Category Archives: Other Articles

DIFF 2012 Reviews of “Extraterrestrial,” “Bindlestiffs,” “Quick,” and the 25th Anniversary showing of “Robocop” @ The Moving Arts Film Journal


Oh, and there’s these, from a while ago. To be sure, while I might not have the highest opinion of the man himself, Peter Weller is a pitch-perfect rendition of Frank Miller’s growly, morose Batman. Just a post-script I thought was relevant.

You can find them here, if you’re so inclined.

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DIFF 2012 Reviews of “Cinema Six,” “Compliance,” and “Faith, Love and Whiskey” @ The Moving Arts Film Journal

I feel like every time I post here, I should probably remind my readers that I’m still alive. We should hang out more, blog.

I haven’t just been sitting on my laurels in the past two and a half months – a lot of that time has been spent trying once again to make the vast jump from film critic to creator, and I’m reminded of just how true that Douglas Adams quote is about how writing is essentially staring at a blank piece of paper until your forehead starts to bleed. Hopefully, something interesting will come out of it, this time around.  And if not, we aim to fail gloriously, and it’ll be an ungainly mess of random shots of feet, and uninhibited pretension of an amount previously unheard of since Troy Duffy himself, and you’ll all be the first to hear about it, either on here or in the obituaries and back pages of the Dallas Morning News.

But in any case, I’ve also been covering the annual Dallas International Film Festival, which this year landed basically right on my front porch. The first round of my reviews are up over at The Moving Arts Film Journal, including the aggressively middling Cinema Six, the disconcerting Compliance, and the beautifully lyrical Faith, Love and Whiskey, which you can find here.


Oh, and because I said I would, I might as well say hi while I’m in the neighborhood to one of the more interesting volunteers that I had the pleasure of meeting and hanging out with in my spare time this year.  So – hey, Diana! I see you! 🙂

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“Marching Through A Blizzard At The Bottom of The World” – An Expanded Look at George Miller’s Happy Feet @ The Moving Arts Film Journal

George Miller’s wonderfully idiosyncratic piece of animation Happy Feet is experiencing of late one of those weird resurgences in critical popularity that a lot of movies seem to get, four and five years after their initial release. All over, people are starting to realize that this was a film that was doing a lot of new and interesting things, both visually and narratively, and that it deserved a lot more attention than it got – which is saying something, considering the media blitz surrounding its theatrical run. And considering this, I thought I’d take a look at just how it fits into the director’s filmography, in both a visual and thematic sense, by expanding the piece I’d done on it with Glenn Heath at the beginning of last year for our retrospective of the previous decade three-fold, taking a look at the continued use and presence of the barren, biting wasteland in his all of his films, and the implicit societal myths he creates within them, among other things. It was published just recently over at The Moving Arts Film Journal. And, you can read it here.

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Space Age Cowboys – The Bobby Lurie Interview

Originally published for about a minute over at now-defunct Gone Cinema Poaching. See no logic in letting a good effort go to seed, so – here it is, once more.

Bobby Lurie is one-part of a binary compound, of the creative team consisting of himself and Cory McAbee – collectively, they’ve become known primarily for their genre spanning musical act, The Billy Nayer Show; a mix of pungent rockabilly and even harder blues, of catchy show-tunes and visceral table-beating. And then, in 2001, they released The American Astronaut, an extension of their work with TBNS, it introduced a tongue-in-cheek science fiction world of grim-faced men with burning eyes looking out at the world from under the wide brims of their cowboy hats, in saloons on Mars, taking the Old West element so obvious and implicit in science fiction works like Joss Whedon’s Firefly series and turning the stylistic notch up to eleven – and a half. In the process, it became a critical favorite, making the rounds of film festivals the continent over – and continues to be shown in smokey movie-houses, where you can find it.

Stingray Sam, their most recent effort, is another look in on this world – yet, unlike The American Astronaut, this one came not as a whole, but as six or seven minute pieces released here and there before festival showings of films like District 9, catching audiences completely by surprise. It’s also a work of some heft, when it all comes together – a social satire not unlike Douglas Adams on a smaller scale. And, a hellzapoppin’ musical, to boot. Not even three days ago, Lurie and I sat down at our desks and corresponded through the ethernet and had a chat. I thought you’d all be interested. — HJB

The Filmist: Back when The American Astronaut was first screened, one of its earliest reviews in Entertainment Weekly compared it to “a Laurel & Hardy skit directed by Salvador Dali,” and still others compared it to David Lynch’s early work – in Stingray Sam, I’d even say there’s a little of Monty Python in the collage and montage sequences, myself; and I have to ask, do you think there’s a conscious surrealist influence to either of Cory McAbee and yourself’s previous films?

Bobby Lurie: It’s not really conscious when we’re doing the work. We’re not aware of them when we’re in the throes of it, so to speak. Having said that, we both share a great affection for the works of Dennis Potter, a British writer and director who did films such as The Singing Detective (not the US version that sucks) and Lipstick On Your Collar. I’d also say that we were both extremely into music growing up, and that film was an outgrowth of our shared interest in visual art. Cory is one hell of a painter and illustrator, and while I dabbled in it when I was a kid, Cory was doing full fledged works as a teenager. Cory grew up in a strangely isolated environment, so he may not have even known who Salvador Dali was or that Surrealism existed as a movement. Still to this day, Cory does his own thing, and manages to create what I believe to be, very original work. Somehow he can filter the outside world.

F: How was it that you came about getting David Hyde Pierce to act as the film’s narrator?

BL: He came to us through a mutual friend who felt he would like the material, and luckily he did. David` was a complete pleasure to work with and epitomized professionalism.

F: Going back to that first question, both of yourself and McAbee’s previous films act as wonderfully idiosyncratic, tongue-in-cheek synergies of the sci-fi, the western, and the musical – I know with this film one of your more obvious and noted influences were the old Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials, but what do you think are some of the more conscious influences on your work?

BL: I’m actually unsure if Cory watched Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon growing up. I never did, although I did see Flesh Gordon as a teenager. As I mentioned above, Dennis Potter, and certainly everyone from Nick Cave to Roxie Music to The Who to The Beastie Boys, all of whom have a very visual component. I’d also add Scott Walker, who is not a filmmaker, but his music is some of the most visually stimulating ever created. On the film side I would add, The Last Picture Show and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

F: I understand that Stingray Sam began production after funding was lost for one of your projects, “Werewolf Hunters of The Midwest,” which McAbee has mentioned previously as being a more ’serious work’ than your two previous works. Is there anything you can tell us about that?

BL: Not much other than we are hoping to start work on Werewolf very soon.

F: In contrast to The American Astronaut, there does seem to some particularly strong, yet implicit, political resonances here – the placing of the narrative inside a kind of privatized prison system, the constant references to larger corporations like the cigarette company which ’sponsors the film,’ and those kinds of things. It’s something that Mcabee in another interview referred to as his attempt to pull off the same kind of thing that The Twilight Zone had always done, synthesizing the contemporary fears of the culture into a science fiction framework (although, I suppose you could apply that to the genre as a whole, but that’s neither here nor there). What are your thoughts on this?

