‘It’s absolutely disgusting’: watching George Miller’s rarely seen first film

A terrible sense of amorality clings like a rash to Mad Max, which is the core reason it’s still shocking to watch today. George Miller’s 1979 classic is considered a violent film but the vast majority of that violence is only implied – such as during its gut-busting finale, when Mel Gibson’s titular road warrior gives a bad guy the chance to save himself only by hacking through his own ankle.

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In terms of graphic violence, Mad Max pales in comparison to Miller’s earlier work Violence in the Cinema … Part 1, his 1972 short film that had a rare screening at the Australian Centre of the Moving Image on the weekend, as part of Melbourne international film festival. Like most shorts from that era, it looks homemade and scratchy, though its rudimentary production values can’t disguise a hint of Miller’s bravado. It also stands apart from others in that it’s absolutely disgusting – the kind of incendiary early work one might expect from provocateurs like Lars von Trier or Harmony Korine.

In the film, a well-dressed academic delivers a speech on violence in the cinema while he suffers – and commits – various violent acts. Seated on a white arm chair, Dr Edgar Fyne (Arthur Dignam), a “clinical psychologist and media critic”, leans forward and commences his speech, beginning: “There has never been a time when the movies have not been preoccupied with violence. Not only in its content but in its very form, cinema is the most violent of the art and mass media …”

Fyne goes on to discuss how “the mass audience has always demanded a heavy saturation of violence”, citing the “gratuitous entertainment violences of the James Bond films and the spaghetti westerns”, as well as “more elegant pretensions” like Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch. His speech continues for a while, before, four and a half minutes in, apropos of nothing, a man wielding a large gun bursts through the door and shoots the academic in the face. Half of his head is now horrible, bloody goop, not unlike the final image of Gus Fring in Breaking Bad.

Momentarily taken aback, Fyne holds his gooey face, collects himself, then continues speaking. After he is bandaged up, he commits heinous acts of violence himself. These include attacking a topless woman in a way so awful it shouldn’t be put into words here (the misogyny may be cloaked in satire, but it’s still there) and repeating Buñuel’s famous assault on a human eye from Un Chien Andalou, with a hot poker instead of a knife. The violence continues until the bitter end, when Fyne is run over by a car, then set on fire. It’s clear what this jet, jet black comedy is against (censorship) but not what it is for, beyond a vague, implied endorsement of unfettered artistic expression.

Most audiences won’t know that the person who wrote Fyne’s speech is the revered Australian broadcaster and public intellectual Phillip Adams, who’d delivered it a few months before the film was made during a keynote presentation at a psychologists conference in Melbourne. Adams (understandably) felt attacked by Miller, later addressing this in a blistering critique he wrote on Mad Max, headlined “The dangerous pornography of death”.

“Just as Dr Miller mutilated me, I feel duty bound to return the favour”, Adams wrote, savaging Mad Max for having “all the moral uplift of Mein Kampf” and suggesting it may appeal to “rapists, sadists, child-murderers and incipient Mansons”.

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Over the years, the debate on violence in motion pictures has continued, of course, with a tendency to flare up again in response to instances of copycat behaviour and productions, like Violence in the Cinema, Part 1, designed to provoke.

Creating a film like Mad Max, that is violent through implication, requires craft and cunning, and an understanding that the power of editing isn’t about cutting from one image to another, but creating a third that exists only in the mind’s eye (among the greatest examples of this is the ending of David Fincher’s thriller Seven, with many people falsely remembering that they have seen the contents of a cardboard box). Splurging on graphic images, on the other hand, is a crude and nasty course. Thank goodness Miller’s style soon matured.