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Mad Max: ‘Punk’s Sistine Chapel’ – A Ballardian PrimerAuthor: Simon Sellars • Apr 3rd, 2015 •
Trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller, 2015).
Fury Road, the latest film in the Mad Max series, is released on 15 May. What would Ballard have made of it?
Well, as far as we can tell from this insane trailer, although Fury Road blends elements from all three previous Max films (rogue cop – the first Max; mutant kids – Thunderdome), the truck chase that takes up much of the film is clearly a reboot of Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior).
And of course, Ballard loved Mad Max 2, going so far as to anoint it ‘Punk’s Sistine Chapel’.
To celebrate George Miller’s latest masterpiece, we are proud to present this Ballardian primer to the Mad Max Universe, featuring quotes from Ballard interviews and excerpts from my forthcoming book, Applied Ballardianism.
Quotes by J.G. Ballard
“Mad Max 2 is by far the best of the Mad Max series. With its insane vehicles and fearful body-armour, it is a vision of Armageddon as autogeddon. Mad Max 2 is punk’s Sistine Chapel.”
Quoted in ‘J.G. Ballard’s Top Ten Science Fiction Films’, The Independent, 25 May, 2005.
“I loved The Road Warrior – I thought it was a masterpiece. For ninety or so minutes I really knew what it was like to be an eight-cylinder engine under the hood of whatever car that was; the visceral impact of that film was extraordinary. And seen simply from a science-fiction point of view, it created a unique landscape with tremendous visual authority.”
Ballard, interviewed by Jonathan Cott. ‘The Strange Visions of J.G. Ballard’, published in Rolling Stone, Number 512, 19 November 1987.
International trailer for Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior; dir. George Miller, 1981).
“One SF movie that did impress me, and colossally so, is The Road Warrior. That stunned me – I thought that was an amazing movie. The impact of the thing! Also, it was a credible future. I believed that. Technically and imaginatively it’s a stunning movie, and judged just as SF I thought it was very impressive.”
“Even allowing for vast budgets, the unrivaled resources of today’s special effects, high-definition lenses and optimum film stock and processing-how often do you see a film like Mad Max 2? They all ought to be like that!”
Ballard, interviewed by Andrea Juno & V. Vale. ‘Interview by A. Juno & V. Vale’, published in RE/Search 8/9: J. G. Ballard (RE/Search, 1984).
“Did you see Mad Max 2? That’s a wonderful film, a genuinely apocalyptic movie. Mad Max I is not so good, and Mad Max III goes into SF of the worst kind. It must be seen in the cinema, not on video.”
Ballard, interviewed by Lynne Fox in 1991, published in J.G. Ballard: Conversations (ed. V. Vale, RE/Search Publications, 2005).
“Mad Max 2 doesn’t hold up on the small screen. It needs the big screen. I saw clips on TV before I saw it in the cinema, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, it’s just a lot of trucks plunging around.’ When I saw it in the cinema it just overwhelmed me… I have seen it recently; in fact, someone gave me the three videos, the first, the second and the Thunderdome one, which was a big disappointment, and I have watched it again. I think it’s an amazing film, a genuine small masterpiece in its way. Some films just demand the big screen, really; they lose everything on TV.”
Ballard, interviewed by David Pringle, published in SFX #9, Feb 1996.
Extracts from the forthcoming book, Applied Ballardianism: A Theory of Nothing, by Simon Sellars.
Opening chase scene from Mad Max (dir. George Miller, 1979).
Melburnians have a keen awareness of the status symbols and hidden meanings embedded in car culture. The narrative of Melbourne’s growth, as historian Graeme Davison has explained, can be told through the history of its ‘car wars’, a series of technological skirmishes shaping the modern city. Wars between cars and pedestrians; between young and old people; between roads and the natural world; between bikers and drivers; between drivers and cyclists.
‘The apocalyptic violence of Mad Max,’ wrote Davison, ‘recalls a moment when Melbourne’s roads were truly killing fields.’
To Melburnians, Mad Max and that other great chronicle of our feudal car wars, Peter Weir’s The Cars that Ate Paris, are not fiction films but documentaries.
