The quality of work opportunities for African-American actors in Hollywood during the 1950s was simply not there. Outside of the major studios, an industry for race films – a general term for films produced from the silent era into the early 1950s that contained all-black casts and crew (other non-white races had “race films”, but the term is generally understood as predominantly black) – thrived thanks to audiences that wanted to see people who resembled themselves onscreen. These independent studios that released race films, however, were prone to financial woes and institutional disadvantages. After World War II, the major studios began to notice the draw of these films and began casting African-American stars as first- or second-billed stars in non-musical movies (musicals with all-black casts were considered decently marketable, although with this came certain stereotypes).
Most of these early major Hollywood studio attempts to have black actors in these significant parts dealt with race relations – some of these films, like 1950′s No Way Out (Sidney Poitier’s feature film debut), looked at prejudice and racial violence in ways radical even now. So when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) decided to adapt Mary Elizabeth Vroman’s 1951 short story, “See How They Run”, MGM set into motion a film that, by its very modesty, is as radical as the likes of No Way Out. Directed by Gerald Mayer (the nephew of MGM head Louis B. Mayer), Bright Road is completely absent of racial conflict; its story set in a small, racially homogeneous neighborhood and schoolhouse in a pre-Brown v. Board America. Made for peanuts and allocated a shooting schedule of nineteen days, Bright Road would be, to the opinion of MGM executives, a minor financial risk that would not hurt the studio if it failed at the box office. More insidiously, it allowed Louis B. Mayer – wary of outside perceptions of nepotism – to assign his nephew (later nicknamed, “Keeper of the B’s”) a series of lower-budget movies.
Bright Road is certainly a B-picture, and never rises above the common deficiencies – crappy writing, disorganized narrative structure, suspect acting in some departments, unimaginative use of music/scoring – associated with B-pictures. But it is a fascinating film if just for the very fact that the sort of story it depicts – neglected by Hollywood in the 1950s, neglected even now – was ever made into a film.
Somewhere in rural Alabama, Ms. Jane Richards (Dorothy Dandridge) has arrived in an all-black town, beginning her career as an elementary school teacher. Her fourth-grade students are like any ordinary fourth-grade class: some are reticent or talkative, outgoing or shy, bookish or overwhelmed. Of Ms. Richards’ students, C.T. Young (Philip Hepburn) is the most troublesome – though he is artistic and intelligent (his illustrations of caterpillars and other wildlife are impressive), he is detached from his classmates and disinterested in school. C.T. is accustomed to being held back at each grade level, and expects to be held back again before summer vacation. The school’s principal (Harry Belafonte) considers C.T. a, “backward child”, but encourages Ms. Richards to do as she sees fit. Also starring in Bright Road are Barbara Randolph (a future Motown singer credited as Barbara Ann Sanders) as C.T.’s best friend Tanya, Maidie Norman as Tanya’s mother, and dozens of child actors. Vivian Dandridge – Dorothy’s older sister – is a fellow teacher, Ms. Nelson.
Adapting Vroman’s short story to the big screen is Emmet Lavery (whose credits are meager, but include an Oscar nomination for 1955′s The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell). Lavery’s screenplay – Vroman also assisted in the adaptation, making her the first black member of the Screen Writers Guild (absorbed into the Writers Guild of America, West in 1954) – feels better suited for 1950s television than for movie theaters. The film’s incidents lean heavily on expository passages and scenes never seem to last for a few minutes at a time. It’s as if Lavery was hesitant to keep the drama in a certain space where the audience might further explore the psychology of the characters, any resistance that Ms. Richards’ pedagogical habits might be facing from the administration (Belafonte’s principal is a bit too perfectly aligned with his newest teacher’s opinions). The character of Ms. Richards is provided several instances of voice-over narration along the lines of C.T.-I-know-you-can-do-this or what-should-I-do-now that weakens the screenplay. The screenplay distrusts Dandridge and Hepburn into pushing themselves into a performance that can express those internal monologues; narration like that seen in Bright Road is almost never needed.
