Russell Mulcahy and other artists look back fondly on Australian exploitation films for Not Quite Hollywood, sometimes wondering just how they were able to get away with it.
Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!Director: Mark Hartley
Cast: Quentin Tarantino, Brian Trenchard-Smith, George Lazenby, Dennis Hopper, Jamie Lee Curtis, Stacey Keach, Jamie Blanks, Greg Mclean
Studio: Magnet Releasing
UK Release date: 2009-03-13 (General release)
US release date: 2009-07-31 (Limited release)
Culture is, after all, cheese, isn’t it? Or yogurt.
-- Barry Humphries
When you have no beginning, you're screwed.
-- Steve Railsback
"I think when the dog got run over, I noticed a number of executives left the cinema." Russell Mulcahy looks pleased as he remembers an early screening of his film, Razorback (1984). He pauses, then adds, "Killing dogs is not a good thing to do in movies, I learned." Which is exactly why he did it.
Mulcahy and other artists look back fondly on Australian exploitation films for Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!, sometimes wondering just how they were able to get away with it. During the 1970s and into the '80s, the Aussies mad wild and woolly art out of fiery explosions, lunatic car chases, and cheap-looking werewolves, not to mention naked women and the vast expanses of the outback. The film includes lively clips, entertaining anecdotes, and loads of commentary by fans (most enthusiastically, Quentin Tarantino, whose Kill Bills include straight-up homages to films like 1979's Patrick), makers (Tony Ginanne, Philippe Mora, bBrian Trenchard-Smith), and critics (Phillip Adams, Bob Ellis). Churning out genre movies of the so-called lowest order, Aussies delighted in material that was crass and violent. At times, their efforts to transgress achieved near brilliance; more often, they were splattery and silly. They were also, argues Mark Hartley's documentary, the effective jumpstart for Australia's film industry.
That's not to say that Not Quite Hollywood wholly rejects the conventional history of the arty Australian New Wave (My Brilliant Career and Breaker Morant). The efforts to transgress were also efforts to fit in. As George Miller observes, "It's very clear now, what Australian cinema was doing which was basically creating a hybrid between Europe and Hollywood."
At the same time, the exploitation filmmakers lobbed what offenses they could at the seemingly respectable mainstream. As Phillip Adams says, "Peter Weir would have to admit that without these vulgar films, we wouldn't really have an industry." Or again, actor Barry Humphries puts it this way: "Suddenly, Australia had to have an image, and there were those enemies of our image, particularly those who did not depict Australia as nice girls in white dresses vanishing into rocks." To make the case for the importance of these "enemies," the movie adopts a rudimentary organization, beginning with sex (introduced by the colorful intertitle, "Ockers, knockers, pubes, and tubes"), violence ("Comatose killers and outback chillers"), and big loud cars (Tarantino notes, "Nobody shoots a car the way Aussies do: they manage to shoot cars with this fetishistic lens that just makes you want to jerk off"). In the actual movies, these categories bleed into one another: naked women are subjected to violence and brutal villains tend to demonstrate their power by driving fast or showing off their massive members (a famous shot of John Holmes emerging from a swimming pool, replayed here more than once, pretty much sums up this trajectory).
Celebratory and mostly (appropriately) superficial, the documentary assembles an impressive array of clips, funny and gonzo. The so-called sex scenes aren’t sexy per se, but tend to feature naked women covered in blood, screaming, vomiting or under assault by penetrating tools. Showing tanned tall girls with exposed breasts, the film includes an at-the-time interview with psychiatrist Ruth Wisniak, to the tune of, "It’s the in thing to just toddle about with just the bottoms of your bathing suit and if you're wearing your top, you're definitely out." Sigh. Tarantino makes clear what's at stake in the nakedness: "If you like outrageous cinema," he says, "You wait for those moments [when] you can't believe you're seeing what you're seeing." To illustrate, Tarantino points to the notorious scene in Fair Game (1986) where a girl is raped and stripped naked and tied to a truck like a "human hood ornament" ("Who in the fuck thought of that?" he smiles).
Yes, the offensiveness is the point here, and Not Quite Hollywood does feature interviews with women concerning their experiences as actors. Rebecca Giwing remembers working on Sandy Harbut's biker movie, Stone (1974): "It was as sexist in production as the world that it was portraying," she says, "The women did as they were told and the blokes seemed to have all the fun." But the documentary soon leaves behind her concerns in order to look at what was supposedly "outrageous" about the film (that is, misogyny was and is hardly news on a film set or in a film): one scene took 25 hours to shoot because they were really smoking weed; Victoria Anoux recalls that for a fight scene, "Sandy was hoping in a way that something dangerous would happen, because then he could get it on film."
"Something dangerous" does happen, repeatedly. Even as the film extols the heady lack of safety constraints at the time or the brilliant fearlessness of stuntmen like Grant Page, it notes that some stunts were fatal. And some imported performers -- like Dennis Hopper, who starred in Mad Dog Morgan (1976), or Jimmy Wang Yu (1975's The Man From Hong Kong) -- brought chaos. Thrilled to have the "genuine outlaw" Hopper on hand, the producer notes, "Little did we know that have the real thing was gonna make the film somewhat difficult to make." Illustrative clips show Hopper drunk and stoned then (not to mention raped, in the film), and respectable now, agreeing with the stories of his youthful excesses. Director Mora remembers that costar David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu went on a walkabout during the shoot and returned to report, "The kookaburras and the trees all say Dennis is crazy." Right, Mora laughs now, a Salvador Dali portrait looming behind him. "I could have told him that!"
As for Wang Yu, producer David Hannay sighs, "He was one of the two worst people I've ever worked with in my life." As costar George Lazenby adds, "He basically didn’t have any respect for anybody," the film shows very convincing fight footage, suggesting that the chopsocky star's beat-downs were as real as his abusive attitude toward female love interest Giwing. The clips from the film look typically cheap and ugly, so it's hard to tell just how horrible Wang Yu was, notably, one of the few non-white participants pictured in the film, another being Gulpilil, who appeared in Mad Dog Morgan and Dark Age (1987), as well as a number of "arty" films, like Weir's The Last Wave (1977).
Some movies, like Mad Max (1979) or Razorback, combined technical innovation and remarkable aesthetics with the exploitation content. Most of the movies recalled here are less ambitious. Still, for all the happy commemorating done by Not Quite Hollywood, it closes with another, fairly obvious assertion, that the old is now new again. Brief interviews with James Wan and Leigh Wannell (who made Saw), as well as Greg McLean (Wolf Creek), draw clear formal and narrative correlations between their films and ozploitaion. After noting the obvious, it seems worth thinking through the cultural and political connections between the films and their eras -- perhaps a sequel is in the offing.