Wednesday 20 May 2015

Feminism and Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is a paradox. A completely overblown, absurd masterpiece of a paradox, but one that balances two seemingly irreconcilables and fuses them astonishingly successfully. On the one hand its an utterly mindless action romp with scant dialogue, a simple plot, lashings of violence, and spectacular vehicles that make for very big explosions. Yet beneath that is a cunning and penetrating commentary on patriarchal (not male per se) violence and feminist struggle. This is what I'm going to take a look at so yes, this piece is rammed with spoilers.

Okay, where to begin. In one of his many asides, this one on the so-called Asiatic mode of production, Marx noted the despotisms of Asia, particularly in the desert regions, rested on control and maintenance of water supplies. Leaving well alone the controversies that ballooned around Marx's statement, in MMFR this is certainly the case. The War Boys, a cultish group ruled by Immortan Joe, keeps its population in thrall by being the only source of water in a parched desert wasteland. Every so often, Joe turns on the immense pipes beneath his citadel and briefly drenches the hundreds of wretched followers gathered beneath his balcony. In so doing, he chooses to lecture them on resisting one's dependency on water. We are taken into his lair. Joe himself is an albino grotesque who relies on a breathing apparatus and a suit that protects his irritable skin. We also get the measure of the kind of society he runs. Sat tethered to milking machines are a half dozen women, and locked up in a vault are his five brides: women he keeps imprisoned and, it is implied, he repeatedly rapes to yield him a son.

Below that are his caste of war boys who are cursed with a 'half-life'. It seems these fanatical followers (and cannon fodder) have some form of cancer that limits their usefulness, and binds them to the father worship of Joe. Faced with a lingering death as the cancer takes hold, they prefer to carelessly throw their lives away fighting in one of the Citadel's war bands.

Here then we have a patriarchy in a classical sense. This is not the rule of women by men, but of women and men by the father. It is for Joe's satisfaction that nearly all the young men are pressed into soldiery, that he keeps a collection of women as, for want of a better phrase, breeders; and that the destitute subjects of his kingdom are kept under his thumb by his ownership and control of the Citadel's hydraulics. The patriarchy - and the filmmakers would have been hard-pressed to have conceived of one more viscerally ugly and brutal than this - controls property, the means of repression, and the means of reproduction.

Imperator Furiosa is a woman who thinks differently. Abducted as a young child, she grew to be one of Joe's trusted lieutenants. Neither cannon fodder or sex slave, she is charged with the task of driving a tanker to the nearby gas refinery run by one of Joe's cronies. Except she has gone rogue. Under Joe's nose she liberates his "wives" and smuggles them into her truck, where she plans to take them to 'the green place', the idyllic matriarchy she was hailed from. The mayhem starts when Furiosa takes the tanker off road and the war band set off in pursuit.

This is where the titular Max properly enters the frame. Having been captured by the War Boys, he's designated a universal blood bank where transfusions of his blood can keep Joe's warriors going a little longer. With the general alarm he's paired with Nux, a particularly fanatical boy not long for this world, and rides into battle with him mounted as a front piece to his car. Eventually Max escapes and teams up with Furiosa, then the fun really begins.

As an action film it is notable for two things. Unlike previous iterations of Mad Max, this is less Max as lone wolf saviour and more as equal help meet. There are times when he saves the day for the band of women he's escorting, but there are others where they save his skin. Far from being helpless, Furiosa is up to her neck in fighting and action. She's the one with the plan, while Max is a drifter just along for the ride. Theirs is a fully cooperative relationship and it's this mutual interdependence that sees them through to victory.

Finally, Furiosa arrives at her former homeland and is greeted by the half dozen remaining members of her tribe. They are a strictly separatist group with one of the women boasting about how many men's heads she's blown off over the years. But ultimately it's bitter sweet. The green land is a poisoned marsh. She may have reached safety beyond Joe's reach, but it's safety in desolation. After despairing an screaming into the wilderness, her alternative plan is to just ride out into the desert - they have enough supplies for 160 days and hope they'll eventually come across something. Max, however, has an alternative suggestion. If Joe's forces can be trapped in the canyon system they battled through on the way in they can return to the Citadel with its water supply and green of its own. Cue more surreal, sumptuous mayhem.

Needless to say, our heroes kill Joe, defeat his army, and make it back to the Citadel in one piece. This is where it takes an interesting turn. So far it's been warrior feminists and male allies who've defeated the patriarchy. When they reveal Joe's torn body to the crowds the old social structure crumbles, and the wretched of this earth celebrate. From a radical point of view, while welcome it nevertheless underlines the myth of the vanguard who, in Guevarist fashion, enter the city and liberate the huddled masses. It's not an act of self-liberation. However, as our heroes start being elevated up to the higher echelons the water starts flowing again. The women strapped to milking machines have seized the moment to liberate themselves and turn on the taps. Our vanguard, sans Max who melts into the crowd, help people up onto the rising platform. It's no accident that the first helped up is a particularly rough looking bloke. The message here is clear: men have nothing to fear from feminism. My destroying the patriarchy, of the rule of men and women by powerful men, then all are liberated. The relationships and social structures that have twisted society into an apparatus of domination can be recast, laying open the road to a better, freer place for everyone.

Hence rather than MMFR being open to feminist interpretation, it itself is a $150m commentary on feminism, by way of ultra violence, the best guitarist ever, and audacious nonsense. Do go for a showing: it will be the best film you've seen this year.

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