It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when Australia dared to make films that were entertaining. Mark Hartley‘s new documentary Not Quite Hollywood takes a loving looks at all the horror, thrillers, science-fiction/supernatural features, action films and sex comedies that were abundant during the 1970s and ’80s, films which have recently been collectively branded as “Ozploitation”.
The term “exploitation picture” originates around the 1950s, when small independent producers would make cheap films to cash in on popular trends. These weren’t B-pics, which were also produced by the studios, but something cheaper and rougher. Intended for drive-ins and fleapit cinemas, they would often exploit current concerns or fads, getting their films to the screen before the polished studio pics had a chance. Sometimes they would use misleading titles, or ride the anticipation generated by highly advertised studio product – Invaders From Mars cashing in on Paramount’s War Of The Worlds (1953), for example, or Beyond The Time Barrier opening during promotion for The Time Machine (1960).
Later the term became more specific – the Sexploitation pictures of the 1960s (such as I Am Curious (Yellow)) or the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s (created in the wake of Melvin Van Peebles‘ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song). Other sub-genres include Nunsploitation, Nazisploitation, Eschploitation (apocalyptic Christian end-times thrillers), Pinku Eiga (“Pink Film” – Japanese sexploitation), Pornochanchada (Brazilian softcore) and Cat III (named after Hong Kong’s equivalent of the R classification)>
The name “exploitation” implies these films were parasites on “real” cinema, yet in truth a symbiotic relationship emerged. The studios were happy to steal ideas back from the grindhouse (Paramount’s Shaft, for example) and Roger Corman productions offered a pool of new talent, including Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme and James Cameron (one of Corman‘s favourite quips was “if you do a good job for me you’ll never have to work for me again”). In recent years Corman has made a fortune selling the remake rights of these flicks back to Hollywood, including The Fast And The Furious (1955, 2001) and Deathrace 2000 (1975, 2008). When Corman was in Melbourne in 2003 he lamented that all studio films are B-pics now, leaving no room for former exploitation kings.
Which brings us to the term “Ozploitation”. It seems to refer to any Australian genre film – anything that doesn’t feature two hours of a moody teenage staring out a window can be included. I don’t know when the phrase “Ozploitation” emerged – I suspect it may have been in the publicity pack for this film – but it’s a good title, and I’m happy to stick with it. (No-one in the film uses the term, although the term “Aussiesploitation” gets a guernsey).
Not Quite Hollywood succeeds on many levels. It looks great, aiming for a slick, low-key visual class in it’s interviews, allowing the films to shine in all their lurid glory. There’s excellent use of archival clips and split screens, and exceptional editing throughout. The opening credits alone are the most exciting thing you will see in a cinema this year. Some have complained the film is slightly too long, but this is probably due to structure more than content – unavoidably episodic, it attempts to group sub-genres, allowing an overview of rough categories like horror and thriller. Hartley crams as much as he can into 102 minutes, with interviews continuing even under the end credits.
Anyone who went near a camera in the period seems to be interviewed for the film – the impressive list includes George Miller, Jamie Lee Curtis, Sigrid Thornton, Brian Trenchard-Smith, Fred Schepisi, Russell Mulcahy… Barry Humphries appears in particularly fine form. Among the surprise interviewees in Not Quite Hollywood are Quentin Tarantino, who turns out to know more about Australian film history than Phillip Adams, and Phillip Adams, who doesn’t. Phillip Adams and Bob Ellis come not to praise these films, but to bury them and they exemplify the kind of art-snobbishness the film-makers were working against at the time. The only obvious omission is Peter Weir, although there are clips from The Cars That Ate Paris.
Speaking of cars, Tarantino points there’s two things you learn about Australia from these movies – the first is that the country is full of deserts populated by evil bikers. The second is that Australia has a particular skill in filming cars. “They manage to shoot cars with this fetishistic lens that makes you want to jerk off”. This comment is followed by a near pornographic action montage of cars – shiny, glistening cars – as they thrust past each other, into each other, penetrating houses and caravans, exploding in climaxes of heat and light. It’s hard to see what Tarantino is talking about…
Hartley has said he made the film because many of these films (and film-makers) had been eradicated from Australia’s film history. They were often absent from film books, and when they were mentioned it was in passing, disparagingly.
Indeed, even the media coverage of Not Quite Hollywood has often used a smirking “guilty pleasure” angle, a “so-bad-they’re-good” approach. Yet Tarantino – a man unconnected to the making of any of these films – argues that these films aren’t “so-bad-they’re-good”. They’re actually good. You’re not supposed to be ask if Crosstalk is as good as Citizen Kane – the question is whether Crosstalk is as good as Computer Killers (aka Horror Hospital)? These films were totally aware of their audiences, and their expectations, and they (mostly) succeeded in their artistic goals – you could argue they didn’t aim high enough, but most weren’t intending to be cerebral exercises.
