Snobs!

That's Exploitation 1

published in FilmViews No.132, Melbourne, 1987
The Howling III (1987)

People often ask : just what is it that makes Australian film culture so predictable, so unappealing? The answer is simple - we don't have any hard-core exploitation. However the reasons why a film culture should welcome, nurture and promote exploitation is more complex.

Firstly let us separate notions of `film culture' from notions of `the film industry'. `Culture' appears to be the pervasive spread of all cinematic exchanges : multiplied throughout social contexts, unspecified and unlocatable in isolation. The `industry', on the other hand, appears to be an actual place : a solid interlocked framework of production, definable by its presence and its subjectivity to change. Throughout the history of the cinema, different nations have related to this culture/industry interaction in different ways.

Australia - in typical style - has always bemoaned its absent identity noticable through our lack of `indigenous culture'. Sometime ago in the early seventies, some people seemed to decide that the only way our industry could grow was if we also developed a sense of `film culture' - whammo! Just like a horror movie, monstrous bodies rose up like the Australian Film & Television School and the Australian Film Development Corporation. They in turn produced more monstrosities, which have since been geneologically classified as "Australian films". You know the type - desperate to tell us (and the overseas markets) how Australian we are, how Australian we must be, how Australian we always have been. The theory appears to have been that if we make films about Australian `culture' our `industry' will then develop from this supposed natural, inherent and grass-roots level (as opposed to aping American `imperialist' models). Well this may have all sounded very well for approaching government bodies to get funding for all the bureaucratic breeding and departmental birthing needed to produce these cultural paradigms, but in terms of actually making films, it stank and still stinks.

That smell is still around today : the carcass of KANGAROO is just as rotten as the dead bodies in GALLIPOLI. Something went wrong with the utopian ideal of the industry/culture fusion - but what? On reflection, it did have an optimistic glimmer in its youth, with films like ALVIN PURPLE, FANTASM, LIBIDO and HOMESDALE - films which, despite their modern yet limp chauvinism, could have spawned a true perversity wherein we might have had our own Waters, Dantes or Morrisseys (who themselves worked their way in one way or another through the trashy side of liberalism and the sexual revolution). Half our luck. The sex, gags, thrills and gore of those early Australian films instead get watered down and thinned out by the parental concerns of our film culture, leaving us instead with Armstrongs, Campions or Leahys (the sexism in the comparison is intentional : the boys club is replaced by the girls club and the `new liberalism' is just as tired).

As time goes on, our hypocrisy becomes more evident, for while the Australian film industry pathetically tries to transfer its professionalism from television advertising into the realm of cinema (often fatefully succeeding), Australian film culture yearns for values, sensibilities and perspectives which would reflect a rejection of the hard-sell nature endemic to advertising. This is truly ironic - fraudulent, even - when one realizes that advertising skills are the backbone of our so-called cinematic craft. (No wonder the industry is so neurotic.) Australian films evidence this cultural clash, where we can `support' the hyped-up growth of the industry and the neurotic fraility of our cinematic art only so long as we don't look at the films in a harsh objective light. But the only real way a total Australian cinema can develop is through a breakdown of the tacky pseudo-highbrow tone it fosters - a tone that only serves to maintain a narrow and outmoded strategy of fusing industry growth with cultural development. In other words, for starters we need more sex, gags, thrills and gore. We need recognizable exploitation.

Gallipoli (1981); Les Patterson Saves The World (1987)

