Wednesday, September 10, 2008

TIFF 2008 reviews: Not Quite Hollywood

This year nearly a third of my TIFF screenings are from the Midnight Madness program. There’s actually a ticket package available that gets you into all ten MM movies at their 11:59 PM showings where, if coverage is to believed and I don’t know why it wouldn’t, the Ryerson theatre is packed to the rafters with scruffy Red Bull-wired vampires who can expound on the finer points of Takashi Miike and Hershell Gordon Lewis with equal fervor at the drop of a hat, glazed-eyed 30-ticket-package holders who’ve already seen five movies that day and are shooting for the hat trick, and Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth hiding behind Groucho glasses. Bear in mind I say this with all respect for this crowd. Colin Geddes probably has more fun putting together his program than any other programmer at TIFF. While most of the other higher-ups at the TIFF group are making the film festival rounds slogging through three-hour Bulgarian abortion weepies and achingly sincere Venezuelan transvestite coming-of-age sagas, Colin’s trolling the grindhouses of Japan and the sleaziest booths on the Croissette for the kinds of movies that’ll give you nightmares, laughter-induced laryngitis, erections or preferably all three at the same time so he can foist them on a public absolutely starved for the kind of stimulation that the demise of VHS back catalogs and the real-world midnight showings community has robbed us of. Simply put, I think he may have the best job in Toronto.

Personally, I’d go nuts after a week. Not to restate the bloody obvious, everyone’s film fanaticism goes through phases. When I got my first VCR in my first apartment and could devote night after night to the film education that I wasn’t getting in my Film & Communications program, I’d go through my Scorsese week, my Wenders era, my westerns survey…as well as my front-to-back horror franchise overview and my straight-to-video martial arts cheapie exploration. A few outside influences drew me over to the realm of trash connoisseurship and then the Hong Kong invasion hit and that was it for me, weekend after weekend of laserdisc rentals, immersing myself in wonky gun-fu and Boxer Rebellion-set wire-fu lunacies, searing the memory banks with indelible images of carnage and craziness that may as well have been from another planet.

That lasted for a few years until…I’m not sure what exactly began to dull my taste for trash (and I’m using the term “trash” in its honorific form; Leonard Maltin don’t know, but the MM crowd understands). Maybe it was the rise of DVD and the disappearance of vast catalogs of the low-budget dreck-with-the-occasional-gem on video from the shelves of Suspect. Maybe it was the grim realization that it didn’t really matter if I ever saw another Cynthia Rothrock or Don “The Dragon” Wilson movie again cause they were all pretty much going to be the same lousy flick over and over again. Maybe it was, as Roger Ebert has pointed out, that B-movies were now being produced by major Hollywood studios as summer tentpole features and those rare moments of wacky genius started to have a CGI’d focus group sheen on them. Maybe it was the 1997 handover of Hong Kong back to the PRC, after which the batting average of what had been the most vibrant film community in the world took a cordless bungee jump and Jackie Chan began making shitty movies with anorexic Party of Five stars, and my trips up to the Pacific Mall would result in piles of unwatched bootleg DVDs gathering dust, with me unable to work up the interest to sit through even one of them on a snowy Sunday afternoon.

No matter the reason, I was burned out on trash.

Which brings me, (FINALLY, the readers yell) to Not Quite Hollywood, Mark Hartley’s utterly brilliant “rockumentary” about Australian exploitation cinema, or “Ozploitation” as he calls it in a term I plan on inserting into conversations at any given opportunity whether it’s called for or not. The doc explores an industry that found its economic footing through randy sex comedies, horror films that seem to filter the excesses of the goriest giallo through an alcoholic redneck rage and car chase movies that would make that hack Hal Needham soil himself (in other words, it pretty much parallels the last thirty-five years of Canadian film history including the tax rebate program and the expat American stars slumming it for a paycheque but without the snow, the rural Quebec location shooting and the ponderous self-importance…speaking of which, why hasn’t anyone made the Canadian version of Not Quite Hollywood yet?). In the hundred or so minutes of the film, clips from seemingly hundreds of “oh my god I can’t believe I just saw that” unspoiled, each one crazier than the previous, each behind-the-scenes story more surreal, each Tarantino interview segment lending more confusion as to how he could have gotten Death Proof so wrong if he understands so well what makes grindhouse movies work. This film celebrates trash and pulled off what I thought was near-impossible: it made me want to immerse myself in utterly crap movies again to find those gems that renew one’s faith in the fun side of movie-making.

If I had one complaint about NQH, it was resolved quite adequately in the Q&A. The first half hour or so whizzes by at such a prodigious pace that even if I had been taking notes during the screening I never would have been able to write down the titles I’m now dying to see. So I asked if there was, perhaps on the movie website, a comprehensive list of the movies excerpted, and for my question I was honoured with a prize of the Not Quite Hollywood companion book, the first time I’ve won anything at one of these screenings so I left the AMC walking on air, my faith in the healing cinematic power of all things totally gratuitous renewed. Anyway. See it. (****)

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