A Very Queer Apocalypse and the Uncanny Feminism of Mad Max (Part Three)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
ROBERT: So, we’ve made it to the final Mad Max post. We need to state from the outset that this post will contain SPOILERS about the fourth film in the series, Mad Max: Fury Road. For anyone that hasn’t seen it, we recommend that you do. It is truly a remarkable spectacle, even for those who don’t typically go for this sort of film. Either of us would probably be willing to loan out our copies. It is also perfectly fine to watch Fury Road even if you haven’t seen the first three films. As we have previously discussed, they are not a series, not sequels of one another. Instead, director George Miller takes each film as an opportunity to rework parts of a semiotic system he keeps tinkering with. Though I am admittedly partial to the second film in the series, I do think that by Miller’s own standards, Fury Road succeeds on just about every level. Not the least of which, the story is told in a frenzied kinetic motion that tells much of the story as a beautifully visual poetry. Jaime, I believe this was your observation at our screening. In this narrative, three themes central to the Mad Max mythos are apparent. First, the apocalypse is a really, really queer place. Second, strong women in the apocalypse are not necessarily representative of feminist ideals. And finally, Miller explores and even attempts to perfect a critique of capitalism—a point I was frankly surprised to find permeates these films so completely.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015): Imperator Furiosa
JAMES: As you pointed out to me in our viewing of this film, it is masterfully shot by cinematographer John Seale (“He came out of retirement to do this movie!” you exclaimed at least once), and I do think visual poetry is the best way to describe it. One of the most interesting things that I have heard about this movie is how important the purely visual element was to its production. In an interview, Seale notes that George Miller’s pitch to him didn’t even involve a script. Rather, Miller presented him with a storyboard—3,500 images covering an entire wall—that Seale meticulously recreated in gorgeous detail. I’ll refrain from nerding out about particular camera techniques, as my point is simply that where and how we are supposed to look is the highest priority in this film. Dialogue is minimal—just enough to convey Max’s and Furiosa’s backstories and the obstacles/goals that will set the vehicles in motion. Our focus is on the landscape and the bodies and machines that move through it. All three are pleasing to look at, of course. But what is more relevant to our reading is how the audience’s visual pleasure is directed. The first three films made something of a fetish object of the components of Max’s vehicle (Max saves himself from enemies who don’t notice the sly flick of his wrist under the car that will detonate the fuel tanks). This time, it is Furiosa and her tricked out truck—the War Rig—we are meant to notice. And despite Max’s presence in the truck, our gaze toward Furiosa is not mediated by him through POV or reaction shots. In another early scene, the women Furiosa is saving (Immortan Joe’s wives) take up binoculars and a telescope to identify the enemies chasing them. The camera, aligned with their POV, shows us that even with their relative physical weakness to Max and Furiosa, and the fact that they are coded as “feminine,” these women are nonetheless capable of looking at, identifying, and hailing their enemies. Is the fact that the typically male gaze (a notion that is by now a little more than 40 years old) is seemingly replaced with a female gaze enough to make Fury Road a “feminist film”? I’ll have more to say about the POV shots and the various types of bodies we are invited to look at next time. For now, I’m going to go re-watch Furiosa fire up the War Rig…
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015): Returning the Gaze
ROBERT: You know, as I was preparing to write this response, I put the movie back in the player and started watching it. I noticed that at the thirty minute mark, the world building is complete, a stunning chase scene has unfolded, the film has set the scenario (we know what is at stake), and we know who all the key players will be … and there hasn’t been one line of establishing dialogue, arguably not a word of exposition has been spoken. One of the key characters is Nux, played by reliably handsome Nicholas Hoult. His performance is not only a departure from the way he typically looks—pretty and in the center of the frame—but he is really quite good in this frenetic role. True, his youthful and remarkable physique manages to be seen in spite of the sickly makeup and prosthetic scars. This is deliberate, of course. As you mentioned, it is worth noting the camera’s gaze. Much like the scantily-clad breeding women, the camera lingers a bit on Nux’s attributes. He is one of the “War Boys” who live “Half Lives.” They are present throughout the Citadel and feature prominently in all the chase and battle scenes. They are not like the henchmen we have seen previously. For one thing, whether in the form of children or old(er) men, they all look alike. They are shirtless, powder white, with shaved heads and blackened around the eyes. They look like skulls. Like the dead, their lives exist apart from reproductive futurity. As such, we assume they are not allowed to reproduce. Obviously, they are coded as queer. So much so, in fact, that once captured, Max becomes a “blood bag” for Nux. An intravenous line is rigged so that Max can nourish Nux. Basically, they share bodily fluids.
