Sunday, 17 May 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Olympus Pen / Ilford HP5

Off to the cinema, to see Mad Max: Fury Road, in which Tom Hardy plays a shattered wreck of a man trapped in the shattered wreck of a future Australia, although as every review must point out the film was actually shot in Namibia. Fury Road is the fourth Mad Max film; everybody remembers the second film, Mad Max 2, which worked as both a terrific action flick and an academic treatise on the construction of same. Fury Road is half an hour longer than its predecessor and feels thinner and less substantial, and it has a surprisingly weak ending, and Max barely does anything, etc, but on the whole it's great fun. Great, shallow fun.

Great, shallow, visually-stunning fun. About fifteen years ago it became practical for films to be edited with computers, so that by simply moving some sliders the colours could be made to look bright or dark or washed-out or pastel. Fury Road takes this to an extreme - everything is orange or blue - but does so with such forceful panache that I didn't mind. Director George Miller uses his computers for colour grading but otherwise doesn't tax them overmuch for the visual effects, which are for the most part practical. I felt a little sorry for the Namibian desert, because it now has long stretches of broken metal, shredded rubber, and spilled oil, but on the other hand I'm sure the sand will cover it over. On the evidence of Fury Road nobody lives in Namibia anyway. Perhaps Miller and his crew went back with dustpans and brushes and cleaned everything up. I hope they did, because Fury Road is likely to do for Namibia's tourist industry what Peter Jackson's Rings trilogy did for New Zealand.

Fury Road is essentially a High Concept film. Do you remember High Concept? It was big in the early 1990s. It hasn't really gone away, although the idea isn't novel any more. High Concept films are built around a central, immediately engaging idea; either a question or a concept. What if Martin Freeman was actually a tiny person, and not a normal-sized man? What would happen? He would of course try to steal treasure from a dragon. Adventures would ensue. Or what if Robert Downey Jr had a heart condition that forced him to wear a metal suit? He did a lot of drugs when he was young, it's plausible, and the answer is that he would naturally team up with a mutant, a Norse god, a resurrected super-soldier, and a foxy lady, and they would fight another Norse god.

What if Angelina Jolie's cheekbones were even more pronounced than they are already? She would become a witch. The most memorable sequence of the first three Mad Max films was the truck chase at the end of Mad Max 2, so what if a whole film was based around that truck chase, extended out for two hours?

And so Fury Road is an unusually focused, almost simplistic film, as if George Miller had set out to strip away absolutely everything that was not a stunt or a fight sequence. Tom Hardy's Max and Charlize Theron's Furiosa meet and bond with a bout of fisticuffs, and spend most of the rest of the film shooting, stamping, and hitting people, but they nonetheless develop a rapport. The film's few attempts to fill in Max's story or give us some light character moments don't work, nobody seems to have cared about them. Fury Road would have worked just as well if all the characters communicated with grunts as in Clan of the Cave Bear.

When we meet him Max is a traumatised wild animal, only capable of violence and threats; he becomes more socialised, but he still remains an empty cipher at the end. Furiosa hints at her life before the great kaboom, but the talk of redemption and fixing that which is broken comes out of nowhere and adds nothing. The spartan dialogue and Namibian landscapes occasionally put me in mind of the ape sequence from 2001, and it's a shame that Miller didn't opt decisively for one approach or the other, or alternatively ask the screenwriters to come up with some really good dialogue, instead of numerous variations of "they're coming" and "over here" and "fix that pipe".

Max himself is a curiously passive fellow who should be a bit like Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken - all growls and scowls - but Tom Hardy plays him more often as a bewildered victim. It's an interesting contrast to his work as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, where he was basically a swaggering, confident Mussolini figure. Here he's Mussolini after the fall of the fascist regime, waiting for the mob to come and beat him to death.

Let's talk about the plot. This will be a short paragraph. Tom Hardy is Max, who is mad, in the mentally disturbed sense, rather than the angry sense. He is instead surprisingly mild. The film is arranged so that whenever Max takes charge, the action moves elsewhere; when he goes to fight off the baddies, they attack one of his companions. In fact the film subverts the notion of Max as the big bad hero, because whenever he tries to takes control by himself it goes wrong. He's a terrible shot, he can't drive Furiosa's truck without her help, he's no good at diplomacy, and although he has a mean right hook he is continually saved by blind luck. On the one occasion he performs a daring feat of ultraviolence, it happens off screen.

Max is captured in the opening minutes, and his iconic V8 car is totalled. The car has a couple of tiny tiny cameos but otherwise the star of the film is a big truck, which is driven by Charlize Theron, a woman. Her character seems to be high-up in the empire of Immortan Joe, a bastard. He resembles Baron Harkonnen from Dune, with pustules and stuff. Joe has a private army of "war boys", who are reckless and so hungered. On the razor's edge they trail, because there's murder by the roadside in a sore, afraid new world. He tries to break his population by withholding water from them; he also has a private stash of women, and in a startling scene we learn that he milks some of them for their, well, for their milk, which is an image that you don't normally see in Hollywood films.