BL: That’s correct, there is a definite political narrative running through Stingray. I think what’s interesting is the juxtaposition between the social/political background and Stingray Sam’s relationship to the girl. What’s interesting about Sci-Fi and shows like Twilight, is that although you have these world’s that seem larger than life, so to speak, it all does come back to human interaction. You can rail against corporations or political groups, but there is always a human lurking in there. I think technology still hasn’t changed who we are as humans, our base fears and desires. We just have new toys to hide behind. I think our robot in Stingray is particularly interesting because it combines a low tech aesthetic and a very human one at the same time. There is also something scary and fascinating about getting sucked into one of those things. And when you see in the film how and why it was invented, it gives the audience a much broader framework than just some “cool” computer generated gizmo.

F: So, with your and McAbee’s films, which comes first – that is to say, are the film’s narrative built around previously written music, or are the song written to conform to the demands of the story?

BL: Music enters into our films in many different ways. Sometimes Cory writes something for a scene, other times a piece of music we have works for a film. On Stingray, we did some incidental music specifically for a scene after we had our locked picture. Sometimes Cory writes a script and music simultaneously. Music is something we are both always thinking about. I think people forget that The Billy Nayer Show is a band first, everything we do comes out of music. Furthermore, the band has a separate life outside of our films, we have numerous album releases that have nothing to do with our films, although sometimes a song will make it into a film because it works, we just didn’t know it at the time.

F: Speaking of, what are your thoughts on the current state of the musical? I ask because it seems like your films recall the older, American-Studio style of musicals like Singin’ In The Rain or It’s Always Fair Weather,  filtered through a strong blend of rock music and surrealism – outside of The American Astronaut which I’ve already written more than enough about in the past, there seems to be very few films that have tried to resemble that older style and structure; why do you think that is?

BL: Classic American film musicals came out of a studio system where decent writers and composers were hired because they were great. Can you imagine Meredith Wilson (the writer of The Music Man) walking into a film office today and handing over a script? You’d have 20 hacks tear it to shreds before noon, all for their own ego driven Hollywood bullshit.  Many film musicals started as stage productions, and typically the genesis of a play was some writer working tirelessly on his or her own to create something original. And when and if it made the jump to Hollywood, you had moments when decent producers realized they needed to get the fuck out of the way and let the talent do their jobs– the producer’s job was to come up with the money and provide an atmosphere where the talent could create something. It didn’t always work, even with the best of intentions, but when it did, you ended up with masterpieces.

In films today, most music serves the overriding purpose of licensing for money, whatever crap happens to be the hit of the moment. I personally cannot stand hearing a popular song in a film, unless it serves a very specific purpose. For example, I think Scorsese did a great job in GoodFellas, using music to tell a story and create a time and place. And some great films have one pop song that was a hit in it’s day– sometimes it worked, like in To Sir, with Love. Other times it just turned out silly, like in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid; one of my favorite films, but when Rain Drops keep Falling on My Head comes on, it doesn’t exactly hold up. Some films do make an effort to hire a dedicated composer and everything is going along well, and then the studio clowns realize they need to throw a hit song into it, and that completely destroys the mood for me. It’s like reading a great novel and someone shoves a National Enquirer in your face when you get to chapter 5. Unfortunately, many directors and producers today like music so much, they want to put their favorite songs in their movies. The record and film industries are now often owned or controlled by mutual corporations, so you get a buddy system where some band’s drummer’s great aunt is the music supervisor so their shitty song ends up in the movie. We’ve avoided this by working independently.

F: There seems to be a lot of 1950’s iconography, here – the blend of Twilight Zone-esque science fiction, Gene Kelly-flavored musical numbers, and old-fashioned Western and cowboy motifs. How did something like this come about?

BL: Cory appreciates the aesthetic of this kind of iconography and uses it as a springboard for his ideas. I think in part, Cory’s family comes from this world. I would say his father is a genuine cowboy gentleman, a truly stand up guy.

F: What was the initial reaction to the film(s) at Sundance?

BL: Both the screenings at Sundance went exceedingly well, the audience seemed to really like the films and Sundance was happy with how they were received. The fact that Astronaut is still playing theatrically around the world and Stingray seems headed in the same direction, makes the premieres at Sundance that much sweeter for us.

F: Listening to the soundtrack, there’s a strong resemblance I think to stuff by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, particularly the tangier work they’d done on Orange. Can you see this too, or am I grabbing at air, here? And also, I’ve been told that you and the rest of The Billy Nayer Show are working on a new, original full-length album – what can you tell us about that?

BL: I could see some similarities with that record for sure, a really cool record, thanks for the nod. I’m really happy with how the soundtrack turned out, especially since there are expanded versions of songs, and Cory’s daughter sings on a track called Girl from the Moon, which is one of my favorite tracks ever. And yes, we are going to release a new album, our first since Rabbit. It’s taken about three years to make, there is one last track we’re still working on. I think it’s by far the best thing we’ve ever done, but then Cory and I think that about each one we release. This is definitely different than anything else we’ve done. I co-produced it with Karl Derfler, who also did the mixing and production for Stingray. I can never say enough good things about Karl–one of the most talented engineers ever, and fantastic to work with, it’s truly an honor. We’ve done all of it in New York City at our studio.

F: So, yourself and McAbee have quickly marked yourselves out as a strong, idiosyncratic brand of filmmaking team – what’s next for you two cats? Any plans to make the tap-dancers in your respective audiences feel needed?

BL: Right now, we’re working on many things: pushing Stingray both theatrically (Cory will be traveling throu gh the end of the year to festivals and screenings) and online, releasing our next album and touring behind that, and hopefully starting Werewolves. We would like to just continue doing what we do.

F: It’s been a real pleasure, Mr. Lurie.

BL: Thank you Henry, for the very thoughtful questions – my pleasure.

For those interested, copies of both The American Astronaut and Stingray Sam, as well as the soundtracks provided by The Billy Nayer Show, can be bought or downloaded from Cory McAbee’s home website, here.

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Incoming Links – December 24th, 2009

So, let’s just take a breather for a minute. The papers are written, the conversations have all been had, and the cookies and milk have been laid out on the table by the chimney. I’m wearing my Santa nightcap, because it’s quite warm and has a fuzzy, dangly ball at the end that I can bat at and play with if I get bored with my current preoccupation.

Okay. Now that’s done with. Let’s get down to brass tacks. Tomorrow’s Christmas morning – and, I’m excited to beat the band. I mean, who isn’t, right? It’s CHRISTMAS, man! I don’t think there’s a one among us who still doesn’t get a slight twinge of excitement, however slight it may be, at seeing the snow outside – and, here in Texas, that’s a rare thing, making it doubly wonderful, even though it’s pretty well assured that it won’t stick – turning the grasses into a dun-white sheet. And, your breath creaks and hangs in the air as your cheeks grow redder and redder. Gooood stuff.

