Monday, June 29, 2015

Show, don't tell - lessons from Mad Max: Fury Road Part 1

Before I begin, allow me to apologize for all the fangirling that's about to occur. Mad Max: Fury Road is the action movie I've been waiting for more than twenty years, ever since I saw Sarah Connor defeat T1000 using one hand and a shotgun. But it's also undoubtedly a magnificent example of storytelling without a whole lot of telling. (Also, please note that this post will contain ALL the spoilers. If you mind spoilers, go see the movie before reading this post.)

This is quickly growing into a pet peeve of mine: people keep saying that nothing really happens in MMFR. There's a lot of explosions and exciting action, but nothing really happens. And I'm here to say once and for all, the people claiming that nothing really happens in Mad Max: Fury Road are wrong.

I can see where the misconception arises. At the very most, the script is maybe ten pages long. And that's if Max's grunting is included. There's almost no exposition and very little happens that is just told to us.

That's where MMFR differs significantly from pretty much every action movie out there. Most movies explicitly state EVERYthing. McGuffin character suffered trauma? Let's make her recount and simultaneously show the explicit rape scene from her past that makes her unidentifiable from a sexy lamp. The main character is defined by the losses he's suffered? Let's start the movie by showing the horrific murder of his wife and - almost always - son.

Fury Road doesn't do that. The titular Max (who's not really the main character but we'll get to that in a bit) is entirely defined by his losses to the point where he's hardly even human anymore. At the start of the movie he can hardly even form words. His story is very much a twisted version of The Jungle Book. Max has traveled the wilderness for years where everything is violent and everyone he meets wants to kill him. He has a severe case of PTSD that keeps triggering him to the point where he's starting to lose the ability to keep himself alive. None of this is explicitly stated. The only thing that even approaches Max telling anyone about his past is the monologue in the beginning (which is also at least half of his lines in the movie).

My name is Max. My world is fire. And blood. Once, I was a cop; a road warrior searching for a righteous cause. As the world fell, each of us in our own way was broken. It was hard to know who was more crazy. Me... or everyone else.
Here they come again. Worming their way into the black matter of my brain. I told myself... they cannot touch me. They are long dead.
I am the one who runs from both the living and the dead. Hunted by scavengers. Haunted by those I could not protect. So I exist in this Wasteland. A man reduced to a single instinct: survive.
So Max's transformation in the end of MMFR is fairly significant. He's made a life out of the hypermasculine pursuit of cars and violence but in the end he takes on the traditionally feminine role of giving life. The moment is made even more significant if you happen to know that it is the first moment in all four movies where he tells anyone his name. But again, none of this is really anything that is explicitly told to us. We see Max wasting War Boys by the dozen, we see the moments he gets triggered, his inability to interact with Furiosa and the Wives. We see him finally give out his name and his blood, both willingly because he recognizes how much the people around him need Furiosa.

Speaking of, Furiosa goes through a very similar arc. Where Max is Mowgli however, Furiosa is most definitely a hyperviolent Pinocchio. In the beginning she is defined by her quest for vengeance. Sure, explicitly she says she's looking for redemption, but that's not really true. She takes the wives, not because she wants to help them or because she even really believes that freeing them will do her soul any good. She takes them because taking them is the thing that will hurt Immortan Joe the most. They are, after all, his most prized possessions. In the beginning, she is one of those possessions too. She is a tool of Immortan Joe's power and though she becomes a tool of revenge, even going out to look for it, what she finds is her humanity. When she climbs up on Immortan Joe's hood, she is once more a real girl.

Nux and the Wives all have their own plot arcs, even though they are not by any means primary characters. The Wives especially are the very definition of a McGuffin but uniquely for not only action movies, but most movies none of them could be replaced by a sexy lamp. They are in the world and by their actions effect change. And despite the fact that they've obviously lived in captivity and faced all kinds of abuse at the hands of Immortan Joe. But instead of divorcing the viewer from the Wives by explicitly making them into victims, Miller decided to show their abuse through their urgency of getting away from everything Immortan Joe. When the Wives first meet Max, for all they know, he's a danger to them. But more important than setting up defensive positions for possible attack from him is to get rid of the Evil chastity belts, by any means necessary.

I could basically pull apart the whole movie, going through it moment by moment to tell you all the plot points that were communicated through showing alone but at this point I'm going to trust you get the point. In part 2 (July 27th) we'll start thinking about how to apply Mad Max into your own writing. Meanwhile:

Go see Mad Max: Fury Road. Even if you've already seen it, go see it again and focus especially on what are the things you know or think you know about the plot and the characters and how you know those things. Focus especially on the character's body language and how it effects the scenes they are in.

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