Hello! I start chemo tomorrow! Why the exclamation marks? I don’t know! But I can tell you I’m excited to get started. I am olympic-athlete levels of prepared here. This morning, I even drank a glass of tomato juice with green-drink powder mixed in. It’s not what nature, or anyone at all, ever intended, but I thought I could kill two birds with one stone so I only had to drink ONE healthy thing all at once instead of TWO healthy things. Any art student can tell you that red and green are opposite (violently opposite) colors and when you mix them they revolt by making road tar. And then I drank it. I’ve gone for a walk, sat in a pretzel in yoga for an hour, bought tomorrow’s already-prepared dinner from the gourmet grocery like we’re planning a party, and meditated on being the most kick-ass chemo patient the world has ever seen, all before noon — ommmmmm.
Something very odd, pleasantly odd, has happened over the past few weeks. I’ve gone from being completely opposed to undergoing chemotherapy, overwhelmed with anger and frustration at never having had a single biopsy come back negative, riddled with anxiety and worry and fear about my future and my daughters’ futures, and haunted with dark and terrible thoughts that all these recurrences in such a short space all mean I am DOOMED in all caps, to being in my usually happy, carefree space of complete peace. I usually do end up back here after every blow, but with each new crisis it feels, at first, further and further from my reach. And then, suddenly, it doesn’t. Poof. Like that. I’m a spiritual person with a phenomenal support system in my family, church, and community. My friend August, after she first heard of this most recent recurrence, sat me down beside her on her piano bench and played “It Is Well.” And it is.
The other thing that’s happened is I’ve been on a super-productive creative streak, and not the kind that has me painting iconic Hollywood figures on reclaimed wood or baking Coke-float cupcakes in soda cans or anything. The kind that has me sitting in my studio, writing. Earlier this semester, I’d written a pilot script for an original series for the Sundance Episodic Story Lab (I made it onto the last round! Results in August) and had so much sheer joy doing that I decided to write an original feature-length script for another competition: the New York Women in Film and Television Writing Lab for women over forty. For the latter, I inflicted some of my breast cancer experience onto some poor fictional schmuck named Vanessa. It’s a comedy drama. That’s right, comedy drama. There’s something intensely therapeutic about finding humor in dark, unexpected places. At any rate, when I finished the film script I realized I’d basically written a manual for how to interact with people battling cancer.
Vanessa has a friend, Morgan, who’s completely sad about watching her friend go through treatment, so sad she has trouble not crying when she’s in her presence. Vanessa, who’s maybe not as affable and pleasant as myself (Joe is surely laughing right now that I called myself affable and pleasant!), grows increasingly irritated by it until she blows up. Morgan tells her she has to allow others their feelings. Vanessa tells her (and, apologies, Vanessa curses, also unlike me — shut up, Joe!): “Here’s what your feelings do to me, okay? I see those stupid fucking tears, and I think, ‘She knows I’m doomed.’ Then whatever hope I’ve managed to scrounge up for myself is gone.” But that’s the gist of it. Don’t be sad. I’m not sad. It is well with me. Let’s all be happy and calm and hopeful together.
And on our last chemo-free weekend together for awhile, Joe and I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road last Saturday. Like Vanessa, I’ve grown to expect the helping of friends and family through their sadness for me to be a challenge to my own state of mind. But I hadn’t anticipated that watching Mad Max: Fury Road would also pose a challenge.
My introduction to the franchise came in 1985 with Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. I’d loved it so much I’d quickly worked my way backward through writer/director George Miller’s Mad Max lore. I was drawn to it because I’d grown up in a church fixated on the apocalypse. At my childhood church, you primarily learned Bible verses not because they meant something to you but because when the apocalypse happened and all the Bibles were destroyed, the world would need someone to rewrite it. You were baptized not necessarily because you loved Jesus but because you wanted to escape the fate of having your head chopped off in the end times. And even then there was no guarantee. Humans are naturally sinful creatures, my Sunday school teacher would say. The rapture might skip over you if too much time had elapsed between your last prayer and the rounding up of cleaner souls than yours. When I was ten, I had a postcard taped to the wall beside my bed — a picture of open graves and slivers of ghosts ascending from them into a glorious thunderstorm. I suppose it served as a reminder to be worthy. All the time. Just in case. But then there was also the appeal of the morbid ghoulishness of all those dirt holes at the feet of the tombstones. Fear and fascination coalesced.
