The Mad Max Movies

Adrian Martin,
The Mad Max Movies.
Sydney: Currency Press. 2003.
ISBN: 0 86819 670 3
Au$14.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Currency Press)

There is nothing more admirable than intellect sprinkled with sensibility, except perhaps for sensibility guided by intellect. There is nothing rarer than a mind smitten in equal measure with rigor and fancy except for a temperament that is both hyperinstinctive and extra-lucid at the same time.(Roger Tailleur) [1]

Martin is like a pop Montaigne, making surreal leaps between Pasolini and Krazy Kat, Walter Benjamin and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mizoguchi and Clint Eastwood. (McKenzie Wark) [2]

Adrian Martin’s book on The Mad Max Movies, published by Currency Press in conjunction with ScreenSound, is the second in the Australian Screen Classics series. Based on the model of the BFI Film Classics and Modern Classics, these small books each contain a lengthy and substantial essay of about 20,000 words on a single film or, in the case of Mad Max, three films that are linked by a continuing character. Jane Mills is the series editor and she writes in her introduction that her aim with these books was to “match some of our best loved films with some of our most distinguished writers and thinkers, drawn from the worlds of culture, criticism and politics.” (vi) An additional motivation was “the need to reclaim Australian screen history…” with the hope that “the series will re(introduce) Australians to their own screen history and broaden their knowledge of screen culture” [3]

Mills made a wise and canny decision when she commissioned Adrian Martin to write about the Mad Max movies. Martin is one of the best and most important writers writing on film today. His work spans the journalistic and the academic. He moves fluidly and impressively from writing weekly film reviews for The Age newspaper to rigorous academic studies on subjects as different as sound in the cinema, the genre of the musical, cinematic style and the films of auteurs such as Terrence Malick, Jean-Luc Godard, Sergio Leone and Fritz Lang, to name just a few. His passion for the cinema is energising, challenging and frequently provocative. He is that rare critic who can appreciate Jackass the Movie with the same degree of enthusiasm and openness that he brings to the latest films by Raul Ruiz, Alain Resnais, Chantal Akerman, Brian De Palma and George Miller. This enthusiasm and openness has also characterised Martin’s writings about the Australian cinema which can be traced back to 1980 when he contributed a chapter on “Fantasy” to Scott Murray’s anthology on what was then called The New Australian Cinema [4] . Martin has subsequently written about many aspects and genres of Australian cinema, from high profile mainstream film releases to more marginal, lesser known, short films and independent works. He has also polemicised tirelessly on behalf of Australian cinema and Australian film culture in an international context in forums such as the British screen journal Sight and Sound, the French journal Trafic, the U.S film magazine Film Comment and the online journal Otrocampo. Most recently Martin curated a special screening program at the Buenos Aires Film Festival called The Secret History of Australian Cinema which included such rarely seen works, even on our shores, as In this Life’s Body (Corinne Cantrill, 1984) and Yackety Yack (Jones, 1974).

In addition to this, Martin is also a deeply reflective writer who engages with the issues and questions surrounding his own practice. In his influential essay on film criticism “Mise-en-scene is dead, or the expressive, the excessive, the technical and the stylish”[5] he mapped a history of film criticism from his own unique perspective writing from within an Australian critical and cultural context. He has also written about the work of critics as diverse as Serge Daney, Nicole Brenez, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Manny Farber, David Thomson, Andrew Sarris. Most recently he has compiled, edited and contributed to a very significant Festschrift on the work of Raymond Durgnat.

All of this passionate writing, thinking, reading, film-viewing and polemicising informs the Mad Max book. Unsurprisingly, it is a very well-researched book. Not only does Martin dedicate a chapter to the analysis of each film, his insights into the way the series has grown and changed, are also progressive and cumulative, each one adding to the previous one in illuminating ways. The book begins, in no uncertain terms, by making great claims for this group of films, arguing that “no other Australian films have influenced world cinema and popular culture as widely and lastingly as George Miller’s Mad Max movies” (1). Martin tracks this impact along a number of paths, including the transparently stellar career of Mel Gibson to the lesser known Hollywood career of its cinematographer David Eggby, to the films of Tsiu Hark, Luc Besson and Guillermo de Toro. He simultaneously paints a picture of an Australian critical and cultural landscape in which this surprising new film originally met with disapproval and some hostility from the reigning film critics of the day. He also describes an Australian film industry dominated by “ocker comedies” and “quality films” into which the arrival of Mad Max was startling and unsettling, at the same time as it “offered a blast of powerfully cinematic vitalism” (4). In the way that Martin charts the origins, influences, effects, and importance of the Mad Max movies, I am reminded of some of Martin’s own observations about the work of Manny Farber. This is writing that is topographical – writing in which there is a “traversing of ground, a making sense of territory”.[6]

