So You’ve Become Addicted To Mad Max

Now you’ve done it. You’ve ignored Immortan Joe’s advice to not become addicted to things, because they will take hold of you and you will begin to resent their absence.

You’ve gone and gotten addicted to the best-crafted film of the last ever. It’s understandable: Mad Max: Fury Road is amazing and, like Immortan Joe’s brand, sears itself onto your brain. While you sit through mediocre action movies, and a car or something flips after a sad excuse for a stunt, Coma the Doof Warrior will continue to shred and you may be tempted to be witnessed to the gates of Valhalla, where you will ride shiny and chrome for all eternity.

But fret not, friends, for there are things you can do to tide yourself over to the home video release—and this thing has to have a Steelbox edition coming out; otherwise, what the hell is the point of that stuff?

The first thing you can do, obviously, is to keep seeing the movie in theaters. To continue attempting to slam it directly into your eyes as it’s projected onto the big screen and, at the end of the run, when it’s just you and the other psychos who have seen the movie ten times, you will know that you have done all that you can in order to get the most out of the theatrical run.

Truly, that’s not the worst thing you could do with your money. It’s surely better than going thrift shopping, or buying ironic clothes, or whatever it is people do with the money when they’re not spending it on going to see Mad Max: Fury Road. However, is that the best thing you can do? What about other options?

Well, honestly, and I’m dropping some of the fever-pitch chrome-infused fanaticism, here: You should see at least Mad Max and The Road Warrior. Why? Surely they’re just disappointing. Surely they can’t explore the wastelands via the lens of a two-hour chase sequence interspersed with fluid characterization so well done that the engines barely have time to cool off. Well, you’d be right; they’re not high-octane crazy blood, but they are still fantastic movies in their own right. Let’s look at Mad Max.

Mad Max starts “a few years from now,” when society is perilously close to the edge of falling completely away from civilization. Max is a cop with the Main Force Patrol, an organization that may not be fully official, and whose officers are nearly as bloodthirsty and lawless as the bikers and murderers they hunt. But hey, they have the decency to drive brightly-colored cars and wear a uniform of bitchin leather jackets.

The movie opens with an intense chase scene that foreshadows Max’s end-movie tipping point as the MFP chases a criminal calling himself the Night Rider. As the Night Rider shakes off MFP pursuers, it looks like he’s going to get away, but, of course, Max chases him down and just with his sheer driving skill and with the help of his more-souped up Interceptor, literally drives the Night Rider insane, winding up with the villain dying in a car wreck.

After this, and before the movie turns into a Peckinpah Western, we get glimpses of the world at large. Max and his wife watch the news, with its just-out-of-clear-earshot reports of the world falling down a spiral of war and scarce resources, and you can see their hopes of a stable life on the coast of Australia start to fade in front of their eyes while they recline next to their toddler’s crib.

The next day, as a biker gang led by a man named Toecutter comes into town and the head of the Main Force Patrol gives Max and his partner, Goose—you probably know what’s going to happen to Goose, with that name—the task of taking down the gang. After a few tense scenes, Max resigns the force, the chief gives him the typical speech about how he’s a damn good cop and the people need him, and Max ends up going on holiday to take some time to think. He takes his family, and this is when the movie begins to become a combination of Western and thriller.

I’m not going to spoil it, but, generally speaking, Mad Max is George Miller working within the confines of a much smaller budget than his later Max films. He still has the same pacing, eye for detail, and sense of practical effects and what they mean for characters, but you see the action on a much smaller scale. Unlike Beyond Thunderdome or Fury Road, Mad Max focuses on a man and his family. The outside world, here, is not a character, but something that Max and fam need to avoid if they want to survive and keep some semblance of a normal lifestyle, even when the lawlessness of the outside world is roaring down on them in choppers. With Mad Max, we see Miller working with something approaching realism and sanity. Everyone in the world has not yet gone crazy, and it’s not until the final scenes, when Max rides off into a vague and threatening Restricted Area that the trappings of civilization are shed behind him.