Vroman herself was a schoolteacher in Alabama and “See How They Run” was based on her experiences in a classroom. More than Lavery, she would be attuned to how children behave in her community, which allows Bright Road a youthful charm where the children are never too ingratiating on viewers nor are they anonymous figures in service of Ms. Richards’ storyline – the latter being a frequent cardinal sin committed by the “teacher movie” subgenre. Vroman’s short story is also absent of any white characters, and it is remarkable how Lavery remained faithful to that concept despite the potential of executive meddling – which doesn’t appear to have occurred – to insert a white actor somewhere to appeal to a broader audience. The film’s apolitical approach (”apoliticism” being the oxymoron that it is) means the concentration is on the relationship between the teacher and her students. Though the fraudulent practice of “separate, but equal” schools existed then, it serves as background only. Dandridge, considering the history of African-American movies produced within the major studios at this time, was attracted to a film passing on a chance to comment on race relations, saying that the film, “showed that beneath any color skin, people are simply people. I wanted any white girl in the audience to look at me performing in this film and be able to say to herself, ’Why, this schoolteacher could be me.’”
Dorothy Dandridge, one year from starring as the titular Carmen Jones, is fine in Bright Road – though, I suspect that with better writing, this starring turn could have been even more effective. Her tenderness and sensitivity here are well-balanced by a necessary directness and insistence that her students at least attempt their best efforts. Bright Road is also one of very few films in which Dandridge’s own singing voice was used in the final sound mix. For Harry Belafonte in his cinematic debut, he had to pull back from the sensuality that defined his musical career; he simply does not have enough time to establish himself here. C.T. is played by Philip Hepburn in his first of only two on-screen performances – the other coming in a 1957 episode of the television series The Big Story. From what little available online on Hepburn, I cannot independently verify much about his life (or even if he is alive). But in any case, it’s an excellent, assured performance by the then-12-year-old that that is dripping with charisma and believability.
David Rose’s (yet another obscure career to mention; his work includes an Academy Award nomination in Original Score for 1944′s The Princess and the Pirate) score is a disappointment. Noting the title of Vroman’s original short story, “See How They Run, Rose integrates “Three Blind Mice” to grating excess. It is more of an adaptation score than an original score, and the music is there to merely operate parallel to the images onscreen. The score neither provides setting nor swell emotions. One original song sung by Harry Belafonte – “Suzanne (Ev’ry Night When the Sun Goes Down” – was composed by Belafonte and guitarist Millard Thomas. It is not integrated neatly into the scene it follows, as it sparks the beginning of one of the film’s several subplots that I found less believable than the others.
Bright Road arrived at a mentally trying time for Dorothy Dandridge. She had just divorced her first husband, Harold Nicholas, and their daughter, Harolyn – born with a neurological disorder – was about the same age of the children running around on set. Observing all these children playing with each other during and in between shoots proved too overwhelming for Dandridge on one day of shooting, and she had to run to her dressing room to cry it out and recollect herself before resuming. But director Gerald Mayer and those on set were sympathetic, and Bright Road would be therapeutic for her. And despite its significant problems, Bright Road is an underseen, overlooked film more compelling and radical than at first glance.
Among anime fans, Makoto Shinkai has long been regarded for stunning visuals and his wacky integration of fantastical and science-fiction concepts into his plots. In his debut feature film, The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004, Japan), Shinkai suffocated a coming-of-age story coupled minor romantic underpinnings by subordinating character development and friendships beneath a dominant science-fiction storyline that never feels cohesive. Those faults were reflective of a young director’s first feature film; they were also indicative of the cinematic tendencies of anime directors who have grown up in an era where anime and manga have been embedded into Japanese popular culture. With his sophomore effort in 5 Centimeters Per Second, Shinkai crafts a movie that is without fantastical or science-fiction elements in an inconsistent piece that exemplifies a director experimenting with what might be uncomfortable to him. It is the only entry in Shinkai’s filmography without those aforementioned features, as of the release of Your Name (2016, Japan) – more on Your Name in the coming days.
The peculiar narrative structure employed for 5 Centimeters Per Second requires explanation. Shinkai’s movie is divided into three “episodes” – a holdover from how it was originally released in Japan. The first episode was available for select Japanese Yahoo! subscribers a few weeks before the film’s theatrical release. Each episode ends in an intertitle listing the credits for that episode. With only a sixty-three-minute runtime (though, for reasons explained later, it feels longer), these divisions are unnecessary and will disrupt the emotional force of each episode’s concluding moments. It is unclear why these divisions remain in the final print – there is no evidence that 5 Centimeters Per Second was intended for television – but they are no more or less disruptive than, for argument’s sake, an intermission in a stage production, concert, or film.
