Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The never dying Mad Max

In an overall interesting piece, Tom Vanderbilt discusses what makes modern story telling seem timeless, and what tends to "date" a piece to within its own time: essentially making it seem overly stale.

His general idea is that works that really too much on the "tropes" (cultural ideas and concepts) of their day tend to get stale pretty quickly.  He contrasts two movies, both set in Australia" Nicolas Roeg’s  “Walkabout" (1971), and George Miller’s “Mad Max (1979).

What Makes a Work of Art Seem Dated?
Tom Vanderbilt, The New Yorker, 1 July 2013 (hat tip: MR)
By contrast, “Mad Max” felt remarkably fresh, as if it could have been made in the nineteen-eighties—or last week. But why? What actually makes a work of art—a film, a novel, architecture, fashion—seem “dated”? The Web site of Merriam-Webster defines dated as “outmoded, old-fashioned.” And yet, this lacks explanatory power; every historical artifact (not to mention some that are new and “already dated”) could fall under that rubric. Why do some things seamlessly slip from their temporal context? When does something cross from historically appropriate to “dated”? And is there a time window for datedness, a kind of reverse statute of limitations, beyond which things are doomed by their historical patina?
“Mad Max” certainly has its historical signifiers, like Max Rockatansky’s 1973 Ford Falcon XB GT coupe, but one secret, I think, is that the movie is not moored to any time. It opens with the vague phrase “A few years from now,” and, rather than any trappings of the fetishized future, “Mad Max” looks backward. At the end of the day, with its lone frontier rider trying to preserve order, it is a Western, with muscle cars. The costumes, the soundtrack, the peculiar mutterings of the outlaws (“Joviality is a game of children”) are at once familiar and slightly out of joint.
What makes a work of art seem dated, I would suggest, is a sort of overdetermined reliance on the tropes, whether of subject or style, of the day—a kind of historical narcissism.
Within apocalyptic literature there are a number of "tropes" that seem to date a work. Some of these tropes even show up in "new" novels: the overly heroic male-dominated action, 1990s UN phobic militia style action, an over concern with inter-familial sex to keep the species going, mutation as a monster generator, reference to recently popular artists or retail goods, and many others.  Stress these items to hard, and your novel is not going to be taken as a serious reflection of future events.  Without great care in using these ideas, the novel is dated before its time.


PioneerPreppy said...

Dude that's weird. All day long your site showed no update then this evening I see a new post 13 hours old.

Blogger is so odd sometimes.

Good question on the dated but I think you hit the nail it has to do with references to stuff that can get dated more than anything else.

russell1200 said...

Pioneer: It's not just objects, but ideas. The concerns of Mad Max (good guys, bad guys, survival, etc.) are very universal themes.