Getting out of that fridge is hard

Getting out of that fridge is hard

Mad Max: Fury Road is a masterpiece of Australian cinema, that makes the rare achievement of building on its predecessors in the series to bring post-apocalyptic film-making to what must, surely, be its apotheosis. Visually stunning, with a brilliant sound-track, incredible pace, and a simple joy in hedonistic old-school road wars violence that is deeply infectious, this movie immerses you in its insane world from the very beginning and doesn’t let you escape until the credits roll. It is thorough in its vision of a grim, wartorn post-apocalyptic wasteland, unrelenting in pursuit of heady, dizzying action and absolutely frantic. But beneath its simple patina of gorgeous landscapes, sweeping chases and exciting stunts, it is also a movie of many layers, combining an uproarious vision of a freakshow post-apocalyptic death cult with a powerful homage to Australia’s alternative and bush culture, and a subtle nod to an eco-feminist critique of the societies that are driving to their own destruction. This is one of those movies that you can appreciate for its visual splendour and action sequences, but also that you can enjoy for its crazed Aussie clowncar humour, and contemplate afterwards in the light of its ecological and feminist politics. This, in my opinion, is the perfect balance of themes for a post-apocalyptic movie. It doesn’t make the mistake of unrelenting hopelessness that characterizes some movies like The Road; it doesn’t dull you to sleep with the empty spaces and silences of an empty world, like The Last Man on Earth or Legend; and it offers something more uplifting than the empty survivalism or post-human cynicism of much of the zombie survival genre. Through the post-apocalyptic setting it offers both excitement, gore and social critique, all couched in such a spirit of over-the-top, raucous and invigorating fun that surely only a zombie couldn’t help but at least slide into the scene and get that rev-head spirit going.

The introductory scenes of the movie leave us with a bewildering array of visions of craziness and freakish people that are confusing and overwhelming, as the scenes of Max’s capture are played through the tunnels and byways of what looks like a massive underground punk/skinhead garage. It will be some time before we figure out what’s happening to him or why, but before we do we’re given a sumptuous feast of the sick, the freakish and the mad as we watch the elite of the citadel lording it over their filthy crazed masses. This 10 minutes is like Peter Greenaway on speed, without purpose or sense, but then we hit the open road and get a few minutes to start putting it all in place – oh, that‘s why the women are being milked, that‘s why the freaks are running the circus, those women are running away from him! Then the trouble starts again and we’re back into chaos, but with a few sentences of expository dialogue (finally!) and the dawning realization of the trouble Max is in, and all of it set against a backdrop of classic 1990s Aussie sub-cultural monuments: the punk styling, the rev-heads worshipping V8 with their elaborate steering wheels, the skinhead warboys who’re whiter than Aryan and go all chrome and shiny to die on the Fury Road … In a couple of minutes of frantic action we’re shown an ecosystem, the skeleton of an apocalyptic death cult, and an entire aesthetic to go with it. Then the chase starts and we’re still absorbing it as Mad Max is roaring (or, more accurately, being roared) onto the Fury Road, which in this world is basically anywhere wheels can turn. But the freakshow doesn’t subside – just when you think you’ve seen it all, come to terms finally with the internally consistent madness of it all, new craziness pops into the scene, and tears up the desert with more chaos, and then makes sense again. What you see on the trailer – some dude in a harness with a flame-throwing guitar, a gigantic dude with oxygen tanks, that scary dude with the mask – that seems so over the top and stupid, it all makes its own brand of crazy sense before you’re even twenty minutes in, and you haven’t even met the object of all this craziness, or even the worst of it all yet. Then when it’s all said and done and you’re reading the credits and seeing who these people were – the Doof Warrior, Rictus Erectus, the Organic Mechanic, Nuks the Warboy – you realize you still didn’t get all of it because nobody told you their full name but every detail of their names is a homage to Aussie subcultures, especially the doof scene but also punk, hardcore and all the tattered, dreadlocked, bullet-studded chaos of the 1980s and 1990s underground. Here it is, flying out of your cinema screen in one last glorious death rattle of insanity, road-rage and revhead joy.