When I watched the Mad Max films as a kid, that was the attraction of George Miller’s post-apocalyptic vision, the chance to transport myself into the worst-case scenario, behold the depravity of all who remained, and still find myself okay in the end. The church films I’d watched, clattering on their reels in the rec room of the youth wing, failed to convey that in the ashes of civilization you could look like this:
Or that this guy would exist:
Thirty years later as Joe and I took our theater seats, I realized my constant undercurrent of apocalyptic anxiety had long ago subsided. At last. It’s no longer what drives me to explore Mad Max’s barren, sun-scorched wasteland. Sentimentality is. An urge not to be in the future but in the past with a younger me watching through her fingers. Before cancer. And now this guy exists:
Tom Hardy’s Mad Max has less charisma than Gibson’s, to be sure, less quirkiness, less expressiveness making the most of those gaps between his scant dialogue. This Max grunts as he breathes, kind of like he has emphysema. He’s a little more haunted by the family he couldn’t save, a little more weary from the struggles of this world, and a lot more socially inept. But if you’ve followed the Fury Road controversy (we were tricked into watching ladies kick ass, wah!) you know the focus isn’t on Max anyway. It’s on Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. I could have used her example thirty years ago, but at least she’s here now. Furiosa has smuggled Immortan Joe’s prized concubines to freedom. “We are not things,” they declare. Her tires have barely twisted out of the ruts of the caravan’s path when Immortan Joe orders his war boys to pursue his supermodel brides. Added to our tally of things in the post-apocalypse that aren’t half bad:
Also, supermodel brides.
But let me back up just a little. Mad Max spends a great deal of the film’s opening act as a human “blood bag” for ailing war boy Nux. When Nux wants to join the war party, he drags Max along so he can keep his transfusion going. A crude fishhook-like apparatus serves to anchor the IV tube to Nux, then to Max, the whole thing reinforced by iron cuffs on either man and a chain wound around the tube in between them. Every time Nux yanks Max along or that chain goes taut, I squirm. Then it hits me. While Miller in the older films of the Mad Max canon had managed to hold a mirror up to my intense childhood fears of the end times, with Fury Road he’s holding a mirror up to the anxieties of chemo drips, surgeries, and disfigurement I’ve been managing to overcome. At some point during the extensive “blood bag” scene, I turned to Joe and said, “I maybe don’t want to do chemo now.” And isn’t that the way of the cosmos? After my grandfather died, for example, I kept seeing, reading, and hearing things about old men dying or about World War II veterans dying. Little signs of my heartache flashed everywhere. But back to Max ….
When Max is first processed in as a prisoner, Immortan Joe’s henchman determine Max to be a “universal donor,” a fact they tattoo across his back just before they prepare a branding iron to further mark him as Immortan Joe’s property. And there are other signifiers inscribed on the bodies of characters in Fury Road. Miller presents viewers with an array of damaged and diseased as the by-product of an unforgiving post-apocalyptic landscape. As Max himself explains, “Each of us in our own way was broken.” Me too! I was thinking. Me too. Films and novels have a long history of using disability, deformity, or disease to denote villainy. Think of Richard III’s bum arm, Captain Hook’s prosthetic hand, Voldemort’s reptilian nostrils, Freddy Kruger’s burn scars, Darth Vader sustained by his iconic cyborg suit, and every comic book nemesis born anew from a vat of toxic waste. It’s not so different in the Maxverse either. It is different, I suppose, that good or bad, few in Miller’s hands are immune from marked difference, but in Fury Road the closer one is to villainy the more his damage and disease is framed as grotesque. At the epicenter: Immortan Joe.
We meet Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) as his attendants prepare to dress him. The camera studies the raw-meat striations of his scarred back, chest, and arms. The armor he’s fitted with is clear so we don’t forget what a mangled man this is. Like Darth Vader himself, he’s aided by a breathing apparatus, though Immortan Joe’s mask is embellished with his signature skeletal teeth, the pump rising and falling on the backs of his shoulders with amphibian-like ballooning out of its folds in intervals. In short order, we learn this is a brutal man who’s co-opted other bodies as his most valuable resource. They’re laborers, warriors, little people perched as lookouts, blood bags hanging upside down on a slow drip, milk dispensers attached to steampunk breast pumps, breeders.
