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Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

Mad Max as a Disguised Account 
of Personal Development: 
Ethics, Independence, and The Family Drama

(Part 4 provides a detailed description of how Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome expresses fantasies about growing up and about the mind. Readers looking for a less elaborate discussion may want to skip to part 5, which sums up the meaning of the movie. They can do so via the arrow at the bottom of the page.) 

Just as Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is a treasure trove of images that relate to society and myth, so the same story is full of images that relate to the development of the individual, including images that have to do with ethics, mind, body, family and birth. Of these, the most obvious set of images are those that deal with independence and ethical development. Max, as a symbol of everyman (or every-person), begins the movie in an ethically underdeveloped state, and as a pawn and victim, He is robbed, falls in among ruthless power seekers in Bartertown and then makes a corrupt agreement to carry out an assassination. But when he refuses to kill Blaster, after discovering Blaster has the mind of a child, he takes a step toward independence and altruism. Since this isn't a society that rewards either of those traits, he is exiled, once again a pawn and victim.

But the same inherent altruism and parenting urges that led him to try to spare Blaster now come out a second time when he asserts himself and makes a sacrifice, going out into the desert to save the children. Unfortunately, this results in his participation in the destruction of Bartertown. Finally, he engages in the ultimate act of altruism, staying behind so the children and the two freed slaves of Bartertown can take off in an airplane, and he progresses further in morality, in a way which, perhaps, atones for some of his sins.

But this symbolism only makes sense when it is seen as part of a larger subtext, which is an account of a family drama and family dynamics, as it might be experienced in fantasy. Here, we discover that the movie shows us a number of disguised images of families, each of which gives us a contrast between corrupt or misguided parenting versus healthy parenting.

Here is a chronology:

* At the beginning of the movie, we see Max in the desert, his truck pulled by camels. He is lost in the world, an incomplete man without a family or home, living off his wits.

* The pilot in a dilapidated plane, who has his own young son with him, then shoots something at Max, knocks him down, and steals the truck and animals. At the manifest level, the pilot is a corrupt father, a thief who is teaching his young son, in the airplane with him, the art of robbery. As subtext, the pilot is a corrupt and weak father stealing his son -- Max's -- power and potency, robbing him of the ability to be an independent adult, a man. The corrupt father symbolically castrates his son, Max.

* The son Max must then fall back into the corrupt household of his parents, who are in a war with each other for control of the family. That household and family are represented by Bartertown. Here, the mother is Aunty Entity. But unlike most of the mothers of Freudian fantasy, she is powerful and charismatic, a macho mother for "postmodern" audiences. The surface of the town is the mundane life of the family, and the place where the children reside. The father is represented by the governor of Underworld, Master-Blaster, the two-person unit that, as is often the case with fathers in our fantasies, is seen as a giant, with secret knowledge of how to make things work. By no coincidence, the truck stolen from Max, the son, is transferred from the first father figure, the pilot, to the second father-figure, Master-Blaster, in this part of the movie.

Master-Blaster is now the father who denies the son his manhood. As ruler of a realm of pig manure, he is also associated with anality and waste.

* The mother lures Max, the son, into a corrupt bargain to destroy the father's power, by cutting off Master from the physical source of his power -- Blaster. In effect, she is hiring him to castrate the father. She wants total control and revenge, since the father has humiliated her in front of the children (the inhabitants of Bartertown), by forcing her to publicly acknowledge he is in control.

But she wants the father's manhood stolen without the crime being traced back to her. As Aunty Entity says to Max, "This is no enemy. Its almost family."

As psychoanalytic subtext, it is family.

* Max clearly has good reasons to want revenge against the father, Master-Blaster, as well. We are shown two scenes, which will be related in detail later, in which Master-Blaster publicly humiliates Max, the son, over his stolen truck -- his stolen manhood.

In one of those scenes. Max, the son, confronts the father on the street, demanding his truck back and Master, as father,  puts him down, referring to him as a mere "pedestrian."

