Alexis L. Boylan
A dystopia is only a bad dream, just as a utopia is a good one—these are places that don’t actually exist.
—DAVID RUNCIMAN, How Democracy Ends (2018)
What Am I Looking At?
Visual description defines the first spoken words in the film: “My name is Max, and my world is fire and blood.” In fact, Max is wrong—his world has water too. Indeed, over the next two hours, Mad Max: Fury Road makes the most of the aesthetic qualities of blood, fire, and water—almost no scene is missing one of these features. Thus, it is a movie that is visually dominated by red, yellow, and blue. But it is another color, green, that the heroes of the film go to find. Green is the color of redemption and hope; green is the color of the home they want to go back to or that they must take and create themselves. Green is also, not coincidentally, in only a spare few shots of the film.
A new version of Fury Road was released in 2017 in black and white, which was apparently what the film’s director, George Miller, originally wanted for the movie.1 This was quickly overruled by the studio, so instead of demanding a cohesive aesthetic through the contrast of opposites, Miller made a film of saturated primary colors. This may seem a small point, but in fact aesthetics and contrasts, pleasures and denied pleasures, beauty and not-beauty, dominate the visual and narrative experience of the film. It is why the movie, released in 2015, was not only nominated and awarded numerous Oscar awards but has also become fetishized by film critics, audiences, and artists. Director Steven Soderbergh, for example, while promoting his own movie, reminded readers of the skills Miller exhibits in Mad Max:
I just watched Mad Max: Fury Road again last week, and I tell you I couldn’t direct 30 seconds of that . . . I don’t understand how [George Miller] does that, I really don’t, and it’s my job to understand it. . . . I’m going to try and watch the people who do it really well and see if I can climb inside their heads enough to think like that. But he’s off the chart. I guarantee that the handful of people who are even in range of that, when they saw Fury Road, had blood squirting out of their eyes.2
Likewise, there are numerous scholarly film and fan sites on the web that break down frame by frame how Miller captured the long, technically and cinematically complex shots using minimal CGI effects.3 I hover on the film’s remarkable technical skill not to argue that this is a good film, or an arty film, but to argue that that the experience was—more than most action movies, big-budget films, and indeed even most art-house cinema—produced and then viewed as a very specific aesthetic experience. Miller said in an interview that to him the model for the film was silent movies.4 In other words, he focused on visuals and used sight as the vector for viewers to access the narrative and the tone of the film.
Yet, therein also lies Miller’s talent, for the film is not just about seeing; it is also demonstrably about manipulating the audience to consider the visual aesthetic as the primary cinematic experience. Narrative is delivered through an aesthetic that calls the nature of, or qualities of, beauty into question. For example, primary and contrasting colors make the movie more intense and also more alienating. This alienation is heightened in the black-and-white version, which in each frame plays with revealing and then hiding details. The intense contrast, for the popular release, forces the audience to think about seeing; everything is too bright and too dark, pulling the viewer in and then making them incapable of seeing. This is matched by grand landscapes of vast deserts and stunning mountains recalling at once the very history of epic filmmaking from Westerns to Lawrence of Arabia (1962, dir. David Lean), films that used the camera to push the audiences into a neat sublime where they were awed but never totally overwhelmed by the land.5 Humans, in other words, in these cinematic geographies still dominated their world. Miller keys the audience up for this experience by giving us sweeping long views, but then he consistently mars his vistas with garbage and cars and vehicle tracks cutting through the scene. Nature will not play how the audience has come to expect it to in the film. Conventional cinematic beauty is undone with memory and waste and garbage, again forcing the viewer to both watch the film and consider the act of watching a film. Miller plays with the landscape as both too much and not enough visually, making the audience aware of what historically cinema’s pleasures have been and then aware of being denied those pleasures.