Beneath this infectious ecstasy of the open road the main characters are laying out an ecofeminist thesis. The basis of the story is a group of women – called the Wives – who are apparently genetically perfect (and very beautiful!) fleeing from their tyrannical husband Imortan Joe, with the help  of his best road warrior, a one-armed woman called Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron). Joe hopes to have healthy babies by these women, and keeps them locked up for his use until he can get a male heir to rule after he is gone. But they don’t want to be things, so they leave, and his warboys have to chase them. This is a pretty basic feminist plot, made stronger by a couple of narrative devices. First of all, the alleged hero of the show gets fridged at the very beginning – as in literally, nearly – and only gets drawn into the story by accident. He manages to fight his way to Furiosa’s side but his role in the story is just luck, he was meant to be just another thing back at the citadel and it’s pretty clear first, at least, that Furiosa isn’t particularly comfortable with the idea of bringing him along. He’s the passenger for much of the first quarter of this movie, and the chicks are driving the car. Then, these women are not helpless – they are agents of their own destiny, and act with all the tools, strengths and wiles at their disposal to make their getaway. They don’t know how to fight and they aren’t strong (and one is about to give birth) but they don’t let any of that stop them doing all they can to take charge of their situation. These women are also the expositors of the film’s ecofeminist thesis, using their few moments of dialogue (no one in this movie wastes breath speaking!) to drop a few choice eco-feminist koans. The crux of it all comes when one of the Wives is trying to push Warboy Nuks out of the truck, and they are arguing about whether she is one of the citadel’s folk or not. Nuks says that he is not to blame, but she demurs, and yells “Then who killed the world!?” before tossing him overboard. At another point one of the women is credited with calling bullets “anti-seeds”: you plant one and watch something die. These are classic tropes of eco-feminist thought, being delivered by strong women whose presence on the screen is inextricably tied to their femininity and their fertility, and a war being fought to control their powers of birth, that are so precious on this planet that (the implication is) was blighted by men like Imortan Joe. They don’t stand up to expound on a manifesto or to make demands or philosophical claims but every time these girls speak they say something linked to an eco-feminist creed. Even the first time we meet them, one of them is cutting off a chastity belt with teeth built into it, freeing herself of patriarchal sexual shackles, and the perverse vagina dentata fears that the patriarchy brings with them.

I must confess I love it when a good movie works an ideology into its very bones, but does it so well that even though you know it’s there you just get sucked along with it anyway. I have no care for Mal’s simplistic libertarianism in Serenity but I did love watching him righteously defend it; I can’t stand the authoritarian violent message underlying 300, or the way it elided Spartan slave-holding and paedophilia, but I loved watching those men fighting for their worthless cause. When a movie saturates itself with an ideology but does it so well that you either don’t notice or don’t care, or – best of all – everything makes sense in the context of that ideology, that is when you know a movie is well crafted. And Mad Max: Fury Road has carried this off brilliantly, with the rollicking plot and the rollercoaster of stunts and enemies and explosions and madness carrying you all the way to the eco-feminist oasis – and back again.

With this movie I think George Miller has drawn together a few ideas he was playing with in the first three Mad Max movies, but wasn’t quite able to pull off. We see hints of a feminist agenda in Beyond Thunderdome, with the powerful Aunty Entity running the town and trying to use Max as a pawn in her schemes. We see here too the role of oases and lost places as signs of hope, but in Fury Road Miller has been able to better combine them with the narrative of judgment on those who brought the world down that he played with in Mad Max 2. The whole thing is also carried off with a remarkable creative continuity: the names, the punk styles, the language of speech have a certain similarity to them, as do the baroque car designs and the hard scrabble economics of theft and hyper-violent rent-seeking. Even the actors are in some cases the same: Imortan Joe is Toecutter from Mad Max 1. This is a full campaign world Miller has created over the past 30 years, leavening it over time with better production values and now a much stronger environmental message, and maturing some other themes (like the role of power-mongers), but that campaign world has been remarkably consistent across all that time.

