Stanza and deliver – the filmic poetry of Mad Max: Fury Road

Fury Road revisits the originality of Australian New Wave film-making by representing absurd, new and null cultural signs. @Warner Bros

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Given its layered mise en scène and performative script, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road deserves to be read as a stirring and provocative poem.

Academic Bill R Scalia writes in Toward a Semiotic of Poetry and Film (2012), that some film images:

signify through an aesthetic more closely aligned with poetry (discovered meaning) than theory (made meaning).

He later contends that:

the pacing of a film, dictated usually by shot/reverse shot patterns, scene and/or sequence length, and camera movement, gives film an aesthetic whole that resembles the rhythmic and imagistic sense of poetry. It may, then, be of some value to consider scenes and sequences as roughly analogous to the poetic line or stanza.

And so, to Fury Road …

Scene as stanza

For those who have yet to see it, the film begins some years after civilisation’s collapse. Survivors of the apocalypse are enslaved inside a desert fortress by a tyrant, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) mounts an escape with Joe’s five wives, known simply as the Wives, and – through necessity – forms an alliance with Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy).

Cue armoured trucks, hacked monster vehicles and motorbikes and a deadly, relentless chase through an area known as the Wasteland.

Buried underneath the Nux Car is a turbo-charged ‘34 Chevrolet huffing nitrous oxide. © Warner Bros. Pictures and © Roadshow Films

In one memorable sequence, Furiosa’s rig is bogged in wet sand. Its motley crew has three bullets with which to hold back one of the many people hell-bent on their destruction, the vengeful Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter).

Furiosa attends to the vehicle and Max takes her gun.

After he misses twice, however, we see her climb down from the rig. She approaches Max. Max anticipates her with an expression both of resignation and trust. He loyally remains in place as she crouches behind him.

Miller shows us their symbiosis in profile, as Furiosa gently settles the gun onto Max’s shoulder and takes perfect aim. It is perhaps the characters’ most intimate encounter in the film, told through the actors’ astute physical communication and the gradual pace of its editing.

Diversion into meaning

Scalia suggests that the “language” of cinema may be understood poetically, as an unsteady relationship “between image and (verbal) language”:

Poetic language, in this sense, reawakens our engagement with the world by diverting our expectations of the normative understanding of the sign. We expect a sign to have a certain discursive identification and function (as we certainly encounter normal experience more in terms of discursive prose than poetic language); poetic language radically realigns the sign.

The poetic “sign”, in this case, misaligns signifier and signified, and thus creates either a new sign, an absurd (or surreal) sign, or renders the sign as null.

In cinema, this might mean that what we are shown (visually) and what is said (verbally) are at odds or, at least, don’t conform to the conventional or conditioned meanings denoted by those images or words. This is exciting aesthetically and narratively because it invites us to be active viewers and also complicates a film’s meanings – avoiding generic or single conclusions.

It’s possible that Fury Road produces new, absurd and null signs. Ari Mattes suggests in his article, Frenzy on Fury Road: Mad Max faces a post-digital apocalypse, that, while each previous Mad Max film “revisits and critiques” the one before, Fury Road fails to offer a development of the Mad Max story. I believe, however, that it offers a number of poetic complications of the earlier films’ themes.

Fury Road collages iconography from films about patriarchal power structures and dysfunctional homo-social relationships. Slit’s (Josh Helman) wonky, slashed smile is unmistakably close to Heath Ledger’s appearance as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) (Ledger was slated early on to play Max).

Miller speeds up short sections of action (a comic strip effect), reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996). Nerds will be delighted by the uttering of “smeg”, made famous by the TV series Red Dwarf; and Miller also nods to Apocalypse Now as Wagnerian strains play over chopping engines and automatic gunfire.

Immortan Joe. © Warner Bros. Pictures and © Roadshow Films

These pleasurable intertextual allusions enrich the text of the film by signifying a certain cultural universe in the film. Their associations with narratives about masculine community and destruction, however, are productively misaligned with the presence and behaviour of the film’s much-discussed female hero.

