Thursday, June 18, 2015

Yippee-ki-yin-and-yang (Mad Max: Fury Road)

Last night a couple of buddies and I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road. I thought it was great. After several weeks of people hyping how amazingly mind-blowing it was, in terms of everything from color palettes to practical effects to gender politics, I think it suffered a tiny bit from overinflated expectations, which is really unfair to lay upon the flick itself. I enjoyed every minute of the viewing experience. (Well, almost, but we’ll get to that.) I would (and probably will) watch the movie again.

At the risk of saying that which goes without, this post will include some SPOILERS. Although to a certain extent a movie like Fury Road is almost spoiler-proof. Even if you haven’t seen it for yourself yet, you may have heard that the whole movie is one big long extended chase scene-slash-battle sequence, which kind of obviates the need for any major plot twists. It is more or less self-evident that Max (Tom Hardy) survives to the end of the movie, because they’re already talking additional sequels. It is also more or less self-evident that Furiosa (Charlize Theron) survives, third act feints notwithstanding, because chances are the movie wouldn’t have disturbed and discomfited the MRAs quite so much if Furiosa had wound up ultimately victimized in some way. Still, there’s a couple of minor things in the movie which did surprise me, both for the fact that they happened at all and the fact that I hadn’t heard anybody else talking about them online. A couple of things having to do with a minor character, really. So, spoilers, K?.

Let’s talk about Splendid.

A quick overview for those coming in late: in the movie Max gets captured by some members of a pocket civilization in the wasteland called the Citadel, where a tyrant called Immortan Joe controls the populace by controlling the water supply. Max, it turns out, is a universal blood donor so he is forced to become a human blood bag for one of Joe’s many warboys. A routine supply run bound for Gas Town and the Bullet Farm goes rogue, and the warboys and Max are dispatched to bring it back. Turns out the big rig from the supply run, driven by Imperator Furiosa, has smuggled out Joe’s five favorite wives (which is a bit of a misnomer, they’re more like breeding concubines), with Furiosa intending to deliver them to the freedom of the Green Place. That setup is the most complicated part of the movie and gets laid out in the first fifteen minutes or so. The rest is just Joe and the bad guys chasing Furiosa and the wives and stuff blowing up for like an hour and a half. And it is glorious. Max escapes his blood bag imprisonment eventually and joins up with Furiosa, but it’s not inaccurate to describe that as incidental. Max also has the big idea that (pretty dang literally) pivots the movie around the midpoint, but it’s one of those things that oddly enough works well for the overall character arc Max has in the movie but also could have been excised with little or no repercussions, simply by having Furiosa come to the same realization herself.

So, honestly the aforementioned color palettes in the film are amazing, probably worth the price of admission in and of themselves. And the stunt work of the practical effects, all the high-adrenaline acrobatics and high-speed crashes and high-octane fireballs and so forth, also totally top notch. Which leads us to the gender politics, and please don’t get me wrong, those are solid. But when we start talking about them, we necessarily go from the level of describing the world of the narrative, what happened and did it make internally consistent sense and was it entertaining, up to the level of reflecting on the world in which the audience watches the movie, and what does it all mean, man. Not that that’s a bad thing, I’m just warning everyone to hold on.

There’s a strange combination of considerations here with what everyone has been talking about (or at least the slice thereof that has intersected with my awareness, maybe I'm wrong and other people have addressed the same things I want to, in which case I'm still happy to add my voice to the chorus) regarding the outright feminism of Fury Road. Like on the one hand it’s great, most people love it, and those who hate it are being rightfully scorned and mocked. And on the other hand, it’s a little bit sad that everyone’s flipping out about it so much, because overt feminist heroes are so rare. But by and large, either way, people are talking about Furiosa. And that’s fair because she’s a fantastic character and Theron’s performance is all of the awesomes. And it really is her movie, and now I get to go super-meta because I will make that statement but also say it’s not only her movie. I believe a lot of the mouth-breathers who were offended by everything about Fury Road based a lot of their objections on the fact that what was supposed to be Max’s story gets sidelined as another character - a woman! - takes center stage. But I think that really misses the point. Max is an anti-hero; Furiosa is a hero. Max has his own arc to cover in the story, and Furiosa has hers. They intertwine and reflect each other in interesting, sometimes brilliant ways, but just by the intended nature of their respective stories, Max needs to be more passive and peripheral and Furiosa needs to be more proactive. It’s still Max’s movie, but it’s also Furiosa’s movie. There is room for both to be true. And isn’t that fundamentally what a lot of the debate (though it hurts my head to even type that word and acknowledge that dispute even exists) about feminism comes down to? People who are anti-feminist think that it’s all a binary system or a zero-sum game, that to allow anything for women means to disallow it for men, to hold women up is to hold men down, to give to women is to take away from men, &c. &c. Which is such utter bullshit, as Fury Road elegantly demonstrates. People feel like a Mad Max movie was taken away from them because Furiosa hijacked the story, but that’s simply not true. Max and Furiosa are equally important. Deal with it.

