Overview: In a world of post-apocalyptic ruin, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) teams with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to help a group of women flee from their evil captor; Warner Bros. Pictures; 2015; Rated R; 120 Minutes.
That Rare Moment That Exists In All Art: When Allen Ginsberg performed his poem “Howl” for the first time on October 7, 1955 to an enthralled and enlivened audience at San Francisco’s Six Gallery at Fillmore Street, it wasn’t the first time he had read or written a poem. Nor was the poem delivered to an audience even temporarily unfamiliar with poetry. In fact, San Francisco was going through a famous poetry Renaissance in that mid-decade. And yet, traceable history and perseverance of legend informs us that that performance and the poem felt entirely new. Alive. The creation of energy.
It’s been said that Kerouac was in attendance as Ginsberg’s spontaneous cheerleader, allegedly shouting “Go, go, go…,” as the possibly drunk Ginsberg continued from one brilliant verse to the next. A since-discredited mythology developed shortly after the event, a rumor that this first reading of Howl was actually an improvised performance piece, as if the poem itself was too spirited to have ever existed in any form short of biological. It was a work of such certain boldness that to describe it even now requires contradictions and paradoxes. One must say that “there’s never been anything quite like it” while also being ready to compare it to past masterpieces (the electricity in Howl seems share atomic similarity to Leaves of Grass).
These moments exist in all forms of art, brief and so intense in their birth that they immediately burn into the pages of history. Sometimes, media allows us to capture and revisit the moment. Music has a number of comparable revelations (Pet Sounds, Nevermind). But there’s nothing like being there for the first breath, a proclamation of artistic life so loud that it raises the ceiling of art’s expectation.
And if you can make it to theaters this weekend, you can witness such a moment for film.
A World of Fire and Blood: George Miller has always been a director who directs a lot. His earlier films in the Mad Max series, the most recent of which (Beyond Thunderdome) is now thirty years old, displayed an artist who cartwheeled gleefully between the maniacal and the ingenious, without concern for the audience’s ability to follow his absurd rhythms. He manhandles every scene. After a stint of family friendly comedies and dramas, what he’s returned with in Fury Road is a nourished and disciplined form of that same early, electric energy. The bulk of Fury Road, predictably, consists of propulsive, combustive, mind-blowing action sequences. The totality of these stretches (I hesitate to call them “scenes” because it feels as though Miller may not think of them that way) is astonishing in scope and scale. But it is even more awe-inspiring to measure the action at a closer level. In five minute stretches where fistfights unfold atop monstrous vehicles, Miller gives more attention to space, positioning, and linear context than most action films bother with in their entirety. From the position of an actor’s feet or head to the angle at which a giant gas truck is accelerating, every element is vital and precisely measured.
It makes for an astounding two hours. A ballet interpretation of pure chaos. A punk rock symphony. When you think Miller might quiet the tempestuous score for tension, he instead places an on-screen guitar solo on the hood of a modified tow truck. When you think he might slow the action to allow for contemplation or damage measurement, he instead drops what is seemingly the film’s most in-expendable character beneath rolling tires.
And it’s more than just motion and mania. It’s the pulled back, peripherally observed world-building that begs comparison to Hellboy (or, dare I say, Star Wars). Like the haunting, barely commented glimpse of stilt walking shadows in a swampland that I will never shake. In the day and night sequences, there is displayed a striking color balance and control in John Seale’s cinematography. And there is, beneath (and because of) all of this, a film and a story that manages to be both bitingly nihilistic and brutally sentimental.
We Don’t Need Another Hero: Hardy lends a despair-fueled rabidness and, with paranoid shifting eyes and jerky motions in the shoulders and neck, we end up with a much more feral and animalistic Max than we’ve ever seen. Hardy continues to build on his impressive work history from roles in which he just occupies the space of intimidation, often wordlessly. Which really, just clears the way for Imperator Furiosa, the film’s true hero. In a film that is decisively feminist in construct– in an imagined world where the only thing that ever stops the forward-moving action is the exhibited life-giving force of a stunning Rosie Huntington-Whitely, in a world in which the baddest man in modern movies can be reduced to a sniper pedestal for a more accurate triggerwoman– Theron is the perfect central manifestation of feminine complexity, beauty, and strength.
Dying Historic on a Fury Road: As a standard, I know one needs to wait and think before applying any accurate historical ranking of a film. But, right now, fresh off my introduction to the film, it distinctly feels as though the terms in which we think of action movies has been changed and we may have to adjust the way we speak of them in the past and present. Action movies that were once “good” might now just be “passable.” Action movies that were “passable” feel kind of like a “waste of time.” So, you’ll forgive me if I fight my impulse of assigning superlatives for a little while, but I hope you’ll also forgive me for indulging a more immediate burning impulse, perhaps the same impulse that possessed Kerouac six decades ago, to loudly trumpet my support for Mad Max: Fury Road, a work that is alive in a whole new way. Go, go, go…