Is it worth a watch? Hell yeah. Just don’t go into it expecting Fury Road. Go into it expecting Peckinpah meets Easy Rider and a splash of Dirty Harry and you’ll be happy.

Now, Road Warrior is a different story. Where Mad Max‘s strength is the intensity built up in honed-in sequences and focus on characters’ relationships, Road Warrior turns its focus to Max’s place in a post-apocalyptic world, the setting that would become synonymous with the Max franchise.

Now, here, I won’t go into a movie breakdown like I did with Mad Max. Road Warrior is the more well-known of the two, having started with good press, and not suffering from a bizarre production choice of dubbing over the original actors with American voice actors. (That was done in a time when studios were a little more blatant with their disregard for audiences’ intelligences.) It’s the movie that set the tone for the following films in the series, and it’s set up to be less about Max than it is the people Max runs into. If you haven’t seen the movie, then it’s best to go into it with a purely clean slate. It’s weird. It’s brilliantly shot. The plot is so minimally done, but rich, that you will cheat yourself by reading a synopsis before watching it—unlike Mad Max, which requires a bit of an explanation of what it’s all about, the themes it works with, and the cinematic vocabulary it has at its heart.

What I’m going to talk about, though, is that this is where Miller starts really playing with the ideas he started presenting in Mad Max. Dystopias find their meat in defining the world as it exists after a collapse, and with Road Warrior, we find that definition fully fleshed out. Where its predecessor was focused on exploring how a normal man would try to survive in a world on the brink, the second film in the series works with that man’s place in a world he’s not fully a part of. It’s the theme that’s prevalent in Thunderdome and Fury Road: Max is less the central character and more the audience stand-in. In Road Warrior, Max does not set out to be the hero of the movie; he’s just there for the gasoline. We’re there for the thrills.

The action in this movie is pared down from what we’re used to, especially in Fury Road. While Miller had a much bigger budget than the first film (Road Warrior: $4m AUD vs Mad Max: $400k AUD), there’s not a lot of explosions outside of the end of the film—and while that final chase scene is great and a thoroughly good precedent for Fury Road (not to mention interesting when you look at the implications it presents WHICH WE WILL!), it’s not quite the star. In my opinion, the star of Road Warrior is the world. It’s like a Bethesda game, for my gaming friends: You don’t go into an Elder Scrolls property for the overarching story, you go into it to learn about a new province. Much the same way, you go into a Mad Max movie to see how different groups have generated a society in this post-society world.

And, with that in mind, the gyrocopters and steel boomerangs are just flavors for the world that Miller created. Everything on the screen serves the purpose of finding out about the world, and it’s for that reason that, of the Mel Gibson trilogy, Road Warrior is definitely the most solid of the three.

Thunderdome is a divisive beast. It… well. It’s Thunderdome. Just… yeah.


Now that you’ve gone and watched all three of the original movies, let’s discuss narrative framing! That’s right! We’re now going to talk about a plotting device that you normally see discussed in depth in writing workshops and literature classes. However, never fear, because I’m writing this while in the office, and because they’re still in Nashville, I don’t have access to all my super smart books that talk about theory. Instead, for those of you who don’t know, narrative framing refers to stories that are framed by another narrative. A good example of this is The Princess Bride, which is a story told by a grandfather to his grandson.

But what does that have to do with Mad Max? Well, the Internet theorymill got going and pointed out that, since the second movie is framed by former Feral Child, is it not possible that Max is a folk hero of the wastes? Instead of Road Warrior and Thunderdome—and, possibly, Fury Road—being literal depictions of the adventures of Max, they’re stories told by, well, storytellers. The idea going that down the line, the stories about a guy who’s been roaming the wastes after the fall of society probably did some cool stuff for people, but in the great game of oral telephone that followed, Max is now hanging on to a souped-up dragster that’s hurtling into a wall of tornadoes, dust, and lightning.

