Tag: Mad Max

Less Hype, More Enigma

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Lately I find myself less and less likely to express an unpopular opinion on the internet. Whether it’s the drain on energy, or the fact I just don’t have either the time or the inclination to sit and follow a long thread of comments, arguments, trolling, and insults, I find staying silent is frequently the best option. That decision has lead me to value in-person conversation more than ever, but it’s also lead me to feel disenfranchised with web culture in and of itself, and lead me to only write about something when I feel really, really strongly about it, and even then, I tiptoe.

Consider this a stomp and not a tiptoe. I was initially entranced with the new trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road, the far-overdue fourth installment in the Mad Max film series. George Miller, the original filmmaker, has created a very atmospheric set-up designed to excite and enthrall. And yet, as the trailer wore on, it felt like a deliberate, well-designed set-up. I know trailers have a function: to excite, to whip up hype, to inspire passion, all of which translates into dollars. But watching Fury Road, I was entirely conscious of being manipulated, of being hyped up and purposely excited. The spiky designs, the color schemes, the fast cars… all looked like stuff I had loved long ago. As the trailer ended, all I could think of was something I read years ago: something has to be great because it is great, not because it reminds you of something great.

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The first formal essay I ever wrote was about heroism in the Mad Max movies. Typing it out on an old manual typewriter, my pre-teen brain was doing mental aerobics just thinking about all the cinematic heroes I’d seen in the past. My child-like ideas around the nature of heroism (affirmed in movies like Superman and Star Wars) came crashing down when I saw The Road Warrior. It was like nothing I’d ever seen: brutal, funny, violent, sad, action-packed, profound, with eye-catching designs, campy characters, and thrilling action sequences. There was an authenticity to it, one that I later learned sprang directly from an antipodean sensibility central to its flavor and identity. The rough-and-tumble combination of dark humor and intense violence (perhaps best manifest in the lethal boomerang of the Feral Kid), old-school action (crossbows!), and a keen longing for home (literal and figurative), combined with smart sprinklings of camp, ribald humor, and a total lack of self-consciousness gave The Road Warrior its deliciously Aussie flavor and assured its position in film history.

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Its predecessor shocked me because, for all of its futuristic trappings, Mad Max is a human drama played at the scale of an action movie. It’s also an action movie that’s interested in humans — our failings, our hurts, our weaknesses, and our entirely-familiar desire for revenge. It’s upsetting, and yet compulsively watchable. The economy with which some scenes were shot (the burnt hand of Max’s partner dropping from a sheet, the ball rolling along the road where his family is ultimately murdered) underline the simple, elegant blurring of good and bad in Miller’s world. Such blurs were deeply disturbing to my young teen mind, and gave me more than a few nightmares. The contrast between Gibson’s baby-faced cop and the brutality of his actions — it’s a contrast which silences, awes, haunts, and disturbs; here is a man who is neither likable nor unlikeable, but simply someone trying to get by in horrible conditions, with no set goal or destination beyond getting gasoline to keep on keepin’ on. The brutality of his choices reflect the brutality of his world, inner and outer. There is more than a whiff of existentialism at play here, one that strongly flavors the entire series.

The third installment in the Mad Max series was a letdown for fans, who found it too cute, too camp, too outright silly. The kids in the movie were, in retrospect, stand-ins for Ewoks in so many senses, and it was just too cute by a longshot. Still, there are certain outlandishly so-camp-they’re-brilliant aspects I like about Beyond Thunderdome, particularly the fight space of the title, a surreal way of meting out justice that combines the poetry of Cirque du Soleil’s high-wire acts and all the shrieking energy of a Monster Truck rally. Thirty years on, it’s still tacky, odd, humorous, and very visually compelling. I only wish the sequence had been longer.

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Another aspect of Thunderdome I cherish is the presence of Tina Turner; her Aunty Entity is fierce, angry, a clear outsider made good. Sure, it was trick casting, but it wasn’t some blonde, pouty-mouthed, fashionable, pretty, young model playing the role, and that meant (and still means) a lot; it was a woman who already had a career in another world and was clearly having the time of her life. With spring earrings, a knight-like metal dress (!), and a huge blonde wig, Turner’s Auntie is bloodthirsty and smart; it was (is) fun watching her driving a tricked-out car at top speed through the desert. (One of my mother’s best friends at the time I saw Thunderdome was a top female drag-racer; it was nice to see the smarts and energy I knew in real life so nicely translated into a character onscreen.) Turner wasn’t the young, soft, cutesy girlfriend-of-anyone, but rather, smart, efficient, The Boss. It was strange to see her flirting with the enigmatic hero too, holding all the cards of power, dancing around another side of him that hadn’t been revealed — and, some of us were hoping, would never be revealed. After the loss he suffered, Max is purposely never soft, never romantic; the world he lives in just doesn’t allow it. While the pair came from similar places emotionally (if not experientially), each character had handled their respective tragedies in wildly different ways. They were survivors, past good and evil. Still, I will forever be grateful to Miller for not stripping Aunty of her power and turning her into a mere love interest in service to the hero.