This fluid exchange is necessary because the War Boys are an emaciated bunch. Once clued in, we can see that many have tumors assumed to be cancerous. They are sustained by adrenaline and are enthralled with their dear leader, Immortan Joe. However, they are not simply drones. The film makers have done an astonishing job in giving some of these characters unique personalities, especially Nux, who emerges as the human connection to film—at least for me. In regard to the War Boys, I find that I am wrestling with whether or not they are a death cult or a death drive cult. One can certainly enact a psychoanalytic reading of these characters as emblematic of Lee Edelman’s sinthomosexuals. They are not reproductive; they are, in fact, destructive. They live to overcome their slow and starving deaths through glorious explosions and mayhem on the Fury Road. Through these actions, they continually rid the post-apocalyptic wasteland of any potential symbolic order. However, they are their own kind of symbolic order.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015): The War Boy and the Blood Bag
And here, I think, director Miller’s most significant achievement of world building is revealed as it is precisely through this death cult that a critique of capitalism sneaks in through the back door, which might admittedly be ironic considering the estimated hundred and fifty million or so dollars it took to make the film. This death cult serves as a metaphor for late capitalism. The only thing left to produce is destruction. It is their currency. More importantly, they must be seen doing it, must be “witnessed.” They spray their mouths and teeth with chrome paint and call to be witnessed as they hurl their explosive-laden bodies onto enemy vehicles. It is this very merger of Marxist and psychoanalytic themes that makes the apocalypse such a queer place. In fact, Nux and one of the escaped concubines form a bond that would have been depicted as a blossoming romance by a lot of other filmmakers—but not so here. In the end, when Nux meets his destructive destiny, though it is to help the women achieve their victory, it is also to destroy the old guards of capitalism in pursuit. His death is not a tragedy. A budding family is not snuffed out. He is witnessed. Unlike the confusion seen on his face when his arm is around the woman (at one point, he even looks away to Max, whose bodily fluids nourished him), his face reveals a euphoria as his glorious destruction approaches. The death suits him. He fulfilled. It is a very queer moment indeed. But another question I have relates to the woman he saves by this action. Is the world they move on to construct a feminist one?
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015): The Glorious End will be Realized ... and Witnessed
JAMES: The last question you raise is important—and I don’t know that the film provides us with an answer. I think a potential answer comes to us through the notion of the gaze and the related act of “witnessing” that you just pointed to (which I had not thought of before and find fascinating). It strikes me that this apocalypse is devoid of communication technology—and the film makes a point of this when the Wives see a bright spot moving in the night sky and it is explained that this is a satellite that once carried images but no longer does. For anything to be witnessed in this world, there must be a face to face, or body to body, interaction. There is no mass communication, only the unmediated spectacle of daily material, physical life. And perhaps this is part of why the spectacles are so spectacular—spray-painted silver mouths, a guitar player and a wall of speakers attached to the front of the truck rather than a radio, a cascade of water (the ultimate scarce resource in this post-apocalyptic world) to make a show of sovereign power before the subjects in need.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015): Spectacular Witnessing
Spectacular witnessing is the privileged activity of the sovereign (Immortan Joe) and his men until the end, when Nux gives his life for the cause of the resistance and when Max and Furiosa bring back Joe’s dead body for Furiosa to display to the multitude (and yes, I’m using that word for a reason) who applaud her. With the death of Immortan Joe, what are we to assume takes the place of sovereign rule? A new sovereign (Furiosa)? A new order entirely? This confusion is echoed by the final shots of the film, in which the gaze is passed back and forth between Max and Furiosa—Furiosa looking at him as she is lifted into the air above the people, and Max looking back at her as he disappears into the crowd.
