November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
February 25, 2016
In a dark room, white powder is blown on a blistery, aged back. The thunder of a crowd is some ways off. Two men carefully mount a translucent plate on the back of a hunched-over figure. A pair of accordion-like tubes run from the figure’s neck to a breathing apparatus that covers his nose and mouth. When he stumbles from his chair and out of the shadow, a mortifying face emerges, eyes blind to the humane and teeth pulled from the wrecked mouth of a horse and then bolted to the exterior of the breathing mask. It is a mask that has become as much a part of the man as his own flesh. A wild mane of white hair gives the man the look of a half-engineered Paleolithic beast; he is as futuristic and primitive as the postapocalyptic world he dominates.
When he steps toward the light, the cheer becomes less muddled. Out of the cavern, at eye level, we see mountainous rock features sweep across the landscape. The crowd swells with anticipation and then erupts as the spectators catch a glimpse of the figure. Standing in the mouth of an icon etched in the cliff’s side, the figure, Immortan Joe, the antagonist of Mad Max: Fury Road, extends his hands in a papal gesture. Once the masses have quieted, he comforts the people as their redeemer, his voice echoing through the mechanical mouthpiece before it reaches the valley.
Then, thrusting two levers forward, Immortan Joe releases a storehouse of water, which crashes upon the people gathered below. Each member of the crowd has brought some cracked or misshapen container, something with which they hope to capture even a drop of water. Here, the cadence of the film appears to slow, the lens lingering on the thirsty crowd. The score ascends, creating a cinematic climax at what seems, in terms of the overarching plot of the film, a premature moment. We feel we have walked into the end of another film.
This scene of falling water draws from a profoundly human story, a narrative of need, vulnerability, and corruption. Its displaced crescendo (in terms of pacing, music, and intensity) speaks to the sensitivity of the director, George Miller, and his trust in the audience. It is a worthy demonstration of the old adage show, don’t tell. As we watch the crowd lunge for water, the absent plot—belonging to the film into which we have entered late—is superseded by a window into an unarticulated part of ourselves. We know the story that builds to this crescendo, and thus we feel the jubilance of the ragged crowd.
Max Max: Fury Road, with its focus on the human and implicit trust of the audience, fits the profile of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “reverent seeing,” a phrase he used to describe a poem written by his dear friend Eberhard Bethge. When the Nazis imprisoned Bonhoeffer for his involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, he corresponded with Bethge about books they had read, creative pieces they were working on, and ideas they were formulating; this was perhaps the most creative time in Bonhoeffer’s life. Many readers may be familiar with Bonhoeffer’s criticisms of “religiosity” and his call for a “religionless Christianity,” but one finds his most lucid exposition of this idea in a response to Bethge’s Father’s Day poem, published as “Der Vater.” Bonhoeffer ecstatically describes the merit of Bethge’s poem, saying,
It is precisely how and what you see. It [is] not that intrusive, curious sort of seeing that analyzes and forces itself upon everything, but a clear, open, and yet reverent seeing. This kind of seeing, which—from a theoretical point of view—I myself am striving for in theological questions, is now leading you to artistic representation, and I think that perhaps here lies our strongest intellectual-spiritual kinship. With me it is a seeing with the intellect; you see with your eyes and all your senses.
This is the kind of seeing on display in Mad Max. The aesthetic subtleties of Miller’s craft display a deeply humane vision, which is akin to what Bonhoeffer saw inconspicuously lying within his friend’s poem. Bonhoeffer, said this humane vision, or what he called “reverent seeing,” is the telos of everything he attempted to do in his work. Bonhoeffer did not want Christians to view the world specifically as Christians but to view the world with the reverence proper to it. Film, like other forms of artistic representation, makes us see in a particular way. Miller’s frenetic action film Mad Max demonstrates just this kind of reverence and directs our seeing in a way both pedagogical and iconoclastic, as a guide for what to see and how to see in our culture.