5 Centimeters Per Second introduces us to Takaki Tôno in his elementary school days in Tokyo. In the first episode, “Cherry Blossom”, it is the mid- or late-1990s, and Takaki befriends Akari Shinohara – her interests are similar to his, and both tend to stay inside the library due to their allergy problems. Graduation from elementary school arrives, Takaki and Akari both learn they are moving away from Tokyo (she’s moving to nearby Tochigi; he’s leaving for Kagoshima on the southernmost major island, Kyushu). Both realize their love for the other, and that they will probably not see each other again as they part. The next two episodes, “Cosmonaut” and “5 Centimeters Per Second”, feature Takaki. “Cosmonaut” – set during Takaki’s final year of high school – adopts the point of view of a classmate, Kanae Sumida. Kanae has been crushing on Takaki since middle school as she prepares to confess her feelings for him. She notices that Takaki has been drafting text messages to no one in particular when he is alone, staring at someone or something far away when looking up. The final episode, “5 Centimeters Per Second”, takes place in 2008, and is narrated by Takaki and Akari – depicting both of their perspectives.
The movie’s title (as well as the final episode’s title) refers to the speed in which cherry blossoms fall to the ground. Whether appearing in Japanese live-action or animation features, cherry blossoms are a marker of impermanence, a reminder that laughter, love, and togetherness is fleeting. Three depictions of cherry trees during the first and final episodes – the cherry blossoms are closely associated with Takaki and Akari’s childhood romance, even when only one of the characters is on-screen – are junctures where the film’s tones are punctuated, sometimes modified. One appearance of a cherry tree late in the first episode occurs after the harshest of winter storms. The blossoms, which have fallen from the branches some months earlier, will perhaps grow in several months. But as the temperature drops and as the snow falls, Takaki notices how the snowfall behaves similarly to falling cherry blossoms – remarking on the beauty of the moment rather than realizing the unreasonable lengths he has taken to see Akari for what is likely the final time.
Childhood and teenage love, within animated film, is often treated in ways too similar to adult love. Crowd-pleasing endings – with the requisite hiccups and temporary separations put into cinematic adult relationships – are the norm, and this is standard is stronger when children or teenagers are in love. But what happens when the children become older? Wiser? As a person grows, they become more susceptible to crushing heartbreak as our sense of time’s passage sharpens, relationships between loved ones are uprooted for whatever reason, and we realize how consuming it is to keep our feelings to ourselves. Shinkai taps into those currents from different perspectives in each of the episodes – how confused our protagonists are as they struggle to comprehend urgings and wonderings that even adults will never truly understand. Whether that romantic drama is David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) or Luchino Visconti’s Le Notti Bianche (1957, Italy) or 5 Centimeters Per Second, the struggle to let go of another is beset with contradictions and significant moments of silence (some of the most important events in anyone’s life occurred with very little dialogue, perhaps with minimal movement).
Despite touching upon themes rarely activated for animated movies, Shinkai’s writing and editing are both flawed.
The characterizations of Takaki and Akari – outside of the fact that they are ambitious students that recognize their mutual love – are curiously anonymous. Where some defend this move on Shinkai’s part as a way for the audience to insert their own experiences into the protagonists’ dilemma, I see this decision as a misstep. As likable these two children seem to be, they are written as nothing more than thematic receptacles – characters in which Shinkai can personify desire and loss. Noting the runtime (no one makes a movie just over an hour long anymore), it might have been apt to provide the central characters some sort of life outside of school and from each other. Kanae, the girl whose perspective enables the middle episode, is afforded a life outside of school and her crush and Takaki. Perhaps I don’t surf during the twilight like Kanae enjoys, but to see her engaging in her passion and observing how that passion translates to her personality makes Kanae personable, sympathetic. Shinkai’s writing, not known for narrative balance, sabotages a story that, with some selective expansion, could have been a great animated romantic drama.
Lingering on shots where a character is at the extreme edges of the frame, 5 Centimeters Per Second is too much of an exhibition for its hand-drawn beauty – of which there is no disputing the animated artistry involved from background artists Takum Tanji and Ryoko Majima as well as character designer and chief animation director Takayo Nishimura ( excelling in the latter more than the former position) – 5 Centimeters Per Second feels much longer than its runtime might suggest. This puttering is most evident during Takaki’s snow-delayed train ride to see Akari. Though Shinkai does an admirable job simulating the length of the weather delays, it comes to the detriment of the subsequent episodes, which seem to accelerate – though not in a harried fashion – towards the conclusion. Imbalance, again, is the crucial word, as the rigidly episodic structure of the film (I use “episodic” quite often when referring to movies that attempt to connect disparate scenes to a common narrative thread, but 5 Centimeters Per Second has radical tonal modulations that require immediate adjustment) makes it more suitable for a television presentation than a theatrical picture.