I confess, as I did last night to my buddies, that I’m not the world’s biggest Mad Max expert. Far from it. I’ve never seen Mad Max or The Road Warrior, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen Beyond Thunderdome all in one sitting (though thanks to its frequent plays on HBO when I was a kid, I’m reasonably sure I’ve absorbed the whole movie, in bits and pieces here and there). But, according to my buddies, Max’s storyline in Fury Road isn’t even all that different from the first three movies. He’s always been the reluctant hero, the man mainly focused on his own survival and only responding to injustice when it backs him into a corner. It will be interesting to see how Max’s philosophical evolution is portrayed in the inevitable follow-up installment(s), now that he’s been shown the kind of altruism and idealism Furiosa embodies.

But I said I wanted to talk about Splendid! Which is the character played by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, the de facto leader of the wives. (I know technically the character’s name is Angharad, formally The Splendid Angharad, but it seemed like everyone was calling her Splendid and that’s what I’m gonna keep doing.) And as I mentioned, I know she’s a minor character compared to Furiosa and Max, and I know that Huntington-Whiteley is not remotely in the same league, acting-wise, as Theron. I think she acquits herself well enough, though, with the material she’s given. And that material is totally suffused with some next-level envelope-pushing stuff.

Splendid is pregnant, visibly so, and given clues revealed late in the movie maybe about six or seven months along. That seems like a standard action movie plot point, at the outset; damsels in distress, children in peril, a young pregnant mother-to-be conveys all of that at once! And as if the idea of the wives deserving freedom from Immortan Joe on their own merits were not enough, the fact that Splendid is great with child provides additional incentive for Furiosa to get her out of the Citadel, so that the innocent unborn can live a different, better life. Which is all fair enough as far as the tropes go. But when was the last time you saw an action movie where any pregnant woman voluntarily uses herself as a human shield?

Can we take a moment to let that sink in? Immortan Joe demands the return of his wives and his unborn child unharmed, and Splendid knows this, so when the big rig is speeding along and warboys and Joe himself are lining up Furiosa behind the wheel in their sights, Splendid positions herself in the way so that the bullets will have to go through her first. And given that Joe is an evil psycho, it’s not as foolproof a plan as it may seem, though it does work. For a little while. Then things escalate (seriously, it’s amazing how things constantly escalate over the running time of the movie; it’s rare that I actually experience the sensation of begging for mercy over what a story is doing to my heart, but Fury Road got me there) and Splendid falls off the rig. And gets run over by the pursuers. The others get away, but still. When I said I enjoyed almost everything in the movie, I was referring to how hard Splendid’s death hit me. It wasn’t done in a gross, exploitative way, but it was not fun to watch. (And now I’m pretty sure I have guaranteed my wife will never want to watch this movie, and … fair enough.)

Furiosa has a buzzcut and is missing half an arm, replaced by a post-apocalyptic junk-prosthetic, and covers half her face in black grease and wears cargo pants and combat boots and drives a big rig. She is a Strong Female Character very much in the mode of “anything boys can do, girls can do too” and she is almost entirely devoid of superficial femme signifiers. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, and I have no problem calling the character a role-model, but what really fascinates me is that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. A woman like Furiosa can equal a man by presenting as “masculine” but a woman like Splendid can equal a man while presenting as archetypically feminine, and the pregnant fertility goddess with long blonde hair and gauzy white attire is hard to top in that category. Splendid’s all-too-brief moments of courage and will are thrilling on a lot of levels.

And while I’m on a roll here, of course it’s impossible to overlook Immortan Joe howling at Splendid, about the child in her belly, “That’s my property!” And it turns out Splendid didn’t immediately die when she was run over, though she did suffer mortal injuries. Joe’s personal doctor tries to save her, but she’s too far gone. So Joe orders the doc to save the baby, and he obligingly cuts Splendid open, only to find the baby (boy) isn’t quite viable, which all stokes Joe’s rage to new heights. There is zero chance that there’s not a metaphor about reproductive rights lurking not very far below the surface here. There’s no way to read Splendid’s facial expression as she puts herself and the baby at hazardous risk as anything other than “my body, my choice”. There’s very little interpretive wiggle room beyond concluding that if you think the final decision over how and why women have babies belongs to anyone other than the women themselves, you are this guy:

And nobody wants to be that guy, right?

I've been thinking lately that a statement like "I am a feminist" should be about as controversial as "I am not a racist", and maybe almost as unnecessary. It would be nice if the default assumption upon meeting people was that they were not judgmental, prejudiced jerks. Some people would go right ahead and prove otherwise, but still. It'd be nice. And if a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road, with various characters male and female all fighting together but also all fighting for themselves on their own terms, gets us a little closer to that state of enlightenment, that works for me.

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