I finally watched Mad Max Fury Road a few weeks ago and found it to be everything that people have been saying it was. It’s a true heir to the Mad Max legacy, with some truly gonzo stunts, amazing cinematography, and a really powerful feminist message, whatever some rather shallow leftist misreadings might say. I can’t say I went into the film without a sense of what was to come: plenty of folks, my partner Lee included, have discussed the power of the film and the importance of what it’s doing both thematically and narratively.
I was surprised though that I hadn’t seen a lot of commentary on one particular aspect of the film: its relationship to the 19th century concept of the sublime in landscape painting.
...Ok, I wasn’t THAT surprised.
It’s obviously a bit of a niche interest; I just happen to fall in the center of the venn diagram of People Who Study 19th Century Art, People Who Have Stolen Your Chair, and People Who Like Watching Cars Ram Into Each Other At High Speeds In A Postapocalyptic Hellscape. Still, there’s something really remarkable here about the way the film’s landscapes correlate to landscape art conveying ideas of the sublime, and I want to take some time analyzing just what that might mean. So let’s talk about Mad Max and landscape paintings!
Oh, you’re not interested in this topic? Hm, well, I mean, I know my articles on actual artwork tend to get less views, but hey, if you feel like finishing your drink and leaving without hearing what I have to say, well, no one’s stopping you, ha ha!
No one except for Lord Humongous, the Ayatolla of Rock-and-Rolla. Isn’t that right, LH?
LH: YOU DISOBEY ME… LITTLE PUPPY.
Quite, quite. Oh, you’ve decided to stay after all? What a surprise! I’m so pleased.
Since you’re sticking around I might as well start with the obvious question:
Just what is the Sublime?
The sublime is a particular kind of intense experience that takes one out of oneself. It’s the kind of experience that you would have to smoke considerably more than two joints to achieve. It’s a concept applied in particular to 19th century landscape paintings, and the notion is that it’s an experience of Nature as an overwhelming force beyond the human, a force that is awe inspiring.
This force is awesome and awful in an older sense of the words--not just pretty rad, but something that fills you with awe. When you hear the awesome or awful voice of god for example you are experiencing something full-of-awe, and this is essentially the overwhelming affective experience of confronting the Sublime.
It’s definitely not just pretty pictures of pretty trees, in the same way that Romantic paintings of people drowning at sea isn’t about love. Just as romanticism means any strong emotion, the sublime can mean a terrifying and disorienting experience. To paraphrase Terry Pratchett, just because something is a miracle doesn’t mean that it’s nice--you can get nasty divine intervention as well!
For many painters of this period, the sublime is a way of accessing spirituality outside the confines of organized religion. We can look at Caspar David Friedrich for example and look at the way he positions the rugged coast of northern Europe as a site for religious awe. He’ll paint a desolate promontory or woods with a ruined cathedral, and Friedrich is conveying, through this image, an idea of humans approaching nature as their altar. Humans are dwarfed by Friedrich’s landscapes, tiny and insignificant within an almost purely abstract field of color, light, and shadow. This isn’t sublimely happy, it’s The Sublime, or maybe THE SUBLIME, something that is thunderous even in silence, majestic, unassailable.
That’s essentially the core of what’s happening with the sublime in landscape paintings, and I think it’s pretty easy to map what’s happening in Fury Road onto this concept. There’s some political facets to the use of the Sublime though that are worth mentioning. Friedrich is reacting in part not just to nature itself but also to the Napoleonic crushing of ecclesiastic power in Germany during the Napoleonic Wars. He, like many German artists of this period, was preoccupied by the reconstruction one
This political commentary comes up in the works of other artists in a way that’s very relevant to our reading of Mad Max. The image I fiddled with above is a painting called Hannibal Crossing the Alps, by JHW Turner. As the title suggests, Turner’s painted the Carthaginian Hannibal on his epic trek across the Alps with his army and his war elephants, marching off to attempt to conquer Rome. But he’s done something very interesting here: he’s painted the heroic lead character of this narrative at an almost microscopic size. The humans, as in Friedrich’s painting, are dwarfed by their environment. But here, the humans aren’t anonymous monks or travellers seeking enlightenment, they’re brave warriors and freaking gigantic elephants! What you might not realize is that this wasn’t exactly common during the time period! two
LH: MAKE A FACE OF SURPRISE AND AWED RESPECT, MY DOG OF WAR!
Yes I can see from your totally genuine expression that you’re shocked by this stunning turn of events here in our gripping narrative of landscape paintings by some dead guys!
