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MAD MAX MOVIES, THE

No other Australian films have influenced world cinema and popular culture as widely and lastingly as George Miller’s Mad Max movies, says award winning film critic Adrian Martin in his new book, The Mad Max Movies; from trashy Italian exploitation films to rock videos, Luc Besson and the hip homage by the Coen brothers. What will Miller do fourth time out, he asks. 

No other Australian films have influenced world cinema and popular culture as widely and lastingly as George Miller’s Mad Max movies—Mad Max, Mad Max 2 (US title The Road Warrior) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. From a horde of trashy Italian exploitation films to the hip homage by the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona; from a low-budget, leftist allegory like Diesel to a grandiose Hollywood epic like Waterworld; from Australian rock videos by John Paul Young, Rose Tattoo and The Angels to the delirious, supernatural or sci-fi fantasy-thrillers of Tsui Hark in Hong Kong, Luc Besson in France and Guillermo De Toro in Mexico; from post-punk fashion to cyberpunk fiction and an impressive, Internet-driven fan base culminating in the ‘Back 2 the Max’ anniversary celebration at Broken Hill in July 2002—the trace of Max is everywhere. 

"an international success story"

No one needs to be told that the Mad Max movies made a major world star of Mel Gibson. But the fame of the series has spread also through many, less stellar names. Some of the key crew principals who worked on the series went on to gainful employment in movies made in awestruck imitation: such as cinematographer David Eggby who, ten years after Mad Max, shot the stylish futuristic co-production Salute of the Jugger (aka The Blood of Heroes) made in Australia, and another ten years later, the Vin Diesel vehicle, Pitch Black (the latter also handpicked Graham ‘Grace’ Walker, art director and production designer for the second and third Mad Max films); or Vernon Wells, one of the series’ many colourful character actors, who became, among other outlandish characters, Plughead in the US low-budget sci-fi Circuitry Man and its sequel. And the Mad Max movies launched the career of not only an important director but also the innovative, collaborative production company of which he is a principal part, Kennedy Miller.

For Australians, the Mad Max movies are an international success story that, at the start at least, gave rise to some queasy feelings. Phillip Adams, a media celebrity who was instrumental in relaunching the Australian film industry in the early ’70s, remarked in a much-cited attack on the inaugural instalment of the series that it was ‘doomed to make a great deal of money, both here and overseas’, while reviewer Sandra Hall ambiguously greeted it as a film that ‘has about it the rare and heady smell of a money-maker’. For such critics, viewing Mad Max must have been akin to a season in hell. Adams determined its content to be instantly ‘infamous’, while for Hall it hadn’t ‘an idea to call its own’. Journalist Martha DuBose, in a report titled ‘Violent, Lacking in Social Value’, put the outrage best: Mad Max was ‘so consistently superficial that one cannot excuse its appeal by ascribing to it higher motives or themes’. 

"a radical flip-flop"

However, by the time that Mad Max 2 seized the cover of the prestigious US magazine Film Comment in July 1982—a space reserved, until then, for the best of American and European cinema—a radical flip-flop had occurred. Some highly cultured Australians were more than willing to redefine their sensibilities to fit the new, internationalist, postmodern mood announced by the film’s awesome commercial triumph. This conversion was most marked in the local art world. Art & Text, the magazine that introduced postmodern theory to Australia in the early ’80s, showcased the proud declaration of internationally acclaimed Australian painter Jenny Watson: ‘The Australian artist of the mid ’80s is a sort of Mad Max character, the nomadic warrior alone with him or herself against the Beckett-like dead landscape in a nuclear, post-Capitalist society’. What’s more, she went on to evoke (with poetic license) the poster image of Mad Max 2—‘where the road warrior stands against the smoke of the destroyed petrol base, a black leather-clad figure against the red, grey and orange of the fire and smoke’—and mused on ‘how easily it could have been painted’ by any member of a generation of cutting-edge artists including herself, Dale Frank, Howard Arkley and Mike Parr.

