Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler...Former teacher... Scientist... Published author... Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published May 16th 2019
Documentaries can be awesome
Mark Hartley – documentary maker supreme.
Who? I can hear you ask as you look at the name above and squint at the screen. Mark Hartley is an Australian film-maker who made three absolutely awesome documentaries about the movie industry. All three are wonderful, telling stories that are just superb and opening the viewers' eyes to a world that we might otherwise forget… or want to forget (let's be serious). He wrote and directed all three, and I have been scouring the Internet to get copies after I saw them all on SBS. Well, finally I got hold of a copy of the last one I needed and so I present to you three awesome documentaries.
Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story Of Ozploitation! (2008)
The first documentary is a genuinely affectionate look at the Australian genre films of the 1970s and 1980s. And the very first face we see is Quentin Tarantino! The American director/writer is so clearly a fan that his enthusiasm washes over the entire production. I am a bit of a fan of Tarantino, and yet this made me like him even more.
During the opening credits you are left in no doubt that this is not a film for kids. No way. So, a quick overview of the doco. We start by looking at the old view of Australia, and how things changed in the late 60s. We jump into the early films of this change, and how sex was included and the censors were outraged, and I learn where the Bunyip motif came from!
This leads to the "ocker comedies", and, of course, Barry McKenzie. "If there had been more [vomit] in Picnic At Hanging Rock, it would have been an even better film." (Barry Humphries) This leads to the sex shockers of the early 70s. Some of the films and docu/mockumentaries made looked so incredible… and awful. I have seen maybe 6 of them. I'm not in a hurry to see the rest. But that doesn't mean this isn't fascinating as all hell. Lots of nudity. Lots. I didn't realise how much existed on screen back then! Oh, and males as well…
We now enter the world of the horror and gore films that filled so many late night drive-in movies of the time. There was so much violence, but also a lot of deeper psychological elements. These films… I reckon I've seen maybe a dozen or more of them. This is where Tarantino comes in. They look at some so affectionately it makes them seem far, far better than they actually are! Tony Ginnane is looked at, and there is definitely a 50-50 split as to him. Talk goes to bringing in American actors, and the controversies involved. Jamie Lee Curtis and Stacy Keach enter here talking about the wonderful Road Games. We go through a few more films (including Howling III: The Marsupials – which is awesome! – and Razorback – which they over-rate… vastly) and more horror films than you know what to do with.
Now we enter the road films, starting with the frankly fantastic Stone, one of my favourite Australian films ever. They also look at the stunt work here, which is just mind-blowing. Mad Dog Morgan with Dennis Hopper is discussed in depth; I'm not a fan of the film, and backstage looked to be more intriguing than what was on the screen. The Man From Hong Kong is talked about and… yeah. Back to the stunt-work. Grant Page is insane. And then we hit another of my all-time favourite Australian movies – Mad Max. Great film, and the making of it was just as crazy. We go into car romps, of which I have seen too many. A discussion of the tax breaks then arises, leading to Turkey Shoot… which is so awful (I've seen it 5 or 6 times). And then we go to BMX Bandits, which my generation loved to death (and fell for Nicole Kidman, who was our age). And we end with a discussion of the end of genre film and its potential latter-day resurgence thanks to Wolf Creek… which is yet to really show its hand. And that's it.
This documentary is fantastic, more entertaining than many of the films it looks at. It is definitely done with love, and yet it does not shy away from negativity. It is one of the finest documentaries I have seen, and one of the very best to come out of Australia. But it does depress me in a way. Genre films are still not really back as Australian films are either "quirky" or "deep and meaningful" with something to say. They all need a message and all need to portray Australia as "real". So few Australian films these days are any good… to people like me. I see it as a direct comparison to literature. In Australia, if you write a genre book, or even a short story, unless you're already known, forget it. Australian publishers like capital-L Literature, or books where there are deep meanings and unsatisfying endings "to make you think". No-one in this country publishes books or writes films that people want to see/read just for the escapism. People in those fields have to go to other countries to be noticed. It's why my 60-odd publications (short stories, 2 novellae) are, on the whole, found in books from the USA, the UK and Canada.
Anyway, enough of that. This documentary is frankly brilliant and you need to see it if you are a fan of film and are interested in the history of film, especially in Australia.
Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010)
This documentary is about the Filipino film industry from the 1960s to the 1970s, when the island was exploited by US film producers and makers. And the first face we see is Roger Corman and who better to talk about exploitation than Corman? The Philippines were cheap and… well…
Much like Not Quite Hollywood, this is a documentary with affection at its heart. It is not a bad documentary, not by any stretch, but I personally found it hard to get into. Not because I hadn't seen the films – I have seen wa-a-ay too many of them for anyone's sanity – but because it felt the whole way through like the people of the Philippines were being exploited, by the Marcos regime, by the film-makers and by their very economy. I found it depressing, and a part of that is because I recently met someone who'd fled the Philippines with his family during the Marcos years and his tales are harrowing.