An evocative, piano-heavy score from Tenmon (the stage name of Atsushi Shirakawa) lulls and flits away rather than cornering any recognizable themes – the score is reactive to the events onscreen. Tenmon and Shinkai err on the side overusing the score, with the score’s harmonic shallowness and reliance of phrases played portato/repeated notes in the upper range of the right hand’s lines a typical hallmark from younger Asian composers. The music, thus, is best described as ambient, with little purpose when separated from the film.
I have seen three of Makoto Shinkai’s five feature-length animated movies. Often framed as the heir apparent to a passing generation of pioneering anime filmmakers, Shinkai has not earned that praise quite yet. Of those three I have seen, 5 Centimeters Per Second comes closest in his filmography to establishing a distinct directorial voice. The others - The Place Promised in Our Early Days and Your Name – succumb to post-late ‘90s/early 2000s anime conventions of cinematic structure and character behavior that sabotage those respective films to varying degrees. But for addressing and depicting childhood love as anything but storybook, Shinkai’s willingness here to challenge his preferences, to see how hard he can keep his tendency to complicate things aside, is a worthy exercise of his talents.
No matter what is written in the coming decades, Haifaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda will always be remembered as the first feature-length film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia – a nation without a film industry as of 2015 (Wadjda was financed in Germany and many of its crewmembers are German). It is also the first feature-length film directed by a Saudi woman. Almost three years after its debut at the Venice Film Festival, Wadjda has not even received an official release in its country of origin – which has only one cinema: an IMAX theater that screens documentaries as part of Scitech, a science-technology museum in Khobar. Reaction from religious conservatives to the very existence of Wadjda has been hostile; for the foreseeable future, Wadjda will be more warmly received abroad than at home. If one eliminates all of these historical precedents, Wadjda is a rather simple, personable story with a typical rebellious, assiduous protagonist you can’t help but root for.
10-year old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) lives in Riyadh with her mother (Saudi TV actress Reem Abdullah) and dreams of purchasing a new green bicycle so as to race her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). Girls should not be riding bikes, so the Islamic scholars and self-appointed moral police – her parents, other elders, other men, teachers, etc. – say. Wadjda’s traditional mother is distracted by her husband’s (Sultan Al Assaf) philandering and attempts to secure a second wife. She is not only a rebel in the streets or the household, but also the classroom. Though not raising hell for hell’s sake, she often finds herself in trouble with her Koran teacher (Nouf Saad) and the headmistress of her school Ms. Hussa (Ahd). Later on, Wadjda learns that there is a Koran recitation contest with a cash prize that could pay for her fgreen bike and then some. Guess who wins? I’ll give you three tries.
How much of a rebel is Wadjda? Where the rest of the girls at her school wear traditional shoes, Wadjda prefers to take along her worn black Converses. She listens to heavy English-language modern rock and sells mixtapes of that music for her bicycle fund. When other girls follow custom and head indoors when there are men present, Wadjda continues to play outside, finishing a round of hopscotch without a care in the world. She speaks up when she is supposed to stay silent – “A woman’s voice is her nakedness,” Ms. Hussa insists as she sees a bit of her rebellious past in Wadjda; Wadjda’s elders and teachers believe her behavior is just a phase and will be unsustainable as childhood falls away. A rebellious young girl defying gendered and religious expectations is no longer groundbreaking; only the setting of Wadjda prevents the film from being mired in more cliché.
What surprised me is the fact that Waad Mohammed, who played Wadjda, is a non-professional actress in her first – and, at this moments, appears to be perhaps her only – film role. Recalling Italian neorealism’s commonplace practice to hire non-professionals, the practice works here. Never does Wadjda feel needlessly precocious or overly nasty. Instead, Mohammed retains a playfulness and determined face in spite of all the men and women telling her character how she should behave, dress, and speak.
