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Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
As a Form of Salvage

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome gives us a rich and complicated symbolism. In the end, it is a story about losing and saving, creating and destroying, remembering and forgetting, going forward and back, and the connection between these various possibilities. But mostly it is about being exiled from, and finding, a home, in our minds, our families and society. The character, Max, starts homeless and ends homeless. Aunty Entity turns nothing into the demonic home of Bartertown, a place where Max can never be at home. The children yearn for home and don't realize they are already there. Finally, a new and better home is created in which people can be at home in the world.

The movie tells this story by drawing us into a geography of imagination that involves three contrasts. One is between past and present. One is between four places arrayed more or less horizontally in space: Bartertown, Crack In the Earth, the desert, and the new village in the ruined city. The third is between different vertical levels, the most important of which are the three levels of Bartertown. But there are others: the two levels of Master and Blaster, as mind and body or drive, or as unconscious thought and defense; the two levels of Crack in the Earth, in the oasis and on the cliffs and desert above; the desert itself, which has the ability to swallow travelers into the sand, into its own underground; and the underground shelter where the pilot lives versus the surface and the space he flies in, overhead.

All three of these contrasts show us spaces of one sort or another that can provide protection, give birth and/or devour us. They are images of the good and bad mother, and good and bad homes. In terms of the contrast between times, the past was a haven of comfort and safety. Then, as a result of the holocaust, the ultimate expression of human violence and the ultimate perversion of the quest for power, the present became a place where one is exposed to chance, the elements, brutality, and death. In terms of the contrast between vertical levels, the underworld of Bartertown and the sand traps in the desert swallow people up. Aunty Entity's bird's nest house, above ground, and Crack in the Earth, sunk into the earth, are havens, (Max is offered food and drink in the bird's nest house, after being out in the desert). But each is a lure that would lead one away from independence. They offer comfort and protection at the cost of one's soul. In terms of the contrasts between places arrayed across horizontal space, Bartertown is a place of law, but demonic law, and of life, but demonic life, that swallows people up and spits them out. The desert is a place of death and sterility, without law; Crack in the Earth is a place of life and innocence, in no need of law, but lost to the world; and the village in the ruined city is a place of life and humane values, and, presumably, humane law.

Max, as a man who can destroy bad homes and create good ones, but who can't create one for himself, is the traveler between domains who goes between all of these times and places, which are states of human experience and society. He travels through time from the past, which was his home and where he had a home, to the barbaric present in which he has none. After various adventures in two previous movies, he finds himself assaulted in the desert, so that he is lost. Then he finds Bartertown, a demonic home and a world of the fallen present, governed by power and commerce. In Bartertown, he travels up to the place of demonic power, that controls the present, where he makes a pact that goes against his ethics. He then goes down into the underworld, an even more demonic home where men are forced to live as slaves. He goes down there as part of a plan to enlarge the domain of demonic power. His refusal to go against his ethics in the end and kill a man who is a child results in his expulsion, so he is lost again in the homeless sterility and death of the desert. He is then resurrected down in Crack in the Earth, a place where he may now have the power to create a home of his own. But that too is not to be and after part of that society leaves, in quest of the very same home (the past) where Max (and we) come from, he leads them back through the underworld, destroys this corrupt place, helps free some of its slaves, and, through his sacrifice, makes it possible for all of them to escape into another place that will be a true home.

Of the two primary kinds of homes that are shown, each lacks an essential element. As noted, Bartertown is a place without children --- it can't hope or dream. Crack in the Earth is a place without adults -- it can't see the real world. The new village is shown with people of all ages -- babies, children, teenagers and adults. It can see the past and present for what they are, and dream realistic dreams of the future.

So in the end, Max creates a home, a place based on his own values. He does so by refusing to act corruptly, and by standing up for what he believes. He makes his own destiny, instead of letting others decide it for him. But he can't enjoy or see what he has created.

Expanding this idea further, it can be said that the movie offers us an ethical vision about the creation of self/home/society out of more primitive raw materials. Aunty Entity creates her own private society out of the rubble and the rabble, and Max does it out of his own flawed personality, through sacrifice, without hope of personal gain, which makes him a very different kind of parent and civilization-founder. At the end, Aunty Entity has to leave him behind because her society can't have two founders (and because his vision of society is very different from hers). She leaves him in circumstances that are still all screwed up -- he's in the middle of nowhere in a post-apocalyptic desert (it doesn't get much worse than that.) But he has accomplished something and, presumably, he now knows how to create something better. Whether he has gone through a personal transformation or not is left open to question. What is unmistakable is that his sacrifice makes it possible for Savannah to grow up and become a parent and leader.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is also a myth about myths and their relationship to reality -- the reality of human experience. It momentarily takes us away from our exile from ourselves by putting us in touch with fundamental myths about how we lose and find ourselves as individuals and societies. The movie is a form of memory -- it uses invention to cause us to remember what we have forgotten. It is our Max, come to put our pieces back together.

At the end, Savannah, telling the historic myth of Max, is a depiction of the authors of the movie telling us a creative myth about Max. It is a myth about a man who physically destroyed one society that lacked the idealization of myth, and destroyed the overidealized myth of another society, until he became the central figure in a new and better mythology that combined the realism of one and the idealism of the other. Both the movie and the story told by Savannah have the same goal: they are an effort to help their audience salvage the past, the present, and the future by putting the fragments of life and memory back together in their proper place.

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