Saturday, October 3, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Here in Canada there's a catchphrase the lotto corporations use at the end of their advertisements in response to gambling addiction. It goes, "Know your limit. Stay within it."

Something similar could be said for filmmaking - as a wisdom for all art, in a sense, yes - but especially film. A cursory reflection would tend to say that "Know your limit. Stay within it" as an artistic principle is tame and cowardly, a kind of paint-by-number tourism. But the converse is the truth. Knowing your limit is to specify your original vision in a manner that brings about a sort of instantaneous galloping, and which frequently contradicts it, so to bring it out in a better way, or to bring it out at all; while "staying within it" requires a lot of faith. Staying within your limit is to cut off all safeguards - all the available phrasing that takes up the unpurified dialect of the tribe as an easy escape hatch - not knowing ultimately if your persistence will be for naught, or not.

It's about time we face a truth about film - one that is full of potential and hope - namely, that since its inception over a hundred years ago, film has been largely adulterated, whored out, woefully neglected and untapped in spite of, and maybe even because of, all the talk about technological innovation; film still remains trundled up with the baggage of theatre, photography, the novel. This is not at all to suggest those art forms are in and of themselves "baggage"; it is only to say that while film is indeed a kind of synthesis of many art forms, it has for long remained falsely a synthesis in terms of "a production". And worse, a moneyed production. Or worse yet, an anti-moneyed production in which pretensions of the art house gin up so-called "poetic cinema". The number of films that are actually true to the nature of film - that is to say, in which the essence of film commands all the other aspects involved and not vice versa - are few and far between. But to that short and wonderful list we can at least add George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road.

That short and wonderful list is not short in and of itself. It is short in comparison to the number of films in existence, which would include the number of films that are commonly taken for examples of high achievement. Nor is this to say that films in the short and wonderful list exist as perfections. There is no such thing. The point is not that we haven't perfected film, but that we haven't really even begun to realize its potential - its essence. Take the words of Akira Kurosawa near the end of his life, after having made 28 films:

Film is not a living photograph. It is not a novel or a photograph or even a script that's been "brought to life". It is not filmed theatre. Most certainly film is not - and I know people will disagree with me here - most definitely not "telling stories with pictures". Film has an essence of its own; it is one that is startlingly different, heightened, sophisticated in the best sense, and it has to do with the representation of time - or to be more specific: the representation of time within time.

Take the time to understand that. We are not talking about making a visual representation of time, like telling the story of time; it is not making visual a story with the added caveat of the four seasons of Vivaldi - though the story of the film may indeed be about time. We are not talking about the running time or the running length of the film. We are talking about the immediate medium itself. In making a film, one is working with the representation of time as the medium.

The films of Stanley Kubrick, for instance, are to me largely examples of a persistently botched understanding of film. He was always trying to permafreeze his conceptions with the running time of the film, into the same clinching as the photograph. He started out as photographer and I regard it as being a serious detriment to his films. It is also one of the reasons why his films make such great coffee table books.

With his conceptions merely applied and never contradicted, and therefore never really penetrated, his films are self-conscious and ostentatious. Curiously vacuous, they leave one with the sense of a kind of cerebral cereal.

A film reveals itself after it is finished. It's a funny thing. Film's power has a kind of retrospective influx. A re-entrance into time by which we consider the representation of time in the film we have watched.

After watching Mad Max: Fury Road I was left with a feeling similar to that feeling I had after watching Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, only without the elation of release. This film really ramps you up. I wanted to watch it again right away.

George Miller has a genius for indicating depth by truncation. Like J.R.R. Tolkien, he doesn't do "world-building". He doesn't need to. All of that is dileneated along a very specific line, so limited as to be a sideline, which is the story. We understand within the progression of the film the underlying depths and stories and characters in a very habitable way, far more than some sloggy-assed "introduction" would have done.

A great film is always, to the last frame, introduction. I loved how we barely even see the face of "Max" in this film until about 30 minutes in, for the first half hour he is bound up like a hood ornament on the front of one of the vehicles chasing after Furiosa. Or any of the women from the harem. Some will call this the "slow release of information". But it is simply being true to the nature of film.

Some complain about the story - that there is none; or we don't get to know anything about the protagonists - their stories and so forth. This criticism is ridiculous. I don't see that. I see the same concreteness that informed the films, for instance, of Robert Bresson. With her shaved head, few words, determination and truck-driving, Furiosa is a hundred times more real than Will Smith's character in I Am Legend, for example. I want to say: more real because more memorable.

I loved the use of telescopes and binoculars to bridge distances, working as catalysts to move the groupings in the story forward. I loved the visual refrains, like one of the "half-life" men who keeps appearing at the driver side window on Furiosa's truck to ask what the plans are. I loved the smooth setting up of multiple scenarios within scenarios that escalates the tension and lifts you up into that heightened state of pure viewing. Peter Jackson, post-Fellowship of the Ring, attempts this, but the result is only a kind of tone-deaf, hackneyed hypnotism. George Miller is clear and austere, but with an exponential and wonderful craziness. Mad Max: Fury Road is just all kinds of delisioso (thanks Jim Gaffigan!).

I was not surprised to read that the film was written comic book style - that is, through thousands of storyboards. Akira Kurosawa did the same, by his own hand, and often on set, like a child with a paint box. It was a way of making his idea specific, not at all to do with making an image for the set people to copy. This method of his is one of the reasons why Kurosawa's films have that presence, that habitable feeling. Nor did he write a script in the "traditional" way.

There's a beautiful thing to "google" by the way: the paintings/storyboards of Akira Kurosawa. Interestingly, I find his paintings have something of the same searing, seeing quality that Max Beckmann's paintings have.

Something that Kurosawa said about painting his images:

“I cannot help but be fascinated by the fact that when I tried to paint well, I could only produce mediocre pictures. But when I concentrated on delineating the ideas for my films, I unconsciously produced works that people find interesting."

That "delineating the idea" is what so many films are scared of. Many want to retain the idea at the cost of sacrificing all delineation. I'm grateful that George Miller wants to play all day.

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