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phatic voices ("Mad Max" and "Mad Max: Fury Road" spoilers)

Used to be a cop but I got to be too jumpy I used to like to party 'til I coughed up half a lung But sometimes late at night I hear the beat a-bumping I reach for my holster and I wake up all alone
I used to have a wife but she told me I was crazy Said she couldn't stand the way I fidget all the time Sometimes late at night I circle around the house I look through the windows and I dream that she's still mine
    - Drive By Truckers - Used To Be A Cop
I wanted to catch up on pop culture so I watched "Mad Max: Fury Road".  Then I had to remind myself where Max comes from, so I watched the first movie in the series, "Mad Max", which I'm pretty sure I saw 20 years ago or thereabouts.  The two films are interesting partly because they couldn't feel much more unrelated.  I love that.  It leads me to ask: how do they fit together, actually?  Others have debated the chronology of the films.  I'm going to pursue a rather different kind of analysis.
My name is Max.
My world is fire and blood.

| Why are you hurting these people?
| It's the oil, stupid.
| - Oil wars.
| - We are killing for guzzoline.
| The world is running out of water.
| Now there's the water wars.
Once, I was a cop.
A road warrior searching
for a righteous cause.
In the fourth film, Max's character is "Hunted by scavengers / Haunted by those I could not protect / So I exist in this wasteland. / A man reduced to a single instinct: / Survive.'"

As a way in let me mention that there are plenty of obvious phatic aspects to this Fourth Film.  Among the obvious ones: story telling, myth making, and Max's spectral voices (which reminded me of Socrates's daemon).   Also, the story itself is pretty much a perfect match for Harmon's story circle:

YOU: Max | Nux | Furiosa | Joe
NEED: Survive | Die | Escape? | Control
GO: The Fury Road -> Sandstorm
SEARCH: The Green Place
FIND: Death of Splendid -> The creepy place with all the crows -> Many Mothers
TAKE: Seeds
RETURN: Death of Immortan Joe | Death of Nux
CHANGE: Furiosa and the Wives ascend into the Citadel

There are a few interesting symbolic moments that I think particularly help with "reading the film," and putting some meat on that skeleton.

For instance, after the sandstorm (I would think of this as the Beginning of Act II), the image of Nux's destroyed car is a sort of visual paraphrase of the image, very near the beginning, in which Max is throwing his belongings into his own well-functioning car.  But now, Nux has replaced the belongings, and become Max's symbolic baggage.

This is interesting, insofar as Max's stated need is to Survive, but Nux's M.O. is to Die Historic on the Fury Road.  It seems to me that as Max takes change of Nux, he is in a sense confronting his own mortality.  That's a sort of blasé way to put it; I'll expand.

If we read this situation in a phatic way, "Max" needs to Survive in the same way that a talking bird wishes to continue the conversation with its owner.  Obviously, from a real-world exchange standpoint this is true: the Mad Max "franchise" is what maintains connection with the viewer.  By hooking Max's fate to Nux's, it starts to become clear that for Max to survive, Nux will need to die, and Max will need to help him do this.

With this in mind, some other phatic symbols start to become more obvious: the physical chain that connects Max and Nux, the umbilical cord that connects Splendid and her son, even the Fury Road itself as a sort of "umbilical cord" that connects the Citadel with the Many Mothers.

Let me now make a leap of faith here, and start to read the Fourth Film against the First.  In the First film, one of the recurrent themes is the need for heroes.
Fred "Fifi" Macaffee: People don't believe in heroes anymore.
"Mad" Max Rockatansky: I know, Macaffee. You want to give them back their heroes.
In the First Film, I would say that Max fails to be a hero.  Or, at least, if he is in any sense a hero, it's only as a tragic one.  Everyone he loves most in the world dies.  Furthermore, he feels in some sense responsible.  But also, to put it another way, his Wife and Child are have a similar M.O. to Nux in the Fourth film: the story requires them to die.  The only thing Max can do achieve is a sort of revenge.

This exercise of reading the two films together is made quite a bit simpler by the fact that Toecutter in Film One is played by the same actor as Immortan Joe in Film Four (Hugh Keays-Byrne).

YOU: Goose | Max | Wife | [ Toecutter ]
NEED: Live? | [ Transform ] | Live? | Control
GO: Pursuit of Nightrider -> Immolation of Goose
SEARCH: A few weeks' time off
FIND: Toecutter's gang -> May -> Death of Wife
TAKE: Pursuit Special
RETURN: Death of Toecutter and his gang | Max is wounded
CHANGE: Max becomes the Road Warrior

Here, I've suggested that Goose and Max's Wife need to "Live?".  Well, as it turns out the story requires them to die, but Max's character very much disagrees with this narrative requirement.
That "thing" in there, that's not the Goose. No way. [...] He was so full of living, you know. He ran the franchise on it.
(This mention of a franchise is a bit interesting given the way things played out in the Real World.)

In effect, it is Max's narrative that needs these characters to die, otherwise he won't be able to become the Road Warrior.  We'd just have a weird quasi-futuristic story about cops.