This final scene is quite telling in the way it hands off control of the gaze and control of power in a series of moves. Max and Furiosa, in Immortan Joe’s commandeered car, are spotted through the lens of a telescope manned by one of the Death Cult’s young boys. Max is driving, stops, and gets out to reveal Immortan Joe’s body. The crowd sees this and rushes in to tear the body apart. Max then brings out Furiosa, who is met with uproarious cheers of “Furiosa’s back!” The crowd now begins chanting “Lift them up! Lift them up!” and the boys lower the platform to allow Immortan Joe’s car aboard, driven by the one of the older woman from the Vuvalini (of the Clan of Many Mothers—insert Second Wave Feminism here?) and with Joe’s Wives and another member of the Vuvalini standing proudly in back. It takes a team of hundreds to lift the platform with a series of gears and chain pulleys, as member of the crowd also ascend the platform and a group of women release a cascade of water from the pipes. The camera then settles on a close-up of Max’s face surveying the action. We zoom out to see the crowds rushing in, and then come back in to see them lifting their buckets to catch the water. Max has fulfilled his role of delivering the dead sovereign and the new hero; the exchange of power from Joe to Furiosa, and by extension, to the women at her side and the multitude around and beneath her, is complete.
Now begins a second exchange: the exchange of gazes back and forth between Furiosa and Max. First, Furiosa spots Max, who has descended into the throng, and we see, from her POV, Max giving her a nod. From his POV, we see Furiosa nod back. And finally, in an over the shoulder shot from Furiosa’s POV, we watch her watching him go. The last look in this series belongs to us spectators as aligned with Furiosa. In the final shot of the film, we see Furiosa from below still watching, and her face disappearing as platform fills the frame. This final image can’t be from Max’s POV because he is already too far away. The screen then fades to black and this quote appears: “‘Where must we go… / we who wander this wasteland / in search of our better selves?’ from The First History of Man.”
It seems that the final film in the Mad Max series leaves this question open. We have had an exchange of regime from Immortan Joe to Furiosa, an exchange of social organization from the one to the multitude, an exchange of perspective from the male title character to a new female hero, and, finally, an exchange of power from biopower to whatever it is that comes next. So here is where I’d like to get back to the heart of our inquiry: does all this add up to a feminist film? I am very tempted to say yes: the film deconstructs itself in its final shots, placing Furiosa as the central figure with which we are aligned. And while I am slightly irked by the little nod of approval from Max at the end, I read this more as the mutual recognition of a job well done between equals than as an act of condescension. The fact that gender equality is all it takes to make the movie feminist in many people’s eyes is problematic. But I think there is more going on here that we can latch onto. We have somewhat divergent views on this issue, Robert, and I want to invite you now to pull the rug out from under my reading of the film (which is more forgiving than yours).
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015): Furiosa and the Vuvalini (The Many Mothers)
ROBERT: I don’t think Fury Road is a feminist film. Furthermore, I don’t think it is not a feminist film because of some failure. I think it isn’t a feminist film because it doesn’t want to be; it is interested in being something else. I will also argue that it could have been more of a feminist film had it wanted to be. I think I can support this claim. Since we started writing this post, we now know that Fury Road won Academy Awards in six categories. In four of those categories (including the all-important film editing one), golden genital-free statues were handed to women. Though director Miller held great sway in this film, I think such feminist messaging could have been stronger had folks wanted it to be. I think that here, in the fourth film, that Miller has succeeded in putting his semiotic system together. Specifically, we can now recognize that the apocalypse is analogous with late capitalism. As such, the apocalypse is very queer indeed. On the one hand, it is queer in that the butch Furiosa struggles to deliver the feminine and comely breeding stock to the lesbian-encoded biker gang with the help of two (not unattractive) men who spend the first third of the film sharing bodily fluids. It is also queer in that it is “odd” and even “uncanny.” I loved your argument about the collapse of communication networks; I had not thought of that, and I think it is actually key to recognizing how this works. A voiceover at the beginning of the film talks about what happened when “the world fell.” What remains are traces of the old pathways, vestiges of systems that powered immaterial production. For Freud, the uncanny is the return of the repressed, the specter of the trauma we have put away. We follow its retreating echo precisely because we can’t identify the sound. It is the uncanny effect of the queer apocalypse where heroism becomes explosive spectacle. As I wrap this up, I feel like I should be making a stronger or convincing argument. But truth be known, I am still thinking about it. Is it possible that feminism is not recognized in the queer apocalypse because it too “fell” when late capitalism collapsed? The disturbing implication is that feminism has become a commodity that wasted away in the queer apocalypse. The even more disturbing implication is what the current, heated debate about feminism in Fury Road might say about this late hour of capitalism.