George Miller is Australian, and the Mad Max films are amongst the most internationally-visible Australian films. From a British perspective, Australia is stereotyped as a brash, vulgar, but fundamentally well-meaning nation of good-looking white people; they are chavs, but they are happy chavs rather than the baleful, hate-filled chavs of England. Australian culture has a cheerfully vulgar streak running through it, and there are flashes of this in Mad Max. The sequence in Mad Max 2 where one of the baddies tries to catch a metal boomerang and - slice! - his fingers come off, and he looks upset, is presented as slapstick comedy; the film trod a fine line between genuine shocks and black humour. It had the same tone as Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2, or Peter Jackson's early horror films, and Fury Road has a little bit of that as well. Only a little bit. Glimpses of it, but without the cheeky humour. Mid-way through the film one of the main characters is badly injured. She is in the very late stages of pregnancy, and another filmmaker would have shown either her or the baby recovering, or had their demise happen away from the action. Miller instead opts for a sequence that is both uncomfortable and off-hand, highlighting the brutality of life at the end of the world in a way that doesn't really fit. The rest of the film is too silly for that sequence to work, it's a jarring tonal shift.

Immortan Joe's private stock includes a group of supermodels who he keeps for breeding purposes. They are played by real-life It Girls, although surprisingly Cara Delevigne is not one of them. Perhaps she is being held by one of the other local warlords ("The Bullet Farmer", who has a stockpile of ammunition, or "The People Eater", who is corpulent). Furiosa and the It Girls aren't keen on being the playthings of an extremely powerful, wealthy old man - Fury Road does not take place in our world - so they hatch a plan to hijack one of Joe's convoys and escape. It's not a very good plan, and it seems to rely on divine intervention for it to work, but it does work so there's that. Furiosa and the It Girls would be a good name for a cartoon pop band.

Along the way Max is roped in to help the pursuers, and after an exciting chase through a dust storm he frees himself and latches on to Furiosa's gang. Then there is another long chase which ends with Max and his new friends seemingly free. At this point the cast includes Max, Furiosa, some elderly but surprisingly tough warrior women who are all that is left of a farming community, plus an upbeat chap called Nux. He is a war boy who has fallen out of love with Immortan Joe's propaganda. Nux is played by Nicholas Hoult, who channels the manic energy of Ewen Bremner from Trainspotting. He's the most engaging character in the film, a hapless but enthusiastic loser who is driven to heroism by his single-minded craving for pussy.

The first two Mad Max films were a product of their time; sex, violence, bad language and bloody gore were all the rage in the late 1970s, although with Australia being a relatively conservative culture there was less of the sex than in, say, France. The first two films were products of an era when heroes were motivated by the rape of their loved ones, an era when rape was shown on screen, firstly to demonstrate that the baddies were cads, secondly as an excuse to show some nudity. Fury Road is an exploitation film in the modern style. It reminds me of Christopher Nolan's Batman films, in that it manages to imply a mass of violence and unpleasantness without actually showing very much. The violence in Fury Road is bone-crushing but mostly bloodless, and although we see human bodies smashed and broken they tend to be tiny little specks of people wheeling through the air. There is some blood, but it is cut so quickly that it barely registers, and indeed the death of one of the main characters is hard to follow because of this. Off the top of my head I can't remember any bad language at all, except for some made-up future-speak. There are some queasy make-up effects, but they're mostly incidental details.

Mad Max 2 was unusual in that the covert homoeroticism of contemporary muscle-man action films was brought to the surface; while the likes of Commando and Predator were full of sweaty topless sexless men and sexless, ineffectual women, Mad Max 2 portrayed the villains as explicitly homosexual, with an implication that the unavailability of women had driven them into the ultimate depravity. At the same time they were shown to be competent, tough fighters, although it's a stretch to argue that Mad Max 2 was a great leap forward in the portrayal of gay characters on screen.

In contrast Fury Road has no time for sexual subtext. The "war boys" are anaemic, and there's an implication that Immortan Joe is spiking their drinks with the futuristic equivalent of bromide. Max and Furiosa become platonic friends; the issue of Nux getting it on with one of the It Girls is waved away, presumably so that the film doesn't have to deal with the possibility of their baby being deformed. Which would in turn raise a host of other questions. In a world where everybody is deformed, what's wrong with being deformed? Are the It Girls supposed to be an unironic vision of loveliness, or a subversion of this? They're presented as a precious, angelic hope for the future of humanity, which seems unfair to ugly girls, and it's hard not to notice that they're so, well, so white. Even Zoe Kravitz is white, and she's black.

Fury Road is a boys' film, and in a boy's world girls are either very attractive or invisible, and thus superfluous. And yet Fury Road subverts this during the final chase, in which it becomes apparent that the most effective fighters are a bunch of old women - they are far more effective than Max - but this smacks of impossible expectations. In Fury Road women are either exceptionally attractive or crack shots cattle, there is no middle ground. But isn't this true of us here in the real world? There's a fiction that we are all equal, but in reality we are all - men and women alike - either exceptionally attractive, or very good at something, or we are cattle. In this respect perhaps Fury Road is simply being honest.

Let's wind back to Nux. He has more dialogue than Max and more character development, and in fact the film could easily have been written without Max at all. Nux, Furiosa, and the warrior women do most of the work; this is really their story, and I wonder if Nux was conjured up in case the producers couldn't get the rights to the Mad Max franchise. Perhaps there is a parallel universe in which I have just come back from seeing Nux: Mutant Warrior, or something.