For all of these reasons, Mad Max: Fury Road was a movie well worth waiting 30 years for. Later this year Star Wars 7 will come out, and we have to hope that there, too, we will finally see continuity with the original legend after 30 years of lost chances. I am not holding my breath on that, but I can assure you, dear reader(s), that Mad Max: Fury Road is something special, and will redeem this year of cinema – and possibly this decade – no matter what happens at christmas. Watch it, and ride eternal, shiny and chrome!

 


Well, that wasn’t the experience I had in mind when I came to Japan. I was at work when this little nugget of chaos hit, and the trains immediately stopped so I spent all of yesterday evening (6.5 hours!) walking home, from Hongo to Kichijoji.  The route is in the map above, it’s between 16 and 18 kms (10.8 to 11.1 miles) and takes 3 hours 40 minutes without traffic lights. My experience of the biggest earthquake to hit Japan in 1200 years was … a long walk. Anyway, this post will describe events from the moment it struck to my arrival home, with hopefully some observations on Japanese life during the ramble. I’ve set it out in sections for your viewing pleasure and I’m approaching it in a light-hearted manner but let’s not forget that while I’m writing this a handful of cities have been completely destroyed and over a thousand people are still missing…

The Quake

I share an office with 4 women, two of whom were in yesterday and one of whom is rather sensitive where earthquakes are concerned (we had several in the last 2 weeks). We’ve already had enough minor rumbles for me to know that she’s got a very good sense for these things, and so we were all aware the moment the slightest tremor started. We sat at our desks while it got worse and my colleague became increasingly agitated, but the building itself wasn’t moving so much, really. Whenever an earthquake strikes I look out my window and thank my luck, because our building is new, made of very solid stuff and surrounded by a kind of cage of concrete buttresses, which are themselves cross-hatched with huge diagonally-placed steel girders. They weren’t even moving, and things were rattling inside and it was a bit … mobile … but nothing bad. It was certainly not like the video footage of Fukushima. But things kept getting worse so after maybe another 5 or 10 seconds the women in my office broke for the door, and we saw other staff rushing by outside. Since I don’t know much about earthquake safety, and figured that Tokyo people know best, I followed. This is sufficient both to show that a lifetime’s exposure to safety information isn’t necessarily particularly effective (as you’ll see, we should have stayed!) and to illustrate how long and devastating this earthquake was. We are on the 5th floor of the Medicine faculty building, and before we left we grabbed our coats and bags (!) – I forgot my bag at the door and went back for it. We then had to walk down the corridor and down 5 flights of stairs, along the corridor and through the (still-functioning) automatic doors, and out under a massive concrete verandah(!) to the path outside. When we arrived, the ground was still rocking, and the earthquake took a few seconds more to subside. I’d say it was more than a minute long (we had to descend those stairs with some care) and it was at its worst when we were halfway down the stairs.

So why was going outside so unwise? First of all because the stairs were not the most negotiable of rocking, twisting obstacle courses, and we could have fallen. But mostly because when we got outside we found ourselves standing in a narrow valley between two 8 storey buildings, with nowhere to run if one collapsed, right next to a truck full of gas bottles. Imagine the timing, if a single bit of concrete set off something in those gas bottles, and wiped out the cream of Tokyo University’s medical faculty so thoroughly that there wouldn’t be enough flesh left to clone them[1].

The Wait

We then engaged in every post-apocalyptic drama’s most tedious part, the wait. Everyone stood around in the cold, trying to get a reception on their phone, while a loud speaker gave us increasingly disturbing news – first it was a magnitude 5, then a magnitude 6, then we discover the whole coast is affected, etc. The ground kept swaying occasionally, and we were all quite scared, so that sometimes you couldn’t tell if it was the ground or your own fevered imagination. At which point you could just check that truck, to see how much the gas bottles were wobbling… until the delivery chap came out wheeling a gas bottle, and tightened the whole lot up. People were wandering around, trying to call loved ones, looking around at the clear cold day and talking about how damnably scary a big earthquake is, and I was looking at that cage of girders and buttresses around our building and thinking, “bravo for Japanese engineering.” Eventually, after about 20 minutes, the loudspeaker informed us that we should all move to an open area and wait for further instructions. Sometime in this period the three women from reception emerged from the building, having taken the much more sensible approach of hiding under their desks while the world wobbled[2].

