maxposthed.gif (3865 bytes)

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

The Meaning of the Movie

Quoting your own e-mail letter always looks a little odd. But this letter, which was sent to a teacher who inquired about the Mad Max essay, provides information on the meaning and significance of the movie and of fiction in general. It is supplemented by another essay that can be accessed at the end.

It's good to hear that you find the essay of interest. The essence of my approach is to unravel the meanings of a work as they relate to ideas about society, psychodynamics, myth, and the development of the self. Inevitably, what I find is that a great many works tell the same story over and over about the child's desire to grow up in the face of regressive urges and obstacles put in his or her way by parents. The same images that tell this story also tell a story about the character's desire to become a whole self and his or her desire to create a good society in the face of obstacles created by various dictators and malefactors. It has become obvious to me that the stories of fiction and nonfiction, for the most part, express our deepest desires to undo our fallen state, and to lead a full life, live in a good society and see other people treated fairly. We are telling ourselves the same story over and over in innumerable forms about our desire to progress to a higher level of development, both as individuals and societies.

I believe that science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction is one expression of this story. It usually tells some variation on the basic myth of our time, which is based on the idea that our wisdom will have to keep pace with our power or our new ability to control the basic processes of the world will end up destroying us. To tell this myth it has inevitably appropriated and re-created the myths that were created by other, earlier, civilizations and that are part of our heritage, especially those of the classical world and the Old and New Testament. Most of the settings of post-apocalyptic fiction are of three types. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome falls into one type, showing us a world in which humanity has fallen back into barbarism and is replaying the tape of history. The other two types are world's in which the characters are trapped in a prison of high- technology and simulation, that is disguised to look like a paradise (Logan's Run), and world's in which civilization retains technology but is in a state of breakdown and collapse (Blade Runner, etc.)

* * * * * *

Ultimately, I believe, most works of fiction and nonfiction are about personal and social transformation -- they are an expression of, and guide for, how we would like to accomplish these things. And they are substitute satisfactions in which we vicariously enjoy achieving these things in a very temporary manner, often through  happy endings which are the sigh of the oppressed creature, so to speak. If we take fiction seriously then, at some point, we have to recognize that its most important message is that we have to make the fiction actual and begin to act in the world to create the selves and societies we know should exist. That's the hard part, of course, and that is what the site is about.

Regarding your question, I would suggest that you look at Mug's Mad Max Page, which is linked from the table of contents of the Mad Max essay. It is full of information on Max as savior. Other writers who shaped my thinking may not be useful in your course -- Northrop Frye (A+) , Marcuse, Maslow, Ricoeur, Peter Berger.

Here are some approaches --

Mad Max as a disguised retelling of a story about growing up and psychodynamics - regression versus maturing.
Mad Max as an account of personal ethical development.
Mad Max as a general description of good and bad societies and how to create the former.
Mad Max as  a warning about the present-day dangers of misusing technology.
Mad Max as a satire of consumerism and "postmodernist" culture, based on appropriation and spectacle.
Mad Max as an exposer of propaganda and myths (myths, in the other sense, as cultural deceptions)
Mad Max as a form of propaganda and cultural deception.
Mad Max as a transformed depiction of Australia.
Mad Max as a retelling of older myths.
Mad Max as a new myth.
The place of the myth of Mad Max in the larger mythology of our time.
Mad Max as an effort to bring a fictional world to life in order to show us
essential truths about our own world.
Mad Max as a work that frustrates our desire for a simple story and a work of propaganda.
The connections between all of these.

Regarding the second- and third-to-the-last items, here is a relevant quote from the Logan's Run essay:

"In offering us this alternative vision, Logan's Run is doing what all good stories do. It is, after all, one of the essential functions of stories to let us see -- and see through -- other ways of looking at the world, other constructed "realities". In effect, it is the role of better forms of fiction to construct fictional versions of the world, which everyone knows are fiction, in order to expose the ways we mistake fiction for reality. They invent worlds to challenge our invented worlds. They do so both by showing us other worlds that make clear ours is only one possible world. And they do so by showing us characters who mistake the fictions of their world and their own minds for reality, until they recognize a higher truth that leads to the conclusion of the story.

"We become a part of these stories by identifying and empathizing with, and by hating, desiring and judging the heroes, victims, villains, and other assorted characters, all of whom are types taken from contemporary society, which also represent parts of our selves and our significant others. We become psychologically absorbed in the conflicts and alliances between the characters. Everything in the story -- the sensory manipulations, the meanings and plot, the claims of good and bad -- are actions designed to carry us to a resolution, and affect our view of things.

"In other words, works of fiction, like other products of culture, draw us into a constructed world that is also a disguised version of the world of childhood fantasy. Their authors instrumentally manipulate fantasy and transference, calling up the stories in themselves that they believe their audiences will respond to.

"To the degree the stories they create try to get us to accept some visions of the world and reject others, they may, as noted above, be forms of propaganda that are embodied in something that looks like reality. Logan's Run is just such a form of propaganda, pushing a particular vision of society and the self, which convinces us, at least while we watch the movie, of its definition of true and false forms of freedom. In the invented world it shows us, we are encouraged to see through self-oriented lifestyles and dependence on technology, and the rationales that maintain these. But we are also encouraged to accept, and not question, the movie's implicit contention that a stoic life of marriage and work are the true forms of human freedom. In effect, like many other stories, it creates a kind of symbiosis with us; it seeks to play the parent to our accepting child, feeding us a vision of reality we are to accept. " (end quote)

In other words, in bringing a world to life, fiction both challenges our assumptions and ideology, and it seeks to impress its own assumptions and ideology on us. Logan's Run is one of many examples of  works that are very invested in impressing their own ideology on us. Mad Max is more nuanced than that. It still does so but it challenges us to question its assumptions, as well, and it invites us into a much wider realm of freedom to interpret it. In place of a villain, it gives us the flawed civilization-builder and semi-benevolent dictator played by Tina Turner. In place of a simple hero, it gives us Max who, basically, can't stop himself from doing the right thing at crucial decision-points and who ends up helping to destroy a town. In place of tortures meted out by the villain, it gives us Thunderdome and the Wheel of Fortune, which are profoundly flawed, inhumane, efforts to contain violence and impose the rule of law. And in place of a simple happy ending, it gives us a hero who may or may not have found himself and who is in the middle of nowhere.

It is also interesting to compare Mad Max to some other works. Escape from New York is an earlier (I believe it is earlier) and much less interesting depiction of a similar world that, I assume, influenced Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, with its own godfather-dictator, version of a gladiator game, recycling, and so on. Waterworld is a more romanticized retelling of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. These works are obviously similar to Mad Max.

But (to sum up) I believe the best way to approach popular fiction is to view all the stories we tell as variations on one basic story. And it seems obvious to me that that story is about our desire to undo our fallen state, as individuals and societies The question then becomes -- what aspect of that story does Mad Max or some other work tell and how does it tell it. This approach, it seems to me, allows us to see what Northrop Frye tried to reveal  -- all fiction as a single system, and all stories as fragmented expressions of a larger human truth that we partly and temporarily experience via the aesthetic experience. And it brings together criticism with ethics, psychology, politics and sociology into a single science that is concerned with the ethical transformation of humanity that is already inside us, waiting to be released. Right now all of this is expressed in fragments and in largely disguised form, in works of fiction and nonfiction. One might say that the critic's first job is salvage. It is in doing what Bartertown can't do -- taking all the damaged parts and using them to make an undamaged whole.

That, anyway, is some of the ways you can approach the movie.