The terrain that Martin maps includes the many ways that these popular films have been interpreted and talked about. He notes that they have been discussed as a modern hero myth that follows the ageless model proposed by Joseph Campbell…; as an ideologically conservative fantasy of capitalism and gender roles; as an extravagant reflection of the anxieties and desires that inform the everyday lives of Australians; as an essay on the national landscape-tradition, and ‘Australian spatiality’; as a positive utopian reflection on the possibility of community and new social forms. (5-6).

It is not, however, Martin’s intention to simply excavate characters, themes and myths. He proposes instead to “complement and…critique these existing approaches” (6), while focussing on something much more dynamic, compelling and cinematic, and that is the subject of “action”. It is in his attention to the construction of action in these films that this book does its most impressive work.

After taking us through his own complicated journey with these films, Martin goes on to argue that the first Mad Max film is the “freshest, most challenging and least appreciated” (7) in the series. He initially sets out to support this claim through what he describes as “stop-frame analysis” (6). It is an approach that helps him reveal the mechanics of the film’s complicated, compelling, experimental formalism. The scene he selects to dissect, in a shot by shot breakdown, is a brief one minute scene involving police officer Jim Goose (Steve Bisley) going for a ride on his motor bike and falling off. Within the framework of the film this scene of 18 shots, edited together from 14 separate camera set-ups, is not a memorable action sequence, or a significant plot point. However, looking closely at such a small scene Martin is able to demonstrate that George Miller is “Australia’s most completely cinematic director” (12), a film-maker able to create suspense and terror in his audience from the smallest fragments of film.

This is only the beginning of a fascinating study that says so many things and moves in so many directions that it is impossible to summarise. Martin’s analysis does not reduce the film in any way – instead it expands it in productive ways. Starting from an observation that this scene is a “veritable symphony woven from the basic parameters of filmic form” (12) Martin goes on to interrogate the way this scene works, teasing out its many complexities with countless questions. He moves from exacting descriptions to lucid analyses to surprising parallels and connections. He suggests that Goose’s bike coming towards us invites comparisons with the very birth of the cinema and the hypothetical spectators running away from a train threatening to break the screen at the first Lumiere screenings. He also points to the possibility of Eisenstein-ian principles of montage being used in the transition between shots of diagonal lines on the road that Goose rides on. And then, in another lateral move, he cites the work of French film critic Alain Garel who linked the cutting and framing in Mad Max to avant-garde traditions (22).
But this is more than just a book that lays bare the complex mechanics of individual scenes. It is also a very well-written work of film criticism. Martin’s own descriptions of Miller’s play with form reveals film writing at its best. For example:

The action scenes of Mad Max all play out right at the edge of the cut … and the entire drive of the film is to try to take us as far as possible … over that edge.(23)

Here we find Martin invoking metaphors of driving, fast cars, the road and collisions to give us a visceral sense of the way the action is working. When he goes on to talk quite specifically about the head-on collisions in the film his language becomes even more insightful and active.

The head-on collisions are the most marvellous bits of film in Mad Max – marking the brutal demise of Nightrider at the start of the film, and Toecutter at the end. These highpoints bring together all the most experimental and extreme aspects of Miller’s cinematic style: the use of the road’s dead-centre; the push-in zooms; objects, faces or bodies hurled directly into the lens; and, above all, the imagined possibility that the safe space of the sutured screen might be breached at the very edge of the cut. (31-32)
Not only does this passage of description give us a precise and particular understanding of how this film is put together, the accumulation and collision of words and metaphors takes us right inside the experience of these moments.