So off we all went, me and the women from my office at quite a pace, because that gas truck was a bit disturbing. Halfway there another big tremor hit, so you could see all the topiary of the medicine faculty grounds shaking and grooving – had the topiary been dinosaurs and not mere tree-shaping, the effect would have been quite excellent. My colleagues and I decided to move more rapidly at this point, because I have already decided that I intend to die at the wheel of a ferrari during my mid-life crisis, not in a hail of broken glass from the university admin building. So we arrived expeditiously at the centre of the campus, and more standing around ensued. One of the reception staff managed to produce another ingenious Japanese invention – a combined torch and radio – and we listened to increasingly alarming news from up north – a 6m tsunami forecast for Fukushima, all underground trains halted, risk of aftershocks. Which kept coming and coming, so that every few minutes the ground kept shaking.

After another little while two of our colleagues were dispatched to check the building, and the all clear was given. We returned to our offices but no-one was in the mood for work. One of my colleagues walked around distributing water bottles “just in case” and we all spent the afternoon checking the internet. At about 5pm it was decided to leave early, because none of the trains were working, so we were going to have to walk home. With typical Japanese quiet calm, teams were organized, to ensure that the foreign staff who speaks no Japanese could get home, and the completely new guy who doesn’t know Tokyo (i.e. me). One staff member had ordered sushi for a party that was now cancelled, so we ate some sushi and off we went, leaving behind four staff members who live so far away that their only choice was to stay the night in the office.

Disaster Japanese

I should mention at this point that my Japanese is neither good enough to understand Japanese spoken on loud-speakers, nor sufficiently stocked with disaster words. Also, although I can read some Japanese I don’t read nearly enough to be able to navigate information sites quickly, nor can I understand much of radio broadcasts, so I was very much dependent on my colleagues’ support when it came to working out what was happening. I also don’t know anything about Tokyo so had no idea how to get home. My heart goes out to all those people in Japan who don’t speak or read Japanese and found themselves stranded and far from home in such a situation, because it can be bewildering even if most day-to-day conversation is manageable. By the end of the day my colleague who doesn’t speak any Japanese (a British visiting professor) was beginning to get quite frustrated, because even though people translate the essential stuff, when people are scared and confused they naturally exchange a lot of information very rapidly in their mother tongue. Certainly in the shock of the event my Japanese went a little backward, and my sentence construction fragmented. Plus, who prepares the necessary vocabulary for a situation like this in their second language? Who thinks to themselves “I really should learn all the apocalypse words in my second language”? Well, actually, I have learnt a pretty weird vocabulary in my time here, but I’m a nerd. And my weird vocabulary might include monsters, but it doesn’t include words like “evacuation” and “elevated ground”. So, handling a disaster in a second language… not the best way to deal with the situation[3].

The Walk

So we set off, me and two colleagues, for a walk we predicted to take about 3.5 hours. One colleague was separating at Shinjuku, and one at Shin Nagano. At that point I would be on my own, and I had rather sensibly elected not to print a map. Of course, this is Japan so you can guarantee that someone will help you, but I think it should be clear here that I’m not part of that small elite of people who are going to survive the apocalypse. Though I did have good walking shoes (I recommend Whoop-de-doo shoe company for all your apocalyptic footwear needs). We set off at 5:30, and as soon as we emerged from the campus we entered a river of people. As we got closer to Shinjuku station this river widened, like the famous graphic of Napoleon’s advance on Moscow; everyone was heading the same way, towards the huge junctions at Shinjuku and Ikebukuro. The same river was flowing on both sides of the road, and in between us was a river of traffic, all moving very slowly and forced to delay at every crossing as thousands of people crossed the roads. The crowd was cooperative and quiet, as crowds always are in Japan, not pushing or getting in each other’s way even at the stupidly-designed crossing near the Shinjuku rail bridge, where a crowd 10 abreast coming one way hits the same crowd going the other way, at a corner where the pavement is barricaded from the road and narrows to two people in width. Even bicycles negotiated this chokepoint without yells or complaints. People just accepted that we were in this situation, and moved through and past each other with that quiet Japanese manner that makes everything here flow so smoothly.