So let me get back to the point I was making above, which is that there is another less obvious "umbilical cord" in the story, namely the connection between the Fourth Film and the First Film, and, indeed, the intermediate films, although I won't be giving these any particular attention here.

To be clear, this connection is quite a tenuous one.  The films are stylistically very different.  One comparison is the number of cuts.  Here, I will refer to the Second Film, since there's a nice quote about it.  But a similar comparison could be made with the First Film.
The Road Warrior had 120 cuts in its 90-minute run-time, while Fury Road has 2,700 cuts over two hours. That's 1.333 cuts per minute versus a staggering 22.5 cuts per minute.
This could be completely superficial, but one thing we've learned is to look for phatic clues in the superficial "meaningless" data.  I'd say that the change in visual style is important because it changes the way the viewer connects with the work.  That is, there are manifestly two very different kinds of "contact" at work in the two films.

Another rather obvious point is that it is possible to watch the Fourth Film and enjoy it without having seen the First.

The "constant" presence of a Hugh Keays-Byrne character with a Control M.O. in the two films is interesting.  The relationship to the concept of "control" is quite ambiguous in the First Film.  In that film, Max is a cop.  He is an agent of social control and the maintenance of order.   In the Fourth Film, he is, essentially, an agent of chaos.  Furiosa was already plotting her Escape, but because of the events of the film, the way this escape works out is different: she survives, and does not ride off into the desert, but rather replaces Immortan Joe at the top of that social order.

But, again, referring to the cinematographic issues, there is another way in which control has shifted in the Fourth Film.  There's a nice little film essay about this on YouTube: How Mad Max: Fury Road Directed YOU!

Basically, with the increased number of cuts and vastly huger budget, Fury Road takes on a very different sort of "cybernetic" relationship with the viewer.  The First Film certainly pulls at heartstrings and pulse, largely relying on the soundtrack to establish tension.  But it seems like a less-good fit with the Harmon story circle.  This is partly because the RETURN phase is rather weakened by the fact that Max can never really go home again.

For my part: let me try bring this to a conclusion.

First, I think it is tremendously interesting that the new "cybernetic" film relies on the earlier much more "filmic" film not just as a source of characters, but basically as the "soul" of the story.  Max's need for "redemption" in the Fourth Film is largely there because his character development has required the death of those he loved.  He achieves this redemption by helping Furiosa transform rather than escape.  Or, to be more precise, Furiosa escapes control, but she does this by transforming rather than just by riding off into the sunset.

But there are a few echoes that I'd like to resolve as well.  E.g., in the First Film, it is Max's wife who dies; in the Fourth Film, it is Joe's.  Max doesn't seem to be particularly affected by this (even though it is such an obvious paraphrase of his own wife's death), but Nux is pretty devastated.  

This gets towards an interesting point: Whereas both Nux in Film Four and Wife in Film One need to die to move the story forward, Nux is fully aware of his impending demise and embraces it, whereas the Wife actively resists her fate.  Similarly, whereas Max inadvertently shepherds his Wife in the direction of death, he is on the other hand pretty willing to sacrifice Nux.

Another thing: Nux's death is one of the more complicated cybernetic moments in the film, requiring two distinct automobile crashes and a bunch of film compositing.  In other words, this is one of the moments that is designed to most "connect" with the viewer.  Nux's "transformation" leads him to become more human as the film progresses, but in the moment of death he is also somehow dehumanised, in that his death becomes a purely cybernetic spectacle.  But the film plays on the irony, and we "witness him" at his most human moment, which results in some interesting frisson.

If we compare this with the quite grisly deaths of Goose and Wife in the First Film, we see that the decomposition of the human body has been replaced by the disintegration of machines (which, in the Real World relies on careful compositing of real and virtual components).

What I want to say is that "Mad Max: Fury Road" is really a movie about storytelling and about media.  Max's phatic voices are the echoes of his past, but they are also symbols that serve to connect the viewer with the "filmic past".  The break-down of civilisation depicted in the films corresponds almost exactly with the "cyberneticization" of the film series itself; it is impossible to depict one without the other.

Whereas autocratic control on the part of the Keays-Byrne character is present in both films, he is set up in different ways.  In both cases he is the Villain to be vanquished, but the magical requirements of doing so are vastly different.   In the First Film, there is a real sense of loss or sacrifice that is needed to install the Villain, and a further loss needed to vanquish him.

In the Fourth Film, Max actually loses very little.  Near the beginning he says: "How much more can
they take from me? They've got my blood. Now it's my car!"  But this is just the point.  Having lost everything already, he is somehow beyond life and death and therefor he's quite unable to pay any serious price.

Therefor, I claim, he is not much of a hero: he is a catalyst.

In my opinion, particularly considering the two films together, it is the viewer who is the hero, who pays the price with some of his/her humanity (by being subjected to cybernetic control), and whose opposite in Film Four is Nux. But like Furiosa, we don't lose all of our humanity by becoming cyborgs.  Indeed, I would also state that taking the two films together the viewer is given a path to a sort of "cyborg wholeness", in which we both identify with Max-1's loss, and with Max-4's stoic or puppet-like deus ex machina role.

