Breaking the Silence: Language permeating through landscape in three Australian films

Silvana Tuccio, January 2016

“Breaking the Silence:Language permeating through landscape in three Australian films,” was presented at the Offshore Processes Symposium: International Perspectives on Australian Film and Television, July 2012, organised by Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, and held at the Monash University Prato Centre, Italy.

With thanks to Professor Sneja Gunew (University of British Columbia).

The PDF file of the article is available from my Academia page.


Mad Max

Max is the hero of the film Mad Max (1979)1, a man who has lost his family–a wife and a child, and as Meaghen Morris puts it: “…his personal sphere has been exterminated.” (Morris, 2006) Early in the film, we learn that Max is disillusioned with his job, where violence is a reality. His attempt to leave his job, however, is curbed by the experience of tragedy. Max remains in the same job, and subsequently enters into a struggle to gain dominance over the road where it took place.

Max confronts the “world” with a sense of hostility. In fact, in the film “the world as we know it” is no longer made of suburbs and shopping malls, it has rather become a barren and hostile place, an apocalyptic landscape with the characteristics of a “desert.” The word desert is popularly regarded as being synonymous with “empty” and “unlivable,” and in the lore of colonial Australia, a place that leads nowhere, where one can perish. The desert takes on other connotations when viewed from the perspective of indigenous culture, where sites mark the territory, vegetation is known for its food and health giving properties, and ways lead to the lands of tribes, each speaking a different language. The ‘desert’ landscape represented in Mad Max is that of colonial lore, resonating with the trials of the Burke and Wills expedition. The expedition showed the extent to which the two explorers were able to “see” into the landscape and to meet its people2. In colonised lands, the mapping of “unknown” territories through exploration is the quest to create routes or passages into the countryside, critical for the expansion of the colonial project. The outcome of the charting is the overlay of roads onto the landscape. In this vein, the desert in Mad Max is mapped with the ultimate landscape trope of the colonial era: the road. The road is where Max not only locates himself, but it is also where the tragedy of the loss of his wife and child took place. The road becomes for Max a space of reckoning, and it reflects his emotional terrain–on the one hand capable and forceful, on the other, lost and overwhelmed by hostility.

In the article, “La strada e la scomposizione di sé. Riflessioni postcoloniali di un insolito road movie,” (Papalia, 2005) Gerardo Papalia refers to the road as “protagonist:”

Both sides provide an alibi and a justification for the unfolding violence: the absence of nature allows the road to be elevated to the role of protagonist and signifier; the “population” is the subaltern constantly needing protection from the “Bikies,” which justifies the violence perpertrated by the “Main Force Patrol.” (Papalia, 2005).

In Australia, the significance of the road is established by the urban layout of cities, which privileges long, straight lanes and a grid pattern of streets on which cars can circulate. The road connects the city, and in tracts becomes a shopping strip with stores either side, or even a mall closed off to traffic, allowing shoppers to walk freely. The road crosses the boundary between city and countryside without losing its importance. The road, thus, facilitates communication by acting as a passage to the transportation of people and goods. Despite this, the road is not a place of conversation. In Mad Max, society has degenerated such that the road has become the place of encounter with the hostile other in an apocalyptic landscape, namely the Bikers. The Bikers do not acknowledge any law other than their own, or hold sympathy for any being. In this way, the road is dangerous not only due to speed, or unruly driving, but because it is dominated by the Bikers, who prey on the population, and in keeping with the post-apocalyptic scene, rather than seeking money, they seek fuel, which in the post-atomic world represented in the film is a scarcity. Furthermore, Max’s wife and child are ambushed and killed on the road. Thus the road in Mad Max is where the vulnerable are silenced. There is not just a lack of talk, there is dead silence.

If it is “the road” that kills, it is where Max is driven to (violent) action, unable to access the peace of mind that might atone the experience of loss. With the Main Force Patrol, he carries out actions against the loud and disruptive Bikers. In the barren landscape, the population struggles, unable to speak about the reign of terror that conditions their lives. Violence takes the place of language; and, along with the inhospitable environs, works to suppress it. By liberating the road, the vital artery of the landscape, Max promises to lift the population from their submission to terror, and allow communication. In this way, Max’s role is to redeem the landscape, albeit the colonial one, from where the chance for speech might arise, and perhaps even dialogue. However, whilst Max’s actions offer the promise of freedom and the possibility of language, he enacts equal violence.

In his quest to rule over the highways and free the population, Max can be likened to the mythological figure of Robin Hood, in place of taking from the rich to give to the poor, he trades in audaciousness, taking from the forces of evil to give to the meek, and most importantly to restore agency over the road. Having taken things into his own hands, Max has elevated himself to the status of hero, leading the challenge towards overcoming oppression, and overcoming the dominance of the Bikers. But to what extent can Max be successful, considering that the place he inhabits is “foreign,” and within which there is no chance to be reunited with his family? In the article, “White Panic, Mad Max and the Sublime”, Morris suggests that Max is, in fact, less at home in the post-apocalyptic environment than might appear. Familiarity with the landscape is constantly reckoned with in the face of the unpredictable attacks by the Bikers, whose hostility makes Max uneasy. The fact that Max loses that which is most precious to him, which defined his masculinity and social standing as father and husband, shows the extent to which he is unaware of his vulnerability. Furthermore, Max responds with an excess of masculine fervor, which transmutes into violence, whilst the experience of vulnerability is displaced onto the female figure with child, who embodies the crisis of the ideal family. So, rather than express his loss, Max is pressed to “fight,” and in doing so he becomes victim to the very forces that demand “silence.”

