Thursday, July 9, 2015

Documenting Joyful Insanity (A.K.A. The Wonderful Works of Mark Hartley)

Mad Max just finished up dominating one of the top spots on everyone’s recommended viewing lists a while back even if it didn’t quite set the box office world on fire. Lots of people were looking at the film and looking back at the originals. While I love the original films and was thinking about doing a look back at them while it was still in people’s minds, my mind sort of took a left turn and I started thinking about all the other films that came out of and shaped the film environment that gave birth to the original Mad Max.

The original Mad Max film was utterly insane, either terrifying or thrilling audiences and critics alike. For sheer brutality and insanity, it was unlike anything that most mainstream audiences and critics were used to, and even for the regular patrons of the exploitation theaters (what people now refer to as grindhouse theaters) it took it to a glorious new level. Some people at the time even talked about it like it was going to be a new wave of cinema, but it wasn’t actually new and its style of filmmaking wasn’t born in a vacuum.

Mad Max was the product of an insane period of filmmaking; more specifically of filmmaking in Australia. By insane, I don’t mean by how large the output was either. Yeah, they were in fact cranking out a lot of films, but I mean insane in the way that you might look at someone who says they want to jump out of a tenth story window with the goal doing a cannonball into the hotel swimming pool. If you think that’s an exaggeration, then you need to see what that era was like behind the camera.

And that brings us to Mark Hartley.

Mark Hartley is an Australian filmmaker who is best known right now for his documentaries. Hartley spent a number of years doing small video documentaries and bonus content documentaries primarily about genre cinema from Australia. The experience and connections he gained eventually led him to making the first of three documentaries that made him a name outside of Australia. The first of these, 2008’s Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!, gives anyone who’s interested the ability to see the sheer creative madness that gave birth to a lot films that genre fans grew up loving, and that also set the stage for Mad Max.

Neither of these first two documentaries I cover are for the prudish or the faint of heart. I won’t even embed the trailers here because the trailers, very much representing many of the films looked at in them, are hard R. You can look them up, and I fully suggest you do, but I’m not putting them here. If you want to see what the general tone and vibe for them are without looking them up right now though, the third documentary has a more family blog safe trailer and is included below in the write-up for it.

As far as documentaries go, this one is a wild ride. Hartley had a lot of material to work with to showcase just how crazy the Australian genre film industry was at that time, and he did a good job with picking the best and most entertaining bits for his documentary.

After a brief mention of the art-house films that were getting most of the American mainstream’s attention back in the day, Not Quite Hollywood kicks off its look at genre in what is largely Hartley’s love letter to the genre films that got Australia noticed by movie fans all over the world.  And make no mistake about it; this is a love letter to that time and those films. While Hartley looks at some of the negatives of the era, even some of the politics around it, this film was absolutely made to be a joyful, nostalgic look at what can only be called all out creative insanity.

One of the first things proving it’s not for the prudish is the opening segment looking at the explosion of their sexploitation films. Now, don’t think that these films, or what you’re seeing of them in the doc, are all venturing into the realm of the pornographic. Most of them, with a couple of exceptions, were the equivalent of Porky’s with more wit, or, if of a younger age, American Pie with more consistently over the top humor. They were also filled with casts of actors who were not intended to be passed off as teenagers; especially in the case of the ladies.

The sex romp films are featured because they’re actually important to the story of the Ozploitation explosion. It was the money that some of these films starting bringing in that opened the floodgates for what was to come, and, honestly, especially in the case of the Alvin Purple films, they look like they were genuinely funny films. But the documentary quickly leaves them behind and heads into the realms of action, horror, suspense, and the road films, and that’s when the fun really takes off. That’s also when we get into the above mentioned insanity.

The Australian genre films of that era were made under conditions that people today would refer to as guerilla filmmaking; just slightly more crazy. They didn’t have the same rules and safety regulations governing them that most American studio made films had to deal with at the time. The result of that was that a lot of what you saw on screen was what you actually had while filming.

