If you’re lucky, you could hack through your ankle in five minutes
I just saw George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. I’m not sure now if I’ve ever seen a movie before that. I mean, what a movie can be. Nothing’s perfect, but this was damn close to perfect—moving, provocative, and ruthless—spectacle. The movie is terrifying on multiple levels. It’s a sublime nightmare circus in the desert.
On the immediate level, the life and death battle scenes bring us to the edge. Nothing new there. One level deeper and you reach the psychological horror: that people have done, will do, and are doing unimaginable things to each other. Again, societal breakdown and totalitarianism are nothing new, although Mad Max does bring them frighteningly to life.
Yet even there, Fury Road’s righteous revolutionaries find room for hope. The people on the ground waiting for the precious water to fall to them are still people. Their fundamental goodness can be relied upon. The dictatorship of the few cannot last, even in dystopia.
The dystopia, however, is unavoidable. That’s the most terrifying thing about this latest Mad Max. The cause of this dystopia—in which the Earth has stopped supporting life—cannot be undone. It can be coped with, maybe. Maybe there is hope in that, but at a terrible cost. Much like in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, whatever light humans still carry is dim and fragile.
It is notable, however, that this dystopia is not of the Earth’s doing alone. The movie strongly suggests that those who controlled the Earth’s resources contributed to creating resource scarcity as a means to secure power. The film is generally low on linguistic communication, which makes the simplicity of its heroine’s blame all the more starkly brilliant. Imperator Furiosa, played by the supremely badass Charlize Theron, boils it down pretty well. Before making her break from the Citadel’s inner circle, Furiosa scrawls “Who Killed the Earth?” across the walls of her luxury cave dwelling. The answer is obvious: the asshole with all the power.
That should sound familiar to us. The Earth is rich, for now, in a great many ways. It is rich in people, culture, land, and of course it has an abundance of resources not yet completely plundered (and some indeed completely plundered). I am not prepared to compare our current leaders to the Mad Max villains, although there are those ready to go there. And with good reason. Much of our planet’s resources are privately owned. The owners, of course, gain power from that (power over the rest of us).
Which brings us to Karen Solie. As though she’s foreshadowing Furiosa, Solie has given us a simple warning, the idea being that if we heed it, we might have a chance to avoid environmental dystopia. In “Bitumen,” Solie does a great many things. But the thing that lands and sticks the most, for me, is the simple, devastating claim that “we’re all downstream now.”
Humans have many amazing capacities. One of the worst, and most damaging, is cognitive dissonance. If oil is not fucking up our literal backyard, then it’s not really happening. If the Athabasca River is not in my backyard, I can walk the streets just like it doesn’t exist at all. Like you, I have. Like Solie says, “combustion is our style.” This is why Solie and the countless other artists turning their craft to this imminent danger are shaking us as best they can. Will we wake up?
Cundalini wants his hand back
Perhaps. However, I highly doubt we will be awakened by facts, unless those facts present themselves in our literal backyard, by which time it will again be too late. No, facts won’t do. We need myth, we need the blood to move in us. Solie makes that myth. Fury Road makes it, too. Eighteen years ago, Outkast made that.
Outkast, like Prince or Bjork, have always been ahead of their time (I suspect, deep down, that Andre 3000’s extended absence from the rap game really involves a trip or two to Saturn and/or the centre of the Earth. But that’s another post.) “Da Art of Storytelling Pt. 2,” from their monumental Aquemini, creates a dark, funky vision of environmental apocalypse. The signs of the end times are upon them, and they are gathering their valuables, “Baby grab the baby/ cause baby there ain’t no time.” As Andre warns us, “Mother Earth is tossin’ and turnin’/ and that’s a sign.” As Big Boi, ever the grounder of Andre’s flights, points out, “you won’t know until it’s on ya.” That could be stretched to mean you won’t know it’s on you until you realize you are, in reality, downstream from it.
How to convince ourselves of that, though?
Play on what has always convinced humans of anything. The capitalist ethos is as strong as it is today not because it’s effective, but because people buy into it. That’s at least partly because it has a strong myth behind it. That myth is so strong that simple images or phrases—bootstraps, “started from the bottom”—immediately call up an entire system of beliefs that are metaphysical in their scope. The idea that if you made it, then you earned it, is not inevitable. Still, many buy into it like it is. A myth made that happen.
I am not ready to suggest the myth of capitalism should be abolished, though it should at least be countered by some other myth that reminds us that we’re in this together. That’s where the artists come in. The way that Outkast presents the Earth is mythical, legendary, like in this latest Mad Max. Both play on our imagination, making us invest a genuine part of ourselves in the issue at hand. Both are also entertaining, relying not on facts, but on emotion, to drive us.
The Earth is not a rational thing to us. We can’t understand it on its own level. It’s too old, too complex, too big. We must rely on our irrational skills—the imagination, emotion—to capture whatever shade of its essence we could hope to capture. George Miller, Solie, Outkast, and an ever expanding field of other artists get that. They behave as if it is their duty to turn their art to the “State of the Planet,” to borrow the title of Robert Hass’ great sequence.
Are they preaching? No. It’s more like they’re speaking, lecturing, or arguing in the forum. That doesn’t mean everyone needs to do that, or even that most artists need to. Not all artists are able to make something effective out of this topic, but clearly we need those who can to do so. While humanity is eternally disappointing, we don’t have another option. We cannot erase ourselves as human beings. We need to play to our weaknesses, and use them to our advantage. The imperfection of the imagination is an opportunity. People are somehow enthralled by consumerist/consumptionist capitalism, despite its well-established flaws. Surely we can be enthralled in the opposite direction by its awful consequences, if not all the time.
If we do not have joy, we do not live. And of course Mad Max, Solie, and Outkast know that. In this realm, Outkast takes the lead. “Da Art of Storytelling Pt. 2” is followed by “Liberation.” Once again, the idea is simple, and profound. After you’ve considered “all the problems and troubles of the day,” there is nothing left to do but to “shake that load off.”