Finally, beautiful actors, models, everybody really—are masked and then dismembered, presented and denied to the viewer. This denial is most acutely felt in the constant hiding of actor Tom Hardy’s face throughout the first half of the film. First covered in hair, then hanging upside-down, then put into a face mask, one of the more cinematically interesting and vibrant actors is obscured to the viewer.6 Likewise, actor Charlize Theron, known for her blonde locks, is shorn bald and covered in grease paint. Miller banks on the audience wanting visual access to these actors by playing with the actors’ lived glimmering whiteness and perfection and then denying that conventional, satisfying beauty audiences have been trained to crave on the screen. The one exception might seem to be Wives, draped in white and framed as precious, perfect, and in need of saving. Yet their fragility and perfection despoils them; their physical wholeness is their flaw and weakness, the very trait they seem to loathe about themselves and must overcome to win the viewer’s affection and admiration. (I should note here that Anna Mae thinks I let the Wives off too easily, noting, “Their makeup is unbelievably on point throughout the whole damn film!” True. But this normative cinematic beauty is used by Miller not to show vanity or value, but peril. Only when their clothes are muddied and they get killed in graphic ways does the viewer get access to them as individuals.) They must write on the walls of their captive space, “We are not things,” to remind themselves, and the viewer, that what makes them beautiful makes them not matter.7
Thus, there is no whole body, no whole car, no cohesive object in the normative sense of that word, in the entirety of the film. Tattoos are visible but unreadable, and maps are shown only to be inconclusive—vast geographies are scanned, but viewers cannot get situated in a location before they are cast out by the camera. Sight in this way is highlighted and tested, and viewers are consistently pulled into a scene only to be driven away, promised and then denied the gaze. All this plays with pleasure and, more specifically, a craving for beauty, for stability, for the signs and symbols that viewers have come to read in films. Traditional cinematic tropes of beauty hold this picture together but are undermined almost at the same moment. Miller and his cinematic team giveth and then taketh away.
Film scholar Laura Mulvey’s dreams for a new version of feminist cinema, one loosed from traditional narrative and one that upends viewers’ notions of bodies and authority, might whisper in our ears now, like the recurring child that haunts Max in the film, appearing to both unnerve him and give him strength.8 Mulvey, in her groundbreaking, oft-cited, and oft-criticized article argues (and I overgeneralize here) that conventional Hollywood narrative cinema traps the viewer in gendered roles, controlling the gaze (the male gaze) or forcing the role of the recipient of the gaze (to-be-looked-at-ness). Could this be the film, or a version of the film, that begins to fundamentally undermine the gaze? That offers narrative and visual displacement in ways that can liberate bodies? The film that suggests the end of one kind of relation to gender and bodies and power and beauty and tries to make another? Is this the film many of us have been waiting for that combines the pleasures of the scopic with the simultaneous dismantling powers to distrust that easy scopic pleasure and maintain awareness of power and pleasure? Is green the color of disjuncture, liminality, and nonprogression that could break us free from the gaze that has trapped our forms with every new film? The easy answer is no, but in asking these questions, beauty and a contemporary craving for cinematic beauty comes into view.
You Say Beauty, I Say Not-Beauty, So Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off
If calls, promises, and false claims at having arrived at a post-racial, post-gender, post-class world have fallen intellectually, politically, and socially flat—concepts of beauty or the beautiful, in a popular and visual context, have comfortably moved into “post” world. Fashion magazines proudly advertise their promotion of “alternative” aesthetics of punk, steampunk, ironic, old-fashioned, or apocalyptic styles and eagerly mine normcore trends while Dove soap and the GAP assure audiences that now all body types are beautiful. Thus, in regard to a kind of cultural zeitgeist of consumer culture, the new visual regime seems solidly post-beauty.9 Anti-aesthetic as all-inclusive aesthetic has, in popular culture, become the most profitable aesthetic, promising a seemingly egalitarian, antiracist, anti-ageist, anti-body-shaming philosophy that urges us to see that all is beautiful, nothing is beautiful. It is feminist to be beautiful, it is feminist not to be beautiful. You can be beautiful, you should not have to be beautiful, but you are beautiful and not-beautiful whether you want to be or not. We are repeatedly sold and told that this post-beauty moment is the new standard, a fixed version, a new and improved beauty with all the selling power and none of the judgment and all the that good inclusiveness.
