Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Documentary, Film Reviews

Not Quite Hollywood – Disreputable and Delirious Downunder Movies

Mark Hartley’s unabashedly affectionate Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story Of Ozploitation!, his tribute to Australian genre cinema, is one of the rarities that justifies my passion for documentaries about films and film history: a smartly made look at an otherwise neglected aspect of film history and culture, packed with colorful stories, witty observations, punky attitude and real history, and delivered with unrestrained passion and excitement for the subject. This is Hartley’s feature debut, but his resume includes scores of featurettes on Australian movies—from the official classics to the cult items, the high and low of cinema culture—for DVD supplements. In addition to the first person history this has given him, it’s also been an entrée to the directors, actors and other filmmaking folks of the era, and he is able to bring a wealth of voices to his film: witnesses to the thriving domestic Australian cinema that gets overlooked in the rush to praise the more respectable and dignified offerings.

As Hartley reminds us, there was no Australian film industry to speak of—and certainly no celebrated Australian New Wave, with its gentile historical subjects and tasteful filmmaking—when producers like John D. Lamond and Anthony I. Ginnane and directors like Tim Burstall cashed in on the newly-minted ratings code of 1971. They turned out raucous R-rated sex romps and boorish comedies to critical disdain and popular success, not just domestically but internationally as well. When the nerds-and-boobs (and more!) formula wore thin at the box office, horror films (Patrick, 1978, Razorback, 1984), action movies (The Man From Hong Kong, 1975) and car culture outlaw thrillers (Stone, 1974, Mad Max, 1979) became the coin of the grindhouse and drive-in realms, many of them quite profitable, most of them exportable, virtually all of them deplored by the Antipodeon arbiters of taste and culture.

The history of these films and the filmmaking culture behind it is entertaining enough, but behind the great tales of Dennis Hopper on an alcohol and drug-fueled tear during Mad Dog Morgan (1976)and Barry Humphries proclaiming the projectile vomit gags of the early seventies Barry McKenzie films as “one of the great moments of Australian cinema” is a portrait of filmmaking on the professional frontier. These filmmaker didn’t just push the envelope of censorship, they created their own genre industry, which resulted in an anything goes attitude when it came to creating thrills.

“It was pretty gung-ho back then,” recalls one producer of the laissez faire approach to stunts and action sequences. Which makes it all sounds like a deliriously exciting era of seat-of-the-pants filmmaking, the kind of atmosphere that Aussie superstar stuntman Grant Page (one of the film’s heroes) thrived in, emerging from more and more dangerous stunts with little more than scuffs, burns and broken bones. At least until the reckless ways caught up with them and the maverick nostalgia for those good ol’ days gets a sobering reality check in the fatalities of eighties action movies. Hartley only pauses on this note, eager to return to the gung-ho attitude that obviously still charms him.

Hartley frames this alternate history as an us-vs.-them cultural battle: while the honor students were doing Australia proud with tastefully restrained artistic works and critically acclaimed dramas, this is the trouble that the freaks and geeks were getting into in the disreputable side of the business. He also enjoys trumpeting the guilty secret of these maligned films: they made money domestically and internationally. Both of these approaches offer plenty of opportunities for satirical swipes and maverick attitude and Hartley makes the most of it. There is a giddiness to his embrace of the uncelebrated films that built the Australian film industry: the good, the bad and even the ugly. Especially the ugly. As the curmudgeonly film critics of the seventies and eighties fall all over themselves trying to come up with words to capture their hatred of these movies, we can’t help but want to rise to their defense (the movies, not the crotchety old men). His choice of clips tends toward the excessive, the outrageous, the I-can’t-believe-anyone-actually-did-this sort of moment that makes you (or at least me) want to track some of these down. And Quentin Tarantino’s gushing praise and geeky appreciation of certain films and directors doesn’t hurt either. Hartley shares Tarantino’s love for ingenuity and creativity in even the most debased project and expresses that passion and affection beautifully.

But the film is so pleased with its rebel stance that it avoids exploring, or for that matter even admitting, the interrelations between the industries. The Getting of Wisdom (1977), one of the breakthrough films of the Australian New Wave, is simultaneously lauded and disdained by many of the folks involved with this production). Yet its director, Bruce Beresford, began his career as the director and co-writer of The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972) and its sequel, two of those disreputable films of the early domestic film industry that found tremendous success in Australia. The connection is not only never mentioned but studiously avoided, even as Beresford is interviewed for McKenzie. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) is turned into a punchline for cinematic pretension by comic actor/writer Barry Humphries, but director Peter Weir also made The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), a particularly inventive entry in Australia’s car culture cinema, and the horror film The Plumber (1979). And what about George Miller, whose hugely successful and internationally influential Mad Max is duly lauded but whose later films (including The Road Warrior, 1981) are completely ignored (is its critical success somehow a mark against its outlaw status?). Or Simon Wincer, who graduated from Tony Ginnane horror quickies to prestige productions like The Lighthorsemen (1978) and the landmark American mini-series Lonesome Dove (1989), or Richard Franklin (Patrick, Roadgames, 1981), who never left genre cinema, only the bargain basement budgets. And there is a crossover between genre and mainstream, with Weir’s The Last Wave (1977), an apocalyptic horror film for the art house crowd, and Starstruck (1982), Gillian Armstrong’s cheeky comedy of stunts to stardom; it could be a metaphor for Australia’s genre industry.

What Hartley does insist upon, however, is that these genre production are equally a part of the culture and perhaps a more honest measure of the tastes and interests of Australian folks than the revered classics. The Sydney Opera House is mentioned early on as a statement on Australia’s thirst for cultural respectability. The implicit comparison to films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Getting Of Wisdom and My Brilliant Career (1979) is clear: these are attempts to embrace high art. The films of Not Quite Hollywood are street art, the popular cinema that brought people into the theaters, the movies that Australians—and audience the world over—watched because, whatever the tastemakers and cultural critics want to believe, people responded to them. For better or worse (and often both), this is the lifeblood of Aussie cinema. Not Quite Hollywood makes the case for its vitality and its attitude, but mostly it reminds us that there are neglected gems scattered in the junkyard of Australian genre cinema. Hartley’s film is the treasure map.

Not Quite Hollywood opened in New York and Los Angeles on July 31. It opens in Seattle on Friday, August 14.

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