* There is a dual, but the son refuses to take his father's manhood when he sees the innocence and childlikeness that is actually behind his father's motives. In other words, he evolves as a person and discovers that what looked like the foreboding and powerful father is a vulnerable person, once the mask (Blaster's headgear) comes off. This is something we see over and over in fiction: intimidating giants and controllers are discovered by the heroes to be vulnerable and pathetic once the hero wins or sees the truth. It expresses an experience we all have in growing up, as we begin to see the flaws and human vulnerabilities in our our parents. It is also an experience that is common in psychotherapy in which people begin to see parents as vulnerable, and as people with primitive and childlike aspects, much like themselves.

Before we see how Crack in the Earth fits into this, it should be noted that Underworld, and Bartertown, in general, are also disguised images of the bowels. They are a hole in the desert that is a mess of mud and manure, and a place one of the writers and co-producers, Terry Hayes, describes as a dead world. It is a place of commerce without spirit, he says, an image that is often associated with this symbolism, based on the equation money=human waste.

* For failing to destroy his father's manhood, the son is expelled from home (Max is expelled from Bartertown). With this, we now go to another phase of the movie in which the elements just described are repeated over again in a new form. Here:

* Once again, Max, the son, is homeless, out in the desert.

* This time, in place of falling into Bartertown as his only hope, he is saved by Savannah, the oldest female of the tribe of children, who takes him to Crack in the Earth.

* Like Bartertown, this new image of home is also surrounded by walls that separate it from the desert, although, here, they are cliff walls. In this new place of human habitation, Max once again becomes entangled with a father and mother figure who are fighting with each other. Here, Savannah, the oldest female, who does the tell and will lead one group into the desert, is the mother. The oldest male (not previously referred to in this essay), who announces that Savannah will do the tell, is the father.

* As Savannah, the mother, tries to lead a group of the children into the desert, on a fatal search for their dream, Max tries to stop her and the older male sides with him, and argues with Savannah. So once again Max, the son, finds himself in a family with parents who are unable to show their children the correct path. Once again, he is trapped in their agendas, in which he is first turned into Captain Walker and then fighting to stop the departure of one group of children.

Of course, Crack in the Earth has important differences from Bartertown, as a symbol of a family. As the co-writer's name for it implies, this fertile aperture in the desert, surrounded by cliffs, is a disguised image of the genitals and womb of a mother. The children are inside the womb, waiting to be born. Together, Bartertown and Crack in the Earth give us a view of human anatomy.

Bartertown showed us the image of a family as a corrupt arena in which fights over power were carried out through intrigue and secrecy. Crack in the Earth is the family lost in an escapist fantasy in which it believes it will be rescued by a giant, phallic airplane, driven by the father as a good pilot -- Captain Walker -- who will take them to paradise. This contrasts with the bad father as a pilot-thief, depicted in the first scene in the movie.

At the same time, Crack in the Earth is a depiction of children abandoned by their parents. The two older children and Max all play dual roles, as children abandoned by their parents and as parents to the children.

All of these children are in the womb of the mother, waiting to be born. To the extent we see this as an image of a literal womb, they are waiting to be born into life. But a subtext closer to the plot and theme of  the movie would have them waiting to be born into adulthood. Unfortunately, they are waiting to be born into the wrong world, a world of fantasy, since they can't face the truth. It is the role of Max as a son who becomes a new and more adequate father, to teach them about reality and help them be born into the real world of responsible adulthood.

* In any case, Max now finds himself in the womb-home of Crack in the Earth where he encounters misguided and inadequate parents who, along with their kids, are lost in dreams. He now tries to be the better father -- and son -- he couldn't be in Bartertown. Whereas in Bartertown, he tried to save the father, but failed because the mother was too powerful, here, he tries to save the children from being led to their death by their mother, Savannah. Once again, he is in a battle with a powerful female and, once again, he loses, as she takes a group of children into the desert.

* But the son makes a decision to go after them, to try to salvage them. He is trying to be a good father and he does save them, but not before one child is swallowed by the engulfing sand of the desert, just as Blaster was killed by one of Aunty's guards.

* We are now given another sequence in which this group, led by Max, goes back and destroys Bartertown, and frees the weakened father, Master, who, without Blaster, has become the mother's slave. Like the deceased Blaster, Master now also becomes a sympathetic character. The group also helps free another character, Pigkiller, another symbol of a good father, who killed a pig in an effort to feed his family, and was sentenced for it to life as a slave in Underworld. Like Max, he made a sacrifice for those he loved.

