Nostalgia Kills in Mad Max 2 The Road Warrior

1 Road Warrior cover photo

I love the smell of misery in the morning.

So you sit down and browse through endless rows of Netflix releases, pummel the mouse at Amazon’s Prime offerings, and sneak on through the tinny riches of Hulu and dammit a half hour of choice viewing time gets eaten up while the kids sleep (soundly/fitfully) and your own projects molder in the corner on an aging hard drive, your bedtime passed out on the couch fast approaching. In a move of desperation, burdened by the knowledge that almost any Criterion offering is a mid-stream, protein-laced carbo-crash destined to make you wonder what language they’re even speaking, you settle on something you loved long ago, ‘cuz that always works out, right? Nostalgia never fails. I can sing along, quote along, laugh at myself, laugh at them. So two nights ago I settled on The Road Warrior, now conveniently titled Mad Max 2

Now, I have to admit, I hadn’t watched anything Mad Maxian for decades until Fury Road. My memory of it was marred by UHF broadcasts or late-afternoon cable sprees at a friend’s house or sheer disinterest (“I’ve got some Fellini to watch, man!”). Still, fond memories and lingering fanboy logic compelled me to hit play. I prepared my sense of humor for ridiculous 80s hair, S&M costumerie, and lot of awesome death. I had not prepared myself for a damn good story and shock-to-the-system editing.

2 Mel Gibson full

Looky looky

After the first fifteen minutes, the original state of mind (nostalgia + good-hearted fun = a movie to enjoy and sleep through) gave way to an honest-to-goodness surprise conjured by my inability to either turn it off or fall asleep during it. My brain tends to blissfully disengage its critical faculties during a movie, pulling itself out of cryosleep during the end credits and then going to town with the wakey-think. The Road Warrior unplugged my cryobed and said pay attention. Mel Gibson had the looks and the charm and the fierceness required to fill a silent action movie character with blood. His entire body carried meaningful details that gave him more history than the awkward opening montage of the preface did: the squeaky leg brace, the rough cut hair, the shotgun shells (watch how he breaks one open first to examine the shot, then takes the second for later use—there’s brain behind that stuff, real choices, like Brando and his glove in On the Waterfront). If semiotics still bossed everybody around, it’d rear its twinkling head and point out so many signs and signifiers that you’d strangle it later on while it slept on your couch.

And the cuts. Mmm. No scene too long, some scenes cut abruptly, the fade-to-blacks so rapid they jumpstart the brain. “No, wait! A century of cinema has set guidelines for this kind of thing!” And yet, there they are. Editing is a sophisticated craft, but with sophistication comes expectations, shortcuts, and reliance on repetition (where would film criticism be without a reliance upon sophistication that borders on the idiotic?). Maybe the budget required short heads and tails, maybe the editor needed to keep the running time down, but whatever the reason, the edits worked. Brief, rapid-fire cuts that didn’t feel molested by the culture’s nacent MTV DNA.

Nostalgia has one purpose: to satisfy a hunger and soothe the troubled mind. I mean, come on, what greater pleasure is there than to have a full meal and shut down in the process of being tickled, delighted, and massaged while literally reliving the past? Nostalgia is an act of memory without the effort, and it tastes good. Proust’s madeleine in 24 frames per second, persistence of vision without the necessity of dreams, promises kept until real life dampens the enthusiasm a little, like a Happy Meal with crappy toys…

3 G.I._Joe_A_Real_American_Hero_Vol_1_1

Easter morning, this somehow made it into my basket. Good Bunny!

Our culture’s honest rationalization of infinite nostalgia (comic books into movies; movies into reboots; promises of no-sequels broken; kid-tested, mother-approved references to other pop culture; the appropriation of pop music into reflexively cool films; new toys from old films and vice-versa) encourages gluttony. Every evening is a new childhood for our 40-something set, and it’s glorious and fattening and delicious. But worse than gluttony is the post-binge stupor and the easy entitlement, which with one flick of the wrist dismisses with lazy enthusiam. It’s difficult to apply the critical mind on a stomach full of sugars, carbs, and grease. It’s next to impossible to apply honest, hard thought when our nostalgia makes our ownership of the entertainment past sacrosanct. Sure, The Road Warrior is a good film, and it might be a great film, but look at the limited variety of cultural responses to the remake of The Thing or the reboot of Ghostbusters: our nostalgia informs our prejudices and in that sense nostalgia kills. Nobody can argue against somebody else’s nostalgia if it isn’t their own nostalgia. Nostalgia is never wrong. I am nostalgic for G.I.Joe action figures and the first Marvel comic book that came from them. I am nostalgic for The Day the Earth Stood Still and Gort and Klaatu barada nikto. I am nostalgic and this worries me, because the older I get the deeper my capacity for nostalgia, and the more passive my brain becomes.