And those breeders are integral to the main plot. Immortan Joe has forcefully assembled a harem for himself, and more than once we’re told they are pristine. At one point, Max’s bullet grazes the leg of Splendid (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), and more than one character notes how, in doing so, he’s hastened his doom by marring Immortan Joe’s favorite. Did I mention the wives are played, for the most part, by supermodels? And in this world, they serve as idealized figures, as well. No grotesquery here. Not even any dirt. Immortan Joe needs them and their perfection to not only keep his line going with a smattering of new offspring, but to enhance his lineage. When one of these babies is presented after a crude cesarean with something like a box cutter, the “surgeon” whipping the umbilical cord like a bored kid fidgeting with a licorice rope declares that “he is perfect in every way.” It’s a merciless world in which the sick, the imperfect, can’t really survive without a fight, though the more powerful among them can try to rig the game.
Move a little further from Immortan Joe’s inner circle and you’ll find less grotesquery. You’ll find Nux (Nicholas Hoult).
Nux is a figure who isn’t inherently bad, after all, but conditioned to be so in the cult of Immortan Joe. He’s a “thing,” serving a purpose in the machinery of Immortan Joe’s empire. Nux has decorated the two protruding tumors along his neck with whimsical faces at one point in the film and gives them names. Nux’s aberrations threaten only himself, not the larger society. And what he most wants, besides a glorious death on fury road, is to be seen, to be singled out from the throng of other bald, paint-smeared war boys. At one point in the chase after Furiosa and the brides, he’s convinced that Immortan Joe has, indeed, noticed him. “He looked at me!” he exclaims. “He looked right at me!” While Immortan Joe in his see-through armor wants his damaged appearance to be viewed, to be regarded as frightening, intimidating, Nux wants to be seen not through the filter of his disease, but as an exemplary warrior. Nux is the middle ground, the link between the villainous and the good, the grotesque-damaged and the exquisite-damaged. Enter Furiosa.
Like the supermodel brides, Furiosa is beautiful. I mean, she’s played by Charlize Theron, the woman who fluidly struts through Dior commercials like a sorceress parting waves with a flick of her hand, the woman who required hours of painstaking special effects make-up in order to look like an ordinary human in Monster. As Furiosa, her hair is shorn, the upper half of her face is blackened with truck grease, and her amputated arm is fitted with a mechanical prosthetic. She’s damaged, but because she’s our hero figure, her damage isn’t highlighted. Only once does her prosthesis attract the overt lingering inspection of the camera, when it falls off in a skirmish and she reclaims it from the sand and reattaches it with the same ease with which she shimmies the stick shift of her tanker into the next gear. This is how I’d prefer “disability” be viewed in film, as natural as if she’d had the full length of her actual arm.
And Furiosa is how I prefer female characters be regarded in film: as key figures with agency, with a strength and competence that isn’t viewed as an anomaly by the directorial eye or the other characters. There’s a particular scene in which Max’s bullets have nearly been depleted and he twice misses a vital shot at an approaching goon. Furiosa takes the gun, steadies the barrel on Max’s shoulder, and finishes the job. He’s not surprised. He’s not emasculated or threatened or diminished. He’s only wiggling a finger in his ear to silence the ringing of the shot.
As Joe and I left the theater afterward, I told him, “If I lose my hair again this time, I’m smearing black over my eyes!”
It’s hard to explain exactly what it’s like to awaken from surgery a physically altered person. They ease you into it just a little. Everything bandaged in layers. The layers slowly undone. Surgical drains dangling from stitches. Ports and IVs and catheters. Baldness. Disfigurement. Just after my mastectomy/reconstruction surgery in November, I had dreams in which I awakened mid-surgery to find that everyone had left me alone as I floated in a bathtub full of blood or that the nurse kept clipping more chemo bags onto my IV cart until the room went hazy and I couldn’t lift my arms. It’s a thing, apparently, a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder emerging after an extensive medical procedure. I once listened to a friend who’d just gone through something similar as she described her own anxieties. “No one warns you about this,” she said. “No one tells you about this.” And I was surprised to find all of that surfacing again at Mad Max.
I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to tell you something happens to Immortan Joe in the end. I mean, he is a villain. You can expect something to happen to the villain. I just won’t tell you what that something is or how it transpires or how permanent it is. I will tell you I had a visceral reaction to witnessing it, as if every cell in my body was celebrating. If Miller’s work had managed to so aptly reflect my anxieties, the fate of Immortan Joe in itself reflected my desire to obliterate that anxiety. It’s sort of like in guided meditation when the meditation leader tells you to write your anxiety, fear, and worry across the sand and then watch as wave after wave wipes it clean. Gone, just like that.
And it is well. Less than twenty-four hours before we start the chemo clock again (it’s an eighteen week treatment), I’m a little like Nux clapping his goggles over his eyes and barreling with breakneck speed into a vicious dust storm, exclaiming, “What a day! What a lovely day!”