On a racial level Fury Road is a white film crafted for an audience of white people. It's about heavy metal petrol bandits pillaging their way to Valhalla. The villain has a metal soundtrack delivered by a guitarist whose guitar is also a flamethrower. All of the characters are white, and I have to assume that the apocalypse that wiped out civilisation also killed off Australia's Asian population. The most beautiful people in the world are the It Girls, who dress in white, in fact their diaphanous white dresses are explicitly used as a symbol of hope for the future. As with Peter Jackson's Rings films the racial coding is presumably unconscious. The Rings films were shot in New Zealand, where the pool of extras was presumably mostly white; Fury Road was of course shot in Namibia, which... well, I'm guessing that the actors were imported and the locals weren't allowed to be in the film.

I was talking about the plot. Max is captured, and then there's a chase, at the end of which he breaks free, and then there's an inventive fist fight, and then there's a second chase which ends with all of the characters facing a long trek across a salt plain towards probably nothing. So they decide to go back, and so there's a third chase, and then the film ends. That's Fury Road. Three chases punctuated by a fist fight.

With some dialogue, but not very much. How do the characters whisper to each other in the cab of a truck? Let's assume that Fury Road is a kind of live action cartoon. George Miller's last big hit was Happy Feet, a cartoon about some penguins, and Fury Road has the kind of visual inventiveness that characterises the best animated films. We're supposed to call them animated films, aren't we? They aren't cartoons any more. They're "animation". Cartoon illustrators have time and freedom to fill the frame with little details, and live action films directed by cartoonists often work as a parade of still frames, a succession of inventive set-ups - Brazil, Tron, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, John Carter and so forth were all visual feasts. Fury Road's post-kaboom world is a fascinating, post-steampunk mish-mash of Ben Hur, Metropolis, Modern Times, with bits of Lawrence of Arabia and, inevitably, the ramped frame rates and stylised colour palette of 300. The saturated palette puts me in mind of Katy Perry or Nicki Minaj, in the sense that the film looks obviously artificial, but intentionally so; it has a deliberate visual language that is at times gorgeous, and will no doubt sell a lot of 4K televisions.

The plot falls apart at the end, although on further contemplation I'm not sure that any of the plot makes sense. How did Furiosa expect to escape? Her escorts are attacked by bandits, but how did she plan to escape the bandits? If Max is so keen on survival, how come his souped-up V8 can't outrun some dune buggies? Why is a society that seems to have lots of bullets relying on petrol bombs? Why has everybody chosen to live in the middle of the desert? Not even the aborigines bothered with the outback, and the few that did only managed to sustain small settlements. Perhaps the coasts are radioactive, but why not tell us? Max's plan only makes sense if we assume that Immortan Joe sends all of his warriors on the road to stop Max, and that the remaining citizens embrace Furiosa as their new leader, but (a) how come he's the expert on Joe's society all of a sudden (b) obviously some of the warriors stay home (c) it's not clear how much authority Furiosa has (d) she's in bad shape when she gets back, and what's to stop one of Joe's lieutenants from kicking her to the ground and proclaiming himself king? Immortan Joe rules over a load of elderly peasants who should have died years ago, and what for? They don't seem to do any work. Why keep them alive? Etc.

Ultimately Fury Road doesn't work as a conventional narrative. It needed either more exposition or less; and even if Max's plan is sensible, it feels unsatisfying to just rewind the action back to the start. In a post-Game of Thrones era of realistically downbeat fantasy the chances are that Furiosa will become just as big a tyrant as Immortan Joe, because in the real world people are at the mercy of events and are moulded by their environment. Literally so in the case of Joe and his followers, because they're radioactive mutants. How is Furiosa going to cure that? How will she provide them with wives? Will she tell them that their future is just metastasising cancers, excruciating pain, inevitable death, with no hope at all? Hmm? Max himself walks away, perhaps realising that Furiosa has no future.

Let's talk about the Mad Max films. I'm not sure whether Fury Road is supposed to be a fresh start for the series. Max is still haunted by the death of his family, which suggests that it follows directly on from Mad Max. He begins the film with the cool V8 interceptor from Mad Max 2, but wasn't the car destroyed during that film? I don't know. For the purposes of my film reviews I try to read as few contemporary sources as possible, lest I end up simply copying other reviews. The first Mad Max was shot on a budget of twenty Australian dollars. It starred a bunch of cool cars and some nobodies, but such was the appeal of cool cars smashing into things that it became a substantial international hit, at least for a cheap exploitation film. It was so cheap that it made a profit on international sales before it had been released, and for many years it was the most profitable film of all time. It was a kind of pre-apocalyptic biker film, with a dash of "stuntsploitation" thrown in.

Stuntsploitation was a peculiar micro-genre of Australian films that emerged in the mid 1970s. The genre was essentially the brainchild of director Brian Trenchard-Smith, who was at least enthusiastic. His secret weapon was stuntman Grant Page, who was prepared to set himself on fire, leap off cliffs, crash cars etc for our amusement and Trenchard-Smith's financial gain. Page also worked on Mad Max, and performs a memorable stunt near the beginning where he smashes a car through a caravan. Stuntsploitation was fundamentally goofy, whereas Mad Max has a dark edge that sets it apart from the work of Trenchard-Smith; it also has a slick commercial sense that distances it from the artier Australian new wave films of the 1970s.