Well hold tight to your ass, my friend, because I’m about to propel you straight into the realm of exploding brainstems!
Hannibal Crossing the Alps is actually about Napoleon!
Yes indeed, there’s actually a political content here. And the political point that Turner is trying to make here is, essentially, that Napoleon sucks. He’s dicking with Napoleon. Obviously England and France aren’t exactly on friendly terms during this period so Turner’s essentially using this sublime landscape of the ragged alps and this tempestuous snowstorm coming in to show Napoleon as dwarfed by this magisterial natural force.
It’s almost the inverse of David’s painting of Napoleon Crossing the Alps:
Here, David paints Napoleon on a rearing charger, in a massive portrait, in a rugged mountain landscape that contains a stone inscribed with Hannibal’s name. David, here, is showing that like Hannibal, Napoleon will cross the Alps to conquer. Turner is flipping that around and showing, essentially, that Napoleon and Hannibal ain’t shit. In fact, compared to the power of nature, we are ALL incredibly small!
Are you ready for me to blow your mind one more time here?
Here’s the connection back to Mad Max:
What is the scene of Furiosa driving into the massive sandstorm, pursued by her enemies, if not Hannibal crossing the Alps?
Now, I’m not just drawing this association because of the visual connection, although it certainly exists. That kind of shallow comparison is for buzzfeed and, apparently academic conferences, not for Storming the Ivory Tower! What I’m trying to suggest is that there’s a similar kind of meaning between these vast storms.
I think to analyze this meaning, though, you have to address graffiti we see at the beginning of the film: Who Killed the World? The Sublime might be one way of starting to grapple with that question.
What is the emotional experience of this scene with the sandstorm in Mad Max? Well, I think we could apply to it the same emotional experiences we get from sublime landscape paintings. When we view that scene I think for many the primary affect will be one of awe. Whether it is awful or awful or both will depend on the person but I think awe is the key word here. We have these combatants, we’ve seen a struggle that we’ve become invested in and Furiosa’s quest to free the Brides, so we are bound up in this journey... but then we get this shot of this huge sandstorm, this unnaturally vast sandstorm, and the question is: why are we suddenly seeing this action that we’re bound up in from such a distance, where the actual combat is dwarfed by the size of this natural event?
This is kind of a question that recurs throughout the film. The environment plays a huge role as a destructive force, but not only in the sense of it being an antagonist. It is this omnipresent entity that all parties must work around because it is so unfathomably vast and protean that no group can really plan around it. We can see this in the place that was, formerly, the Green Place. We don’t actually see much of anything literally--it’s a Sea of Fog
So we’ve got this interesting environment in which the fights happen, but I think it goes beyond just a cool set piece for the fight, particularly because it makes some fight scenes impossible to see. We don’t actually see Max’s fight with the Bullet Farmer, after all--it’s too foggy. There’s an impact to that scene though--there’s a reason why that scene is powerful, and much of it comes with the revelation that the scene takes place in the place Furiosa has been desperately trying to get to, longing for for years. This is the green place, transformed into a grey place. We find out that the water was polluted and the land died. The sublime landscape of overwhelming dread is all the more potent because it was supposed to be a symbol of hope, something, almost, that Furiosa could possess and control as a safe haven.
The environment in this film is hostile, not only in its weather (the sandstorm, the fog in the grey place) but in its general composition (the arid mountains, the desert), and its resistance to control and easy notional mapping. We see some greenery on the top of Immortan Joe’s fortress, which of course makes it the critical holy grail for the finale of the film, but for the most part we have this environment pitched against humanity in a variety of ways.
This interests me because it suggests the scope of the conflict as we see it is, from the perspective of the world itself, not all that significant. We have these life or death struggles but at the same time it’s always in the context of the environment reminding us how helpless the characters are in the face of awe-inspiring nature.
So how do we make sense of the use of the Sublime here? The sublime after all isn’t an ideologically pure thing--there are plenty of examples in the past of people using the idea of nature to ostracize, persecute, and further nationalist ends. What can be used to promote care for the environment can also be used--and was used during the time period in which Friedrich and Turner painted!--to further everything from Manifest Destiny to the colonial consumption of indigenous bodies and aesthetics in an attempt to get to a “purer” state of being that European culture had lost. To just jump from my argument that Fury Road is Sublime to saying that it must have a good message, is, hm, premature?
LH: YES. WE MUST WAIT.