A more contemporary influence on Mohammed’s performance and how Wadjda is written can be found in certain children’s films of Iranian and Japanese cinema. In Iran, filmmakers have long realized that concentrating their narratives on children allow them to insert more social commentary than typical as they hide their messaging under the guise of a supposedly well-meaning children’s movie. Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven (1997, Iran) and Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is My Friend’s Home? (1987, Iran) are Wadjda’s cinematic spiritual predecessors. Go even further back and one might find the likes of Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born, But… (1932, Japan) and Ozu’s color (partial) remake in Good Morning (1959, Japan). In all of these films, children are the mobilizing dynamos of their personal desires and – for their respective eras and political climates unconducive to freedoms of dissent – embody the anxieties and fears of their parents and other elders. Notice how little agency – if not agency, than motivation – the adults have compared to their children to promote positive societal change. Yet in those small snippets where Wadjda and her mother are out shopping, Wadjda interacting with the store owner who has the bicycle she wishes to purchases, and sliver of regret in Ms. Hussa’s voice as she reminds her students of Wahhabist norms and how they should not be broken.
Could Wadjda have been a bolder political statement? Perhaps, but over-politicizing a girl’s desire to purchase and ride a bicycle could have touched nerves within the Saudi conservative camp that might have turned public opinion against the film and any sense of a newfound Saudi film industry (even now, any notions of a Saudi film industry are a distant dream). Al-Mansour, who has been living in Bahrain with her American diplomat husband for the last several years, elects instead to concentrate on the mundane. Her film is positioned towards a foreign audience, not a Saudi one. Instead of sociopolitical commentary, Wadjda would rather show ordinary life episodes to show what Wadjda and her mother do around and outside the household. Whether her mother is trying out a new red dress she couldn’t possibly wear outdoors, her father partaking in violent video games (it’s a PlayStation 1 of all things), taking kettles off of stoves, or getting ready for school, this is a film that a leisurely pace. Some of these moments are as seamlessly integrated as they should be. Supporting characters are one-dimensional and Wadjda herself is a relatively static protagonist whose insubordinate brilliance is a constant means to an end.
But none of this should take away from the fact that Wadjda and her mother have a joyous, beautiful bond. They have shared moments of subversion from Saudi gendered cultural norms and a lot of their understanding is communicated without dialogue. There’s a familiarity between these two, a mutual adoration that is an immense pleasure to watch.
Perhaps Haifaa al-Mansour may not be the one female auteur from the Middle East that will come to define a generation of filmmakers in the region. Geez, talk about hyperbole and unhealthy expectations. What should be celebrated instead is that Wadjda simply exists and that it is a good film that depicts a sphere of life many who will see the film have never even seen before. Other than literature, I have always believed that cinema is one of the most democratic art forms; its youth compared to other art forms has made it the offspring of economic and sociopolitical internationalization. From its onset, film allowed for a diversity of voices never encountered before. Wadjda is one of many milestones in a need for ideological and narrative diversity. Just because it is one of many does not diminish its achievements; in fact, the circumstances surrounding its existence and lack of an official premiere in its country of origin makes it all the more remarkable.
As Wadjda pedals her bicycle out across an empty, sand-strewn Riyadh street, for the first time, there is a gleeful, infectious smile on her face as bright as the cloudless sky above her. It may take time, but there needs to be more cinematic stories with a remorseless independence to consume, whether they be intended for Saudi audiences, foreign audiences, or one of the world. It should be the wish for anyone who loves cinema that it is so. May Wadjda lead to the blossoming of something of extraordinary beauty and meaning.
My rating: 7.5/10
^ Based on my personal imdb rating. Half-points are always rounded down.
George Miller waited almost twenty years to bring the fourth Mad Max film into existence but was postponed due to the attacks on 9/11. The original Mad Max (1979), which is the only other film of the franchise I have seen, has almost no connection to the newest edition except for the name of the central character, the Australian setting, and the appearance of a few weathered, dusty V-8 Interceptors as seen in the provided picture. Mad Max: Fury Road is neither a reboot or sequel to any of the films in the original trilogy (Miller says Fury Road exists in parallel with the other films); it is instead a reconfiguring of the vehicular chaos of that trilogy where Australia has moved into the post-apocalypse, water has replaced oil as the commodity of scarcity and one that begets violence, and where the main villain has a tireless fellow with a guitar that ejaculates flames as his hood ornament. You don’t have to be a psychologist to get that one and, yet, that isn’t even the wackiest thing in this damn movie.