In the UK Mad Max was released with a X certificate, which at the time was essentially the equivalent of the United States' R, but felt meaner. It reached a wider audience on home video, in which format it was released before formal video certificates had been established (the VHS box has an informal "Cert 18" on the spine). Along with the likes of The Exterminator and Friday the 13th I recall that it was a quasi-video nasty, the kind of thing that your parents would not have been keen on. The BBFC cut about a minute out of one sequence and it always had a mean, evil aura. The film must have disappointed people expecting lashings of ultraviolence, because it's relatively restrained, and quite talky at times. George Miller had never directed a film before - he was a doctor, not a filmmaker - but Mad Max feels very assured. The editing is exciting and the cinematography makes good use of the widescreen format. The cars are always shot from a very low angle that has the effect of making the chases seem faster.

Mel Gibson was a complete unknown at the time. The film introduces him as if he was already a big star - we see his sunglasses, his gloves, we feel his reputation preceding him - and when we first see him striding towards the camera, after having dispatched one of the villains, by golly he is a big star. In terms of global box-office, Gibson took a surprisingly long time to find his feet, and in fact he didn't become a genuine draw until Lethal Weapon, which was released two years after the last of his Mad Max films. Until that point he was one of those famous actors that had an air of stardom about him, without actually being very popular; his films, such as The Bounty or Year of Living Dangerously, also had an air of being major productions, without actually making any money. Part of the problem was that Gibson was born to be middle-aged, and as a young man he looked a bit dorky, in my opinion.

Is Mad Max any good? It's well-made and the chases are exciting, judging by the clips I have just seen on Youtube. I can barely remember the rest of the film. It is set in a future version of our world, in which Max lives in a house with his wife and child. Max is unhinged at the start of the film and becomes more unhinged when he loses everything he ever loved, but Gibson's performance doesn't really reflect this, because he merely goes from being morose to being angry and morose. I remember being disappointed with the film. Max's orgy of revenge is abrupt and seems surprisingly easy. If the world is falling apart, what's so shocking about a cop meting out private justice? It's curious that nobody else can track down a bunch of extremely loud, very conspicuous bikers, and the budget wasn't enough to show a crumbling world, so the film ends up feeling very small.

In contrast Mad Max 2 feels huge. It was released in 1981 and is one of the best action films of the 1980s, vying with Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Terminator, and Die Hard. Like those films it's the kind of thing that might be taught in film school because it's a model of clarity and focus. The plot is almost archetypal, essentially a socialist variation of Yojimbo, in which the roaming samurai finally decides that some people are worth helping after all, even at the cost of his own life. It even has a similar structure - Max observes the situation from afar, introduces himself, there is some action during which he proves his worth, then he is captured and beaten half to death, then he recovers and delivers payback, end. The film is presented as a fable related to us by a character who is just a kid during the events he describes, and so for all we know his story of a band of heroic civilians under siege in an oil refinery by paramilitary bandits might be propaganda, but I'm digressing here.

The second film opens just like the first, with a car chase, but it never lets up; it moves seamlessly from exposition to action and back again without any flab. There's the merest hint of a romantic subplot, but it doesn't involve Max; he begins and ends the film as an acerbic loner, and every line of dialogue exists to set up something later on. The characters are colour-coded for our convenience, with the heroes dressed predominantly in white and the baddies in brown. There are no loose ends.

John Carpenter often points out in interviews that you can edit really quickly with widescreen and it doesn't throw people off, and so when he came to make Assault on Precinct 13 he ensured that he had enough money to shoot in proper 2:35 scope ratio. Mad Max 2 is also 2:35, and it's the kind of film you might watch if you were studying action editing. The editing is just showy enough that you notice it, but not so showy that its gets irritating. There's a sequence during the final chase where Max fires his shotgun at a pursuing vehicle - he hits the driver full in the face, and the editing is perfect. In a series of quick cuts we see the car, Max levelling his shotgun, the impact (with a subliminal exploding head), a reaction shot of the feral kid, the car swerving, Max returning to his seat, in the space of five seconds. In a neat touch it's not clear whether the feral kid is shocked or thrilled by the exploding head.

And it's not just an isolated gag, because the driverless car then crashes into a dune buggy, which sets up one of the most astonishing physical stunts in the film, where a bandit is sent flying through the air. A lesser film would have had a dummy, but we see quite clearly a real living Australian man tossed several metres towards the camera at high speed to certain doom. Australians live short, brutal lives, and Mad Max 2 presumably gave Australia's stuntman community the chance to show off their skills for Hollywood.

On the level of plot and story Mad Max 2 has a clear, logical progression, and the ending chase makes sense in context. In this respect it beats Fury Road; once it becomes apparent that Furiosa's "green land" is a poisoned swamp, Fury Road runs out of plot, whereas every chase in Mad Max 2 has a clear goal. In my opinion if Fury Road had been a straightforward remake of Mad Max 2, with the stunts of Fury Road, it would have been an unqualified success. As it stands Fury Road is technically smart but has a perfunctory, mostly incoherent plot, and although it'll have a long afterlife chopped into bits on Youtube I worry that in years to come I will barely remember it.

