The prospect of writing as many words as I have seemed impossible to me when I first started considering this dissertation. I knew it had to be about something I was already incredibly passionate about.
In the first year, after handing in a different essay, I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road for the first time and I’ve never been blown away quite so much by a film before. I was genuinely on my edge of my seat the entire film. I found it jaw-dropping. The film is almost non-stop action, but it doesn’t wear you out. There are enough quiet portions of the film to allow you to get to know the characters better, and to give you a breather between intense car chase scenes.
It was around the same time as watching Mad Max that I really started to get an idea of what kind of artwork was inspiring me most in my own subject work. There was a specific visit to the Tate Britain that brought me face to face with a painting by John Martin, ‘The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum’. While it is sadly no longer on display in the Tate, at the time I was completely awe-struck by the scale and the content of the painting. I found the rich reds, browns and yellows of the painting to be captivating and I knew this era of 18th century romantic landscape art had to be an important feature in future work, whether it be in subject or anything else.
Originally I had started off my research for this dissertation by looking at the representation of female characters in Mad Max. While the treatment of women in media is something that is incredibly important to me, and I think is a key issue, it was not something that I felt I could successfully write about. It was after this that I decided to look at the landscape of Mad Max.
The world that the film is set in is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, that has been poisoned and polluted by war. While many other post-apocalyptic films use muted, dark colours to paint the landscape with, Mad Max uses incredibly vibrant, over-saturated colours. For the majority of the film the two main colours used are a rich orange for the sand of the desert, and a vibrant teal for the almost eternally cloudless sky.
This use of bright colour I think is part of what made the landscape of the film appeal so much to me. The main point that sparked my comparison to 19th century romantic landscape paintings was a scene early on in the film. The ‘toxic sandstorm’ is a truly epic natural phenomenon, which Furiosa and the Wives in the War Rig use to attempt to escape Immortan Joe and his war party. As they approach it, the towering structure arks over the vehicles like a tsunami of sand. Inside the sandstorm, we discover that the storm is made up of an unknown, but surely vast, amount of tornados, which then suck several of the pursuit vehicles up in a fire-y explosion. Lightning illuminates the inside of the storm, and it was this combination of content, colour and composition that immediately reminded me of ‘The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum’ by John Martin.
With that initial seed of an idea sewn, I wanted to take that forward and expand upon it. Primarily, I decided to investigate further into what defines the romantic landscape from that era of painting. I quickly found that a common theme was this concept of the ‘sublime’. The sublime, in terms of the romantic landscape at least, is sensation of both terror and awe, wonder and horror. It is about instilling contrasting extremes of emotion in the viewer and I knew that this was going to be the specific point of comparison between my two elements of interest.
I found the theory section of this dissertation incredibly difficult to write. Academic writing has never been my strong point, and I find it incredibly hard to read as well. It takes me a long time to read and understand sentences from academic text. When I finally got that section down, however, the rest came easily. From investigating into how the sublime is created and used in 18th century romantic art, I could then use my knowledge to highlight where it can be seen in Mad Max Fury Road.
I found that there were two main ways in which the sublime is used in 18th century romantic landscape, one of these being the chaotic landscape (paintings such as ‘The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum’, ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’ & ‘The Last Judgement’ by John Martin were key in this.) The other was this idea of ‘bleak landscape’. I looked at many of Turners later works for this as he uses a lot less detail towards the end of his painting career. While his paintings were less defined, it did not stop them from creating the sublime. Edmund Burke, who I speak about a great deal in the essay, speaks about ‘uncertainty and confusion’ as being ‘grander passions’, then clarity.
This knowledge then can be applied to the vast, empty scenes in Mad Max, where we see how truly desolate the landscape has become. Knowing that there is no protection, that the characters are entirely vulnerable in these scenes works into this notion of uncertainty. The viewer is uncertain of the character’s safety, and it allows the viewer these feelings of suspense and fear, as well as excitement as the film continues. This ability to create a visceral feeling in the viewer, without them actually having to come into contact with any danger is key to creating the sublime, and it is this which I aimed to investigate in my work.