Bullets fired into the water or against the wall near actors? Well, yeah, that, or very close to it, is what you might have had on set. That burning dummy falling 80 feet into a shallow pool of water filled with jagged rocks? That really was a guy they set on fire and had told to leap on in there. Extras dressed as Hell’s Angels? Those really were Hell’s Angels playing themselves, and, because nothing could possibly go wrong here, paid with beer to save money. Someone topless strapped to the front of a truck tearing its way through the outback? Well, you get the idea.

A lot of the filmmaking covered in the documentary that created the environment that Mad Max was born into was barely controlled chaos turned into gonzo creativity with attitude. By the time they got to making Mad Max, people were driving real cars into other cars at crazy rates of speed, cars that really were hooked up to rockets were smashing through things, people barely hanging off of cars to film the road from ground level while doing close to 100 mph was practically the norm, bodies were getting thrown about like rubber balls, etc.

On paper, if you just read about it, you’d be terrified by the concept of just how far out there they went making some of these films. But you know what? Between Hartley’s loving lens and the twinkle in the eyes of the people that were a part of it all as they tell the stories, it really comes off as loving nostalgia that almost makes you wish you could have been a part of it all.

Two things really contribute to that every bit or more than the twinkle in their eyes. The big thing is just how damned entertaining the whole thing is. The other thing is how good some of the films were and how good almost all of them come across looking in the documentary. That’s another thing that makes this a great documentary by the way. You will discover films that you’ve never heard of mixed in with the ones you may already know, and you will want to hunt them down and see them.

It’s not merely insane films that you’ll find yourself wanting to track down either. Those are great too, but the fact is that mixed in with the tidal wave of over the top, gonzo cinema that came out of Australia during that period was also some amazingly well made thriller, horror, and action films. Of course, you’ll also find at least a few films you might want to avoid.

The documentary briefly covers the collapse of genre filmmaking in Australia, discussing some of the political reasons behind it amongst other factors, before quickly jumping forward several decades to the resurgence of genre in Australia in the wake of Wolf Creek. Rather than ending on a note of the passing of an era, the focus becomes the new wave that, while missing some of the behind the scenes insanity, seems to be recapturing the energy of the films of old.

Among the notable Australian film names that were there looking back on these films are a few notable American film names that were there like Jamie Lee Curtis, Stacy Keach, and Dennis Hopper. Quentin Tarantino appears throughout as well discussing the films that really hooked him as a fan.  

The film shows up on various streaming services from time to time, but, in all honesty, this is a film you want to see on DVD. The DVD is more loaded with extras than damned near any other DVD I’ve seen. The extended and deleted scenes section has a “Play All” option that ends up giving you practically another movie. Some of it is ground that was covered in the main documentary, but a lot of it is material that never made the final cut. In at least one case, pretty much the entire segment for a more family friendly film, Frog Dreaming, was cut from the final film. It turned out to be a nice look back on a film that actually made its way stateside and was very much loved by a lot of people back in the day, myself included, when it played on cable. Fans of stunt work will love the extended look at the segments on stuntman Grant Page and films like Stunt Rock. There’s also a great discussion on the films of the time by Tarantino and director Brian Trenchard-Smith.

If you see it on a streaming service or a DVD shelf, get it and watch it. This is one of the most fun and enjoyable documentaries that you will come across. It’s one you really owe it to yourself to find and enjoy.

On a 1 to 5 scale, this one is a solid 5.

Equally insane and almost as much fun, Hartley’s follow-up to the success of Not Quite Hollywood was a look at the American produced genre films that came out of the Philippians. The documentary is Machete Maidens Unleashed.

The odd title is itself a nod to genre trivia geeks in that it’s a reference to a fake film Machete Maidens of Mora Tau that was “filmed” as a part of the plot of an actual 1976 film called Hollywood Boulevard. It’s also a perfectly appropriate name given some of the films that came out of the exploitation boom in the Philippians. The documentary focusses the same loving, nostalgic lens on the exploitation films here that Hartley used on the Australian exploitation films, and it works almost as well.

