Mad Max: Fury Road

I haven't seen any other Mad Max films, but suspect there may be some subversion of the macho motor-head iconography going on in this update/remake/sequel. For one, Max doesn't seem to be 'mad' as in 'angry' so much as mad as in 'mentally ill'. A hero haunted by a daughter he couldn't save is nothing new, but at least the writers tried to work in the idea that avoiding psychic collapse involves setting goals, whether it's political hope for a more equitable and peaceful society, or a personal quest for redemption. Max's arc in the film involves the exorcism of the child he couldn't save, and a return to sanity.

And he's aided and abetted by a Ripley-fied Charlize Theron. Furiosa and Max become surrogate parents to a group of teenage girls forced to bear children by a patriarchal warlord. The storyline is ripe for feminist interpretation, although its credentials on this score have come under criticism from two angles. One (brought up by Mark Kermode) is that the girls are rather pretty, and there may be some having and eating of cake involved when it comes to portraying their objectification. Mileage (ha!) may vary on this, but I personally didn't detect much leeriness in the camera when they were revealed. More important perhaps is whether the girls have agency. This is where the second objection comes in – what is so feminist about women being (scarequotes!) "saved" by some dude? The writers try hard to differentiate the girls and give them at least a semblance of a personality in amidst the driving and shooting (they even manage a couple of frags towards the end). More tellingly, I think Furiosa's character was created to deal with the problem of Max swooping in and taking over their story, in that she deals out just as much whup-ass, and is instrumental in everyone's survival. There are women here with agency, even if Max is the principle agent (he is the one with his name in the title, after all). If the film doesn't entirely resolve this dilemma, it is at least aware of it, and I'm inclined to be charitable.

I think I mentioned somewhere up there about the driving and shooting? There's actually quite a lot of that, and it's all glorious.


Captain Swing and the Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island

"Why trap us in a world where power is enforced by the owners of so ludicrously finite a resource?" asks the hero of this short Warren Ellis steampunk yarn, where the steam is replaced with electricity. Captain Swing is leader of a commune of "natural philosophers" who believe science and technology will liberate humanity. I'm sure that similar ideas circulate in the wilder regions of Silicon Valley today. Which is why Ellis chooses a policeman as his hero, someone confronted with the worst aspects of humanity on a daily basis. As Captain Swing admits, this copper is "unable to see the world as anything but an ugly, unfair, unsaveable zoo".

Ellis keeps returning to mad scientists in the same way Scorcese keeps returning to macho gangsters – they are both seduced by dangerous powerful charismatics. Captain Swing may be an egalitarian, but his disciples are too enchanted to question his goals. In the end, Charlie Gravel (like most of us) walks a middle way between law and anarchy, the corrupt magistrates and the idealistic pirates.


The Buried Giant

Shortly after I started reading I listened to a podcast in which the author kindly explained what the novel was all about. Saved me a bit of bother, but also the pleasure of working it out for myself. Anyway, spoilers ahead! Ishiguro's big theme is the trade-offs that come with  (to use international relations terminology) post-conflict reconciliation. The Britons under King Arthur are responsible for crimes against humanity in their war with the Saxons. Gawain is charged with defending a dragon enchanted by Merlin to spread a fog of forgetfulness across the land, which prevents the Saxons from remembering the injustice they have suffered. The loss of memory keeps the peace, but allows war criminals to go unpunished. This grievance is the "buried giant" of the title. Ishiguro tries to keep the moral dilemma between peace and justice in balance throughout. To switch to Isaiah Berlin's terminology: the two values are incommensurable and the choice between them is 'tragic' in that it will involve evil either way.

Ishiguro makes a parallel between forgetfulness at the social and personal level. As with Saxon and Briton, so with man and wife. The elderly couple in the book have dark secrets in their past, which the enchanted mist has covered up. This memory loss has allowed their relationship to recover and grow stronger. However, as death approaches and the mist recedes, the past rises up and separates them. Love and harmony can only be sustained by willful acts of forgetting (if not forgiving). And yet those buried giants are never exorcised entirely, and are always liable to return. Should we face up to them? Again, the choice is tragic either way.

It's a clever conceit for a story. And apparently it came to the author before he settled on a genre. The Buried Giant has attracted interest because it is unashamedly a fantasy novel, with dragons and ogres, knights and wizards. I'll admit that this was the major reason why I picked it up. And yet it doesn't feel representative of what the genre has evolved into (plot-heavy literalist medievalism à la G.R.R. Martin or Robin Hobb). Ishiguro mentions samurai manga and the westerns of Peckinpah as inspiration. Gawain's ageing, honour-bound knight and the duel sequences definitely reflect that. Ishiguro has certainly also read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and other source material that fired up the imaginations of the Oxford Inklings. In fact, my sense is that the shadow of Tolkien hangs quite heavily on The Buried Giant, particularly the Hobbiton-esque community at the beginning and the Grey Havens vibe of the boatman at the end.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the voice Ishiguro uses, which mimics the anachronistic way Tolkien describes the dragon firework at the beginning of Fellowship as "like an express train". Ishiguro speaks directly to the modern reader at the beginning, in the same way that Tolkien does when he introduces you to hobbits. And as you are sucked into the story and get comfortable in its setting, the interjections fade almost imperceptibly away. Apparently, Ishiguro struggled with the narrative voice when writing the book (his credits his wife with urging a rethink). It's interesting that he went back to the source for a way out.