JAMES: In my last response to you, I noted that I was using the term “multitude” for a reason, and you probably guessed that I was alluding to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s concept of the multitude in their Empire trilogy. The “multitude” is a slippery term, and H&N define it primarily in the negative: it is not “the people” nor “the mass” nor “the mob”—as all of these terms imply a relation to state power that reduces singularities into state-serving identities (Multitude 99, 100). Rather, the multitude is immanent—it emerges on the territory of Empire, or global capital, making use of the common knowledges, affects, ideas, etc. that develop across that terrain. These resources are “common,” not public: that is, they are owned by no one, available to all (i.e. not owned by the state and dedicated for the use of ‘the people’ as defined by the state’s interest in promoting the life of the population that counts as ‘the people’) (Multitude 147).
The final scenes of Fury Road, in which a huge crowd of people come running toward Furiosa, highlight diversity of age, ability, body type, and race—in fact, the film seems to go out of its way here to cast this crowd as an assemblage of singularities that form a multitude. The first person to spot Max and Furiosa coming home is a man who has lost both of his legs. Next, they are spotted through a telescope by children (young boys from the Death Cult), who then spread the word to their chair-bound elder. And from among the many bodies that rush to greet Max and Furiosa, the camera rests upon a man with facial deformities/injuries (the first person to be lifted up onto the platform with our heroes), and, moments later, on a group of women of color with decidedly non-Hollywood bodies (i.e. not unrealistically thin) who perform the final revolutionary act of setting loose the water. It is clear that we are to understand that this moment is truly the moment of the multitude—not the moment of the people as figured by the sovereign power. Everyone—every single body—now has access to resources. What’s more, they seem equally aware of this newfound power, moving together in a swarm toward the water almost as a single body (astoundingly, no one, to my knowledge, gets trampled in this scene—they move as a school of fish or a flock of birds).
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015): Returning the Last Gaze while Ascending
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015): Returning the Last Gaze while Departing
But this decidedly triumphant moment is at odds, I think, with the expression on Furiosa’s face as she and Max exchange parting glances. Neither Max nor Furiosa share in the jubilation. Why? I think the unease exhibited by Furiosa is summarized in the quote at the end of the film: “Where must we go…?” For surely we must continue to “go”—to change, to invent, to form new assemblages in our movements across the given terrain. There is no such thing as the end of history. Likewise, there is no guarantee that the old issues of hierarchy will not again rear their heads, even if we replace one sovereign with another sovereign, not even if that “sovereign” is, as you point out, a butch who shares power with some straight femmes, second wave lesbian feminists, and queer boys (or, as I would call it, just another Saturday night…). And I think this gets to the heart of your incisive observation that the movie is not feminist precisely because its goal is to do something else entirely.
When you say that “Fury Road is not a feminist film because it doesn’t want to be; it is interested in being something else,” I don’t read that something else as anti-feminist so much as anti- “ist.” Of course, the movie is interested in feminism—there are too many obvious allusions to notions like female empowerment, reproductive rights, disruption of binary gender roles, and the like. But these allusions mainly seemed to serve as fodder for dude-bros angry about having ladies in their action movie and, perhaps, for a few feminists eager to give something in the sad white, hetero, masculinist, capital-worshipping realm of Hollywood movies a stamp of approval. Fury Road then is perhaps better understood not as a feminist film but as a film that happens to have feminism in it. In short, Fury Road takes the not-so-radical position of acknowledging that feminisms exist. What the film is more interested in doing is placing side-by-side a number of modes of being and desiring on this post-apocalyptic plane and seeing just what else might emerge, how it will organize itself, and at what cost. “Where must we go… / we who wander this wasteland / in search of our better selves?” The desperate tone of this final question suggests the ultimate futility of asking it. There is no place but here; there is no self out there waiting to be found. Any desire to map onto Fury Road a final understanding of ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative,’ of ‘feminist’ or ‘anti-feminist’ politics, is indicative of a discomfort with the uncertainty and immanence that the film points us to: we cannot predict the world.
Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New
York: Penguin, 2004.
This is our last Mad Max post. Not only are we guilty of having way too much fun writing these but we are appreciative for all the support and feedback. Thanks to everyone.
Enjoy the Apocalypse...