Tuesday, September 16, 2008


(2008, Australia)
Directed by: Mark Hartley
Cast: Barry Humphreys, Jack Armstrong, Brian Trenchard-Smith, George Miller, Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, Quentin Tarantino

The unjustly marginalized subject of "Ozploitation" is finally given its due in newcomer Mark Hartley's exhaustive--and exhausting!--chronicle of the Australian b-movie era of the 1970s and early 1980s. Pummelling the viewer with its dizzying pace, wild, hallucinatory graphics, and flurry of boobs, blood, and bravado, Not Quite Hollywood takes its cues from Ron Mann who has built a career on challenging the definition of what a "documentary" can be.

For those who associate Australian cinema with prestige fare like Picinic At Hanging Rock and Breaker Morant, it will come as a surprise that many of the creators of such acclaimed art house darlings frequently dabbled in exploitation films--sex comedies, slasher yarns, action marathons--tales whose production histories are arguably as raucous and entertaining as the films themselves (as someone who's seen most of them, I can make such a claim with a fair degree of authority. That, and I've worked with Brian Trenchard-Smith...).

While some, like Trenchard-Smith and Philipe Mora never broke out of the exploitation ghetto (and from their gleeful reminiscences, never aspired to in the first place), it's a kick to learn that Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) and Peter Weir (Master And Commander) recount their early efforts with affection, candor, and not a trace of regret or even ironic detachment. There's a wealth of information here (no one, apparently, denied Hartley the rights to any clips).

A giddy, "let's clean out the big ol' barn and put on a show" mentality propeled the era, even if "the show" required untrained drivers to drive at breakneck speeds while cameraman hung off the vehicles mere inches from the ground, and explosives unleashed without any training and assurance of success, or safety. Deservedly, late stuntman Grant Page (who could have been the model for Danny McBride's pyrotechnics berserker in Tropic Thunder) gets a substantial amount of screen time and is warmly remembered by directors, actors, and fans alike--some of whom he almost killed.

While these early entries may not be well know in mainstream circles, their pioneering spirit and cultural significance has not been lost on a new generation of Australian filmmakers, with James Wan (Saw) and Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) on hand to validate their importance. Of course, these films weren't exactly heralded by the critical community at the time of their respective debuts, and some pundits, like Bob Ellis, are still lamenting their creation, calling onscreen for one particular producer's entire body of work to be "burnt to the ground and the ashes sown with salt’.

Trenchard-Smith spins a hilarious, if bitter, anecdote about Steve Railsback on Turkey Shoot (I saw it under its U.S title Escape 2000). For "fair and balanced coverage", Railsback himself gives his account of the production, which only serves to illustrate Smith's claim that the American star was a pampered primadonna (who obviously is still carrying the baggage of this now 25 year old quickie production).

Richard Franklin, who recently passed away (and whose last film Visitors, is an interesting psychological thriller involving pirates and the ghost of Susanna York) was one of my favorite Australian filmmakers (he's probably best known for "Psycho 2") and his classic 1981 Hitchcock riff, Road Games, receives long overdue gushing from uberfan Quentin Tarantino and testimonials from U.S. stars Stacey Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis (and to think, as a die-hard follower of his thrillers, I didn't know Franklin's early features were softcore porn!).

I'm old enough (just) to have seen a great many of the 80s entries in their first run as a precocious high schooler who could sweet-talk the box office cashier into letting me in underrage in what was then stodgy Ontario under the rule of Mary Brown's vile censorship cabal. At film school, Australian cinema was part of the faculty's hoity-toity anti-Hollywood agit prop (you know, all American movies are bad, except for a select few by Welles, Ford, Scorcese, etc.), but it was the austere, mannered dramas of Weir, Beresford, and Campion that were shoved down our throats--not the adrenaline-surged post-nuke westerns of George Miller's Mad Max series or the AIP-spirited monster romps Razorback.

Humorous, frank, and at times, contradictory (if a lot of it ain't true, it should be), documentaries like this are difficult to review, esp. those with such scope, so I'll leave it to you to discover its unique joys. My viewing experience was strangely personal, as I noted that at roughly the same time in Canada, a parallel movement was in full-swing during what's become known at the 1970s "Tax Shelter" era, one that was regarded with even more scorn--abroad, and especially at home.

Whereas many still-thriving careers were formed behind and in front of the camera, a majority of the key participants have sought to distance themselves from their potboiler roots (a claim I can make first hand, having worked on a handful of latter-day exploitation entries, and having tried for years to develop a documentary and/or written book-length study of the period, only to find veterans unwilling to cooperate. Caleum Vatsndal's 2004 "They Came From Within", a chronicle of Canadian horror films, relies mostly on anecdotal testimonies and archival quotes, with very few first-person interviews).

But this documentary shows that the Aussies celebrate their low-rent romps with affection and nationalistic fervor as a grand "f-you" to the austere pageantry of their imperialistic homeland (compared with Canada, again, where British cinema is held up as the model over that of our American neighbours). As scene-stealer Barry "Dame Edna" Humphries puts it: "I never thought that Australia needed culture...culture after all is cheese."

It'll be a good long time before we ever see a Canadian-financed documentary lauding Al Waxman's exploding head in William Fruet's killer snake opus Death Bite--but in "Not Quite Hollywoo, the werewolf ballerina from Philipe Mora's Howling 3: The Marsupials is celebrated as an iconic image. Oy, indeed!

©2008 Robert J. Lewis