Mad Max: Fury Road is pure cinema. It’s also a prime example of how much is obscured in the artificial delineation between low and high culture.
Conceptually, Fury Road is many of the things that contemporary critics are accused of worrying about when it comes to modern cinema. It is the fourth installment in a long-running franchise. It is a special effects-laden blockbuster. Its plot is so simple that it can be summed up in a single line: The characters drive really far in one direction, and then they turn around and drive really fast back the way they came. It features minimal dialogue but is packed to the brim with explosions.
On the surface, there isn’t too much to distinguish Fury Road from the wave of sequels, spin-offs, and reboots that swept into cinemas that year: Jurassic World, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Furious 7, Minions, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2, Cinderella, Spectre, Ant-Man, Pitch Perfect 2, Hotel Transylvania 2, Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. Given the panic in film criticism about the transformation of art into “content,” surely Fury Road is an example of the trend?
One of the oldest debates in popular culture concerns the perceived divide between high and low culture. It has opened again, and it rages through internet opinion pieces. It’s often anchored in the idea that some art is inherently better than others: that arthouse indies are better than summer blockbusters, that dramas are more worthy than thrillers, that romantic comedies, reality television, and superhero movies are inherently disposable.
This debate is often framed to suggest slobs versus snobs, using terms like “eating your cultural vegetables” and describing entire media like television as “vast wastelands.” This is, of course, reductive. It’s a disservice to art in many ways. For example, recent debates about the cult of “classic films” obscure the fact that many truly classic films like Citizen Kane, The Seventh Seal, or Wages of Fear are not dead monuments or homework, but well-made and highly enjoyable films in their own right for people who want to explore them.
Art needn’t be work. It probably shouldn’t be work. Indeed, for all that modern film critics might be worried about recycled intellectual property eating modern culture, many of the most influential films of all time have been drawn from pulp material. The Godfather was a trashy paperback novel before it was one of the greatest films of all time. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy offers a searing portrait of 21st century America in a story about a man who dresses as a giant bat in his spare time.
Silence of the Lambs turned 30 years old last month. There are constant debates about whether Jonathan Demme’s serial killer classic is really a horror film, as if it can’t be both a classic and a horror film. It is unapologetically a gothic horror, with Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) kept in a dungeon and Jame Gumb (Ted Levine) building a suit from women’s dead bodies like a modern day Frankenstein. It’s also as piercing an interrogation of the male gaze as ever put to screen.
Indeed, this is one of the big problems with the use of the phrase “elevated horror” to describe movies like Ari Aster’s Hereditary or Midsommar. It implies that horror is an inherently disposable genre, and that it has only recently been possible to make it respectable. This erases the work of generations of artists like James Whale, Val Lewton, Wes Craven, and John Carpenter, who didn’t just advance horror as a genre, but who deserve recognition for what they’ve done for the medium as a whole.
This makes a lot of sense. After all, film itself was originally considered a disposable genre, compared to more traditional forms like theater or literature. (This disposability was often literal: Three-quarters of silent films have been lost). Appropriately enough, film theory often made its biggest leaps forward in genres deemed unrespectable. Auteur theory emerged from French critics studying the westerns of John Ford and the pulpy thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock.
To bring it back to Fury Road, one of the big concerns in modern cinema is that the art form is being suffocated by “content,” that nostalgic effects-driven, franchise-building blockbusters are squeezing smaller films out of the market. This is rooted in a stereotypical notion of what “high” and “low” art look like, that awards bait like The Reader or Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close are inherently more valuable than crowd-pleasing fare like The Dark Knight or Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Fury Road demonstrates how facile this “us vs. them” argument is. The film arrived in May 2015 as an instant classic. It received 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. It won six awards, more than any other film that year. The National Board of Review named it film of the year. More than that, publications as distinct as USA Today, The A.V. Club, Paste Magazine, World of Reel, Consequence of Sound, and Film School Rejects named it the movie of the decade.
So what is the difference between Fury Road and contemporary blockbusters like Jurassic World or The Force Awakens? There’s even a sizable thematic overlap between Fury Road and Age of Ultron, in that both are arguably horror stories about what happens when men seize control of the means of reproduction, and both are essentially narratives that find characters moving in circles and repeating past mistakes. So, what is it that makes Fury Road exceptional?
There are lots of factors that account for the movie’s enduring success, but one of those is undoubtedly the fact that it exists as a reminder of what film can be. In its own way, Fury Road is perhaps as much a distillation of cinema as an art form as classics like Citizen Kane or The Godfather. In 1920s Paris, French surrealists argued for a form of “Cinéma Pur,” which would boil cinema down to its purest elements of “vision and movement.” Mad Max: Fury Road certainly qualifies.
“Cinéma Pur” sought to emphasize what made film distinct, compared to media like literature and theater. Arguably it was the first wave of silent film comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd who pushed the boundaries in leaping from vaudeville to the big screen, using techniques like double exposure and model work to realize stunts impossible on stage. Sherlock Jr. literalizes this idea as Keaton literally walks into the screen to find himself a victim of the editor as the scene shifts around him. It is a gag that would be impossible in any other medium.
Critics have noted that Fury Road features notoriously little dialogue and exposition. The script was reportedly a set of storyboards that nobody but director George Miller could understand. Explaining how he put Fury Road together, Miller has argued, “I wanted to do a silent movie with sound.” Miller borrows several key set pieces and images from films like Sherlock Jr. and The General — the story of a stolen vehicle driven one direction and back again is basically the plot of The General.
Fury Road arrived just a year after the first film in the John Wick trilogy reinvigorated an interest in stunt work and choreography as one of Hollywood’s oldest — and least valued — art forms. Indeed, the John Wick movies repeatedly acknowledge the debt that they owe to filmmakers like Chaplin and Keaton. Sherlock Jr. is projected on a wall in the opening moments of John Wick: Chapter 2, while its hall of mirrors finale evokes not only Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, but Chaplin’s The Circus.
What’s particularly interesting about Fury Road is the way in which it uses action to tell its story and to define its characters. The film constantly reveals its characters through shot and editing choices rather than through exposition. It is a type of storytelling that would be very hard to replicate in theater or literature, connecting back to that idea of “Cinéma Pur.” There’s a reason that so much of the movie has become memetic shorthand. It is vision and movement distilled to its purest essence.
Fury Road takes advantage of the various opportunities presented by working in film. At various points, Miller changes the frame rate within shots to speed up or slow down what the audience is seeing to ensure that the action remains coherent. The film is cut at as frantic a pace as imaginable, with 2,700 edits across its runtime, but the use of center framing ensures that the action is always easy to follow.
The truth is that Fury Road is just more artful than many of its contemporaries — regardless of genre. Editor Vashi Nedomansky conducted a fascinating experiment comparing Fury Road to movies with similarly frantic editing — movies like Taken 3, Domino, or The Bourne Ultimatum. Screened at 12x regular speed, only Fury Road remains visually comprehensible. It is, by any measure, a triumph of filmmaking. It’s a reminder of how democratic and accessible the medium can be.
Mad Max: Fury Road demonstrates that it’s possible to construct a blockbuster that is as pure a distillation of cinema as any prestige drama, serving as a reminder of how arbitrary the boundaries between high and low culture can be. While anxieties about the glut of content dominating the pop cultural landscape are completely understandable, it’s worth remembering that art doesn’t have to be a chore and that it’s possible for blockbusters to be transcendental rather than… mediocre.