The dual local and international success of the Mad Max series is of a different order to that enjoyed by Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Piano or even Crocodile Dundee. Miller’s gruesome, frenetic, garish, lurid, sardonic extravaganzas are neither ‘quality’ films nor feel-good, populist comedies. They scarcely fit the standard models of character-driven drama drawn from respectable traditions of theatre and literature—models which still dominate our industry. As they garnered acclaim and even a kind of respectability, their paradoxical, hybrid status as cult objects became more glaringly apparent: they were a rare feat, these movies at once instinctual and meticulously crafted, vulgar and sophisticated, popular and modernist.

Moreover, Miller’s films did not play by the rules implicitly set out in politically informed debates of the 1970s and ’80s over the right and wrong ways to artistically depict our national identity (the kind of debates which have since become drawing-room repartee in the play and film of writer Hannie Rayson’s Hotel Sorrento). The Mad Max movies seemed at once militantly un-Australian—in their embrace of a foreign (even imperialist) cinematic mode—and profoundly, shockingly Australian, not least of all for their rough, larrikin cheekiness.

"a virtually unprecedented blast of powerfully cinematic vitalism"

Although there had been attempts at action filmmaking in Australia (such as Brian Trenchard-Smith’s The Man from Hong Kong) before Mad Max, Miller’s debut feature offered a virtually unprecedented blast of powerfully cinematic vitalism. Movies including Peter Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris, Sandy Harbutt’s Stone and Colin Eggleston’s Long Weekend anticipated some of its elements, but Mad Max, through the force of its inventiveness, instantly raised itself out of the realm of the local and into an international arena. And not just in market terms: Mad Max was the first Australian movie that carried on an effortless dialogue with contemporary filmmakers abroad. But the failure of Australian cinema to really learn from the event that is the Mad Max cycle points to an abiding resistance that inhibits our industry. 
According to film academic Tom O’Regan, Mad Max ‘rudely shook up’ the twin priorities that Australian cinema had established during the ’70s: ocker comedies like The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, and quality films such as My Brilliant Career.

It is often said that Miller’s feature debut introduced genre cinema to Australia, but this is not quite accurate. After all, those successful comedies and costume dramas were perfectly generic, in the sense that every genre is a loose but familiar set of themes, topics, moods and conventions available for recycling or reworking. When commentators invoke Mad Max as an unprecedented exercise in genre filmmaking in Australia, what they are really pointing to is a particular family of genres, those which gather under the umbrella title of exploitation cinema. 

What gave Mad Max its cult status, ‘disreputable popularity’ and subversive edge was the fact that it bypassed the niceties of middlebrow literary and theatrical genres—of the kind that call up from reviewers such as Evan Williams in the broadsheet The Australian praise for ‘a dignified intelligence, a wholesome sobriety of purpose’—and headed straight for the badlands of action, horror and grisly black humour. This is a cinema primarily of sensation rather than character-based drama (the quality option) or laid back comedy of everyday social manners (the ocker option). The failure of our industry to appreciate the very particular aesthetics of exploitation filmmaking has led to the sidelining of several talented Australian directors who work predominantly in action-horror-thriller forms such as Trenchard-Smith, Tim Burstall (Last of the Knucklemen) and Stephen Hopkins (Dangerous Game). 

"a modern hero myth"

The Mad Max series has been discussed in many, starkly different ways: as a modern hero myth that follows the ageless model proposed by Joseph Campbell (a reading encouraged by Miller himself); as an ideologically conservative fantasy of capitalism and gender roles; as an extravagant reflection of the anxieties and desires that inform the everyday lives of Australians; as an essay on the national landscape-tradition, and ‘Australian spatiality’; as a positive utopian reflection on the possibility of community and new social forms. In debates over the film, its cultural location shifts wildly. To the mythomaniacs, Miller’s timeless tale might be set everywhere and nowhere; to postmodernists, it depicts iconic images like ‘the road’ that belong to Western society as a whole, or to what Miller calls a ‘global hyperculture’; to local cultural commentators, it illuminates problems specific to Australian society in the 1970s and ’80s; to Phillip Adams, it was ‘unequivocally an off-shore American movie’.