Mad Max’s director George Miller wrote the script for the first incredible Max film after experiencing two threshold moments: treating road accident victims while working as a doctor, and reading in the paper about frustrated Melbourne motorists turning feral during a petrol shortage and attacking each other at petrol stations. On Australian television, I grew up with public announcements depicting scenes of carnage on the roads, shot with all the gory, visceral thrill of the Max films. What was their intent? To incite the viewer to climax with rapid-fire editing, cranked action and fluid and nimble camerawork? These are all Miller trademarks. There can be no other conclusion, for their illicit thrills occur at the precise moment when one is expected to submit to the terror of the roads, to feel the fullest revulsion at the casual violence underwriting our lives. Just as the highly stylised Max films do not spare us the full horror of the road crash, these road-safety ads, hyper-realistic, do not shy away from the total aesthetic experience of the film crash.
There seems little doubt that the makers of these public service announcements were drawing on the deep-seated role Mad Max plays in the Australian psyche, playing on its resonance as an icon of Australian culture and a marker of our car wars. Yet, that dynamic conjures up confronting questions of a Ballardian nature: one medium is trying to entertain, the other to scare and shock, yet both rely on the exact same techniques.
In Ballard’s Crash, these positions are held simultaneously. There is a deep ambivalence towards car culture in this landmark work, an ambiguity that sees the flipside of what Ballard terms our ‘talent for the perverse’ as an affirmation: a vision of humanity simultaneously fascinated and numbed by its technological environment. There is the sense that by reordering certain strata of perception and imagination, fulfilment can be found in a parallel universe of the mind, what Ballard terms ‘inner space’.
To this day, one particular passage from Crash fills me with existential terror. It is the moment when the narrator, ‘James Ballard’ (a characterisation, in itself; that is, a doubling of Ballard, the authorial entity), expresses relief when he finds himself in an ‘actual accident’ after being bombarded for years with ‘billboard harangues and television films of imaginary accidents’. This nonstop onrushing simulacrum of the outside world brings to a head the unease he feels – the sense that ‘the gruesome climax of my life was being rehearsed years in advance, and would take place on some highway or road junction known only to the makers of these films. At times I had even speculated on the kind of traffic accident in which I would die.’
Uneasily, I recall the car-crash public service announcements of my youth – nothing less than Ballard’s ‘billboard harangues and television films of imaginary accidents’. There are parallels, too. with occult literature, manifest in Ballard’s depiction of the creepy undercurrents of suburbia, and the rituals in his novels Cocaine Nights and Super Cannes that cast violence as cathartic and mesh innocent people in forces beyond their control, ruining their lives, enslaving them to secret forces behind the scenes, predicting how and when they are going to die, making a mockery of free will.
Montage of Australian road-safety public-service announcements (produced by the Transport Accident Commission, 1989-2009).
Ballard himself recognised the connection.
‘You could say Crash is on the edges of horror fiction,’ he told an interviewer. ‘When you’re dealing with a sensational subject matter, where you’re showing radical changes with people making sudden discoveries about the reality of their lives in dramatic circumstances, where people are being plagued by intense mental crises (as they are in a lot of my fiction), you’re getting into an area close to horror fiction. There are sudden glimpses of the shocking and unspeakable in my fiction too, so there is a certain overlap.’
Once, Ballard expressed a desire for George Miller to film Crash. When Max Max 2 was released, Ballard proclaimed it ‘punk’s Sistine Chapel’. Thus, even before reading Crash, I was fully primed by the Max films, and when the book finally came to me, I experienced a mighty temporal shift, like the outline of my physical body had shifted out of phase with my soul, ontological layers rubbing together like tectonic plates.
In the summer months of 2007, in the New Year, a street in the northern Melbourne suburb of Mill Park became gripped by anarchic violence. Under cover of night, a group of locals had torched a car parked in the front yard of an innocuous, brick-veneer house, reducing it to a blackened husk. A series of blunt threats were spray-painted onto two cars parked in the street and on the house itself:
‘No more burnouts’
‘Tell your mates I know where they live’
‘Any more and youse will pay’
‘We have had enough of this shit’
In the newspaper, startling photos laid bare the currency of autogeddon, snapshots of vehicular expulsions littered about this quiet suburban enclave, a war zone in Melbourne’s backyard. The torched car chassis was perched next to a garden gnome and water hose, and skid marks snaked all over the quiet street like tribal tattoos, reminders of the event that led to the flaring trouble.