Aside from what we see in Road Warrior, there’s some “textual” evidence to back this up. All of the movies end in roughly the same way. After eliminating the threat to a community, Max rejects joining a stable society, knowing that, on losing his wife and son, there’s no place for him in the world. (In Mad Max, the film ends with the death of Toecutter and Max’s self-exile to the Restricted Area; in Road Warrior, Max defeats Humungous and does not join the community on their journey to the coast; in Thunderdome, he helps the kids escape the more evil demons of Bartertown; in Fury Road, he chooses to leave the Citadel.) It’s a good way to end the story, very knight errant-y of Max to be a roaming do-gooder, a Road Warrior looking for a righteous cause, because without that cause, he has no reason to be.

Further, we have strong hints that each of the movies after the first one have been framed by some outside narrator. In the second one, it’s the former Feral Child; in the third, it’s probably one of the kids he helped; in Fury Road, it’s The First History Man, who only appears in on-screen text.

Does any of this have a strong effect on the movies? No, not really; but it is a pretty neat lens through which to watch the movies—or at least just Fury Road, because let’s face it: You’re going to see that movie again. It’s a level of meta that, usually, only the academics in their tower get to play around with while reading Borges or, I don’t know, Danielewski.

On David Byrne’s Surprising Comments on Classical Music

I’m finally finishing How Music Works by David Byrne. It’s a great book – the time it took for me to almost be done with it has nothing to do with its quality, and everything to do with the fact that I’m afraid of book-commitment. Indeed, having How Music Works waiting there for me while I’m in the depths of some <immortanJoe>mediocre</immortanJoe> genre fiction book is a comfort that I’m sure I’ll soon miss. That said, I got to a point in it last night where I went, “Now you’ve done it, David Byrne. Now you’ve made me want to go and blog about this.”

The point, you’ll not be surprised to hear, came when Byrne was discussing classical music vs. pop music. Specifically, he was talking about the perception and function of high art vs art in pop culture. (Or, as the kids put it, “pop art.”) There’s a whole hell of a lot to say about that “debate,” and Byrne gives short shrift to it. Now, admittedly, it’s a book in and of itself, and Byrne doesn’t have the space to go into it in a book that’s ostensibly about the business of music, as well as how music itself functions as social glue and as a phenomena in our daily lives. And further, Byrne is very straightforward throughout his book about his biases toward pop music in general, and against classical or “high-art” music in general.

There are a couple of points that set me off in his chapter, “Amateurs.” The first one is that “The dead guys won’t write more symphonies” (p. 298) and the second is in reference to the arts funding that symphony halls and art houses receive but that pop music venues do not – “Why not invest in the future of music, instead of building fortresses to preserve its past?” (p. 282)

It’s almost a platitude to say that Beethoven is dead, so he won’t be writing more symphonies. Of course not – not until the glorious day that we can clone him, and install him as Minister of Kultur in my Iron Fist government, of course. However, as I’ve written about before, it’s not like you can’t get anything important out of a dead guy. The works that, in Byrne’s book’s examples, the Koch brothers and the capitalist vultures prop up as a means to assuage their egos, can mean a whole hell of a lot to people – and yes, symphony halls are costly as hell to maintain, but they’re also where symphonies sound best live. You can hear a pops concert in a park, but you miss a lot of the textures of the music.

Let’s talk about symphony halls for a moment, shall we? They’re stuffy, and if you go there and you’re 30 or below, you’ll be the youngest person there by at least 30 years. They’re not a little intimidating at first glance, and they’re not in any way like your local venue. They are, some would argue, relics of a long-gone past, and relics that should be swept away if they can’t hold their own as a business. (Not that Byrne says that, though he does come damn close to it.) However, symphony halls and opera houses are a certain style of architecture that you don’t see anymore: Ornate. They stand as a reminder of history and the human need to embellish, and as a counter to glass-faced condos, new-retro buildings, and whatever horrible styles the hipsters at architecture firms are coming up with next. I’d say that they’re visual art as much as they are a place to hear music, and yes, the arts need public funding – as well as whatever cash the ravenous hordes of capitalists or whoever want to throw at them. Why? Because we live in a society that doesn’t value its works, only profit and results. And yes, we’ve been that way for centuries, I know, but that doesn’t change the fact that, more than anything else, the arts keep us, as a society human. Whether or not the billionaire philanthropists are thinking about that or their egos, I don’t know, but I do think this is an example of shutting up and taking money when it’s offered.