If in popular discourse “the beautiful” has been easily co-opted into neoliberal marketing campaigns that make the word everything and nothing simultaneously, recent scholarly and academic discourse has dealt with beauty differently. As scholar Wendy Steiner smartly notes, “invoking beauty has become a way of registering the end of modernism and the opening of a new period in culture.”10 Every few years, a new manifesto is published that demands that art speak again to beauty with clarity, vision, and—most importantly—cohesive intention.11 Pro-beauty authors typically fetishize a European elite visual culture (circa 1910–1940) that saw the world, took the most interesting bits from here and there, and pulled it together to give freshness and progressive meaning to those willing to see it. Yet, for the savvy postmodern reader, the beauty these texts mourn was never real or cohesive, and reviving beauty is nothing more than modernist nostalgic drivel.12
Alternatively, critical theorists have mined the cute, ugly, interesting, pretty, magnificent, glamorous, and incandescent as potentially non-racist, queer, feminist alternatives to beauty that serve more moral, ethical, radical, and progressive aesthetic and pleasurable goals.13 For those scholars, alternative aesthetic categories have more intellectual, social, and artistic promise. Beauty, these texts argue, was always part of the colonial, capitalist, modernist, exploitive model, so we must invest in something else, something different.14 Scholar Simon May, for example, sees potential in cute:
Cute . . . is above all a teasing expression of the unclarity, the un-certainty, the uncanniness, the continuous flux or “becoming” that our era detects at the heart of all existence, living and nonliving . . . this “unpindownability,” as we might call it, that pervades Cute—the erosion of borders between what used to be seen as distinct or discontinuous realms. And, although Cute can become hijacked by a desire for power, it also articulates, perhaps more fundamentally, a nascent will to repudiate the ordering of human relations by power, or at least to question our assumptions about who has power and to what end.15
While these texts are radical and filled with potential, and each promises a new aesthetic scoreboard, none have truly galvanized or reordered the dialogue. Beauty of the old-fashioned sort seems remarkably tenacious, and even with good reasons to reject it and smart alternatives to turn to, there is a marked reluctance to let go. The evidence for this is the kind of scholarly and popular Groundhog Day where every few years another critic or scholar “rediscovers” beauty and tries to repackage it as critical, nonregressive, and urgent. Beauty thus is lathered and rinsed again and again.16
Therefore, on the one hand we are post-beauty, and on the other, we need a better beauty, a not-beauty beauty. Here is where I will borrow and twist Frederic Jameson’s pithy quip—It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of beauty.17 This contemporary paradox about the meaning of beauty, the desire to destroy the power of beauty but then to resurrect it as different is being fought out in the most interesting, but also deeply problematic, ways in postapocalyptic narratives—à la Mad Max: Fury Road. Fury Road calls for a post-post-beauty, a postapocalyptic version of beauty that is somehow cleansed of the messiness of preapocalyptic beauty with its tainted racist, patriarchal, anti-queer, ableist agenda. This new post-post-beauty suggests that if society starts over, beauty should also return. In other words, despite the total social failure, death, and destruction, a good apocalypse might be just the place to reimagine happiness and beauty as uncomplicated and giving, as pure and blissful, and most revolutionary, as liberated from commodity culture.