Perhaps this is why I like Phillipe Mora - as an `Australian' director who has been able to maintain an identity (cinematic not national) in the face of our film culture's mandates to the industry to produce the professional, refined, sophisticated, nationalistic, sensitive, thought-provoking, personal and socially-aware crap that makes our cinema so predictable and unappealing. Films like MAD DOG MORGAN, THE BEAST WITHIN, THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE, HOWLING II and HOWLING III: THE MARSUPIALS evidence a flair for the perverse and a taste for the exploitative even if it be to the detriment of the finished film (which is often the case). Interestingly enough, most of these films are overeas productions or co-productions, aimed for an international release which is not concerned in spreading the gospel of our thin heritage or a festival-oriented public image. One of Mora's recent Australian films (an Australian production and his last theatrical release to date) DEATH OF A SOLDIER went back to square one : it is painfully conventional and replicates the state of groggily watching a 2am television-repeat of a mid 70s Crawford or Grundy production. Nonetheless, his ouvre - despite DEATH OF A SOLDIER and the exercrable attempt at zany bad taste, HOWLING III : THE MARSUPIALS - confirms Mora's credibility as an Australian escapee : an escapee from its film culture.

George Miller's MAD MAX series must be mentioned here (despite the fact that numerous Australian writers have so gleefully `slummed it' by writing about this `phenomenon of popular culture'). These `westerns on wheels' seem to grow better as time passes - leaving us with the hope that people in both the industry and its culture will compare them with those Australian films we are meant to be more `proud' of which just get more embarrassing as time goes by. Furthermore, Miller's (& Ogalvie's) MAD MAX III is a precise combination of a localized perversity (of cinematic flair, generic mutation and ironic production) with Hollywood hyper-gloss. In a sense, this fusion indicates its Australian roots with more richness and excitement than do, say, Weir's WITNESS, Schepsi's ICEMAN, Beresford's KING DAVID, Franklin's CLOAK & DAGGER or Armstrong's MRS. SOFFEL. (And Miller sure ain't no auteur as either director or producer - THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK as a `perfectly witty' film perfectly reflects the Laura Ashley decor of its setting (blech!) and DEAD CALM is a perfect description of the film's attempt at suspense. The MAD MAX series appears to be a monster of unique design.

Films like Sharman's THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW and Weir's THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS project inventive slants on exploitatiive manipulation, however like the MAD MAX series, they are not part of a continuum of any sort and rather sit as historical oddities, flukes or one-shots. THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is - like most cult films - a genuine mystery as to how it grew in the way it did. While the original London stage version may have been an exhilerating reflection of the Glam epoch that nurtured such revellings in kitsch, the film is a real stiff. As for THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS, it took Corman and New World to transform Weir's premise into the wonderfully grotesque DEATH RACE 2000. Weir's film - like his HOMESDALE - is just a bit too refined, too cultured and too 'dramatic'. To put it in colloquial terms, it is just too .... British.

Australian film culture is in fact more terrorized by British colonialism than American imperialism : from the CARRY ON aspects of our attempts at comedy to the god-awful preciousness of our `scriptwiters' who seem to dream of zeroxing high-class BBC dramas (despite our film culture's attempt to import - via special workshops - the aggressiveness of Mike Leigh, the multiculturalism of Hanif Kureishi, and the professional hype of Linda Seger). Charm, style, wit and ingenuity in the craft of scriptwriting do not guarantee interesting and engaging cinema. Nor, for that matter, do they make a good exploitation film. And nor does an openly exploitational approach to filmmaking guarantee commercial success. While our film artists acknowledge the aesthetic struggle to create `great cinema' they appear unaware that the realm of exploitation is not so easy to navigate. It takes something else to transform trash into cash - a sensibility totally alien to the deluded illusions of art, craft and culture. It is a sensibility that is both absent in our industry and repressed in our film culture.

A perfect example of an Australian director whose American accent is confounded by British syntax is Richard Franklin. His career tends to wallow in the pretentious crafting of his chosen scripts and his directorial flair, typecasting him as a `pommophile' through his alignment with the British tradition of `bringing something new to the genre' - usually to the detriment of acknowledging the genre at all. To summarise his development, PATRICK is neo-Hammer, ROADGAMES is neo-DePalma and PSYCHO III is no-no-Hitchcock. Sure the thrills and spills are there (especially in his best film ROADGAMES which demonstrates an effectively distanced view of Australian iconogaphy) but they don't readily constitute hard-core exploitation. They lack the genuine perversity which vitalizes the exploitative angles chosen in more acute Hitchcock-ripoffs like William Castle's HOMICIDAL, the Cohen's BLOOD SIMPLE and DePalma's BODY DOUBLE.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975); The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)

