Cast (Road Warrior): Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Vernon Wells
Cast (Fury Road): Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult
Director: George Miller
Runtime (Road Warrior): 96 min.
Runtime (Fury Road): 120 min.
Not all movies do that, I suppose. But the ones that do leave a defining image as a representative of their memory. With Memento, it is a car driving towards an abandoned building while the synthesized score plays in the background. That shot is morning for me, and during mornings when I see cars resting outside houses I am almost always reminded of that moment. That shot is Memento too. I don’t know where is the next movie that does that sort of an encapsulation of itself for me coming from, and I don’t know if my memories are getting so solid that I tend to remember whole bunch of images rather than specific ones. But Mr. Miller’s Road Warrior, which I probably watched during the early 90s, along with its sequel Beyond Thunderdome, did it. It is the U-turn of a truck leaving dust in its wake, and as the overhead shot recedes from it, the music reached a crescendo even when I couldn’t articulate of what a crescendo was. Here it is.
This image was Road Warrior to me, and I would often go on to cite it as one of my favorite action movies based on this memory alone. I wish I could have shared a Youtube video link, so here it is (An image in a text is somehow much more elegant than a video or a link, don’t you think?). Until I saw it again just a week back, as to understand why I had loved it so much, the chase I mean or whatever I remembered of it, when I wasn’t exactly thrilled by its nitro-boosted version in Fury Road, I was pretty surprised to realize that I had not even remembered the existence of an airborne assistance. All I knew was that there was a truck, there was a road, there were vehicles, and there was a lot of dust around. I think it must have been my first Stagecoach.
Only for all of that to be broken to pieces. There is not a whole lot of personality to the way the truck runs on the road, and I was hardly stirred. It was good, it was clearly narrated, with a lot of emotional curves I didn’t care for. I watched Fury Road again, and this time I was exhausted. These sort of chase sequences come with a shelf life, because they quite completely forget the psychological spaces any chase contains. Those few moments in The Rover will always be with me. So will Duel. It is not merely because they seem to be minimalist in nature, but because the vehicles and the road are not merely props but tend to bend the psychological nature of space. They shape the narrative, they are actors you see, and their personalities are merely the set up. I am a slow viewer, or at least slower than most of you, and since a chase contains a lot of moving parts I tend to get comfortable only when I know that I can feel my way around those spaces and can even inhabit them. The Rover does that most efficiently, it is a text-book for aspiring filmmakers, and Fury Road and its ilk reduce a chase to blunt information. This happened. Somebody threw harpoons. Somebody cutting. Somebody shot. Somebody looked back. Somebody pressed the gas pedal. Somebody shouted. Somebody jumped. Somebody came under the wheel. Whole lot of information that can at best be classified as entertainment to at best be left at the doors of the multiplex auditorium. But if you are James Cameron, or William Friedkin, or Cheang Pou-soi, or Nicolas Winding Refn, the real movie begins once you exit the parking lot and drive into the night. I think I probably know the reason why that truck U-turn was the only bit I remembered so vividly.
So let us classify them as stunt movies with non-psychological spaces. Benchmark: The General. A worthy successor in total outrageousness: Fast Five. How do The Road Warrior and Fury Road stack up there? Interestingly, and I only realized this when I watched it this time, The Road Warrior is not even a full blown bloated (yes, this is an early dig at Road Warrior which runs close to 120 min.) action movie. Its best parts are borrowed from the thriller and the horror genres, and a key narrative set-up sequence early on, shot exclusively from a hill, as Max Rockatansky (Mr. Gibson) and The Gyro Captain (Mr. Spence) look at the action unfolding below between a group of settlers with oil and a whole band of marauders, would make both the director and the lover of Rear Window proud. The perspective-shot driven narrative of the sequence not merely elevates the content from the mundane of this happened and that happened sort of filmmaking, which can easily be found on Wikipedia, and rather aligns us with the viewers and their respective moralities without the dull usage of reaction shots. It is near exhilarating to realize that a director is so confident in his economy, to realize that the rape of a woman by marauders is a standard audience-compassion exploitation trope that need not be underlined with close-ups and which rather can be used to establish the principal viewers. Even a movement of the binoculars, our anticipation then as to what our principal character is seeing, and the realization to what has actually caught his attention is, well, pure cinema. The geography here is so smartly and efficiently defined, without ever the need of an overhead (read: objective) shot, that when we see the hill from the settlers’ angle, it almost becomes a reaction shot.