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That doesn’t mean the chemistry between Tina Turner and Mel Gibson wasn’t beguiling. Rather, it felt very genuine, and very adult, shot through with knowing and lived-in experience. The seventeen-year age gap didn’t matter (and it still shouldn’t, really). I didn’t quite understand that kind of chemistry as a pre-teen, but I definitely enjoyed watching it. There was an undercurrent of knowingness between the two, past their characters, that felt genuine, and somehow, very true to the original spirit of Miller’s work. When Turner and Gibson appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine, I didn’t hesitate to buy a copy and pour over its contents. It was fascinating to learn about a big production like Beyond Thunderdome and see how it fit in with the larger Max universe of Miller’s making. The Road Warrior would always have my heart, of course, and its sequel seems contrived and lightweight in retrospect, but there was something fun about the whole event-like nature of it at the time.

It’s that same kind of hype (albeit on a much grander, far more endemic scale) I sense with the trailer for Fury Road, along with a heft plateful of nostalgia for an older-style brand of action film, one without comic book heroes or CGI effects. And yet, Fury Road falls into the same old popular-movie tropes, with only the window dressing to remind us that it’s a Mad Max film. The intro itself, where our hero introduces himself, makes me wince; those of us who became familiar with Miller’s post-apocalyptic universe through The Road Warrior didn’t know (or care about) the main character’s name throughout most of it — indeed, our erstwhile anti-hero barely spoke. It’s hard for me to stomach the hero speaking here, let alone introducing himself; to do it in such a belabored, intentional way feels heavy-handed and more than a little manipulative. I don’t want an introduction! I don’t want to hear Max talking about a “world of fire and blood.” Where’s the enigma gone? Can we get him back please?

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From there, we’re shown a number of action sequences, full of tropes that recall the original Road Warrior, but with none of its scrappy resiliency, low-budget punk glam, or hard-scrabble brutality; the scenes shot are beautiful, the cars are beautiful, the extras are beautiful, the desert is beautiful, the wispy ladies-in-white (as if there was ever any softness, ever, in the original Mad Max movies) are beautiful (they’re models in real life…), the menacing baddies are beautiful, and of course, the lead is beautiful. I like Tom Hardy as an actor — he’s macho, charismatic, and an eminently likable screen presence (even when he’s scary) — but at this point in his career, he’s a very well-known entity within the industry. He is not in the position Mel Gibson was in back in 1981 — that is, an only semi-known actor in North America, with a history of work back home. Gibson was steeped in the antipodean sensibility that I think is so central to Miller’s work, and he brought no baggage or associations to the role. I must confess, I am disappointed a lesser-known, more chameleon-like Aussie/Kiwi actor wasn’t cast in the lead here. I know it would be unrealistic to expect a studio to finance a Mad Max sequel in that case, and that Hardy’s casting (“BANE!“) means a lot in financial / box office return terms, but perhaps my disappointment with casting here is reflective of a larger disgust with the state of the industry, one where lists of popular actors with long business relationships replace the right actors with long acting resumes (and the right accents. Sorry, Tom.). The casting (Hardy’s, along with Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, and Zoe Kravitz) feels more financial than creative, though I could be entirely wrong there. I only know that what I saw set off my cinematic bullshit radar something fierce. Rather than being “blown away” by the trailer, as so many were (and as was repeatedly trumpeted by numerous media outlets), I found myself feeling the gale force winds of the hype machine, standing back, looking around, and noting how it wasn’t even raining, let alone cloudy.

I know, it’s an unpopular opinion, perhaps I should’ve stayed silent, perhaps I’m wholly guilty of an ugly, misguided nostalgia. Someone please mansplain this to me! (Kidding; please don’t.) The hallmarks of the Mad Max movies are indeed in place with Fury Road, but those elements only remind me of something that changed my life and the way I perceive culture. What’s more, those elements (all very Hollywood 2014: the fashionable names, the cutesy girls, the surly voiceover, the intensely loud sound mix, the fast-paced, dramatic edits) didn’t endear me to the newer material, but rather, drove me away, highlighting a wedge between what I remember loving and what has changed in the wider cultural world. I can’t, of course, fully and properly judge Fury Road until its release in 2015, but when I do see it next year (and I plan to), it won’t be because of the gale-force hype winds shrieking at me to be TOTALLY BLOWN AWAY, but rather, a simple curiosity. I know I’m in the minority cocking an eyebrow this early in the game, but I’m willing to keep my critical mind intact; it’s the least — and the best — I can do.

Something has to be great because it is great, not because it reminds you of something great.

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With The Greatest of Ease

I love the Chapiteau. Ce n’est pas une surprise. Cirque Du Soleil‘s latest joyous creation, OVO, is now on in Toronto. Though I had seen Cirque before in large arenas, I hadn’t experienced it in the “Grand Chapiteau.” And so a friend (who had never seen a Cirque show) and I toodled off to the Eastern Portlands at Toronto’s waterfront. It was an evening of enchantment, delight, and absolute, unabashed play.