How hard is to to write a good action film plot? More to the point, how expensive is it? Fury Road was written by Miller himself, so perhaps he started with the chases first and then ran out of time when it came to giving them meaning, in which case the film reminds me a bit of the computer game DayZ, which has a detailed but mostly empty world devoid of gameplay. There's a co-writing credit for Brendan McCarthy, who usually works as a storyboard artist. He started out on top Brit sci-fi comic 2000AD, where he was one of the artists who flowered during the comic's eccentric, early-90s acid phase. Fury strikes me as the kind of film that has a big thick visual storyboard with the script written on a few Post-It notes.

Mad Max 2 was very influential. It looked expensive despite its tiny budget. From the point of view of rival film producers, all that was required to replicate its success was a truck, some off-roaders, a lot of leather fetish gear plus some porn actors to wear it, and some rugged countryside. California has plenty of those things. The film was released a year before Conan the Barbarian, which sparked off a wave of similarly frugal swords and sorcery films that had similar ingredients, minus the truck and the off-roaders, but inevitably the imitations were naff. Poorly-written, with uninteresting actors and boring direction. The likes of Metalstorm, Steel Dawn, The Highwayman (a TV show from 1987), Spacehunter and so forth helped kill off interest in any more Mad Max films. The waste-punk look of the Max generation directly inspired mid-80s glam rockers Sigue Sigue Sputnik, and it strikes me suddenly that most of these cultural echoes date from a good five or so years after Mad Max 2 came out. My hunch is that although it made a profit at the cinema and was extremely successful for an Australian action film, it was nonetheless only a very modest hit in objective terms. In the United States it was released five months late, and wasn't among the thirty highest-grossing films of 1982. Conan, for example, outgrossed it by quite a way. As with the original Mad Max the sequel was a bigger hit on the home video market, where it took longer to become iconic.

Earlier up the page I mentioned Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was released in the middle of 1981. The timing is such that George Miller was probably aware of Raiders during the production of Mad Max 2, and I wonder if Miller was trying to one-up the Nazi truck chase in Spielberg's film. The two chases are the action high-points of their respective films, with an array of clever practical stunts and lots of brutal violence. Nowadays their measured pace feels a bit staid, but it's still possible to appreciate the derring-do of the stunt work. Raiders was marketed as a family-friendly blockbuster with some scary moments, but it's a surprisingly brutal film, barely less violent than Mad Max 2, with a higher body count. Mad Max 2 has a man nearly decapitated with a boomerang, but Raiders has rotting corpses, exploding Nazis, and Pat Roach sliced into ribbons by a propellor. We don't see it, but it's still nasty. During the truck chase Indiana Jones tosses a man into the windscreen of a jeep, bashes a man's head repeatedly against the dashboard, and then runs him over! The truck even bounces into the air! It's hilarious, but also not the kind of thing you'd see in a family film nowadays. Have we advanced, or regressed? That's really the topic of a separate essay, I'll stop now.

There was a third Mad Max film. Beyond Thunderdome. George Miller set out to make an expensive mainstream action fantasy blockbuster, with mixed results. It smoothed off most of the hard, brutal edges of the first two films, and although it often looks wonderful it still feels like watered-down Mad Max. Fury Road resembles it at times. The two films take place after the apocalypse, during the early stages of reconstruction. There is a strong female lead. Max spends a lot of time held captive in both films, and ends up having to rescue a group of people he initially doesn't care much for. I'm just listing things, aren't I? That's called padding. The problem is that the Mad Max franchise is essentially Mad Max 2, because the first film was a cop revenge drama and the third was a generic 1980s fantasy film. Miller himself barely remembers making Thunderdome. His heart wasn't in it because his great friend, producer Byron Kennedy, had recently died in an aviation accident. Kennedy produced the first two Mad Max films, and I suppose we will never know what influence he might have had on Thunderdome. It at least has a coherent plot that builds to a logical conclusion; my recollection is that it was nice, which felt wrong.

Roger Ebert, in a rare lapse, wrote that Thunderdome was "not only the best of the three Mad Max movies, but one of the best films of 1985". I disagree with the first part, but given that 1985 was also the year of A View to a Kill, National Lampoon's European Vacation, Police Academy 2, Spies Like Us, The Jewel of the Nile, Rocky IV, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Out of Africa - all of which made more money than Thunderdome - I'm willing to go along with the second.

Back to Fury Road. It has all kinds of connections with the other films. There's a little music box, like the one from Mad Max 2, and the main villain is played by Hugh Keays-Byrne from Mad Max, although he's obviously not the same character. Instead, he feels like a variation of Mad Max 2's Lord Humungous, with his quasi-military bearing and medals, although Humungous appeared to have earned his medals legitimately, whereas Joe's are fabricated from circuit boards and junk. 70-year-old George Miller returns to the director's chair and demonstrates that he can still get it up, action film-wise; Mel Gibson does not return, for reasons which I will not go into. I'm starting to list things again, which is a sure sign that I'm running out of things to say.