On the way we passed many things, but one thing we didn’t see was any evidence of earthquake damage, and everyone was chatting and joking as if this were a funny little outing, or a charity walk. At about 8pm everyone in possession of a docomo phone finally got their earthquake warning call (for the 2:40pm earthquake), and there was more joking about this. We didn’t have proper reception so noone could watch TV or receive information, so mostly we didn’t know about the catastrophe unfolding further North. I passed a bicycle shop where a queue of maybe 20 or 30 people were waiting patiently to buy bicycles, the staff frantically trying to assemble and register the bikes as quickly as possible; every macdonalds had huge queues outside as people gathered for food, and all the convenience stores where thronging with people, many queueing for the toilets. Some restaurants had put out signs saying “We have toilets, please use them,” which was a nice touch. Some shops had to close due to damaged stock (particularly the alcohol shops) but most restaurants were open and doing a roaring trade. I saw a cute scene of a man entering a rental car shop to be greeted by a staff member bowing with good-humoured and exaggerated obeisance, to make clear that this time, at least, the lack of available cars was entirely beyond his control. I passed a group of girls standing around their friend, whose feet just weren’t up to the task in her work shoes – I think this must have been a problem for many people. Groups of people were camping out in the rooms where the cash corners are located, some with their laptops out. At Shinjuku I saw the fascinating contrast of twenty or thirty people crouched under a shop entrance, with nowhere to go for the night; in amongst them was a homeless man with his possessions and, of course, his cardboard house, suddenly a prince among paupers as the usual order of Japanese life was turned on its head by nothing more than the collapse of the transport system. But for all of this sea of humanity with its congestions and minor tribulations and difficulties, I didn’t see a single person get in a fight. And no one smoked as they walked. They stopped at the smoking spots before continuing, preserving even the smallest of Japanese manners at this moment of confusion.

All these people of all walks of life converged on Shinjuku, the hosts swaggering through the crowd past salarymen and schoolgirls and office ladies in little elegant gaggles, every tenth person wearing a mask. The traffic was still trapped in gridlock, inching forward, and we were moving much faster. Under the Shinjuku bridge and onward up Blue Plum Road, already 3 hours into our journey and me only halfway home. At Shin Nagano when my colleague left me I bought some hand-warmers (kairo) and stuffed them in my pockets, and kept walking until I stumbled on a cute little cafe, Doggie Boogie Cafe, where I took a break and had what I think is the best Thai food I’ve eaten in a long time. Here I rested for an hour before continuing, and now I walked alongside a pair of office workers who had set off an hour before me from Tokyo station, and had just finished their second break (this one, in the cafe with me, was for booze). They were still cheerful despite 4 hours of walking and 3 more to come, and they and the restaurant owner helpfully directed me to a shortcut to Kichijoji, down Itsukaichi Road. Here I found a bus stop for a bus going to Kichijoji station, but it was 10 pm and the last bus left at 9:20pm. Too bad! I had my ipod on now, and kept walking. At 10:50pm I passed that last bus, stuck in traffic and jammed with people. Further on I found the 9pm bus, stopped at a bus stop, and finally got to see something I have always heard of but never seen – two bus company employees actually pushing passengers into the bus to fit more on. One often sees this on TV but I’ve never seen it in real life, so that’s a Tokyo experience I can tick off… and I’m glad I didn’t have the experience of being pushed onto that bus, because I beat it to Kichijoji station when I arrived at midnight.

So, I finally got home at about quarter past midnight, my only information about the disaster unfolding to the north coming from a single mail from my partner, that arrived during a patchy period of uncongested transmission at about 9pm, telling me it was bad. I have a friend in Iwaki City, which has been partially destroyed and may have to be evacuated due to the nuclear plants; I spent the evening occasionally trying to call him but the reception was impossible. Occasionally mails would reach me from various people, asking if I was okay or telling me they were okay, but this was intermittent. It was just me, alone in the cold neon night amongst a river of a million people just like me. And when I got to Kichijoji at midnight that river was still flowing but I, thankfully, was at the end of my earthquake odyssey and able to find out the true magnitude of the horror unfolding to the north. This morning Tokyo feels just like it did yesterday, as if nothing happened, except for the regular little aftershocks. I think it’s safe to say that this is a very good country to experience a disaster, even if (or maybe especially if) you don’t speak the language. Nonetheless, I’d have happily traded this experience – especially that minute in my office, wondering if I’m about to become a statistic (東京外国人1人死亡)- for a quiet evening with a glass of wine and a book.