In this sequence, Pigkiller, with Max's assistance, destroys the family (or literally, the house) as he drives the train out and physically destroys the city. In his first stay in Bartertown, Max was stuck playing the pawn, although it was clear he suffered that role just barely. Now, as he has clearly become the father for this new family -- the group in the desert -- he uses his power to get his revenge, assert his power, and destroy the old family, based on the corrupt use of power.

* During the ensuing chase, Max, the son, recruits the original pilot-thief , who was an image of a bad father, to fly them to safety. From here on, the pilot will be part of the group and he too will now be a sympathetic character. The closest thing to a villain left in the story is the mother, although she is also depicted sympathetically.

* Finally, Max drives the truck into Aunty's army, to give the plane enough space to take off, and now all the aspects of his ethical and personal development come together, in his willingness to sacrifice for his new family. He stands up to the mother and wins, preventing her army from stopping the plane, and he saves his family, which now has characters representing a good father and mother (Pigkiller and Savannah), a sympathetic father who seems more like a child (Master), and various children.

Now that he has become a good and effective parent and/or an independent and ethical son for this group, the result is a new household and family, represented by the tribe in the ruined city. They have a correct memory of events and a correct perception of their circumstances, rather than being lost in dreams. And they have a spiritual connection to the past and future, and a sense of responsibility.

They are led by Savannah, who has become a good and adequate mother, having learned the lessons of these experiences. She is shown with a baby in her lap, as she tells the tribe the story of how they came to be there. As noted, Bartertown had no children: it was a dying family in which everyone participated in a corrupt and cynical adulthood. Crack in the Earth had only children: it was lost in dreams and unable to progress to any kind of adulthood. The new village in the ruined city is shown with people of all ages: babies, children, teenagers, and adults. It is a complete family.

It should be noted that because this story recounts a childhood fantasy, the three groups shown represent both one family and a number of families at the same time. On the one hand, they are three aspects of a single family that is lost in corruption, escapes into dreams, and is then made whole by the good son, as he evolves into an independent and ethical adult. But the side of the son that is guilty -- of the corrupt bargain and the destruction of Bartertown -- can't share in this improved family, and a part of him remains in exile.

At the same time, they are more than one family. Here, Max leaves his corrupt family; he engenders or comes to another family in Crack in the Earth, which is still dysfunctional because it can't face reality; and finally, he is able to create a better family for what are now his children. But Max, as the guilty son who has become a good father, can't share in the family he has made possible for his own children.

Throughout all these goings on, we are also given various images of being devoured, forcing one's way in, being taken in, and being born. Regarding the latter, we are shown the expulsion from Bartertown; the decision to leave Crack in the Earth; the destructive departure from Bartertown; and the flight of the airplane from the pilot's underground shelter. Of these, the most important is the mass destruction of Bartertown as the group leaves. This is clearly an image of birth. Like birth (at least as we think of it), it is an act full of pain that injures the mother. But it is more than that: it is the birth of a new family that is also the massive destruction of the old. It is an image of birth as growth and revenge.

So far, this analysis has involved two steps. it examined the movie as a story of ethical development and then described how this story only made sense in the larger subtext of a fantasy about family dynamics. Now, it takes another step, because the subtext of family drama only makes sense when we place it in the context of still another subtext and see it as a disguised account of what takes place in the mind of the character. In other words, what the movie shows us is Max's journey through his own mind. Inside his mind, he encounters images of his parents and himself, and re-creates the family drama, in fantasy, as described above. But with this subtext, we see that there are images of how the mind functions, in addition to images of the family.

Here, there are two Maxes. First, there is Max the son in whose mind all this takes place. He will be referred to as MAX or the SON, to avoid confusion. Second, there is the internalized image of Max, the son, which is the Max we see in the manifest movie, and which will be referred to in the conventional way.