In the next couple of days, you’ll be seeing up here, among a few other things, hopefully a new review by resident writer Grouchy87 of Michele Soavi’s 1994 Scorsese-favorite Dellamore Dellamorte (Cemetery Man), as well as reviews – by your’n truly – of Eiichiro Hasumi’s recently released Oppai Volleyball, Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and Jonathan Glazer’s Birth, a neo-Kubrickian piece of ominously unnerving psycho-drama that’s been appearing on more than a few ‘best of the decade’ lists. And, maybe some other stuff, too – a first-time DVD review, could be. That kind of thing.

And, now – those outward-going links.

Dan Schneider – now, here’s a fellow internet armchair film critic whose stuff just has to be read to be believed. Popularized recently by Roger Ebert, witness as he tells known playrights, congresswomen, naturalists and other people of note, “you should be thanking me; I mean, I’m doing you a favor. Nobody reads your stuff. My website is, by contrast, one of the most important on the Internet.” No, really.

The Film Doctor gives a pretty succinct summation on my problems in general with Disney’s latest hand-drawn feature, The Princess and The Frog.

Fellow Match-Cutter and RT moderator Alex Weitzman gives a wonderful rundown of what it is in Kevin Smith’s films that works so well, and that often goes unstated by both critics and fans alike – which you can find here, in his succession of essays at the forum, “An Examination of the Themes of Kevin Smith’s Films.

Annalee Newitz of Io9 just has to wonder, “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like ‘Avatar?‘” And, you know what?

Readers, have a merry Christmas – and, you know I mean that.

The Filmist

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Wherein I Shill A New Film Coming Out Soon

…because I was asked to. And, in this case, the film is Jane Campion’s Bright Star, which is due out in theaters – well, two days ago, actually. In any case, here’s two behind-the-scenes featurettes that the film’s publicist keeps asking me to host up. And, so I will oblige, because I’m a nice guy.

Jane Campion – Inspiring Romance

Jane Campion – Setting the Scene and Finding the Fabric

If this kind of thing interests you, several more clips can be found at Crew Creative Advertising’s respective page for the film, which is here.

Danny Peary on “King Kong.”

Following his write-up of George Miller’s Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior, I present here Danny Peary’s look at Merian C. Cooper’s million-dollar monkey movie, King Kong – first published in Cult Movies 1, in 1981, which examines the film from a Freudian standpoint, although not the one that many would expect, surprisingly  –



“With the exception of The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Citizen Kane (1941), no picture has been the subject of more critical writing than the original King Kong, an irreplaceable part of twentieth century American culture, the greatest, most popular, most intriguing horror fantasy film ever made. As King Kong is a testament for those who believe film is a collaborative an, the majority of articles have dealt with the various achievements of the numerous individuals who worked on the project, with the tremendous contributions of special effects genius Willis O’Brien and composer Max Steiner (who understood that Kong should be scored like a silent picture) being singled out most often. Because there is so much available material that documents the technical wizardry of Kong, I will confine myself to two other areas.

An Interpretation. Like most producers, Merian C. Cooper insisted that all his films, including King Kong, were strictly “entertaining pictures,” but Kong is so rich in implication that few critics haven’t read added significance into it. It has been interpreted as: a parable about an innocent, proud country boy (probably a muscular, uneducated black) who is humbled and finally destroyed when he comes to the cold, cruel city; an indictment of “bring ’em back alive” big game hunters; a racist visualization of the fears a white woman has about being abducted by a black — or, as Harry Geduld and Ronald Gottesman suggest, “a white man’s sick fantasy of the Negro’s lust to ravish white women”; and a parable about the Great Depression, an interpretation I have never understood.

Numerous critics contend that Kong was intentionally filmed as if it were a nightmare. (If the picture is indeed a dream, this would explain the frequent changes in Kong’s size, according to scale.) B. C Dale writes:

“The film manages to bypass the critical, censorious level of the viewers consciousness and to secure his suspension of disbelief with what appears to be great ease. A number of French critics have attributed this phenomenon to the film’s oneiric qualities, its pervasive dreamlike control of some subconscious, uncritical pan of the mind. Indeed it does succeed in dreaming for us.”

I agree that King Kong is dreamlike — in fact, our first view of Skull Island is an exact reproduction of Arnold Bocklin’s dreamlike painting “Isle of the Dead” — but I don’t think that it is our dream we watch on the screen. The film begins in the real world, in dark, cold Depression New York where unemployed, hungry people stand in soup lines; but from the moment The Venture leaves port for uncharted regions, I believe we are on a journey through Carl Denham’s subconscious. Just as Pauline Kael described the landscape of Altair 4 in the Kong influenced Forbidden Planet (1956) as being .the caves, plains, and the towers of Dr. Morbius’s mind,” Skull (as in cerebral) Island’s expressionistic landscape — fertile, overgrown, reptile infested, watery, cave filled — is Denham’s fantasized sexual terrain.

And Kong, I believe, is a manifestation of Denham’s subconscious. Much like Morbius’s Id monster. Whereas Morbius conjures up his monster to kill off the men he fears will take away his daughter (likely his lover in his subconscious), Denham conjures up Kong as a surrogate to battle Driscoll for Ann’s love and to perform sexually with her when he has never been willing (or able) to have a sexual encounter himself. Although young and virile, misogynist Denham has traveled to the far corners of the earth with an all male crew to avoid intimate liaisons because he believes women will strip him of his masculinity (“Some hardboiled egg gets a look at a pretty face and he cracks up and goes sappy”). Kong is Denham’s female lusting side — his alter ego, which he keeps in the dark recesses of his mind, as remotely located as Skull Island, behind a figurative great wall. Kong is evidence of Denham’s desperate need to possess Ann; his birth is a result of Denham’s continuing to suppress his sexual/romantic drive even after he meets, and immediately falls in love with, Ann.

In New York, Denham tells Ann, “Trust me and keep your chin up.” A few seconds of screen time pass, and Ann, now on board The Venture, is struck accidentally by Driscoll — on the chin. This is a sign that Denham can’t be trusted to protect Ann’s physical well being even if he wants to. As his secret (even from himself) love for Ann increases, his Kong side overcomes his desire to protect her. He betrays his lack of concern for her safety (from Kong): for her screen test aboard The Venture, he dresses Ann in white — with her bee stung lips and hair style she looks like one of D. W. Griffith’s virginal Victorian heroines — as if preparing her for sacrifice, or perhaps a sexual initiation rite; then he takes Ann onto Skull island before he knows if it is safe. Just as Denham saved Ann in New York from jail (for stealing an apple), unemployment, and starvation, Kong continues Denham’s gallantry toward Ann on Skull Island, saving her from a tyrannosaur and a pterodactyl. But the difference is clear: the civilized Denham (the man) believes his interest in Ann is “strictly business,” while the primitive Denham (Kong) has placed no such restrictions on himself.

