Film, News & Commentary

Mad Max: Australia’s greatest cultural export

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After more than a decade languishing in development hell, audiences at last got a glimpse of Mad Max: Fury Road at San Diego’s Comic Con this week.

The film’s tortured production history stretches back to time when not only was Heath Ledger alive but Mel Gibson was a bankbable movie star.

The fact it is finally ready for cinemas is a testament to the high regard the  series is held by the industry  I’d go further and argue that the Mad Max franchise is Australia’s most influential pop culture export; our equivalent of Arthurian legends or American superheroes.

Crocodile Dundee is equally as recognisable but he is only ever referenced in an Australian context, when a writer or director wishes to make an allusion to our sunburnt country.

Max himself is not unique. He is merely another example of an archetype found in A Fistful of Dollars, Yojimbo, and Batman, a mysterious stranger bringing order to a lawless town.

Rather it is the antagonists — particularly the marauding bikers in Mad Max 2- – that have influenced films, TV shows and music videos around the world.

Mad Max‘s great contribution to our culture is to popularise the punk apocalypse aesthetic. It is a very specific trope, one the can only exist in a future where there is little fuel but seemingly endless quantities of black leather, hair spray and eyeliner.

Apocalyptic punks feature in the video clips of artists like the Spice Girls, Duran Duran and 2Pac.They also appear in TV shows like South Park, Rugrats and Power Rangers and films like Weird Science and 1990:The Bronx Warriors. In fact the punks from Power Rangers and Weird Science featured Australian actor Vernon Wells, who played Wez in Mad Max 2.

So why has this influence been had by the villains rather than the hero?

Writing in the journal Kinema, Auburn university professor J. Emmett Winn noted the ways the first three Mad Max films resonated with the political philosophy of Reganism. He argued that since the main character represented order then the antagonists of both Mad Max and its sequel signified a threat to civilisation.

“Humungus and his tribe resemble current counter-culture members in our contemporary society,” Winn wrote. “The ‘savages’ of The Road Warrior are fabricated as aberrant, dangerous, and threatening to the status quo and the conservative value.”

Writing in the Journal of Popular Film and Television in 1985, academic Christopher Sharrett suggested director George Miller further underlined the punks’ status as the deviant “other” through the suggestion of homosexuality.

“The mohawk haircut and punk/ sadomasochistic gear of Humungus’ army of rabble constantly refer to the gay underworld,” Sharret wrote “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that both films view gay and punk/new wave subculture as decadent and reactionary elements of post-industrial society (if only because gay and punk imagery are appropriated by both criminals and police).”

It was this “otherness” that made the the apocalyptic punks so attractive to satirical/subversive artists like South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker or 2pac. Because they were constructed as a threat to the hegemonic order, it meant their aesthetic style could be used in cultural products that claimed to mock and challenge the status quo.

Once the punks became a recognised trope of resistance and anarchy it was inevitable they will be co-opted by more commercial entities in order to provide a veneer of credibility.

Ke$ha may be a Top 10 recording artist but as long as her back-up dancers have shoulder pads and spiked hair she can still portray herself as an outsider who is “sticking it to the man”. Apocalyptic punks are so ubiquitous in popular culture that an argument could made their Antipodean origins are now irrelevant.

Would someone under 40 watch the Fury Road trailer and be aware of the story’s Australian origins? The filming location has moved from Broken Hill to Namibia, while Max is now played by a Brit and speaks with a mid-Pacific growl that wouldn’t be out of place in a Batman or Terminator film.

Angus Sampson and Megan Gale are there somewhere amidst the CGI explosions but  you can guarantee South African born-American Charlize Theron will get more screen time.

Any suggestion of Ozploitation has been surgically removed and replaced with studio-grade Hollywood blockbuster.

But just because Mad Max has been ethnically cleansed doesn’t change the fact that a little Aussie genre film helped spawn a sub-genre of villain.

Anyhow, he remains Australian in the minds of directors like Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, who said the way Australian film directors shot cars “just makes you want to jerk off”.

That is why the Mad Max film franchise should rank alongside Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories or the mittel European folk tales that inspired Walt Disney.

The films and characters are from Australia but they are no longer our sole property. Mad Max and the apocalyptic punks are our gift to the world.

2 responses to “Mad Max: Australia’s greatest cultural export

  1. I hope this movie does not end up being just another cookie-cutter Hollywood “Teal and Orange” CGI schlockfest with a Damon Lindelof-inspired Swiss cheese plot. I have faith in George Miller, but the trailer does not inspire.

    Every time I watch The Road Warrior (on Blu-Ray – it’s awesome) it reminds me of a time when Oz movies actually had plots, and were a riot of life and movement and colour and energy and passion and humour. Where did it all go so wrong? How did we end up with a film industry where every movie is about drug addicts and bogan losers?

  2. Mad Max certainly was ground breaking and Mad Max 2 still stayed true to its Aussie origins. Mad Max 3 kept the faith even with Tina Turner. This one however is pure Hollywood, driven by foreign leads. Should the Australian government really be subsidising this production to the tune of paying a 40% rebate for all the Australian elements? It provides a few short term jobs but that is all. It has no cultural nexus to Australia which was the original basis for subsidising our story telling. Fury Road has become a glaring example of where our film subsidy policy has gone wrong. However it is at least a story created and produced by Australians which is a lot more than the The Great Gatsby, an American classic which swallowed about $50 million in Australian taxpayer subsidy.

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