Soon after seeing the cascading water, we again encounter Miller’s compassionate touch in a scene where the War Boys, Immortan Joe’s elite guard, hurry off in pursuit of a renegade soldier (Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa). They interlace their fingers above their heads in the shape of a V, implicitly paying homage to their motor chariots, V8s, that enjoy greater rights than humans in this wasteland. Where one might envision soldiers passing an armory before battle and selecting their weapons of choice, the War Boys pick from a display of custom steering wheels, which they use to ignite their vehicles. But Miller does not wait to humanize these grotesque, cultish devotees until they happen upon a turn of conscience, as we might expect him to do within the conventions of the action genre. Instead, he invests the visual story with the emotional complexity of a sympathetic kamikaze. We see the monstrous manner of the War Boys undercut by what we can perceive as insecurity and a desire to please. As with the Spartans, these War Boys believe that battle offers the promise of a worthy death. And so, out of a desperation to be seen, War Boy Nux, who is still recovering from an undisclosed injury, frantically tries to persuade his comrade that he is ready for battle. To withhold from these twisted characters their inherent humanity until it can be heroically earned later, Miller seems to say, is to limit the scope of what is included in their personhood.
In some sense, then, Miller’s storytelling subverts the order of Immortan Joe’s hierarchy. By humanizing his villains, he contradicts the totalitarian structure of Immortan Joe that renders human beings as potential property, as with the so-called “mothers,” whom we observe being milked in a factory-like setting. The physically elevated platform from which Immortan Joe addresses the crowd symbolically substantiates the distance between them.
Even the more spectacular images have narrative integrity and display the human qualities of Miller’s script. For example, the fleet of variously constructed war vehicles includes a flatbed truck transporting a wall of speakers that amplify an electric guitar which also doubles as a flamethrower. More than a fanboyish invention, the guitar has an anchored rationale for its place in the film. In the spirit of many bugle, drum, and bagpipe players who used instruments to guide military formations and instill fear in enemies, the rig is loud enough to broadcast the sound over the roaring engines. As everything is constructed from pieces of wreckage, Miller shows us that the guitar itself is made from hospital bedpans; this is fitting, as the postapocalyptic world itself is a gross reconfiguration of an original order of generosity, vulnerability, and love. This is also a deeply Christian idea, namely that evil is always disfiguring and corruptive to being and the good, having no autonomy or substance that would ever legitimate its place.
These understated notes of consideration are spread throughout the film. Reflecting on his love of the action genre, Miller says it offers the pure use of film language, as almost “visual music.” The case that Mad Max is borne from deeply human impulses is only strengthened when one considers that George Miller worked as a medical doctor in Australia at the beginning of his career, co-authored the critically acclaimed (and sensitive) film Babe, and directed Oscar winner Happy Feet.
Mad Max takes place almost entirely on the run. Imperator Furiosa makes an escape with the war rig of which she is the engineer and driver. When Immortan Joe notices her flight, he sets out with a fleet of war machines to capture her and calls for the return of his “precious cargo.” During this chase, five young girls climb from Furiosa’s trailer toward the cab. Their appearance is almost hallucinogenic against the biting horizon of that world. They wear what must be the last remaining pieces of white cloth in existence, and they have the impossible beauty of women who have been sheltered, evincing the deep timidity borne of such isolation: these are Immortan Joe’s wives.
These wives are presented with the utmost reserve. Another director might have trumpeted their horrific backstories to the audience, perhaps giving “heroic license” to Max and Furiosa’s violent efforts, as we have seen in various other action films (notably Braveheart). But this film is for the wives, not vice versa, which might appear counterintuitive when one considers their place in the remainder of the film.
For instance, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, a Victoria’s Secret model, was cast in Transformers: Dark of the Moon simply to be stunning. The structure of that film hinged on her beauty. In Mad Max, we are led to believe that this is the case again: as the Splendid Angharad, she is favored by Immortan Joe and bears his child. She is remarkable among the wives, their anchor and motivation through moments of terror. Nothing seems unusual about the casting selection, and all signs point to her playing the standard damsel in distress. In the crux of a set piece, Angharad is thrown from a vehicle and manages to grab hold of the side, where she awaits rescue. All cues are set for a dramatic recovery.
However, her grip slips, and she tumbles beneath the wheels of a pursuing vehicle. Immortan Joe rushes to her aid, and before long, she is found to have breath. But Immortan Joe’s concern is his heir. He commands his assistant to remove the baby. The assistant performs a very unromantic procedure. An infant leg passes quickly by the screen as he tosses the stillborn aside. Her only mourner, Immortan Joe, groans like a lover. The scene is the inversion of a sensible death. It would be easy for someone to walk away from the film feeling deeply uneasy or even nauseated by this kind of violence, particularly as it occurs with regard to women. The implied and explicit images of violence are jarring, to be sure. But this is not a film that glories in the excesses of heinous acts. The violence we see is not part of some testosterone-fueled carnal fantasy. Instead, the imminence of abuse throughout the film is insufferable because of its truthfulness. The visuals show only what is demanded by an honest look.