As for stuffiness and intimidating, as someone who comes from a family of steel salesmen, restaurant servers, and, yes, lawyers, I think that wears off the second time you go into a building. Going to the symphony hall is like like going to a museum. If you’re not used to it, and you don’t know that, no, it’s not cool to touch a 300 year-old artwork, then you’ll be a bit weirded out by the security guards and the vastly different atmosphere. But once you’ve gone a few times, know how they work, they become a lot more welcoming. The empty space becomes room to wander around, to look at pieces from different perspectives. From personal experience, no one in my family aside from my brother was really into classical music, despite the fact that, somewhere along the line, one of the Simons was a concert violinist in Austin, Texas. My dad took me to art museums, and made them less intimidating by interacting with the art in the form of mocking the paintings in a Cockney accent. It drew weird looks, but it showed me that places of “high art” are not places to be feared.

Same with the symphony halls: Once you’re used to the rows of seating and the appearance that you’re in a cathedral from the year 1700, you realize that it’s just another venue. One that you probably shouldn’t form a circle pit in, but just another venue regardless. They are, I maintain, intimidating only if you let them be, and only if you buy into the common line that these places are only for the upper crust.

“But what about the dressing up?” some will ask. Well, yeah, you should probably dress up. That comes with the territory. It’s like dressing up for church or services. You show respect by not showing up dressing like an asshole. It may be a bit classist, but hey, nothing’s perfect.

Next, let’s look at the lazy “Dead guys won’t write more symphonies” line. Well, no. Of course they won’t. But guess what: John Lennon and BB King aren’t going to be writing any more songs, either. That’s what happens when you die: You stop working. It’s the ultimate retirement! But let’s not even get into the implication that “the dead guys” have works that aren’t important because they’re dead. Instead, let’s consider the fact that, yeah, at this very moment, there are composers coming out with new work. New work that doesn’t fit the mold of the Romantic composers! The classical scene isn’t dead by any means, it just works wildly differently.

As Byrne admits in the book, by quoting Alex Ross, who’s a much better source to learn about classical music from, symphony programmers are constantly trying to find ways to draw people into the halls – or bring events to the public. It’s a singular difficulty that they face, because most of the people they’re trying to court don’t know that they already know a great many Important Works. How do they know these Works? By being consumers of media, of course. You hear snatches of Gershwin, Wagner, Mahler, Beethoven, and Glass in everything ranging from airline commercials to the Lone Ranger theme to the Interstellar soundtrack. (That last example is more an example of being heavily influenced by Philip Glass, from the minimal background of the sonic backdrop to the repetitive tones going on through the piano to the percussion – best listened to at high volume and with stupid high quality headphones.) The best programmers know that the way they reach people is through pops concerts, held on lovely days in public parks. There, conductors have a bit of exposition about pieces before the orchestra plays them, and the audience learns something about what they’re going to hear.

And I think that’s at the crux of the matter. To not feel intimidated by classical music, you have to learn a bit about how it works. Whether that’s done through school education or by watching something like Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts doesn’t matter – but in order to really get what’s going on, you have to know the context – which Byrne also notes is important for pop music. I don’t think that’s oppressive, or exclusionary, or whatever. You just have to learn. Classical engages a different part of the body than pop music.Though there’s plenty of opportunity to dance to classical music (waltzes, anyone?), those dances are a bit different than you’ll experience if you go to the Goodfoot in Portland.

Byrne isn’t a classical music fan. He’s a pop guy, he’s a rock guy, he’s a funk guy. I won’t comment about pop or funk, because those are definitely not my purview. Byrne is, however, a really smart guy, and seeing him handwave away Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart because they’re dead and you can’t dance to them is disappointing to an extreme. The arguments he uses are lazy and they ignore a vast swath of compositions that are intense as hell simply because they’re – presumably – not as well known as Figaro, or Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, or Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. How Music Works is a fantastic book to learn about pop music, or rock, or even get a good idea about the way tech and buildings change the way music works, but it’s not a great place to expand your horizons about the vibrant realm of classical music.