Okay, here we go again:

In the subtext of the family drama, Aunty in the bird's nest was the mother; Master-Blaster in Underworld was the father, and the surface of the city was the children and mundane life of the family. With this new subtext, the three levels of the city also represent functions of mind. Aunty Entity, above the rest, is the conscious will and executive part of the ego, in charge of everything else and giving it order. The surface of the city is the conscious mind she controls -- the chaos of observable thoughts that we may perceive in ourselves and try to give some order and purpose to. The underground is the elemental world of the unconscious and drives, which give the mind its power and energy, and where renegade thoughts are exiled.

The unconscious has its own executive -- Master -- who, befitting his station in the unconscious, speaks slow and, for all the talk in the movie about the knowledge he has to make things work, seems none to bright. He is the primitive thinker of the unconscious, while Blaster is, (like the underground factory, itself), the physical part of the unconscious that these primitive ideas are in close contact with. But, as the brawn and the power that keeps Aunty Entity from taking over Underworld, Blaster is also the power of psychological defense that keeps the conscious will from coming into the unconscious and reorganizing things according to its own principles. Because of Blaster's power, Aunty Entity, as conscious will, is only able to peer into the underground through a periscope she uses, to see what is going on down below, just as we only get glimpses of what is in the unconscious.

How can Aunty Entity be both the conscious will and the mother? The answer is that in the mind of MAX, the son, whose mind we are looking in on, this dynamic  masculinized, image of the mother, impressing her imprint on the world, is identified with the conscious will.

The conflict that takes place in Bartertown occurs because the conscious will is supposedly in charge, but it is constantly challenged by the unconscious, in the form of Master-Blaster, the father-in-the-unconscious that imposes embargoes of energy which force the conscious will to submit to its control. We thus have two images. In one, Master-Blaster is the unconscious of MAX that steals the conscious will's power to control the mind and humiliates it. In the other, Master-Blaster is the internalized father that steals the internalized Max's power and humiliates him. In this subtext, these are the same thing. What they come to is this: MAX's mind can't function because his unconscious fear of retaliation from his father are interfering with his ability to employ his conscious will.

We see how all this is played out in the three scenes that show conflict between the internalized images of Max and Master-Blaster. In the first, Max has made his corrupt bargain with Aunty. He then goes down to Underworld to check things out. While down there he sees his stolen truck, which is now in the possession of Master-Blaster. But Max had previously armed his truck with explosives to stop anyone from driving it. Master-Blaster tries to intimidate Max into defusing the explosives, so he can use the truck for himself. In effect, the father is pressuring Max, the son, to give up his manhood. Max refuses, unless he is paid. He then taunts Master-Blaster, who responds in primitive rage as Blaster picks Max up by the neck.

Here is the dialogue:

Master: "Me order. Me master. Me run Bartertown."

Max: "Sure, that's why you live in sh--."

Master: "Not sh--. Energy."

Max: "Call it what you like. It still smells like sh-- to me."

Master: "Not sh--. Energy. No energy, no town. Me King Arab (pronounced as in Ahab, an apparent reference to the fact that he is imposing an energy embargo, like the oil embargo of the 1970s)."

Max: "Sure. Me fairy princess."

Master: "Embargo on."

Master then imposes an embargo on the town, which cuts off its energy, forcing Aunty Entity to publicly acknowledge he is in charge. What we are seeing here is a disguised account of mental functioning: the internalized father in the unconscious of the son retaliates for the son's refusal to obey and let him steal his manhood. The internalized father retaliates by stopping the ability of the conscious mind to work and function. Aunty Entity, as the son's will, is forced to acknowledge the power that the internalized image in the unconscious has to interfere with and control mental functioning.

Thus we get a symbolic account of what happens in neurosis: the unconscious interferes with the ability of the conscious will to function. Here, the interference with mental functioning is conceived of as the father's retaliation. In actual minds, it may be caused by an attack of anxiety, in fear of retaliation, and/or by an act of self-interference in normal abilities, to avoid feared retaliation.

We see another image of how all this is played out in mental functioning in a second scene of conflict between Max and Master-Blaster. Here, Master-Blaster arrogantly parades around the surface of the city at night in Max's stolen truck, which is a disguised image of a primitive, unconscious, thought coming into consciousness. The unconscious thought that has erupted into consciousness is the one about the father's arrogant theft of the son's manhood, which is being played out in the SON's conscious mind.