Since Kong is a side of Denham, Kong needn’t follow the movie formula of having Denham and Driscoll vie for Ann’s affections. Denham can allow Driscoll free reign with her because, in truth, the schizophrenic Denham is moving in on Ann from his Kong side. Also, through Kong, Denham tries to eliminate Driscoll and all other men who “pursue” her. When Driscoll’s kisses bring Ann to her height of sexual passion, and her breathing is heavy and her body is like jelly, he is conveniently (as far as Denham is concerned) called to a meeting with Denham and the captain. Suddenly natives, who to Denham probably represent the link between civilized man (himself) and his simian ancestors (apes), climb aboard The Venture at the very spot where Ann stands, at the first moment she is alone, and kidnap her to be Kong’s bride. Is it the natives’ lucky night? Or were things so easy for them — being part of Denham’s dream — because Denham’s subconscious orchestrated the whole thing in their favor?

That Denham and Kong are rarely in the same shot further gives one the impression that Kong is being directed by some external force, namely Denham’s subconscious, At one time Kong is on one side of the tree trunk bridge that holds Driscoll (who climbs off to safety) and several other men pursuing Ann (who fall to their deaths) — while Denham is out of sight on the other side of the bridge and only emerges after Kong has left. Not coincidentally, a later scene in New York shows Kong reaching into a hotel room (to which Denham’s subconscious must have directed him), snatching Ann, and knocking down Driscoll — while Denham is out of sight in the hall and only appears after Kong has left.

Denham and Kong do confront each other (the visualization of Denham’s internal struggle) when Kong breaks through the supposedly impenetrable door of the great wall (Denham’s mental barricade) — just as the Id monster breaks through the supposedly impenetrable laboratory door in Forbidden Planet. Confronted with his bestial side, the civilized Denham — a model for Morbius, who at this point denies his Id monster, thereby making it cease to exist — puts it (Kong) to sleep with gas bombs. Back in New York, Denham still tries to control his sexual side by literally chaining up Kong. However, once Kong breaks out of his supposedly unbreakable chains, Denham’s last barrier, we never see Kong and Denham together again until Kong lies dead.

Denham’s words “it was beauty killed the beast” makes sense only if the beast he’s referring to was part of himself. It is an understatement to say that Kong is too big for Ann, but we could overlook this except for the fact that Kong’s size prevents him from considering her a beauty. That he can’t even recognize Ann by her looks is evident when he pulls the wrong woman from the hotel and can only tell she’s not Ann by hair color and smell — not by beauty. That Kong reacts so violently when the photographers take pictures of Ann is not because he thinks they’re trying to harm her — Kong probably doesn’t recognize her — but because filmmaker Denham, a voyeur (as many critics have acknowledged), becomes filled with jealous rage because others are taking pictures of his actress / woman / property / beauty; and it is his subconscious that wills Kong to intervene by breaking his bonds and chasing the photographers away. Once loose, Kong is out of the civilized Denham’s control and goes all out to succeed in his mission of having sex with Ann. On Skull Island, a snake (a Freudian sex symbol) attacks Kong — a symbolic act that shows Denham is trying to suppress his sexual instincts; however, in New York, Kong attacks the snake — the Third Avenue El — making it clear that nothing will get in his way this time. Having no penis — is impotence the reason Denham avoids women? — Kong has symbolic intercourse with Ann when he takes her up the world’s greatest phallic symbol: the Empire State Building. Once this sexual act has been carried out (consummated), Denham is no longer sexually repressed (or a virgin). As his sexual self can surface at last, he no longer has to enjoy sex vicariously through a surrogate — and Kong, now obsolete, can die. Therefore, it makes sense that in the Cooper Ernest B. Schoedsack sequel, Son of Kong (1934), where Denham is the romantic lead and has a love affair with Helen Mack, the gorilla need not be and is not a sexual being.

Kong as Hero. That Kong is regarded as a hero rather than the prototype for all monster villains is quite extraordinary, considering how many innocent people he kills and how much property he destroys, all done with the emotion of someone eating a melting ice cream cone. His hero status is even more unusual since the recent reinsertion of scenes censored in 1938 from all prints of the film. These scenes of Kong partially stripping Ann (touching her and smelling his finger), viciously trampling and chewing on helpless natives, and dropping the woman he mistakes for Ann to her death from high above the city streets, make Kong’s “beastliness” much more pronounced.

Kong is a hero, I suspect, because he is a great fighter, capable of beating Tunney or Dempsey with his pinky, or the entire United States Air Force if it fought fairly; he gallantly risks his life for his woman; black people see him as a black character who fights White America; the poor see him as their champion who wreaks havoc on New York City, home of Wall Street and the least popular city during the Great Depression and not much more popular since; women see that he doesn’t hide his feelings as most men do. And Kong is certainly sympathetic. We feel sorry for grotesque characters whose love for someone beautiful is not returned — Fay Wray earned her reputation as the screen’s top screamer by shrieking every time Kong came near her. He is taken forcibly from his homeland, where he was god, to be, as Denham tells the theater audience, “merely a captive to gratify your curiosity.” He is destroyed by airplanes, something he can’t understand, for reasons he can’t comprehend. As his last act, he puts Ann in a safe place so she won’t suffer his horrible fate — what is truly upsetting is that Ann doesn’t verbally acknowledge the nobleness of this gesture. Kong dies so tragically and so theatrically (as a hammy silent movie star might) that we forgive and forget all that he has done. But for all this, as Robert Fiedel writes in The Girl in the Hairy Paw (Avon, 1976), “Most critics have always been at a loss to give adequate explanation for the great feeling of tragedy evoked by Kong’s death.” When the airplanes start firing on Kong we suddenly feel we are losing our best friend, when up till now we have thought Kong our enemy. I believe Fiedel pinpoints the reason for our dramatic reversal:

“The answer lies, in fact, in the musical score… Nowhere is the score more manipulative than in the death scene. As Kong realizes that his death is immediately impending, we hear a lamenting variation of the “Ann Darrow” motif played passionately by the strings… Then as Kong finally dies and loses his hold atop the Empire State Building, his motif is resolved by rest chords… signifying his acceptance of defeat… Kong’s actual fall is accompanied by a sustained blaring dissonant chord, and finally resolved by an orchestral outburst. It is interesting that his fall is resolved only by the score, and not by the visuals… The score serves the vital function of resolving the tension of the actual fall and denoting the precise moment to trigger our emotional responses… As Denham muses philosophically over the body of Kong… a celestial statement of the “Ann Darrow” motif is played in the upper string register which makes a final tragic comment on the death of Kong. A final recapitulation of the resolved “Kong” motif ensues, concluding the film on a negative, disturbing theme.”