If anything, it’s the acting that often lets the films down. Was film acting such a new thing back in the ’70s? Watching these films you get the feeling that Australia had theatre actors, and non-actors, but very rarely do you see the casual, naturalistic performances we now expect in the cinema. Jack Thomson and Steve Bisley stand out, with cheeky and masculine personas that for many define the ideal of the Australian male. Curiously, the worst actors in all of these films tend to be the US and UK ring-ins, the actors brought in to add “international appeal”. Joseph Cotton, George Peppard, Robert Powell wander through these films in a daze, uncertain where they are or what they’re doing – a perpetual jet-lag. And the most gruesome thing in Turkey Shoot isn’t the gore, it’s Steve Railsback chewing through his dialogue as though he learnt it phonetically.
For those of us who have only seen these films on rental videotape – poorly telecined and cut to fit television – the clips in Not Quite Hollywood are a revelation. Presented in bright, pristine prints in their original format ratios, they look exciting and dynamic. You certainly couldn’t fault the cinematography in these features – even Bob Ellis begrudgingly admits they were shot well. Many were shot by future Academy-Award winner John Seale, and the frequent use of cinemascope makes them look so much more… well cinematic than Australian films today.
It’s hard to believe in these days of half-arsed pseudo-euro artfilms – Book Of Revelation, Somersault, Candy – there was actually a time when Australian films were inspiring people overseas. Quentin Tarantino gleefully points to a section of Kill Bill that is a straight steal from Patrick (a film which also spawned it’s own knock-off sequel in Italy, Patrick Vive Ancora). And without a doubt, the most influential Australian film of all time – the only one to ever spawn an international sub-genre – is Mad Max 2 (Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Steel Dawn, Stryker, The New Barbarians, Equalizer 2000, Exterminators in the Year 3000, Waterworld, to name but a few).
The Ozploitation boom came as a result of many factors – the creation of the R classification in 1971 allowed films to be more overt with nudity and violence, and producers had the opportunity to provide content for distribution channels like drive-in theatres and the US grindhouses. But the biggest reason was 10BA, the tax system that allowed film investors to claim 150% of their involvement against tax. (Film was only one of the investment options under 10BA – David Stratton referenced one of the others in the title of his book about 1980s film production, The Avocado Plantation).
One of the biggest criticisms of the 10BA period is that most of the films were terrible. This opinion misses a most obvious fact – most of ALL films are terrible. The majority of Australian films in the last decade have been terrible – it would be hard to argue that we’re making any more great films now that we were thirty years ago. What has changed is that we now make a much smaller selection of films.
Somehow we reached a consensus that we no longer make science fiction films, no longer make thrillers. Action films have gone, as have many types of comedy. A “middlebrow syndrome” has overtaken the film industry, a blanding of all genres. Our comedies aren’t funny enough, our dramas not dramatic. There’s a sense we make films intended less for enjoyment, and more for approval at dinner parties. No longer are we conquering heroes, or victims of supernatural forces. Our stories have become small, mundane. We’ve never been a nation of subtext, and the sustained focus of the art film has revealed we’re not really an introspective nation either. Our films now seem clumsy and dull, and have never been more out-of-touch with the film-going audience.
Ozploitation films were exciting and popular. I remember as a child desperately wanting to see Turkey Shoot and Dead End Drive-In – how many Aussie kids would be excited about an upcoming Aussie film now? They also kept people in work. The film industry was exactly that – an industry, as opposed to the Australian Film Hobby we have today. Our films were sold overseas, and even influenced others. They operated as a training ground for technicians, writers and actors to practice their craft, in exactly the same way Roger Corman‘s films did in the US.
One of the things Not Quite Hollywood does is finally give recognition to Brian Trenchard-Smith. The director of Dead End Drive-In, BMX Bandits, Turkey Shoot (aka Blood Camp Thatcher!) and The Man from Hong Kong, Trenchard-Smith is so rarely mentioned in Australia that I was under the assumption he was retired, possibly running a B&B in Adelaide, bothering small children with his stories of the old days. (“I set George Lazenby on fire once, you know.” “Sure you did, grandpa”.) A glimpse at IMDB, though, and I am proved totally wrong – Trenchard-Smith is quite possibly the most successful Australian director of all time. For the last 20 years he’s been living in Hollywood, directing motion pictures and television. Sure, they’re a bunch of titles you’ve never heard of (including the third and fourth films in the Leprechaun series) but he’s working, he’s making the sort of films he’s best known for, and he’s undoubtedly having a lot of fun. He’s not living on government grants and development junkets, making a small-but-dull film every five years – he’s actually a film director, and with Not Quite Hollywood he gets the recognition he deserves.
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