Good exhaustion: Marc Maron & George Miller rev it up

A friend asked me today if I hurt my sides from laughing so hard at Marc Maron, and I had to answer yes, I did, from about the 30-minute mark through the rest of his set. It was, I think, this particular joke that set it off:

Maron is stalking the stage, clenched up and raging—articulately and mellifluously, but still—into the mic, talking about masturbation, because of course he is. He’s just gestured the universal sign for “jerking off,” while explaining that it is indeed a universal gesture, one that needs no translation anywhere in the world. “There is no society on the planet in which this”—he gestures—“means, ‘rip your dick off.’” Pause. “Well, there was one, but it died out.”

Or maybe it was his description of his neighborhood’s gentrification, which I can only paraphrase, because I can’t match his relentless, ranting pace, a pace that nevertheless leaves room for little rests, onstage self-criticism of his set (a la Jim Gaffigan, but angrier), and heavy sighs. Anyway, he’s smart on gentrification—he’s smart on everything, especially his own stupid failings—and the utter boutique specialization it engenders. “You know that your neighborhood is fully gentrified when you walk in a store, look around, and realize you have no idea what kind of a store it is. ‘There’s a box of vinyl records on that shelf, and there’s a cow skull hanging over that window. There are Tibetan prayer flags, and tropical plants over there, and some weird cat pottery over there. WHAT IS THIS STORE SELLING?” And the kicker: “And then I realized that I had just wandered into someone’s house,” and that he can no longer distinguish between a place of business and some hipster’s studio apartment. I laughed and laughed, realizing that I walk by at least four shops just like that every day in downtown Athens, and I’m confused by that business model, too.

Maron is an angry man, he realizes it, he realizes that it’s a problem, and he realizes that it’s more of a problem that he kinda likes being angry, and that he’s drawn to women who are equally rageful at the world. I think I remember this phrasing and cadence exactly—maybe not, but you’ll get it: “There is no sex better than the makeup sex you have on the clothes you threw on the floor when you were packing up to leave.” After an explosive argument with his girlfriend that wakes up the block, Maron goes outside the next morning, and sees a neighbor taking out the trash. Trying to preempt anything the neighbor might think, Maron yells across the lawn: “I’m NOT hitting her. It’s just emotional abuse, and she gives it right back to me. It goes both ways, man, both ways.”

It must be exhausting to be that angry and anxious all the time, looking over his shoulder and seething at what he sees. Hell, I spent 90 minutes with the man on Saturday night, at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, and I left the theater winded. But, then, I remember: I’m that angry and anxious, too, especially the angry part. I just don’t say it out loud, or so deftly, or with such wit. He’s a quick man, responsive to the energy of the room and the people in front of him. He had a wreck in his rental car, on his way to the show, because that’s the kind of thing that happens to Marc Maron, and he worked that into the show. Constructing a bit on the fly—or, as he said, “this literally just happened 22 minutes ago”—takes skill. To start the show with this new, unforced material—and then to come back to it 90 minutes later—takes balls. And a kind of radical empathy and openness to experience. He has that, which is why he’s such a great interviewer. It also means, though, that he’s always itchy and tense with resentment and anxiety. To be that porous is to be exposed to the world, pains and pleasures both. It was exhilarating and hilarious to see. But it also left me drained.

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George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road opens with fumes and exhaust, too. Like Marc Maron, it revs its engine high at the outset, and never really slows down for the next 90 minutes. It is so loud, all those motors running and gunshots blaring, that I could barely hear the dialogue, much less understand it through the thick Australian accents. It is so abrasive, either shot on superbly saturated and grainy film stock or processed to look like it, that the colors bleed, and the frame looks somehow dirty and smudged. The ramshackle rawness of the movie matches the homemade and crumbling automobiles that drive (heh, drive) the narrative. It is so antic that it’s even shot at a frame rate less than the standard 24 fps, so that everything you see has a slightly herky-jerky, vaguely unnatural quality, like the camera is being hand-cranked just like the semis and mopeds onscreen.