Furthermore, Morris suggests that Max is neither a native of the place nor a settler, he is rather an ‘emigrant’. She writes: “Max is an emigrant with no hope of returning home; his is a story of displacement and traumatic severance, and it serves on many levels as a myth of origins projection into the future a scene of repetitions in which the repetitive (‘on the road again’, heading for the Uknown) can always be redeemed as a brand new start.” (Morris, 2006) The status of emigrant or migrant or immigrant pertains to those who traverse “seas” to settle in another land, and in doing so must come to terms with the “unknown,” a place that is different from what he or she imagined before the departure. Expecting to find familiarity in the surroundings, whether an urban landscape or the countryside, even whilst enjoying the newness, the just arrived person must orient himself or herself around markers that become familiar with time; when this process is hindered, estrangement and hostility are created in place of familiarisation.

In the first of the Mad Max series, which sets the scene for the following films, the conditions that forge Max’s existence are in fact those of estrangement and hostility–his personal sphere is challenged. In this, Max is not only driven by revenge, but by the inability to speak his truth–which lies in the experience of loss. Not understanding that pain sits within the emotional sphere denial takes the place of acknowledgement and paves the way for an “excess” of masculine qualities, which in Max’s case fuel his desire for dominance, as he seeks justice.

Acting as a chorus (to Max’s existential state), and despite Max’s attempts at redeeming the road, the population does not find the resources to regain their status as human beings within the place they inhabit, and remain oppressed. The landscape they inhabit is devoid of trees, grass, flowers, rain, and of human interaction. It is a place that is harsher than the Far West and wilder than the Amazon, but most importantly, it is more silent than any urban periphery, from which the post-apocalyptic world in which Max navigates is drawn.

The Mad Max series, may well be an allegory for the kind of dynamics that play themselves out on Australian roads. Like a macabre rite, the nightly news of television channels across Australia count the death toll on the roads leading into the city. In this scenario, the road is a place harbouring danger, and the urban zones are sites of desolation. Furthermore, the population lives in silent “anticipation” of the daily count of tragedies on the road; and perhaps, even the return of Burke and Wills from their expedition.

Mad Max was made in 1979 and shot on location in and around Melbourne. The locations were chosen on the fringe or just outside the city, and it is interesting to note that many of these sites have gained cult status along with the films. In applying Marc Augé’s definition of non-places, sites on the city fringe have the potential to be exploited for urban development but have not yet been taken over by urban sprawl. Most importantly, as abandoned sites they are no longer enclaves of nature. As non-places, the identity of the place is subjugated to the function of transit and to the rules that either allow safe passage or a sense of desolation. Where desolation reigns, despair and the potential for violence become dominant, even more so if communication is limited or cut off. The non-places of the Mad Max film locations function to create the inhospitable, post-apocalyptic environment that is the back-bone of the film series, where interaction is hostile and communication is suppressed, and ultimately depicting a world that has lost vitality.3

If we consider Max a ‘migrant,’ as Morris has suggested, we can see that he is displaced both physically and emotionally, for Max is not only ‘not at home’ in the landscape, he is ‘not at home’ within his inner sphere. To overcome this state of ambivalence and detachment, Max ‘performs’ a kind of masculinity that makes him into a ‘cool’ and ‘violent’ character. In the book Korean Masculinities, talking about the appeal of popular Korean male performers and cult film characters, Sun Jung suggests that being ‘cool’ and being ‘foreign’ are the traits that produce the kind of postmodern masculinity that viewers from different cultural backgrounds can accommodate and even desire. She writes: “…because male coolness is anti-maternal, men must detach themselves from the familial realms to remain cool. Such isolation results in masculine loneliness and both these aspects of detachment are distinctive socio-cultural symptoms of postmodernity.” (Jung, 2011: 121) We can also read ‘anti-maternal’ as separated from the ‘mother country.’ In the new country, Max is challenged to break the silence experienced due to isolation and to the experience of loss, and perform another kind of masculinity, which might redeem him. But Max is unaware of this challenge: that of reclaiming through speech an inner space, where feelings and memory are situated, and thereby freeing the self from the demands of revenge, and violence. Instead, he goes out onto the road to fight and free it from the influence of the Bikers, and in this way, relegates dignity and status to an external show of might, where strength, strategy and revenge matter, ignoring the wounded, humiliated and silenced self, and especially the self which was witness to the violence enacted on a woman and child, for which it seems there are no words to be said. So the question is: will Max ever succeed, despite the landscape that underscores his separation? Will he overcome the damage and the submission to the silencing forces and gain an identity at peace with where he lives? Perhaps, George Millers’s latest film in the Mad Max series, Fury Road (2015) might have an answer.