Sub Sub

madmax In Theodore Roszak’s novel Flicker, there’s a movie entitled SUB SUB, which is presented as the climactic achievement of cinema — a quadrophonic acid-trip caveman movie full of rape and violence with a deafening non-stop rock score. The book’s semi-serious conspiracy theory suggests that cinema is a Cathar conspiracy to prepare us for the end of the world. Cinema as anti-life equation. I do sort of believe this. I think art and religion are both ways of dealing with the consciousness of our own deaths. George Miller’s triumphal return to big-screen carnage, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD feels a lot like SUB SUB. It has a bit more humanity, to be sure, but in its high-octane relentlessness, its constant grotesquerie, its deafening onslaught of mayhem, it is the kind of movie it’s easy to imagine alien archeologists unearthing from the ruins of our civilisation, screening, and saying “Well of course these bastards became extinct: they were making things like this.” It was suggested by someone or other that our ability to imagine post-apocalyptic scenarios does not seem to make us better at avoiding the kind of behaviour that will lead to apocalypses — instead, it just feels like a dress rehearsal for the inevitable. madmaxi If the Tasmanian Devil ram-raided FELLINI SATYRICON, or the characters of THE BED SITTING ROOM discarded their “mustn’t grumble” British inertia, OD’d on bath salts and invaded Namibia, the results would resemble this dirt-caked pile-driver of a film. George Miller doesn’t need 3D to punch his audience in the face. Astonishingly, a film which steamrollers over the action movie competition of beardless youths like Bryan Singer or Matthew Vaughn, is directed and photographed by septuagenarians, and costume designed by a nice lady who used to do all Merchant-Ivory’s films.


Production process: for over a decade, the film was waiting to get made, existing, like The Bible, without the benefit of the written word — instead, Miller papered a room with a storyboard by comic book wiz Brendan McCarthy, himself a MAD MAX fan whose punk armageddons of mutation and madness prepared him perfectly for this descent into the maelstrom. It’s in some ways the most comic book movie ever, with character simplified mostly to design and cool names (Imperator Furiosa, Rictus Erectus) and basic, primal motivations. Max hardly speaks. Engine noise and the choral freak-out of Junkie XL’s score are privileged over dialogue (weird that I enjoyed this earsplitting sensory pugilism and then, due to my noise phobia, couldn’t walk into a busy pub to discuss it — movies have SOUND DESIGN but real life can be intolerably garbled). madmaxx Miller insisted that, anamorphic cinematography be damned, the subject of interest in every shot had to be dead centre, so that the eye didn’t have to rove around to catch what was going on. He was going to cut shots into second-long blipverts, and play some of his action as fast as six frames per second, so the tardy eye was never going to have a chance if everything wasn’t always in the same space. You’d think this might lead to visual dullness, but at the manic maximum overdrive sustained almost throughout, such a thing is impossible. Fatigue is certainly conceivable, and will depend on your tolerance for sweaty brutality and desperate urgency, which never flag. You just have to keep up. Logic is present only in the characters’ basic sense of direction — from almost the start, the world of Miller’s films hasn’t made a lick of sense. In a world where petrol has run out, everyone spends all their time driving around. Don’t let it worry you. More problematic was always the use of homosexual and disabled characters as monstrous villains. Here, it’s a little more complex — Miller, a former doctor, still has a love of physical deformity, but this is evenly parcelled out amid good and bad characters. Charlize Theron, the film’s real lead character, has a prosthetic arm, and Nicholas Hoult is extravagantly decorated with scarifications and a couple of bulbous tumours (with smiley faces inked on them). Sexuality has been entirely displaced by the necessity of procreation on a dying globe, and the exercise of violence is the only means the bad guys have for getting their jollies. “no unnecessary killing!” yells one of the babes Max and Imperator are rescuing at one point, but fortunately for the sensation-seeking multiplexers, a very large amount of killing proves to be completely necessary. madmaxresdefault (2) Miller pays hommage to ozploitation films past, borrowing the spiky Volkswagon straight out of THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS and strapping Max to the front of a speedy car like a live hood ornament, just like Cassandra Delaney in FAIR GAME. It’s just one way in which Max, hung in a cage and milked of blood by the bad guys, is treated more like a leading lady than Theron. He’s not as objectified as he might have been, though, and the film also loses homoerotic points by dotting its shirtless “warboys” with hideous goitres. The two groups of women show the extent to which Aussie commercial film has/has not moved on from its blokish origins. First, Max stumbles upon a kind of bikini carwash wet T-shirt competition among the lingerie models, then he meets a commune of leathery Germaine Greers. In this way the movie can have its cheesecake AND eat it AND spit it in your face while laughing maniacally. mad-max-trailer Even if the characters are hinged cardboard, Theron in particular invests some actual humanity in the proceedings. Miller’s long-standing tendency to cast for physiognomy means he’s saddled himself with slightly more lingerie models in lead roles than a proper film should have. The guy with brittle-bone disease or something, who looks like a jester’s bladder, is such an extraordinary human special effect in himself that I wouldn’t mind if he couldn’t act, but Rosie Huntington-Whitely isn’t really artistically excusable. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is as immersive and toxic as the extraordinary HARD TO BE A GOD, and the only thing separating Russian art film from Australian-American action film is the propulsive narrative drive — a straightforward sense of mission grounded in character. Someone said that the film borrows the structure of Keaton’s THE GENERAL, and it’s true enough — a long chase one way, then a long chase back, using the same terrain in new ways. Keaton gains added variety from the fact that in the first chase, he’s after the Northern spies and in the second, they’re after him. Here, it’s basically Max and Furiosa being pursued all the time. I’m slightly bewildered to hear of friends rushing to see it a second and third time. I enjoyed myself, but I’m uncertain as to how repeatable the experience is, and do I want to do that to myself again? I don’t think I’ll discover hidden depths. But I can’t wait to own a copy so I can pick it apart in the comfort of my own home…


13 Responses to “Sub Sub”

  1. I had no idea Brendand McCarthy was involved. Count me in! (Although, now I think of it, he also designed the Coneheads movie.)

