May 27, 2015
[This post constitutes me thinking out loud in a forum not as ephemeral as social media. If you want to start a fight, the comments here or elsewhere would not be the place to do it. E-mail me instead.]
In 2008, this scholar Timothy Murray published a book on the “digital baroque,” in which he’s arguing for a Deleuzian connection to early modern aesthetic forms in contemporary art films by Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, and Peter Greenaway, among others. Murray argues that cinema has both helped structure modern perceptions and has simultaneously “folded in on itself” along with other, earlier art forms such as painting. This has led to a shift in cinematic and new media creations toward manic, quasi-mystical meditations that conflate technology and spirituality in a glorious aesthetic mess.
In 2015, there was this Australian/American/Namibian/South African co-production called Mad Max: Fury Road that – in my mind – actually exemplifies what I’m calling the “digital baroque” Maybe one could call it the “21st Century baroque?”
Anyway, this Mad Max film is an absolutely important entry in our contemporary film-theoretical discourse, crossing between media history, nerdy world-building, and socio-political activism without sacrificing its own integrity as a simple production that remains legible to any audience. It stands next to sci-fi works such as Dredd (2012) and Snowpiercer (2013) in this respect…. though we can debate as to how.
It bridges between the paranoid and socially critical sci-fi of the 1970s such as the Parallax View (1974) and Silent Running (1972), the greatest of American and Italian westerns, and the possibilities afforded by digital painting and editing tools. It models rigorous, consequential writing and storyboarding, even though many of the names and visual concepts might very well have come from a 14 year-old boy or girl’s private sketchbook.
I am aware that many posts have been made on Mad Max: Fury Road, especially with regard to its aesthetics and openly feminist social politics. It has been called “the future of pulp.” Our massive data aggregators Google and Twitter have been so bombarded with information about this film made by 70 year-old director George Miller that even they are struggling to keep up with The Conversation about this film. My speculation is that the film is re-opening specific debates that were shut down in the transition between the wild and weird Hollywood experimentations of the 1970s and the blockbuster-formula quests of the 1980s: How much punishment can be dealt to male figures? Is there world-building that transcends the marketing of products? Should women link together into a grand sisterhood with their male allies to fight the heteropatriarchy? Questions, questions.
Or one could frame it like this: Most audiences do not remember or discuss the 1st or 3rd Mad Max films, but rather Road Warrior (1981), which this popular fourth entry most resembles. The first film is filled with male-charged sexual violence in the same way as its predecessor A Boy and His Dog (1975), while the third film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) has been continuously accused of being “clunky” and ambiguous at best. This Australian film series has incited thoughts and discussion about societies of absolute scarcity, but has also received askance looks from the film community for its bizarre qualities. Simply put, Miller has (rightly) turned toward a more “baroque” pulp production aesthetic and unambiguous political program in order to bring the woolly elements of the 1st and 3rd films into the blockbuster formula of the 2nd.
Wikipedia tells us baroque things use “exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur.” Mad Max: Fury Road is a film relentlessly edited and adjusted to fit a lay audience, with frame-rates tweaked on individual shots and careful attention paid to continuity and physics of otherwise utterly ridiculous car creations. Exaggeration and excess pour out of every pore of the skin of this film, but care has been taken that the basics – can I see this character’s eyes? what is happening in this shot? who is in control here? – are not overwhelmed. The gender politics, which have received a well-deserved heap of attention, at least give us a breath of fresh air with regard to the agency and capabilities of specific marginalized groups. (Although don’t get me started on the race politics of the film.)
Such technique is how a film so batshit crazy on so many levels can also seem cool, collected, disciplined. Moreover, Mad Max: Fury Road makes many of its peer genre films seem ponderous, phoned-in, mired in artistic and fiscal conservatism.
How are Dredd and Snowpiercer also related to Mad Max: Fury Road?
Well, for one thing – Hollywood seems less involved in their creation than usual. Dredd is a British / South Africa co-production, Snowpiercer a South Korean / Czech co-production. Such sci-fi films have permitted their directors and crew relative free rein over their resultant content, meaning creative experimentation beyond the Hero’s Journey-driven, Chosen One SFX vehicles that any film budgeted above $150 million usually become. Another aspect would be their direct, careful engagement with the basic tools of filmmaking. These are serious films that do not take themselves as deadly seriously as those of Christopher Nolan or J.J. Abrams, who pride themselves on adding random plot twists to otherwise pat genre narratives. They reference earlier productions without screaming from the hilltops like Tarantino that THEY KNOW EARLIER FILM HISTORY DAMMIT. The lay viewer can “get” the film – and be challenged by it – without previous fan buy-in or loads of film-history background. This is a good thing for a culture genuinely ignorant of such meta-level details and expecting their apps, hotel-room-ordering and video-game tutorials alike to be immediately user-friendly. All three films structure their action around a concrete dystopian scenario that a 5 year-old could get, and then pack them full of immediately persuasive cinematic details. Slo-Mo makes your life like an awesome, colorful music video. There’s an Ax Gang protecting this train. Nux has a V-8 engine tattooed on his chest. The redundancy becomes both necessary and an art form in of itself. Finally, each film offers a genuine digression from dominant paradigms of gender and social representation: Curtis and Edgar can have a queer relationship, Furiosa can be competent in charge, Dredd can sincerely respect his female colleague. Racial and ethnic diversity as found in several of the recent Fast and Furious films has become increasingly visible across these productions, although this area is need of improvement.
So yeah, “baroque” is the word I’ll continue to use and develop.
21st Century baroque?