Neither photos nor words really capture the magic of a Cirque show fully. Even though I’d been given the finger-wagging “No pictures, please!” notice from Chapiteau staff, I wanted to turn my camera not toward the performers, but onto my fellow attendees -eyes agog, mouths dropped open, in awe. Any way you cut it, the drama within a Cirque show is in-built by virtue of the fact that they are performing dangerous, heady feats and often rely on little to protect their falls. There is also a noticeably strong thread of community -family, really -between performers. One relies on the other, another on someone else, and so on -like a set of dominoes. Both in the limelight and behind-the-scenes, the Cirque is only as strong as its team.

There are a number of particularly affecting moments in OVO. I liked the couple doing the ‘rope/cloth’ (banquine) routine; they seem to share genuine chemistry, and the comparison I heard at intermission (to Zumanity, Cirque’s sexy Vegas show) is entirely apt. The way they swung around the performance area, his arms wrapped around hers, both of them supported only by two pieces of luxurious cloth, was a deeply entrancing visual. Such moments aren’t merely wondrous in a physical sense; they’re meditative in a spiritual one. Equally, the gold-clad trapeze men, looking like airborne centurions –but, with the insect theme of OVO, they were probably bees or maybe wasps -provided the same mix of wonder at physicality and awe at the abilities of the physical and artistic worlds colliding to produce something inspired by… insects. Wow. The trapezists flew back and forth between stations, landing on one another’ shoulders, and then disembarking and falling, arms aloft, into the netting below them, their swift graceful decent a sure dance with gravity, time and space. Breathtaking.

Equally affecting were the myriad of tumblers, who, dressed in ridged chartreuse costumes –again, looking like determined little bugs -bounced in a kind of organized chaos against a pseudo-rock-face, their timing at once rhythmic and chaotic. Brazilian director Deborah Colker smoothly blends these moments of inspired chaos with loud, pulsating electronica sounds, counterbalancing every frenetic routine with a slower, more contemplative one. The quiet poetry of a figure wrapped in a kind of nylon, placed vertically and stretching swaying and shimmying, before emerging from her cocoon to become a butterfly, was simple, classy, and deeply moving. OVO embraces the poetic marriage between the worlds of humans and insects, transferring the physical mechanics of each into a wider exploration about the nature of natural connection. Yes, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface (just as there is in the world of insects), but without being too heady, I can also tell you: OVO is a boatload of fun.

Just as dramatic (and fun) to behold as the other bugged-out creatures was the Spider character, who re-defines the idea of ‘high wire’ entirely. With his Mad Max-esque costume and dramatic makeup recalling Japanese kabuki, he retained an air of theatricality even as he stepped, balanced, and carefully picked his way across a very small, very loose wire (called a “slack wire” in circus terms). During the performance, I actually heard him let out a howl of triumph as his eyes widened like saucers, and his chest came puffing out upon completing his ride across the wire on nary but a tiny unicycle (successfully). Hands clapped together and he glared out at the assembled crow triumphantly; it was so dramatic, I wanted to vault out of my seat then and there with applause. That’s the fantastic thing about such acts within a Cirque show: performers don’t just go through the motions, and then bow politely. No way. They inhabit their roles -and the physical movements that go with those roles -utterly, to the letter, or in OVO‘s case, antenna. Limbs, faces, heads, feet and fingers -all are stretched, leaning, flicking, swirling in accordance with the performers’ buggy counterparts, elevating OVO to the realm of the theatrical. While audiences might be conscious of the show’s pretend-factor, they’re nevertheless moved by its execution.

But I have to say, on a personal note, I also loved -love -the clowning that happens in Cirque shows. OVO confirmed my adoration, using a cute story of thwarted-then-successful affection (Newcomer Boy Bug likes Neighbourhood Girl Bug; misunderstandings ensure before a happy communion). The clowns, as per the commedia dell’arte tradition that so influences Cirque’s work, gently and amusingly interacted with one another before mining the audience for inspiration. This, in turn, lead to inspiring play within the audience itself. The OVO clowns reminded me, in their pratfalls, voiced effects (which took the place of dialogue) and grand gesturing, of the importance of embracing the playful side of life, that play doesn’t just happen under the Grand Chapiteau.

And maybe that’s the point of OVO, and on a larger scale, the mission of Cirque Du Soleil itself. It’s as if the clowns, tumblers, and the entire cast are there to remind us, that for every piece of darkness we come across in life, there exists its equal, shining and rife with possibility –and it’s right inside us. We may not be able to do the tricks and tumbles of the performers, but we can allow ourselves to be transported to the world of OVO, and thus, engage our imaginations –and hearts –in the process. Outside the protective canvas walls of the Chapiteau, there’s certainly misery aplenty; inside, however, there is simply… play. Insect play, human play, musical play, physical play. Play takes you out of yourself, and to quote an old song, “take the world in a love embrace.” Sure it’s corny –but it’s needed more than ever for what’s bugging us. Play is there -here –if you want it. Merci, Cirque.

Cirque Du Soleil photos by Benoit Fontaine.

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