Technical Brilliance Only Goes So Far

A few weeks ago my wife and I finally saw Mad Max: Fury Road, the movie that’s risen to the rarified air of awards talk genre pictures seldom see. It’s got an Oscar nod for Best Picture, after all. Although I’m not a huge fan of the old Mad Max flicks, I’m a sci-fi fan, fond of dystopia. My wife’s a big action movie fan. So we’re definitely in what might be the target audience for something like this. Nonetheless, when it was done, we turned to each other and asked:

“Is that it?”

Not that it wasn’t cool. The movie looks gorgeous and George Miller deserves a lot of credit for doing some really insane stunt work using real vehicles and people instead of wallowing in CGI overload. Who wouldn’t want a flamethrower guitar? Or keytar, maybe? I’m a keyboard player, after all. And, yes, it was cool to see such overt feminist overtones in a movie that comes out of a very masculine tradition.

But is that enough?

The best explanation I’ve read as to why Fury Road deserves consideration as one of the best movies of 2015 is from this article by Amanda Marcotte over at Salon. Her argument seems to boil down to it being a great technical achievement:

“Mad Max” is more than just a really good movie. It’s also a wildly innovative movie, one that plays with the very idea of filmmaking itself. The director, George Miller, tore up the book on how to make a movie, taking huge risks in doing so, and ended up making the movie that people could not stop talking about this year.

 

“Mad Max” barely has a script. There was heavy storyboarding, but in terms of a traditional script for actors to work from, nope. Instead, they filmed for months in the desert, collecting 480 hours of footage (which is three weeks, if you watch non-stop), which was pounded and then refined into a coherent story in the editing bay, with Margaret Sixel, Miller’s wife, at the helm.

As a result, she argues, it’s an

artistic experiment toying with how to use the tools of film-making to tell a story in an entirely different way than we’re used to

that happens to be “fun” and “moving.”

Therein, I guess, lies the rub. I’ll give Fury Road the “fun” label – it certainly wasn’t an experience I wish I hadn’t had when it was over. But I don’t get “moving” from it and, in retrospect, can see where the fact that it “barely has a script” is perhaps a main reason why. It’s not the film is incoherent (which is a credit to the editing work), it just doesn’t make much sense.

The talk about Fury Road reminds me a little of the buzz last year around Boyhood. It, too, was a great movie making experiment, filmed over years in order to capture the main character aging into adulthood. However, I remember, amidst the plaudits, that some critics dared to suggest that, at the end of the day, the finished product wasn’t all that captivating. Still, the audacity of its making carried it a long way.

Technical achievement is worth celebrating, but it’s not the be all and end all of art. Progressive rock, more than most subgenres of popular music, values instrumental mastery – it lionizes people who can play. That being said, there’s still something to be said for avoiding the “too many notes” trap). A flurry of sound might be impressive, but is it interesting or moving? Not necessarily.

So it goes with literature. Clever wordplay and narrative structure that defies common sense can be daring experiments and produce new ways of telling stories. But at the end of the day, if the story itself doesn’t connect with readers, it’s a lot of flash that, in the end, doesn’t produce much heat.

Same thing with movies. Fury Road is, without a doubt, technically impressive. I just didn’t get a lot out of it beyond that. To be truly great, as so many think Fury Road is, demands more.

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