Witness Me, or a Better Beauty
Mad Max: Fury Road places us squarely in these questions with a plot that is essentially the quest to go to the Green Place. Now, I want to be clear here, I do not think the movie is a masterpiece, and again, there is much here that suggests nothing much has shifted in terms of fundamentally changing sight, or power, or beauty (see Barb’s and Mike’s essays). Yet I do think we need to consider this film—and I would also include here other contemporary dystopic films such as Only Lovers Left Alive (2013; dir. Jim Jarmusch), Snowpiercer (2013; dir. Bong Joon-ho), and Annihilation (2018; dir. Alex Garland)—as a new call for beauty, a new call for some kind of purpose, politics, solidity, and social justice from art and aesthetics. However, this reinvestment in beauty could be viewed as reaffirming a nostalgic view of beauty and thus missing an opportunity to once and for all imagine an end of the regimes of the beautiful. Futurist and end-times art should, in this line of thinking, be progressive spaces to embrace the ugly, the pretty, the zany, the magnificent (in other words, new critical progressive ideas to supplant beauty) and work to distance a potential future from the past. Yet, when considering how neoliberal visual culture has already voraciously co-opted the ugly, the basic, the normal, the eccentric (again, normcore fashion, mom jeans, every “goth” teenager in every movie), perhaps these texts suggest an existential limit to the uses of those avenues back to pleasure and happiness and freedom. The quest for a better beauty is framed in Max Mad: Fury Road and other similar films as a preoccupation of the end-times, a quest for meaning. But, of course, these movies are not made then, they are made now, and as such they are clearly a preoccupation of the now.
Again, meaning in these films and texts is given a visual aesthetic; what we see and how we see, we are instructed again and again, matter. In thinking about Mad Max, the women at the core of the film’s quest are seeking “the Green Place.” As already noted, this is about a place that has remained free of oppression, free of pollution, free of killing. Yet, midway through the film, Max asks Furiosa what exactly this Green Place is. She looks back at the women she has tried to rescue and says, for them it is hope, and then she sadly notes that for her it is redemption. Regardless, for all—and the viewer is included in this all—there is a recognition that the Green Place is not reachable. It is the goal they all know they will never reach. Green is the color of this quest, a visualization of purpose from art and aesthetics, a meaning that is just out of reach. Cinematically, Miller never gives us the Green Place. He leaves us without a conclusion and instead strands the viewer in the quest for this post-post-beauty. Driving home this point is the lingering and sad look that Max and Furiosa share as he leaves the celebratory end moment. He cannot stay, but the viewer is aware that even Furiosa has likely only found momentary respite.
In this way, the conclusion of the film is a nonconclusion; it is merely a convenient end to the movie. Miller, however, suggests an ending elsewhere, an ending that demands a commitment to the beautiful, to the redeemable, to the possibility that seeing is possible and in seeing is salvation. When the War Boys, the ailing child army of the villain of Fury Road, think they are going to commit a final act of violence, they first spraypaint their mouths silver and then yell to their comrades, “Witness me.”18 This final act, which will give their lives meaning in the religious cult the War Boys belong to, demands theater. It demands putting on makeup and claiming an audience. They want to make themselves beautiful, it would seem, and then have someone look at them.
This idea of the beautiful as a profound displacement of the self, beauty as a potential road to social meaning and spiritual unity, is most convincingly argued by Elaine Scarry in On Beauty and Being Just (1999). Beauty is an end to a means, the end of fundamentally dislodging the self, a “radical decentering.”19 She argues, “People seem to wish there was beauty even when their own self-interest is not served by it; or perhaps more accurately, people seem to intuit that their own self-interest is served by distant peoples’ having the benefit of beauty.”20 This is what I see happening in the “witness me” moment; it is not ego, it is the possibility of seeing your way out of your body, and this is beauty. And even though this specific act is performed by the War Boys who are more like sick cult members than people acting from a centered, rational place, Miller reenacts this witness-me moment over and over in the film for other characters as a moment of catharsis, of meaning, of beauty.
Fury Road is a flawed film, but the movie, along with other postapocalyptic tales, seems to suggest that the desperation of the future is in fact a desperation of the now—desperation for post-post beauty. These films, and Mad Max: Fury Road perhaps best of all, remind the viewer that we are looking at and for something. Our quest is to see something that is worth walking on for. This could be, in fact, a cinematic plea to take Anthropocene anxiety and nihilism and turn that shit around.21 As Donna Haraway demands in her new treatise, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2018), “the need is stark to think together anew across difference of historical position and of kinds of knowledge and expertise.”22 If there is anything feminist in Mad Max: Fury Road, it is the visualization of desperation for better language, desperation for better art, desperation for a better way to look at bodies and think about power and value. Desperation to find something beautiful, like the Green Place, where you can witness me.