Alyssa Rosenberg noted recently in the Washington Post:

Watching “Mad Max: Fury Road” feels a lot like observing contemporary feminist debates in particular and many of our debates about cultural politics in general. Both movie and movement are full of arresting images, but as the lens shifts from one to the next, it’s difficult to discern a unifying theory holding them all together.

Fury Road answers to a poetic reading, that is, not through a theoretical analysis of its signification but through attention to affect and allusive meaning-making as an “aesthetic whole”. New visual signifiers are bolted on to (or replace) old ones, and verbal signification makes for an absurdly hybrid onscreen world.

Miller uses the storied images and effects mentioned above to establish “normative” narrative expectations of adventure action. The jolt or misalignment comes with Furiosa’s sudden “detour” from some of the usual signifiers that “drive” the genre. Not only is the hero female, but Miller also re-routes the generic monomythic plot by setting the hero on her mission before we even meet her.

In Joseph Campbell’s terminology, Furiosa calls herself to adventure. This allows unusual dynamics of language and behaviour of mateship between she and Max.

Fury Road brings equal potency to its minimal dialogue as it does to the rhythm and signs of the action. We hear more of the relict signifiers of Australian lower-middle class culture that characterise the first three films (“Fang it!”; the Ford “Falcon”; “Doof”; “Dag”; the enactment of “chrome” as a verb; and even “schlanger”, which doesn’t have an exclusively local history that I’m aware of but reminds me of other colourful playground abuse – “schlong”, “wanger”, “wanker”, etc.)

This vernacular is an absurd poetry in itself; but the film heightens its novelty by setting it against classical, high-culture modes.

The warrior-elite War Boys, servants to the living god Immortan Joe, speak as a chorus, self-narrating their ritualistic activity even though their hooting and howling resembles a footy crowd: “V8! V8! V8!”

The War Boys. © Warner Bros. Pictures and © Roadshow Films

Indeed, the War Boys spend the entire film shouting over the top of engines, and while this means we miss some of their more lyrically inventive turns of phrase (“Fukushima Kamakrazee War Boys!”), it’s an important reality of the chorus’s identity.

The dialogue of the Wives, often in disagreement, is more like a scripted recitative libretto of exclaiming, cursing and accusing. The Bullet Farmer, on the other hand, is given arias that comment archly on the action – “All this for a family squabble” – and, finally, soar into expressive passage of mindless grandiosity:

I am the scales of justice! Conductor of the choir of death!

HuffPost writer Michael Darer suggests the film is “symphonic in its chaos”. Language in Fury Road inhabits a wild collection of registers, creating an operatic mode of non-naturalism that shows the influence of Luhrmann as well as Miller’s roots in the campness of Ozploitation cinema style.

Its affects of “misalignment” prompt us to imagine an original and tense cultural universe whose reality can morph and multiply.

Affect over analysis

Fury Road revisits the originality of Australian New Wave film-making by representing absurd, new and null cultural signs – this time for the multiplex cinema.

© Warner Bros. Pictures and © Roadshow Films

I’m particularly interested in a series of race signs that lie within the film’s poetic assemblage.

Noah Berlatsky argued in The Guardian that the lack of people of colour in Fury Road undercuts its feminist or progressive messages.

But to borrow Richard Dyer’s language of racial representation, this film makes us see whiteness and recognise its signs rather than enjoying its invisibility.

Indeed, the characters whose behaviour the film associates with whiteness are literally marked with the colour - painted white. As Alexandra Heller-Nicholas of Overland sharply observes:

its chroming, gullible ‘war boys’ are a grotesque caricature of what the cynical corporate-branding excesses surrounding the recent Gallipoli commemoration appear to suggest is the vision corporate Australia has of its primary demographic: a mass-boganification of the Australian public. Miller throws it back in their faces with the same ugly, shit-spattered aesthetic such cynicism deserves.

