Sunday, September 03, 2017

Mad Max, Opus 2

One of the drawbacks of watching films again on television is that, in their immense majority, they only belong to two categories: American cinema and French cinema*. Even if we accept that these two are – from the beginning – two real poles of the history of cinema, we must realise that everything that doesn’t come out of the Franco-American power struggle is doomed to a sad TV-oblivion. The idea of a prime time Soviet, Indian, or simply British film, is akin to Third-Worldism and to the fantasy of a retarded cinephile. In that way, television aggravates this desertification of the world, which happens to be – no surprise, it’s always been like this – one of the great themes of the contemporary non-American cinema. From La région centrale (Michael Snow, sublime) to Stalker (Tarkovsky, not bad) through to, why not, the Australian Mad Max 2 (1981).
One of the advantages of watching films again on television is that, in their immense majority, they’ve all been made ten years ago or so and it’s therefore possible to see all the points they already had in common at the time. That’s how we can already take enough stock to identify what makes Mad Max 2 a contemporaneous film to Diva. Where Beinnex was trying to film emotions stored in objects stacked up in loft-like studios or in clichés engraved in memories by advertising, George Miller filmed feelings stored in diverse objects generously offered to all possible destructions along the roads and deserts of Australia. 
In both cases, it’s the unfolding of the array of things, its sentimental exhibition or its murderous demonstration, that is essential to the film. Whether it’s behind closed doors or in open spaces, it’s all about the extensive use of a finite number of objects. As if, faced with the difficulty to invent stories and characters, one had drummed up the return of the accessories and props that have served the history of cinema, even if it means one last round of honour, for one’s pleasure (Spielberg will do the same with his toons). A few years before the first classics of ‘perfect void’ like The Bear, there were filmmakers who played for a while with this pleasant paradox: to film in the places that are both encumbered and deserted. Emptied and overpopulated. For example, the Australian desert. 
Mad Max 2 begins very well, with the voice over and the fake black and white archive from after the end of the world. But Mad Max 2 ends up rather flat, at the end of a pursuit where monotony takes over even pyrotechnics. In fact, the film begins where the documentary finishes and finishes where the myth should start over. It only exists for a short moment, between the trauma of the past and the utopia of the future. The myth is biblical, with a community under siege, united by the most precious good: oil. But oil is a metaphor for the human essence, eventually preferred to the folkloric barbarism of the tribes. Mad Max 2 still belongs to the films that play the human against the inhuman, meaning that they hold the human as a value and the inhuman as the spectacle. Max is the perfect fellow traveller for these new oil-thirsty Christians.
Caught between two poles, the film never ‘functions’ as well as when it settles (with humour) in a form of perversion: how this motley crew of good and evil characters, all individuals, abandons itself, with utmost fury, to the most banal violence, in an array of things unveiling simultaneously their inner workings and their strangeness. The binoculars co-exist with the spyglass, the crossbow with the flamethrower, the snake with a flying machine, the boomerang with the microphone. Nothing is more stimulating for the audience than the mandatory choice one must constantly make between the identification of a machine (what’s this?) and the spectacle of its efficiency (how does it work?). All anthropologists know this and George Miller’s fake anthropology is still, at the start of the eighties, one of the most inventive. The price to pay is that, after a while, this unbridled functionalism stops being surprising and ends up being rather tiresome. And it’s when tiredness has won (over Max and the audience) that the script brings the rabbit out of the hat: the morale of the story and the meaning of History. 

* It’s worse than that. No only non-French and non-American films are disappearing from television, but between ten and twenty years of the history of cinema are fading away from the conscience of the new cinephiles. I’m talking of the ‘new cinemas’ of the sixties and the seventies. It’s a fair bet to think that the first films made by Glauber Rocha, Tanner, Oshima, Skolimowski, Eustache, Ferreri, Kramer, Olmi, Bene, Passer, Perrault, Iosseliani, Fassbinder and others are unknown today. The author, upset, hopes this is just a purgatory. 
First published in Libération on 22 November 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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