Despite what has been written, Fury Road is no cult classic. “Cult classic” necessitates that the film be obscure, known by few. Get rid of the “cult”. Mad Max: Fury Road is an action classic, perhaps the best action film of the young century. Its 120 minute runtime is essentially a pursuit film from the opening seconds; its plot paper-thin. But the thing is, cinema – more so than other art forms such as literature and especially television – is a medium of ideas, not narrative. Fury Road is a monument to that very idea and executes it so terrifyingly well.
Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is a former police officer who finds himself in the captivity of the War Boys, pawns of dictator-cum-deity Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the villain in the original Mad Max). Joe has a stranglehold on an aquifer in which he exerts control over his penurious populace in a place called the Citadel. During what was supposed to be a routine expedition for gasoline, Joe realizes Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) has driven off with his five wives – sexual slaves, but Joe has naming rights – in hopes to escape Joe’s tyranny. Joe checks on his wives’ quarters, releases the requisite baddie-is-furious scream, dons beskulled battle armor, and joins a war party to bring his wives back. Furiosa is able to escape the pursuing parties save a War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who has strapped Max to the front of his car. Max will join forces with Furiosa and the wives – Capable (Riley Keough), Cheedo (Courtney Eaton), The Dag (Abbey Lee), Toast (Zoe Kravitz), and the pregnant Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) – in their attempt to escape from Joe’s forces. And, after some time and due to circumstance, Nux will join our heroes, too.
With the three previous Mad Max films produced on shoestring budgets, Fury Road seems to be the film that Miller was destined to make. Despite the expectations that Max will be the central character, he is instead a supporting character swept by the merciless dust storms of history
that embrace this rocky, deceased land. The dictatorial patriarchy that Max is hinted to have fought has emerged victorious; the counter-order that Max came from has been destroyed by climate change, thermonuclear war, and the disintegration of a monopoly on violence. As the laconic Max and others like him (wherever they may be) are no longer in a position to affect change, that task falls upon Furiosa – sporting a shaved head and a prosthetic arm – who, to me, is the central character of this motion picture. Theron is up to this task, giving the film’s best performance. Through grunts and facial expressions suggesting past griefs and traumas, she endows our heroine with a mistrust of men without ever having to say a word about it. Furiosa is driven by one thing alone (permit me to be a sappy bastard as my write-up to Inside Out follows this) – the future of the women she has promised to protect and deliver to safety in this radical, perhaps fatal, act of defiance. It is almost as if Theron is channeling the ghost of Maria Falconetti, whose shaved head and nuanced facial expressions in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, France) surely must have influenced Furiosa’s characterization and, subsequently, Theron’s performance. Stay tuned silent film fans, I’ll be name dropping another silent film shortly!
The screenplay by Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nico Lathouris is skinned of exposition. The psychology of Immortan Joe and the indoctrination of the War Boys are never explained; the dissolution of identifiable law and order as seen in the original Mad Max trilogy is only mentioned in the prologue and never suggested again. We don’t know to what extent Immortan Joe has been physically/sexually violent to the five women Furiosa must hide in the belly of her War Rig when Joe’s cacophonous caravan of carnage draws near. When the time comes to fire back and plunge makeshift weapons into the abdomens of onrushing War Boys, Furiosa maintains an appearance of eerie, unearthly calmness – not tears, not despair. There will be time for that later. More than any of the Mad Max films that preceded Fury Road, the newest entry is more concerned with liberation – not simply political liberation or sexual liberation, the latter being more problematic than most of its proponents will admit. Furiosa nor any of Joe’s five wives know what lies beyond the oil rig where Furiosa occasionally ventures towards. The plan is to simply escape from the sexualization and violence that has followed them all their lives. As one would imagine, such violence is stubborn as it cries for bloodlust and the diaphanous objectification of those who might continue Joe’s lineage. Who knew that one could mine so many feminist ideas in an ultraviolent, saturated action movie (just note that the presence of feminist ideas does not necessarily mean a film is feminist)?
Also, if a film can anger men’s rights activists, it must be doing something right!