What else? At one point Max is confronted with a group of semi-naked women and a truck; he jumps in the truck and drives off, leaving the women behind, in a sequence that made me immediately think of the end of Dumb and Dumber ("What were we thinking? The town is back THAT way!"). It's supposed to make him seem like a single-minded, tormented loner, but it comes across as silly; Max's mental trauma isn't compatible with a film that has a group of semi-naked supermodels hosing each other down in the desert. Those two concepts cannot co-exist in the same framework and a part of me wished that a younger Quentin Tarantino had been asked to give Fury Road the once-over. Everybody hates Tarantino but, in my opinion, he's a natural for the Mad Max franchise.

Ultimately Fury Road is a triumph of action filmmaking, a visually stunning masterclass in editing and worldbuilding. The performances are all uniformly solid, albeit that Tom Hardy is given very little to do. The It Girls are feisty, Charlize Theron is both tough and vulnerable, in fact she's slightly better than the film deserves. The elderly warrior women - the "Vuvalini" - steal every scene in which they appear, and make me wonder if the film's abundance of tough female characters is an apology for killing off the warrior woman in Mad Max 2. Nicholas Hault appears to have had a tonne of fun playing what amounts to a living cartoon. It's one of those films in which every character has a certain look, and it must have taken ages to do the casting.

And it's a testament to George Miller's skill that a film which consists of the same basic car chase repeated three times never feels boring or repetitive. The problem is that without a coherent plot it all comes across as a meaningless exercise in style, and I worry that it won't have legs. Like the recent Godzilla reboot, or the various attempts to get Superman to carry a film by himself, I worry that Fury Road will make a fair amount of money and then fade away.

And yet it's infinitely better than Michael Bay's Transformers movies, which are longer and louder and have far more plot than Fury Road, except that it's meaningless wheel-churning gears-grinding film-padding plot in which people run back and forth but nothing happens. Fury Road just needed a bit more work, a blood transfusion from Mad Max 2. That would have done the trick.

No, tell a lie. There is one good line. "Straight through the medulla".


Monday, 11 May 2015

Nikon 28mm f/2.8 AI-S: Lumenagerie

Canon 5D MkII / Nikon 28mm f/2.8 AI-S

Wesley Willis had names for his demons. Heartbreaker, Meansucker. Nervewrecker. They made his life hell; but they gave him targets for his anger, something he could rail against without harming others. Without his demons he would probably never have become famous, but what kind of fame did he end up with? He was a novelty act, and twelve years after his death his legacy has faded.

He seemed destined for internet stardom, but sadly he died in the pre-Facebook period, the pre-Twitter period. He would have been Twitter's killer app. I would follow him on Twitter. Rock over London, rock on Chicago is 34 characters long, leaving 106 characters for him to spread his word. I loved the way he cussed the crowd. It meant he was telling them something.

"When faced with my demons / I clothe them and feed them". Pac-Man's demons were called Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde. I have often wondered if they were objectively real within the abstract world of Pac-Man, or if they were actually manifestations of Pac-Man's neuroses. How come Pac-Man looked so jolly in the face of inevitable death, and why did the ghosts hide away in that little box?

A glimpse inside the game's source code reveals that the ghosts are driven by a compulsive mixture of phobic avoidance, unreasoning aggression, and mental confusion; a programming error means that Pinky and Inky are mentally ill, because one of their subroutines has an error. When Pac-Man heads up the screen they go haywire.

But what of Pac-Man himself? Very little has been written about the psychology of video game characters, presumably because they don't have an internal life; they are us, they are direct translations of our desires. Pac-Man himself has rudimentary characterisation - creator Toru Iwatani thought of him as a voracious, mischievous engine of pure will - but most people didn't care. Kids played Pac-Man because they liked the flashing lights and noises, women thought that Pac-Man was cute, grown men such as Billy Mitchell were driven by a compulsive desire to beat the game and achieve a perfect score.

Like most early arcade machines Pac-Man simply repeated the same level over and over again, but eventually a counter broke down and the game reached a "kill screen", where even the best player was stuck forever. Nonetheless it is possible to achieve an optimal score, whereby the player consumes every dot and power pellet and eats every vulnerable ghost, and all of the bonus fruit. It takes enormous concentration to achieve this feat. There was very little reward for being first - Mitchell broke the game in 1999, long after people had stopped caring about Pac-Man - and none at all for being second or third. Roughly half a dozen people, all men, have driven themselves to beat Pac-Man. They belong to an elite club which has no clubhouse, no perks, no drinks discount, no formal membership list, no dancing girls.

What does Pac-Man tell us about ourselves? When I play the game I tend to clear the board counter-clockwise, moving to the bottom-left and then proceeding along to the right and up and back across again. Does this make me a monster? Am I a bad man? Do women or normal people play Pac-Man in a fundamentally different way? Systems analysis is the study of systems, and at its heart is the idea that every process can be broken down into a set of fundamental subroutines, and in the other direction each system is part of a larger system.

The lens has an unusually close focus distance of 20cm (from the film plane) or 10cm (from the tip of the lens). This was shot with a Fuji S5, an APS-C camera, using a macro ring.