In effect, we are asked to hook our own loss, our own "phatic voices" to a trans-personal engine of Art or Becoming or something like that. 

As a last word on this, perhaps I'm being defensive, but I would see this as rather different from what goes on in the Star Wars saga, although they are related (see earlier post about "weaponized intertextuality").  In the Mad Max franchise, intertextuality is not used primarily as an inside joke or knowing wink, but, I assert, as a provocation.

Where are you, Max?
Where are you?
Help us. You promised to help us.

"But sometimes late at night I hear the beat a-bumping I reach for my holster and I wake up all alone". This is what is commonly meant by "triggering" in PTSD, as I understand it. A sound triggers a traumatic mnemonic episode, the effect of which is intensified by aloneness, with no-one to turn for comfort.

"Sometimes late at night I circle around the house I look through the windows and I dream that she's still mine". This is the "poetically phatic" point of my latest post on Jakobsonian phaticity. Reminiscing about past relationships. It ties in with what is called "interference" in ecological psychology, i.e. unwanted social stimulus. But here it's with a twist - Max is bothered by the memory of his wife, much like Jack O'Neill uses the guilt for his son's accidental gun-death as a motivation for going through the Stargate. There are common parallels in everyday social media use, i.e. the Philipino foreign-worker who keeps a tab on her family back home through Facebook, and is emotionally numbed by the timeline updates of her former lover (Madianou 2016: 13).

"The two films are interesting partly because they couldn't feel much more unrelated.". This was discussed widely when Fury Road first appeared. According to the director, in every Mad Max movie he took a different point of entry into the extended universe. Max is like a mediator, a character who links the otherwise quite disparate stories together.

"If we read this situation in a phatic way, "Max" needs to Survive in the same way that a talking bird wishes to continue the conversation with its owner." The talking bird talks because it wants company and food (and the company of bird trainers means food, as rewards for talking). This amounts to saying that Max needs to be in the movie Mad Max for sake of pseudo-communicative reward. Henk Haverkate's (1988) interpretation of pseudo-phatic communion kinda lends itself to this point; it pretends to be purely social (Mad Max is a memberberry, or a member of the American para-social pantheon) but has ulterior motives for (finaniyal?) reward.

"I'd say that the change in visual style is important because it changes the way the viewer connects with the work." Youtube reviewers did point out that the camera angles and cuts in Fury Road were very consciously programmed to direct the viewer's attention from one fast-paced explosion-filled vehicle-jump to another. The staple phatic aspect in cinema generally would be the proximity, frequency, and duration of close-ups (e.g. the way interpersonal relationships are demonstrated via gaze behaviour, etc.). To be honest, I have yet to watch a movie with phaticity in mind but it does sound like a worthwhile exercise.

A quick quote from Mad Max that is particularly worth including in connection with the comments above on PTSD and reminiscence.  Here Max is addressing his Wife shortly before her death.
When I was a kid... and my father
used to go for long walks.
I remember staring down at his shoes.
They were special shoes, brown.
And he always kept them really shiny.
He was tall,
and he used to take long strides.
And there I'd be right alongside him...
...just trying to keep up with him.
I don't think he ever knew
how proud I felt of him.
Or how good it felt
just to be there alongside him.
Even now, when I think back on it,
I still feel"..."
The thing is, Jess...
...I couldn't tell him about it then,
but I can tell you about it now.
I don't wanna wait    years to tell you
how I'm feeling about you right now.
I think this "deep pschological" background makes the loss of his Wife and Son even more traumatic than it would be otherwise.  The implication is, whenever he tries to connect with someone emotionally, they die.

This seems to relate to the much-talked-about feminism of the Fourth Film and the sort of sterotypical idea that women have an easier time forming relationships.  It's as if "Mad Max" (the franchise if not the character) is integrating its feminine side.  Kind of typical Jung theory here.  Integrating the masculine and feminine elements is required for fertility (represented in the film by bringing together the seeds and the water).

It gets kicked up a notch I think if we bring in the increasingly cybernetic aspect of the films, e.g., the idea that the Fourth Film is more "feminine" precisely because it has a more contact-ful relationship with the viewer, whereas the first film has a more "masculine" gaze.  There's a scene in the Second Film where the characters are watching a rape through a telescope that would very much invokes the concept of a "male gaze."

If the Deleuzian idea of "becoming woman" is relevant to the Fourth Film, the related idea of "becoming minority" is also relevant in connection with the Second Film:
For Deleuze and Guattari, "becoming-minoritarian" is primarily an ethical action, one of the becomings one is affected by when avoiding "becoming-fascist". They argued further that the concept of a "people", when invoked by subordinate groups or those aligned with them, always refers to a minority, whatever its numerical power might be. -
But, again, we can map this back to the First Film and think about how Max and his Dad (also the father figure Fifi) or Max and his Wife are (or, rather, are not) able to enact the conditions of "the people".


  1. Just a quick bump here to mention that I added another Mad Max that is a good match for "the emphasis on impossible or fantasy communication" from the recent paragraphs on poetic phaticity.


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