After-Image: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (2015)

❉ Our occasional series looking at single images and the emotional and narrative weight they carry returns, with ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’.

Sometimes we get so caught up in world-building, or narrative that we forget that cinema is a visual medium. In this occasional series we look at single images and the emotional and narrative weight they carry. This time: Mad Max: The Roar of the Warrior.

George Millar is a funny chap.

Bursting onto the scene with the determined low-budget schlock Mad Max? Fine. Follow it up with two increasingly gonzo sequels that define the post-apocalyptic aesthetic for a generation? Okey dokey. Then make a film about a talking pig? Sure, no – what? And then follow it up with a musical penguin extravaganza? Not wait one cotton-pickin’—

The Mad Max movies had more in common with MGM Musicals of the 30s than the low-fi post apocalypses of Escape from New York and its brethren. Massive set pieces which tell the story visually rather than relying on dialogue and communicate emotion through action rather than words. It’s just that in this case the action is symphonic acts of ultra-violence involving cars and sharp implements rather than dancing. This is never more true than in the fourth instalment of the franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road.

The eponymous character’s dialogue is stripped down to the bare minimum – he doesn’t even tell us his name until the last five minutes of the film – and most of the world building is done through nouns – the Bullet Farm, the People Eater, Immortan; each of these suggests a background casually taken for granted. It’s the same trick Robert Holmes used to pull in both Doctor Who and Blakes 7. The most interesting thing, of course, about Fury Road though, is that the eponymous character is not the lead character. No, Mad Max is a supporting character in the story of Furiosa.

Which brings us to this week’s shot:

It would have been easy to tell this story as one of the male protagonist rescuing the females. At every opportunity to do this, though, Miller turns away. The one time that Max does something heroic and awesome it happens off-screen – he walks into the darkness and comes back after an explosion. Instead the camera lingers on Furiosa and the other female characters, waiting to see if he comes back and finally accepting him as an ally when he does.

So this shot, then. It’s Furiosa, in the desert, after realising that the land of her childhood is gone and the escape that she has planned will never happen. She’s placed at the left third of the frame, an empty waste filling up the frame in front of her to our left. On her knees, she is defeated, roaring out her anguish. Note, though that Miller has used the rule of thirds of composition to place Furiosa’s figure on the strongest line in the image; she’s the only vertical shape which immediately draws our eye to her face, the only point of interest in the upper half of the left of the image. Even in defeat she is strong. We’ve seen this image before, of course; it’s the clichéd Big No which has cropped up in films and television since time immemorial; the strength of the trope is proved, I think, by the fact that even the spectacularly misjudged Big No in Revenge of the Sith wasn’t able to kill it.

The most interesting this about this shot, though, is not the purity or simplicity of the image; it’s not even the way that Millar has rendered the emotion of despair down to its most brutal visual form. It is this: he doesn’t cut back to Max.

If this was Max’ story, if he was the hero, we could cut back to him to see him respond to Furiosa’s collapse. But we do not. The camera holds on her. The audience is with her at her lowest point; she is our point of view character.

I could talk more about the way that Miller constructs other shots to treat Furiosa as an asexual being – it’s astonishing the way he de-genders and de-sexualises someone as stunning as Charlize Theron and it really shows up the way that characters such as Ripley never escape the male gaze*  – but it’s unnecessary. It’s all there in this shot where it is made perfectly clear who our hero is.

All this and a gimp wielding a flamethrower guitar at the direction of Grunshlik from Farscape?

That’ll do, George. That’ll do.

* A female friend of mine loved the section where we first see the erstwhile wives of Immortan Joe; dressed in diaphanous gowns, oiled bodies in the sun, it looks at first glance like a soft porn shoot until you realise that the camera is focussing lasciviously on the water they are using to wash each other; it directs the male gaze at the water with the female bodies as an afterthought and leaves us in no doubts about where Max’ interests lie. It was a very clever little piece of (mis)direction which made her settle into the film with a sigh of contentment.

❉ Herbert West – when he’s not reanimating the dead – teaches at a secondary school in the north of England. He is the host of the Trial of a Timelord podcast which can be found on Twitter at @WhoTrial

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