In the field of software development systems analysis is invaluable for understanding how, for example, an air traffic control centre is supposed to work - it has to integrate with weather radar and the national air traffic control system, and depending on the complexity of the brief perhaps also the local airport's baggage handling department and independent airline scheduling systems. I can imagine an air traffic control system growing until it runs everybody's lives 24/7 from cradle to grave. We will all either be flying, or awaiting flights, or planning flights.

Taken to its extreme the entirety of human society is an enormous super-system; the Earth's environment is another system, driven not by conscious desire but by feedback and inertia, and given that much of the Earth's energy comes from the Sun it is impossible to consider the Earth in isolation from the solar system. On a human level systems analysts have to differentiate between components of the network that need to be modelled in fine detail, and those that can be abstracted away. In the example of an air traffic control network, it is sufficient to model the workings of the sun; the storms on Jupiter do not have a measurable impact on flight times over the continental United States.

But what about that cliché, the stock market? The stock market is a gigantic analogue computer, fed with inputs that are processed by stock market traders, who are essentially nodes in an enormous network, themselves processing inputs from a multitude of diverse sources. Their collective output is stock market prices. Ultimately the stock market is a machine that exists to calculate stock market prices, and we are unable to predict future stock prices because that would require a hyper-machine, an uber-machine that can simulate a pocket universe.

And what of human society? Most computer programs are created for a definite, useful purpose, whether generating ballistic tables or designing rifle barrels or modelling nuclear explosions. Human society on the other hand is a computer program that simply exists, processing inputs and generating outputs for no ultimate purpose. I say "computer program", it would be more accurate to say that human society is a single-purpose analogue computer rather than software running on a general-purpose computing machine, which would imply that human society could be used to model something other than itself.

But perhaps it can. Perhaps the motion of human beings can be used to calculate ballistic tables or the loads passing through a suspension bridge on a windy day. If only the signs could be interpreted correctly.

Katy Perry wears daylo clothing, and people observe her and start to copy her, and the price of dayglo clothing increases, and from God's perspective Katy Perry is the nodal point of a psychedelic dayglo fungus that spreads across the planet. There are seven billion of us, processing nodes in our great computer, and we are also outputs, individual pixels in a seven-billion-pixel monitor that can only be viewed from afar. Imagine if Katy Perry was in fact the starter crank of a machine that uses human beings as its gears. Her music, overheard in shopping malls, subtly influences our behaviour. Eighteen months later a sufficiently perceptive observer strolls through his local high street; after studying us, he returns home with the encryption key of some secret files, or the nine millionth digit of Pi.

And perhaps there are rival programs jostling for our attention, trying to smother or pervert Katy Perry's message. The likes of Carly Rae Jepsen and Gabriella Cilmi failed to displace her, but the tide always recedes. Douglas Adams described a similar idea in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. At the end of the book it is revealed that the Earth's ecosystem is a computer, and the living creatures on its surface are part of a distributed processing network; Arthur Dent was part of the final generation of human beings born before the program reached its conclusion, and he is eventually able to dredge up the answer to life, the universe, and everything from within his own mind.

Adams' sci-fi concepts tend to be lost amongst his wordplay, but the notion that society is actually a processing network has stuck with me. A processing network that consumes the present, regurgitates the past, and spits out the future, in real time.

A typical workplace is essentially an analogue processing unit that receives letters and telephone calls as its input, and generates spreadsheets and work schedules and bills as its output; the people who perform the work aren't really human beings when they are at work, they are office workers, subroutines in a computer program. A national government is an office workplace writ large. Information goes in one end, money is pumped in as fuel, and the output is a set of rules and regulations. Sometimes fuel is pumped over the output to boost performance.

Pac-Man was a machine designed to produce the ultimate Pac-Man player, as in The Last Starfighter, and it is fascinating to ponder its influence and that of other arcade machines. Before computer games, human beings were lumpy boring potato people who ate lard and played darts. Namco and Sega gave us crack reflexes and incredible concentration; Defender and Tempest had the effect of overclocking human society's mind. And, outside the world of computer games, the likes of Miles Davis and Einstein - and in his own small way, Wesley Willis - they tweaked our programming, added new hardware, eliminated useless subroutines.

On a more dramatic level Hitler and Stalin eliminated great chunks of the machine, in the most direct way. Their approach was unscientific, and I suspect that with a machine as complex and interdependent as human society, so prone to chaotic imponderables, any attempt to consciously pervert its progress is doomed to failure, at the mercy of unforeseen consequences.

Hitler cared only for the good of his tribe. But the great machine of humanity has its own course, and cares not for individual tribes; its ultimate destination is unknowable and perhaps not to our satisfaction. We may not recognise it when we arrive. Perhaps the program has already run its course, and we are simply swarf left to blow away in the wind, patients left forgotten in the waiting room of a dental practice that shut half an hour ago. Today we're going to have a look at the Nikon 28mm f/2.8 AI-S. It's one of Nikon's most legendary lenses. It was launched in 1981 as part of a general overhaul of Nikon's lens range. In another world it might have been just a cosmetic update of the earlier 28mm f/2.8, with support for AI-S.

But Nikon decided to fiddle with the design and throw in the close-range-correction technology from the posh 28mm f/2, and the result was a lens that was well-made, optically excellent, and reasonably priced. In theory Nikon's big star 28mm lens of the early 1980s was the 28mm f/2.0, but perhaps because of its higher price it didn't grab people as much; neither Google Books' archive of old magazines nor the modern internet has much to say about the 28mm f/2.0. My impression is that professional PJs of the early 1980s were wowed by the Nikon 25-50mm f/4 or the compact 20mm f/2.8 AI-S instead.