In contrast, Furiosa applies black warpaint (grease-paint): its colour signifies her difference from the dominant (white) culture. Is she reclaiming that difference – a correlative to the Jewish hero Shoshana’s use of paint to mark herself as a Nazi-killer in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds(2009) – re-purposing the normative signifier of race difference by marking herself with it?

© Warner Bros. Pictures and © Roadshow Films

Furiosa’s self-description of being “stolen” as a child rings loudly with historical implications of Aboriginal suffering. Of all the verbs that might have been used by the character, Miller directs Theron’s delivery of this one in a way that isolates and emphasises its significance.

Its poignancy encourages us to recognise a profusion of other allusions to Aboriginality in the film. When Furiosa arrives at the Vuvalini hideout, she announces herself as having an initiate mother and belonging to the clan of the Swaddle Dog.

These are crude and fictive allusions to Indigenous kinship, but undoubtedly deliberate ones. Are they in some way linked to an image much earlier in the film, when Max is haunted by an Aboriginal man telling him, “You let us die”?

Do these allusions also call up meaning from the earlier Mad Max films? In Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), Miller carefully constructs the identity of the cargo cult that Max finds in the desert. This family or clan is bound by kinship, not of blood but of a shared mythic reality.

Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Children of the lost tribe.

Specifically, they tell what resemble Indigenous first-contact stories to explain the appearance of Max and then, at the film’s end, to incorporate their encounter with him into a new legend.

Like the word “stolen”, it’s hard as an Australian viewer not to recognise this as a fictional appropriation of historical signifiers. Yolngu encounters with Macassan traders, coastal contact with European explorers and invaders, Asian migrants in Broome and the mining technology of the Pilbara, have all been documented and explained in Indigenous art forms and oral histories.

As with his treatment of other signs, Miller’s films complicate these ones so that they proliferate new meanings for viewers to explore. In Fury Road, Miller’s references to Indigenous identity and history may not signify Furiosa as racially Aboriginal. Note that her initiate mother is named Katie Concannon, an unmistakably Irish moniker.

Nor may the “us” referred to by the Aboriginal “ghost” be necessarily identified as such; he appears to Max alongside a host of diverse accusers. Rather, we might consider how the film’s poetic assemblage of visual and verbal signifiers elicits emotional affects and narrative possibilities to do with Miller’s representation of a post-Australian settlement.

Mad Max (1979). Death of Max’s wife and child.

Throughout the Mad Max series the world is killed over and over. This is done by different parties through attacks on different organs – ecology, human morality, economy, civil rights – but the first violence is done to Max’s world: the murder of his family in the original Mad Max (1979).

That event sets up a classic motive for retribution. Fury Road, however, takes us even closer than the previous films to a place defined by dehumanised culture and decimated kinship.

Over and over, Miller plays with action, iconography and dialogue to say, this place is and is not Australia; is and is not our cultural reality. Associating Furiosa with signifiers of both Indigenous and settler cultures, the film deepens the meaning of her mission to reclaim her identity. It can represent a social motivation as well as a personal one.

This is especially potent when set against Miller’s “grotesque caricature” of jingoistic nationalism. The film’s conclusion of the mission is suggestive, though not conclusive. If we understand that Furiosa and her salvaged clan are the victors of this imaginary post-Australia, then we might believe that history belongs to them. The very last words of the film, then, look forward to that history:

Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves. – The First History Man

The First History Man is a storyteller and history-keeper in the future. As the first, his words are responsible for recording experience lost, “stolen”, or beginning: a narrative of cultural memory and continuity.

Alternate tags decorate Fury Road’s promotional posters: “The Future Belongs to the Mad”, and “What a Lovely Day”. With its bold song to what is and what might be, perhaps Miller’s film-poem inhabits both philosophies.