King Kong is an institution, a folk hero, certainly more real to us today than the defunct studio that created him. Kong has been resurrected so many times — initially by major studio releases in 1938, 1942, 1946, 1952, and 1956, and then by impossible to miss television and repertory theater screenings — that he has become immortal. The King is dead!”

– by Danny Peary, published in Cult Movies 1, 1981.

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Danny Peary on “Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior.”

While it was previously reposted elsewhere on the web, the site it called home has only recently gotten a massive overhaul, becoming something entirely other, with the few reproductions of Danny Peary’s articles – including this one – nowhere to be found. While theoretically I could tell you to all go out and find a copy of Peary’s seminal 1981 tome Cult Movies, and it’s following installments, they’ve been long out-of-print, commercially. And so, for net-posterity’s sake, here it is in full, because I fear the film-gods would smite me with hot lightening if I did not move to act – Danny Peary’s essay on “Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior,” first published in the third volume of his Cult Movies series in 1988.



“This is the second entry in George Miller’s influential, thrill-a-second, futuristic trilogy — coming between Mad Max (1979) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), which George Ogilvic co-directed. Mad Max unexpectedly became Australia’s most profitable picture upon release, raking in over $100 million on a mere $300,000 investment. The only country in which it didn’t fare well was the United States. That’s because three months after the enthusiastic AIP bought it for American distribution, the studio was taken over by the unenthusiastic Filmways. It needlessly had Americans re-voice then-unknown Mel Gibson and the other Australian actors, which made it seem like a dubbed spaghetti Western, and then dumped the picture into grindhouses. Mad Max 2, which was distributed worldwide by Warner Bros., surpassed the original’s box office internationally; and as The Road Warrior in the United States, where Mel Gibson had since 1979 become quite popular, its fate was much better — unlike Mad Max, it detoured through resounding commercial success before achieving cult status.

I think the near-future post-apocalyptic alternate-world setting in the original is much more fascinating and frightening than the timeless wasteland in the second film (and in the third), simply because it’s a vision one can relate to and appreciate other than on a subconscious level. Miller intentionally moved out of the realistic realm for the second film, using a narrator (the Feral Kid grown up) to emphasize “that this is storytelling, fable, mythology” — having a narrator from the distant future relate a story set in the near future throws time completely out of whack and makes the story fit even more snugly into a mythological framework. And though I don’t like Max becoming a vigilante in Mad Max and think — as I wrote in Cult Movies (1981) — “it is less interesting as a story about people than as a marriage between a filmmaker’s machines (his camera, his editing tools) and the motor-powered machines (cars, motorcycles) that he films,” I still find that, overall, its characters and the relationships between them are more developed than in the sequel. However, I like both films equally, and understand why most moviegoers and critics consider The Road Warrior the better film. It isn’t dubbed. Mel Gibson has even more screen presence than in Mad Max; his character has more shadings. Whereas Mad Max is a part-biker, part-horror, part-vengeance film, The Road Warrior attracted a broader audience because it seems to exist on a higher, classier, more cerebral plane — despite incorporating much material from those not-always-appreciated genres. And as mind blowing as the car stunts are in Mad Max, the $4 million sequel, which used 80 vehicles and employed 200 stunts, is even more spectacular.

What you watch with wide eyes makes your body shake. There is nonstop action and violence. There are furiously paced chases and terrifying crashes, which are shot close up by cameras that are inside speeding vehicles rather than on the side of the road. There are menacing, ritualistic, pageantry-obsessed characters. They wear leather, masks, and other weird medieval garb, and spiked, wildly colored punk haircuts; fire crossbows and flamethrowers; and race souped-up cycles and cars (chariots for these knights) across the mythical landscape. “The Road Warrior,” stated Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice, “is an honest-to-goodness movie-movie of such breathtaking velocity that it would spin hopelessly out of control if it did not have a charismatic hero at its core.” “Never,” declared Vincent Canby of the New York Times, “has a film’s vision of the postnuclear-holocaust world seemed quite so desolate or so brutal, or so action-packed and sometimes funny as in… [this] extravagant film fantasy, which looks like a sadomasochistic comic book come to life.” As Time’s Richard Coring wrote, “Miller keeps the eye alert, the mind agitated, the Saturday matinee spirit alive evoking emotion through technique.” Corliss:

“…cars crash, somersault, explode, get squashed under the wheels of semis. Skinless bug-eyed corpses hurtle toward the screen. A mangy dog sops at a coyote carcass. A deadly boomerang shears off fingertips, creases a man’s skull. That’s entertainment? As a series of isolated incidents, no… But as garishly precise daubs in George Miller’s apocalyptic fresco, they add up to exhilarating entertainment — and a textbook for sophisticated popular moviemaking.”

Corliss was one of the few American critics to have gone out on a limb and recommended Mad Max. Like other critics, he found it easier to praise the sequel because it is thematically more palatable. In its final third, Mad Max becomes another bleak, if more imaginative and compelling, revenge film with a sociopath hero; ex-cop Max, quite mad, tracks down and brutally murders the gang members who killed his wife and baby; he loses his humanity in the process. As Sarris reasoned, “[The Road Warrior] is somewhat more satisfying as genre entertainment than Mad Max because its heroics are driven less by vengeance than a vision.”

Miller told me in an interview for Omni’s ScreenFlights! ScreenFantasies (1984) that he and partner Byron Kennedy, the late producer of the first two Mad Max films, decided to make Mad Max for two reasons. First, they had a mutual “obsession for the pure kinetics of chase movies,” from Ben-Hur (1960) to Bullitt (1968), from Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd silent comedies to biker films such as The Wild One (1954) and those made by Roger Corman at AIP. Second, they were fascinated by Australia’s car culture: In the sixties, deserted rural roads were used as much for sporting arenas as they were for transportation and there was a disproportionate number of highway casualties. (While an intern, medical school graduate Miller spent six months in a casualty ward — his exposure to road trauma was “a germinating influence on the Mad Max films.”) Max’s character was of minor concern in Mad Max. They were content to have him become another in the movies’ long line of monstrous revenge killers because his vengeance story line would allow them to pursue their major interests. However, Miller and Kennedy decided to make The Road Warrior primarily to explore Max’s character. This time they wouldn’t be satisfied having a remorseless vigilante-killer as their lead. Such an objectionable character had appeal for the Death Wish (1972) audience but had no thematic interest to them. But they were intrigued by how such a character could evolve: becoming a myth-hero with universal appeal (Miller read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces); reluctantly interacting with and ultimately helping other lost, troubled people; regaining his humanity; and, because of heroics/good deeds, receiving redemption for those sins he committed in Mad Max. Miller told me:

