Turkeys!

That's Exploitation 2

published in FilmViews No. 133, Melbourne, 1987
Turkey Shoot (1982); The Light Horsemen (1987)

I suffered the 70mm trailer for THE LIGHT HORSEMEN about three times in the month it played. Like most offspring from the Australian Film Industry/Australian Film Culture (Siamese twins who share the one damaged brain) this film's trailer even smelled bad. It ominously concludes "The Light Horsemen are coming ..... and nothing can stop them!" Each time I saw this trailer in relatively packed theatres, and each time the audience groaned. Those groans signified heaps - not just the recognition of a dud movie (not even Hoyts airconditioning could quell the smell) but also the desperation of a film culture trying to convince us of its determination to construct a national identity : "AUSTRALIAN FILMS keep coming .... and nothing can stop them!"

THE LIGHT HORSEMEN is typically `Siamese' : a professional product of all the hegemonic, hierarchical and heroic craft of `our' industry, and the cultural product of all (all?) we value as some essential `Australianess'. The cultural part of this genetic phenomenon signifies that ole desperate search for an Australian identity (we'll return to this later). The industrial part is now an undeniable facet of Australian cinema. Most Australian films reinforce and restate our industry's ability to make films comparable to international standards - but not suprisingly end up simply demonstating skill in fulfilling narrow mandates. Industry and Culture service each other in one continual back scratch without ever siting the itch outside of their own domains. The point is that we've proven to ourselves a thousand times over how `good' we are at making films, but we all too quickly forget that someone has to watch them. It's as if the industry (spawned from the advertising industry) does nothing but advertise its own ability to advertise itself. And they say art is self-centered!

Who really gives a damn whether THE LIGHT HORSEMEN is glossy, slick, impressive or breathtaking? Whilst official (government and private) bodies commend such a film (as an example though never as a specific) the powers and artists to be rarely acknowledge that an audience couldn't give a hoot about in-house perspectives on success. Markets (as audiences) are the true centres of the politics of taste - where taste is not seen as ideological, cultural and industrial, but as arbitrary, personal and unaccountable. "I knows what I likes."

I only talk of the trailer for THE LIGHT HORSEMEN because - like thousands of other sensible people - I wouldn't go see a turkey like that in a million years. That communal groan in the theatre is the real sound of the crowd - a sound unheard by Australian film culture and its industry because it is muffled by all the back-slapping in those pre and post production offices that gave birth to this typically ugly Oz mutant. Yes, it is uniquely Australian (to return to `cultural/national identity') - but only by default. Our true identity is founded on our desire and inability to have one based on Euopean or Anglo models. This is nothing new - many people have long realized that our lack is our identity. THE LIGHT HORSEMEN trailer proves it yet again - another Oz turkey (note the American imperialist terminology - which isn't imperialist : it's actually sympathetic!).

Let's consider a prime example of uniquely Australian cinematic dialect born totally by default : TURKEY SHOOT (81). This film knew its turkey status from square one. I regard this film as the ultimate Australian film - obviously through deliberate perveristy on my part, but also in line with a critical rationale that is not so flippant or dismissive.

Turkey Shoot (1982)

TURKEY SHOOT is prime exploitation. Not that it extoles the perverse sensibilities that operate under and within the rubric of Exploitation ; rather, it clearly denotes that it has no cinematic affiliation whatsoever with `other' types of cinema that could be interpreted as having `non-exploitative' values and concerns. The film is set in a not-too-distant future with the action taking place at a concentration camp for training (ie. humiliating, torturing and brainwashing) radicals and subversives how to behave normally - and if they fail, they die. The `turkey shoot' refers to the new sport of rich corrupt officials who hunt down `released' convicts for sport. A basic sub-generic plot with the same pedestrian analogies to current society (though one could have a heyday re-interpreting TURKEY SHOOT as a film exorcising itself of its colonial heritage).

TURKEY SHOOT, though, couldn't care less about any social commentary - unless it can be effected by a dynamite explosion or a bullet-riddelled body. The true perversity of its filmmakers (producer Tony Ginane & director Brian Trenchard-Smith) was evidenced by their decision to enter it into the 1981 A.F.I. Awards. Sort of a "suck on this!" gesture to the culture-vultured aesthetes. And they won : Phillip Adams (the King Tut of cute wit) feigned outrage in print and did them a service - because the video release is now emblazened with a sticker declaring how "the critics" were outraged.

TURKEY SHOOT plays out all the nightmare jokes everyone makes about Crawfords and Grundys. I mean, this film has Lynda Stoner. Of course most people would have checked it out during its drive-in run just to see if she bared her you-know-whats. The casting of Stoner, though, simply accents what was already in operation in COP SHOP, except there they could deny the emphasis on her bust and negate such an interpretation as purile fetishism, because COP SHOP after all was high-rating top-class Australian TV drama (pardon me). TURKEY SHOOT can't play any double standards like that because it makes its intentions clear, obvious and direct : Stoner is in it to possibly manifest the suggestiveness of COP SHOP.