Still, this is a well-made documentary that covers an aspect of film history that I had very little idea about going into it. Quick overview, as before: The start is about the Philippines. Staff was cheap, they had equipment, and the movie-going public had no idea things were shot there. Why the Philippines in particular? Unlike a lot of the rest of the world, there was not a lot of anti-USA sentiment, and the Marcos regime wanted legitimacy.
So we start with the awful monster films (and, yes, I've seen a few). Yet it is fascinating listening to those involved talking about them. They went to horror in order to make things more commercial. The amount of gore was incredible, and the description of the censor's lackadaisical attitude towards the films is stunning, considering the time. The special effects are terrible, and the acting is atrocious… and yet money was made. There are a lot of disparaging remarks made here… and rightfully so. I am glad Hartley did not try to only give positives. That is important here.
Now we hit the female exploitation films, the sex-drenched R-rated films with jungle settings. And all those female prison films! I've seen 2… and feel that is more than enough. The descriptions of what happened on set from the actresses is harrowing and you get the feeling not just the Filipinos were being exploited here. Corman talks about hating the films until he saw the grosses, which were unbelievably huge for the costs. Roger Corman's treatment of women as the leads of his films was seen as revolutionary. John Landis talking about hidden meanings is amazing and hilarious and oh-so true.
The films about rebels and politics are next. Interesting that these were made about tyrannical regimes under a tyrannical regime. There is a long discussion on this, which is one of the most fascinating bits of the film. This leads to the karate films, often with female fighters. This documentary is showing how insane the productions were. "In some cases the trailers are better than the films." (Roger Corman) And talk goes to Roger Corman and his way of doing things. That would be a good documentary for Hartley to tackle, I reckon.
More karate chopping follows, and gun shooting, and terrible car chases. These films look terrible and I am glad I have not seen many of them. But the tales about the making of them keep you rapt. Far better than the films they're talking about. And we hear about the lack of safety… which rings a bell after Not Quite Hollywood. And then we come to Apocalypse Now, the biggest film to come out of the Philippines. It really skims a bit over the film (but more than enough has been written and broadcast about it), but it needs to be there because of its importance to the whole Filipino scene. This leads into talk about Imelda Marcos – she is not liked.
And we come to Weng Weng, a Filipino midget who plays a James Bond like character. I've seen one Weng Weng film and that was 2 too many. Terrible. And we finish with Jaws and Star Wars killing exploitation low-budget exploitation films. And, looking at this, thank God for that.
This is another loving look at the time, and it is a good documentary; I just feel the subject is a little disposable. Still, as a documentary, it is really strong.
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014)
And we finish with a look at the Golan-Globus film-making duo, Israeli cousins who took the world by storm in the 1980s by releasing some of the crappiest films ever to be seen on the big screen. And I have seen so many of them… so very many of them. And, yet again, this is made from a place of love by Hartley; he so clearly likes his subjects at least a little, even when so many others interviewed do not. This is a documentary a little closer to me, as I was their target audience in the 1980s… and I fell for a lot of their hype until I learnt better.
We start with Golan basically supporting the Israeli film industry, making his name with a crass teenage sex romp that broke all Israeli box office records. He brought his younger cousin Globus in as a money-man and Golan-Globus was formed. The tales of shooting in Israel ring so much like the stories in the Philippines. Then they bought Cannon, a small US company. One thing you can say about them – they had genuine passion for film-making… even if the way they did business was dodgy as anything I think I've ever heard.
We go into The Apple, a musical about Genesis (the Bible story, not the prog-rock band). I've seen it; it is terrible. No… worse than that, but I won't swear here. We look at some of the first big-name stars they got to come into their company. That leads to Lady Chatterley's Lover, which is awful. I think I'm going to be writing that a lot here. And into other films, at the start of G-G's American career.
We hit Death Wish II, which is mediocre, and this is when Golan-Globus really hits its stride in getting known. The Wicked Lady is next, and it's awful. Michael Winner (director of these 2 films) does not come out of this well.
Enter The Ninja – which I have a sort of fondness for – is next. Revenge Of The Ninja, on the other hand, is awful, but not as bad as Ninja III: The Domination. Why did I watch this crap? And yet Hartley has me reminiscing fondly about this rubbish. Lucinda Dickey is there, though, and I had a poster of her on my wall for a while (not from Ninja III, mind you). Interestingly, though, I think today the audience might buy into a female ninja… maybe without the whole spirit domination thing.