“[When we made Mad Max], I don’t think we thought very much in terms of heroes …. It was only a lot later, after we began to analyze Max’s popularity in places as diverse as Japan, Switzerland, Australia, France, the United States, and South America, that I could see that Mad Max was a rather corrupted version of hero mythology. The film enjoyed success beyond the normal, exploitation car films because we had unwittingly, unconsciously, been ‘servants” of the collective consciousness: Mad Max was in fact another story about a lone outlaw who wandered through a dark wasteland — similar stories had been told over and over again, across all space and time, with the hero being a Japanese samurai, or an American gunslinger, or a wandering Viking, etc.
“The truth is that I had a tough time making Mad Max. I was dissatisfied with the film and felt that we had been constrained by my inexperience and our small budget, and for a long time when I was cutting it, I honestly felt it was unreleasable. When the film succeeded financially, I thought it would give me the chance to go off and do something quieter. We didn’t imagine that there would be a sequel. But the whole mythological question in regard to our hero made us want to do the first film again, to push that character a little further,
“Mad Max is a very dark film. We begin with an admittedly harsh world, but Max is a fairly normal man, working a day job as a highway cop, and having a wife and baby at home…. But the world catches up to him and his family is decimated; and he descends into his dark side. By the end of the film, mad, angry, crazy Max has become a full monster, the avenging demon. We leave him in the most pessimistic situation I’d like to leave any character. We must question whether he’s redeemable. On the other hand, The Road Warrior starts with a pessimistic world and ends with there being the possibility of rebirth, no matter how dark the order of the day is. Max spends most of the film attempting to deny his humanity. Mel Gibson called his character a “closet human being” who doesn’t want to be involved with other human beings because he believes an emotional investment will be too painful and also compromise his chances for survival. He can barely bring himself to have contact with his dog. But Mel Gibson has a quality of “goodness” to him, a “good core,” and this comes out a fair bit in his character in The Road Warrior — so you know that Max is essentially ripe for change … you recognize he’s ready to rekindle the spark of compassion within him. And that’s best characterized by his friendship with the Gyro Captain and his regard for the boy, the Feral Kid. By the end of the film, he realizes — perhaps entirely unconsciously — that he can’t live completely alone any longer, and that his life must have some greater purpose. He realizes that he has no choice but to drive the oil tanker for the people of the compound and be the one who is attacked by the marauders. It turns out that he was just a pawn of the collective, but even as a decoy he was responsible for these people gaining freedom and a new order emerging from the chaos. He begins to believe that, like all of us, he’s part of the collective, like it or not. It’s a much more optimistic outlook than we have in Mad Max.”

It may seem contradictory that Miller attempts to establish Max as a universal myth-hero yet, at the same time, sets him on a journey to find his humanity and again become a mere human being. Alter all, most of the movie myth-heroes/superwarriors to whom Max can be compared — Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy, Charles Bronson’s “The Man” in Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), Eastwood’s Pale Rider (1985), Toshiro Mifune’s Yojimbo (1961), Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo — realize, as we viewers do, that they will never be part of the human race again. That they are already “dead” is what makes them and Max (and even the lethally poisoned Edmund O’Brien in the 1949 melodrama D.O.A.) fearless and so formidable. They have nothing to lose. But it should be pointed out that Miller doesn’t compare Max to any of the above figures, but to “a Ulysses or Sir Galahad, a hero with larger-than-life qualities and human limitations as well.” Certainly Max is as laconic a superhero as Eastwood’s Man with No Name, and just as efficient at killing off bad guys; Max, too, is left for dead by bad guys but has a Christ-like resurrection, and his humorous relationship with Bruce Spence’s Gyro Captain definitely recalls Eastwood’s with Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967). But the road warrior differs from the Eastwood character in that he is emotional about his past (he slugs Pappagallo for downplaying the deaths of his wife and baby), is haunted by inner demons (Eastwood has no past, no guilt), and, in this second film, doesn’t initiate fights — which Eastwood always does. So it’s probably less appropriate to link Max with Eastwood’s character than with Steve Reeves’s Hercules (1960), the rare movie myth-hero who strives to he a human being (and mortal), and with Allan Ladd’s Shane (1953), the rare movie myth-hero who displays admirable human traits.

Max has been compared to Shane, because he, too, is an outlaw who comes out of the blue to help a group of settlers/dreamers defeat villains that covet their property, and, while history moves forward, wanders off again into mythology. I also suggest Miller was influenced by two other Westerns. The premise of the film — a superwarrior and his amusing sidekick join an out-manned, ragtag outfit inside a compound/fort while enemy soldiers lay siege outside — is straight out of the Alamo segment of Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955); the scene in which Max drives the truck full throttle into the compound while the Gyro Captain files above and the marauders are on his heels is similar to the scene in Davy Crockett in which Fess Parker (as myth-hero Crockett), Buddy Ebsen, Hans Conreid, and Nick Cravat race through the Alamo gate just before Mexican horse soldiers catch up to them. I asked Miller about Davy Crockett — sure enough, he still remembers the excitement he felt as a kid when the picture came to Australia, and how essential it was to own a coonskin hat. Hondo (1953), with John Wayne playing Louis L’Amour’s greatest hero, is also a probable influence on The Road Warrior. Wayne and his unpettable dog, Sam, race across the desert trying to flee hostile Indians, just as Max and his unfriendly dog try to flee a “tribe” of marauders in the desert. Sam is killed by an Indian spear — Max’s companion is killed by a marauder’s arrow. Whereas Max finds temporary safety in the compound, Wayne takes refuge at Geraldine Page’s ranch, which, for the time being, the Indians will not attack, There is no counterpart for Page’s character in The Road Warrior — soon after Virginia Hey’s beautiful Warrior Woman says her first friendly words to handsome Max and he seems touched, Miller unpredictably kills her off in battle (this part was originally intended for an actor but was given unchanged to Hey). But Page’s brave fatherless son (he’ll fight adult Indians), played by Lee Aaker, who becomes attached to Wayne, anticipates Emil Minty’s scene-stealing Feral Kid. The classic finale, in which Max drives the tanker (with the Feral Kid and the Warrior Woman on board) while the marauders give chase — the Indianapolis 500 if all drivers had weapons — can be compared to a similar scene in Stagecoach (1939), but it also recalls the final sequence in Hondo, in which bloodthirsty Indians chase Wayne, Page, and Aaker and their soldier-escorted wagon caravan across the desert. Incidentally, while many people have assumed Miller borrowed ideas from the 1975 cult favorite A Boy and His Dog (a post-apocalyptic world full of scavengers, a hero with a dog in the desert, a gang leader keeping his soldier on a leash), Miller didn’t see it until after he had made The Road Warrior — he “was surprised by the similarities.” However, Miller does give credit to A Clockwork Orange (1970), presumably for influencing Norma Moriceau’s startling punk costuming, the slangy dialogue (more noticeable in Mad Max), and the ultra-violence.