Where Not Quite Hollywood captured the spirit of the gonzo creative energy that created so many crazy genre films, Machete Maidens Unleashed captures a completely different kind of insanity. This is a look at low budgeting filmmaking done in a country with almost no real rules of any kind and where there was almost no real budget on any of the films. Indeed, one of the films they did during this period, the above mentioned Hollywood Boulevard, was done on a bet to see if they could make a complete film in a the least days possible and with the smallest budget possible by mostly using extra footage shot down in the Philippians on prior film projects. Trust me, it worked out (almost) way better than it sounds.

A lot of the films covered in the documentary were produced or distributed by Roger Corman, and most of the filmmakers interviewed came out of Corman’s studio system, but there are a few others in there as well, so you get a nice look at pretty much everything that was going on back then. The thing is, depending on your tolerance levels for certain types of things, there are things in this documentary that may not come off to everyone quite as well as the things covered in Not Quite Hollywood. Some of the things covered here that get into how they did what they did, how they were able to do it so cheap, will for some border on, and, frankly, cross into, actual exploitation of the locals. I don’t think that the audience for the filmmaking that is covered in the documentary crosses over too greatly into those who might find what they see in it to be overwhelmingly offensive, but I have found that it limits the potential audience just a bit.

For the fans that have only a minor interest in genre but like their big screen films, this documentary also has something for you as well. The well-known tent pole film for Not Quite Hollywood was Mad Max. In this documentary, that film is Apocalypse Now. The interviews and stories are actually kind of fun, and, in a few cases, a little more brutally honest about some things than those found in the official companion documentary of that film. Plus there’s the story about the bodies…

While the documentary itself manages to feel like a fun, loving look at that era, it does suffer one problem when compared to Not Quite Hollywood. By the end of that documentary Hartley was able to end things on the high note of seeing the resurgence of a new generation of bright young Australian filmmakers. With Machete Maidens Unleashed, the forces of politics and history conspired to keep that from happening. Life under the rule of Ferdinand Marcos and the politics around that created a finite shelf life for filmmakers looking to do what they had done in the Philippines. While the efforts of the Film Development Council of the Philippines and events like IFX have seen a reinvigoration of their film community, they’ve had no truly great boom period since the death of the time period covered in this documentary.

Still, the clips are fun, the recollections captured on film are heartfelt and funny, and the overall vibe is joyfully, lovingly nostalgic. It’s absolutely a documentary worth watching whether you’re familiar with the films from that exploitation boom or not.

Machete Maidens Unleashed is often found on streaming services, but, again, as with Not Quite Hollywood, DVD is the way to go. There are more extras on the DVD than there is total documentary, and much of it is in the form of interviews that were left out of the final product. Many of the interviews, especially the ones with Christopher Mitchum, are both funny and terrifyingly honest about the way working in the film industry of the Philippines was sometimes like being in a gang or mob war; complete with extortion, threats, and murders. The interviews with some of the Pilipino actors about their experiences on the various film shoots ranges from hilariously funny to OMG.

On a 1 to 5 scale, this one is a 3.5 with occasional inchings towards 4.

The third doc is Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. In all honesty, I can’t give you a review of this one. Why? Because it’s not been given a wide release in theaters or been released on DVD or Blu-Ray yet. But, of the three documentaries that Hartley has done, this is the one that may get the most buzz with mainstream American audiences. Why? Because it’s a loving, nostalgic, and comedic look back at Cannon Films, and Cannon made a lot of movies that people remember. Some people may even love them. Here’s the trailer.

Cannon made some films that were staples in the diets of many American movie watchers in the 1980s. They made crazy b-movies and genre films, but, unlike the majority of the films covered in Hartley’s prior two documentaries, Cannon’s films played as wide release, big screen American films that had recognizable stars. Given some of the stories that have floated over the years about how crazy making a film under the Cannon banner could be, and how crazy the brothers who ran it sometimes came off, there’s ample material there for Hartley to make a fun documentary out of. Given how well known and loved some of their films were and are by a generation of film fans, this documentary more so than the other two also has the potential to hit a lot more people’s nostalgia buttons in a very good and very enjoyable way.

From early write-ups and reviews, I’m really looking forward to owning this one, and I’m really hoping that I can eventually rate it here as a sold 5.

Jerry Chandler writes. When not writing, he complains bitterly about the summer heat.

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