  2. I think the scantily-clad wet-cheesecloth Huntingdon-Totty supermodels do make sense, in a way – in that they’re precisely the sort of woman a mega-creep like Immortan Joe would choose to hold captive and have sex with.

  3. It makes sense that he wants physically perfect babies (though with his panoply of defects, how likely is that?) and so physically perfect mothers also makes sense. But they don’t necessarily have to be models. And Max’s first sight of them is rather ridiculous. And since sexuality plays zero role in Max’s personality in this film, it’s also an odd moment. I think it is, frankly, a sop to the fanboys who might otherwise struggle to accept a film about female empowerment.

    Yeah, I was surprised to see Mr. McCarthy’s name in the credits, especially as I also know a producer of that name, so my first thought was “It CAN’T be…”

  4. I’m putting my hand up, I’m one of the rushers-back to see it a second (and possibly third) time. In fact, I think I was planning my second trip about twenty minutes into my first viewing. I can’t entirely explain it rationally – it’s partly that the film is such a visceral, cinematic experience, partly that it reconnects me to my youth, seeing Mad Max 2 as a teenager… and Fury Road is, as I’ve said elsewhere, like late Hawks revisiting his earlier stuff but with the confident craftsmanship of age. So the numerous intertextual shout-outs to Road Warrior feel like beautiful, semi-hidden messages to the faithful.

    The other thing that separates MM:FR from the cinema of spectacle is its intense sadness. If, say, Star Wars was made out of an innate understanding that men are born to suffer and die, and can only transcend that by occasional glorious moments of carefree unity in the face of the inevitable triumph of evil, well, then I’d probably like Star Wars as much as I love Mad Max.

    Re the lingerie models – it’s predominantly a comic-book movie, as you point out. It’s about texture and broad statements – rust, goitres, bodily fungus, stubble, chrome paint on teeth. And, yes, some young woman who clearly have access to pre-apocalypse depilation products. But this is not an apocalypse written by Cormac McCarthy. This is, to quote the Clash, “a public service announcement – WITH GUITARS”.

  5. I was never particularly a fan of the earlier films, though Miller is an excellent filmer of action. I like his episode of Twilight Zone The Movie and his Babe II: Pig in the City best. But I can’t abide Happy Feet, so this is certainly a return to form, and even a more refined, intensified version of that form.

  6. Dr. Miller has always managed to be somehow homoerotic and homophobic at the same time. The same can be said of Altman’s most obscure film O.C. & Stiggs.

    Have to catch up with Fury Road I’m behind on my moviegoing. Gotta see Saint Laurent. The lure Louis Garrel overwhelms!

  7. Miller’s strangely schizoid attitude can be seen across much of the mainstream, and reaches overload in the oeuvre of his disgraced protege, Mel Gibson.

  8. What a superb review. I haven’t finished it yet, becaues I haven’t seen the film, but your remarks leading up to any spoilers are fascinating and spot on.

  9. I don’t *think* there are any serious spoilers above, but if you like to see films knowing as little as possible, by all means hold off reading until you’ve viewed.

    I’m trying to stay as virginal as possible about Tomorrowland.

  10. Love Happy Feet or hate it, you have to admit there hasn’t been a kids’ movie since Pinocchio that dared to shove its audience so deep into despair. The scene with Mumbles, locked in the penguin sanctuary surrounded by penguins that have lost their minds, starting to himself succumb to the lure of madness, is almost like they stuck a reel of Shock Corridor into the middle of Shrek.

  11. Now you’re making me want to have to see it, damnit! I saw a bit on a plane once, thinking “It’s Miller, it’s probably interesting,” but I couldn’t get past the surface of it — I felt he had no feeling for animation, which is weird considering the bracing cartooniness of all his work (even bits of Lorenzo’s Oil).

  12. The low-key homophobia of the first 3 MM films didn’t bother me as much as it might’ve because I thought the muscledaddy baddies and their boys were so much more interesting than Gibson. And I very much identified with them in a wish-fulfillment-y, erotomaniacal way. Plus there was Tina, who is God.
    But that’s enough about me.

    MM:FR was offered here, as part of the DGA screening series, just yesterday. The hubby and I stayed home, and instead immersed ourselves in the astonishingly compelling, superbly acted, written and directed (and lit, and costumed) Penny Dreadful. Which I’m watching for the second time. The sight of Reeve Carney snogging with an impassioned, absinthe-hyped Josh Hartnett is irresistible.

    “movies have SOUND DESIGN but real life can be intolerably garbled” ? Brilliant. And shades of Quentin Crisp, who observed that “real” life is so dull because it has no underscoring.

  13. We’re enjoying Penny Dreadful too — perhaps a later post will look at it.

    I think you’ll enjoy MM: FRFR if you enjoyed the previous entries. The most astonishing design I’ve seen lately, and so much of it!

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