Fury Road shares structural storytelling similarities to Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) – mostly because both films are centered on a life-and-death pursuit – and shares more in common with Looney Tunes antics than the action found in 1979′s Mad Max. The film is covered in as much shameless batshit as the most violent Looney Tunes shorts and the wackiest Buster Keaton comedies. It’s as if Furiosa and Max’s War Rig was Roadrunner and Joe’s forces were collectively Wile E. Coyote. But Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote exist within the confines of wholesome, anvil-dropping animation. I would have no idea why, if you have not seen the film, you will have read this far into the write-up but some spoilers will be divulged from now until the end of this paragraph. From the chrome paint that is applied before the War Boys attempt to enter Valhalla, all the masks, the milk, War Boys who don’t mind cackling and dangling over the sides of cars while they speed upwards of 100 mph, and War Boys hanging on massive poles in hopes to throw explosives and land on Furiosa’s War Rig, thank goodness Miller never feels the need to explain all these cockamamie details because there is no conceivable way one could concoct a serious explanation to these eccentricities. Needless to say, WTF meters will be broken. Fury Road takes the pursuit scenes, throws in too many flashing lights in an early example (those who are sensitive to such moments, please be warned that these lights occur within the first half-hour and never appear again), raises the stakes, and de-digitizes the effects to elevate the gravity of this desert chase. Yet within the traditions of Wile E. Coyote-Roadrunner shorts and silent films, the madness of Fury Road is content to express anti-oppression ideologies through the actions the characters choose to take, displaying their evolutions in characterization without lecturing.
Cinematographer John Seale and editor Margaret Sixel are the unheralded forces behind the camera. Seale, persuaded by Miller to come out of retirement to shoot the film and whose previous credits do not suggest that he would have shot anything like Fury Road, saturates the film with harsh oranges and blues reminiscent of the days in Hollywood where night scenes in color films weren’t really shot at night but instead shot with a filter. The emptiness of the desert engorges on what looks like Technicolor. It makes the outback – the film was supposed to have been shot in Broken Hill, New South Wales but, due to heavy rains that saw wildflowers spring up, was moved to Namibia – a wordless, harsh character that only contributes to an uncertainty of what lies beyond the horizon. If anything, Seale does not use the flatness of the landscapes as much as he could to maximize that uncertainty. Sixel has a difficult task in that Fury Road contains a noticeably larger proportion of action sequences than the average action film. Her rapid-fire cutting from so many different angles will make hearts race amid the minimized CGI (Miller committed himself to use as many practical effects as possible); the decisions to accelerate the frame rate in select scenes proves distracting, making Fury Road resemble too much of a silent film and allowing for some unintentional comedy.
Junkie XL’s (the stage name of Tom Holkenborg) electronics-heavy score to Fury Road is nothing like Brian May’s work to the first two Mad Maxes and Maurice Jarre’s for the third. In line with the need to reimagine Mad Max for the purposes of Fury Road, Miller selected a Hans Zimmer disciple for this film. Now, as many of you know, I have been highly critical of Zimmer the last several years for his synthetic sameness. Junkie XL’s score to Fury Road, like Zimmer’s many scores since Batman Begins, is a brutal one. But that brutality – when mixed with ceaseless ultraviolence, slavelike drummers, and a guitarist with a pyromaniacal streak that I wanted to smash in the face with his own instrument – makes Junkie XL’s score make more contextual sense than your average Zimmer score. With pounding percussive elements, passages that are all about that bass, and strings that have nothing to do but ostinato mindlessly away, Fury Road’s score is curiously disjointed and non-action motifs rarely carry over from one scene to the next. It is a textbook example of how a film score works far better in context than heard independently. The occasional anarchy of Junkie XL’s score sees dissonance in the non-action scenes, making for an unpleasant – at least, to the bias of my ears – listen.
For its presentation of feminist ideas to an extent almost unheard of in action films, its spectacular CGI, and spellbinding performances by Charlize Theron and Hugh Keays-Byrne, Mad Max: Fury Road is a glorious action film that has more similarities to an American Western than a piece of dystopic science-fiction. Well, that is if you can picture a Western with stagecoaches with dozens of ten-foot long spikes, horses sprinting with layers of paint on them, and a steaming locomotive run by really attractive renegade women escaping a violent land baron who remains in power despite the incursions of a John Wayne-led cavalry regiment. Oh, and for extra measure, let’s throw in Gene Autry perched on top of the pursuing locomotive rocking out to “Back in the Saddle Again” (if it is possible to rock out to “Back in the Saddle Again”) on his flamethrowing guitar. As is evidenced in this last paragraph, I still haven’t recovered from the FUCK, YEAH, nearly seizure-inducing adrenaline rush that is one of the greatest action films made in many moons.
Miller threw all the batshit he could scrape up at the fan and boy, am I grateful for the mess he has made.
“Let me put it this way, Mr. Amor. The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error.”