I want to complement and at times critique these existing approaches by paying close attention to an aspect which is glaringly obvious but often overlooked: that supremely cinematic attribute, action. One has to do more with these movies than simply allude in passing, as most commentators do, to a rash of fast cuts and extreme close-ups, ‘violent movement and a pounding score’. 

Any fan, theorist or filmmaker who makes the effort to really get inside the moment-by-moment mechanics of these films will discover how richly they reward stop-frame analysis. Conversely, the further that discussions of the Mad Max series get from the nitty-gritty fine grain of images, sounds, cuts and formal structures, the less persuasive and convincing their arguments become. The ascription of ‘higher motives and themes’ is indeed a problem when one ends up with a detached, abstract, second order analysis that loses touch not only with what Miller called the ‘kinetic quality of film’, but also the energy and novelty that made these movies such an astonishing event within Australian cinema. 

"My evaluations of these movies changed"

My evaluations of these movies changed as I studied them closely and with fresh eyes. A decade ago, I rated Mad Max 2 as among the finest films made in Australia, and the best in the trio. Its status as an Australian classic, for audiences both locally and internationally, cannot be disputed. But Mad Max 2 seems to me now, on inspection, a flawed film (I don’t mean dated—its dated quality is, at this distance, one of its charms). Its claims to greatness are almost entirely concentrated in its final, fifteen-minute chase sequence. Conversely, I have come to regard Mad Max as the freshest, most challenging and least appreciated entry in the cycle. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, unfortunately, is not in the class of its predecessors; it is an oddity, an experiment which arouses little excitement of any kind in me. It is up to others to defend it at length.

The event which is the Mad Max series is still unfolding. After years of speculation, in December 2002 Miller announced he was going into production on Mad Max 4, aka Fury Road. Principal shooting is to commence late in 2003. Mel Gibson has signed up for a rumoured $25 million. Miller—who relates that the central idea came to him while crossing the road around 1987, and was fleshed out in a ‘hypnagogic state’ on a plane trip circa 1996—has scripted and storyboarded it in collaboration with the British designer and comic book artist, Brendan McCarthy.

The blockbuster production has two crucial technical requirements: advanced special effects, and the right landscape in which to film (primarily Namibia). The contents of the story are being kept strictly under wraps: contradictory rumours abound on fan sites that perhaps blood replaces oil as the crucial stake, that it may centre on Max’s sibling, or that, somehow, the action unfolds two hundred years after that of Beyond Thunderdome. The market has, of course, been primed for the return of ‘the warrior Max’—as he is referred to in the prologue of Mad Max 2—by the blockbuster success of Gladiator. But Miller has to do more, fourth time out, than simply fashion a gladiatorial hero’s tale. He is acutely conscious of the challenge posed by his own artistic ambitions: ‘It would be lovely to be thought of more as a storyteller than as a filmmaker’. 

"the intuitive, organic nature of movie creation"

He has always believed firmly in the intuitive, organic nature of movie creation but, as he becomes venerated at the age of fifty-seven as a figurehead of national culture, he is drawn, ever more self-consciously, to the realm of the mythic, the edifying … and the preachy, as Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome gave notice. 

In the wake of September 11 and Australia’s refugee crisis—not to mention an American-led war on Iraq—will Mad Max 4 be a noble tale of fathers and sons, civic virtues and multicultural community building? What place will there be in it for bloodcurdling violence, sensorial engulfment, burlesque vulgarity and liberating laughter? Let’s hope, in any event, that Miller doesn’t forget his own wise words of nineteen years ago: ‘I think film has become a little too toney’.

The above is an extract from The Mad Max Movies by Adrian Martin, Currency Press & ScreenSound Australia, rrp $14.95 illustrated paperback. Part of Australian Screen Classics; also in the series, The Devil’s Playground by Christos Tsiolkas and Walkabout by Louis Nowra.

Published June 5, 2003 courtesy the publishers.

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Adrian Martin







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