So, it is quite disappointing when the same filmmaker 35 years later resorts to standard reaction shots as events unfold which are, at their very best, feminism-for-dummies. The wives talk, and Max looks, and Furiosa looks, and they look at each other and all this action-reaction-fest is all very mediocre. So yeah, coming back to the question at the top of this paragraph, The Road Warrior is not so much a stunt movie as much as it is a movie that also contains stunts. And its stunts are expertly done, it is all very clearly choreographed, while not being especially memorable. It is classically done, first by establishing, the overall movement – a truck followed by several other vehicles – via master shots, before giving each member their own shots, and then proceed with each stunt within the whole. There are almost no wasted edits, and there never is any visual clutter. For e.g. Mr. Miller doesn’t provide us any unnecessary and potentially confusing reaction shots of Max driving and looking around, or for that matter anything else, when Wez sneaks in and shoots the Warrior Woman while the mechanic – with whom a romantic interest has been established just a few moments back – is trying to douse the fire on his arms. It is just them, and only when Wonder Woman, who is hanging by the barbed wires on the truck, moves her head in the general direction of the front of the truck, indicating Wez now planning to sneak onto Max, does Mr. Miller provide a shot of Max looking back. A brief video follows:
I do understand that a part of it is borderline melodramatic in a Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana way, but it is all very clear without any unnecessary information to jam our cognitive reactions. Now, look at below piece from Fury Road and you will count many unnecessary reaction shots that cause unnecessary clutter, and I cannot yet understand with any degree of fluidity the emotion behind all those events because I am always so very busy gathering information hurled at me. It is all bytes of action data and if the overall intention was to cause me to feel a sense of chaos, the action here does achieve it. I know there is a lot of action, but for the life of me I can never describe it without adding to it my own imagination and my own order. Nevertheless, do you think it needed so many reaction shots – (1) At least two shots of Furiosa and old woman turning their heads around without giving any valuable emotional cue other than – Oh! (2) Wives screaming? Did it need so many cuts, I think 3, to tell me how the back of the truck pulled the old woman with the rifle? Did it allow me to feel, or at least process, anything other than a very basic this happened, and probably that happened? I think it is mostly no, and Fury Road has quite a lot of unnecessary stuff of this kind.
Pardon the atrocious quality of the video. I tried a lot and VLC just wouldn’t allow me to capture a good clean video. I hope you will fill in the details and understand my point.
I think I now owe myself and you both a clearer distinction between what I refer to in a chase film and what I refer to when I classify a movie as a stunt film. Without wandering much, I’ll just say a chase is mostly about providing the viewer an immersive experience, a psychological one, he/she is not merely following at an informational level. The surrounding space assumes just as much importance. A stunt on the other hand is mostly about conveying information that is exciting and assumes, or in fact reiterates, the divide between the performer and the viewer. In movie terms, during a chase, the screen assumes a greater presence and kind of distances us further, while asking us to care for the performer. Usually, the former involves a lot less of what we would call events and a whole lot more careful construction of spaces, while the latter involves as many events as possible. These events are to register high on three counts – degree of outrage, degree of anticipation and degree of clarity – and mildly high on one – degree of our care for the performer. The General contains a Buster Keaton we love do outrageous stunts with a clarity that is jaw-dropping. Similarly, two cars driving a bank vault on a road is outrageous enough, and it is then topped by a driver using it as a sort of hammer to knock other cars off a bridge (registers very high on anticipation). Total outrage I say, and the movements are clear, and we do care about the bunch. On the other hand, Mr. Cruise does stunts in Rogue Nation we don’t really care for all that much because their outrage is undermined by their lack of clarity.
All that being said, Fury Road, for all its polecats and flame javelins, mainly lacks a degree of clarity. Just having a huge armada of chase vehicles doing mostly nothing other than provide numbers doesn’t help much. The stunts are mostly done by people we don’t know and we don’t care for, and the result is mostly in-the-moment-very-exciting after-the-moment-forgettable stuff. It is all too crowded, and too many shots from a close range with too many cuts. For e.g. the moment Max almost drops from the truck to Furiosa holding his leg to her being stabbed by somebody who only appears then to somebody smashing him to whatever contains close 12-13 cuts with a camera up-close showing one thing at a time in as many seconds. The fact that Nux (Mr. Hoult) appeared out of nowhere (amidst all the action, I had no idea that Nux was under) to kick Max towards the other truck only registered after 2-3 viewings is somewhat incredible. Intensified continuity, they say, and it spoils a stunt in my book because it contradicts the very nature of it. Action here is merely information we have to merely react to and anticipation (when you read the word, please picture Mr. Ethan Hunt hanging from the ceiling in CIA’s headquarters) is knocked out of the window, and we mostly become dumb terminals.
It also didn’t help that while I found the Road Warrior terrain cinematic, I had a tough time warming up to the monochromatic cartoonish world of Fury Road. There are a few terrific images, like the one below with its brush stroke feel, but it seems to be in spite of the color code and not because of it.
At the same time, we don’t get too many of these nowadays, do we?
Let us also talk about the openings here a bit then. The Road Warrior was apparently inspired by Carl Jung, and amongst other things, the contradiction between the factual familiar black-and-white images – of the Normandy landing, of industries, of warships – and the quasi-folklore tone of the voiceover, speaking of the black fuel and warring tribes, is amusing and even borderline jarring. There is facts, and there is history, there is cause-and-effect, and there is mythologizing, post which history and culture are mashed in together. As I always like to say, Abraham Lincoln is a vampire hunter, while Batman has a statue in Gotham city hall. It all is caused by a thin image of a posturing Max against the sky – as if a distant memory – and what Mr. Miller does with the form, just as with the perspective-action-scene from atop the hill, makes the whole exercise so very interesting to watch. Especially when it cuts to color and the chase begins.
