Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
The Meaning of the Movie
Quoting your own e-mail letter always looks a little odd. But this letter, which was
sent to a teacher who inquired about the Mad Max essay, provides information on the
meaning and significance of the movie and of fiction in general. It is supplemented by
another essay that can be accessed at the end.
It's good to hear that you find the essay of interest. The essence of my
approach is to unravel the meanings of a work as they relate to ideas about
society, psychodynamics, myth, and the development of the self. Inevitably,
what I find is that a great many works tell the same story over and over
about the child's desire to grow up in the face of regressive urges and
obstacles put in his or her way by parents. The same images that tell this
story also tell a story about the character's desire to become a whole self
and his or her desire to create a good society in the face of obstacles
created by various dictators and malefactors. It has become obvious to me
that the stories of fiction and nonfiction, for the most part, express our
deepest desires to undo our fallen state, and to lead a full life, live in a
good society and see other people treated fairly. We are telling ourselves
the same story over and over in innumerable forms about our desire to
progress to a higher level of development, both as individuals and
I believe that science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction is one
expression of this story. It usually tells some variation on the basic myth
of our time, which is based on the idea that our wisdom will have to keep
pace with our power or our new ability to control the basic processes of the
world will end up destroying us. To tell this myth it has inevitably
appropriated and re-created the myths that were created by other, earlier,
civilizations and that are part of our heritage, especially those of the
classical world and the Old and New Testament. Most of the settings of
post-apocalyptic fiction are of three types. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
falls into one type, showing us a world in which humanity has fallen back
into barbarism and is replaying the tape of history. The other two types are
world's in which the characters are trapped in a prison of high- technology
and simulation, that is disguised to look like a paradise (Logan's Run), and
world's in which civilization retains technology but is in a state of
breakdown and collapse (Blade Runner, etc.)
* * * * * *
Ultimately, I believe, most works of fiction and nonfiction
are about personal and social transformation -- they are an expression of,
and guide for, how we would like to accomplish these things. And they are
substitute satisfactions in which we vicariously enjoy achieving these
things in a very temporary manner, often through happy endings which
are the sigh of the oppressed creature, so to speak. If we take fiction
seriously then, at some point, we have to recognize that its most important
message is that we have to make the fiction actual and begin to act in the
world to create the selves and societies we know should exist. That's the
hard part, of course, and that is what the site is about.
Regarding your question, I would suggest that you look at Mug's Mad Max
Page, which is linked from the table of contents of the Mad Max essay. It is
full of information on Max as savior. Other writers who shaped my thinking
may not be useful in your course -- Northrop Frye (A+) , Marcuse, Maslow,
Ricoeur, Peter Berger.
Here are some approaches --
Mad Max as a disguised retelling of a story about growing up and
psychodynamics - regression versus maturing.
Mad Max as an account of personal ethical development.
Mad Max as a general description of good and bad societies and how to create
Mad Max as a warning about the present-day dangers of misusing
Mad Max as a satire of consumerism and "postmodernist" culture,
based on appropriation and spectacle.
Mad Max as an exposer of propaganda and myths (myths, in the other sense, as
Mad Max as a form of propaganda and cultural deception.
Mad Max as a transformed depiction of Australia.
Mad Max as a retelling of older myths.
Mad Max as a new myth.
The place of the myth of Mad Max in the larger mythology of our time.
Mad Max as an effort to bring a fictional world to life in order to show us
essential truths about our own world.
Mad Max as a work that frustrates our desire for a simple story and a work
The connections between all of these.
Regarding the second- and third-to-the-last items, here is a relevant quote
from the Logan's Run essay:
"In offering us this alternative vision, Logan's Run is doing what all
good stories do. It is, after all, one of the essential functions of stories
to let us see -- and see through -- other ways of looking at the world,
other constructed "realities". In effect, it is the role of better
forms of fiction to construct fictional versions of the world, which
everyone knows are fiction, in order to expose the ways we mistake fiction
for reality. They invent worlds to challenge our invented worlds. They do so
both by showing us other worlds that make clear ours is only one possible
world. And they do so by showing us characters who mistake the fictions of
their world and their own minds for reality, until they recognize a higher
truth that leads to the conclusion of the story.