This continues when he comes to compare the first and the second film, and focuses on a number of different spatial and structural elements. These include observations such as “if Mad Max is about horizontality (the endless roads…), Mad Max 2 is about verticality, the high and the low.. (52) He elaborates on this by saying: ” (Miller)..opens up his style by systematically constructing both the plot and its moment-by-moment staging along an axis of heights and depths..” (53) In the kinds of distinctions that Martin is making here between a cinema of montage and a cinema of spatiality, it becomes increasingly evident that something more has changed between the two Max films than the character and his world.

Martin goes on to situate the Mad Max films in the history of the cinema in ways that are new and surprising. He compares the action sequences in Mad Max with Kurosawa. He also says that the chase films of Buster Keaton were a key source of inspiration for that film as well as having a significant impact on the chase scenes in Mad Max 2. Some even more intriguing suggestions follow with Martin saying that Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome is an art film, “like an Andrei Tarkovsky opus..constructed as a series of passages between worlds, marked at crucial points by bouts of unconsciousness.” (67) Further references to influences and connections say that Miller has also drawn inspiration from classical directors such as Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Aldrich. And it also works the other way, with Spielberg’s “films Hook and A.I” being seen to “pay homage to Beyond Thunderdome” (70).

Running parallel with Martin’s studies of the films is also an intriguing portrait of the director George Miller. Not only does Martin make a very compelling case that Miller is Australia’s most cinematic director, he also provides an insight into Miller’s working practices as well as his curious ideas about his own work. These include a comment in an interview in which he said “The road warrior was really an act of atonement for Mad Max” (33) Martin also tracks Miller’s curious trajectory from his immigrant origins to his current project, the fourth Mad Max film in which he hopes to capitalise on the many changes in technology that have taken place since his first experiments in cinematic form in 1979.
When writing about the film criticism of Manny Farber, Martin had this to say:

Trying to figure out the structure of a typical Farber essay is a treat. Only a few movies, like Duvall’s The Apostle (US, 1997), Assayas’ Irma Vep (France, 1996) or Grosbard’s Georgia (US, 1995) have serpentine structures with internal logics this mysterious: great leaps forward and snaky movements back, niggardly dwelling at a pit-stop of detail between swift, snyoptic sweeps; repetition-compulsion and sudden endings that launch the reader over an abyss. (60)

Martin’s own writing is just as complicated and challenging, energetic and impassioned, pictorial and painterly. Another great writer on film, Jonathan Rosenbaum, once said that film criticism at its best creates desire. Adrian Martin’s The Mad Max Movies creates three important desires: the desire to go back and watch these Mad Max movies again, the desire to re-read this book, and the desire to read more of Martin’s writing.

The making of a film involves an accumulation of experiences, knowledge, judgement, fortitude, talent, curiosity, passion. It is just the same, I believe, with film criticism. (Michel Ciment) [7]

Anna Dzenis


(To return to your place in the text, simply click on the endnote number)
[1] Roger Tailleur “Cleo: from here to eternity” in Positif 50 years: Selections from the French film journal. Edited by Michel Ciment and Lawrence Kardish. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2003), 73.
[2] McKenzie Wark, “Modern day raider of the lost cause”, The Australian, 8th June, 1994.
[3]” An Interview with Jane Mills by Fiona A. Villella” in Senses of Cinema Issue 13, April – May 2001.
[4] Scott Murray (ed.) The New Australian Cinema. Melbourne, Thomas Nelson, 1980 p.97-111.
[5] Adrian Martin (ed,) Film – Matters of Style. Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media and Culture Vol. 5, No. 2, 1992. Pp. Pp87-140.
[6] Adrian Martin, “The qualities I like: impressions of Manny Farber. In Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media. Volume 40, April 1999. P.60.
[7]Michel Ciment, “The function and the state of film criticism” in John Boorman & Walter Donohue (ed.) in Projections 8. London: Faber & Faber. 1998. P. 43

Created on: Wednesday, 2 July 2003 | Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 July 2003

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

Anna Dzenis is a Screen Studies lecturer and researcher who has taught at La Trobe University, Victorian College of the Arts and RMIT. She teaches screen literacy, screen criticism, world cinema, film history and theories of visuality. She is a scholar of photography and cinema and brings these two disciplines together in her teaching and research. She is co-editor of the online journal Screening the Past, and has published essays in Senses of Cinema, Screening the Past, Lola, Real Time, Metro, The Conversation, 24 Frames: Australia and New Zealand, The Oxford Companion to Australian Film, and The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Films.View all posts by Anna Dzenis →