In short, the medium matches the message. Look, there’s no reason to expect Fury Road to be as good as it is. You can either see it as a sequel of a sequel, or as a reboot of a franchise whose last entry came out three decades ago. Stakes are low. Well, you would think that, but you’d be wrong. For all of Miller’s angry, furious cinema, it’s well-choreographed spatially. In every action sequence, whether colossal in scale or simply hand-to-hand combat, it was always clear where each relevant person was, what she has at her disposal for weaponry, what her actions might mean to someone else occupying the same space, and where an unseen opponent might pop out next. George Miller knows how to block a scene, even one that expands throughout a desert, into a swirling sandstorm, and that involves at least 50 vehicles at high speed. The camera is restless but it’s not the shaky-cam of bad indie cinema—for all the turbines and lunges, I never felt queasy or visually lost.

Queasy, no. Unsettled, yes. Hell yes. In fact, that’s the point. I sat on the edge of my seat, watching through my clenched fingers, because the tension was unbearable and the stakes were high. Unlike most superhero movies, there’s not a lot of talking; the character development comes through action and gesture. Tom Hardy (Mad Max) basically doesn’t speak for the first third of the movie; his face is in a binding mask until 45 minutes in, just to emphasize the point. Charlize Theron (Imperator Furiosa) only speaks when she absolutely has to, and she’s not, um, a revealing sort of person even when she does open her mouth. In this world, loose talk and sloppy action get you killed. Succinctness breeds survival. So, there’s none of the quips and banter of the Marvel Universe pictures.

There’s also surprisingly little of the Marvel grandiosity. The action overwhelms with its ferocity and velocity but it’s human-scale and handmade. There are no cosmic demons raining destruction from the sky—the closest we come is that sandstorm.  No one comes back from the dead—when a character dies, she stays dead, which means that the death hurts. (Another way to say that is that life has dimension in Fury Road, and I don’t feel that this is true in Thor, The Avengers, or even Guardians of the Galaxy—which I liked.) No one is trying to save the world—it’s the post-apocalypse, in the fucking Outback, so it’s taken for granted that the world is largely ruined and maybe hopeless. None of the weapons or combat are supernatural. People suffer pain, real pain, and those wounds affect their ability to act, in a way that I see in few action films these days.

Much of that pain is political. Miller, like Maron, is angry. Unlike Maron, though, Miller’s rage is largely political rather than existential, and the filmmaker has a lot on his mind. Fury Road’s world is one in which women are treated as property, and young men are chewed up systematically to keep the 1% satisfied. None of this is spelled out patronizingly because, again, there’s not much comprehensible dialogue. But it’s clear that Fury Road’s women have had enough of this bullshit, and the plot churns on a group of women—sex slaves, essentially, one of them hugely pregnant—trying to escape this grotesque, violent patriarchy. That’s the plot: women wanting out, wanting a way to make lives for themselves. That’s it. The fact that this simple desire causes so much chaos and death, all of it fostered by a madman, says exactly what Miller intends it to say.

Mad Max, ostensibly our hero, gets caught up in the lunacy, too. In fact, he’s hardly the hero, hardly the most riveting protagonist in the movie. That role belongs to Furiosa, the capable, one-armed scout who is secretly leading the sex slaves to freedom. Theron brings a steady intensity to the role, with a just-barely-hidden anguish that gives her motives weight. She internalizes her pain—I don’t think we ever find out how she loses that arm in the first place—but she’s thoroughly unselfish. Mad Max, though not monomaniacal like the main villain, is a selfish bastard, at least at first. He learns empathy, slowly, through contact with Furiosa and the women. A tagalong boy, initially fully enveloped in the patriarchal worldview, changes through this contact, too. The boys grow into men, learn to give of themselves, and learn to act for motives other than their own gain. When Mad Max gives blood to Furiosa, toward the end, it’s a tearjerking moment that feels earned. Welcome to adulthood, sir, and to actual, giving love.

So, Miller’s furious at the world, and rightly so. With oil, spit, blood, and rumbling, he tries to imagine a better one through cinema. Good on him.

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RELATED: I wrote about Marc Maron’s last standup special, back in October 2013.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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