That's only one cast member dealt with. All the other staring roles operate under similar conditions of expectation - and hence, exploitation. Olivia Hussey plays a pathetic pseudo-Asian waif whose fraility typically marks her in this kind of macho-action-sex flick as the girl always about to be raped. Perhaps Hussey was meant to bring some international class to the production - but I doubt it. We should be thankful that TURKEY SHOOT proves how bad she is. Still, she was boasted as a `big name recognized artiste' for the production - which means that people would ponder "How in hell did they get her to do a film like that?" And that's why she's in it. Steve Railsback provides the American counterpart to Hussey's British input. Railsback was most memorable (yet most unrecognizable) in HELTER SKELTER (76) where he did Manson so well we probably don't need the real thing for comparison. He attempts similar states of psychosis in TURKEY SHOOT but comes out of it pretty badly. Still, he had an authentic American accent (and boy, are they getting rarer in Australian films courtesy of Equity's anal perspective on cultural development and jobs-for-the-boys).

And then there's the Grundy/Crawford role call : Michael Craig, Noel Ferrier, Carmen Duncan and Roger Ward. Real professionals. They all speak that same grating pseudo-British accent that only our drama schools can pump into people. They all blurr after a while, but my personal fave in the film is Carmen Duncan, who tries so hard to be a hot lesbian on a death trip (complete with a predictably Sydney interpretation of `punkish' make-up) but only succeeds in looking like a boring secretary living it up on a girls' night out. And what irony - Duncan shoots Stoner in her chest with an arrow after the former `rapes' the latter at gun-point. The battle of the sex symbols. All that was missing was some mud-wrestling with Abagail. Last but not least, Gus Mercurio really slobs it up as a warped warden with a limp. His numerous rape attempts are suitably repulsive, making him perhaps the most successful performer in the film.

Turkey Shoot (1982); Young Einstein (1988)

TURKEY SHOOT obviously tries to be an international film - but only to maximize its profit margin in a variety of overseas markets. But unlike our numerous `Sons of GALLIPOLI' movies, TURKEY SHOOT is refreshingly blunt in its treatment of Australia as simply another market. As most of the markets on the Ginane shopping list make up an amophorous mass of hidden and marginal circuits throughout Asia and Continental Europe, Australia is accordingly treated, like the others, as a quick-buck side gamble. TURKEY SHOOT's production thus states : national identity belongs to the highest bidder. Amoral? Definitely so! That's why TURKEY SHOOT doesn't need the goddamn A.F.I. Awards or all our snooty film festivals. This is a more fundamental acknowledgement of precisely how Industry and Culture work with and against one another, in a way that morality and ideology are not viewed as either agents or instruments for production and communication. The commercial success of the film is not really at stake here either, for (a) Ginane and Trenchard-Smith surely would have died of heart attacks if the film came in a block-buster, and (b) its lifespan on our theatrical circuit is - by virtue of its exploitative nature - strategically designed to disappear as much as it appears, meaning that it has to flash across the country (the world as well) in order to realize its profit potential (as opposed to actually `running' somewhere).

OK - so the shit hit the fan in '88 with the collapse of the Ginane and Hemdale celluloid (or paper and tape) empire, but once again, we probably deserved it. What cultural aesthete hiding out in the film industry wasn't casting side glances at their quick treatments, considering whether or not to whip them to Ginane - or Dino De Laurentis or New World, for that matter. But remember : all three empires fell in Australia, and apparently New World (who even declared shares for sale on the open market) received next-to-no scripts. The point being that it isn't simply a case of "Australia being too small a market blah blah" but frankly I don't think Australia had or has the collective nouse to plug into the open exploitation market - let alone exploit it. The only way we do it is by aping the dumbest of American mainstream models : YOUNG EISENSTEIN had so many Oz dollars in it, it had to go overboard with its publicity simply to clear good ground for itself. As such, Yahoo Serious becomes a goddamn ambassador for the Australian film industry simply because he has `successfully' become ensnared by the same mainstream industry machinations as overseas BABs (broad-appeal-blockbusters). That's the current name of the game : a pat on the back if you can play it like the big boys. It's all very well (and I'll join the throng of support for Yahoo's dedication to his project, be it mythical or real), but we're left with the same problem - shit films.

But things keep going in one way or another. While many sifted through Hemdale's rubble and archeologists and insurance detectives inspected the site of the collapse, Ginane continued pumping out a small slew of Phillipino action productions. That's exploitation - keeping your finger on a pulse only to lift it off as quickly as you laid it on : do it quick and move on quicker. That's development - real cultural development : messy, ad hoc, uncontrolled, aleatory, random. Fuelled by a desire that is instantly replaceable ; able to simulate and stimulate an audiences obsessions and its distractions.

A side note for all those who would deny TURKEY SHOOT its essential `defaultive' Australian nature : its American release title is ESCAPE 2000, a two word poem that speaks a minor history of exploitative sub-genres. The American distibutors realized that the American slang of its title totally clashed with its obvious Australian quality. ESCAPE 2000. That's probably the only way we'll fully realize our national identity - by escaping our attempt to construct it.


Text © Philip Brophy 1987. Images © respective copyright holders