In many Westerns and other action films, similar characters consciously choose opposite ways of life and become mortal enemies. The hero can understand the villain because he is much like him, except the bad guy has relinquished his morality; he can defeat the villain because he has the same capacity for violence, is as unscrupulous in battle, and has slightly more cunning. In The Road Warrior Vernon Wells’s wildman Wez and mad Max have a bond they both recognize. Wez is the vile figure Max would be like if he completely relinquished his morality. They are each temporarily chained by the leaders of their respective camps, Mike Preston’s Pappagallo and the fearsome Humungus, played by Swedish bodybuilder Kiell Nilsson. Pappagallo (“We haven’t given up — we’re still human beings!”) admonishes Max for using the deaths of his wife and baby as an excuse to be “a scavenger, a maggot living off the corpse of the old world”; he asks: “Do you think you’re the only one who suffered?” Similarly, the Humungus cools off scavenger-maggot Wez after his male lover is killed; he reminds him, “We’ve all lost someone we love.” For a brief startling moment, the masked Humungus (what a great dirty wrestler he’d be!) has dignity and the grotesque Wez is as sympathetic as Max. Miller has reminded us that before normal society disintegrated because of a worldwide energy shortage — the Mad Max stories were triggered by the surprisingly violent Australian response to petrol rationing in the seventies — and many survivors let the reptilian side of their brains take over, the people who now inhabit the compound might have been friends with those marauders who now threaten them; Wez might have been a cop, like Max; the Humungus, who Miller thinks was a former military officer who suffered severe facial burns, might have served in the same outfit as his counterpart, Pappagallo. I asked Miller if viewers identified more with the good guys than the fancier dressed marauders. Miller:

“I would hope, as a storyteller, that there is identification with both sides. I think a well-told story gives insights into all forces that interact in any conflict. I really think it’s important. I find that in both Mad Max and The Road Warrior, the bad guys are more interesting than the good guys. On a pragmatic level, it’s more fun for the actors and designers to be working with the marauder, bad-guy types than the good guys who, I’m afraid, can be rather boring. If I had a chance to do the films again, I think I’d give a bit more insight into both sides. Then hopefully, the audience would be able to see that those people with the broader knowledge, who are prepared for broader connections and want to stay alive and eventually move toward the organization of a new society, should be classified as ‘good guys.’ I think the ‘bad guys’ are designated ‘bad’ because basically they have chosen to limit their perspective. They are people who say, ‘There’s no hope, there’s no chance for rebirth, so our goal is merely to survive, which we’ll do by taking what’s left,’ And really that’s all that differentiates them from the ‘good guys.’ Max is only marginally better than the Humungus [and Wez]; he is as committed as the marauders to survival at all costs, only he’s hasn’t the total amorality of the marauders.”

Like Mad Max, The Road Warrior was attacked in many circles for having excessive violence — I could do without seeing the Feral Kid’s boomerang slice off that old marauder’s fingers, but I think the violence is functional rather than gratuitous. I disagree with Richard Corliss’s claim (not meant to be criticism) that “our nerve endings [are soon] numbed by the movie’s aimless carnage.” Many people are killed, yet Miller doesn’t allow us to become desensitized to death, especially single deaths; we’re just as upset by the gallant death of the Warrior Woman in the last scene as we were by the murders of the raped compound woman and Max’s dog earlier in the film. Interestingly, we sense the worth of the Gyro Captain (who Miller believes serves the most important function in the picture since he both provides humor and taps Max back toward his humanity) because we identify with his revulsion upon seeing the brutal rape-murder of the captured compound woman — he has seen countless murders but hasn’t been desensitized either. Significantly, her murder and the dog’s are two of many powerful incidents of violence that Miller implies, rather than shows. Miller:

“I had censorship problems with the two films in certain countries because of the violence. And it was extremely difficult to make any cuts because, as you’d see if you looked at them frame by frame or sequence by sequence, there’s not much violence on the screen. They appear to be more violent than they are. That was deliberate.
“The question of how to use violence in films, or whether to use it at all, is very difficult to answer. I do know that there’s an impulse in filmmakers and other storytellers to try and confront both violence and death and shed some light on each. Of course, there’s a fine line between exploiting these subjects and examining them, And I’m not quite sure where the Mad Max films fall.
“One thing that has helped me try to put everything into context is the notion that movies are really public dreams… that we share collectively in darkened theaters. And just like dreams have functions, nightmares help us confront our dark sides. The reasons we told these post-apocalyptic allegories, these warning fables, was to help us explore the darker, more unthinkable side of ourselves. These dress rehearsals for our own deaths help us experience that part of ourselves which we are unable to deal with in normal, conscious, everyday living. And I think that’s the kind of impulse that gives rise to the violence in our storytelling. There’s obviously a need for violence in stories, as it has always been present in them, whether we’re talking about biblical stories or children’s fairy tales.”

The violence in The Road Warrior has thematic validity. The horrifying violence is what establishes it as one of the few post-apocalyptic pictures that doesn’t suggest such a future is romantic. Even the majority of compound dwellers we care about are killed off. “This world is not meant to be inviting,” says Miller. “It is brutal, scary, and forbidding.” It’s a world that has vast excitement and entertainment for us tourists who sit in our movie seats, but not even a madman like Max wants to live there — lucky for us he has no choice.”

– by Danny Peary, published in Cult Movies 3, 1988.

Credit must go to “Cueball” for his reproduction of the above promotional photograph.
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“Negotiating Between Hollywood and Australia in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” – Patrick Svennson

(as promised, find here enclosed Sven‘s extended look at the final Mad Max film in the colliding contexts of Hollywood filmmaking and Australian identity.)


It is difficult enough to identify a national character within a body of that nation’s artistic product, but films embody an altogether more complicated dimension to the concept of locating a national identity. Largely, the vast diversity of films produced within a country with a healthy cinematic economy obfuscates attempts to extrapolate universal themes and motifs. More difficultly, though, the sheer expense of film production frequently requires filmmakers to seek financial support from outside their milieu. The result is a phenomenon of cross-cultural product that, by virtue of locations, talent, content, and production history, cannot be situated within the specific confines of a single national identity. The final installation in George Miller’s Australian “Mad Max” saga, Beyond Thunderdome, is intricate in such a way. According to the Internet Movie Database, Beyond Thunderdome is the only film of the trilogy (following Mad Max and The Road Warrior) whose production, not just distribution, was co-financed with foreign money from the United States. The financial interest of Hollywood suggests that certain formal and textual considerations be met in order to secure a return in its investment. This focus on commercial demands generally restricts the possibilities of a specifically Australian vision. However, with Beyond Thunderdome, directors Miller and George Ogilvie and screenwriter Terry Hayes (who co-wrote the film with Miller) manage to create a film that is simultaneously Australian in character as well as Hollywood in convention.