As Master-Blaster parades through the city with the truck, Max, as son, demands his truck, or manhood, back, and Master-Blaster, as father, humiliates him and refers to him as a mere pedestrian. In the manifest plot of the movie, Max is doing this to start the fight, so there will be a dual. But as subtext, this is clearly another account of the son's conflict with the father.

In the third sequence, Max confronts Blaster in Thunderdome and blows the whistle on him, so to speak. In blowing the whistle that incapacitates Blaster, he finds the father's weak spot. But Blaster's headgear comes off and Max sees he is only an overgrown child. In other words, he sees the human side to his father and discovers his father is governed by desires from childhood, himself. Max, thus, refuses to steal his father's manhood. But the headstrong conscious will he inherits from his mother won't have it and, in fantasy, the father's power is symbolically cut off with the killing of Blaster.

The son then retreats to Crack in the Earth, into the innocence of childhood daydreams which are about a better father who will come to the rescue. He subsequently destroys the entire mental system based on this family drama, and gives birth to a new one, based on realism, compassion, and humane values, in which a new internalized image of a parent -- Savannah -- manifests loving responsibility for her children. Whereas the mother in the old mental system was identified with the desire for power and demonic law, this one is associated with memory -- as the mother of the village, she tells the tell to her children, so they will know who they are. Whereas the mental system represented by Bartertown hid the truth, in the secret pact between the son and mother, and whereas the second mental system represented by Crack in the Earth escaped from the truth in dreams, this one faces the truth of the past and present, with all its loss (the loss of civilization, of the other children left at the oasis, and the leaving behind of Max). In so doing, it engenders responsibility and compassion.

In the conclusion to this fantasy, the old internalized image of Max doesn't become a part of the new mental configuration. It is left in the wasteland, somewhere, in the middle of psychological nowhere, lost as before, perhaps atoning for its guilt, because of the corrupt bargain and destruction of the old system. But it does experience a victory.

What the movie doesn't depict is the oedipal issues that are inevitably a part of this sequence of fantasies. Max's relationship to Aunty involves a secret pact and a conflict.. But we see indications that she has an affection for him when she is relieved to find out that the Wheel has decreed he will only be exiled and not suffer a worse fate. And we see it when she spares him at the end. Similarly, he fights with, and reconciles with Savannah, and they become the father and mother of the new tribe. (The other older male child is left behind at the oasis.) But, once again, there is no manifest love interest. The sexual issues may not be made obvious, but they are probably a part of the movie's meaning for the authors and many members of the audience.

It is also interesting that the movie doesn't really have any villains. Aunty Entity isn't the infantilizing mother depicted by the computer in Logan's Run. Nor is she like the rejecting mother in the movie, Ordinary People, who becomes the scapegoat and is exiled from her own family, in a play that could depict the problem but couldn't or wouldn't take the next step and examine possible resolutions that don't demonize the mother. Like so many works of contemporary fiction, Logan's Run and Ordinary People depict a mother who is a pathetic villain, who has to be destroyed or exiled at the end

Aunty Entity is a lot more interesting and sympathetic than that. She is assertive, brash, prepared to let others live their own lives, within certain limits. In the end, she is neither villain nor hero, and she experiences neither total defeat nor victory. She is merely a flawed human being who will continue with the task of trying to build a world in her own image, which is a lot better than the image anyone else offered, before Max..

The movie thus gives us an account not only of society, but also of a mind and family, showing how all go wrong as a result of desires for power and escape, and how they can go right. The quest for power over other people, which we see in society at large, is like the quest for power in the family and in the internalized family in the mind, the movie says. All are corrupt. The escape into the hope of a false paradise of future consumer abundance is like the individual's escape into daydream and fantasy. Both make it impossible to build a proper world. For that, we need courage, sacrifice and true memory.

Max, as a political revolutionary, creates a better society by putting up a fight, exposing myths and saying no. As a person struggling with the particulars of his own psychology, Max is depicted as doing the same thing. As for MAX, well MAX is really the author(s) of the movie, expressing their own fantasies about growing up and the functioning of the mind. 


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