"We become a part of these stories by identifying and empathizing with,
and by hating, desiring and judging the heroes, victims, villains, and other
assorted characters, all of whom are types taken from contemporary society,
which also represent parts of our selves and our significant others. We
become psychologically absorbed in the conflicts and alliances between the
characters. Everything in the story -- the sensory manipulations, the
meanings and plot, the claims of good and bad -- are actions designed to
carry us to a resolution, and affect our view of things.
"In other words, works of fiction, like other products of culture, draw
us into a constructed world that is also a disguised version of the world of
childhood fantasy. Their authors instrumentally manipulate fantasy and
transference, calling up the stories in themselves that they believe their
audiences will respond to.
"To the degree the stories they create try to get us to accept some
visions of the world and reject others, they may, as noted above, be forms
of propaganda that are embodied in something that looks like reality.
Logan's Run is just such a form of propaganda, pushing a particular vision
of society and the self, which convinces us, at least while we watch the
movie, of its definition of true and false forms of freedom. In the invented
world it shows us, we are encouraged to see through self-oriented lifestyles
and dependence on technology, and the rationales that maintain these. But we
are also encouraged to accept, and not question, the movie's implicit
contention that a stoic life of marriage and work are the true forms of
human freedom. In effect, like many other stories, it creates a kind of
symbiosis with us; it seeks to play the parent to our accepting child,
feeding us a vision of reality we are to accept. " (end quote)
In other words, in bringing a world to life, fiction both challenges our
assumptions and ideology, and it seeks to impress its own assumptions and
ideology on us. Logan's Run is one of many examples of works that are
very invested in impressing their own ideology on us. Mad Max is more
nuanced than that. It still does so but it challenges us to question its
assumptions, as well, and it invites us into a much wider realm of freedom
to interpret it. In place of a villain, it gives us the flawed
civilization-builder and semi-benevolent dictator played by Tina Turner. In
place of a simple hero, it gives us Max who, basically, can't stop himself
from doing the right thing at crucial decision-points and who ends up
helping to destroy a town. In place of tortures meted out by the villain, it
gives us Thunderdome and the Wheel of Fortune, which are profoundly flawed,
inhumane, efforts to contain violence and impose the rule of law. And in
place of a simple happy ending, it gives us a hero who may or may not have
found himself and who is in the middle of nowhere.
It is also interesting to compare Mad Max to some other works. Escape from
New York is an earlier (I believe it is earlier) and much less interesting
depiction of a similar world that, I assume, influenced Mad Max Beyond
Thunderdome, with its own godfather-dictator, version of a gladiator game,
recycling, and so on. Waterworld is a more romanticized retelling of Mad Max
Beyond Thunderdome. These works are obviously similar to Mad Max.
But (to sum up) I believe the best way to approach popular fiction is to
view all the stories we tell as variations on one basic story. And it seems
obvious to me that that story is about our desire to undo our fallen state,
as individuals and societies The question then becomes -- what aspect of
that story does Mad Max or some other work tell and how does it tell it.
This approach, it seems to me, allows us to see what Northrop Frye tried to
reveal -- all fiction as a single system, and all stories as
fragmented expressions of a larger human truth that we partly and
temporarily experience via the aesthetic experience. And it brings together
criticism with ethics, psychology, politics and sociology into a single
science that is concerned with the ethical transformation of humanity that
is already inside us, waiting to be released. Right now all of this is
expressed in fragments and in largely disguised form, in works of fiction
and nonfiction. One might say that the critic's first job is salvage. It is
in doing what Bartertown can't do -- taking all the damaged parts and using
them to make an undamaged whole.
That, anyway, is some of the ways you can approach the movie.