Frequently when filmmakers looking to export their product, rather than stripping their films of cultural-specific references, they will, instead, attempt to package their culture, hoping to appeal to foreign audiences’ sense of exoticism. It is important to keep in mind the difference between cinematic tourism and national character. While films that feature specifically Australian elements, such as aboriginal culture or Australian history, films like Crocodile Dundee or The Last Wave, can be easily identified as Australian pictures, this does not necessarily speak for the films’ identification as works with national character. This would be tantamount to suggesting that films identifiable with the kitschy term “Americana” (such as Forrest Gump and Yankee Doodle Dandy) are descriptive of the national character of the United States. A similar difficulty occurs when considering films free of specific cultural reference points: how can we identify films like the “Mad Max” trilogy, specifically Beyond Thunderdome, as Australian films when they are practically without any specific Australian references?

It’s immediately obvious while watching the “Mad Max” films that Beyond Thunderdome is the most well financed and globally concerned. Its budget shows in every frame, in every extravagant set, and in every exotic and attractive setting. The first two films feature scores by Australian composer Brian May. Beyond Thunderdome’s score is by Frenchman Maurice Jarre, a seasoned practitioner of bombastic, big-budget Hollywood soundtracks. Its plot is bifurcated to include intense Thunderdome-centered action as well as a more sensitive plot involving Max helping a tribe of lost children find their way back to a home they call “Tomorrow-morrow-land.” This exemplifies the Hollywood trend of broad appeal and constant narrative motion, whereas the earlier two films’ stories are more singular and contemplatively paced. There is also the inclusion of Tina Turner, whose casting as the mayor of Bartertown was one of the film’s key marketing focuses, as her Private Dancer album the previous year had gone triple platinum. With her presence also came two songs that bookend the film, “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)” and “One of the Living,” the former of which went on to be a worldwide hit. With her and newly-minted international star Gibson heading the cast, combined with the large-scale narrative and the opulence of its sets and costumes, it is simple to see the picture’s Hollywood influences.


However, despite Warner Brothers’ influence on the film’s production, Beyond Thunderdome still retains an identity that is markedly Australian. It is the third part of a series where the first two films were created entirely within the confines of Australian industry (picked up by overseas companies for distribution post-production). Its cast and crew are largely Australian, with a few notable exceptions including Turner and Angelo Rossitto (who plays the Master half of Master Blaster). Most important, though, are the stylistic and thematic similarities it shares with Australian films of the time. If identifying a national character is even a possibility, Jonathan Rayner suggests that three elements, chronology, style, and theme “are important in the interpretation of national filmmaking, not simply as consistencies which underpin generalizations but as continuities in communication between the subject(s) and object(s) of cultural representation.”

Stylistically, with its canted angles, quick editing, and versatile camera, Beyond Thunderdome more clearly resembles any number of Australian films (such as the films of Brian Trenchard-Smith and Richard Franklin) than it does any of the more aesthetically conservative Hollywood action films of the time (such as the films of James Cameron and Walter Hill). Just as the post-Vietnam era of American cinema ushered in a wave of lone gun action films in the Rambo vein, Australia produced a rash of B-movies in the late 70s and early 80s, sometimes centered on excursions in the desolate outback, often emphasizing vehicular travel. Kieran Tranter observes that the car is “intimately associated with Australian governance” and that the car “structures and rationalizes how Australians are known.” Seen against films like Razorback (1984), about a murderous feral boar, and The Long Weekend (1978), about a struggling couple in the middle of nowhere, a trend of reliance on cars as well as the apathetic cruelty of nature emerges. Beyond Thunderdome also exhibits these thematic traits. When Max is sentenced to the Gulag, what follows is an extended sequence of wandering anguish through the Australian desert. The horse that he is riding falls over dead then is violently sucked underneath the sand. Even after his pet monkey shows up with some water, it only prolongs his suffering the hot sun and sandstorms of the mindless expanse.


Illustrating the divide between the Australian notion of a brutal natural world and the more Hollywood ideal of an optimistic harmony with nature are the film’s two central stories and locations: Bartertown and the village of Lost Children. The depictions of both societies in the film are that of societies regressed to a “natural” state, although their philosophies about this naturalism differ. The people of Bartertown live by random chance, with no room for compassion. The Thunderdome exemplifies the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” code. Compassion is ideological, and ideologies don’t occur naturally. Whereas in the Lost Children’s village, they practice a productive relationship with nature, making clothing out of natural objects rather than junk and refuse, the way the people of Bartertown do. Not unlike the conflict between the pirates and the Lost Boys in J.M. Barrie’s story of Peter Pan, Miller and company use that basic conflict as a template to dramatize the tensions between nature and civilization, innocence and brutality, a peaceful history and a future of war.


It is useful to note the film’s heavy reliance on aboriginal culture and its popular filmic representation. From an American perspective, many of the accusations of esoterica or exoticism are rooted in the film’s aboriginal slant. The film opens with an expansive traveling aerial shot of a seemingly desert. After a few moments, as the camera moves closer to the ground, the viewer begins to see the shape of a caravan. Then, as the camera gets even nearer the object, a didgeridoo begins to play on the soundtrack, punctuating the emptiness and wildness of the image with an unmistakably aboriginal sound. That it is the first sight and sound of the picture (save the Turner-scored opening credits) impresses a specifically Australian cloud on the rest of the film. A few moments later, after Max has been knocked off the cart by Jedediah the Pilot’s airplane (whose point of view it is in the opening shot) and his caravan stolen, there is a series of shots featuring Max against a sky at the break of twilight, also accompanied by the didgeridoo. This image of a solitary figure in the wild is a trope of Australian cinematic aboriginal representation (as seen in films like The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Walkabout). This focus on aboriginal representation is highlighted by the Lost Children sequences. During the scene where the Children explain their history to Max, the storyteller holds up a frame made of sticks so that their audience views her within the frame. This apparatus ostensibly resembles a movie or television screen, with the Children (and Max) witnessing a primitive form of cinema. Although there are no aboriginal actors within the film, Miller and company are likening aboriginal Dreamtime with cinematic storytelling.


What occurs, then, is a coalescence of cultures. In native terms, the aboriginal culture, here represented by the Lost Children, melds with a post-technological culture through its use of a cinema screen proxy. This highlights the conventions of aboriginal representation, which ultimately, in conjunction with the film’s heightened style and bleak disposition, works towards the marriage of Hollywood and Australian cinematic traditions. On the one hand, it clearly demonstrates Australian attributes with its emphasis on the hazards of the natural world, its focus on cars and demolition, and its heavy reliance on aboriginal representation. On the Hollywood hand, you have a bombastic score, flashy production values, and Tina Turner. To say the film is one or the other denies the possibility that a film can belong to two cultures simultaneously. Beyond Thunderdome understands this phenomenon: in its final sequence, Max leads the Children into a sandstorm-beaten post-nuclear Sydney, whose famous opera house is the only diagetic indication of the film’s location. This last minute revelation squarely fixes the film with an Australian character. However, where this despairing vision would befit a film like The Road Warrior, where in the end Max is manipulated by the village of survivors and left on his own, the emphasis on the hope conveyed by the Children at having at last found a semblance of their history is much more characteristic of a happy Hollywood ending. The film exists as a Hollywood product as well as a fair representation of Australian character.