fn1: We’re across from the experimental research facility, where they probably have that technology.

fn2: As a general approach to problem-solving, this is probably excellent

fn3: Though I pride myself on understanding all of “A tsunami warning is being broadcast for the Fukushima Prefecture, and all people living in coastal areas should immediately evacuate.”

This is not a milk delivery

The Road is a nasty post-apocalypse movie by John Hillcoat, based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. The basic story is very simple – a man and his son are walking south towards the coast through a post-apocalyptic landscape, trying to survive while they head for the sea. The cause of the apocalypse is not described, but the land has been locked in a perpetual winter, all the animals and plants are dead and gone, and there are no surviving communities. What few humans there are mostly live by cannibalism, scavenging the ruined towns and cities for any edible remnants of the time before but mostly living by killing and eating other travellers – or keeping them alive and eating them bit by bit, depending on how clever they are. The sky, the land and the buildings are all grey, there is regular rain and snow, and the father in the story is slowly dying of what appears to be some kind of apocalypse-related disease. They are heading south in hopes of finding land capable of sustaining life and communities, and also some warmth, because they realize they can’t survive another winter in the freezing inland.

The majority of this movie is a story completely without goodness or hope. The scenes of cannibalism are quite horrific, and the two lead characters do not have any positive encounters with people during their travels. They hide from any people they see, and don’t trust anyone. On several occasions they stumble on functioning small communities of about the size of a small gang, only to discover that they are cannibals living in horrifyingly primitive and evil circumstances, and have to flee. Even the non-cannibals they meet have hints of terrible pasts – an old man who may have eaten his own son, for example – and the two main characters are themselves constantly starving, so that the question of “would you or wouldn’t you?” weighs heavily upon them.

This movie was probably a little too grim for my tastes, and strikes me as one of those moments where a book shouldn’t have been made into a film. It’s just too nasty to put actors to, even if the actors in question manage to do the job brilliantly. The world of the apocalypse is powerfully done, so that you really do feel like you’re there, and there’s not really anything you question about the veracity of the setting – it’s internally very consistent. Viggo Mortensen puts in a powerful performance as the father, and all the other actors live up to their parts most admirably. But you find yourself thinking, by the end of it, that surely even the most powerful artistic powers are thoroughly wasted if they are bending their prodigious talents to the production of something so horrific and grim as this.

My only two complaints with this movie are minor, but they may bug other viewers too. The boy – Viggo Mortensen’s son – played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, is annoyingly weak and innocent, and does things that after 7 or 10 years of post-apocalyptic life you’d think would be well beaten out of any sensible survivor. He seems to have no cynicism or mistrust, he is physically weak (reasonable, I suppose) and he is incapable of being silent when he needs to be. He also doesn’t seem to analyze situations very well, either. His innocence and purity are so inconsistent with the world around him that it makes one think he was written into the story as a kind of allegory of human conscience, in which case it was all done rather clumsily. At times his mistakes and weak points are quite frustrating, and it’s hard to believe that after 10 years of dodging cannibals – and in some cases watching them kill and eat the people who don’t dodge them – he hasn’t quite managed to work out that he is living in a world where no-one can be trusted. But I can also see that this is the intent of the story – the father has managed to shelter his boy from the worst of the apocalypse for years, and has difficulty preparing the boy to look after himself once papa dies.

My other complaint is that the ending seems a bit deus ex machina, in that after setting up a world of such unrelenting cruelty, that presents its survivors with such hard and nasty choices, the final resolution to the plot seems so unbelievable as to be almost an act of god. However, the presence of a moment of hopefulness in an otherwise completely forlorn and ruined world made it acceptable. Had the movie ended more realistically, with the final scene being the kid being butchered and eaten by scumbags, I probably would have set fire to my tv. Or myself.

In short, this is a great movie that it’s best not to watch.