Different Worlds: Film Phenomenology in Jenkins’s Moonlight and Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road

by Shaun Terry

In Vivian Sobchack’s “Phenomenology and Film Experience,” her object is an ambitious one: rather than standing on any side of the opposing traditions of film theory, she suggests a phenomenological view by which the elements of these traditions can be explained. Formalism, as Sobchack expresses it, is the theoretical view that film is expressive, relying on carefully choreographed action and the intentional framing of cinematic events. She contrasts this with realism, by which the sounds and images captured as ontological residue go on to be the stuff of films. The third framework she addresses is that of the psychoanalytical feminist: there is an other out there, producing films “always already dishonest and subjugating.” (65) She explains that the third option can lead to reflection on cinema itself or guilty viewing pleasure.

Sobchack is interested in another position, though. Her aim is to adopt phenomenology in order to conceive of film as an object bound up with our subjectivities. Film, using images and sounds, and codes and cultures, expresses thoughts and feelings that can only have meaning to subjects who are of the same world as this film.

Jennifer Barker expresses something similar in The Tactile Eye. She claims that films are, in and of themselves, bodies. As such, films have affects, as do we. We interact with films, trading affects. To give some examples, we will look at Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road.

Moonlight is a film that seems to have a psychology all its own. Primarily through pace, color, sound, and acting, it creates a kind of body that performs, affecting its spectator with its subtle, mysterious histories, one layered upon the other. In the scene at Juan’s (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa’s (Janelle Monáe) dining room table, the visual field seems perpetually composed of light and dark elements. Juan’s skin against his white t-shirt, the light in the room from the idyllic Miami landscape against the dark tones of the table and chairs. The adults wear concerned faces as Chiron (Alex Hibbert) asks what a “faggot” is and whether he is one, before Chiron inquires as to whether or not Juan sells drugs. Juan, shoulders slumped, responds to the question of his drugdealing by telling Chiron, “Yeah.” Chiron asks if his “mama” does drugs, and Juan again responds, “Yeah,” before Chiron gets up and walks from the room, birds chirping in the background. Juan looks down at the table, appearing to softly cry, and Teresa reaches her hand across the table to place her hand on his, after which Juan disappears from the movie altogether.

What is clear in this scene from Moonlight is that the film is expressing a complex web of thoughts and feelings, deftly using images and sounds to produce an energy endemic and unique to the film. The film cannot be confused for any other film and exists uniquely for us in a relationship unique to each viewer. The effect of the film is simultaneously subtle and palpable, and one supposes that each spectator experiences it in a different way from each other spectator and upon each viewing, giving credence to the notion that there can be a phenomenology of film.

In Mad Max: Fury Road, we are taken to a world nearly devoid of what we might think of as humanity; the film seems to exist in a world all its own, relying on an amalgamation of old stories as bases for a unique tale.

Metaphysical gestures pervade Mad Max (e.g. the whole story might be thought of as a cosmogony). As Nux (Nicholas Hoult) and Max (Tom Hardy) enter the (perhaps Biblical) storm, the removal of Max from the front of the car reveals the apparatus at the front of the car to have been a cross all along. That is, Max, as a man sacrificing his blood for the cause of a higher power, was affixed to a cross. As Nux locates the war-rig, the camera angle widens out, and Nux turns the car to cross the desert in the apocalyptic storm (here, the vehicles on the desert appear almost as ships on the ocean), foregrounding the cross in the upper portion of the screen. As Nux closes in on the war rig, we watch with him as the war rig sends another of the War Boys’ cars, along with some of the War Boys into the storm cloud, causing them to burst into flames. Nux smiles and shivers, claiming, “Oh, what a day—what a lovely day! I am the man who grabs the sun…riding to Valhalla!” He grabs the ritual spraypaint in order to “chrome” his mouth, presuming that he is surely on his way to Valhalla.

A few minutes later, responding to Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and Immortan Joe’s (Hugh Keays-Byrnes) wives, Nux declares, “You can’t defy him. He is the one who grabbed the sun! …By his hand, we’ll be lifted up!” But, when Nux fails to kill Furiosa, Immortan Joe declares Nux “Mediocre,” leading to Nux having a moment of identity crisis before switching sides in the conflict, not unlike St. Paul’s conversion.

Mad Max is unique in its post-apocalyptic depiction of the world, but it also draws on that which is already in the world, allowing us to relate to the film more readily than we otherwise might. By transforming mythologies already familiar to us, it creates a sense of nostalgia, sociality, and ideology that already lies within us. There is a give-and-take as the spectator is forced to be moved to some thought or feeling, projecting onto the film that which is already there within us, thanks to social institutions.