Exactly, Lord Humongous, we have to draw out this idea a little bit more, I think, before we can come to a conclusion about what the film is doing and why.
I’m always pretty skeptical of return-to-nature rhetoric for the reasons listed above, and because I’m pretty sure if we return to nature I and a lot of the people I love will all die, but I think the film is actually fairly skeptical of the idea of returning to nature as well. There is nothing out there to return to. Nature is a hostile force in this world, which possibly makes sense for an Australian director. three
The film I think tries to answer how we reckon with the sublime, and how the characters should respond to this dead world, by asking this question, “Who Killed the World?” The other message we see is “My child will not be a warlord,” which I think implicitly answers the question, if only by juxtaposition. Warlords killed the world--people like Immortan Joe are the ones who killed the world.
I think putting images of sublime nature in this context actually troubles our understanding of the sublime and of nature. Nature, rather than something purely existing beyond human control, is something that humans have ultimately created. This is why it makes sense to pose the question of who killed the world: it’s posed simply because it CAN be posed, because there IS a human culpability. The sublime and awful environment through which they travel is one they are ultimately at least broadly responsible for, even if now it dwarfs any individual human. There’d be no sense in asking who killed the world if this was merely Nature-As-Antagonist. Instead this is Nature-as-shaped-by-human-action-As-Antagonist. This is human agency on a mass scale, a scale far beyond the human characters that we follow with interest. Humanity as a whole before everything fell apart is, itself, sublime, in that these characters are too tiny to affect the world on such a vast, apocalyptic scale.
LH: SUCH LITTLE PUPPIES, WITH SUCH PUNY PLANS!
What’s interesting about this is that in this reinterpretation of the sublime, the awful majesty of nature turns into a kind of accusatory experience, that we are dwarfed not by God’s creation, but by our own creation. We are dwarfed by the monster that we have wrought. I think there’s some interesting possibilities we can imagine here based on this idea. I can’t remember who I was talking to (probably Lee, Sara, or Zomburai) but I remember someone mentioning to me that the sandstorm isn’t really how a sandstorm works. I think that’s true, but there’s nothing to say that it isn’t how it works if mass human environmental weapons have screwed with the earth. We know the world is irradiated--in Beyond Thunderdome, for example, which I’m sure you’ve all watched, at one point Max encounters a water seller. Max pulls out a geiger counter and waves it at the proffered water, and the counter goes nuts. The guy just laughs in response, because he knows that if the choice is between radiation and dehydration, well, he’s got the market cornered. This is why fresh water is so crucial in Fury Road.
Even with all this, though, we know from actual irradiated sites here in our real world that nature does persevere and return to blighted areas. I’ve seen Chernobyl described as a kind of Eden, for example--nature has returned to the damaged land and has thrived in the absence of human intervention. So when we look at the Grey Place I can’t help but wonder if there’s a deeper poison, something beyond radiation, working its way into the soil--something that has profound metaphorical resonance. four
There’s something almost mystical about the blighted land in Fury Road, and I think the suggestion is that any resurrection of the land, any movement beyond the poisoned land, cannot come at the hands of the warlords who killed the world. There cannot be a reckoning with the sublime by warlords. This awful and awesome world can only be grappled with when the conditions of remaking the world, the tools used to remake the world, are given over to a generation for whom it’s essential that their children not be warlords.
So the sublime here, and experiencing the sublime, is used to emphasize simultaneously both the way in which this ravaged landscape makes human concerns minuscule, the way we are ultimately helpless before the power of this vastness, and also somewhat paradoxically that we have agency in how we engage with this landscape, whether to treat it as merely a hostile enemy or as a reminder of the blight of warlords and a reminder of a need to move beyond that form of existence. The tiny concerns of humans thus regain importance by suggesting a link between the broad and the local, a symbolic correspondence that only becomes apparent when Furiosa and the Wives decide to transform their escape into an assault, a direct attack on the power of Immortan Joe.
In this way, we might engage the sublime as vast not because it is apart from humanity but vast because we are tied to it, and because we must engage with it even as we are made small before it.
In that engagement with the sublime as entangled with human action and agency, perhaps these characters, and perhaps humanity as a whole, might find some kind of redemption.
Storming the Ivory Tower will update again on Monday, August 10th, and I think from now on I'm going to try to stick to a Monday schedule, since that seems to actually work out far better with my other job. What will the topic be? I'm honestly not sure! I'll be reworking the master schedule sometime in the next few days though. If you're a Patreon backer, you can view the document here.
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