Friday, May 8, 2015

Cult Movie Project #9 (of 200): Road Rage? Sure, We All Go A Little Mad Sometimes: George Miller's MAD MAX (1979).

Fun fact! While completing his medical degree, George Miller served a trauma residency at an ER, witnessing first hand the end result of many traffic accidents, which the director later admitted went a long way in germinating the idea of his dystopian ode to high octane, unforgiving asphalt, and the merging of man and machine, Mad Max (1979).

Co-conspired with amateur filmmaker Byron Kennedy, both felt the raw, unflinching violence they intended would be tempered a bit and more believable for audiences (and less objectionable to the censors, I'd imagine,) if they set their tale in the not-to-distant future. Working with screenwriter James McCausland, they drew inspiration from the 1973 OPEC oil embargo and the effect it had on native motorists and what might've happened had it never been lifted. "[It] revealed the ferocity with which Australians would defend their right to fill a tank," said McCausland. "Long queues formed at the stations with petrol -- and anyone who tried to sneak ahead in the queue met raw violence. [We] wrote the script based on the thesis that people would do almost anything to keep their vehicles moving."

Plugged into this backdrop, before he went mad, Max Rockatansky (Gibson) was part of a dwindling police presence that patrolled the back-water byways of Australia as the world slowly ground to a halt due to sources of fossil fuels finally fizzling out. Out here, life isn't necessarily cheap, but you're actually more valuable as salvageable parts than as a whole person. (Don't believe me? Just ask the guys running the trauma center.) And as these resources dwindle, roaming gangs of outlaw bikers terrorize the countryside, stealing fuel, and raping and plundering any warm body as they go, doing their best to speed this process along to its inevitable apocalyptic conclusion.

And after several spectacular high-speed car chases, that ended even MORE spectacularly, these Acolytes are whittled down a bit by our heroes, who retaliate by killing Max's partner (Bisley). Now, combine that loss with a life-and-limb risk assessment and the revolving door of justice, which craps out the bad guys quicker than they can even bring them in, is it any wonder that Max is ready to quit before he winds up a highway statistic himself? But, not wanting to lose his best man, his captain talks him into a leave absence instead; an extended vacation with his wife, Jessie (Samuel), and their infant son, hoping a cooling off period will change his mind. Max accepts this offer; an offer he will soon come to regret.

As the old saying goes; if you wanna make a car chase movie, get your ass to Australia. There is such a tactile ferocity to the velocity Miller, cinematographer David Eggby, and a cadre of stunt personnel capture on film, usually risking life and limb to get it. (A rare instance where over-cranking the camera and skip-frames and sped up images do not detract but enhance.) Mention should also be made of the impact of Cliff Hayes and Tony Patterson's editing. I simply love how the second act is cut together like a horror movie -- the tension is palpable. (The slow zoom on Jessie, exposed from behind by the large picture window, is a clinic in suspense.) Paste all of their work together and you get that truly terrifying and devastating sequence which begins with Jessie's flight from the beach, through the woods, to the apparent safety of the farmhouse, and ends with Toecutter (Keays-Byrne) and his motorized goons running her and her baby down.

After this, the film kinda stumbles and sputters a bit, I think, as our hero goes on his prerequisite quest for vengeance over the loss of his family. Make no mistake, the climax is extremely well-executed, but it pales a little when compared to these earlier mentioned scenes. 

In the end, Max gets his revenge; a hollow victory. And with nothing left to return to, Max, no longer mad -- and it should be pointed out that he was never crazy mad, but MAD mad -- heads deeper into the scrublands, his old life a fading, distant memory, destination unknown.

The night before he was due to audition, Mel Gibson got into a alcohol-fueled fight with three other men at a party, which netted him a fractured nose, a broken jaw, and the accompanying swelling and bruising. He only really went to keep his buddy, Jim Bisley, company, who landed the part of Max's partner, the ill-fated Jim Goose. Gibson felt he didn't have a chance but the casting agent "needed freaks" and told him to come back in two weeks. When he did, with the swelling and bruising gone, apparently, they didn't recognize him and he was allowed to read again, netting him the lead. Samuel was a last second replacement when the original actress was hurt in a motorcycle accident. Most of the villains were actual bikers, members of The Vigilantes, and had already appeared in Stone (1974), Australia's notorious outlaw biker flick. The extras had to ride to the set each day in costume, armed to the teeth with prop-weapons. And to avoid any entanglement with the local authorities, each carried a "get of jail free card", a letter, explaining they were part of a film.

Upon its release, Mad Max was smashing success domestically and did gang-buster box-office worldwide, including a modicum of success in the United States; but I think it could have done even better. Seems due to a regime change at American International, which saw Sam Arkoff selling off to Filmways, this first installment of Miller's Mad Max trilogy kinda got lost in the shuffle (-- and saddled with a horrible re-dub), explaining why it has always been over-shadowed by its superior sequel, The Road Warrior (1981).

This, is too bad, because I for one kinda dig the original ever since I first saw it on VHS some *gack* 30 years ago. Watching it again, as will be the case for a lot of films already seen for this retrospective, this was the first time I ever saw Mad Max uncut, with the original Australian soundtrack, and in the proper aspect ratio -- glorious anamorphic widescreen, which felt like watching the film for the first time again. And I liked it even more. Cannot wait to do the same for the sequel.

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"It is extremely possible, I believe, that if Australian filmmakers began churning out similar violent, futuristic car-motorcycle films full of spectacular chases and crashes -- films in which the stuntmen are the true stars -- it could be the start of an international craze equal to that caused by Italian westerns and Chinese kung-fu movies a few years back. Miller might then be induced to make more films in this vein. His striking visual style -- his use of fender level camera, sweeping pans, breakneck-speed trucking shots, and "shock" editing -- corresponds perfectly to the powerful images he shoots, specifically the speed and crashing cars and cycles."

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The Fine Print: Mad Max was watched via Netflix Instant streaming pacakge. Watched as a High-Octane double-feature with Monte Hellmann's Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). What's the Cult Movie Project? That's nine down, with 191 to go.

Mad Max (1979) Kennedy Miller Productions :: Crossroads :: Mad Max Films :: American International Pictures / P: Byron Kennedy / AP: Bill Miller / D: George Miller / W: James McCausland, George Miller, Byron Kennedy / C: David Eggby / E: Cliff Hayes, Tony Paterson / M: Brian May / S: Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Steve Bisley, Roger Ward, Tim Burns

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