What was AI-S? Some kind of Nikon thing. Something to do with aperture control. Only half a dozen cameras supported it. Too late for the F3. Not even Nikon people remember it. It died a death when Nikon switched to electronic cameras with autofocus in the mid-80s. The 28mm f/2.8 AI-S remained in production, however, because it took a while for Nikon to release a really good autofocus 28mm; it was sold up until the late 2000s and apparently old-new stock still exists.

Press adverts from the mid-80s show a price of around $140-170, about twice that of equivalent lenses from Canon and Pentax, in step with Nikon's generally premium market position. At the time Nikon was trying to broaden its appeal, and the 28mm f/2.8 AI-S was sold alongside a much cheaper 28mm f/2.8 Series E lens. The Series E lenses were also compatible with AI-S, and modern eBay sellers often try to confuse the two, by listing the Series E as a 28mm f/2.8 Series E AI-S, or just outright lying. The 28mm Series E appears to be the Porsche Boxster of the Nikon 28mm lens range, in the sense that it's an admission you can't afford a 911.

To confuse matters still further the AI-S is cosmetically similar to the earlier 28mm f/2.8 AI, and there's nothing on the nameplate to indicate which is which; you have to know what they look like and check the serial numbers. The AI-S has its name ring inside the filter thread and has a flatter front end. What's it like performance-wise? Here's one of the local museums:

28mm is unfashionable nowadays - it's wide, but people are spoiled with 24mm and even wider. In the middle it's slightly soft at f/2.8 but not obviously so; it sharpens up at f/4 and then perhaps if I study real close it gets sharper at f/5.6 but no more beyond that, shown here at f/2.8, f/4 and f/5.6:

In the extreme full-frame corner it's decent at f/5.6 and becomes basically sharp across the entire frame at f/11, shown here at f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, and f/11, with the levels boosted:

Why did I pick a corner that was in shadow? The other corners either had nothing in them, or they had a wavy banner that waved and looked blurry. f/16 is the same as f/11 but slightly softer. On an APS-C camera it would be razor-sharp across the frame at f/8. Nikon fans with APS-C bodies might also consider the modern, autofocus 28mm f/1.8 AF-S, which is also a very good performer with the caveats that it retails for $700 and it's a lot bigger than the AI-S. 28mm is roughly 40mm in APS-C terms, in other words a kind of slightly wide normal.

The rest of Nikon's AI-S range was, apparently, uniformly good - the 105mm f/2.5 AI-S was the other famous AI-S lens - and I surmise that a 24mm f/2.8 or f/2 AI-S would be more versatile if you plan on using it with an APS-C camera. The problem is that everybody knew the AI-S lenses were good even in the early days of digital photography, and they were snapped up fifteen years ago. I believe that the latter-day popularity of other vintage lens mounts - Olympus OM, Contax/Yashica, Leica R - came about because the supply of cheap AI-S lenses on eBay dried up.

The AI-S is a pre-CPU lens, and it will only automate on the posher Nikon bodies; compact Nikon SLRs won't meter with it. It won't meter on my Nikon F50 film camera either. As an AI lens it's otherwise unproblematic, there's no risk of it breaking anything off the camera body. This is academic in my case because I used it mostly on a Canon 5D MkII with an adapter ring, although it works just fine on my Fuji S5. The S5 / D200 and I assume other high-end Nikon bodies won't recognise the lens automatically, and you have to use the aperture ring, but they can be programmed to understand that it's a 28mm f/2.8.

It focuses very closely, although this didn't wow me as much as it might because I've used a lot of Olympus OM lenses, and they focus very closely as well. Distortion is very mild:

The lens is very highly regarded but it doesn't seem to have much of a legend in the real world. I associate it with the Nikon F3, and I think of it as the quintessential early-mid-80s photojournalist wide prime, but if photojournalists used it they were too busy shooting to write about it. It did however appear in one of Nikon's most memorable print adverts (mounted on a battered F3, centre):

I have a vision of Nikon's ad agency flinging their prop F3 body around the car park in order to make it look used. In summary the 28mm f/2.8 AI-S is a lovely lens - I haven't mentioned the neutral colours, the decent bokeh, the very mild and easily correctable CA, the stellar build quality, the standard 52mm filter thread - although something of a pain on the used market. Used examples tend to have been bashed about, a few have been converted to modern cinema mounts, yet more have fungus, others are advertised in a way that borders on sharp practice. There are in theory six currently listed on eBay here in the UK, but one is actually an "AI-S fit" third party lens, one is a "Series E AI-S", three are broken, one is ambitiously priced.

Production continued until the 2000s but by the end of the line it was only available as a very expensive special order (perhaps assembled from Nikon's parts supply) and so the vast majority of examples are roughly a quarter of a century old. Nikon apparently made over two hundred thousand of them, so I guess that Nikon fans simply don't want to part with them. I don't blame them.

Rock over London. Rock on, Chigaco. Nikon: we get the world's worst assignments. (throws down microphone)