The `new' cinemas of Britain and Australia are both searching for an identity, and both are overly conscious of being non-American (ie. contra-genre, anti-crassness, post-Hollywood). British genre films like XTRO, COMPANY OF WOLVES, KILLER'S MOON, BLOODBATH AT THE HOUSE OF DEATH, KRULL, BRAZIL, DREAM DEMON, GOTHIC and LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM are not exploitation films by a long shot - despite the fact that their exploitative subject matter is the only means of granting them some financial livelihood. The only substantial exception to the rule here is Clive Barker and the three films based on his novels: UNDERWORLD, RAWHEAD REX and HELLRAISER (and the upcoming HELLRAISER sequel), yet even his status and position as a horror crossover figure is based largely on Stephen King.

But while the so-called Hollywood brats have contributed to the evolution of cinematic language by joyously reopening their rich vaults of genre, modern British cinema rarely mentions its own rich past. I am here particularly thinking not of Anderson, Scott, Kubrick, Roeg or Loach, but of the output of Hammer and Amicus which constitute an important phase of the Fantasy and Violence genres. Worst of all, XTRO et al have attempted to `handle' generic elements and conventions primarily in order to perform some supposedly deft feat of breathing new life into dreadful cliches. Tell me another one. These films belong in the same cultural-cringe basket as the mid-80s' two-pronged thrust of British film into the international market with Derek Jarman's CARRAVAGIO and Julien Temple's ABSOLUTE BEGINNER'S. And that basket is probably to be found in the home of Ken Russell.

This polarization between Britain and America may not be all that substantial, but it evokes the internationalist debate on global film culture which also snares the dilemma of future Australian film culture. I argue that Australian films are painfully British - aspiring to hallowed traditions of theatre and literature, but unable to generate the energy that can only be sparked by a sense of film language which works away from their dominating influence.

And what about Exploitation in Australia today? Is LES PATTERSON SAVES THE WORLD what I want? No way, Jose! The only value that film has is in showing up our cultural snobbery by praising CROCODILE DUNDEE (which is every bit as trashy) but drawing the line at Humphries' anal humour. LES PATTERSON is in fact the ghost of BAZZA McKENZIE come back to haunt us - and we deserve it, what with all the praises we sing to ourselves at each year's trumped-up A.F.I. Awards. No - neither Humphries, Hogan nor Crocker are the crusaders of perversity and exploitation I long for. And nor I suspect are films like the sporadically-released DEAD-END DRIVE-IN. Based on Carey's novel (gimme a break!) this film could only succeed if it destroys the twee middle-class values that made BLISS such an `enjoyable' film (double blech!).

In fact, it is virtually impossible to imagine Australian exploitation because the only images from our cinematic heritage that come to mind are Graeme Blundell's bum (on loan from Benny Hill) and Albie Mangel's girlfriend's tits (inherited from Abagail). And that sure isn't much to go on. One wonders if we could ever get to a stage where we could produce complex and contrary strains of film such as MIXED BLOOD, BLUE VELVET, PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE, CRIMEWAVE or STREET TRASH. These films are truly deep and rich because they respect cinema as being all that exists between the American Film Institute and a San Fernado duplex. Australia's acknowledgement of film culture is considerably more narrow.

In the meantime, I find solace in coming across the video cover to JOURNEY AMONG WOMEN in a local video-mart. Here is a film that probably made Australian film culture proud and happy with its mix of history, heritage, liberalism and progressivism, but between you and me it's not much more than a bunch of stupid counter-culture sisters who go hippy and discover themselves in the colonial bush. I mean, this film is painful. But thanks to the wonders of video marketing, the cover features an atrociously drawn collage of topless women, which attempts to make the film out to be a Women-In Prison movie. Now that's the kind of thinking we needed when the film was being made.


Text © Philip Brophy 1987. Images © respective copyright holders