Now we get to the strange little quirk where MGM, desperate to get out of debt, decided to distribute Cannon films. Everyone is like "what the…?" about it. And that brings us to Sahara, which is awful, no matter that Golan thought it was Academy Award worthy. Hercules is mediocre… with the worst special effects ever. And then we come to Breakin', which is where my Lucinda Dickey poster came from. She was so damn cute (and still is, let's be serious). I like this film; I always have. It's fun, but hearing the backstage stuff and how Lucinda was treated has turned me off a little. But then we come to Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, which all involved with denigrate… and deservedly so. It is (ready for this?) awful.
Then it's Bolero and Bo Derek is very candid about it all. The film is almost awful, but it's one of those films that if you watch it, you can't stop. Bizarre. Again, though, Golan is portrayed as a baby and also quite unscrupulous. He is not coming out of this documentary well at all. Now we have a series of people insulting Golan-Globus, and some-one actually thinks it's anti-immigrant, not anti-crap.
This is when Chuck Norris comes into the story, and they make the first two Missing In Action films, which stunned me when I learnt that they made the second one first, but released it second because it was so terrible. (Oh, and the films were made in the Philippines…) I liked Missing In Action a bit; Missing In Action 2: The Beginning is awful. This leads to Cannon deciding they need a stable of stars like the studios of the 1930s, and Charles Bronson joins them, along with Norris. Norris turns down American Ninja, so Michael Dudikoff takes the role and it's a fun film. It feels like Golan-Globus sabotaged the guy's career, though.
We jump to Cannes where G-G decide to go the whole hog to sell, sell, sell! Back to the films. Invasion U.S.A. is mediocre, but hearing about how they managed to blow up an entire neighbourhood is awesome. This leads us to looking at how Golan worked… and again, he is depicted as not too good. That is not by design, but just by the fact he clearly was not too good. Lifeforce is not too bad, and yet it still comes across as strangely constructed. And then we get the Clive the Orangutan story and the film that ended up starring a midget in a suit. The tales again portray Golan in a strange light. I haven't seen the film; I do not want to.
Death Wish 3 is awful, but it's better than 4 or 5. The word "schlock" comes up. However, Franco Zeffirelli made Otello and he really likes G-G for giving him the chance. Woah! John Cassavetes also made a film for Cannon. Goddard's King Lear with Norman Mailer is next… and it's awful. Barfly is awful, and the dealings behind the scenes get even more insane. Runaway Train is quite good. How many of these films have I seen? (Thanks, Hartley…) Wow. King Solomon's Mines, is okay, but hearing about how Sharon Stone was an accidental hire and how she was not liked makes for interesting viewing. Certainly more interesting than the sequel… which is awful.
They move to a new office. This leads to Delta Force (not awful, just okay), and a black tie opening (for a Chuck Norris film!) in a carpark… No, really. And their financial dealings were coming back to bite them. Invaders From Mars is a dull remake. Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is mediocre… and not as funny as everyone here seems to think it is. Off-screen, Cannon sells its UK holdings and is drowning in debt. They sign Stallone, and out of that comes Over The Top… which is (that's right) awful. But they gave him a lot of money, and now everyone wants the same. Which leads to Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, which could have been wonderful… but it's awful, let down by poor special effects and the worst bad guy ever. They should have hired a professional wrestler. No, seriously – it could almost have made up for the crappy effects. And then there's Masters Of The Universe which was (all together now) awful. "I felt a little stupid doing it." (Dolph Lundgren)
Then it dies, leaving pictures unfinished, collapsing under its own weight of debt. But one film that is made is Jean-Claude Van Damme's Cyborg (which is simply mediocre). And Golan and Globus split apart. And the first thing they do? Make competing films about the lambada dance craze. This is so sad. And thus everything ended.
This is another great documentary, and I have a greater connection, as I said, with the content of this one. However, it is missing two interview subjects – Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Especially Norris could have made some interesting observations, but Hartley still managed to get a huge number of people involved to talk. Another fascinating and well put together doco, even if some of the timeline stuff is a little over the place. Weirdly, though this is the last one made, it was the first one of the three I saw (on SBS-TV in Australia).
So, there you have it – three documentaries to track down if you can. I got the last two on a twin DVD pack, and the Ozploitation one on a stand-alone DVD, so they are available out there. Or you could wait until SBS screen them again, and enjoy them that way. No matter what, I feel they are really worth everyone's time.
Hartley's strength as a documentary maker is that he does not impose himself in his productions, but lets the people interviewed – and he gets so many, some of them quite big names – carry the narrative. This what makes the documentaries about wrestling I mentioned before so good as well. This is about the subjects, not about him, and he clearly loves film and the process of making film. He also selects some very appropriate music. If I see the name "Mark Hartley" attached to a project, I will track it down and I will watch it. He makes documentaries that are both fascinating and informative; he makes you look at things you may have already seen with new eyes. All three of these are recommended; but if you only want to try one, in my opinion the Australian one is the best of the trio.
Find them, watch them, enjoy them. You will not be disappointed.