Let’s think madness. There is a very real madness in this world. But it’s hidden.
A man lives a normal life. He is a police officer. Then, all of a sudden, the world falls into nuclear devastation, either from war or mismanagement. Within this new turbulence, this police officer struggles to maintain some measure of order, but unfortunately fails and his wife and daughter, and possibly others who have entrusted their safety to him, are lost. Then, living with the guilt and consequences of this, truly, brave new world, the police officer abandons his old sense of duty and commits to a nomadic life upon the high desserts, still struggling to survive, seeking redemption and solace and even escape from the reality of his world.
Now another man, possibly a police officer, but more likely a mid-level, white-collar worker, lives in a time and place of substantial luxury, wealth, convenience, and stability. He has aspirations, presumably, for more of what he considers rightfully his to attain—a higher paying job, a bigger house, a new car, a swimming pool—and he has, possibly, one or two charitable commitments, donations he makes, volunteers his time to help those less fortunate than he, and may even struggle marginally to understand himself and to contend with the pressures of work, relationships, and personal expectations. Then, while living day to day within the reality of these circumstances, a distraction presents itself, a fantasy, an adventure—a MOVIE—a combination of sight and sound and story like nothing else in nature. The advent of this movie transforms the seemingly normal man into a ravenous, frenzied, desirously determined creature with the singular goal of “seeing it.” He must see this movie. Then once he has seen it, he must spread it. He must help the distraction grow and permeate his world, so as to validate his own need to see it. He will say things like, “Have you seen Mad Max: Fury Road? (full euphoria in his eyes) (deadly shock and horror at once mixed with lustful and righteous pleasure at the fact that respective recipient of question has not yet seen Mad Max: Fury Road) No??? Oh my god! You have to see it. It’s the best action movie ever made. You have to see it! You have to see it!” And the man will invariably see the movie again, with appropriately less lust but equal if not increased righteousness.
Considering the lives of these two men, which one really seems mad?
When Aldous Huxley visited America in the late 1920’s, one of the things that unsettled him was the blossoming cultural of amusement and entertainment, particularly these things called Talkies: moving pictures with speaking actors.
Within the culture of entertainment, Huxley perceived a zealous idolatry for fashion, extravagance, pleasure, and mediocrity. A person’s participation in the enjoyment of Talkies was, for Huxley, an admission of their superficial fashion and submission to mediocre society. His experience of Talkies is what inspired the fictionalized Feelies in Brave New World, the visual/material entertainment craze for his dystopian society. Characters usher familiar statements, “Going to the Feelies this evening, Henry?”… “I hear the new one at the Alhambra is first rate. Every hair of the bear is reproduced. The most amazing tactual effects…” Of course, it would be easy enough to write Huxley off as a British snob who turned up his nose at the emerging culture of the colonials. But America was a leading economic, political, and cultural power in the 20’s, and so we should give him the benefit of the doubt that his criticism was more circumspect than mere personal prejudice.
Looking at America and Hollywood and the extent of western-entertainment-culture today, it’s difficult to disagree with Huxley’s evaluation. Here we are in 2015, almost a century since Huxley’s critique, busily using the most sophisticated and mind-blowing communication systems ever invented to spread awareness about the latest and greatest action movie. Of course, we use modern communication technology for much more besides entertainment news, but it’s still a significant preoccupation for many and most people. Why? Because we can, maybe. Because we’re free.
Western culture is the champion of western values: liberalism, freedom, individuality. These concepts are far from universal truths, nor are they inherently virtuous, but they have allowed for certain groups of people to act legitimately selfish in the pursuit of happiness with little reprisal for instances of excessive selfishness. So, as selfish people, we’re supposed to like these values. In a way, Western culture is all about allowing everyone and anyone to live as selfishly as they would like. In other words: MAD. As long as you follow a few basic rules of conduct, you are largely free to think and act in any way you choose. It is institutionalized madness.
And yet, even with the full freedom to be personally mad, so many citizens in western societies conform to the mean and lead a mediocre life. We follow trends. We try to fit in. We get jobs and buy things. We live and we wait to be happy and we fear death. When a new movie hits theatres, we literally freak out. Our jumping excitement to escape the mediocrity becomes absolute. And then, as so often happens, especially with the assembly line of mainstream Hollywood releases, these very escapes that we wait for and long for are, in themselves, a meager regurgitation of the mediocrity we tried to alleviate. But perhaps that is exactly why Mad Max received such popular excitement. Maybe Mad Max was actually good. It has a 5/5 score on Rotten Tomatoes and The New Yorker says it’s “all that we seem to crave, right now, from our movies.” It was certainly an enjoyable action movie, better than most. But could it be possible that the film’s true appeal is that it made us think?
For its simplicity of plot and its archetypal character development, the film truly is a visual experience. It was exactly what a spectacle driven culture desires. There was an underdog(ish) titular character—a hero—, fighting a multitude of petty villains with a “big-boss” at the top of it all. And the good guys win. The important part was the “badass” level, and it was 100% badass. Uniquely, the film offers a second hero—a heroine—who is not only the catalyst of the film’s plot, but also the moral center and the real victor over the villain. In fact, Furiosa is perhaps the film’s truest “Mad” character, as she stands as the sole dissident within her society, breaking from the confines of a militaristic, totalitarianism hierarchy, with a delusional hope of reaching the blessed “Green Place.” Of course, Furiosa’s madness appears perfectly sane to a western audience (except for a handful of guys who thought she was an attack on men. WTF?).
But the film’s main character is Max. And one of the most gripping images and—if we can talk symbolism here—the film’s metaphor for western society, is that of Max strapped to the front of a Chevy-coupe that is well out of his control, while his own blood is tapped to fuel the heart and lungs of the driver, who himself is a mediocre cog in the twisted mechanics of a corrupt, violent, exploitative, patriarchal society, all while barreling full-throttle towards certain death, with a steel cage mask locked over his face preventing him from speaking or having much influence over anyone or anything at all.
In this image of Max can be seen a telling portrait of the collective condition of western society; the very society that we desire distraction and escape from, as Max desires release from his steely mask. Perhaps a struggle. Perhaps frustrating. Perhaps futile. But in the end Max does free himself, he does find some measure of redemption, and he does succeed in undermining the mechanics of the corrupt society through the use of its own tools AND he helps restore a possibility for hope and justice. If the hype for Mad Max: Fury Road is genuine, and not simply because of the cars and flaming guitars and explosions, but rather because the film strikes a chord within the heart of the silent viewer in the dark of the theatre, who sees his own life strapped to the front of the speeding Chevy, his own world being burned away into dessert ash, who sees all the good and green of this earth being replaced for steel and stone and a madness for oil, water, milk, or money, or whatever, then maybe there is hope. If the mad viewer enters the theatre and perceives his own madness reflected, then I think we’re a little better off than Huxley foretold. Either way, Mad Max: Fury Road is the best action movie ever made. You have to see it!
By Stephen Michell