smooth asphalt, well enough to drive on at eighty miles an hour. Absurd on the surface of it; roads are fragile and take an insane amount of effort and coordination to keep functional at all, and in a general center-not-holding-things-falling-apart those roads should turn into cowpaths right quick. Except that in real life, while civic institutions such as schools and city halls and libraries have to close due to collapsed tax bases, the half-assed thrashing of governments trying to jumpstart the economy is largely directed towards road building. Suddenly Mad Max seems eerily prescient.

1 comment:

  1. brilliant point on "no one seems to think the world has ended" i think of the diner scene, and picture our own diners and neswpapers that have headlines reading "recession is over" while no one is at work.

    and it is bizarre and frightening to think that our lives have so much "bullshit", that people (self included at times) fantasize about guns for spam endtimes.