This is the difference between telling a story in an extreme way and telling an extreme story in an accurate way. To some degree, the film’s editing shields the audience from the worst of the violence, as if to wince along with us, giving us exactly what we need to follow the story. To retreat entirely from the horror, the film seems to say, would simply be another violent act. In this way, we can see Miller’s use of violence as a mark of compassion.
In keeping with the almost primeval narrative at work, Miller does not need or desire to depict any particular instance of abuse toward the wives. When Immortan Joe catches up with the renegade war rig captained by Furiosa, we watch as he pulls alongside and glares at his five panic-stricken wives. It is only a brief moment of eye contact in a torrent of combating vehicles, but it is a poignant one. This grotesque face is the face every abuse victim sees; whatever cinematic grandeur surrounds the scene, it serves this reality. One can appreciate then Miller’s decision to contact Eve Ensler, the author of The Vagina Monologues and a prominent activist who addresses issues of violence against women and girls, to consult for the film, helping the actresses prepare for their roles as Immortan Joe’s wives.
Mad Max has been touted as a feminist film because of the strong female presence in Theron’s character and the band of nomadic biker women who are introduced toward the end of the film. But as Miller has said elsewhere, Mad Max is not a feminist film; it is a film. For Miller, making women the centerpiece of an ideological program would be giving into a misogynistic impulse, putting his female characters in service of ideology. Instead, Miller is happy investing cultural memory with the original sacredness of femininity, not the edifice of the new modern women.
This film touches some profound part of us while never announcing itself as anything but an action movie. It raises the question of whether Miller was trying to operate out of sight from the studios, asserting his creative influence through a marketable genre. Again, he has done something far more honest and more interesting. He has fused the spectacle with the darkness of life.
The moral aesthetic that guides the creation is what opens avenues for compelling, imaginative renditions of darkness and triumph. By giving himself so fully to the form, Miller offers a more substantial critique of senseless violence for pleasure than might otherwise be possible. If he had used a purely dramatic film, swelling with grace and sentiment, to counter gratuitous violence, the impact of his seeing would have been lost. To conceive of nature as a battle of opposites presupposes an ontology of violence, which extends from visions of the abyss of primordial chaos to the various maneuvers of surviving species. Miller has done a far more Christian thing by seeing nature as already sharing in the good, as inherently graced, and this means that a discourse of reconciliation is required. Therefore, Mad Max is at its core a redemptive effort toward humanity. His attention to the humane in the genre invites us to consider what has always been present––hidden, distorted, or perhaps corrupted, but always present.
 Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. John W. de Gruchy, trans. by Isabel Best, Lisa E. Dahill, Reinhard Krauss, and Nancy Lukens, vol. 8 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010), 507. For further discussion of the importance of this phrase, see Justin Mandela Roberts, Sacred Rhetoric: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Participatory Tradition (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015), 103–18.
 Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 507.
 This is treated at greater length in Roberts, Sacred Rhetoric; see also Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 364–65.
 Shad, “Mad Max Director George Miller in Studio q,” YouTube video, posted by “q on cbc,” May 8, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vl9dWaEKqmM. Note how Miller refers to Hitchcock saying one should make films so they don’t have to read the subtitles in Japan.
 Shad, “Mad Max Director George Miller in Studio q.”
 Eliana Dockterman, “Vagina Monologues Writer Eve Ensler: How Mad Max: Fury Road Became a ‘Feminist Action Film,’” Time, May 7, 2015, http://time.com/3850323/mad-max-fury-road-eve-ensler-feminist/.
 “MAD MAX -conference- (en) Cannes 2015,” YouTube video, posted by “Festival de Cannes (Officiel),” May 14, 2015; no longer available online.
Justin Mandela Roberts
Justin Mandela Roberts is a PhD student at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario. He is the author of Sacred Rhetoric: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Participatory Tradition and Behold Our God: Contemplative Theology for the Soul.