(Yes I’m sure I could doodle up an utterly ridiculous header image for this, but really, I’m ALREADY spending too much time on such absurdity so this one goes naked into the electronic night.)
In 2005 Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain stunned audiences for its portrayal of a long term sexual relationship between two men in the mid-twentieth-century West. Even as queer communities hailed it as mainstream representation, Lee famously refused to call it a “gay” film. Instead, Lee claimed that it was a film about love and intimacy, and the repression of emotional vulnerability in the very few kinds of masculinity available to men in the modern US.
In contrast, 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road is a post-apocalyptic, non-stop action film, hailed in an era of CGI for its use of tradition stunts. Yet, with breathtaking economy, Fury Road tackles the same emotional issues Lee claimed to have emphasized in Brokeback but does so not only for men, but for women, too. In Fury Road we are set up to expect sex at every turn, and it is withheld in order to concentrate instead on emotional intimacy and personal autonomy.
Consider Capable’s extraordinary relationship with the half-life War Boy, Nux. Capable has been trafficked. Her body has not been her own, and sex is the furthest thing from intimacy in her life. We repeatedly hear that Immortan Joe’s wives have been supporting each other in building a belief that they are not owned, not even ownable, and as with all trafficed people, this is a difficult lesson to learn. In reaching toward Nux, and later in sitting with him, she is seen to be making the very first individual decisions about who she will touch, who she will trust, that she has had the opportunity to make, since whenever she was stolen or sold.
But Nux’s own responses to this are no less extraordinary. “Oh you want the coat? Take it. You can ask for a lot more than the coat, man,” he tells Max at one point. For Max, his coat, like his car, is part of his identity (at least he gets the coat back…) Nux probably doesn’t know that the coat was stripped from Max’s body when he was captured, but it forces us to ask whether Nux even has a concept of personal property, whether it is as foreign to him as the term “tree.” How does Nux conceive of bodily autonomy, even, in a body he shares with two tumors, that he has named and who he imagines have lives of their own, inside himself? The scarification of the War Boys suggests some kind of bodily identification, but we know little more than that: even the blood in his veins is often not his own. It seems that Nux has not had the benefit of a sense of physical self, much less access to depths of emotional experience. He responds to Capable’s trust with his own attempts at gentleness–removing an insect to help her sleep, even pecking her on the cheek (“for luck,” as Our Princess said in 1977), — and with action. Nux becomes an action hero WHEN he begins to develop emotional vulnerability.
How extraordinary to find an action movie where the heroes are heroic because of their intimacy and vulnerability, rather than sex and action sequences. Max and Furiosa wrestle dramatically when they meet, and Furiosa’s “onslaught was less only by as much as an amazon warrior’s strength is less than an armed man’s” (Heaney, yes, I’m sorry, but the Norton’s to hand). Max doesn’t seem particularly surprised to be fighting a woman and an equal.
They both realize that they may be more alike than different, NOT because of their fighting skills, but because of their emotional commitment to others. Furiosa hands vehicles off to people–Max and even Nux. Even more tellingly she offers Max specifically a place within a majority-female society that fights when it needs to, but would really prefer to farm. As more traditional action heroes their arcs may be flattest, but the audience isn’t insulted (or gratified) by so much as a gratuitous smooch, and both wear shirts the entire time. It’s tempting to read all this as Max protecting These women instead of Those women of his family he could not save. However, at the end, he too reaches out with gentleness, holding and stroking Furiosa’s head as his own heart pumps blood into her, saving her life simply by being a living human (and being a universal donor*), rather than by any amazing feat of arms. To reinforce this openness, Max finally gives his name, and shows embarrassment, shyness, vulnerability, in making this gift. That this is occurring during a life-saving moment, one in which our culture agrees consent is not necessarily needed– one saves another’s life, whether they are conscious to consent or not–is even more telling.
2015 predates MeToo, but we might rethink Fury Road in light of this call to greater recognition of consent, autonomy, and add a call for greater emotional vulnerability. After all, if Max Rockatansky could get there, doesn’t it sound like hope to us all?
*This IV line must be on the list of most-creative uses of Chekov’s Gun in film history. After Max fights to remove IV-and-chain for a substantial part of the early movie, later in the movie we get a close-up of the same tubing, neatly cleaned, coiled, and secured under an epaulette strap on Max’s coat. And, of course, it is used in the final act.