Fast forward to now, and what does Mr. Miller do with his opening voice-over in Fury Road? Cave into the same mythologizing he was studying in The Road Warrior (Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces). The film opens to your standard-issue hero posturing a man like me who has entered his thirties no longer finds exciting or interesting in anyway.
The hero explains that he has been reduced to a single instinct – survival – and I thought all the wasteland/western movies with typical amoral heroes had already taught us that bit of wisdom. They have also taught us that when the survive-mode is part of the set-up, the complete-human-emotion-spectrum-mode will be part of the pay-off. Unfortunately, Fury Road doesn’t disappoint. Which is sad, because watching The Road Warrior I felt that the people who made it were somehow making an attempt to study the culture around them. Fury Road feels as if the film was made to cater to the nerds who grew up on that film. Mr. Hardy is a great actor, and I take a certain amount of pride when I claim that I was a fan even when he wasn’t all that fashionable. But then, his grunts here are nothing more than over-directed posturing pandering to the macho-baiting section of the audience, and which I believe does undermine the film’s apparent claims at rejecting one flavor of patriarchy while promoting another. Those grunts are inconsistent, and for example the supposed “coolness” around his apparent incomprehension of everyone’s questions as he is washing his face with mother’s milk doesn’t seem to sit very well with the person who shows a great deal more awareness in situations when somebody falls under the wheel, or somebody is heartbroken, or somebody is about to die. Thus posturing, which sort of contrasts heavily with Mr. Gibson’s Max, who is mostly efficient in his ways, and the narrative around whom doesn’t involve a whole lot of post-modern digs at his archetypical nature.
Which brings me to the whole feminist angle that is probably Fury Road’s trump card. The only thing worse than referring to women as objects is to refer to them as some kind of benevolent deities only capable of compassion and understanding and nothing else. This kind of reverential outlook is merely another form of objectifying them, demanding of them to fit into a certain mold and not wander too much. There are wombs and seeds and milk and when the milk-mothers finally let the water flow freely, I sincerely hoped that the censor board does attach, at least to the television screenings whenever it comes about, those water conservation advertisement that did the rounds on Doordarshan. As I have said elsewhere, Gillian Flynn and her Amy are precious in a way I have been slow to appreciate. You see, in very simple terms, the id here is represented by the leather-clad gentlemen being controlled by the superego represented by Immortan Joe (Mr. Hugh Keays-Byrne), and it is almost condescending to not even extend that simple enough distinction to the women in the fold. For these women, under the psychology profile, you’ll almost want to write N/A.
By amplifying on the scope, Mr. Miller also seems to run himself into a corner, as far as visual storytelling goes. For e.g. when the left-over henchmen from Lord Hummungus’ team in Road Warrior decide to make a U-turn at the end of it all, there is a sense of humanity and calmness, a sense of optimism amidst all the id-fest, that is somewhat moving. If we were to extend that to history, we would probably find parallels in all the nations that chose to withdraw an invasion (forced penetration, if you will) for they finally found themselves tired of the masculinity-size contest. The U-turn they make is slow and tired, a sense of guilt that attaches itself to probably every such penetration (something for Mr. Kim Ki-duk to explore?). Bookended by dissolves (themselves a transition technique that betrays calmness) this further underlines the formal control on display.
Now, if we were to look at the ending in Fury Road, we get absolutely no such narrative insight or formal treatise that engages the losing party. The henchmen aren’t present, for we focus only on Max and Furiosa, and when we reach Citadel, the behavior from the citizenry at large – the exploited people who tear apart Immortan Joe, and the Half-lives who for some strange reason seem to start chanting Furiosa’s name – just seems to be the script imposing itself upon us just as your average Joe libertarian would impose upon you the idea that democracy is the only way forward. Is the half-lives’ faith so thin so as to not even merit a chant of disillusionment? It is quite simply a mess, and I can’t seem to help but suspect that Mr. Miller’s skill just couldn’t handle the scale of the people and narrative. Either that, or auteurism is overrated.
I will concede here that a part of me is reacting to the reaction the film has received from every which where, and then how can I not. It is not a terrible film and it is not the fourth coming of the Redeemer either. It is just, mostly, uninspired with hardly any bit of filmmaking that is memorable in any way. It has energy sure, and so did Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. And I suppose, we have had enough of that. Let us then bring to our attention the one interesting point of comparison worth having a conversation on: the difference in the titles and their respective designs and fonts. We can rest assured that the forthcoming Star Wars films will contain the exact same design in an attempt to not merely maintain homogeneity but to recreate that same magic, if you will. The titles will be a nod to nostalgia, I suppose. In which case, the title here is interesting which seems to depart generously from its predecessor. That was quintessentially 80s, with its blues and blacks giving the feel of night. This seems to be quintessentially now, with its burning orange. What else? You tell me.