Suburban Badlands: the Mill Park aftermath. Photo: Angela Wylie, published in The Age newspaper, 2007.
Residents told the papers of a long-standing problem: hoons using the street for late-night drags and tyre-squealing burnouts. Besides the psychological effects of sleep deprivation, the fear was that one night, a car would careen off the road and into someone’s living room, as had almost happened a few weeks’ earlier. The locals had complained to police, who could only issues warnings in lieu of evidence, being too under-resourced to properly patrol the area. Finally, on New Year’s Eve, when festivities were peaking, the drag racing became out of control and a few days’ later, residents took matters into their own hands, fed up with their neighbourhood being desecrated by these young petrol heads.
The tone of the newspaper reports was chilling, dispatches from the apocalypse. Bleeding car-crash fiction into reality, they were strangely reminiscent of The Cars that Ate Paris, Weir’s classic film of Australian automotive paranoia. The film takes place in Paris, a fictional Australian country town, where the locals manufacture road accidents at night on the desolate roads snaking through the community, blinding the eyes of motorists with high-powered lighting rigs until they careen off the side of the road and down the steep incline. The crashed cars are then scavenged for parts. Old ladies rub and polish carburettors lovingly, as if they were prize jewels; the village idiot wears huge radiator emblems around his neck, like a pimp of the tarmac; and the mayor takes the Grand Prize: car stereo systems. If the motorists survive the crash, the town doctor lobotomises them, turning them into ‘veggies’, brain-damaged reflex mechanisms that perform menial chores around town. Meanwhile, the youth – Parisian hoons – gun the motors of their hotted-up cars, disturbing the peace by performing the dreaded burnouts, although this behaviour is tolerated by Parisians, at least initially, who view the hoons as an annoying byproduct of the town’s peculiar economy, like flies circling a festering rubbish dump.
Trailer for The Cars that Ate Paris (dir. Peter Weir, 1974).
Paris is a Ballardian town. Its closed-loop economy strongly resembles that of Crash, where nothing takes places outside of the motorway system. In Crash, automotive speed is sexualised. That mediated sexual desire is then channelled by Vaughan’s initiates into staged car crashes. The ubiquity of the crash feeds the economy of films, advertising, road safety tests, public service announcements. The byproducts of those economies fetishise the car, and the accident. Automotive speed is sexualised, and the loop continues. This is made clear by the mock advertisement that opens The Cars that Ate Paris. A smoothly dressed man and woman take off in their latest model sports car. They speed through the countryside, sharing a cigarette, the brand’s logo on the packet fetishised in extreme close up by Weir’s camera, the wind sweeping through their long blonde hair as bland muzak plays. Then, without warning, they hit a pothole and their car spirals out of control, down a rocky incline. They are dead, blood everywhere, and suddenly this commercial for a brand of cigarette becomes a premonition, a warning about what is to come later in the film. It is as though the media is rehearsing us to play a part in a psychodrama spiralling faster to its denouement, as voiced by Ballard’s avatar in Crash, and his ‘vague sense of unease that the gruesome climax of my life was being rehearsed years in advance.
Of course, there is a resonance with Mad Max, too. After all, when Davison wrote that ‘the apocalyptic violence of Mad Max’ symbolises the terror of Australian roads, he also referenced The Cars that Ate Paris in the same passage, for Weir’s film, and its depiction of automotive cannibalism, represents, according to Davison, ‘a grotesque metaphor for the dehumanising effects of the car’.
These three texts – Crash, Paris and Max – exist in a locked loop. Crash undoubtedly influenced Paris, and Max greatly impressed Ballard. Now, Fury Road homages Paris.
May the circle never be broken.
Note: Fury Road makes explicit the connection between Mad Max and The Cars that Ate Paris, with cars that reference the evil spiked vehicles of Weir’s film.
Above: still from The Cars that Ate Paris (1974, dir. Peter Weir).
Below: still from Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, dir. George Miller).
‘Escape’ by Junkie XL, from the soundtrack to Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).
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